Old Irish words deciphered from Stowe Missal

Research into the Stowe Missal, an Irish manuscript written around 800 A.D., has led to the exciting discoveries of two new Old Irish verbs and several nouns from the text, which will help unlock mysteries in other Old Irish scripts.

Professor David Stifter detailed his findings at a lecture earlier this month at the National University of Ireland – Maynooth. In his lecture, Professor Stifter described his work, part of which involves the translation of a text in a famous liturgical manuscript, which is housed in the Royal Irish Academy, and is the source of much fascination to linguists, with many passages hitherto considered incomprehensible.

Professor Stifter studied the Stowe Missal using a methodology of linguistics and philological analysis, with the assistance of Jacqueline Borsje, an expert in comparative religion. The text involved in his study is the third of three charms contained in the Stowe Missal, all concerning health afflictions. In medieval Ireland, charms, spells and incantations recited by priests were considered powerful means against disease and afflictions. This particular charm concerns urinary disease and Professor Stifter chose it because no proper translation had ever been made of it, with some in the past describing the text as nonsensical, having analyzed the manuscript incorrectly and misinterpreted certain letters. However, Professor Stifter has linked these phrases back to Old Irish words and unearthed meaning.

During the lecture, Professor Stifter demonstrated how one begins to decipher an Old Irish text, and exhorted the audience to see it as a fun exercise, akin to making a jigsaw puzzle. “We chose this particular charm as it represented a challenge for us, having been misinterpreted in the past. A handful of mostly very short medical charms have found their way from the medieval period into our time, not infrequently preserved on the fringe pages and margins of manuscripts. Because of the specific stylistic and linguistic exigencies of this genre that set it apart from more ordinary specimens of Early Irish prose or poetry, their analysis and interpretation can be demanding,” said Professor Stifter.

Speaking at the lecture, NUI Maynooth President, Professor Philip Nolan commented: “This is a fascinating topic of research and Professor Stifter’s lecture conveyed the excitement involved in the translation of one of the most complex sections of the Stowe Missal. NUI Maynooth’s Department of Old and Middle Irish has a worldwide reputation for excellence and is renowned for its progressive techniques. The methodical and innovative work detailed here today has made an extremely important contribution to the field of Old Irish.”

Professor Stifter has published widely on the Old and Middle Irish language and literature, and on the Continental Celtic languages (Celtiberian, Gaulish and Lepontic). His introductory handbook Sengoídelc. Old Irish for Beginners (Syracuse University Press, 2006) has been adopted for teaching Old Irish in universities world-wide and was awarded the 2006 Michael J. Durkan Prize for Books on Language and Culture of the American Conference for Irish Studies.

Source: NUI Maynooth

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email

medievalverse magazine