Postdoctoral research: Dr Ciaran Arthur

Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow (2020–2022)

Intentional Obscurity and 'Divine Speech’ in Early English Texts

A vast proportion of enigmatic texts from early medieval England (c. 800-1150) have been consistently dismissed as nonsensical because of their use of highly obscure language. Traditional scholarship maintains that such texts originally contained heathen formulas before Christian scribes substituted these with misunderstood sources, rendering them meaningless and ‘gibberish’. This project will apply an original alternative interpretative framework to case studies of these obscure texts to ‘decode’ them and demonstrate that they are far from meaningless when they are situated in the wider historical and intellectual contexts of classical and medieval understandings of obscurity, hermeneutics, secrecy, language manipulation, cosmology, and ‘divine speech’.

Many of these texts appear in manuscripts that also contain a wealth of material concerned with biblical interpretation (exegesis), the decoding of astronomical ‘data’ (computistics), and predictions of cosmological events (prognostications), and in some cases they are said to be written by angels. Furthermore, their often impenetrably obscure content bears striking similarities to methods of encryption that were well-known and developed by early medieval Continental and Insular scribes from the seventh century onwards. These obscure writings rather indicate that the Christian scribes who wrote obscure texts had also studied or read ancient philosophies of language that often engaged closely with issues of ‘divine speech’ and its cosmological significance throughout salvation history, which in turn inspired several systems of linguistic obfuscation. Interpreting highly obscure early medieval texts according to older and contemporary practices of discovering and concealing knowledge places them in an overtly Christian, intellectual context.

The project will produce several outputs including a book that analyses intertextual case studies of so-called ‘gibberish’ texts that have never been deciphered within this wider philosophical context to generate original interpretations of their obscure content, which can build the foundations of a larger international project on obscurity and hermeneutics throughout pre-Modern Europe.

Mentor: Dr Pádraic Moran

Research area: cross-cultural encounters