Roman Imperialism and Runic Literacy : The Westernization of Northern Europe (150-800 AD)
By Svante Fischer
PhD Dissertation, Uppsala University, 2005
Abstract: This dissertation discusses Roman imperialism and runic literacy. It employs an interdisciplinary terminology. By means of terms new to archaeology, the growth of a specialized language, a technolect, is traced until it enters the realm of literacy. The author argues that there is more than one way for literacy to appear in prehistoric cultures. The ’normal’ perception is that literacy grows out of a need to keep records of a growing economic surplus. The ’other’ way for a culture to become literate is that someone else forces literacy upon it. This has been the case in many parts of the world subject to Western imperialism.
The onslaught of Roman imperialism caused the invention of runic literacy in Northern Europe during the Early Roman Iron Age. The invention of the runic script should thus be seen as a preemptive reaction to the threat of Westernization. A comparison is made with a number of Early Modern Period cases of newly invented scripts caused by the arrival of literate Westerners in West Africa. The invention and introduction of the runes may well have been a dictated shift in literacy, seeking to break away from Latin. A number of dictated shifts in literacy from Early Modern Period America and Modern Period Asia are studied in comparison. The interaction between Germanic and Roman affinities was accentuated by the Roman army’s recruitment of Germanic men. These came to dominate the Roman army. This gave rise to a Germanic kleptocracy, a criminal rule in the post-Roman world.
The role of runic literacy changed in the post-Roman aftermath of the Migration and Vendel Periods as the kleptocratic elite found it increasingly difficult to support a lavish lifestyle that included runic literacy. As a result, there was a decline in runic literacy in Northern Europe until the economic revival of the Viking Period. By then, it was clear that the North was soon to be integrated into the Christian West.