Visby (see previous post) is a summer town, where most visitors go to enjoy the beach. Sure, the medieval walls and the museums are there year-round, but some tours and other visitor services only run mid-June to mid-August. So why would I go there in an unseasonably frigid April? To watch my husband, Ernest Adams, take part in a strange European ceremony left over from the Middle Ages.
But first, you need a little paragraph of history to get the background: The Protestants split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as the result of a movement called the Protestant Reformation, which was kicked off by a German monk called Martin Luther, who famously nailed 95 theses to the door of a church. The biggest bee in Luther’s bonnet was about the selling of indulgences, that is, people paying money to the church for official documents saying that their sins would be forgiven. Luther was appalled that the tremendously wealthy Pope Leo X would defraud people of money when surely only God could forgive sins (and without money changing hands, even if the church did need the money to repair St Peter’s Basilica), and Luther not only said so, he pretty much wrote down 95 reasons why and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, in Germany, in 1517.
Now, having learned about that years and years ago, I had always assumed this was a bit of seriously in-your-face vandalism in the cause of religious activism, and that nailing his opinions up on the church door was a slap in the face of the establishment, but I’ve recently learned that I’d gotten it absolutely wrong. Nailing your thesis to the door—or to whatever other bit of architecture was traditional where you lived—was, back then, a valid means of scholarly publication. You wrote your argument and nailed it up so people could take your paper down off the door, read it, and put it back for the next person to read.
And in some parts of Europe they continue the practice to this day, generally nailing up the theses (US: dissertations) of new PhDs. The author pounds in a nail and hangs the thesis on it by a loop of string, the idea being that the public can take down the document, read what someone has written, and then come to hear the author’s defense (aka their orals, oral examination, or viva), prepared with questions to ask. And that’s why I went to Visby: because my husband’s colleagues at the Hogskola på Gotland, a university where he’s a part-time lecturer, asked him to nail up his PhD thesis—something of an honour, since he earned his degree elsewhere.
The spikning (nailing) ceremony didn’t actually involve a church door, or any door at all. Spikning ceremonies at Gotland use a plank of wood set into the wall of the library’s café. And they haven’t been nailing theses on Gotland for very long; the Hogskola there is the youngest university in Sweden, although it’s merging this summer with the prestigious university in Uppsala (established 1477) where they’ve been nailing up papers for centuries. Some new PhDs in Uppsala, it seems, use hand-forged iron spikes; my husband actually ordered some of these, but they didn’t arrive in time for him to use one. (So now we’ve got a couple of hand-forged iron spikes lying around. Any ideas on what we could use them for?)
At some Swedish institutions, your adviser signs off on your thesis by writing Må spikas—meaning “May be nailed”; at some, nailing up your thesis is a requirement for getting your degree. Some require you to give a copy of the thesis to the university library as well, as that’s a bit more practical for readers, and some have gone over to what’s called e-spikning or e-nailing—posting theses on-line. I rather like the sound of the Institute of Technology at Linköpings Universitet, where PhD candidates nail their theses to “the oak outside…building C”, which seems much more authentic than the bulletin boards and such that other places use.
The University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies advises students to “contact the reception for borrowing a drill, hammer, and nail.” That would have been handy at Gotland, where staff made arrangements for the hammer and nail to show up at 2:00, but they didn’t arrive until 3:00, brought by a young woman in blue jeans, a striped T-shirt, and running shoes, whom Ernest thought at first was someone from the facilities staff. She turned out to be Erika Sandström, Rektor of the university, that is, the head of the whole institution, what in the US we’d call the President and in the UK we’d call the Chancellor. That mix of formality and informality is particularly Swedish, I’m told, and I rather like it; they seem to value substance over formalities.
At 3:00 the speeches started, with professor Stephen Batchelder introducing Ernest, and then turning the microphone over to Ernest to talk a little about what he’d written, after which Stephen drilled a hole through a copy of the thesis with an electric drill (whatever they used in the Middle Ages, it must have taken a lot longer). Then we all trooped into the café where Ernest stood on a bench to reach the empty spot they’d chosen in advance (and into which they’d secretly drilled a pilot hole). He pounded in the nail, hung up the thesis, got a bouquet and a gift (and a hug from the Rektor), after which we all had drinks and canapes.
The punchline here is that Martin Luther probably didn’t nail his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, or at least that’s the most recent word from historians who’ve looked at the evidence. That church burned down in 1760, but was rebuilt, and in the 19th century it was given new doors, with Luther’s 95 arguments inscribed in bronze.
In any case, now my husband is not just Ernest, but Dr Ernest; his dissertation/thesis—Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling—is the last student paper he’ll ever have to write; and you could say, using an American expression, that he’s nailed it.