Introduction

This presentation uses archival material to illustrate cultural similarities and differences in Europe.

"Culture" here is used in the broadest sense, as a complex sum total of knowledge, beliefs, art, law, moral, customs and every ability or knowledge acquired by man as a member of society, to paraphrase E. B. Taylor's definition from 1876. In other words, culture is not only everything people do, know or believe, but even more so, it is the way they do it, and pass on their knowledge or practise their beliefs.

Is there a European culture? Yes, and no.

Yes, because - as will be demonstrated in these presentations - there are certainly common traits that constitute part of the European way of life. Some of them are not particular to us, but are also shared by peoples in other parts of the world (e.g. certain languages.). Nevertheless they are all part of the common European culture. Other elements have emerged first in Europe, and then migrated to other parts of the world. Democracy (as we know it), the industrial revolution, capitalism, socialism are but a few of these. Other traits are peculiar to Europe.

No, because numerous traits are very different, and still remain so after years of attempts at European unification. National, regional and local customs, as well as ways of doing things, still have many surprises in stock for those who think that everyone thinks as they themselves do. As travelling and international interaction grow, this gives us more and more to figure out and remember: How to behave in this country? Do I give the hostess a hug, a kiss on the cheek or nothing of the kind? Flowers or not? Is this the country where I unwrap my present at once or save it until I am alone? If I eat up all the food on my plate here, will it mean that I really enjoyed the food or that I want more? Should my hands be visible or not visible while I am sitting at the table?

Gradually, experience tells us that much is similar, although not always what we first thought, and much is different (but often not the things we first believed). One of the nice things about European culture is that it represents unity and diversity - at the same time. To lend a phrase from the anthropologist Henning Siverts: "Culture is a common heritage that make human societies human and at the same time different from each other." The balance here seems to be important.

We have aimed to achieve the same balance here. The majority of the contributions are divided into two parts. In the first, the focus is on the special characteristics of each city. You will learn here about the burial mounds of Cracow, the symbolic burning of an imitation paper cathedral in Santiago, the boys' brigades of Bergen, etc. etc. The second part deals with the common heritage, or what we have in common. Among the elements here you will find the institution of citizenship, ways of caring for the poor and other common tasks of the municipalities, our common world of symbols, and of sports.

You will also note that although the presentation has an overall common structure and plan, the different cities have gone about their tasks in slightly different ways. We have not tried to achieve uniformity more than is absolutely necessary, because we feel this variations-on-a-theme approach in itself tells a great deal about the way we are similar and different. It also adds to the character of the presentation.

We have no ambition of presenting a comprehensive survey of European culture, and we are aware that important elements are missing. The common and special traits illustrated lie within a limited range of examples. This is meant to be more of a point of departure for a long journey, with some signposts hopefully pointing us in the right direction.

The documents, serving as vehicles of illustration, however, we feel to be of a greater range. Here you will find the very old and the contemporary, the grandiose and the common, the beautiful and the ordinary, the obvious and the secret, paper, parchment, wood, photographies, drawings, paintings, and even a small stone. All of them from our archives and brimming with information about human activity.

Now, information is hardly a scarcity in this day and age, so why give you more? Some would say we are being suffocated by it, and that the overwhelming amount of it makes it impossible to select what we really need and want. And what about reliability? Sloppy journalism has made us distrustful of newspapers. The bias of political propaganda and a wave of self-acclamatory autobiographies make us wary and suspicious. The confusion left behind after reading the new fad of documentary fiction in which historical persons and events are woven into the most unbelievable suspense stories is filling us with uneasiness. What is there to trust? The growing scepticism and distrust of the written and spoken word is a natural effect. Is virtual reality gaining the upper hand?

The information from archives is of another kind. Of course, as is the case with all information, at its heart is the content matter, the subject with which it deals. But there is more. Archival information is the result of a real life activity, and is linked to the context in which it originated: an answer to a query, a receipt for a sum of money, a decision, a petition, a sketch, an as-built drawing. Then there is the information inherent in the structure of the document, the little things we so often take for granted, but which are signals of the utmost importance: some figures placed at the top (or the bottom) tell us this is the date, marks beside the figures of accounts tell us they have been audited. If recent documents have a row of letters and figures along the top edge, this tells us it has been sent through a fax machine. Sometimes the date itself is of utmost importance: A newspaper dated 1. April will in several countries mean that at least one of the articles (more likely 2 or 3) will be jokes, attempts to fool the readers.

These three elements, content, context and structure constitute what David Bearman calls recordness. Archives are records of human transactions. Recordness is the quality which gives a document the power of evidence. Of course, recordness can in itself not prove the content of a document to be true, but it gives us the instruments for control. The goal is accountability. And this is what archives really are about. We believe that precisely this quality will make archives more and more important.

Therefore it is not sufficient for us to say that we present information about European culture. What we present here is all evidence of human activity. In fact, and more important, archives are the only enduring reliable evidence of human actions. Without archives we have no government with any legal authority, no property respected by others, no uncontested rights or wills, no undisputed lines of heritage, no contracts, agreements or decisions upheld in any way. Except by weapons or force, of course. The wilful destruction of public archives is - sadly enough - increasingly a part of modern warfare, especially the kind where ethnic cleansing is a part of the process. Whole groups of people have been robbed of their opportunity to document their identity, heritage, family, citizenship or property. For an increasing number of individuals Big Brother who is supposed to be watching is not the big problem. The growing problem is to be able to produce evidence that you are the person you claim to be, and that you (before the war) in fact owned and lived in this house that some other people now have taken over. "Quod non est in actis, non est in mundo". If you are not in the archives, you do not exist. The brutal truth of the old Latin words sometimes get very close.

Sadly the true importance of archival documentation is first realised when it is no longer there.

The vulnerability of archives is of course intrinsically linked to the fact that most archival documents are originals. This quality has two important aspects.

Firstly, originality means that these documents are one of a kind. If one is destroyed, the loss is irreplaceable. No insurance money will get it back "To start with a clean slate" is for most a positive expression. It is also a description of an archival nightmare.

Secondly, when we are handling a particular document, we become very aware that this is the actual piece of paper that was made when the transaction took place. This is the actual letter the king signed, when, for example, he gave a citizen a privilege for producing and selling ropes. It has been folded so many times and handled and fingered so frequently that all the creases are broken and the document has been sewn together on another piece of paper. And here is the actual letter the poor woman Malene Rasmusdatter wrote, begging in the name of Christ for a bed at the hospital. And to no avail, it would seem, for she died just a few days later.

Both these elements of originality should make us treat the documents with respect and reverence.

Archives matter. They are important in our daily lives, documenting our rights and the structure of our society. They are important because they aggregate the knowledge of the past. They are vital because they document our common heritage, our roots, our identity.

In this work we try to show that these roots not only grow in our native soil, but that we have several strong common roots as Europeans. The European culture is unity and diversity. Of this we hereby give you evidence.

Arne Skivenes