Roman Script and the Function of the Futhorc in Anglo-Saxon England


By Rohanna Green


copyright 2005


Coexisting Alphabets


The introduction of the Roman alphabet to the British Isles had a counter-intuitive relationship with the subsequent use of Anglo-Saxon runes. Although the alphabet eventually succeeded the futhorc, or runic alphabet, in all but the most esoteric contexts, the two scripts coexisted from the sixth through the eleventh centuries in a variety of Anglo-Saxon cultural settings.


The Roman script spread with Christianity, following St. Augustine’s mission to Britain in 597, although some relics of Roman Britain predated Christianization (Fell “Three-Script” 119). Looking back, it is easy to assume that the Roman alphabet diffused throughout Britain, superseding the runes wherever it went. René Derolez observes that such expectations can significantly skew the way runologists interpret their evidence; although dating is only approximate, it is essential to account for the two scripts’ “centuries of apparently peaceful coexistence” (104).


Surviving Material Evidence


Evidence for the use of runes after 597 is generally preserved in one of three forms: inscriptions, coins, and manuscripts. Runic inscriptions on monuments, often found in combination with Roman letters, are especially useful for studying regional variations in the use and structure of the futhorc. Inscriptions on portable objects also bear runic inscriptions, but the limitation of the surviving sample to non-perishable artefacts may obscure some of the more mundane vernacular uses of runes, as well as important evidence regarding the runic literacy of the general population (Elliott 10, Hogg 81, Page Introduction 97-98, 102).


Runes on Coins


The Anglo-Saxon minting of coins started in the early seventh century, and provides some of the most reliable dating information. Mixed character inscriptions are common, and include the names of moneyers, and even kings, written in a combination of roman letters and runes (Blackburn 144, 158); the name of an East Anglian king on one coin may be transcribed as: “bEOnnarEX,” where minuscules represent runes and capitals represent roman characters (ibid. 170). There was probably some regional variation in the pattern of mixed character inscriptions. Anglo-Saxon coins minted in East Anglia and Kent during the seventh and eighth centuries frequently combine runes and Roman characters, whereas those minted in Northumbria do not (Elliott 52, Fell “Three Script” 132).


Runes in Manuscripts


Starting in the eighth century, runes also find their way into manuscripts from the monastic scriptoria (Page Introduction 42). In some Old English works, runes are used as a shorthand for the denotation of the rune name, or as cryptic hints in the Exeter Book riddles and the poems of Cynewulf. In “The Husband’s Message,” a wooden message stick inscribed with runes narrates a love story. The “Rune Poem” goes through the entire futhorc, describing each rune in a separate verse. In “The First Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn,” the runic forms of the letters in the Lord’s Prayer are personified as warriors that attack the devil. Louis Rodrigues provides transcriptions and analyses of these and other poems in Anglo-Saxon Verse Runes. Although manuscript evidence is sometimes used to fill in the gaps about the social history of rune usage, R.I. Page cautions against easy assumptions about the continuity of the runic epigraphic and manuscript traditions (Introduction 42).


A Hierarchy of Scripts?


The coexistence of runes and Roman characters raises obvious questions about the relative status of the two scripts. The most basic relates to whether there was a pattern of functional specialization for the two character sets. Common hypotheses include the alignment of runes with the pagan and the vernacular, while corollary associations are made between Roman script, Christianity, Latin, and contemporary continental influence. Much to the frustration of certain scholars, such generalizations often retain explanatory power for the uninitiated even when contradicted by detailed evidence; general reference works frequently reinforce the tendency to regard runes as primarily magical or decorative characters subordinate to the Roman alphabet (Oxford Companion “Rune,” Hogg 81). In fact, the relationship was much more complex.


Magic and Scepticism


The association of paganism and Anglo-Saxon runes can no longer be taken for granted. Despite persistent nostalgic representations in popular culture and fantasy fiction, the magical functions attributed to the script in eighteenth-century Gothic studies have been met with scepticism in modern academic circles (Page Introduction 6). Recent scholarship has shifted the burden of proof to those who claim an intrinsic “magical” function for runes, on the basis that Scandinavian evidence for this tradition need not necessarily transfer to the Anglo-Saxon rune culture (Parsons 25, Fell “Semantics” 229, Page Introduction 12).


Runes in Christian Contexts


Those tempted to equate the replacement of the runic alphabet with the process of Christianization must also confront the frequent appearance of runes in Christian monuments and manuscripts. St. Cuthbert’s coffin, buried at Durham around 700 CE, provides what is probably the earliest evidence of an inscription that mixes runes and Roman characters (Elliott 56). No pattern of religious specialization emerges from these inscriptions: legends for Matthew, Mark and John are in runic, but Luke’s is in Roman, while runes are used for Christ’s monogram but not for the name of Mary (Page “St Cuthbert” 321). Another much cited example is the Ruthwell Cross, on which Christian figures and biblical scenes are captioned in Roman letters, while a large passage from the Christian poem “The Dream of the Rood” is reproduced in runic script (Rodrigues 18).


Whether the Christian uses of runes point to a deliberate strategy of syncretism among Christian missionaries or a secular distancing of the runic script from pagan traditions remains an open debate. Page provides a convincing argument for the latter interpretation, on the basis that manuscripts dealing with runes do not comment on their pagan origins, and tend to include them without comment alongside “Hebrew, Greek, and other esoteric alphabets” (“St Cuthbert” 316). Whether or not the syncretism was deliberate, it was certainly not overtly acknowledged.


Latin and the Vernacular


A somewhat more justifiable hypothesis is the functional specialization of runic letters for representing the vernacular. The futhorc evolved along with the Old English language, and had graphic symbols for phonemes for which the Roman alphabet was not equipped. Over a period of time, a modified Roman script incorporating the runes thorn and wynn eventually overcame this limitation (Fell “Three-Script” 131, Hogg 74-77). Nevertheless, it is not infrequent to find the Old English part of a monument written in runes, while Latin formulae appeared almost exclusively in Roman script; nonetheless, minor exceptions occur on the Franks Casket and the Ruthwell Cross (Fell “Three Script” 130).


Cause for Caution


Any speculation about the function of runes in Anglo-Saxon society is hampered by substantial gaps in the archaeological and historical records. The most convincing studies are cautious ones that take into account the fragmentary nature of the evidence. These studies, detailed in their analysis and restrained in their interpretation, suggest a diversity of interactions between the runic and Roman alphabets in Anglo-Saxon Britain.



For Further Reading


Descriptive Surveys of Anglo-Saxon Runes and Runology:


Elliott, Ralph W.V. Runes: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989.


Page, R. I. Introduction to English Runes. London: Methuen, 1973.



Anglo-Saxon Coins with Runic Inscriptions:


Blackburn, Mark. “A Survey of Anglo-Saxon and Frisian Coins with Runic Inscriptions.” Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1991. 137-189.



Anglo-Saxon Runes in Manuscripts:


Derolez, René. “Runica manuscripta Revisited.” Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1991. 85-106.


---. Runica manuscripta : the English tradition. Brugges, Belgium: De Tempel, 1954.


Rodrigues, Louis J. Anglo-Saxon Verse Runes. Felinfach, Wales: Llanerch, 1992.



Relative Status of Runic and Roman Scripts:


Fell, Christine E. “Anglo-Saxon England: A Three-Script Community?” Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions, Grindaheim, Norway, 8-12 August 1990. Ed. James E. Kirk. Uppsala, Sweden: Institutionen för nordiska språk, Uppsala universitet, 1994. 119-137.


Hogg, Richard M. “Phonology and Morphology.” The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. I: The Beginnings to 1066. Ed. Richard M. Hogg. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 67-167.



Pagan and Christian Associations:


Fell, Christine. “Runes and Semantics.” Old English Runes and their Continental Background. Ed. Alfred Bammesberger. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1991. 195-229.


Page, R. I. 1989. “Roman and Runic on St Cuthbert’s Coffin.” Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes. Ed. David Parsons. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Bodyell, 1995. 315-25.


“Rune.” Oxford Companion to the English Language. Ed. Tom McArthur. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.



Regional Variations:


Fell, Christine. “Anglo-Saxon England: A Three-Script Community?” (see above)


Page, R.I. Introduction to English Runes. (see above)


Parsons, David N. Recasting the Runes: The Reform of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. Uppsala, Sweden: Institutionen för nordiska språk, Uppsala universitet, 1999.