A young Danish soldier, stepping from a ship onto the shore of East Anglia in 866 would probably never have seen a book. He would equally never have seen or touched a page of skin bearing ink markings of cursive script. He would have been familiar with runes, slashed with a knife upon sticks of wood or bones, and may have wondered at the serpentine lines of text on runestones. But carved stones left too much unsaid.

The Sigurd legend on this 11th century runestone at Ramsund in Central Sweden, Courtesy of www.langdale-associates.com

The Sigurd legend on this 11th century runestone at Ramsund in Central Sweden, Courtesy of www.langdale-associates.com

It is interesting to speculate upon where, in the range of Danish intellects, Guthrum fell. Was he merely a soldier, a man of action with little interest in learning and literacy, or did he have the potential to become a holy man: a Gothi? Surely there can be only one answer. For a man coming from an animistic oral tradition only, to comprehend the power of a written treaty in just twelve years, he must have possessed an extraordinary mind.

He had to grasp the idea that, with cursive text administered in ink, it was possible to enshrine complicated ideas in words at great speed relative to the carving of runes. Laws would then depend upon the interpretation of the meaning of those words, and no longer would society be dependent upon the memories, interpretations and possible corruptions of ‘law-speakers’ as they were called. He also had to grasp the idea that unless the knowledge of reading and writing were widespread among the leaders of a nation, the written agreement would be worthless. He would therefore need an institution of writers within the community: people who would preserve the written laws and the lexicons of meaning, and people who would guard the ‘truth’. In other words he would need the Christian church. Was it this that Guthrum was truly seeking: not the gold and silver plunder that we have come to associate with his people, but the stability that literacy and the concept of honesty and equity that Christianity could provide?

 

 

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