An inscription in runic and Latin script on the wall of the church of Sønder Asmindrup near Holbaek on the eastern Danish island of Zeeland has been identified as legal proof of debt from 800 years ago.
The inscription consists of two lines of text. The top line is written in runes in Old Danish and was deciphered in 1909. It reads: “Toke borrowed the silver from Ragnhild.” The bottom line was written in both runes and Latin letters in a peculiar way, so scientists could not decipher it.
Until now. National Museum of Denmark runologist Lisbeth Ymer worked with medieval Danish document expert Anders Legaard to translate the second line. It reads: “2. May in the year of salvation 1210. This means that Toke’s loan from Ragnhild has been dated, and this makes the inscription a legal document, unique in Danish archaeological sites and extremely rare internationally. Only three such examples are known: an agreement on the use of a parish church road in Gotland, Sweden, the sale of land on the wall of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine, and a judgment on a debt case in the church of St. Panteleimon in Galich, Russia.
The relevant legal documents, as a rule, survived only on parchment and came from the highest social strata – often only because they were preserved in a younger copy. A new discovery shows that there was a widespread culture of writing in the Middle Ages.
“Until now, we knew almost nothing about how agreements were made or the extent to which writing was used. Our knowledge of this was, so to speak, in the dark, and there were only a few scattered accounts of the use of writing. The inscription in Sønder Asmindrup shows that written agreements were made between what we believe were ordinary farmers in the early Middle Ages – we just didn’t know about it before,” says Lisbeth Ymer.
It is also unique evidence of how commoners in a rural parish drafted legal contracts comparable to the work of professional scribes for the elite. The bill was written in two writing systems, and the Roman date suggests that its author was a person who spoke at least two languages. It was probably a priest or other clergyman associated with the parish church.
At court, they usually wrote in Latin and letters, and church inscriptions were mainly written in their native language and runes. And where almost all royal documents are related to the interests of the state, the inscription in Sønder Asmindrup concerns ordinary farmers in the countryside.
“That’s what makes it so interesting, because it shows that writing was probably used and more common than we thought. A promissory note is a serious use of writing, it’s not just a name scrawled on a wall for fun. This shows that a fairly developed use of writing also took place in rural areas, and we have not seen such good examples before,” says Lisbeth Ymer.