THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

19 February 2019

It All Adds Up: a Quick Look at Chronograms

For centuries writers and printers have enjoyed using words on a page to make patterns and puzzles. Acrostics, rebuses and pattern poems are all examples of this. Another is the chronogram.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a chronogram as “a phrase, sentence, or inscription, in which certain letters (usually distinguished by size or otherwise from the rest) express by their numerical values a date or epoch.” Chronograms exist in many different writing traditions, including Arabic and Hebrew where each letter of the alphabet has a different numerical value. In Europe they enjoyed their greatest popularity from the 16th to the 18th centuries, particularly in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire and in the Low Countries, where they appeared in commemorative or dedicatory inscriptions, on coins and medals, and in print.

In these European chronograms the date is expressed with the letters used as Roman numerals: I, V, X, L, C, D and M (for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1000). Most of us are familiar with dates in this form from inscriptions or from the closing credits of films and TV programmes. Some chronograms give the letters in the order that they appear in the full written date, for example an epitaph for Queen Elizabeth I reading “My Day Closed Is In Immortality”, where the initial letters represent MDCIII (1603) the year of her death. However, most of them require more mathematical dexterity in both writer and reader, since they involve identifying the numeral letters in a phrase and adding them together to give the date.

Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a fairly easy one to start, with the chronogram highlighted:

Chronograms RB.23.a.28370
Antonius Kalckstein, Theses theologicae ex universa theologia Scotistica ex littera Scoti deductae authoritate Sacrae Scripturae et SS. Patrum ac Conciliorum firmatae et rationibus comprobatae ...  (Wrocław, 1714) RB.23.a.28370

On the title-page of this dissertation, the chronogram for the year is cleverly tucked into the information about the day and month when it was publicly defended: “Anno CVrrente ab ortV ChrIstI DIe 12 SepteMbrIs” (“In the current year after the birth of Christ on the 12th day of September”). This gives us C+V+V+C+I+I+D+I+M+I = 100+5+5+100+1+1+500+1+1000+1 = 1714. (Note the use of a v where we would generally use a u in written Latin today; the ancient Roman alphabet did not distinguish between the two.)

In the next example, the year is similarly encoded in the statement of publication: “IohannIs RhaMbae typI eXCVDebant” (“Johann Rambau’s types printed [this]”), giving I+I+M+I+X+C+V+D = 1+1+1000+1+10+5+500 = 1618:

Chronograms 11409.f.37
Elias Cüchler, Ἀνθολογια διαφορων Ἐπιγραμματων παλαιων = Florilegium diversorum epigrammatum veterum in centurias distributum ... (Görlitz, 1618) 11409.f.37

The author of this book of astrological predictions for the year 1602 came up with two different chronograms to give the publication year of 1601:

Chronograms 1609-748(10)
Georgius Caesius, Prognosticon astrologicum, oder Teutsche Practick: auff das Jahr ... M.DCII ... (Nuremberg 1601)  1609/748.(10.)

Relying as they do on Roman numerals, Chronograms can be made to work most easily with a Latin text, but they appear in vernacular languages too, as we saw in the Elizabeth I example. Here’s one in German in a work describing various celestial phenomena seen in 1622. The German chronogram, “NVn Ist In Vnsern LanDen groß EnDerUng baLD zV besorgen” suggests that these, and by implication the very date of 1622, are heralds of “great change”.

Chrongrams Cup.409.c.2
Jacob Bartsch, Himmlische zeiterinnernde Wunder-Sonn- vnd WeckVhr, das ist ... Bericht von den NebenSonnen vnd Regenbogen ... (Strassburg, 1622)  Cup.409.c.2 

Again, a v is used here where we would expect a u to make the chronogram work. The same is true of this 1632 broadside commemorating the entry of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus into Nuremberg during the Thirty Years’ War: both ‘vu’ and ‘w’ are transcribed as two v’s: “GVstaVVs ADolphVs MIt Gott erVVehLter KönIg”.

Chronograms 1750.b.29.(54.)
Andeutliche kurtze Beschreibung und Figurliche entwerffung, welcher gestalt, der  ... Herr Gustavus Adolphus, der Schweden, Gothen und Wenden König, ... Neben andern bey sich gehabten Christlichen hohen Potentaten ... zu Nürnberg, am 21. Tag Monats Martii, dieses lauffenden 1632. Jahrs ... eingeritten  (Nuremberg, 1632) 1750.b.29(54)

In all these examples, the letters doubling as numerals are highlighted by being capitalised, but here’s a relatively late example, from 1856 (as I’m sure you can all work out by now), where they have been printed in red:

Chronograns Hung.1.f.3.(22)
Istrograni templi auspiciis. augusto poli festive adstat augusta Austriæ aula prona gens, et venerati prælati (Trnava, 1856)  Hung.1.f.3.(22)

To finish, here’s a broadside containing an impressive 20 chronograms on various significant dates in the life of Martin Luther. It comes from an album compiled by James Hilton, an avid collector and chronicler of chronograms. His collection, particularly strong in German examples, was bequeathed to the British Museum Library in 1931, and offers hours of fascination for lovers of the genre.

Chronograms Luther
Johannes Stolsius, Reverendi viri Dn. Martinus Lutheri ... vita atque res gestae viginti eteostichis docte comprehensa ... (Bremen, 1617)  From a collection of engravings and single printed leaves containing chronograms, made by James Hilton. L.R.22.c.18

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading:

James Hilton, Chronograms, 5000 and more in number, excerpted out of various authors, and collected at many places … (London, 1882-1895) 011899.k.54.

Alastair Fowler, The Mind of the Book: Pictorial Title Pages (Oxford, 2017) YC.2018.a.3272 (pp. 49-51)

Veronika Marschall, Das Chronogramm: eine Studie zu Formen und Funktionen einer literarischen Kunstform, dargestellt am Beispiel von Gelegenheitsgedichten des 16. bis 18. Jahrhunderts aus den Beständen der Staatsbibliothek Bamberg (Frankfurt am Main, 1997) YA.2000.a.16760