Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Runes and Manuscripts > The National Germanic Alphabet
   Runes in Scandinavian and Old English Literature  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

II. Runes and Manuscripts.

§ 1. The National Germanic Alphabet.


WHEN the English still lived in their continental homes they shared with the neighbouring kindred tribes an alphabet which may well be described as the national Germanic alphabet, since there is evidence that it was used throughout the Germanic territory, both in the outposts of Scandinavia and in the countries watered by the Rhine and the Danube. The origin of this early script is obscure; some writers hold that it was borrowed from the Latin alphabet, whereas others think that it was of Greek origin. From its wide use amongst the Germanic tribes, we must, perforce, conclude that it was of considerable antiquity, at all events older than the earliest Scandinavian inscriptions, which, in all probability, go back as far as the third century of our era. That it was used in the fourth century is proved since, at that time, Ulfilas, bishop of the West Goths, had borrowed from it the signs of u and o for his newly-constructed alphabet. Moreover, there can be no doubt that the Goths must have brought the knowledge of it from their early homes in the north before the great wave of the Hunnish invasion swept them away from kith and kindred, finally setting them down on the shores of the Danube and the Black Sea.   1
  The name of these early Germanic characters seems also to have been the same amongst all the tribes. Its Old English form, rùn, differs little from the corresponding early German or Scandinavian forms, and the meaning of the word (mystery, secret, secret counsel) seems also widely spread. This word lived on through Middle English times, and a derivative rùnian appears in Shakespeare as roun or round (a form still retained in the expression “to round in one’s ear”). The separate letters were known as rùnstafas and the interpretation of them as r&aegrave;dan, which in modern English still lives on in the expression “to read a riddle.”   2
  The runes were, in all probability, originally carved in wood, and sometimes filled in with red paint to make them more distinct. The technical term for this cutting or engraving is, in Old English, wrìtan, which, in its transferred meaning of “to write,” has survived to the present day. The wood was fashioned into tablets or staves, as we learn from the well-known lines of Venantius Fortunatus, a writer of the sixth century who refers 1  to the barbaric rune as being painted on tablets of ashwood or smooth sticks. Such a tablet was originally called bòc (a tablet of beechwood), and may be regarded as the ancestor, in a double sense, of the modern word “book.” Other materials used were metal, principally in the form of weapons, coins, rings and other ornaments, household and other implements; drinking-horns were often adorned with runic inscriptions, and runes have also been found on smaller objects of horn and bone. Moreover, in England and Scandinavia there occur runic inscriptions on stone monuments, and there are also some which have been hewn out of rocks. Parchment seems to have been introduced at a late period, and, of the few manuscripts remaining entirely written in runes, none go back further than the thirteenth century.   3

Note 1. Carm. VII, 18, 19. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
   Runes in Scandinavian and Old English Literature  
 
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