The Anglo-Frisian Futhorc - The Runic Tradition—An Overview

Revival of the Runes: The Modern Rediscovery and Reinvention of the Germanic Runes - Stephen E. Flowers Ph.D. 2021

The Anglo-Frisian Futhorc
The Runic Tradition—An Overview

Sometime during the fifth century runemasters practicing along the shore of the North Sea in the tribal territories of the Ingvaeones—the Saxons, Angles, and Frisians—began to add supplemental runes to the existing futhark to account for linguistic changes that were occurring in their dialects of the language. To some extent this addition of new signs to the system seems also to have been motivated by how the dialectal-phonological changes were causing the sounds contained in the distinctive names of the runes to be altered. For example, the Proto-Germanic word for a “god,” *ansuz, became ōs in Old English, so the name of the fourth rune now began with an “o-” rather than an “a-.” These changes did not cause a fundamental revolution in runic ideology—that is, in the way runes were thought to function and the purposes for which they were used—as would be the case with the transformation of the Older Futhark into the Younger one in Scandinavia. Rather, the Anglo-Frisian model was a highly conventional response to language change: new signs were added to the old system to extend it in a practical way. This spirit of innovation, the willingness to add and invent new runes, would be a continuing hallmark of the Anglo-Frisian runic tradition. The Anglo-Frisian system went through two major phases: a sort of pre—Old English phase in which the supplemental runes appear to have been just that, and not seen as a fundamental reform of the system; and then a later phase that was more formally understood as a tradition of its own. But the Anglo-Frisian system does not appear to have ever been understood in an entirely fixed form, such as the Older or Younger Futharks were. The Frisian runes were in use in Frisia (present-day Holland and adjacent regions in northern Germany) from about 425 to perhaps as late as 900 CE. While the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc is well attested, we have no independently recorded Frisian Futhorc either in epigraphical or manuscript form, but the evidence clearly shows that both of these futhorcs were part of a common North Sea runic tradition, having evolved from the same source or set of practices.

Despite the fact that the runic tradition began within a pagan, or pre-Christian, context, it survived the Christianization process and even thrived in a Christian context, cultivated by men in ecclesiastical roles in English culture for centuries. As a result, runelore was widely recorded in a lively manuscript tradition mainly produced by Anglo- Saxon monks, often working in Continental monasteries. However, the culture shock brought on by the Norman Conquest in 1066 proved to be the death knell for the runic tradition in England.

The best general survey of the Anglo-Saxon runic tradition remains An Introduction to English Runes by R. I. Page (1999), while my little book Anglo-Frisian Runes: A Concise Edition of Old English and Frisian Runic Inscriptions (Runestar, 2019) provides an overview of the whole corpus of epigraphical evidence. New English inscriptions are constantly being discovered by metal detectorists in Britain.

A summary of the Anglo-Frisian system appears in table 1.2.