A Medievalist's Take on the Mystery Sword Inscription


This sword contains a mystery inscription, and scholars at the British Library are looking for an answer. The letters, clearly displayed in Roman script, read:



This is an interesting riddle, and one I'd enjoy trying to solve if I had more time and inclination at the moment. Based on research I did at Cambridge during my Masters, I have a hunch about where and how to find the solution, so I thought I would share some of my experience in the hopes that it will help someone more learned or more industrious (or both) than I in solving the mystery of this sword.

My hunch is that this inscription represents an abbreviation of a prayer. As indicated in comments on the British Library blog post, ND may stand for Nostrum Dominus or Nomine Domini, which both could be openings for a prayer in Latin. This form of abbreviation for prayers is common from earlier in the medieval period, but poses several complexities I shall discuss below.

In Old English, there are a series of poems and prose works known as Solomon and Saturn, wisdom dialogues between the representative of pagan wisdom, Saturn, and the representative of Christian wisdom, Solomon. In case you're wondering, no, it doesn't matter that Solomon is from the Old Testament — there is a lot of syncretism in Old English Christianity. In the poetic dialogues, Solomon and Saturn discuss the power of the Pater Noster, the Our Father prayer. Solomon goes through each of the letters of the prayer in an abbreviated form and explains how each combats and defeats the devil.

The abbreviation of the Pater Noster is found in several different forms across medieval Scandinavia. More than 30 are attested in different forms, many in runic script. Consider these two examples:

  • Abbreviation in the Old English Solomon and Saturn I:
  • paternosqulcfmgdh
  • Abbreviation on wall of Gol stave-church in Norway:
  • paternosterk inslis

Both of these abbreviate the Latin prayer. Most or all of the first two words is spelled out, but the rest of the prayer is abbreviated haphazardly. One must also consider that both of these were originally written in a runic alphabet, so the k in the Gol inscription stands in for the Q in qui es in caelis. Here is the Latin prayer in full:

PATER NOSTER, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo. Amen

Once you get past the first two words, things start to break down, and there is no clear process for selecting the remaining letters of the abbreviation. In the case of Solomon and Saturn I, the letter L comes before C in the abbreviation, but not in the prayer; letters don't have to start words or phrases to be included in the abbreviation, and the lack of standardized spelling means you might have letters standing in for other, more expected forms.

Within Solomon and Saturn I, the use of the prayer for protection in battle is clear:

“Forðon nænig man scile
oft orðances ut abredan
wæpnes ecgge, ðeah ðe him se wlite cweme,
ac symle he sceal singan, ðonne he his sweord geteo,
Pater Noster, and ðæt palmtreow
biddan mid blisse, ðæt him bu gife
feorh and folme, ðonne his feond cyme." (lines 169 - 75)
Therefore no man should often draw out his weapon's edge from its contraption, even though its shape pleases him, but always he shall sing when he draws his sword, “Pater Noster”, and pray to the palm tree with joy, that might give him both life and aid when his enemy comes. (translation mine)

Additionally, evidence for the power of letters inscribed on a weapon is also explicit within the poem, though through a more sinister example. The devil has evil abbreviations on his own blade:

awriteð he on his wæpne wællnota heap, bealwe bocstafas, bill forscrifeð,
meces mærðo. (lines 167-9)
He writes on his weapon a heap of evil signs, baleful book-letters, condemns his bill, fame of the sword. (translation mine)

All of this, as well as other impressions one gets from years studying medieval heroic literature and military traditions, leads me to believe the mystery inscription is an abbreviation to a prayer. In fact, I'd be surprised if it is not a prayer of some kind. There are several questions that make the search for the specific prayer very difficult indeed:

  1. Assuming this is an abbreviation, is the original language it abbreviates Latin, Middle High German, Old French, Middle English or something else? Could it be a mix?
  2. If it is Latin, could spelling be influenced by another language, like MHG?
  3. If it is not Latin, what is the exact provenance to determine dialect of the vernacular?
  4. Is the inscription read from left to right or right to left? It's possible it could be from right to left.
  5. What is the form of abbreviation? Are head letters only represented, or are letters chosen from within words?
  6. What do the Xs represent? Do they stand in for something else? Could they stand for the chi and represent Christus? Please tell me it is Xanten, home of the Nibelungs…
  7. There are two Os and one final I - why no other vowels? Is the final I part of a Roman numeral with V?

It's because of these and other similar questions that solving this riddle is a true challenge, even for experts in medieval studies. One must take into account a huge amount of linguistic, archaeological, historical, and even metalurgical knowledge in order to narrow the field of questioning. Furthermore, in order to provide any meaningful proof, a text of the original prayer from the time and location of the sword's provenance must also exist in some other medium.

It'd be easier if the sword just read Nægling, Balmung, or Gramr, but that wouldn't make for much of a mystery. Hopefully the above discussion will help in others searching for an answer, or at least be interesting and edifying.

NB: I did my MPhil at Cambridge University in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, and my PhD at Cornell University in Medieval Studies, focusing on Germanic heroic literature of the middle ages and historical linguistics. While I have not done much research on the topic of inscriptions on blades nor on this particular inscription, I'm also not just pulling this stuff out of thin air. I say this because of several well-meaning, but far from accurate (or possible) comments on the British Library page and elsewhere.

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