He’s Nailed It (or in Swedish: “Spikning”)

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

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.

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest's was added

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest’s was added

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.

Selecting a place for the nail (Stephen on the bench, Ernest standing by)

Selecting a place for the nail before the audience arrives (Prof. Stephen Batchelder on the bench, Ernest Adams kibbitzing from the floor)

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.

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

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.

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest's dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest’s dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

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?)

Ernest's hammers in the nail

Ernest hammers in the nail

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.

Ernest and the Rektor

Ernest and the Rektor

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.

Colleagues and game design students at the party

Colleagues and game design students at the party

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 process works!  Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The process works! Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

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.


Filed under Culture, History, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

10 responses to “He’s Nailed It (or in Swedish: “Spikning”)

  1. First of all: Hearty congratulations to Ernest for a well deserved honour! But that Rektor fascinates me. To take the dress of the average student (as shown in your photo) and then dress down from it is surely some kind of first in world academic circles!

  2. Candida

    Also congratulations – and such a cool way to do it!
    Academic dress has surely always been a bit idiosyncratic. I had an English tutor at Durham who never – really NEVER – wore shoes. People outside the university did take him for a tramp from time to time. But the Vice-chancellor was always suited and booted.
    I think at UK universities the Vice-chancellor actually runs the place like this Rektor; the Chancellor is a figurehead of some stature who presumably does some gentle lobbying outside the uni, rolls in to give an annual speech when the degrees are handed out, and writes a column in the alumnus magazine. Ours was Margot Fonteyn, followed by Peter Ustinov, and then (currently, I think) Bill Bryson. US universities ring the changes with a different speaker for graduations every year?

    • Yes, different ones all the time. A friend of mine was just lamenting that some popular actor known for being the sidekick/comic relief was speaking at our alma mater this year; she said she was pleased it wasn’t some slacker like the one who spoke when she graduated–Robert Penn Warren, founder of The Southern Review and the only person to win a Pulitzer for prose *and* a Pulitzer for poetry. I don’t even remember who spoke at my commencement ceremonies at that institution. At my first commencement from Stanford we had Sandra Day O’Connor (first female Supreme Court Justice), and though I don’t remember anything she said, I remember the party atmosphere–even though it’s much the better institution, Stanford’s students are irreverent, and they have a tradition of popping champagne corks so as to try to hit people on the podium–my year, the President of the University had a near miss during his introductory remarks, at which he looked up, smiled, said “Missed me!” and then continued. At Ernest’s Stanford commencement, Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz, gave a foreign policy speech that didn’t have anything to do with the particular occasion, audience, or setting.

      We hope to attend the graduation ceremonies for Ernest’s degree, which will be held in November, for which we’ll have to hire the academic dress–whooee! Garish. Red robes with black and gray trim (and of course the squashy hat). Wow.

  3. Hip hip to Ernest!! a mighty feat indeed.

  4. G. Steven McCollum

    Dr. Ernest now that’s cool.

  5. Hello Mef,
    I’ve enjoyed reading about the ins and outs of ceremonial Spikning, of which I knew nothing of, before reading your blog. Congratulations to Dr. Ernest !

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  7. Cathy Villa

    Congratulations to Ernest on earning his PhD! That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him in a suit. Enjoyed reading about “spikning.”

  8. V. Hornstein

    Congratulations to Dr. Ernest! I love his thesis topic…wish I was nearby to pluck to off the nail and read it. And thanks for the fascinating history lesson, MEF! I’ll keep your explanation in mind the next time I consider using the phrase, “Nailed it!” My daughter-in-law loves the English squashy hat, and ordered one for herself with her robes for her PhD ceremony. Happily, my son used it again the next year for his!

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