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 made in the 13th century.

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:



A detail of an inscription on a double-edged sword.

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.

A detail from a manuscript of the Grandes chroniques de France, showing an illustration of the French invasion of Normandy.

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:




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in Nomine DXO (=Deus, Christus et Spiritus) X(=Christus) Gott Herr der Welt Deus Iesus Christus DXO (=Deus, Christus et Spiritus) Rex VItam

In Name of God, Christ and (Holy) Spirit, Christ, God the Lord of the World, God, Jesus Christ, God, Christ and (Holy) Spirit, King of Life

Other: RVI could be the 6th verse of the book of Revelation (1st chapter) maybe ;-)

Note: obviusly CH stands for Christus = Christ

Note: probably M was written like W... in order to gain the attention of the reader... it is a sign-guide for the interpretation of all the code.

Note: Mea Domina - Madonna - Virgin Mary

On further research, the ending HDCORVI might be
Hic dixem Christum omnia Regia vici invictum

This is all that Christ the invincible King won

My Latin is rusty with age.

.... I have notice the same inscription on Thames zoomorphic knife mount and - double edged sword ... rune image on knife and transliteration on sword ... have the same word ORV(B)I ... pray ... and both have been found in the river

the Knights Templar was active during this time and also scribed their swords with prayers, the more popular swords were ones of ornate design specially crafted for higher ranking members and Sir Knights. The lower ranking knights may have had a sword of ornate design, but wouldn't use them in battle, but kept at home instead kind of like a trophy from an outstanding deed. as far as being found in a river, this would be common of the Knights Templar if one had died while transporting Christians they would put the dead knight on a boat and set it on fire with his sword on his chest. I know this does not offer any interpretation but maybe look into the lore of the Templars?

The X was a standard abbreviation for Christ so XoX could not stand for the Trinity.
The RVI at the end might be a standard abbreviation for reverendissimi

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again

Could RVI mean "Rex VI" referring to Henry VI, holy roman emperor and King of Germany and Sicily at the time?

Nunc Decretum Xenium Offero Xviratus Concedo Honor Wadiarius Reddo Gratia His Defero Officium Rectus Volo Iam

I am a PhD in medieval latin philology in Rome. I have read of the double-edge sword inscription and thought that a possible interpretation could be:

In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. N(oster) D(ominus) Ch(ristus). O Ch(riste) C(aritatem) H(abeas). [In] W(i)dr(i)gh(il)d(o), Ch(riste), O R(ex), V(itam) I(ndulge). In nomine Patris et filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

The two crosses are for “in nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” as in all medieval palaeography, diplomatic and epigraphy. “X” is the Greek letter Chi , that I have transliterated into Latin as “Ch,” as usual for Latin Christian inscriptions. For my interpretation to be correct, the word Widrigildo---the German legal institution for compensation for murder---should have been rendered in a graphical variant as “Widrighildo”, which would not be surprising. “Vitam Indulge” could also be “Vitae Ignosce,” “Vivis Indulge” or other variations. In this sense, the inscription could be interpreted more or less as:

In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Christ is Our Lord. Oh Christ have mercy: in vengeance (that I am going to do with this sword?), oh King Christ, spare (my/our) Life. In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the holy Spirit. His sword

Belonging to Ivor

I think like BlackthorneIX that says "ND O ORVI Nomini Domini Omni Orvi In the name of the Lord of all the earth".

In the central portion, I read:

For CHWD or CHD I have no ideas, but the middle "n" I think rapresent the ancient greek ETA, for Christian people the resurrection symbol (for this reason many baptisteries have octagonal plant)

NDXOXC - Number latin
HWDRG - H. W. Drago or H.W.D.R. Gladiotar
HDXORVI- Number latin

ND - Noster Dominus (Our Lord)
O - omnis (all, every)
CH - cohors (cohors) of
WDR - ? William De Rochefort? ( 1244 )
Waldemarus GH D - gehenna dies (Hell / Domesday)
orvi - 1) oro, avi, atum, are - pray 2) orno, avi, atum, are -

I think ND means Noster Dominus namely Our Lord
O means omnis namely all, every
CH means cohors of
WDR means waldemarus
GH D means gehenna dies namely Hell / Domesday
Orvi means oro, avi
thanks for read my comment

Everything is explained in Winnie the Pooh

"A very happy birthday with love from Pooh,"


Obviously, the word WIDRIGHILDO, litterally a MONETARYcompensation for murder, should be used here in a figurative and even ironical sense: a real vengeance, instead of a monetary compensation.

Perhaps HWDRGH refers to Howard, William, or Hubert de Burgh

The X is one of the chrismi, the letter or group of letters used in written texts tot indicate Christ. These chrismi can be found in treatises on the composition of charters. IC is another one.
The O stands for Omnipotens, is also coccurs in inscirptions on other swords.
In nominia domini occurs as the start of most inscriptions on medieval swords. Sometimes the inscription consists of nothing else.

GH might stand for Gloria et Honore
also possible is Generis Humani although much more frequent is Humani Generis.
R might stand for Redemptor
Redemptor generis humani?

exciting riddle. The crosses at each end of the inscription are cross potents. The crest of Godfrey of Bouillon was the cross potent in gold on a silver background (emblazoned: d'argent, à la croix potencée d'or, cantonnée de quatre croisettes du même). The cross potent is also a highly significant magical symbol. In this case -considering the estimated age of this sword- , It may symbolize the kingdom of Jerusalem (it was known as the Jerusalem cross). If there are crescents on the other side of the blade, it would reinforce this idea. Quatrefoil motifs originate from islamic architecture. Perhaps the owner was part of one of the crusades and had this sword inscribed so as to signify to his adversary who it was exactly he was about de deal with?

Further, XO could be initials refering to the famed greek designation for Jesus Christ: "Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ", (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which translates into English as "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour". Which would make the O a greek theta and the X a greek "chi". The second XO would refer to the same. So that there would be three references to Christ: one that can be read both ways at the beginning and once at the end.

WDN could be "Willelmus Domine Nostrum" (Referring to William the Conqueror).

more later...

CHWDRGHD - sigurd / siegward
Other stabs in the dark are Ludwig / chlodovech.

I'm going to put money on bad latinized german.

If we think that X is a separator, and these are abbreviations, ORVI can stand for
operient rursum velamine ianthinarum
(Vulgate Bible, Numbers 4:6, the only citation with this abbreviation in all Vulgate Bible)
" shall cover it again with a cover"
Of course, this can be just coincidence.

Good day.

My result is based a bit on the other way of researching this inscription. You can see that both crosses are simmilar to representation in axial symmetry in mathematics, also thanks commas by the crosses.

In the first step I split the whole text into 3 sections, there are borders from our two crosses and letters H in the text. H representates change positions letters and reading letters in this section.

1. NDXOXG (G, no C)
2. WD_C

The second step- like in axial symetry I work with letters. I give 3 sections with letters into right quadrants for the good rewriting and reading. ( 2. q. 1. q.
3. q. 4.q .)

1. the 2. quadrant Rewriting into the right image- GXOXDN
2. the 4. quadrant MD_C
3. the 2. quadrant IVROXD (I read the letters from the 2. step from the end)

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 representation in axial symmetry is from Mr. René Descartes, he lived 200 years before this inscription. So I think, it is very possible that somebody very clever decorated so interestingly his sword.

First - I would consider all of the "X" to be word/phrase breaks. Secondly, the last section I would treat as a 'signature block". With an engraving like this, I would guess that it was presented to someone as a reward for exceptional service.

Since the letter W is not used in the Latin alphabet it is likely a proper noun (possibly a location).

While this is early than the supposed time frame this sword was produced, a possible example would be that the signature ORVI could be a reference to Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor (1198-1215) who was also the only German King from the House of Welf (HF). ORIV could be Otto Regum/Regus/etc the Fourth - the person who presented the sword - or possibly a sword for himself.

The sword style is in-line with those produced in the early 13th Century.

Just a couple of thoughts to chew on.

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