Medieval Mystery Sword Inscription Baffles Experts

The 13th century River Witham sword bears a long message
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 12, 2015 6:35 PM CDT
Updated Aug 12, 2015 8:00 PM CDT
Medieval Mystery Sword Inscription Baffles Experts
In this file photo dated July 17, 2010, actors perform as modern-day ancient knights in Grunwald, northern Poland.   (AP Photo/Ludmila Mitrega, file)

World, can you help us decipher a medieval sword inscription? That sums up the British Library's announcement about a blade discovered in an English river in 1825, LiveScience reports. The so-called River Witham sword—a 13th-century object now on display at the library—bears a message along its 38-inch steel blade: "+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+." The "indecipherable inscription" is "along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire," writes curator Julian Harrison on the library blog. "It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown." Indeed, Marc van Hasselt, one of the blog's many commenters, sees religious-themed Latin short forms in the message and notes that Latin was the "international language of choice" among 13th-century Europeans.

Van Hasselt, a medieval-studies student in the Netherlands, says the opening "ND" may be "Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord)" and the "XOX" may refer to the holy trinity. He references work done by Thomas Wagner and John Worley, whose Fyris Swords Project examines such inscribed medieval swords and tries to give them historical context. LiveScience points to a 2009 paper in Weaponry and Costumes in which Fyris researchers wrote "most ... unidentified medieval sword inscriptions could be invocations. This type is basically characterized by a Christian cross at the beginning and sometimes at the end of the inscription"—perhaps as with the River Witham sword, which was likely "owned by a wealthy individual or knight" and may have been "part of the ceremony of Knighthood," the British Museum adds. Still, writes Harrison, "It could be a mystery that may never be solved!" (See how "Yoda" turned up in the library's Medieval Manuscripts blog.)

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