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Verba Volant, Scripta Manent? Aspects of Early Scandinavian Oral Society

Stefan Brink

University of Aberdeen (2008)

President Charles de Gaulle of France said, probably with a huge
sigh, ‘How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of
cheese?’. Another French sovereign, however, in quite another time,
Charlemagne of Francia, had his ruling problems: in Italy, c. 806, faithful
men claimed not to be bound by the additions made to Lex Salica by
Charlemagne in 803, because they declared that they had not heard the
ruler announce them personally. Thus the Italians at that time did not
feel forced to accept a written decree: the orally declared word was
given supremacy (Nelson 1990: 267; cf. Clanchy 1993: 186 and 262-3).
This problem – not de Gaulle’s, but Charlemagne’s – becomes
acute for everyone working with early Scandinavian society and culture:
when does the transition from a predominantly oral society to one
based primarily on literacy take place? And is it possible to reconstruct
early Scandinavian oral culture in some way? What I am particularly
aiming at in this chapter is to try to understand how decrees, communal
rules and official proclamations were transmitted and remembered in a
society with no written documents or records. Hence what I would like
to explore here is whether we can find any reminiscences of this oral
tradition in our oldest written records, runic inscriptions and provincial
laws, and thus to investigate the ‘communal language’ of pre-historic
Scandinavian society.

Click here to read the article from the University of Aberdeen