Immagini della pagina

Thus the word RUN had a progeny something like that of the Latin word literae; whence letter, letters (learning, erudition), literature, literary.

95. The RUNEs were the alphabetic characters which were in use before our ancestors learnt the Roman writing. They were differently shapen from the Roman characters, being almost without curves, a mere composition of right lines at various inclinations and elevations relatively to each other.

This rigidity would naturally have resulted from the fact that they were used chiefly in the way of incision on hard materials such as wood, bone, stone, and metal. Indeed the word write (German tintigen) seems properly to belong to this runic sort of inscription, as it is aptly worded in the Exeter Song-Book :

Raed sceal mon secgan, Rede is thing for man to say,
Rune writan. Rune to write.

Codex Exoniensis, p. 342, ed. Thorpe.

It is now agreed that the Runic Futhorc is a branch of that network of alphabets which spread through the world from the Phoenician stock: and a further opinion is gaining ground that the Runes are but an imitation of the Roman characters, and that their peculiar aspect, so stark and slanting, has been caused by the exigencies of cutting upon wood, where the grain would guide the hand to eschew horizontal lines. This wooden literature is however hypothetical; if it existed it has naturally perished; that which survives is mostly upon harder material.

The extant Runic literature is mostly carved on objects of stone or metal:—such as arrows, axes, knife-handles, swords and sword hilts, clasps, spear-heads, pigs of metal, amulets, rings, bracelets, brooches, combs, horns, gold bracteates, coffins, bells, fonts, clog-almanacks—and but little in books. Runic inscriptions are chiefly found in the northern and western extremes of Europe, the parts which were never visited by Roman armies, or where (as in this country) great immigrations took place after the Romans had retired.

96. There are many varieties of Runes found in old books, but the chief alphabets are the Norse and the Anglian. The former gives the key to the "Manx ristings, the latter to the * Ruthwell Cross and other monuments found in this island.

[ocr errors][merged small][subsumed][ocr errors]

* J. G. Cumming. The Runic and other Monumental Remains of the Isle of Man, Bell & Daldy, 1857.

* In the decipherment of the Ruthwell Cross the interpretation of the Runes is now so patent as to leave little opening to doubt. See the strange and curious story in Daniel Wilson, Prehistoric Annals of Scotland (ed. 2, 1863), vol. ii. p. 319; or, more at large, in Dr. George Stephens, Runic Monuments, p. 405. For those who wish to know about Runes, no more delightful avenue could be found than the study of the Ruthwell inscription.

[ocr errors]

When our Saxon ancestors adopted the use of the Latin alphabet, they still retained even in book literature two of the Runes, because there were no Roman characters corresponding to them. One was the old Thorn, p, for which the Latin mode of expression was by the use of two letters TH: the other was the Wen, p.

97. The p was superseded by a double U (V) after the Conquest, but the p had a more prolonged career. This, and a modified Roman letter, namely Đ 8, divided the th sound between them; and during the Saxon period they were used either without any distinction at all or with very ill-observed discrimination, until they were both ultimately banished by the general adoption of the TH. This change was not completely established until the very close of the fifteenth century. And even then there was one case of the use of the Rune p which was not abolished. The words fhe and that continued to be written she and shal or /*. This habit lasted on long after its original meaning was forgotten. The p got confused with the character y at a time when the y was closed a-top, and then people wrote “ye’ for the and ‘yat’ or ‘yt” for that. This has lasted down close to our own times: and it may be doubted whether the practice has entirely ceased even now.

Ben Jonson, in The English Grammar, considered that by the loss of the Saxon letters p and 8 we had fallen into what he called ‘the greatest difficulty of our alphabet and true writing,' inasmuch as we had lost the means of distinguishing the two sounds of th, as in this, that, them, thine, from the sound of the same character in thing, thick, thread, thrive. The same regret has been expressed by Rask. As a means of distinguishing these two sounds, the letters p and 8 might have been highly serviceable; but that they were ever used with this discrimination in Saxon literature there is little if any evidence to prove. The older Saxon scholars, namely Spelman, Somner, Hickes, and Lye, held that 8 represented the sound in thin, and p that in thine. Rask, in his Saxon Grammar, maintained the contrary; and he was followed by Jacob Grimm. Rask's argument is well worth the attention of the student; for whatever the validity of the conclusion, it is a good sample of phonetic reasoning. It is very little based on the direct evidence of Saxon documents, and almost entirely upon comparison with the Icelandic and Old (i.e. continental) Saxon. Mr. H. Sweet maintains that originally they both denoted the same sound, namely that of dh, which is heard in thine". '98. When, in the sixth century, the Latin alphabet began to obtain the ascendancy over the native Runes, the latter did not at once fall into disuse. Runes are found on gravestones, church crosses, fibulae, &c., down at least to . the eleventh century. The Isle of Man is famous for its Runic stones, especially the church of Kirk Braddan. These are

'King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, Appendix I.

Scandinavian, and are due to the Norwegian settlements of the tenth century. For lapidary inscriptions, clog almanacs, and other familiar uses, it is difficult to say how long they may have lingered in remote localities. In such lurkingplaces a new kind of importance and of mystery came to be attached to them. They were held in a sort of traditional respect which at length grew into a superstition. They were the heathen way of writing, while the Latin alphabet was a symbol of Christianity. The Danish pirates used Runes at the time when they harried the Christian nations. On a marble lion now in Venice there is a Runic inscription, which records a visit of one of the northern sea-rovers at Athens (where the lion then was) in the tenth century. After a time the Runes came to be regarded as positive tokens of heathendom, and as being fit only for sorcery and magic. 99. In the eleventh century the fashion of our calligraphy was changed; the old Saxon forms (which were in fact Hibernian) being superseded by the French form of the Roman writing. During the succeeding centuries this new character assumed a variety of guises, but there was one particular form which acquired predominance north of the Alps, the form which is known to us as ‘Black Letter, and which was hardly less rectilinear than the old Runes themselves. This form was maintained in Germany down to our times, but now it seems to be yielding to that character which has become general throughout modern Europe. This character, in its two forms of “Roman’ and ‘Italic,’ is of Italian growth, and took its final shape in the fifteenth century, in association with the invention of printing and the Revival of the ancient Classics. The following table exhibits the chief forms under which the Roman alphabet has at different times been used in these islands:–

« IndietroContinua »