In his 'Målruner og Troldruner' Anders Bæksted describes the older futhark as an ‘artificial, playful, not really needed imitation of the Roman script’ (1952, 134), and he is right on at least two of these points. Of course, playful inscriptions can be found throughout the runic corpus, from the famous palindrome on the Kylver Stone to the cryptic runes and salacious messages found on rúnakefli from Bryggen in Bergen. This playful function of literacy is also readily apparent in the English runic tradition: the fifth-century Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus – perhaps the oldest inscription in England – was probably used as a gaming piece (Page 1999, 179); the statement on the Brandon antler piece that the object ‘grew on a wild animal’ has been interpreted as a proto-riddle; and the inscribed sheep’s vertibra from the National Portrait Gallery recording two individuals’ names uses the initial rune logographically in the name Dægric, playing with epigraphical convention (Page, 1999, 9).
Visual and textual play represents an important function of runic literacy – and indeed, of all literacy. It is therefore strange that the playful uses of runes in early English manuscripts have been used in the past to further draw a distinction between runica manuscripta and the ‘runic tradition proper’, with Page in particular arguing that the ‘fairly trivial’ runes in manuscripts represent a break with earlier use (1999, 198): in essence, their very playfulness represents further evidence for Page that they were divorced from runic epigraphy proper. Even Derolez, who disagreed with Page on the essential connection between traditions, paid little attention to the playful ephemera of runes in English manuscripts, focusing as he did on the Anglo-Saxon rune lore preserved primarily on the Continent: that same ‘codified runic lore, which deserves, and has received, the greatest attention’ (Parsons 1994, 196).
This paper returns to the perennial question of whether the epigraphical and manuscript traditions represent ‘one or two worlds’ (Derolez 1983), but aims to bring the ephemera of the Exeter Book to bear on this debate. I argue that the playful uses of runes in the Exeter Book continue a type of ludic discourse that looks much more like continuity in tradition than has previously been acknowledged. This reassessment of the place of the Exeter Book runes within the wider tradition is particularly pertinent in light of recent finds that suggest that ‘practical runic literacy’ persisted in certain contexts into the late Anglo-Saxon period (Hines, 2019).