The British Library is crowdsourcing the translation of a mysterious 13th-century sword inscription

Riddle me this, internet.
Riddle me this, internet.
Image: The British Library
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This inscription, engraved on a 13th-century double-edged sword owned by the British Museum, is the medieval mystery of the moment. Stumped by its cryptic engraving, last week the British Library tapped the interwebs for its crowd wisdom, asking commenters to help decode the meaning.

And the internet responded in full force, with knowledge only the web’s deepest levels of word nerds could collectively drum up. The result could well be the internet’s most delightfully dorky comment thread—and a microcosm for the commenting community at large.

Across the 160 responses we meet:

Word nerds:

“I found it interesting although perhaps unrelated, that the OED has the letters ‘CHWDN’ as an abbreviation for ‘churchwarden’. There is a place very near the find that is called Monks house, and across the river is Bardney Abbey. I think it’s important to note where it was found as well as the other artifacts found in the same site, to aid in further study.

Another note: Orvi is gaulish for ‘to inherit’.” — Ellen

Swordplay nerds:

“Honestly said maybe your interpretation is wrong. I’ve been fencing with swords for quite some time now. And this looks like your average typical simple one handed sword. Judging by the wear and tear, it has been used accordingly. This is a practical weapon, not a show weapon. It will probably have been sheeted in its scabbard for most of its life. There comes also that the inscription is not in a practical place. Decoration on the blade doesn’t make a lot of sense. And to make matters worse, to read the inscription, you would have to hold the sword in the Wrong hand! I’d say this is a practical number. Like a serial number. X’s are probably Chi’s separating parts of the sword. Some of these might designate an Ora, place of origin. Or a chronogram inside the text. But I think it is just a plain serial number. I don’t know much about ancient languages, but I know a lot about using swords. They are tools, only the rare few are ceremonial. Study this sword, as you would study the inscription on a screwdriver.” — extraordinarylivesofbison.blogspot.com

Bible conspiracy theorists:

“When you add up the roman nummerical values in the 18 digit code it adds up to 1632. This is a symbolically significant number as it relates to the number 7. i.e 1+6+3+6=16 -> 1+6=7. 16:36 could also be a biblical reference? just a thought” — rvizzle

Number conspiracy theorists:

Arthurian conspiracy theorists:

“I know this will sound insane, but what if those letters are actually some kind of music notes that will reveal song of the sword? ‘Excalibur singing sword’.” — Don Jonson021

And as always, non-sequiturs:

“Everything is explained in Winnie the Pooh

‘A very happy birthday with love from Pooh,’


The general consensus, though, is that the engraving is religious. As many commentors point out, and as the British Library’s Julian Harrison writes in a postscript, the language is probably Latin. The ND in NDXOXCH might stand for “Nostrum Dominus,” or “our Lord,” or “Nomine Domini,” or “name of the Lord,” he writes, while XOX may refer to the Holy Trinity.

The sword is currently showing at the British Library as part of the “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy” exhibit, of which Harrison is the curator. It’s believed to be German and is about 3 feet long and weighs 3 pounds. According to the sword’s description: “If struck with sufficient force, it could easily have sliced a man’s head in two.”

Let’s hope it never falls into the hands of a fired-up internet community.