Medieval manuscripts blog

03 August 2015

Help Us Decipher This Inscription

Last week (3 August) we blogged about the medieval sword on display in the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. We have been thrilled by the number of enthusiastic comments and suggestions we have received about this sword. Due to the phenomenal range of suggestions, it’s unlikely that we will be able to decipher the mysterious inscription before Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy closes on 1 September — indeed, it could be a mystery that may never be solved! — but we would like to offer huge thanks for all your thoughts and ideas, which have come from all corners of the globe.

The message board on this blog post has now closed, but we encourage you to continue sharing ideas about what the code might mean on Twitter. Please follow our Medieval Manuscripts Blog and @BLMedieval Twitter feed for more news and views from the team.

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Visitors to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy may have noticed that we have one or two objects on display, in addition to the many manuscripts and documents telling Magna Carta's 800-year-old story. One of those objects is a double-edged sword, found in the first section of the exhibition, on loan to the British Library from our friends at the British Museum. The item in question was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. It weighs 1.2 kg (2 lb 10 oz) and measures 964 mm (38 in.) in length and 165 mm (6½ in.) across the hilt; if struck with sufficient force, it could easily have sliced a man’s head in two. 
















A double-edged sword, 13th century, possibly of German manufacture but discovered in England in the 19th century (British Museum 1858,1116.5): image courtesy of the British Museum

An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire. It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown. Here's what the inscription seems to read:



BM-Sword detail

Detail of the inscription of the sword

At our exhibition this sword is displayed alongside a 14th-century manuscript of the Grandes chroniques de France, open at a page showing the French invasion of Normandy in 1203. The men-at-arms in that manuscript are wielding swords very similar to the one with the strange inscription.


The French invasion of Normandy in a manuscript of the Grandes chroniques de France (British Library Royal MS 16 G VI, f. 365v, detail)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, is on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015, see our exhibition website for ticketing details. All the items can also be seen on our Learning site, and in the catalogue, edited by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison, that accompanies the exhibition (now on special offer at £15).


Postscript (7 August, updated 10 August)

Thank you to everyone who has read and shared this blogpost, and for those who have left their enthusiastic comments and suggestions. We're very grateful for your assistance in helping us to decipher this mysterious inscription. We have received several pages of comments -- to view them all, please use the forward/backward button at the foot of this post. Please note that comments on this post have now closed. 

The following note has been kindly added by Marc van Hasselt (Utrecht University, Hastatus Heritage Consultancy).


The River Witham Sword in its European Context

Inscribed swords were all the rage in Europe around the year 1200. Dozens of them have been found, from England to Poland, from Sweden to France. While researching a specific sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands, I found around a dozen other swords which had striking similarities. One of those swords was the River Witham sword, making it part of a large international family. Using the excellent research by Thomas Wagner and John Worley, an image of a hugely successful medieval workshop was created, making ‘magical’ swords for the elite. The swords themselves are of a high quality, but what most catches the eye are the inscriptions. Both their mysterious contents and the similarities in the lettering are striking. A sword from Sweden might use the same slightly curved X as the River Witham sword. A sword currently in Berlin has an I-S contraction also used on a sword found in the Netherlands. These similarities go so far as to suggest the same hand in making the inscriptions. However, their contents are still a mystery, regardless of their origins.

There is some debate on the language used in the inscriptions. But looking at the other European finds, it seems most likely that this language is Latin. This makes sense in the context of 13th-century Europe, as Latin was the international language of choice (like English is today). To elaborate, let's compare the River Witham sword to the sword from Alphen: both start with some sort of invocation. On the River Witham sword, it is NDXOX, possibly standing for Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord) followed by XOX. On the sword from Alphen, the starting letters read BENEDOXO. Quite likely, this reads as Benedicat (A blessing), followed by OXO. Perhaps these letter combinations – XOX and OXO – refer to the Holy Trinity. On the sword from Alphen, one letter combination is then repeated three times: MTINIUSCS, which I interpret as Martinius Sanctus – Saint Martin. Perhaps a saint is being invoked on the River Witham sword as well?

By putting together pieces of the puzzle from all over Europe, we might come a little bit closer to solving the mystery. And even if we cannot decipher the inscriptions completely, they might bring us a little closer to understanding our ancestors.

Further reading:

Inscription on the Sword from Alphen:




Hi, is a guide?

610 northeastern
turn 100
right 510
west 6

In Gaelic.

It's a training tool that belonged to a school. The letters represent the motions of the combatant. Straight lines indicate elevated vertical attack and arches indicate horizontal attack. The letters also indicate foot placement.

Alpine inscription is easy to read: BENE-DOXO-FTIS-SCS-DIC-EC-MTINIUSCS-DNI
BENEDictemus DOmine (X)Christe Omnipotens
FTIS - Fraternitis?
Domine Iesu Christe

First of all, we need to understand, that several medieval manuscripts uses for the name of Christ first greek letters, like XPUS = Christus (XPUM=Christum).


N - "Nomine" or "nostrum"
DXO - Domine Xpe Omnipotens = Domine Christe omnipotens (from medieval Oration: "Domine Christe, deus omnipotens")
X - I do not know native latine words strating from X. But it is possible, that this is "first sounds letter" from word like "exoratio" or "exalto".
GH - Gloria et Honor (honos) = Gloria and Honour
WDR(A?N?) - maybe this is "mihi" and first letters of knight's name
R - possible "Redemptor" or "Rex"
V - "vivit" or "vivorum", but better: "vincit".
I - possible "inimicus" - enemies (or Immortalis)

So, this inscription is means something like: "(in the) Name of Lord Crist almighty (I) ask glory and honour for me (NN), Lord Christ almighty Redeemer (who) alive..."

The end is possible to be: "... Domine Christe Omnipotens Rex vincit inimicus" (Lord Christ Almighty win(s) enemies).
Or better: DXO-RVI is the paraphrase from "Christus vinsit Christus regnat Christus imperat" - Regnat-Vinsit-Imperat = RVI
Nostrum Domine Christe Omnipotens eXaltavit Gloria et Honori WD(?)
Glorios et Honos Dominus Christus Omnipotens Regnat Vincit Imperat

Forgive my naivety, for I am not a historian. Rather than offering an answer I would like to offer some questions.

Were blacksmiths commonly literate?
If not, why are we assuming the sword inscriptions mean anything at all?
If it was trendy to have inscriptions for the time, couldn't it be possible that an illiterate blacksmith sold this sword with a non-sense inscription to illiterate soldiers?
Since the wisest historians haven't a solid idea what this puzzling inscription says, shouldn't we start to take the possibility of a nonsense inscription more seriously (Occam's razor thought process)?

It's perhaps not as magical to be told the ancient sword has gibberish on it, but it certainly is a lot easier to swallow than a multilingual blacksmith with a knack for cryptography!

Could the message be in a prayer pattern:
NDXO = in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
XCHWDRGH = core message/prayer to Christ (first word)
DXO = Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
RVI = amen equivalent or other concluding sentiment.

An alternative configuration is for the "H" to be part of the third grouping and not the second.

Here, of course, "X" refers to Christ, the Chi, the saltire cross.

I noticed that the Breton language is based upon Latin script, and contains the letter W. It also has a sound (c'hw) that is present within the inscription as simply CHW.

Has this possibility been examined?

One other thought - if "DXO" is the end of the prayer, then "RVI" could be a reference to the sword's owner.

If the final three letters are RVI it could be a contraction of the Latin Revici for Conquer... which would seem appropriate for a sword and a good ending for a phrase of dedication that begins in the name of the Lord, then reference to perhaps a Saint or Saints, then conquer.

Good day.
Please, very sorry. I decided to write the new letter, because I found in my first mistakes.
My result is based a bit on the other way of researching this inscription. You can see that both crosses are simmilar to view in axial symmetry in mathematics, also thanks commas by the crosses. I used this in my the second step. In the first and the third step I readed the letters from the last to the first. (It can be also like the view in axial symetry, but with points instead the letters, no letters due to change the shape by the view.)

In the first step I split the whole text into 3 sections, there are borders from our two crosses and 2 symbols H in the text. H only represents change positions of the letters and their reading in this section.
1. NDXOXG (G, no C)
2. WD_C

The second step
1. When I read the letters from the 1. step n. 1, I read from the last to the first: GXOXDN
2. Like in axial symetry I work with letters in 1. step n. 2. I give this section with letters into other quadrant for the other rewriting and reading. ( 2. q. 1. q.
3. q. 4. q .)
the 4. quadrant: MD_C Simply, the letters are flipped down.
3. When I read the letters from the 1. step n. 3, I read from the last to the first: IVROXD

The third step. I explain this sections with letters in the second step so:
1. God, Nazareth. Two crosses are here like the symbol of 1. life and the supposed second life here of the God.
2. It means the era roman numerals- 1800.
3. It is written same (3 letters DXO) like in the beginning of the main text and like in the part 1. But here probably with initials of owner this sword (IVR) and- in the name of the GOD ((IVR)OXD). Here with only one cross, consciousness of owner´s only one life.

The Cartesian coordinate system is from Mr. René Descartes, he lived 200 years before this inscription. So I think, it is very possible that somebody decorated so interestingly his sword.

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