Ordinary Writings in the North

Davíð Ólafsson

The Nordic network The Common People and the Processes of Literacy in the Nordic Countries: Excursions to the Scribal and Print Cultures in the 18th and 19th Centuries, workshop Between Categories – Evaluation of Concepts and Data. Kiljava, Finland, 4–5 June 2009

The Nordic countries have, like many other regions, seen a steep rise in certain sectors of cultural history over the last decade or two. This wave can be attributed with various labels, and among them are components from history of writing, history of the book, vernacular linguistics, post-medieval manuscript culture, history from below and microhistory. Its participants, either individually or linked in small groups, have come from various disciplines - history, literary history, linguistics, folkloristic etc - and have increasingly sought out cross-disciplinary as well cross-national dialogues. Characteristically, discussions are set mostly within the modern period – the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries – rather than the early-modern era as is common in many other countries. Over the last decade Nordic scholars have progressively participated in multi-national collaboration: within the Nordic region, in Europe, and internationally (including SHARP). The network The Common People and the Processes of Literacy in the Nordic Countries: Excursions to the Scribal and Print Cultures in the 18th and 19th Centuries is the latest embodiment of this.

This pan-Scandinavian network is one result of a current Finnish research project called 'The Common People': Writing, and the Process of Literary Attainment in the Nineteenth-Century Finland, led by Professor Lea Laitinen at the University of Helsinki, and funded by the Academy of Finland from 2008 to 2011. Collaboration is also underway with two other research networks in the making: one Swedish, on everyday literary practices, and one Icelandic, on post-medieval manuscript culture that will apply for a local grant of excellence next fall. In 2008, the Nordic network attained a grant from The Joint Committee for Nordic Research Councils for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NOS-HS) to hold two exploratory workshops in 2009 and to prepare further applications for Nordic and international financing.

The first explorative workshop scheduled for 2009 was held 4-5 June at the Kiljavanranta Conference Centre near Helsinki. The leading proponent for this endeavour, Dr. Anna Kuismin, chaired the meeting. Nineteen participants gathered from all five Nordic countries. Three sessions were held on the first day with eight presentations by Anna Kuismin and Kaisa Kauranen, Kati Mikkola, Kati Launis, and Jyrki Hakapää from Finland, by Britt Liljewall and Ann-Catrine Edlund from Sweden, by Arne Apelseth from Norway and by Guðný Hallgrímsdóttir and Davíð Ólafsson from Iceland. Among the themes discussed were self-taught writers and their manuscripts and printed works in Finland, manuscripts of Icelandic women, research on the history of reading and writing in Norway and Sweden and the issue of class and society.

The second day opened with a plenary lecture Analysing class, writing proficiency and pauper documents from 19th century Europe: A minefield between linguistics, history and cultural studies given by Wim Vandenbussche (Professor of Dutch Linguistics at the Vrije Universitet in Brussels). In an illuminating and far-reaching talk, Vandenbussche touched upon a number of subjects that brought the group together, such as extant writings from people of the lower strata, their use of language and the written medium and interaction between different literary practices based on ethnicity, geography, class and other socio-cultural variables.

Prof. Vandenbussche’s lecture was followed by four more presentations, by Finnish scholars Lea Laitinen, Taru Nordlund, and Kirsti Salmi-Niklander, by Elena Rosnes from Norway, and by Matthew Driscoll from Denmark. In their joint presentation, Lea Laitinen and Taru Nordlund discussed Finnish sources on linguistics from below, while Elena Rosnes presented her study on the language of the Kven people of Finnish descendancy in Norway. Matthew Driscoll from Denmark gave an account of the function of scribal culture and its most popular genres in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Iceland. Finally folklorist Kirsti Salmi-Niklander discussed oral-literary tradition and hybrid genres in early twentieth-century Finnland.

The last hour of the workshop was assigned to general conclusions and planning of the Copenhagen workshop that will take place in the coming December. There, the aim is to prepare a Nordic research project on the subject of the attainment and employment of writing among the general public at the advent of modernity.

Davíð Ólafsson is a researcher at the Reykjavik Academy, Iceland

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