English Research Seminar

Dr Ciaran Arthur, Queen’s University
The Lawson Lecture Room, Kennedy Hall.

‘Uttering Divine Nonsense in Early Medieval England’.

Traditional scholarship on the early medieval period consistently writes off vast amounts of obscure texts as containing utter nonsense on the basis that modern scholars cannot make sense of their strange words and alphabets, being the result of poor scribal error in copying materials that were completely misunderstood. Ritual texts in particular have been seen to be ‘magical’ precisely because of their enigmatic nature, and as such they have come to encapsulate an elusive medieval world that remains shrouded in a veil of superstition. However, such views do not convincingly account for the linguistic capabilities of contemporary ecclesiastics who were in charge of the minsters in which such obscure materials were written. High-ranking ecclesiastics of the time were well educated and very interested exotic alphabets, the origins of language, its cosmological significance, and obscurantism. Obscurity is a common feature of a range of texts that provided intellectual entertainment, edification, and, importantly, a necessary tool for the censorship of powerful texts that could only be performed by those who knew how to read and decipher them. This paper will explore the various theological motivations for the composition of ‘gibberish’ texts and draw attention to some techniques that may have been used to protect their secrets. It will posit that ‘gibberish’ is in fact a coded language with cosmological power that could be harnessed to change the course of events in both the temporal and spiritual worlds.

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