What do the symbols and inscriptions on medieval swords mean? An exercise in decipherment.
Adrian Baschung is a freelance historian.
It is said to have contained relics of the Apostle Peter and the Blessed Virgin Mary – Durendal, the sword of the hero Roland and first knight in the service of Charlemagne. Thus placed under the special protection of God and the saints, he performed legendary deeds. Countless were the adversaries whom Roland struck down with the weapon. Effortlessly he sliced through a giant boulder. In the end, in his final battle against the ‘pagans’ in the Pyrenees, Roland used the last of his strength to hurl his sword in the direction of the Franconian empire, thus keeping Durendal out of the hands of the enemy. With the aid of the Archangel Michael, the sword flew for several hundred kilometres, finally becoming wedged in a cliff face in the village of Rocamadour, France, where it can still be marvelled at today. At least, that’s what happened according to one of the many legends that swirl about Roland and his sword.The hero of La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), which was probably written in the 11th century, is the epic archetype for the chivalric class of the High Middle Ages. He embodies all the virtues of a Christian knight. Defending the Christian faith with the sword was another knightly duty, so it’s hardly surprising that invocations of divine assistance for the battle were tooled directly on to the quintessential combat weapon of a free warrior or knight. For the legendary Roland, it was relics; in the High Middle Ages, inscriptions on one’s sword soliciting God’s help were sufficient for the purpose.
The systematic study of symbols and inscriptions on sword blades is traced back to Swiss historian and director of the Bern Historical Museum Rudolf Wegeli (1877-1956). Using numerous examples from the early Middle Ages to the early modern period, Wegeli attempted to work out a system of classification and decipherment. This aspect of research was neglected for a long time. Since the 2010s, however, scientific research into sword inscriptions has experienced a revival.
A brief introduction
Besides short texts written out in full, inscriptions of the Early, High and Late Middle Ages often used an abbreviated notation or acronym, with individual letters used to represent whole words or sentences. So long strings of letters which seem at first glance incoherent and unconnected could in fact represent entire psalms of the Bible, a motto or an appeal to God that has been tooled into the blade.
One well-known acronym is INRI, which stands for ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum’ (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). The deciphering and dating of inscriptions is a specialist field of epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, on which weapons historians rely. Research into sword inscriptions is therefore a valuable interdisciplinary exercise. However, the point is not just to decipher the inscription; the specific form of the characters used may be important for research on palaeography (the study of historic writing systems), for dating and for identifying the possible region of manufacture of a particular weapon. Three examples shed light on this fascinating field of the study of historical weapons and inscriptions.
In the name of the Lord
The first sword provides an easy introduction to the subject. The weapon can be dated to between 1100-1150 and 1225 and is a typical example of a sword that was wielded with one hand. The total length is 90 cm. Both sides of the blade bear a groove into which inscriptions have been worked. The letters were first gouged out with a graver, and then inlaid with iron. This technique is also known as damascening. The sequence of letters on the blade surfaces is still clearly legible. We’ll only be looking at one side, as the inscriptions are almost identical. It reads as follows: + I N I O M I I N D I I +This is an acronym made up of capital letters from the Latin invocation IN NOMINE DOMINI (In the name of the Lord). The inscription is accompanied by two crosses potent, at the beginning and the end respectively. As can be evidenced in Christian manuscripts and on grave inscriptions, these crosses can be interpreted as ‘invocation crosses’.
The purpose of the clustering, and the position of the I’s, we just don’t know. It could be an unwitting error in rendering the incantation. The quite roughly formed letters are based on the capital letters of Roman or Romance examples. Damascening with iron appeared between 1050 and 1150, which also tallies with the style of the writing system used. However, the pommel of the sword is a shape that became fashionable in the early 13th century. We can therefore hypothesise that it might be an older blade that was later given a new pommel.
In the name of the Saviour?
The second example of an invocation of God is a bit of a challenge, precisely because the text is so truncated. This is also a ‘one-handed sword’, which can be dated by its shape to the late 13th or early 14th century. The weapon has a spherical disk pommel, a flat, curved guard and a long blade, which is grooved on both sides. The total length is 84.1 cm. Both grooves in the blade feature identical sequences of letters and crosses, possibly damascened with silver wires. The sequence is as follows on both sides: + N N S D +The inscription is bookended by two invocation crosses, which in this example are ‘crosses pattée’. There is a small horizontal line on the first vertical strokes (trunk or base line) of the capital letters. These lines can be interpreted as truncation strokes, to indicate that other letters of the word have been left out at this point. The shapes of the two N’s are also interesting. While the first was inscribed linearly (capital), the second N appears to be in a rounded, curved shape (uncial). This mixing of these lettering forms appears in the 13th century. The S can be interpreted as SANCTUS (holy) or SALVATOR (redeemer/saviour), which like the word BENEDICTUS (blessed) can also be found on other sword inscriptions of this period. The possible deciphering of the letter sequence follows the same pattern as with the first sword. Assuming that it is once again a religious evocation, the interpretation could be as follows:
With SANCTUS as an adjective:
IN NOMINE SANCTI DOMINI (In the name of the Holy Lord)
IN NOMINE SANCTI DEI (In the name of the Holy Spirit)
IN NOMINE SALVATORIS DOMINI (In the name of the Saviour and Lord)
NOMINE SALVATORIS DOMINI
All interpretations of the incantation are probably modified forms of various invocations that were used in the Catholic liturgy and in prayers. However, the letters NN (S) D most likely reflect, essentially, the set phrase IN NOMINE DOMINI. The appeal to the Saviour, on the other hand, suggests an appeal to Jesus Christ. Based on the script of the lettering used, we could also infer that this work dates from the late 13th or early 14th century.
By God’s grace
Our final example is not an acronym, but a written word that is in turn associated with the God of the Bible. The sword, which can probably be dated to the late 12th century, has an inscription on the blade which requires in-depth knowledge of the Christian faith in order to understand its content. The sword has a beautifully worked mushroom-shaped bronze pommel with damascened lines. The guard has a round cross-section and the long blade is grooved on both sides. While one side of the blade has only remnants of the decoration, the groove on the other side bears the following inscription: AINANIAThe wording AINANIA is again written in Romanesque capital letters and has remnants of an iron inlay. Two features of the inscription are interesting. Firstly, it is a palindrome, reading the same both forwards and backwards. Second, the middle capital letter A is upside down. The word AINANIA represents, probably for the purpose of the palindrome, a corruption of the Hebrew phrase ‘God is merciful’. This was used in the Bible as a male personal name ‘Hananja’ or ‘Anania’. It consists of the verb ḥnn‘to be merciful / show oneself to be merciful’ (third person singular perfect) and of the short form of the name for God JHWH as the subject in the second place, thus ‘Jah(weh) is merciful (has been merciful)’. This explains the notation as a palindrome and with the upside down A. Whichever way you turn or swing the sword, the message about the grace of God is always the same.
The letters used are strictly geometrical and linear and do not yet exhibit any of the ‘rounding’ of the lines, as will be the case with the transition to Gothic script. The shape of the lettering and the iron damascening date the blade most likely to the last quarter of the 12th century.