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:




There is another sword that was found near this one at the same time, that has the inscription "SNEXORENEXORENEXORENEXOREIS" and also has a cross on each end. Since these were both found at the same site at the same time, perhaps they are related. The swords are very similar in design, if not identical. Also, I found it interesting although perhaps unrelated, that the OED has the letters "CHWDN" as an abbreviation for "churchwarden". There is a place very near the find that is called Monks house, and across the river is Bardney Abbey. I think it's important to note where it was found as well as the other artifacts found in the same site, to aid in further study.
Another note: Orvi is gaulish for "to inherit".

Several people have asked for the inscriptions on the other side. It has two crosses in circles, and three crescents, (if I remember correctly) .

On the museum collection site, it states that “on the other side is a series of symbols; two crosses in circles flanking three crescents divided by two quatrefoils”. It goes on to state that “The inscription is clearly gibberish”, but this was written in the 1970s, and we’ve come a long way in our understanding of symbols and languages. A photo of the other side would be helpful. It would also be a good idea to correct the article, where it states what the inscription is. That first "R" does not look like an R at all, it looks like an "n".

Both the sword and it's crosses strike me as crusaders. The crosses bring marks, making them mirrored symbols (++). Is it a hint? Does it suppose to be also read backwards, or even upside down (or both ways)? The inscription ends with VI, which looks like an inverted N. There's also lots of repeated characters, like OXCH mirroring HDXO. Is it some sort of palindromic acronym?

+ND (Nomini Domini) X O (Omnis) X CH (Christi) W (in) D (Dei) R (Regibus) GH = CH (Christi) D (Dei) X ORVI (Orvi) +
In name of our lord, his kingdom on earth

(ND) Nomini Domini / (O) Omnis / (CH) Christi (W)in (D)Dame(N) Nostra (CH)Christi (D) Dei / (ORVI)ORVI
+ND (Nomini Domini) X O (Omnis) X CH (Christi) W (in) D (Dei) R (Regibus) GH = CH (Christi) D (Dei) X ORVI (Orvi) +
In name of our lord, his kingdom on earth

After looking at the images for a while and reading through the post above, I would like to share my suggestion.

The idea:
Someone who ordered and someone who made the inscription does not do so casually, there are no mistakes. But, the conventions on writing was not as strict 8 centuries ago, as it is now.

- The X is a separator character
- The C and G are the same (but mirrored, so they are the same letter, either a C or a G, since the both precede an H, assume it to be an C (CHrist)
- There is no reason why an R symbol should be so different only 5 positions apart. Mirroring okay, but entirely different shape? The left R is something else, maybe not even a true character? Let's explore further:

We are now left with only 14 letters:
"ND O CHWD" (7 characters) left of the strange symbol and "CHD ORVI" (also 7 characters) right of the strange symbol. This is not only symmetrical, but also fits the Christian explanations in the post above.

Conclusion, the middle character, identified until now as an R, but looks like a lower N, is some kind of a separator character as well. Maybe like the modern equivalent of the character " &"

I'm good in analysing what i see and read, good at patterns Since I'm no expert on Latin or any medieval languages I'll leave the interpretation to someone else.

Hope this contributes to the cause....

The three X could be placeholder --> ND O CHWDRGHD ORVI ; ORVI could mean Orbi (v becomes b due to a Lautverschiebung (sound shift, quite common in German)) , which means Scheibe or disc in latin (maybe meaning the the sword came with a circular shield ; CHWDR (without the GHD) could be a mispelling of the German word for sword (Schwert), at least the phonetics for CHWDR and Schwert are roughly similar ; With a lot of speculation: GHD could mean that the sword sounded like a 'b durum' , which is latin for b sharp; Blade (german:Klinge derives from 13century klingen: the sound when a sword hits a shield or a helmet) ; O could be some sort of a connective ; ND remains a mistery (maybe initials for a name or place where it was produced). Also the Royal Armouries Ms. I.33 Fechtbuch could be very interesting in that context.

Could it be a combination of roman numerical values and letter symbols?

When you add up the roman nummerical values in the 18 digit code it adds up to 1632. This is a symbolically significant number as it relates to the number 7. i.e 1+6+3+6=16 -> 1+6=7. 16:36 could also be a biblical reference? just a thought

I was concentrating on the little crosses at the beginning and end of the inscription and thought they looked a lot like the Order of Christ. ie. Knights Templar.
Then I came across this page:

At the bottom of the page is the exact same sword, only in much poorer condition.

"Photograph of the original sword
1300 – 1350 A.D Museum of London, England."

And I read the inscription as follows: N D X O X G H W D N C H D X O R V I

Whatever the inscription means, it's probably a Christian phrase of some sort.

+ Noster DuX Omnium Xristianorum Christo Willielmus
Dominus Normannorum Christi DuX ORVI+

Why do you believe the sword was found July 1825? It is described in the Stamford Mercury 18 Aug 1826 as though recently found: "In addition to the handsome shield which was lately discovered in the bed of the Witham, a vast number of swords and other antique remains have come to light. A short stabbing sword, ... has an inscription upon the blade which will afford a subject for the ingenuity of the antiquary, ...N D K O K C H S D N C H T K O R Y D"... .
The shield referred to is the Iron Age Witham Shield; if the two were found in proximity (which is possible but by no means implied by the newspaper article) the find spot would have been close to the Fiskerton Causeway, suggesting ritual deposit. Is it known how Robert Swan (the Registrar) had come to be the owner?

How about german could it be german abbriviations for example tile and name perhaps of the owner with some kind of protective Latin quote, there weren't a lot of swords available in those times and they were extreemly expensive, so we should look at the wealthier noble families. Gross Herzog or Higher nobility

Interestingly, a sword with an (almost?) identical lettering can be found here:


As earlier suggested that X is the separation, I believe so too.
Key is in my opinion CHW and RGH, these maybe letters of a name or place. For some reason it looks French with German roots.
My 2 cents

A comment received from Moris de Graaf:

My focus was on the last 6 letters of the inscription ""DXORVI". With ORVI meaning blind in Italian I looked at the use of DX. This is short for "destro" meaning right in Italian. There is a biblical verse referencing to the use of a sword and blindness to the right eye. Zechariah 11:17 "Woe to the worthless shepherd Who leaves the flock! A sword will be on his arm And on his right eye! His arm will be totally withered And his right eye will be blind. With the NDX as the first three letters on the blade, referencing to Jesus our lord/our shepherd there could be a connection to this particular reference.

NDX - Misspelling of numerals for 1510
0 - Used as punctuation
XCHWDRGHDX - Sword of Christ (X indicates Christ, remainder misspelling of German word for sword)
0 - Further punctuation
RVI - Initials of owner, or designating a place. R Von I, or Rome, Venice, Italy.
1510 was the Start of the War of the Holy League, a Veneto-Papal alliance.

Total stab in the dark...

the sixth

I beg, in the name of god, to finally correct the woad with the rule of god. or something like that.
from what i found in a quick search was that the only noble family in the "region" with last name of R with an O first name where a sixth around the given manufacture time as the sword could be Otto Regnanr.
I could be wildly wrong.

Further to my previous post, should it be published, the markings at either end of the inscription could be the Amalfi Cross.

I did not read anything about the half moon between the inscription and the tip.
Maybe, in combination with the crosses on the edge of the inscription, this may be a clue.

It bares a striking resemblence to the ulfbehrt swords both in the overall construction as well as the general style of the inscription, though more ornate and cleaner. Perhaps there is some connection.

Assuming X is a space and the first R is not an r but an "and" symbol:
ND - Notre Dame
0 - On or Open (french ouvert)
CHWD - Church West Door
CHD - Church Door
ORVI - 1186 (Roman Numerals)

I found the crosses interesting aswell. To me they seem to be templar crosses, which seems to make sense as the templars had several commanderies in the region around lincolnshire at that time.

I lifted out those letters which are Roman numerals, except from the second D, which cannot apear after DC, and the D in the second word, and formed:

Norwedge Rod or Norwegian Cross, corresponding to the two Norwegian crosses on the right and left.The old word rod is the symbol of power, as in Revelations 2:27 "He will rule the nations with an iron rod." And cross, a synonym for rod, is also a means of execution.

This means my explanation is that the sword states its identity: Norwedge Rod.
DCXXXVI then refers to the year 636.

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,

ich denke, dass Sie falsch liegen.

Es sind genau 18 Buchstaben. 20 Zeichen und verweisen damit eindeutig auf ein metrisches (10er System). Dazu ist es zweilagig und bedeutet ähnlich wie in einem binären System (I= Gott / 0= Satan), siehe den Ansatz von Leibnitz. Da ich nicht davon ausgehe, dass Sie auf der britischen Insel über diese Erkenntnis verfügen, muss es mal wieder ein `f** German´ richten. Die Symetrie war im Altertum äußerst wichtig und daher sind die Kreuze links als auch auf der rechten Seite der "Deutsche Orden". Im Übrigen wird es nicht nur normal "gelesen" sondern von der Stichfläche, bzw. vom Waffenbesitzer aufwärts. Zudem sind jeweils zweier Kombinationen von nöten um dieses zu entschlüsseln. Für weitere Analysen hatte ich keine Zeit..sorry!

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