Ogam script and cryptography in the Irish legal manuscript tradition; Guest blog by Dr Chantal Kobel

We are grateful to Dr Chantal Kobel for contributing a guest blog this month. She is a Bergin Fellow in the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Her main research interests centre on medieval Irish language, literature and manuscript culture, in particular the extant medieval Irish law manuscripts.

In an earlier blog, Deborah Hayden discussed the use of ogam script and its cryptic uses in the Irish medical manuscript tradition. This blog turns to the Irish legal manuscript tradition, in which the use of ogam script along with other cryptographic methods points to a wider concern with abstruse writing among the late medieval learned classes.

The early Irish law-tracts provide valuable insights into medieval Irish language, law, history and society. These were composed in the 7th-8th centuries, although some are of a later date. They were subsequently copied and recopied many times in the following centuries. Over time, the copies accrued layers of glosses, explicating the meaning or technical usages of words, and lengthier commentaries, discussing the subject-matter at hand. The skilful and creative methods of glossing and exegetical analysis are not isolated to the legal texts but are also found in other learned literature such as in glossaries and grammatical texts. It is not surprising therefore that such texts are often found side by side in the later legal manuscript tradition, reflecting the learned interests of those who compiled the written sources. Most copies of the law-texts are found in manuscripts that were compiled between c. 1400 and c. 1600 and written in law-schools. These written sources offer an informative window into the learned environments of such schools, places where the study of linguistic, grammatical and stylistic concepts formed part of the fundamental educational curriculum of law-students.

Auraicept na nÉces, ogam script and the law-schools

Rudimentary training in filidecht, the study of literature, language and metrics, was gained at an early stage of a law-student’s education. The grammatical treatise Auraicept na nÉces (‘The Scholar’s Primer’) formed a significant component of the grammatical and linguistic portion of the curriculum in the secular professional schools, including those of law. Judges, for instance, were expected to be proficient in all linguistic concepts outlined in the Auraicept, as well as being familiar with a wide range of legal topics.1

The numerous copies, fragments and glossed extracts of the Auraicept preserved in the later legal manuscript tradition demonstrate that this text was of considerable significance to the later legal compilers.2 The Auraicept’s discussions of the ogam alphabet (discussed in a previous blog), which was created by Fénius Farsaid, along with Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets, seemed to have been of particular interest to legal scholars, who often used ogam script in their scribal notes. In the Auraicept, a later commentator added that the ogam characters were named after the twenty-five most illustrious students in Fénius’s school, thereby emphasising the high status attached to the ogam script (on this passage, see also the discussion here.)3 A fragment corresponding to this section of the Auraicept is inserted into an otherwise blank column in a legal manuscript that contains legal glossaries, citations and a copy of a tract on periods of limitations.4 This passage concludes with the addition of a finely executed craobh ogam, possibly added by the scribe himself. The ogam consonants are represented on the first two stem-lines, whereas the vowels and forfeda (‘supplementary characters’) are confined to the final line. These two groups are separated with a feather-mark.

A section from a yellowed legal manuscript page shows the ogam text added to the end of the passage.
Fig. 1. TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vol. 20, p. 645a. Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

In Lebor Ogaim as a source for cryptic writing

Another prescribed grammatical text of the curriculum is In Lebor Ogaim (‘The Book of Ogam’), which contains over one hundred cryptic ogam keys and discussions of cryptic ways of writing. This formed part of the first three years of a poet’s educational training and undoubtedly it was also studied by law-students. In the poem Traigṡruth Ferchertni (‘Ferchertne’s foot-stream’), Neire, the famous judge of poets, is depicted as being highly proficient in the 150 ogams that were a requirement of study (tri cóecat n-ogam n-ilardae, do-rata fri húair [n]-irscrútain).5 This poem is found at the end of the tabulations of the cryptic ogam keys in the Lebor Ogaim.

A section of the Book of Ogam in which a poem is surrounded by a frame containing cryptic ogam.
Fig. 2. TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vol. 3, p. 34: A copy of Traigṡruth Ferchertni, the text of which is surrounded by a cryptic ogam key referred to as Ogam n-ethrach (‘Boat Ogam’). Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

A beautiful copy of In Lebor Ogaim is preserved in an early 16th-century legal compendium of learning compiled by Máel Íosa, with the assistance of others.6 The contents include texts of a legal, poetic, literary and religious nature as well as numerous glossaries and marginal quatrains, thereby reflecting Máel Íosa’s broader intellectual concerns. An interest in language and alphabets is witnessed by the inclusion of the copy of In Lebor Ogaim, followed by a list of foreign alphabetical tables.

Section of a manuscript page from In Lebor Ogaim, showing a series of cryptic ogam keys.
Fig. 3. Cryptic ogam keys in the copy of In Lebor Ogaim in ‘Máel Íosa’s book’ (TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vol. 3, p. 32). Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

In Lebor Ogaim served as an important source for cryptographic writing and late medieval legal scribes consulted it for this very specific purpose. A nice example of this is found in a sixteenth-century legal manuscript written in Dísert Labhrais (Inch St. Lawrence, a mile and a half south-west of Caherconlish). The scribe signs his name in standard ogam script in the upper margin of fol. 14 as GILLA NA NAEM O DEORAIN.7 On fol. 4, the scribe writes a marginal note of a difficult nature across the top of the margin. The first portion of the note is written in two different types of cryptic ogam derived from In Lebor Ogaim.8 The first cryptic ogam used is crád cride éicis ‘torment of a poet’s heart’.9 In this variety of the script, the letters of the ogam alphabet are represented by the relevant number of scores being drawn on squares, rectangles and rhomboids, above or below the stem-line following the direction of standard ogam. The second is a variant of Ogam ad-len fid ‘Ogam which adheres to a letter’, whereby every ogam letter is represented by a single stroke of the appropriate shape with as many strokes at the end of it as there are scores in the letter indicated.10 The remainder of the note is written in standard Ogam script. 

The upper margin of a manuscript page has been inscribed with the cryptic ogam 'torment of a poet's heart' as described above.
Fig. 4. British Library, MS Harl. 432, fol. 4 supr. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Given the emphasis placed on In Lebor Ogaim in the educational curriculum, it is not surprising that the scribe used this text as a source for cryptic keys. It is interesting to note that both of the above cryptic ogams appear in this order in Máel Íosa’s copy of the Lebor Ogaim. However, in the Book of Ballymote copy, the two cryptic ogam keys are given in reverse order and separated by other cryptic ogams. This points to Gilla na Naem having had access to a copy of In Lebor Ogaim similar to Máel Íosa’s, or perhaps even that copy directly.

A section of manuscript page that shows two different cryptic ogam variants.
Fig. 5. TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vol. 3, p. 30: the cryptic ogam keys of crád cride éicis and ogam ad-len fid in Máel Íosa’s copy of In Lebor Ogaim. Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

‘A medley of different cryptograms’

The following example further underscores In Lebor Ogaim’s importance as a source for cryptic techniques. In a 16th-century vellum legal manuscript, we find six leaves of text written in what D. A. Binchy described as ‘a curious cypher which consists of a medley of different cryptograms’.11

A section of manuscript which shows several cryptic scripts being used in tandem with cryptic ogam.
Fig. 6. An example of mixed cryptography, including ogam script and cryptic ogam, in TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vol. 9, p. 199. Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

The manuscript is now bound into the composite volume TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), which is comprised of numerous discrete manuscripts and fragments written by different scribes, such as ‘Máel Íosa’s book’, discussed earlier. The scribe of this manuscript identifies himself as Donnchadh and states that he is writing for Conchobar. For instance, Donnchadh writes a marginal note mostly in ogam script at the bottom of p. 197, which can be transliterated as SIN DUIT A CONC[O]BHAIR. MISI DONNCHADH (‘That is for you, Conchobar. I am Donnchadh’).

The margin of a manuscript containing the scribe Donnchadh's signature.
Fig. 7. A scribal note in ogam script in TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vol. p. 197. Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

As seen elsewhere in the later manuscript tradition, the scribe uses a dot to separate the word SIN from the following DUIT and he reverts to using minuscule letter-forms for the final three letters. Donnchadh’s name is given in full on the following page in another note. Although we are not provided any further information as to whether Donnchadh was a master or student, the legal nature of the contents of the manuscript seems to suggest it was written in a law-school setting.12

A close examination of the text reveals that Donnchadh uses a combination of substitution ciphers, transposition and even writes words and phrases backwards in some instances. Particularly interesting is the use of Arabic numerals as a substitute for vowels, following their ogam sequence, viz. a, o, u, e, and i, rather than the Latin order of a, e, i, o and u. Moreover, Donnchadh frequently mixes his script, using characters of the ogam script and various cryptic ogams derived from In Lebor Ogaim. These include coll ar guta (‘C for a vowel’), Ogam Bricrenn (‘Bricriu’s Ogam’), Ogam ar abairtar cethror (‘Ogham which is called a foursome’), Ogam dídruim (‘Ridgeless Ogam’), as well as ogam consaine and others.

Section of the manuscript which uses a range of substitutions in his cryptography.
Fig. 8. TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), p. 199, l. 14. Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

In the above image, for instance, Donnchad uses letter and numeral substitution, ogam script, ogam consaine and ogam ar coll. Thus, the first character is the Arabic numeral 3 (not to be confused with the us-compendium) and replaces the letter u; b is a substitution for a; ng is an ogam consaine for I; and the sequence of five oblique strokes stands for r. Following ni (‘it is not’), the letter c is followed by two ccs replacing the vowel o and the Arabic numeral 5 replaces the vowel i. Altogether, this phrase can be transliterated as uair ni coir (‘since it is not proper’).

The combination of these various cryptic devices was intentionally designed to make the text as difficult to interpret as possible for the reader. A deep knowledge of the contents of In Lebor Ogaim, as well as a familiarity with other earlier texts that illustrated various types of ciphers, would have been essential to be able to read the text.

Ogam script and cryptography in scribal notes in the legal manuscripts

Scholarly interests in language, alphabets and writing systems is not only evident from the textual contents of the legal manuscripts, but also from the numerous scribal marginalia and colophons, many written in a deliberately obscure fashion, which are scattered throughout the manuscript leaves.13 They often contain abstruse vocabulary known as Bérla na Filed (‘The Speech of the Poets’), whereby the regular lexicon is replaced by rarer and more obscure words that would have been gleaned from the close study of earlier texts and glossaries. To add to difficulty, scribes wrote many of these notes in mixed scripts, intermingling minuscule script with ogam script and foreign alphabets, and in various ciphers and cryptic methods, such as anagrams.

A proposed scribal signature in a manuscript, in which the letters have been transposed and the second presented as an anagram.
Fig. 9. Scribal names written in cipher in Copenhagen, MS NKS 261 b 4, fol. 4vb. Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

In the above example, the two scribal names are completely concealed. The first name is difficult to decipher but I propose the following tentative interpretation. The first syllable consists of n substituting o and the letters are transposed (i.e. nsc = cos). The numeral 3 replaces u and 1 replaces a, following the ogham vowel sequence. The final syllable consists of r replacing q and n replacing m and the suspension-stroke standing for h, the letters also transposed. The second name is written as an anagram with the first syllable moved to second last position, and the second last syllable moved to first position. This phrase can be transliterated as Cosnuamhaq co lí ⁊ Consitinus (‘Brilliant Cosnamhach and Consantinus’).

The use of ogam script and cryptography in legal manuscripts sheds valuable light on the scholarly culture of the law-schools, environments in which Auraicept na nÉces and In Lebor Ogaim served as important sources for linguistic education and concepts of cryptography. Such intellectual activities were the remit of the learned, echoing the preface to In Lebor Ogaim which states that ogam was a mode of communication intended exclusively for the learned: co mbeth in bescna-sa ic lucht in eolais fo leth, sech lucht na tirdachta ⁊ na buicnechta, ‘this speech should belong to the learned apart, to the exclusion of rustics and herdsmen’.14

  1. This is outlined in the Middle Irish tract Urcuilte Bretheman (‘The forbidden things of a judge’), for which see CIH 2103.20–22. ↩︎
  2. See Ahlqvist (1982, 22–4) and Hayden (2012). ↩︎
  3. Calder (1917), ll. 228–60 and 2542–2570. ↩︎
  4. TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), p. 645b. ↩︎
  5. Ed. and trans. McManus (1997, 141 and 183, n. 32). ↩︎
  6. TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vol. 2–4, pp. 1–87. See Kobel (2020) for a full description of this manuscript. ↩︎
  7. For this marginal note, see Patterson (1986, 133). Unfortunately, only one folio, viz. fol. 14, of this manuscript has been digitized. ↩︎
  8. This note is transliterated by McManus (1997, 133) as BEICH MAIDNE MARCACH IS A LOCHT SO TIS FAM COSIB BA HI AS COMAIRTHI. ↩︎
  9. See Calder (1917, 303); McManus (1997, 138). ↩︎
  10. See Calder (1917, 303); McManus (1997, 138). ↩︎
  11. CIH 719m. ↩︎
  12. The text consists of Old Irish citations with commentary on various legal topics, including compensation for offences against relative and dependants. See Breatnach (2005, 31–32). ↩︎
  13. See for instance Standish Hayes O’Grady’s transcriptions and translations of numerous scribal notes from BL, MS Egerton 88, belonging to the Book of O’Davoren (O’Grady 1926, 108–141) ↩︎
  14. Calder (1917, 272 and 273). ↩︎

Further reading

Ahlqvist, Anders (1982), The Early Irish linguist: An edition of the canonical part of the Auraicept na nÉces: with introduction, commentary and indices (Helsinki).

CIH = Binchy, D. A. (1978), Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Dublin).

Breatnach, Liam (2005), A guide to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Dublin).

Calder, George (1917), Auraicept na n-Éces: The scholar’s primer, being the texts of the Ogham tract from the Book of Ballymote and the Yellow Book of Lecan, and the text of the Trefhocul from the Book of Leinster (Edinburgh).

Hayden, Deborah (2012), ‘Some notes on the transmission of Auraicept na nÉces’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 32, 134–79.

Kobel, Chantal (2020), ‘A descriptive catalogue of TCD MS H 3.18 (1337), vols 2–4, pp. 1–87: ‘Máel Íosa’s book’, Celtica 32, 187–215.

McManus, Damian (1997), A Guide to Ogam (Maynooth).

O’Grady, Standish Hayes (1926), Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1 (London).

Patterson, Nerys (1986), ‘The O’Doran legal family and the sixteenth-century recensions of the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Mar’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 6, 131–149.

Simms, Katharine (2007), ‘The poetic brehon lawyers of early sixteenth-century Ireland’, Ériu 57, 121–32.

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