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”THE INQUISITIVE VICAR” — A digitalization of the J. A. Nensén records from the 19th century concerning the northern people, their life and culture

Research project The records of J.A. Nensén (1791–1881) are contributions to the description of the people in northern Sweden, and has been digitised and made searchable.

The records of vicar J.A. Nensén (1791–1881) contribute to the description of the life of people in northern Sweden. Through this project, his material has been digitised and made searchable. The transcription is diplomatic, meaning that line breaks, column divisions, underscores etc. are maintained in the transcripts. The material contains a large number of abbreviations, but it is uncertain how many of these should be dissolved. The files also contains comments.

Head of project

Project overview

Project period:

2015-01-01 2020-03-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Language Studies

External funding

Riksbankens Jubileumsfond

Project description

Jonas A. Nensén (1791–1881) was a vicar in Dorotea in southern Lapland from 1832 until his death in 1881. During his life, he travelled across vast areas and shared the inhabitants' own experiences and their language and culture, and made careful notes in the best Linnaean spirit. His records derive from an area spanning from Jämtland in the south to Gällivare and Överkalix in the north. The material illuminates the northern regions and its inhabitants, mainly in the nineteenth century but also in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


The voices of women and men, young and old, rich and poor, Sami, Swedes and Norwegians that appear in the material give us direct insights into their everyday life and experiences. The perspectives of some officials are also highlighted in the records. The material is unique in many respects.


Nensén’s handwritten material is divided into six individual volumes, five of which are manuscripts of his own hand: three volumes from Uppsala University Library (R 649, R 650 and R 649a), a volume from the Popular Movement Archive in Umeå (“Folkrörelsearkivet i Västerbotten”) (F: I) and Nenséns Diarii-Bok (journal) covering the years 1841–78, which is privately owned. The sixth volume (F: II), also kept at the Popular Movement Archive in Umeå, consists of documents related to Nensén’s death (e.g. his estate inventory). All of this material has been digitised at a resolution of 400 dpi, which allows for good enlargement of the handwritten pages.


In accordance with the project plan, the below material has been transcribed and the transcripts have been made searchable, enabling free text searches for words and names. Volume R 649 has been transcribed in its entirety. It contains records that are partly or entirely written in different Sami language varieties. The majority of the pages contain Ume Sami and Southern Sami texts but Northern Sami, Pite Sami and Lule Sami records are also represented in the material. About one-third of R 650 has been transcribed, namely the Swedish and Norwegian records. Among the material that has not been transcribed are records with Finnish and Russian content as well as excerpts from literature and newspapers. Volume R 649a—which contains klasmata (fragments) and notes from various sources—has not been transcribed at all. A few pages in one of the volumes at the Popular Movement Archive in Umeå (F: I) have been transcribed, but none of the documents created after Nensén's death (F:II).


Hence, all Sami, Swedish and Norwegian records, in total some 900 pages, have been transcribed and made searchable in accordance with the project plan. In the final review of the material, these records were found to constitute a smaller proportion of the manuscripts than previously thought; some of what was originally believed to be records were, for example, transcripts from various written sources.


The transcription is strictly diplomatic, meaning that line breaks, column divisions, underscores, and use of capital and lowercase letters in the source texts are maintained in the transcripts.


Nensén uses insertion marks quite frequently. In some cases, they simply indicate references and in others that a piece of text is to be moved to a position indicated by the insertion mark. The exact position is not, however, always entirely obvious. Insertions are marked in two different ways: insertions directly below or above a line begin with a grave accent (`) and end with an acute accent (´), while marginal insertions (text moved from other lines) begin with an acute accent (´) and end with a grave accent (` ).


The material contains a large number of abbreviations and in many cases, it is uncertain how these should be dissolved. As is evident from the transcripts, a great deal of effort has gone into “decoding” the abbreviations. Where the interpretation of an abbreviation is certain, or almost certain, the added letters are italicized, and where it is uncertain, the italicized letters are placed within square brackets. If no reasonable or probable interpretation of an abbreviated word has been found, the word is placed within so-called angle quotes, e.g. »Mfd«. Where it is obvious that a letter in a non-abbreviated word has been mistakenly left out by Nensén, the added letter is placed within square brackets in a normal typeface.


For various reasons, there are words and phrases which are hard or impossible to interpret. Sometimes, this is due to the condition of certain pages (damage, binding and the like). In such cases, the place is marked with square brackets and the Swedish word lucka (‘gap’). If the end of a word is missing because of a damaged right-hand margin and the interpretation is certain, the missing letters are added in italics within square brackets. Hard-to-read words, or parts of words that could not be interpreted for other reasons, such as Nensén’s handwriting or ink spillage, are either marked: svårläst ord (‘hard-to-read word’), svårlästa ord (‘hard-to-read words’) , svårläst parti (‘hard-to-read part’ ) or oläsligt parti (‘unreadable part’).


On the project’s website, the transcribed pages are published as pdf-files located next to the images of the handwritten records. The transcribed files are available in two variants, one with text only and one which also contains contextualising comments, which were added when the project team commented on words, persons and places in the text. These comments, which constitute a work-in-progress, will form the basis of a scientific edition of Nensén's northern Swedish records.


Scholarly use of the infrastructure—some examples

Nensén's records of the voices of less privileged people give us good insights into the traditional knowledge (indigenous knowledge, local knowledge) society. Moreover, his material adds important perspectives that are easily forgotten or not visible in today’s contemporary-oriented documentation and which provide a kind of new "history from below", not least when it comes to the traditional livelihoods, domestic chores and other activities in the households and people’s views of the natural landscape. Such perspectives are abundant in Nensen's records.


Thanks to this source material and the fact that Nensén was able to gain access to and successfully record the experiences of women, researchers of religious studies have gained new insights into female religious language and religious actions in a traditional Sami context, e.g. the totally unique facts mediated by the Sami widow Anna Thomædotter's (1751–1833).


Furthermore, linguists have been able to find linguistic geographical patterns in the material. For example, it has been shown with certainty that the Ume Sami variety was spoken in Åsele parish, previously believed to be a uniquely Southern Sami area. These are important observations, not least when minority language place-names are to be given official status on maps and road signs.


Accessibility of the infrastructure

The handwritten material and the transcriptions are digitally available through the Department of Archives and Special Collections (“Avdelningen för arkiv och specialsamlingar”) at Umeå University Library via the website http://janensen.ub.umu.se/.


Nensén's handwritten material is also available via ALVIN (= Archives and libraries virtual image network), Uppsala University Library, at this address



Karlgren, Stina, Eckeryd, Robert & Edlund Lars-Erik, 2015: “The inquisitive vicar”: Bringing Jonas A. Nensen's nineteenth-century records of northern people's life and culture to a wider audience”, in: Journal of Northern Studies, ISSN 1654-5915, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 100–108.


External funding

Latest update: 2020-08-19