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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: July 2018

5 - In the Beginning Was the Letter: The Cosmological Power of ‘Gibberish’

from Part III


‘Like their ancient predecessors, learned Anglo-Saxons perceived in writing the ability to make knowledge secret by transposing one thing into another. This secrecy might be created by using encryption, by jumbling or substituting letters.’

The final part of this book engages with the phenomenon of so-called ‘gibberish’ writing, which features consistently in rituals that have been categorised as ‘charms’. The Vitellius Psalter reveals an interest in obscure writing in late Anglo-Saxon monasteries, in this case specifically the New Minster, Winchester. The text in this manuscript that explains how to encrypt language explicitly states that letters can be manipulated to communicate in secret (‘mid tysum fif stafum man mag writan swa hwat swa he wile’), and its rituals seem to use letters and language in such a way as to conceal meaning. Ælfwine's Prayerbook also contains a number of texts with obscure letter combinations, particularly the ritual against theft that instructs the writing of ‘has litteras’ from at least three different alphabets. We have also encountered a comparable use of letters in the ‘charm’ to obtain favours in Caligula A. xv, which was discussed in Chapter 3. This ritual claims that specific ‘stafas’ have the power to influence important political authorities (‘Gif tu wille ga[…] t[in]um hla[forde] ott[e] to kyninge otte to otrum menn odde [t]o gemote tonne bar tu tas stafas’).

In Chapter 2 we also saw that rituals containing a galdor or gebed often use obscure words and phrases from several languages. In Bald's Leechbook, for example, a ritual for spring fever prescribes a galdor, two ‘godcund gebed’ (divine prayers) that use the runic and Roman alphabets, and the writing of Greek letters in silence (‘sceal mon swigende tis writan’). Other rituals in this manuscript prescribe the writing of ‘greciscum stafum’ for a galdor against elf-sickness, and the singing of an obscure Irish galdor (‘Acra arcra arnem’) against flying venom.