Riddles, Reindeer, and Irish Prostitutes, Part 2

Find Part 1 to this post here!

The Perils of Studying Virgil 

That the erudition of Irish scholars in the early Middle Ages was not always cast in a positive light is reflected in a letter, written nearly two centuries earlier, by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury (d. 709). Aldhelm writes in admonishing language to his student Wihtfrith that he is none too pleased with the latter’s decision to go study in Ireland. He wonders why Wihtfrith would forsake the study of the Old and New Testament to read foul pagan literature, i.e., Virgil, which was apparently being taught in the monastic centres of Ireland. More colourful still is Aldhelm’s language in the oft-quoted passage below:

Quidnam, rogitans quaeso, orthodoxae fidei sacramento commodi affert circa temeratum spurcae Proserpinae incestum—quod abhorret fari enucleate— legendo scrutandoque sudescere aut Hermionam, petulantem Menelai et Helenae sobolem, quae, ut prisca produnt opuscula, despondebatur pridem iure dotis Oresti demumque sententia immutata Neoptolemo nupsit, lectionis praeconio venerari aut Lupercorum bacchantum antistites ritu litantium Priapo parasitorum heroico stilo historiae caraxere.

What, pray, I beseech you eagerly, is the benefit to the sanctity of the orthodox faith to expend energy by reading and studying the foul pollution of base Proserpina, which I shrink from mentioning in plain speech; or to revere, through celebration in study, Hermione, the wanton offspring of Menelaus and Helen, who, as the ancient texts report, was engaged for a while by right of dowry to Orestes, then, having changed her mind, married Neoptolemus; or to record—in the heroic style of epic—the high priests of the Luperci, who revel in the fashion of those cults that sacrifice to Priapus […].[1]

But Aldhelm did not stop there. No, truly, Ireland held further dangers still than the dactylic hexameters of the Augustan poets of old. He continues:

Porro tuum discipulatum ceu cernuus arcuatis poplitibus flexisque suffraginibus feculenta farna compulsus posco, ut nequaquam prostibula vel lupanarium nugas, in quis pompulentae prostitutae delitescunt, lenocinante luxu adeas, quae obrizo rutilante periscelidis armillaque lacertorum terete utpote faleris falerati curules comuntur, […]

Moreover, I, compelled by this foul report, beg your Discipleship, genuflecting, as it were, with arched knee and bent leg, that you in no wise go near the whores or the trumpery of bawdy houses, where lurk pretentious prostitutes with luxury as their pander, who are adorned with the flashing burnish of leg-bands and with smooth arm bracelets, just as ornamented chariots are adorned with metal bosses; […]

It would seem that reading Virgil and engaging prostitutes go hand in hand, the beneficiary being equally worthy of damnation in Aldhelm’s eyes. It is a pity that we never find out whether Wihtfrith actually heeded his teacher’s advice or, indeed, what lines (facetiously penned in hexameter?) he may have tendered in response to assuage his anxious master’s fears. The letter to Wihtfrith, along with many others of Aldhelm’s writings, survives today only in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, an early-twelfth-century history of the English bishops. Aldhelm’s letters are contained in Book V of the Gesta, the section of William’s work dedicated to the history of Malmesbury Abbey and to Aldhelm, its founder.

King Alfred and a Reindeer 

Having now moved from Ireland, via Wales, into Anglo-Saxon England, we are coming to our final stop on the journey through language contacts, manuscripts, and riddles in North-western Europe. While this section does not contain a riddle or admonition, it deals with one of the most interesting examples of language contact that I have come across. And it involves no lesser a man than Alfred of Wessex himself. As I mentioned before, it is only natural to reflect, when two languages come into contact, how these are both different and alike. When I recently listened to BBC4’s In Our Time podcast on the ‘Danelaw’[2] (referring to both an area of Norse occupation as well as customs and legal practices), one of the speakers, Prof. Judith Jesch of the University of Nottingham, discussed the story of the voyages of the Norwegian tradesman Ohthere during his stay at the court of King Alfred. Alfred had acceded to the throne of Wessex in 871, the only kingdom within Anglo-Saxon England that was not under Norse rule at the time, and later in 886, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danish king Guthrum, establishing a border between their two domains. Apart from being a skilled military and political leader, Alfred was also invested in cultural reform and education, looking for inspiration across the Channel to what had been achieved as part of the Carolingian Renaissance. One of the areas that Alfred’s efforts centred on was providing translations of important Latin texts, especially theological and historical works. One of these works was Orosius’ Seven Books against the Pagans, by that time the standard source for world history. At one time, it was even believed that it was Alfred himself who translated the text into Old English, although this theory has now largely fallen out of favour.[3] And it is as part of the Old English Orosius that we find the fascinating story of the voyage of Ohthere to Alfred’s court. Ohthere tells the king that he comes from the northernmost part of Norway, hardly inhabited, and brings him a gift of walrus tusks, containing precious ivory. Then he tells the king that:

He wæs swyðe spedig man on þæm æhtum þe heora speda on beoð, þæt is on wildrum. He hæfde þagyt, ða he þone cyningc sohte, tamra deora unbebohtra syx hund. þa deor hi hatað hranas; […]

He was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer. These deer they call ‘reindeer’.[4]

Ohthere’s account in British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B i, f. 12v [5]
Several insights can be gained from this little anecdote. As Judith Jesch points out in the podcast, there seems to have been no translator present at the conversation between Ohthere and the king. It must be that either Ohthere—as a tradesman—had sufficient knowledge of Old English to talk to Alfred; or that in turn, Alfred and the members of his court had sufficient knowledge of Old Norse to navigate the conversation; or indeed, that Old Norse and Old English were similar enough that, to borrow Jesch’s terms, linguistic differences could easily be negotiated. Such a negotiation is particularly apparent from the above passage by the introduction of the word for ‘reindeer’ into the English language. Since English had no word for this foreign animal, the Norse hreinn was borrowed into English as hrán (see Bosworth and Toller s.v. hrán), as Old Norse ei is equivalent to Old English á (that the reverse happened also can be seen through the borrowing of English personal names such as Æthelstan into Norse as Aðalsteinn).[6] We can imagine Alfred’s clerk interrogating Ohthere as to what exactly a hrán was and why it made him so wealthy. Embedded in the wider context of the Old English translation of Orosius, we therefore find this fascinating exchange between Alfred the Great and a humble yet resourceful reindeer farmer from Norway.

This selection of anecdotes found and lifted from the pages of medieval parchment provides just a glimpse into the fascinating world of medieval Irish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse contacts. And just as the modern student diligently devotes their time to make sense of the difficult Old-Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Old-Irish Glosses, annotating their copy with helpful notes, so did medieval scribes annotate their Latin texts, spelling out difficulties and playing with languages. And as undergraduates and postgraduates apply to the most competitive and most coveted university programmes, either with or without the counsel of an academic mentor or advisor, so did Wihtfrith no doubt make Ireland his educational destination. And no doubt, when Alfred of Wessex received Ohthere at his court, we may not have anticipated learning so much about northern Norwegian fauna. What these examples teach us is that history and language, manuscripts and literature can never be studied in isolation, but must come together to allow us to construct the story of the past. And while the past may be a different country (pace Hartley),[7] they don’t always do things differently there.

Marie-Luise Theuerkauf, Ph.D.
University of Cambridge


[1] Lapidge, M. and Herren, M., Aldhelm: The Prose Works. D.S. Brewer, 1979: 154.

[2] Visit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0003jp7 [last accessed 28/04/19].

[3] Lund, Niels (ed.), Two voyagers at the court of King Alfred: The ventures of Ohthere and Wulfstan, together with the Description of northern Europe from the Old English Orosius. York, 1984: 6.

[4] Lund 1984: 20.

[5] The manuscript is available online here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Tiberius_B_I.

[6] Lund 1984: 56.

[7] Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between. Hamish Hamilton, 1953.

Riddles, Reindeer, and Irish Prostitutes, Part 1

In what follows, I would like to offer a little medley of anecdotes, originating from Ireland, Wales, or Anglo-Saxon England which I have either come across during my time as an undergraduate student, and remember very fondly, or have learned about more recently, and which have struck me as particularly fascinating. While my own background is in Celtic Studies, where I work especially on editing Old and Middle Irish texts (yes, from the original manuscripts), I’ve always had a fondness for the relationships that existed between various medieval civilisations and especially for contact between languages. During the year I spent as a Murphy Irish Exchange Fellow at Notre Dame, I also had the opportunity to study Greek and Latin with Profs. Mazurek and Mazurek, topping up on my knowledge of both of these languages pursued while studying in Ireland. Below are four tales of linguistic contact, demonstrating scribal cleverness and competition, some riddles, the danger of studying in Ireland, and also information about reindeer. I hope you’ll enjoy!

Nolite te grammatica carborundorum (or some actual Latin)

Every student of Old Irish, myself included, will at one stage have come across the Old Irish Glosses, and most of the time they will form the foundation of any beginner’s level Old Irish course. As a novice to this fascinating language, I naturally wondered what exactly glosses were and why they were so important. In John Strachan’s Old Irish Paradigms and Glosses, one of the standard teaching works, we find the complicated tables which ought to be learned off by heart by anyone wishing to have even the smallest sense of how the Old Irish verbal system works. But the bulk of the book is filled with practice sentences drawn from actual unadapted material (in contrast to the grammatical ‘safe-space’ that is E. G. Quin’s Old-Irish Workbook), and thus the adventurous student is plunged into the world of orthographical variation and grammatical uncertainty, the world of the Glosses. The primary sources for the student of Old Irish, which also provide the majority of the source material to Rudolf Thurneysen’s seminal Grammar of Old Irish, are interlinear and marginal notes written in Old Irish as commentary on Latin texts, found in manuscripts which are now, for the most part, kept in libraries in Continental Europe. One such source is a mid-ninth-century manuscript in the Stiftsbibliothek of St. Gallen in Switzerland, known as Codex Sangallensis904.[1] It contains a copy of Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticae (6th century), one of the most important sources for the instruction of Latin in the Middle Ages.

Abbey Library, St. Gall, Switzerland

To the student of Old Irish, this work is simply known as ‘the St. Gall Glosses’. As can be seen in the image below, the main text is written in large script, but in-between the lines and in the margins, we find much smaller annotations, explanations, and comments in Latin and in Old Irish. These are to a large extent explanatory teaching notes, as a knowledge of Latin was indispensable for understanding, studying, and also copying biblical texts, hagiography, or even computus.[2]

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 904, f. 3 – Prisciani grammatica

When studying a foreign language, be it ancient, medieval, or modern, it is only natural to ponder the ways in which that language is both alike and different from one’s own. And building a bridge between the familiar and the foreign is the mark of a good teacher as well as a good student. Among the glosses found in the Codex Sangallensis are numerous gems of language contact, which provide insight into the mind of the medieval Irish Latin teacher and of his students. An example familiar to many students of Old Irish will no doubt be the little nature poem written in the margin on ff. 203-4, here given from Gerard Murphy’s edition[3] together with Seamus Heaney’s and Timothy O’Neill’s translation:[4]

Dom-arcai fidbaide fál
fom-chain loíd luin, lúad nād cél;
hūas mo lebrán, ind línech,
fom-chain trírech inna n-én.
Fomm-chain coí men, medair mass,
hi mbrot glass de dingnaib doss.
Debrath! nom-Choimmdiu-coíma:
caín-scríbaimm fo roída ross.
Pent under high tree canopy,
A blackbird, listen, sings for me,
Above my little book’s ruled quires
I hear the wild birds jubilant.

From a shrub covert, shadow-mantled
A cuckoo’s clear sing-song delights me.
O at the last, the Lord protect me!
How well I write beneath the wood.

This little poem is one of the highlights of medieval Irish nature poetry and was long held to be a reflection of the hermitic lifestyle of the medieval Irish monk until that assumption was challenged by Donnchadh Ó Corráin.[5] In what might feel more recent, but was still twenty years ago this year, Patrick Ford made a fascinating contribution to the subject in challenging ‘the conventional scholarship that ignores the physical setting in which we find it [the poem]’.[6] Ford was interested in the question, which had not before been asked, as to why this little poem had survived in this particular manuscript and on this particular page of Priscian’s Grammar, and confronted the practice of reading texts outside their manuscript contexts lest ‘the genre determines the meaning of the work’. But what exactly is the poem’s manuscript context?

Nature poem beginning Dom-ḟarcai fidbaide fál, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 904, f. 203, lower margin

On f. 203 in the St. Gall copy of Priscian’s Grammar, the reader is treated to a description of the Latin pronominal system (this is part of Book 12 of De Figuris), specifically the distinctions between simple and compound pronouns, e.g. huiusmodimecum, etc. With this manuscript context in mind, Ford has made the ingenious argument that the scribe, far from musing about blackbirds and cuckoos, very much had pronouns on his mind.[7] One of the most distinctive features of Old Irish (and, to a certain extent, also Welsh) are infixed pronouns. In the Old Irish verbal system, both the subject and the object of an action were expressed within the verbal complex, the former through the ending of a synthetic verb form, e.g. finnamar ‘Let us find out’, and the latter through a pronoun that was either suffixed to the verbal ending or inserted before the main verb with the help of a preverb or other particle. Thus, ‘He kills his enemy’ (as you do) is marbaid a námait, but ‘He kills him’ is either marbthai with a suffixed pronoun or na marba with an infixed pronoun (and the conjunct particle no as well as the dependent form of the verb). There is nothing equivalent to the infixed pronoun in Latin, however. Given that our little nature poem contains six pronouns in the space of eight lines, five of which are infixed pronouns and one possessive, Ford concluded that the scribe was engaging both critically and creatively with Priscian’s text: he responded to the idiosyncrasies of Latin pronominal compounding in the most Old Irish way possible—with a poem filled with infixed pronouns.

While the poem of the scribe in the woods may be the most famous example of the creative interplay between Latin and Old Irish, it is far from the only one. The differences between Latin and Old Irish are most certainly not confined to the way both languages employ pronouns. One of the most striking differences between the two is the modal category of the infinitive. While most European languages have an infinitive (étudier, studieren, etc.), Irish does not. But that does not mean that Latin infinitives are not glossed in Priscian and other Latin texts containing Old Irish glossing. See, for instance, the following examples occurring in the Old Irish glosses to the commentary on the Psalms contained in the Codex Ambrosianus C 301 inf, another ninth-century Irish manuscript now held at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.[8] On f. 1510, the word inficere is glossed fris-n-orr, literally ‘that he may injure’; on f. 7824, the deponent infinitive opinari is glossed with an Old Irish deponent form du-menammar ‘that we may opine’; and on f. 393, supplicare is glossed with ṅges ‘that he may pray’. The Old Irish solution for the lack of an infinitive was to put the verb into the present subjunctive and employ a sub-clause construction known as a nasalising relative clause (this nasalisation is indicated by the ninnges and before the verbal stem in fris-n-orr).

Dwelling for another moment on Priscian and the teaching of Latin in Irish monasteries, Irish scribes did not only ponder the differences between Latin and their own language, but also commented on the similarities or sought equivalent Irish solutions for a particular Latin phenomenon. A curious case of morphological creativity in the glosses on Priscian is the occurrence of what seem to be special comparative forms of certain adjectives. See for instance the two forms on f. 45, where the forms maánu ‘a little greater’ and laigéniu ‘a little smaller’ occur. These are to be understood as comparative forms of mór ‘great’ and becc ‘small’ (with adjectival suppletion) respectively, though their regular comparative forms are móo or máo and lagiu. The words glossed by máanu and laigéniu, respectively, are maiusculus and minusculus, again ‘a little greater’ and ‘a little smaller’.

The words maiusculusand minusculus glossed on f. 45 of St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 904

It appears then that the Latin teacher wanted to make his students understand that –cul is a Latin diminutive suffix which can express variation in the degree of comparison, specifically to what extent something is lesser or smaller than something else. And the Irish equivalent of such a diminutive suffix is én or án. Thus, laigiu becomes laigéniu and móo becomes maánu, creating nonce words for the sake of teaching. The Old Irish Glosses are a veritable treasure trove, and any student or scholar versed in the reading of insular minuscule should set the Thesaurus Paleohibernicus, the standard edition of the Old Irish Glosses,[9] aside and look at the manuscripts directly. Fortunately, the St. Gall manuscript has been fully digitized and can be consulted free of charge. 

Greek Substitution Cyphers, or ‘Are you smarter than an Irishman?’

Our next stop on the journey of language contact is Wales, although we are taking a few Irish people along with us. One of the most intriguing riddles of medieval Western Christendom (in my not entirely unbiased opinion) is the cypher known as the ‘Bamberg Cryptogram’. So called after one of its manuscript sources, a late-tenth-century codex held at the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg in Bavaria, the context of the cryptogram goes back to an Irish scholar named Dubthach mac Máel Tuile whose obit is recorded in 869. Dubthach was a most learned man, versed not only in Latin and, to a certain extent, Greek, but also in computus, cryptography, and cryptanalysis.[10] The ‘Rosetta Stone’ to Dubthach’s cypher is provided by a letter written in Latin verse which gives the answer to the riddle (provided one is fluent in Latin, of course). This letter was sent by another Hiberno-Latin author named Suadbar, better known under the name Sedulius Scottus, another of the great ninth-century Irish scholars, to his master Colgu in Ireland. The context of the letter is Suadbar’s journey to the court of Merfyn Frych (d. 844), king of Gwynedd in North Wales, together with three companions. He tells us that scholars, such as himself and his fellow students, arriving from Ireland at the court of Merfyn are tested and given Dubthach’s cypher to decode.

Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek,Msc.Class.6, f. 109v[11]
In what Nora Chadwick termed ‘a delightful bit of patriotic cheating’,[12] Suadbar did not wish upon his fellow Irishmen at home the embarrassment of being unable to decipher the code in front of the king. And so he sends the letter. Dubthach’s cypher itself is quite short; it consists of twenty-two letters and four words. The cypher in the image above is found in l. 7 (uii or g) and is extracted here below:


If you have ever had any dealings with codes and cyphers (if not, I highly recommend Simon Singh’s The Code Book), it will be obvious to you that we are dealing with a simple substitution cypher using the Greek alphabet as the basis. In order to understand the message, Suadbar and his companions had to substitute Roman letters for the Greek ones by assigning a Greek letter to each letter in their own alphabet and proceeding alphabetically. The key for the cypher, as given on f. 109r of the Bamberg manuscript, is as follows:

a b c d e f g h i k l m n o p q r s t u x y z

Equipped with this cryptanalytic tool, we can now read the above line as


As David Howlett explains in the commentary to his edition of the cryptogram,[13] the phrase is from the salutation of a letter from King Merfyn to Cyngen (Irish Conchen), king of Powys and brother to Merfyn’s wife Nest. The name of the king, Merfyn, in Welsh is here spelled in Irish orthography, where medial would have the same phonetic value as in Welsh, hence Mermen. Translated, the line means ‘Merfyn the king salutes Conchenn’. Let us hope that Suadbar’s fellow students back in Ireland were worthy of the answer! 

Continue on to part 2.

Marie-Luise Theuerkauf, Ph.D.
University of Cambridge


[1]The complete manuscript is available here: https://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/csg/0904.

[2]Ó Néill, Timothy, The Irish Hand. Scribes and Their Manuscripts from the Earliest Times. Cork, 2014: 30.

[3]Murphy, Gerard, Early Irish Lyrics. Dublin, 1956 (repr. 2007): 4.

[4]Ó Néill 2014: 30.

[5]Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, ‘Early Irish hermit poetry?’, in D. Ó Corráin, L. Breatnach, and K. McCone (eds.), Sages, Saints and Storytellers. Celtic Studies in Honour of Professor James Carney. Maynooth, 1989: 251-67.

[6]Ford, Patrick K., ‘Blackbirds, Cuckoos, and Infixed Pronouns. Another Context of Early Irish Nature Poetry’, in R. Black, W. Gillies, and R. Ó Maolalaigh (eds.).Celtic Connections. Proceedings of the 10thInternational Congress of Celtic Studies, 1999: 162-170; 162-3.

[7]Ford 1999: 168.

[8]For more information about this manuscript, go here: https://www.vanhamel.nl/codecs/Milan,_Biblioteca_Ambrosiana,_MS_C_301_inf.See a newly developed project on these glosses here: https://www.univie.ac.at/indogermanistik/milan_glosses/.

[9]Stokes, Whitley and John Strachan (eds.), Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus, 3 vols. Cambridge, 1903 (repr. 1987).

[10]Dubthach mac Máel Tuine, doctissimus Latinorum totius Europae, in Christo dormiuit‘Dubthach mac Máel Tuile, most learned of all the Latinists of Europe, died in Christ’ (Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200. London and New York, 1995: 236).

[11]The entire manuscript is digitized here: https://zendsbb.digitale-sammlungen.de/db/0000/sbb00000081/images/index.html?id=00000081&fip=

[12]Chadwick, Nora K., ‘Early culture and learning in North Wales,’ in N. Chadwick, K. Hughes, C. Brooke, and K. Jackson, Studies in the Early British Church. Cambridge, 1958: 29-120; 96.

[13]Howlett, David, ‘Two Irish Jokes’, in Pádraic Moran and Immo Warntjes (eds.), Early Medieval Ireland and Europe: Chronology, Contacts, Scholarship.A Festschrift for Dáibhí Ó Cróinín. Turnhout, 2015: 225-264; 243.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Arcane Incantations and Technobabble: The Exploitation of Exclusive Language in The Canterbury Tales and the Modern Day

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

In the many conversations we regularly engage in, there is always the risk that we will be confronted with an unfamiliar term or concept. When this happens, we are faced with two options: 1) Ask the speaker what it means. B) Don’t ask about it — try to infer the meaning from context and perhaps make a mental note to look up the word or concept later, consigning oneself for the time being to an uncertain or incomplete understanding of the speaker’s message.

While choosing the first option seems like the best and most reasonable way to ensure that one understands what the speaker is saying, there are a number of reasons that people might opt not to ask. Probably the biggest reason is that it requires one to admit ignorance of the word, thus admitting the speaker’s intellectual superiority in the matter, and risking exposing oneself to ridicule if the word is considered common knowledge. People also might not feel at liberty to request a definition (such as if the speaker is the listener’s social superior or is addressing an audience) or they might not trust the speaker to accurately define the term.

Regardless of why listeners might remain ignorant about a word’s meaning, in doing so they grant their speaker a special immunity from criticism or disbelief. Most listeners, when confronted with an unfamiliar word, will by default assume that it was used correctly, or at least refrain from questioning the validity of its usage. If someone were to say that a Diplopod is a type of Chelicerate, most speakers would make no objection unless they knew what those terms referred to. While it seems like common kindness for an ignorant listener to give their speaker the benefit of the doubt in such cases, the trouble begins when speakers learn to exploit this tendency, dazzling their audience into believing falsehood by using intentionally indecipherable language.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, harshly critical of the clergy on a number of fronts, writes of this tendency of medieval clergy-members to abuse their education, especially their knowledge of Latin, to deceive or swindle the uneducated masses. The clearest example of this is during the Pardoner’s Prologue, in which the corrupt Pardoner, a clergyman licensed to collect money and grant indulgences on behalf of the Church, —  is describing the many rhetorical techniques he uses to manipulate people into paying him (for more information on Chaucer’s Pardoner and his relevance to the modern day, check out Zach Prephan’s post).

And in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe
To saffron with my predicacioun
And for to stire hem to devocioun. [1; Fragment VI; lines 344-346]

[“And I speak a few words in Latin/ to season my preaching/ and to stir [my audience] to devotion”]

He boasts of being able to use his knowledge of Latin to lend his sales pitch an (arguably undeserved) air of authority and legitimacy, precisely because the language would be unintelligible to most. While his “theme” which he mentions a few lines earlier — “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (1; VI; 334) [“the root of all evils is greed’] — is indeed a valid biblical quote (1 Timothy 6:10), his use of Latin rather than the vernacular language gives him complete control over the interpretation, as few, presumably, if any, of his audience would also speak Latin.

While most widely-used languages are used for their ability to reach a wide audience, the ubiquitous use of Latin among the clergy seems more readily attributable to its exclusivity. It was frequently argued, especially during the Reformation by religious dissidents such as Martin Luther and John Wycliffe, that the Catholic Church was able to teach false doctrine without facing scrutiny because so few people spoke Latin. Reformation leaders called for widespread distribution of vernacular translations of the Bible, which Catholic Church leaders had, at various times, refused to allow. The Church, they believed, had exploited the exclusivity of the Latin language for its own agenda, preventing the common person from reading and interpreting Scripture for him or herself. If few outside of the clergy could read Scripture, few could pose a legitimate argument about Scriptural teachings against the established Church.

Furthermore, as the Pardoner suggests, the use of Latin likely evoked an emotional response of awe and reverence. To non-Latin-speakers, the language (which would most frequently be heard in a religious setting) would probably take on an arcane or mystical quality in the context of religious ritual which the same words spoken in vernacular would be less able to evoke. Referring to the medieval clergy’s use of Latin, Kathryn Rudy writes “[l]inguistic exotica suggest mystery and superhuman provenance, something more elevated than a common, Earth-born origin”(2; p. 12). This effect certainly persists today — if the magic spells uttered by the characters of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe were based on English rather than Latin or Greek, would they sound nearly as cool?  While it is probably overly-cynical to cite monopoly over theological interpretation and potentially-manipulative emotional effects as the primary reasons for the Church’s preference for Latin, it seems very likely that these contributed to it to some degree.

Another example of Latin’s special gravitas occurs in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” when the protagonist, a rooster named Chaunticleer, quotes “Mulier est hominis confusio(1; Fragment VII; line 3164)” to his wife. The comedy of this is that he later says that the phrase means “‘Woman is mannes joye and al his blis’(1; VII; 3166) while a more correct translation of the Latin reads “woman is man’s confusion.” Again, a character turns to Latin to secure a rhetorical advantage and establish a sense of authority. Chaucer, however, seems to satirize this practice by suggesting that neither party actually understands Latin (or, if Chaunticleer is aware of his mistranslation, that he intentionally uses the Latin phrase to argue something almost opposite to its actual message). Just because something is said in Latin doesn’t mean it’s true, Chaucer seems to suggest.

While vernacular translations of the Bible did become widely available and, with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church ultimately allowed the saying of Mass in vernacular languages, criticism regarding intentionally-inaccessible language remains prevalent, though now focused on secular authority figures. Namely, the development of increasingly-specific jargon for academic fields has occasionally come under fire for allegedly being intentionally difficult to understand. Often derisively called “technobabble,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “incomprehensible or pretentious technical jargon (3),” scientific or academic authority figures are criticized for using excessively-difficult or esoteric language for personal gain, often to appear more knowledgeable or to hide their ignorance on a topic. At its extreme, technobabble can easily be almost as incomprehensible as an unfamiliar language, as the below video demonstrates.

While the video was intentionally satirical, finding proof of “professionals” using their prestige and knowledge of jargon to bamboozle audiences out of their money is as easy as turning on the TV and watching a few minutes of ads. A modern demonstration of the effectiveness of technobabble is the “Sokal Affair,” in which physics professor Alan Sokal submitted to a prominent academic journal “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which he described as “an article liberally salted with nonsense”(4). The article was accepted and published, only for Sokal to announce the intentional ridiculousness of the paper, citing its undeserved publication as an example of how academia is able to make ridiculous and unfounded claims without reproof, “the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.”

Sokal suggests the editors of the journal were deferent to the “cultural authority of technoscience,” in that they trusted in Dr. Sokal’s reputation as a scientist to believe that the incoherent paper made sense. The mention of the “cultural authority of technoscience” being trusted in this manner is interesting, as it seems to closely recall the aforementioned trust placed in the medieval Church to interpret Latin texts. Is technobabble the new Latin, and the representatives of technoscience its interpreters for the unlearned masses?

Obviously this is a very limited comparison for a number of reasons — the knowledge required to understand technical jargon is widely accessible on the internet and no longer reserved for those of specific social classes, and the complex and specialized nature of the language used serves an important purpose and can’t easily be translated into “vernacular” (although some have tried, such as Randall Monroe in his bookThing Explainer, which explains various scientific concepts using only the 1000 most commonly used English words(4)).

However, as Chaucer shows, people have exploited exclusive language for personal gain for centuries, and likely will for many more. While mistrusting scientific consensus without reason is a recipe for becoming a flat-earther, perhaps we should be a little more skeptical about the many things we are told and accept without understanding, especially if personal gain for the speaker is on the line. Luckily, unlike in the Middle Ages, Google (or Bing, if you’re a determined nonconformist) is only a quick pocket-dig away for many of us. While trust may be the basis of a functional society, we must be aware of who we are placing our trust in, and ensure that we, like the Pardoner’s audience, are not being manipulated.

Andrew Cameron
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

(1) Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Toronto, Broadview, 2012.

(2) Rudy, Kathryn M. Rubrics, Images and Indulgences in Late Medieval Netherlandish Manuscripts. The Manuscript World ed., vol. 55, Brill, 2016. Library of the Written Word.

(3) “techno-, comb. form.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/198460.