Runes from medieval
and later times
With the end of the Viking Age, conditions of life grew more cramped than they had been for the yeomen-farmers and the young men of Sweden, and the custom of raising rune stones, in the proper sense, gradually died out. This does not of course mean that the use of runes came to an end. Runic writing has a long history in Sweden, a traditional practice that died hard.
Some inscriptions were described above (pp. 116 f.) which illustrate the great changes in social custom entailed in the burial of Christian men and women in consecrated ground. The last part of the eleventh century and all of the twelfth saw the erection of rune-inscribed monuments, often of a magnificent kind, in the church cemeteries.
The most impressive type among such monuments is that of the so-called Eskilstuna sarcophagi. They owe this name to the keen interest roused by the discovery of such a monument during excavations in 1912 on an early churchsite in Eskilstuna.
The name is not a particularly happy one because, in fact, most later finds of such sarcophagi have been made elsewhere in Sweden, chiefly in Östergötland. But if this point is clearly appreciated, it is safe enough to retain the name as the general term for this important group of funerary monuments.
An Eskilstuna sarcophagus, then, consists of five stone slabs, two forming the sides, one the top, and two more the gable-ends; the last are sometimes shaped like a pointed arch, sometimes gently rounded. All five slabs may have carving on them, the gable stones usually on two sides. The runic inscriptions are frequently cut along the edges of these gables, and it is in these tall end-stones of the Eskilstuna sarcophagi that the rune-stone tradition lived on.
These sarcophagi are not coffins in the ordinary sense of the word. They were erected on top of the grave in which the corpse was laid, and were consequently never meant to enclose the body of the dead man. Any suggestion that the dead were left above ground in these magnificent edifices may be dismissed as unreasonable on grounds of hygiene alone.
These monuments, with handsome rune-stone ornament, often carved in relief, were painted in bright colours. Their splendour must have lent the graveyard an almost festive air.
In surmounting the grave as they did, these monuments resembled the various
This kind of sarcophagus is not a coffin in the ordinary sense of the word. It was erected on top of a grave. It consists of five slabs, which may all have carvings on them.  types of massive coffin-shaped stones that stood in the graveyards of Swedish churches in the early Christian period. A coffin-stone of this kind, consisting of a dressed block of redbrown sandstone, was discovered not long ago, in 1959, built into the wall of the church at Hammarby (Uppland). Evidently it must originally have lain in the churchyard there. The runic inscription runs along the four edges and reads: “Kristin had the memorial made for her son. Let everyone who reads the runes say prayers for Alle’s soul. Sune was Alle’s father.”—× krestin × let × giara × merki × eftiR × sun sen × huir sum runum riþr × hafi byniR × firiR × ala × sial × suni × uaR faþir × ala ×
This exhortation to say prayers for the soul of the dead person is found in a number of inscriptions. A grave-slab from Vamlingbo churchyard (Gotland), now lost, had almost exactly the same expression: : hur : sum : runir : raþir : biþin : furi... It also occurs, for example, on the Backgården stone in Bolum parish (Västergötland): Svæinn Gislarssun let gæra bro þessa fyriR sial sina ok faður sins. Þat eR rett hværium at biðia Pater... “Sven Gislarsson had this bridge made for his soul and his father’s. It is right for everyone to say a Pater [noster]...”. The inscription on a gravestone at Ukna (Småland) is in majuscules and runes, with the introduction and final prayer in Latin: HIC : IACET : TURGILLUS : hærræ : guNmuNdæ : sun : gas : gak : ei : fra : stat : ok : sia : ok : læsin : iðrær : bøniR : firi : þyrhilsær : siæl : a : ve : ma : ria : graccia : ple : na : do : mi : nus : te : kum : benedikta : tu in mulieribus : æð benediktus : fruktus væNtris : tui : amn : in manus tuas : d “Hic iacet Turgillus, son of Herr Gudmund Gås. Go not hence, stay and see and read your prayers for the soul of Tyrgils! Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui. Amen. In manus tuas D[omine commendo spiritum meum].” The Ukna slab, probably made c. 1300, is written in a fully dotted runic alphabet.
The use of prayer formulas of the kinds noted above was widespread and long-lived. The runic inscription on an Icelandic gravestone from the fifteenth century urges everyone who reads it to pray for the “blithe soul” of the dead and to sing the “blessed verse”:
Hver er letrið les,
Among coffin-shaped gravestones the Vrigstad monument (Småland) deserves notice. It is furnished with gable-stones but is otherwise of the same type as the Hammarby stone.
The Ugglum stone (Västergötland) represents a younger type. It bears this verse-inscription, cut in relief: ᛭ þrir : liggia : mœnn : undir : þœmma : ᛭ ᛭ stene : gunnarr : sihvatr : hallstenn ᛭ “Three men lie under this stone—Gunnar, Sigvat, Hallsten. ”
Like rune stones of the usual kind, these monuments we have just discussed were made and inscribed as memorials to dead kinsmen. There are many other medieval runic inscriptions, however, which did not serve this purpose.
It might be thought that the medieval church would not in general provide a congenial home for the custom of runic writing, but in fact we know many ecclesiastical objects with runes on them: baptismal fonts, reliquaries, the handsome iron-work of church-doors, bells, as well as inscriptions on the plaster of walls and on church-porches. The native runic writing which people could understand was clearly often preferred to the roman script of the learned.
In some cases a runic inscription tells us who built the church. Thus, it is from a rune stone that we learn about the builders of the church at Norra Åsum (Skåne): + krist ⋮ mario ⋮ sun ⋮ hiapi ⋮ þem : ær ⋮ kirku ⋮ þe... [g]erþ[o] ⋮ absalon ⋮ ærki ⋮ biskup ⋮ ok : æsbiorn muli “Christ, Mary’s son, help those who built this church, Archbishop Absalon and Asbjörn Muzzle.”
This coffin-shaped grave stone from Vrigstad’s church in Småland is also furnished with gablestones.
Of these two men, Archbishop Absalon may be fittingly described as one of the greatest and most impressive personalities in the history of medieval Scandinavia. He was the leading statesman in Denmark in the turbulent decades after 1150 and became archbishop of Lund in 1178. Since the inscription gives him his primate’s title, it was clearly written after this latter date. Absalon died in 1201. It cannot be said for sure whether the inscription was made before or after his death, but it may seem reasonable to believe that it was in fact done while both he and his fellow-builder, Äsbjörn Muzzle, were still alive. Äsbjörn, we know, was a close associate of Absalon, but we are ignorant of the date of his death: it was probably before 1215.
Seen from the point of view of general cultural history, the fact that the memorial took the form of a rune stone must be of interest. It is surprising, to say the least, that a stone of this kind was set up as late as c. 1200—nearly 200 years, that is, after people in Skåne gave up carving rune stones in the old way. The explanation is probably to be sought in the archbishop’s enthusiasm for the past and its relics. For Absalon the rune stone at Norra Åsum church can be counted an appropriate and significant monument.
An eleventh-century rune stone bears early witness to the existence of a church-builder in Lund. The stone was found in Södergatan and moved from there to be built into the wall of the bishop’s palace in Copenhagen. The stone has lost its top and its inscription is unfortunately defective: tuki : let : kirkiu : kirua : auk : ... “Toke had the church built and...”. We cannot tell which church it was, and for us Toke is no more than a name.
Two Norwegian inscriptions deserve mention at this point. One of the inscriptions on the Oddernes stone in Vest-Agder says ayintr × karþi × kirkiu × þisa × kosunr × olafs × hins × hala × a oþali × sinu “Öjvind made this church, godson of St Olav, on his patrimonial estate”. (In kosunr goðsunr we find the same loss of ð before s as in many Swedish runic spellings: kus muþiR Guðs moðiR, kus : þaka Guðs þakka.)
A marble tablet inserted in the wall above the altar in Tingvoll church in Nordmøre has this long and well-composed inscription: + ek : biþ : firi : guþrs : sakar : yþr : lærþa : menn : er uarþuæita : staþ : þænna : ok : alla : þa : er : raþa kunnu bøn : mina : minnizk : salo : minnar : i hælgum : bønom : en ek : et: gunnar : ok : gærþi : ek : hus : þætta + ualete “I beg for God’s sake you clergy who have charge of this church-place and all who can read my petition: remember my soul in your holy prayers. And I was called Gunnar and I made this house. Farewell!” The inscription can be dated to the beginning of the thirteenth century.
The runes which adorn the choir portal in Hellvi church (Gotland) were cut about 1300: lafranz botuiðarsun maistera gerði kirkiu þisa : af yskilaim “Lafrants, son of Master Botvid, made this church. From Eskelhem”. It was thus Master Botvid, a well-known church-builder, who was Lafrants’s father. The last two words, af yskilaim af Yskilhaim, are undoubtedly to be taken as a contraction:
From the inscription on this rune stone we learn about the builders of Norra Åsum church.  “They were (are) from Eskelhem.”—Another long inscription in Anga church (Gotland) is painted on the north wall of the nave; it tells us of the yeomen-farmers who took part in the work on the church.
In some instances we find the names of stone-masons preserved in runes. Vallentuna church is of granite with a string of dressed sandstone quoins in the tower. On three of the sandstone blocks on the north side we are told who fashioned it: andur : telhti þinna fakra sten :... “Andor dressed this handsome stone”. Looking at the quoins, we can well understand the mason’s pride in his work.—On another sandstone block from Vallentuna the mason has left his name: dafiþ “David”.—Vallentuna church is thought to have been built towards the end of the twelfth century, and since the tower belongs to its first stage we are given a welcome indication of the date of these two inscriptions in the dotted runic alphabet. The OSw. verb tælghia, OWN telgja, meant i.a. “dress, square, cut to shape”; it was used of timber as well as stone.
By far the finest of all rune fonts is the one at Åkirkeby, carved by the Gotlander, Sigraf. This masterpiece of the Gotland stonemason’s art is in romanesque style and can be dated on stylistic grounds to the end of the twelfth century. Scenes from the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion, are carved in relief in its eleven arcaded panels. At the top of each panel an inscription in dotted Gotlandic runes indicates the subject of the carving. The whole inscription is thus very long, containing over 400 runes: þita : iR : saNti gabrel : ok : sehþi : saNta maria : at han skuLdi : barn : fyþa : þita : iR : elizabeþ : ok : maria : ok : hailsas : hiar : huilis : maria sum : han : barn : fydi : skapera : himiz : ok : iorþaR : sum os : leysti þita : iRu : þaiR : þriR : kunuGaR : sum : fyrsti : giarþu : ofr : uarum : drotNi : hiar : tok : han : [uiþ]r : [kunuG]a : ofri : uar drotiN hiar : riþu : þaiR : burt : þriR kunuGaR : siþan þaiR : ofrat : hafa : orum drotNi þaiR : þet : hiar : fram : s- -u : ioþar : toku uarn : drotin : ok... N : uiþr tre : ok : getu siþan : ladu : þaiR : haN : burt : þiaþaN : buNdiN ok : nehldu : hiar : ioþaR : iesus : a krus : si : fram : a þita sihrafR : [m]e[st]e[ri] “This is St Gabriel who told St Mary that she would bear a child.—This is Elizabeth and Mary who greet each other.—Here Mary rests when she bore the child, the creator of heaven and earth, who redeemed us.—These are the three kings who first made offerings to Our Lord.—Here Our Lord received the offering of the kings.—Here they rode away, the three kings, after they hade made offerings to our Lord. Here they presented (?) it.—The Jews took Our Lord and scourged (?) him against the pillar and watched over him.—Afterwards they led him away from there bound.—And here the Jews nailed Jesus on the cross.—Look on this. Master Sigraf [made the font.]”
Linguistically and runologically the inscription is of surpassing interest. The Gotlandic fully dotted runic alphabet is used, a script skilfully adapted to match the phonetics of Gotland speech. It may 
Above: The inscription on the Burseryd font reads: Arinbjörn made me. Vidkunn the priest wrote me. And here I shall stand for a while. Below:An inscription scratched in the plaster of the chancel arch in Björkeberg church says “This is the place of those who chant, not of others”. be noted that the yR-rune has its old value, R. This is because Gotlandic retained the distinction between the palatal R-sound and the usual tongue-tip dental r until well on in the middle ages. In a dozen positions Sigraf uses a dotted n-rune (ᛀ) represented here by N; a dotted l-rune (ᛛ) occurs once (here given as L). The rune reproduced as G has the form ᚶ and stands for the ng-sound. For g Sigraf has the ordinary dotted g-rune ᚵ.
A much simpler kind of font is found at Norum (Bohuslän), probably made in the early twelfth century. One reason why it claims attention is that below the runic inscription suæn : kærþe m [ik] “Sven made me” there is a picture of Gunnar in the snake-pen, playing his harp with his feet. This motif, one that was extremely tenacious of survival in the pictorial art of Scandinavia, was discussed on pp. 146 f. above.—The Hemsjö font (Västergötland) has this inscription: alar
The person who wrote the runes on this cross from Visby appeals to the women who followed Jesus to Jerusalem and kept watch at his tomb.
 sialar : haer dopazs i ⋮ þiuþ ⋮ føri : mik ⋮ skal “All souls are here baptised into the congregation through me, the bowl”.—The inscription on the Hossmo font (Småland) appeals to the reader with these words: iak : biþ : þik : ... : at : þu : biþ nafnleka : fyrer : þæn : man : sum : mik : giorþe : iakob : het : han “I pray you... that you pray by name for the man who made me. He was called Jakob”.—Finally, the inscription on the beautiful font at Burseryd (Småland) intimates the evanescence of all that is mortal: : arinbiorn ⋮ gørthe ⋮ mik ⋮ uitkunder ⋮ prester ⋮ skref : mik : ok ⋮ hær ⋮ skal : um ⋮ stund ⋮ stanta ⋮ “Arinbjörn made me. Vidkunn the priest wrote me. And here I shall stand for a while”.
The numerous runic inscriptions on the walls of our churches can be represented here by only a couple of examples. A few years ago an inscription was
A chandelier from Väte church on Gotland. It has a runic inscription on an iron band riveted to its upper circlet.
 found scratched in the plaster of the chancel arch in Björkeberg church (Östergötland), thus marking the important boundary between the part of the church belonging to the people and the part belonging to the clergy. It says: · hik ⋮ lokus ⋮ illorum ⋮ kui ⋮ kantant ⋮ non · aliorum : “This is the place of those who chant, not of others”. As we see, this has rhyme, like some lines painted in the choir of Film church (Uppland):
“Rustic buck, who brought you here? It is the place of those who chant and not of others.” (We remember that “choir” means both a body of singers and the place in church—the chancel—where they sing; the two are distinguished as kör and kor in Swedish.)
On the whole it comes as a surprise to find so many extant inscriptions using runes but written in Latin. So far over eighty have come to light in Sweden. As an example we may take a lead cross found in the Botanical Gardens in Visby in 1976. This little cross, only just over five cm tall, proved to be covered with runes. The long inscription has in fact nearly 100 runes and was probably written c. 1300. The writer appeals to the women who followed Jesus to Jerusalem and kept watch at his tomb. He begs them to intercede for the living: intesede pro nobis semper : þ : sancta maria mater iacobi apostuli :þ: sancta maria maggalena :þ: salumee :þ: sancta caeri.
Another example is the spindle-whorl discovered a few years ago at Brunflo in Jämtland, on the old road followed by pilgrims to St Olav’s shrine in Nidaros (Trondheim). It is made of soapstone and incised with handsome, confident runes, just on a centimetre tall:
·⋮· pahsportanti ⋮ salusabænti ⋮ ingiualtr Pax portanti, salus habenti, Ingevaldr.
“Peace to the bearer! Safety to the owner! Ingevald.”
Mural inscriptions are particularly common in Gotland churches. These runes are painted in red in Vänge church:
bedin · fyri · iakobs · sial · nikkarfua · han · do · fæm · daha fyri · sante · lafranz · dag ta · uar · f · sundahr · ok · m · primstafu-r · i · fimtanda ratu
“Pray for the soul of Jakob in Nickarve. He died five days before St Lawrence’s day. Then (the rune) f was the Sunday letter and (the rune) m the “prime-stave” in the fifteenth row (of the Easter table).” This is typical of such Gotlandic inscriptions and presents no difficulties: the feast of St Lawrence is on 10 August; the fifteenth row of the Easter table covers the years 1532—59; the year in that  sequence when the rune f was the Sunday letter and m the “prime-stave” was 1553: so Jakob Nickarve died on 5 August 1553.
A chandelier which was once suspended in Väte church on Gotland has finely inscribed runes on an iron band riveted to the chandelier’s upper circlet. The band is unfortunately broken and the latter part of the inscription lost. As far as we can tell, both chandelier and inscription belong to the period around 1300: + iuan : i : grenium : han : gaf.·. þisa : krunnu : fyrst: gudi : ok : uari : frru : ok : þairi : helhu : kirkiu : senni : sial : til : þarfa ok : sida... “Johan in Gräne, he gave this chandelier first to God and Our Lady and Holy Church for his soul’s need, and then...”
Medieval church-bells were often inscribed with runes and we know more than twenty such in Sweden. Bells were after all “christened” when they were consecrated, and it was in that way, at the time of its consecration in the thirteenth century, that the Bollebygd bell (Västergötland) came by the name of Katerina, as we learn from the Leonine hexameters written in two ribbons of runes on the bell’s exterior: + dat ⋮ kterina ⋮ sonum ⋮ / fideli ⋮ populo ⋮ bonum + / + ik ⋮ sonus ⋮ auditur ⋮ / ik ⋮ mens ⋮ turbata ⋮ blandidur “Katerina gives a sweet sound to faithful people. Here the sound is heard; here a troubled mind is calmed”.
Even as late as in the sixteenth century runes were still used on the often very grand gravestones adorning the cemeteries of Gotland. Sometimes they have both a Latin inscription in roman capitals and a vernacular one in runes. The position of runes as a popular script was clearly well maintained, and indeed a study of these latterday inscriptions gives the impression that in some parts of Sweden the ordinary people found the roman alphabet quite foreign throughout the middle ages. In 1611 Johannes Bureus—who admittedly was born in Uppland and was to become both State Antiquary and State Archivist—published his runic ABC, a book evidently intended for use in schools. It was also planned to use runes instead of roman letters in printed books. In this way we should repair the harm done when, “as a result of the pope’s power over Christ’s infant flock”, Latin script had ousted the Swedes’ honourable and venerable runes.
Evidence that knowledge of runes lived on in full vigour can be drawn from many quarters, not least from the so-called rune staves. These were in almost universal use as calendars, with runes used for the calendar signs, dominical letters and so forth. Such runic calendars and calendar boards were still in use in the nineteenth century. Of the hundreds of them preserved in Nordiska Museet I shall select only one, the calendar from Gammalsvenskby in Russia. It is dated 1766 and must consequently have been made on Dagö (in Estonia) before the Swedish community there was forced to move to the Ukraine. And there for a
So-called rune staves were in almost universal use as calendars. Runes were used for calender signs, dominical letters and so forth. Such runic calendars were still in use in the nineteenth century. century and a half in the depths of south Russia people kept watch on the passage of time with the aid of the rune calendar from Dagö. It was brought to Stockholm by a member of the Gammalsvenskby community in 1900.
When Carl von Linné reached Älvdalen on his journey through Dalarna in 1734 he wrote in his diary: “The peasants in the community here, apart from using rune staves, still today write their names and ownership marks with runic letters, as is seen on walls, corner stones, bowls, etc. Which one does not know to be still continued anywhere else in Sweden.” It is obvious that the tradition behind runic writing in Dalarna is ancient, but so far the oldest dated inscription comes from Åsen in Älvdalen: “Anders has made (this) bowl anno 1596”. The custom of using runes for notes and messages of various kinds has continued in Älvdalen almost to our own time. An inventory of runic inscriptions in Dalarna, now in progress, has listed over 200, most of them cut in wood. They are found on a variety of household articles, on bowls, bridal boxes, furniture and kitchen blocks, on the buildings of shielings, on sticks recording the size of land-plots (the sticks are called revstickor because a line—rev—was used for the measuring)—and so on. Usually they are brief but occasionally longer texts are found. The  inscription on the handsome milk-bowl from Hykie may be cited as an example: mas : iendeson hafver : giort : thena skål : en : hyke : bye datum then : 9 : septemberh : ugit : i : päs : graf : utaf : stụuben ano : År MDCCIV : å : giud gifve : at : hon : vil : våara ful : oc : aldrigh : gieärna tom : mädh : goda : skiöna oc : siöta : flötor : sä vore : thä : mykit väl “Mats Hindersson has made this bowl at Hykie hamlet datum 9 September, cut in Persgrav from the stump anno the year 1704. Ah, God give it may ever be full and never readily empty of good, lovely and fresh cream. Then it would be very fine.”
The bog-iron smelter Jugås Erik Olsson from Månsta in Älvdalen inscribed this message on the bottom of his bowl: E O S 1749 dena ⋮ skålen ⋮ afuer ⋮ iag / giort ⋮ första ⋮ ååret ⋮ iag / blåste ⋮ norde ⋮ i ⋮ sleskian ⋮ ok / då ⋮ slute ⋮ uii ⋮ blåsa ⋮ den ⋮ 16 oktober. “E O S 1749 I have made this bowl in the first year I smelted north in Sleskian and we then stopped smelting on 16 October.”
One of the longest known inscriptions from Älvdalen was found in 1960 in Brunnbergs by in connection with the inventory. The inscription, cut on a staff, tells how the writer and another man from Älvdalen “marched to Stockholm in two weeks”, arriving on 20 June. There they were “taken as prisoners” and they stayed in captivity “for a month or until 20 July”. Afterwards they were allowed “to march under guard” home to Älvdalen again. The inscription thus gives a contemporary account of the revolt in Dalarna in 1743—that is, of the grave crisis when Dala-men embarked on Stora daldansen—“the great ball of the Dala-men”—and marched to defeat in Stockholm.
The province of Dalarna has rightly been called “the last stronghold of the Germanic script”.
That the use of runes lasted so long in remoter parts of Sweden can be seen as a sign of the firm grip this antique Germanic system of writing had on us. On the chancel-wall of Runsten church (Öland) there was once the following runic inscription: tæt bør soknahærræn kunnæ runær læsæ och skrivæ “The pastor of the parish should know how to read runes and write them”. This was composed by the parson of the parish himself, about the middle of the sixteenth century. One has the feeling that he was voicing the demands made on him by the ordinary folk in his flock.
From time to time we Swedes make our unique wealth in runic inscriptions a matter of pride and glory, but these riches can also give rise to reflections of a less self-congratulatory nature. We loyally went on using the script inherited from our forefathers. We clung tenaciously to our runes, longer than any other nation. And thus our incomparable abundance of runic inscriptions also reminds us of how incomparably slow we were—slow and as if reluctant—to join the company of the civilised nations of Europe.