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  • The Gift of the Gab in Post-Conquest Canterbury:Mystical "Gibberish" in London, British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A. xv
  • Ciaran Arthur

[Errata: On pp. 179-80, the description of Cotton Caligula A. xv and Egerton 3314 should state that Part A consists of Caligula A. xv (fols. 120-41) and Part B consists of Caligula A. xv (fols. 142-53) + Egerton 3314 (fols. 9-72). The present article analyzes material in Part A but recognizes the significance of the material in Part B for the original compiler. On p. 194, footnote 51, the note stated that John Dee owned Egerton 3314 before it was separated from Caligula A. xv, but it should have said that John Dee owned Egerton 3314 and possibly also Caligula A. xv. On p. 202, the first paragraph should state that Hrabanus included runic among alphabets of the tres linguae sacrae, and used letter forms to shape symbols and diagrams of Biblical names.]

Many surviving ritual texts from early medieval England contain obscure letters, words, and phrases that are taken from different languages and alphabets. These rituals have been classified as "gibberish" in editions of Anglo-Saxon "charms," and they constitute a significant proportion of this corpus. The first comprehensive collection of "charms" was published in 1909 by Felix Grendon, who claimed that many rituals are characterized by their "incoherent jumbling of words, miscellaneously derived from Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Gaelic, and other tongues."1 Grendon believed that these seemingly meaningless words reflect the corrupt copying of classical sources that were used in specifically English contexts, and he therefore created a large subcategory of "gibberish charms," which he described as follows:

These conjurations, unlike the preceding ones, are crude, formless pieces, destitute of literary merit. Their distinguishing feature is a meaningless formula composed of a jumble of more or less obscure words. Occasionally a Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Gaelic, or Anglo-Saxon word appears, and a few words seem to have had their origin in one or other of those languages; but the derivation of a majority of the words is not ascertainable. . . . [In some charms] the formula consists, not of meaningless words strung together, but of unintelligible collocations of liturgical Latin. As a rule, the ceremonies prescribed are of Heathen ancestry.2

According to Grendon, Anglo-Saxon scribes used foreign languages associated with Christian writings to adapt rituals that were heathen in origin.

The second principal collection of Anglo-Saxon "charms" was published in 1948 by Godfrid Storms, and he classified twenty-one out of eighty-six [End Page 177] texts as "gibberish."3 Storms argued that foreign languages and alphabets were appealing to Christian scribes who erroneously copied down exotic formulas:

The Anglo-Saxons borrowed from diverse sources, Greek, Irish, Hebrew and especially Latin, and a number of charm formulas evidently owe their effect to the mystification of a foreign tongue. . . . This and the next twenty formulas may be called "gibberish or jingle charms," because the contents have become incomprehensible for the most part. The reason lies in the introduction of foreign elements whose meaning soon became unknown, with the result that the words gradually developed into unintelligible, meaningless sounds.4

Storms believed that the obscure words and letters of these rituals arose out of the scribes' misunderstanding of source materials, and that they were erroneously copied because their foreign sounds and epigraphic appearance were appealing.

Similar arguments have been made in recent scholarship. For example, Paul Cavill (among many others) thinks that "gibberish" writing, "magical gobbledegook," and "mumbo-jumbo" reflect a "literature of desperation" that was used by Christian scribes to replace heathen formulas with mysterious sounding foreign languages to console superstitious patients.5 Karen Jolly and Leslie Arnovick, however, have argued that words did not have to be understood to be efficacious in medieval texts; the more mysterious an exotic word sounds, the more successful it would be in communicating with the spiritual world.6 Importantly, these approaches credit scribes and compilers with logical reasons for including such enigmatic texts in manuscripts that were written in high-status minsters. Still, they maintain that obscure writing represents a language that was only understood by spirits and that mystified Anglo-Saxon audiences, neither of which...