Can you possibly solve the cryptic code engraved into the blade of this 13th century sword? The curious inscription continues to baffle historians, cryptographers and linguists and last year the British Library appealed to the public for help in cracking this 800 year old mystery.  

A 13th century, double-edged sword, possibly of German manufacture but discovered in England in the 19th century (British Museum 1858,1116.5): image; the British Museum.

As you read this article, you will notice that my personal research has turned a small, but significant key in this mystery, but maybe you can solve it once and for all? The sword dates to between 1250 and 1330 and was discovered in the 19th century in the River Witham near Lincoln in northern England. It's currently on display at the British Library in the Magna Carta exhibition. Its steel blade has a sharply honed edge which is unusual, having two fullers or grooves, running parallel down each side. Last year, a spokesperson for the British Museum in London stated: 

 

A Viking origin has been suggested for the sword on the basis of the fullers, the pommel and the letter forms of the inscription. However, it is apparent that the pommel, inscription and the blade shape are more characteristic of Medieval European swords than those of Viking origin.”

 

The museum spokesperson went on to say that the blade is most probably German and the sword is English, and would have been fitted with a hilt. The cross-shaped hilt is characteristic of swords of this period and is associated with Christianity.


A knight's sword was a multi-tool. On one hand it's an effective buchering and stabbing tool and other hand, when held with the blade pointing downwards, the cross-guard formed a cross.

From the magnificent movie Arn, the Knight Templar. Image blatantly stolen from the web.

From the magnificent movie Arn, the Knight Templar. Image blatantly stolen from the web.

Therefore, a sword is both a device of murder and a mobile altar. As soon as a battle had ended, knights fell to their knees seeking redemption for the brutality they had just unleashed, and their swords, held like a crosses, were raised to the heavens.

It was quite common for crusaders to etch small crosses into their sword handles and blades after they were knighted, and this occurred very often just before and after battle. This is why crudely carved crosses are found on otherwise highly ornate and intricately engraved swords.

This Knights Templar Sword was recovered from a Commanderie in Marne La Valle in northern France. The pommel has been crudely carved with a cross-pattée, one of several Christian crosses adopted by the Knights Templar.


The cryptic inscription running down the weapon’s blade is inlaid with fine gold wire, and it reads: 

N D X O X C H W D R G H D X O R V I

The language in which the message was written is unknown, adding another degree of difficulty in cracking this code. Most scholars agree it's abbreviated Latin and Greek, possibly a feudal religious shorthand.

The original British Library blog was recently updated with additional information from Marc van Hasselt (Utrecht University, Hastatus Heritage Consultancy) who suggests that this is one of several swords found across Europe that appear to originate from the same workshop.


A cracK IN THE CODE

Last year, when this discovery first came across my desk, I made two quick observations and refused to spend any time whatsoever on the transcription:

 

1. The first R looks nothing like the second R and it is possible the first R, might actually be an N.

2. And the fourth letter is officially interpreted as a C, but it might be a G.

 

So what is it with these two observations that turned me off? 

Unless we travel back in time and ask the smith who engraved the letters what they meant, we can never be 100% sure what the message meant. It will always be a point of conjecture. Why would I get involved in decoding a transcription if it was clear from the outset that the result will only ever be 50% accurate?

Symbols are my thing. Thus, I spotted something of interest in the blade that apparently all the other tens of thousands of researchers had overlooked. Setting the transcription aside I focused my attention on the two small crosses at each end of series of letters. 

This line of enquiry yeilded some fascinating facts about the origins and meaning of this type of cross.


1. This type of cross is known in heraldry as a cross potent or a crutch cross. Its name is derived from the crossbars or 'crutches' at the end of its four arms. Potent, is an old word for crutch and is used in heraldic terminology to describe T shapes.

2. This was a commonly used cross in Germany heraldry between the 12th and 14th century, where it is a Krückenkreuz (crutches cross). In the same landscape over 900 years later it became the prime symbol of Austrofascism.

3. The Cross potent was believed to hold mystical Christian powers, and as such it was adopted by several crusading Orders in the 13th century. It is still used today in Roman Catholic logos and insignias for their Scouting and Guiding organisations.

4. In Old Persian this type of cross represented the word Wu or; magus, magi, magician. The direct interpretation of Wu is 'an able one; specialist in ritual'. Recent linguistic evidence suggests that in Chinese, Wu also meant shaman; witch, wizard or magician, both having come from a common Iranian word.

5. A large cross potent, surrounded by four smaller Greek crosses upon a silver field, was the Crusaders' cross, being the heraldic design in the coat of arms worn by Godfrey of Bouillon during the First Crusade. Now known as the Jerusalem cross, it remained in use as the coat of arms and flag of the Kingdom of Jerusalem through the 12th and 15th century.

Cross potent or couch cross.

Cross potent or couch cross.

 

Chinese symbol for Wu (magician)


THE JERUSALEM CROSS

The crusaders cross holding the heraldic design in Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first king of Jerusalem's coat of arms during the , is now known as the Jerusalem cross. Like all symbols, the message given, is dependant on the viewers life experience and knowledge. The symbolism of the five-fold Jerusalem cross was different to every Knight. To some it represented the Five Wounds of Christ and to others it was Christ and the four evangelists, or Christ at the centre of the four corners of Earth. 

Ashley with his wooden Jerusalem Bible box displaying the Jerusalem Cross.

Any heraldry book will tell you what cross-potents represented, but to better understand what these two tiny etched crosses might have meant, to the swords owner, we must consciously resist making fleeting objective interpretations and attempt to understand the symbols emotional content. To us, the symbols are 'just a crosses’, but stepping outside of your box for a second, if the owner of this sword was a crusader, it might have meant something entirely deeper, something so personal and intense than we really can really grasp this type emotion today. But lets try.

Try imagining yourself standing in a scorching hot desert, thousands of miles from home, facing 10'000 highly trained Saracen soldiers with their grotesque weapons glistening in the sun. You're dehydrated, exhausted and terrified. Then they charge. Your breath quickens and its sound rings around your sweaty steel helmet. Then a shadow, before a Saracen war-horse thumps you square on, its powerful breast bone smashing your nose across your face. 

Then silence. 

You are face down in the blistering hot desert. You spit out a violent mixture of sandy blood and parts of broken teeth. You are broken, and start to let go; “stay down” you inner voice roars at you. 

But then, through your black and blue swollen eyes you notice a tiny cross glinting on your sword's blade. You feel a spark of hope deep within your gut. You focus of life again, and your sensed come back. You hear the metallic war tones of your brothers swords swooshing overhead and the wrath of God rises inside you. Pushing yourself up, you grind the last of your shattered teeth together and immerse yourself back into the chaotic, brutal bloodbath. You survived. Again. 

These tiny crosses may have once served as a highly-sacred focal point, a most eminent central point, to the Knight who owned the sword. Beyond the crosses and letters, we must treat this object with due respect because although it is a historic treasure, it was most probably tarnished with the blood of Saracens who fell defending their home lands.


CONCLUSIONS

 

We will probably never know who the knight was that owned this sword because the transcription is so difficult to interpret without any points of reference or heritage. But I think we can be certain he was a crusader who served the Church and wielded this weapon as a Sword of God. If you have any ideas, observations or suggestions as to what the inscription might mean, no matter how left-field, please send me an email to; ashley@ashleycowie.com.

 

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