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There have so far been found about 700 runic inscriptions dating back to the 14th century in the Bryggen area in Bergen, Western Norway. Several of the inscriptions have a short and erotic message carved into a flat stick of wood, showing that young men have not changed since the Middle Ages.
From about 1360, German merchants established themselves in Bergen in a permanent colony attached to the Hanseatic office. Bryggen is a series of Hanseatic commercial buildings lining the eastern side of the Vågen harbor – an area where there was hectic activity with unloading and loading of merchant ships.
In the year 1300, it is estimated that there may have been about 7000 inhabitants in Bergen, many of whom were young men who came to town to work. The runic inscriptions demonstrate that there has been a deficit of young and “willing” women, and a surplus of virile young men.
This copper etching from 1580 by Hieronymus Scholeus is the first known drawing of Bergen.
The about 700 runic inscriptions discovered are mostly carved into flat wood sticks, mostly of pine, but there have also been found inscriptions on bone.
The Bryggen finding has been called one of the most important runic discoveries in history because they show that runes were used for more than inscriptions of names and formal phrases.
Ordinary People’s Alphabet
The Bryggen finds demonstrate the everyday use that runes had in the Bergen area, and probably also in other parts of Scandinavia at the time.
The findings also show that runes were used as late as the 14th century, and maybe even longer. Previously it was believed that the use of runes had died out at the end of the Viking Age and the introduction of Christianity, i.e. about the mid of the 11th century.
With Christianity came also the Latin alphabet. The problem was that reading and writing were reserved for the upper class and clergy, and used as a political tool. The rest of the population was kept on the outside as illiterates.
Or, were they really illiterates in the broader sense of the word? The findings in Bergen show that many had knowledge of the Old Norse alphabet Futhark, and the runes became the ordinary people’s tool for expressing themselves in writing.
Many of the inscriptions found in Bergen were used as “name tags” following the formula Eysteinn á mik, (Old Norse, Eysteinn owns me) and some inscriptions have longer messages such as orders.
However, several wooden sticks contain short and naughty messages of different types, but there are also found romantic inscriptions like: Ást min, kyss mik (Old Norse, my darling, kiss me).
Romantic runic inscription and control notches: “Please love me” on one side and notches on the other, probably showing the number of sacks or barrels that were unloaded or loaded on merchant ships. The wooden stick is about 11 centimeters long. (Photo: Svein Skare, University Museum of Bergen).
When it comes to all the erotic inscriptions found, there is little doubt that there are young men who have been the authors, like the inscription on this wooden stick:
“The blacksmith slept with Vigdis of the Sneldebein people”. The wooden stick is about 24 centimeters long and the use is uncertain. Some believe it may have been used as a hairpin – maybe a secret gift from the blacksmith to Vigdis herself? (Photo: Svein Skare, University Museum of Bergen)
The runic inscriptions from Medieval Bergen are currently kept at the Bryggens Museum, and some are on display.
This article was originally published on Thornews on January 5th, 2018.