Abstracts of Papers

 

Annina Seiler, University of Zurich, Switzerland.

“Factual and Fictional Inscriptions: Literacy and the Visual Imagination in Anglo-Saxon England.”

 

Numerous precious objects decorated with inscriptions in both Roman and runic script survive from the Anglo-Saxon period, for example, weapons, jewellery or coins. The writing on such objects has to be interpreted within the wider context of Anglo-Saxon literacy, even though this specific “text type” is in some respects quite different form texts written on parchment. First of all, the production of inscriptions took place in the workshop of a craftsman and not in the scriptorium of a monastery. Furthermore, the “readers” of inscriptions would be completely different people from the readers of a book. An inscription placed prominently on the hilt of a sword, for example, would be visible to everybody who came in touch with the owner of such a weapon. Obviously, the majority would be non-literate people as the ability of reading and writing was restricted to a very small percentage of the population. This means that most people needed somebody to read out to them the content of a given inscription. The specific state of Anglo-Saxon society halfway between an oral and a literate culture has been described by Ursula Schaefer with the term “vocality” (cf. Schaefer, Ursula. 1992. Vokalität. Altenglische Dichtung zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. Tübingen). It refers to a culture where literacy is known and used, but the transmission of texts goes via vocalisation, i.e. the reading aloud of writing. However, this paper argues that for the “reading” of inscriptions not only vocalisation was necessary, but also visual imagination since writing in inscriptions does not exclusively serve the function of sound-reference. Anglo-Saxon inscriptions tend to be short; most of them contain not much more than a personal name. Indeed, in many cases, there is no space to allow for more than this. Nevertheless, inscriptions were capable of evoking a wide field of associations as is illustrated by a passage from Beowulf:  In ll. 1687-1698 there is a description of an inscription on the sword hilt that Beowulf brings back from the lake after his fight with Grendel’s mother. The exact wording of the inscription is not given, but the story as reported in the text is far too long to have ever fitted into the space available on a sword hilt (even if it is a giant sword). Hrothgar, when he looks at the weapon, does not read out what sees, but he creates a mental vision of a mythological or biblical scene. The paper postulates that it is not too far-fetched to assume that Hrothgar’s reading of the lake sword inscription was paralleled by ordinary Anglo-Saxons’ readings of factual inscriptions.