Sunday, December 7, 2014

Massive Scribal Hangovers: One Ninth Century Confession

Codex Sangallensis 904, page 204,
a ninth century copy of Priscian's Latin grammar
with an ogham gloss in the top margin
Medieval Irish scribes were habitually recording their emotional and physical state as they labored at the task of copying manuscripts. These scribal glosses range from pious prayers ("God bless my hands today" Laon MS 26, f18v) to curses on pens, parchment, and careless work by fellow scribes.

Physical ailments were also described, sometimes in graphic detail. One scribe writing in Co. Clare informed whoever cared in a marginal gloss, "the phlegm is upon me like a mighty river, and my breathing is labored." (MS Egerton 88 f. 26).

One Irish ninth century copy of a Latin grammar, the Institutiones grammaticae by Priscian (c. 500), contains alongside the usual prayers and complaints a curious marginal gloss in ogham script.

Ogham script was used by the Irish possibly as early as the fourth century AD, mainly in grave monuments scattered over Ireland (as well as some in western Britain).

The ogham gloss on the top of page 204 in the Priscian grammar is a single word in Irish, Latheirt.

This obscure word can be accurately defined thanks to the remarkable old Irish dictionary dating to possibly as early as the ninth century, the Sanas Cormaic (Cormac's glossary). The entry for the Irish word Latheirt is defined as follows;

Ale [Lait] + killed [ort], i.e. ale has killed us, that is ale drinking.

McManus notes,
"This [definition] together with other contexts shows the basic meaning to be 'excessive ale-consumption' with the logical extensions 'excessive drunkenness' and 'massive hangover', the last probably the meaning intended in the Priscian Oghams."

The task of copying out a Latin grammar by hand was difficult enough for a monk without the added misery of a hangover. This was not our scribe's finest hour.

Ogham gloss that reads in Irish Latheirt, i.e. "massive hangover."

Damian McManus, A Guide to Ogham, Maynooth Monograph 4 (Maynooth: An Sagart, 1991), 133.


  1. … so in in Old Irish "Latheirt" means. "massive hangover" – and "lathered" still means "drunk" in Hibernian English. (Though this is probably just a coincidence, alas …)

    1. Just a feeling here, but I doubt the connection is just a coincidence.

  2. No, not lathered. That still means covered in soap or riled up. The equivalent is actually "langered" or "langers".

    1. As an Irishman "lathered" also means being absolutely plastered (ie completely blootered).

  3. I am getting this tattoed on my shoulder asap

  4. How did you figure out Ogham writing?

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  6. We used lathered or leathered... as words that were part of the vernacular... this was in rural East Sussex.

  7. As a teenager in rural Sussex we used to say lathered or leathered.... though leathered could also mean taking a beating as I'm a fight.