Can You Solve the Mystery of a 13th Century Sword?

The River Witham Sword in Britain bears a mysterious inscription in an unknown language. Is it about saints and the Holy Trinity?

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Posted in , Aug 18, 2015

The River Witham sword with its mysterious inscription

A little mystery hit the Internet earlier this month. One involving a double-edged sword from the 13th century.

The River Witham Sword, which looks like a prop out of Braveheart, is currently on display at the British Library in London. The 38-inch-long sword was discovered in 1825 in the River Witham in Lincolnshire and “if struck with sufficient force, it could easily have sliced a man’s head in two.” Ouch!

“An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire,” the British Library said on their Medieval Manuscripts Blog. “It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown.”

That inscription goes a little something like this:

+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+

The British Library asked the public for help decoding the message. They were flooded with ideas. Everything from “+WE A LIBERTIE ARMY+” to “Lord our God, swordcarrying Ruler of the world.” One responder even wondered, “what if those letters are actually some kind of music notes that will reveal [a] song of the sword?”

So what does the inscription actually mean?

That’s still a mystery, though the library did receive an intriguing note from Marc van Hasselt of Utrecht University. He compared the River Witham Sword to others of the time period.

“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?”

What do you think? Any guesses what +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+ means? Share your theories below!

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