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Research Network of Urban Literacy (RUL)
During the Viking Age, there was only a handful of towns in Scandinavia. Around 1050, an array of new towns emerged in connection with the Christianization process, and throughout the Middle Ages, Scandinavia went through a radical urbanization process. Parallel to the urbanization process, the Scandinavian societies evolved from a culture based on oral culture to one which depended on a written culture. But how were these parallel developments connected?

The Research Network of Urban Literacy (RUL) unites researchers from different disciplines and institutions across Scandinavia, and provides an interdisciplinary platform for the study of urbanity and literacy – with a particular focus on the use of both the runic and the Roman alphabet among different social layers in the towns of Scandinavia c. 800-1500.

Medieval literacy – where did it come from?
Scholars have previously assumed that people in Scandinavia in the Viking Age and the Middle Ages were generally illiterate. For instance, Danish historians have argued that the ability to read and write was limited to the clerical elite. However, during the last decades this traditional view has been challenged by new methodological and theoretical approaches, a growing number of archeological finds of objects with runic inscriptions, and by studies of common people’s uses of the Roman alphabet.

Apparently, both a simple kind and more advanced versions of literacy were relatively widespread, and this seems in particular to have been the case within urban populations. This indicates that the spread of literacy not singularly emanated from the Church but also from the practical needs which came with growing trade, bureaucracy and justice, not least in urban settings.

Research outside Scandinavia
If we look beyond Scandinavia, it is well established that across Europe many outside the clergy were a part of written culture, and especially a growing proportion of town dwellers could read and write. Furthermore, literacy became a component in the formation of a distinct urban identity.

In the light of international research, scholars seem to have underestimated the importance of literacy and the ability to read and write in Scandinavian towns, and also the apparently important role urbanity played in the transformation from societies based on orality to societies based on the written word.

Research questions of an interdisciplinary research network
To be able to address the possible interconnections between literacy and urbanity, it is necessary to combine the efforts of scholars from multiple disciplines: History, archeology and philology, in particular runology. Together researchers from these disciplines will work with key questions such as: In what ways can we define medieval literacy in Scandinavia? How widespread was literacy in different social layers in the towns? How did literacy affect the formation of urban identity? How did literacy and urbanity co-develop? About 35 researchers from museums and universities in Scandinavia, England and Netherlands are included in the project, which is based at the department of History and Classical Studies.

Read the project application (pdf)