Medieval Language Skillz

Aside from a few days off for family events, I’ve been pounding away on materials for the Battle of Brunanburh book I’ve been working on. It goes very well overall.

The past few days have been admittedly frustrating, though, largely because I’ve been working on the so-called Annals of Clonmacnoise. It’s a fascinating text, and a very important one for understanding Brunanburh. It’s also tremendously difficult to deal with. Why? Glad you asked…

The Annals of Clonmacnoise survives in only a couple of manuscripts. These are by no means original, however. They are instead copies of a translation into Early Modern English of a now-lost and then-partially-destroyed medieval Gaelic manuscript of uncertain origin and provenance that was made in Ireland by a man named Conell Mageoghagan in 1627.

Got that? Let me hit it again: All we have are a few copies of a 1627 translation into difficult English from difficult Old Irish from what was a very old, partially destroyed, and very difficult-to-read manuscript that came from we-don’t-know-where and was written by we-don’t-know-who.

What does this mean? Well, it means lots of headaches. Here’s the passage I’ve been working on, which appears to be about Brunanburh:

The Danes of Loghrie, arrived at Dublin. Awley with all the Danes of Dublin and north part of Ireland departed and went over seas. The Danes that departed from Dublin arrived in England, & by the help of the Danes of that kingdom, they gave battle to the Saxons on the plaines of othlyn, where there was a great slaughter of Normans and Danes, among which these ensueing captaines were slaine, vizt. Sithfrey and Oísle ye 2 sones of Sithrick, Galey, Awley ffroit, and Moylemorrey the sonn of Cosse Warce, Moyle Isa, Gebeachan king of the Islands, Ceallagh prince of Scottland with 30000 together with 800 captives about Awley mcGodfrey, and abbot of Arick mcBrith, Iloa, Deck, Imar, the king of Denmarks owen son with 4000 souldiers in his guard were all slaine.

So let’s say you (like me) are trying to figure out who all the folks listed here are. A couple of them are pretty obvious, of course, like Awley mcGodfrey. That’s undoubtedly Olafr Guthfrithson, who was king of the Hiberno-Norse at Dublin in 937 and led the anti-English alliance to the field at Brunanburh. But clarity here is the exception, since this is the only significant list of this kind for the battle, and most of these folks are such bit players that they’re otherwise unknown to history. Plus, it’s terribly difficult to even figure out what names one should look for in the records we have of the period.

Take “Iloa, Deck,” for instance. Are these names supposed to represent Gaelic originals? Some of the other names are, like Moylemorrey (probably Gaelic Mael-Muire, meaning “Servant of Mary”). They could also be Norse, though, like the aforementioned Awley. It isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that they are Medieval Welsh or Old English since there were people from across the whole north of Europe fighting at Brunanburh. Just to add trouble, it’s even possible that “Iloa, Deck” is not two people, but one. In that case, it might be the garbled up Norse name Illugi (which is common enough), along with an epithet meaning “the Stout” (which probably doesn’t narrow things down too much when it comes to Vikings).

I love these kind of puzzles, which send me flipping through dozens of old sources in a number of different languages, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make my head hurt. They’ll even haunt my dreams a bit, as my unconscious brain continues trying to work them out.

That said, I’m glad to say that I’m basically done with the puzzles in the Annals. It’ll be good to get my brain on something else for a bit!


  1. I love reading about your adventures with language.

  2. Hello Michael

    I have been carrying out some searches involving the said ‘othlyn’.

    I believe that othlyn was an area that stretched from the North East of England right up to the south of Scotland (including Fife and Stirling).

    The connection is developed thus :-
    Othelyn is Ottoline is Otalini is Otadini is Votadini (Gododdin).

  3. That’s an interesting suggestion, Michael. Like everything in this Annals entry, “othlyn” is a puzzle that begs solving, even if we’re unlikely to be certain of any solution we manage.

    As to the lands of the Votadini, in light of the weight of our extant evidence, I’d say that they’re too far north for Brunanburh. I wouldn’t say it is impossible that the battle took place north of the Humber, but I’m quite confident in saying that it is significantly improbable. The standing suggestion that “othlyn” is a garbled reference to the Lyme is the best solution I’ve seen.

    More details, obviously, will be available when the Casebook comes out.

  4. @ Michael Livingston

    I am looking forward to reading the Casebook – it will no doubt add considerably to my ‘Brunanburh Library’

    I came across an old map last week Michael. The link being:-

    The puzzling thing is that the creator of the map – Bishop Edmund Gibson (1692) was the same Bishop Gibson who translated one of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle manusctipts. Nothing wrong here at first glance except that on his map is marked the Brunanburh battle site at the top of Northumberland. Yet in his translation of the ASC he translates the battle as being at ‘Brumby’ which is in North Lincolnshire.
    Have you come across this man in your searches MIchael ?

  5. I don’t know that Gibson locating Brunanburh in two different places is actually all that puzzling, Michael. If I recall correctly, at least 3 dozen separate locations have been put forward for Brunanburh, often guided by less-than-objective information.

    Here in this map, for instance, it appears that Gibson places the battle very close both to Branxton, site of the Battle of Flodden, and to Humbleton Hill, site of the Battle of Homildon Hill. One suspects that Gibson, who had relatively little information to go on, just assumed that the old Scots-English conflict had happened where recent (for Gibson) Scots-English conflicts had happened. So he dropped it on the bloodied fields of the north.

    I think his identification is quite wrong, but I do find it pretty clever considering what he probably had to go on.

    Of course, there’s always the chance that I’m quite wrong, too. Maybe (as you seem to think) the battle was in fact between the walls. None of us can really be certain unless we dig up the tenth-century equivalent of a tourist signpost (“Welcome to Brunanburh: Home of the Great Battle!”). So even if I happened to be 99% sure of the identification coming out in the book, that would still leave a 1% chance it happened elsewhere.

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