News

Help the British Library Decipher an 800-Year-Old Sword Inscription

A sword from the 13th century (Image courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)
A sword from the 13th century (image courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

Could a mystery that’s stumped historians for nearly two centuries be solved by internet commenters? The British Library thinks it’s worth a try. It recently asked the web for help in unlocking the meaning of an indecipherable code found on a 13th-century sword.

The double-edged sword was discovered in the river Withal in Lincolnshire in 1825 and is currently on view in the exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. It appears to have an English-made, cross-shaped hilt and a German steel blade capable of splitting a mans head in two. One side features engravings of crosses, crescents, and quatrefoil motifs, while the other has a string of unintelligible symbols and letters that seems to read +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+.

A sword from the 13th century (Image courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)
A sword from the 13th century (Image courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

Inscribed swords were the most fashionable thing a knight could own around the year 1200. As Utrecht University professor Marc van Hasselt explained in a contextual essay on the library’s blog, these swords have been found all over Europe, and some think they originated in a single medieval workshop that created “magical” swords for the wealthy. Hasselt suggests the generally accepted view that the inscription features the first letters of Latin words, since Latin was then the international language of the region. 

Though scholars aren’t 100% certain about what language the markings represent, they tend to think they’re an acronym for a religious prayer or invocation. Most commenters agreed with that idea, but some offered more unusual interpretations. “This was clearly St George’s sword,” Brendan_O wrote. “Now, Dagger: O ClasH With DraGon’s HeaD! O Reap Victory!”

Others proffered slightly more realistic possibilities. Anne Robinson, for instance, wondered if the inscription could represent a religious poem. “The medal of St. Benedict contained a poem that was reduced to the first letter of each word of the poem,” she wrote.”The inscription on the sword looks to me like that kind of thing.” Meanwhile, Shrap thought the sword might be a training tool. “The letters represent the motions of the combatant,” he wrote. “Straight lines indicate elevated vertical attack and arches indicate horizontal attack. The letters also indicate foot placement.”

But many seemed to think the letters don’t mean anything at all. “Were blacksmiths commonly literate?” asked Jbkr_. “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?” RingandRaven agreed. “People wanted swords with their names, or other cool inscriptions on them … Its not unlike chinese tattoos that people think are deep and meaningful but are actually taken off a takeaway menu.”

It will be interesting to see where all this sleuthing will lead. Comments have been closed, but people can still tweet ideas to the library.

comments (0)