Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 September 2020
This essay is hardly the place to review the enormous impact of speech on the development of mankind. But the importance of writing, a different but ultimately related form of communication, is an appropriate place to begin since anyone reading this chapter must be interested in the history of their forebears of a millennium and more ago, and that history is most fully recorded for us in writing. Writing in the western European alphabets is not only a remarkable human achievement but is, ultimately, a form of cryptography. It is secret, available only to those who have been introduced to its mysteries through some species of instruction. Investigating all of the secrets involved in the process of writing would, however, take many volumes, and I have here only a small space. Consequently I propose to investigate only one form of cryptography within the general cryptography of writing, a secret code used initially by early medieval writers of Latin and transferred from their work to that of writers of English up to the end of the eleventh century. Why they should have used this form of cryptic communication is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is necessary to stress at the outset that their doing so implies a highly sophisticated understanding of the nature of alphabetic writing itself, involving as it does the replacement of a limited number of letters – and only those – in the alphabet as a whole.
There are many forms of the European alphabet but only two, the roman and the runic, are significant in Anglo-Saxon England. Both may have been the vehicle for secret writing. The cryptic runes on one side of the Franks Casket are well known if not fully understood, but this paper does not deal in runic secrets, in fact it ignores runic writing altogether.
This paper is concerned only with secret writing used by scribal hands who wrote English in the roman alphabet up to the beginning of the twelfth century and, appropriately in a volume devoted to a distinguished lexicographer, some of the problems that the compilers of the Dictionary of Old English (DOE) have faced in dealing with them. Seven scribal hands fall into this category, listed below in order of their putative dates