From medieval Bergen with love

Posted by Kimberley-Joy Knight

See also Kimberley’s article on Valentine’s Day gifts at The Conversation

This week the British Museum Shop has been running a Valentine’s Day competition to win afternoon tea with bubbly – all you have to do to enter is tweet them what inscription you would engrave on a love token. I couldn’t resist: my research on love tokens has uncovered so many emotionally charged statements of affection and desire that it wouldn’t be difficult to find inspiration.

Some of my favourite medieval love inscriptions are not found on expensive jewelry or precious objects, but on small scraps of wood. These sticks are inscribed with runes and have been found across Scandinavia. Many inscriptions were discovered in Bergen after a fire in 1955 razed part of the historical wharf to the ground. In the aftermath of the fire, archaeologists began to excavate the area discovering items of everyday life including leather goods, ceramics, jewelry, objects relating to craft, and metal items. In 1956, the first runic inscription on a piece of wood was discovered and many others followed until around 600 had been collected.

Bergen by night. Wikimedia Commons.
Bergen harbour by night. Wikimedia Commons.

A significant number of medieval runic inscriptions contain messages that provide an insight into licit and clandestine interactions. These disposable inscriptions range from the sexually crude, to expressions of unrequited love, homosexuality, adultery and betrothal, and demonstrate the ways in which love and desire were communicated in the high Middle Ages.

Some of the rune sticks from Bryggen appear to have been inscribed in the moment. One thirteenth-century inscription on a 14cm scrap of flat wood reads simply: ‘My darling, kiss me!’

B17 My darling, kiss me

Other inscriptions appear to have been carefully composed, containing both rhythm and rhyme:

B118 Love me I love you

Not all runic inscriptions were in the vernacular. Some rune carvers took their inspiration from Virgil, inscribing Omnia vincit amor (love conquers all), into their sticks.

Such intriguing communications revealed in these inscriptions add a valuable dimension to the study of emotion as they are free of the binding conventions of literary narrative and present a faithful picture of how love and desire were expressed and enacted. Just as love tokens can be mnemonic devices that can transport us across time and space by evoking memories and eliciting emotions, these inscriptions conjure images of the people of Bergen exchanging their messages of affection.

Of course, these ‘twigs’ or ‘sticks’ are not love tokens in the traditional sense as they do not appear to have been treasured keepsakes. These inscriptions are more likely to have been disposable, perhaps not too dissimilar from our own Valentine’s Day cards. The messages that we write in Valentines cards might be poignant and filled with emotion on the 14th February and then thrown away by mid-March.

With so many wonderful inscriptions from which to choose, you might imagine that selecting a love inscription for the competition was difficult. It wasn’t. I adapted my favourite inscription which gives an insight into the emotions of a man who was conducting an adulterous affair with a woman:

B644 I love that man's wife

Thus, my entry for the love inscription competition read: ‘I love you so much that the fire feels cold.’ What better way is there to express burning love in a cold climate?

See all the entries to the British Museum Shop competition at #BMshopValentines

Tweet me your favourite love inscriptions @drkjknight


Brygge, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.
Brygge, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

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