A 13th-Century Sword Is Giving Historians a Headache

The sword’s inscription is an 800-year-old mystery

illuminated manuscript
Gustavo Tomsich/CORBIS

Calling all medieval scholars: the British Library needs help deciphering the inscription on a 13th century sword.

The double-edged steel sword, which belongs to the British Museum, is on loan as part of an exhibit celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Discovered in a river in 1825, the sword dates back to the same time that the Magna Carta was first written and was likely owned by a wealthy knight or a noble, writes Julian Harrison for the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog.

While the sword’s design is similar to others found and depicted in illuminated manuscripts from the same period, it has several distinctive features, namely an inscription down the length of the blade. Written in gold wire inlaid on one side of the blade, the inscription has baffled scholars for more than a century. It appears to read “+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+” and experts believe it has religious significance, writes Harrison. However, the language it was written in is still a mystery, making it impossible to translate.

The blade is also unusual in that it has two grooves running down its length and ending at the hilt. The grooves and the appearance of the characters used in the inscription have led some to believe the blade has Viking origins, but the overall shape and make of the sword is more likely Medieval European, according to the British Museum.

If all this is perking up your ears and you think you have the solution to the centuries-old conundrum, contact the British Museum and you might just win their eternal affection. Of course, if medieval scholarship is your thing, you'll probably think the following is old news indeed: this kind of sword was common around the year 1300 and is considered to be a “classic ‘knightly’ sword.” While it weighs just shy of three pounds, the steel was so strong and flexible it wouldn’t shatter in battle — and with enough force, says the British Museum, it could cleave a man's skull in two. Now that’s packing a punch.

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