So Long, Satire

How political humor has paved the way to political hell

No more Daily Show; no more Last Week Tonight; no more Full Frontal; no more Real Time. I’m off them all. It will be hard, and it will feel like a loss, but I’m solidly done. “Why?” you might well ask, and I’ll tell you: It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s fault.

I’ve read pretty much everything Gladwell has written, and when it somehow got by me, a friend told me about his podcast, Revisionist History. I heartily and unreservedly recommend RevHist and, indeed all of Gladwell’s work¹—he’s made a career of questioning conventional wisdom and digging into poorly understood and overlooked topics.

In one RevHist episode, “The Satire Paradox”, he covered political humor, focusing on whether or not it was effective in terms of changing opinions or achieving actual change. It resonated with some events that were current when I was listening to it, but that’s was as far as it went—I agreed with Gladwell that we shouldn’t let politicians off the hook by ignoring their political issues and instead treating them with humor.

But Gladwell does his homework, and he shares that homework with us. For every episode of his RevHist, he supplies a section of Reference Docs, and reading, watching, and listening to this additional information is a great way to get some of the depth that his 45-minute format doesn’t permit.

For this particular episode, one of the Reference Docs was an article in the London Review of Books called “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, written by Jonathan Coe and discussing Harry Mount’s The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. And this piece gives the topic both barrels. Or maybe every possible barrel.

The article begins by discussing the rise of anti-establishment political humor in the UK. Coe traces the lineage of the genre from Beyond the Fringe to Monty Python, Have I got News for You, and That Was the Week That Was. He points out that the creators of this brand of comedy are essentially those “trained to lead” the establishment they criticize, engaging in some good-natured rebellion during or after attending Oxford or Cambridge. He also points out that being anti is a vague and not necessarily pointful position.

Then he gets mean. He cites Steve Fielding, introduced only as “an academic”:

[I]n accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it ‘can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit’.

The Fielding thread goes on:

The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is ‘a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong’.

Indeed, the amazing depths to which the tone of political discourse has fallen can easily be seen to reflect this. The “low standards” to which we hold egomaniacal charlatans are the standards we have created and accepted. The fact that it’s become difficult to distinguish news from satire has been so often remarked on that #NotTheOnion has become a thing, but this is neither weird nor eerie; it’s a causal relationship.

Turning to the comedians themselves, Peter Cook, a widely acknowledged “comic genius” and perhaps one of the greatest practitioners of this form of humor seems to have grown to understand it limits:

Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’.

Michael Frayn, a critic, takes even squarer aim:

[T]he middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or queer, or mad, or old. Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.


The piece returns to Boris Johnson, whom the book reviewed is ultimately about, and who has been able to cleverly take advantage of this climate to rise to political power, even satirizing himself in order to render himself “safe” to the public through laughter. This bullying xenophobic demagogue, with clear echoes this side of the pond, is the type of political leader that we have come to deserve.

So goodbye Trevor, adieu John, adios Sam, and auf wiederschauen Bill.


  1. Things have changed since the writing of this article.

Magical Staves

Old Norse magical symbols, and ones that aren’t (Viking Esoterica, Part 3)

A while back a friend on Facebook shared a link to an interview with Björk from 1988. In the video, she’s talking some endearing nonsense about televisions and lying poets. But what struck me immediately was the tattoo on her upper arm.

I’ll cut to the chase; this strange, eight-legged thing is a Galdrastafur, or Icelandic Magical Stave, and this particular one is the Vegvisir, which is meant to keep one from losing their way. The literal translation is veg, “way” + visir, “guide”. It seems to have been tempting for translators to relate it to German Wegweiser, “signpost”, but while it comprises cognate terms, this is incorrect. It has also been characterized as a “Viking compass”, because of its eight legs, but this is also wrong. There is a wide variety of these staves, with my personal favorite being the Smjörhnútur, which protects one from butter created through witchcraft. I might even have gotten a Björkesque tat of it but unfortunately, it’s a bit nondescript; it just looks like a pentagram with a vertical line down the middle (below). Additionally, as a fencer, I don’t cotton much to the idea of someone jabbing me with a sharp metal object without my being allowed to jab back.

Unfortunately, for those interested in the historical lore of the Vikings, these are not. In fact, they are from a much later date, apparently from around the 15th–19th centuries, with the majority of the corpus coming from the 17th, so in historical terms it would be a mistake on the order of attributing Leaves of Grass to Dante Alighieri. As with the other elements of Nordic esoterica that I’ve discussed in this series, this is partly because of the appropriation of these symbols by various groups, and in particular, Neo-Pagans, though it should be noted, also black metal groups.

The best known Galdrastafur by far is the Ægishjálmur. Performing a quick Google search for it returns “about 166,000 results”, more than triple the population of 50,400 in Iceland in 1703.

Indeed, in addition to many a tat, it has seen increasing use in Vikingy settings of late, appearing in particular on round wooden shields. And again, this is a massive anachronism. It is true, however, that while never used by Vikings, these signs do incorporate elements of runes and pagan symbols.

The place in history of the Galdrastafir matches more closely with the Maleus Malefacarum. The emphasis on witchcraft is a demonstration of the turning back toward superstition of a people who have nominally accepted the Christian faith. Similar to the pentacles of the Clavicula Salomonis or the magical signs, even including some figures quite similar to Galdrastafir, on this scroll I took a picture of in the Tyrolian Museum of Folk Art (Tiroler Volkunstmuseum), Innsbruck.

It’s even shown in a Wikipedia article labeled as ægishjálmr (sic, should be Œgishjalmr), with the article’s name having been backformed from Icelandic into Old Norse. To be fair, this word does exist in Old Norse, it was just never used to refer to this symbol, as it did not exist. Instead it literally meant: “helm of terror”, which was appears to be skaldic language for a terror-striking glance rather than a physical object.

Let me quickly note that Icelandic, which some mistakenly think is synonymous with Old Norse, features several changes to both orthography and pronunciation, including -r → -ur for strong masculine noun endings, made, one imagines to avoid the difficulty in pronouncing a consonant as its own syllable, but it also creates an –ur/-ir pluralization that is linguistically abhorrent. Other North Germanic languages simply dropped the ending, e.g., the Old Norse form of my name is Stigr (the e simply representing a modern spelling variant which the Novelist with the Dragon Tattoo also used).

Back to the Eddas, we read in Fáfnismál

Fáfnir kvað:
“Ægishjalm bar ek of alda sonum,
meðan ek of menjum lák;
einn rammari hugðumk öllum vera,
fannk-a ek svá marga mögu.”
Sigurðr kvað:
“Ægishjalmr bergr einungi,
hvar skulu vreiðir vega;
þá þat finnr, er með fleirum kemr,
at engi er einna hvatastr.”

Fafnir spake:
“The fear-helm I wore to afright mankind,
While guarding my gold I lay;
Mightier seemed I than any man,
For a fiercer never I found.”
Sigurthr spake:
“The fear-helm surely no man shields
When he faces a valiant foe;
Oft one finds, when the foe he meets,
That he is not the bravest of all.”

The conversation is clearly not about an actual helm—shielding against a helm sounds entirely absurd barring an unlikely headbutting reference—but the fear the dragon Fafnir instills in mortals. The place of the word hjalmr in the kenning is locating the cause of fear in the head, or more specifically, the face and eyes.

All of the Magical Staves are essentially material manifestations of Abracadabra—meaningless mummery whose effect, if any, is psychological. These signs essentially represent an evolution: Before writing, there were symbols, then, when writing was created it was magic in itself, as we have seen in our discussion of runes. The defixiones of the Romans, the papyri (πάπυροι) of the Greeks, are magical formulae that are written simply using words—sometimes accompanied by magical charakteres, but the formulae take primacy—and indeed, even in Sumerian, one of the first written languages, apotropaic tablets, as well as ones bearing curses fit this pattern. It is only later, when words are no longer obscure enough that symbols return.

udug’khulne alaḫulne puakuba!

May the evil udugs and the evil alas tremble!

In this Sumerian incantation, an udug is a ghost/ demon of the desert, mountain, sea, and tomb, while an ala is a demon of suffering; the two are often mentioned together. In both cases, but particularly the latter, the descriptor khul—“evil”—seems fairly redundant.

So did the Vikings use magical symbols other than runes and bindrunes? Yes, there were a few.

The best known of these is the Thor’s Hammer (Þórrshmmarr). This is often shown as a simple, T-shaped emblem of the thunder god’s weapon. Some say this might be a cross variant, like a Tau cross, but the crosses found in post-Christian Scandinavian carvings are of a fairly distinct type, and the serpents that also tend to appear with the Þórrshamarr don’t make sense to Christian symbolism, whereas Þórr is a dragonslayer of some renown.

Even as late as the turn of the last century, a T shape was traditionally carved above doorways in southern Tyrol (I’m not sure why the Tyroleans keep turning up here…), for protection from many kinds of evils but storms in particular. In runic carvings it is clear that it is an invocation of the god to hallow and protect.

The so-called valknutr is another one. So-called, because the term is actually a modern coinage, while its true name is unknown, although many point to this passage as referring to it, and personally, I agree:²

hrungnir átti hjarta þat, er frægt er, af hǫrðum steini ok tindótt með þrimr hornum, svá sem síðan er gert ristubragð þar er hrungnishjarta heitir.

Hrungnir had the heart which is notorious, of hard stone and spiked with three corners, even as the written character is since formed, which men call Hrungnir’s Heart.

The image is rendered either as three interlocking triangles similar to the Borromean rings or as a unicursal trefoil knot. There are not many attested, but here’s one:

There is also this image from the Snoldelev Stone in Ramsø, Denmark, which is literally three interlocking horns, and might be either another variant, or the specific sign referred to in the passage above:

There are various lines of thinking on the symbol’s use, mainly in association with Oðinn, and possibly relating to his ability to bind and unbind minds. If the hrungnishjarta name is correct, however, there is also a connection to Þórr, as the slayer of this jǫtunn: The “troll”, Hrungnir, had entered Valhalla (Valhǫll), gotten drunk and was wrecking the place, so they called Þórr. Þórr threw his hammer, and Hrungnir threw his weapon, a massive whetstone. Mjǫllnir shattered the whetstone and slew the giant, with shards raining down on Midgard (Miðgarðr) to become flint, and one jagged chunk lodged forever in Þórr’s head.

The Marvel folks seem to have opted for what is perhaps a more elegant version, known as the triquetra, using the symbol on their Thor’s hammer, but which is not found in Viking art:

The other symbol that the Vikings clearly used, is unfortunately one that can never be taken back: it is the swastika:

It appears on several bracteates like this one, which also includes the alu formula, so showing that it bears a charm. The swastika is also associated with Þórr, and indeed, may simply have been another depiction of mjǫllnir.

Through all three parts in this series, we have seen that Norse esoterica is a minefield of misinformation and appropriation by Neo-Pagans and Nazis. Even beyond this, much of the material has been mishandled and misrepresented. I’m often down with the “rule of cool”, but It’s important to at least understand if you’re taking liberties with historicity, and definitely if you’ve been duped by reappropriations. It’s also important to understand the context of how these things were used, and to take care in how you represent them—even simply doubling sól, the runic equivalent of s, might make someone think you’re into Gene Simmons.

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Runes

Part 2: Bindrunes


  1. I’ve used the translation from Henry Adams Bellows, The Poetic Edda, 1936 here.
  2. This passage comes from the Skáldskaparmál section of the Snorra Edda, as translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, 1916; emphasis mine.

The Dutch Defense

How Willem II’s sword wound up in the Witham (Solving the Sword, Part 5)

I have posited that the mysterious Witham Sword was Dutch, with the inscription it bears associating it with Willem II. If this hypothesis is correct, there were many opportunities for it to move to England after Willem’s son, Floris V, retrieved it from West Frisia: Floris was in the British Isles extensively, arranging his treaty with Edward I of England and making his case in the Great Cause of Scotland (as well as negotiating heavily with Robert the Bruce for mutual support). Floris’ son, Jan I, was raised in the royal court for a decade as well, and Jan’s English wife, Elizabeth, returned to Holland with him but on his death at only 16, she returned home.

Although Jan’s death represented the end of Willem II’s direct line, Jean II was the old count’s nephew and cemented rule of Holland and Hainault upon his succession, also (finally) adding Zeeland. By the succession of his son, Willem III, not only was rulership in the area firmly settled, but his marriage to Joan de Valois, sister of the future king of France, Philip VI, and subsequent marriages of their daughters, Margaretha to Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Philippa to Edward III of England meant that the family was directly connected to essentially all of the major power brokers in Europe.

And Philippa presents yet one more opportunity for the sword’s arrival in England. But regardless of how it got there, why bother bringing it there just to throw it in a river—a misguided attempt to see if the Lady of the Lake’s hand would emerge from the water to catch it? Indeed, I don’t think that’s what happened: Let’s look at yet another sword:

This sword, which was found along with some 80 others in the Dordogne river is presumed to have been from the Battle of Castillon, fixing the date at 1453. The swords, all now in similar condition, were packed into barrels after the battle and shipped away on barges which then sank. The sword is therefore actually 200 years newer than the Witham sword but clearly in significantly worse shape with rust eating away its edges and causing a number of notches to the appear. This strongly suggests that not only was Willem’s sword not lobbed into the Witham during his lifetime, it was probably done much later even than the Castillon sword.

So we’ll turn our focus instead to a motive for ditching the sword: The Low Countries and England have always had a strong connection; although Calais sits closer, it’s not by much, and indeed France was often the mutual enemy that united these two. This became even truer with the rise of their shared Protestant faith on a continent still dominated by Catholicism. Still a significant breach in these cordial relations did occur. We’ll have to go halfway around the world and hundreds of years later to find it.

Ironically, the breach was a direct result of the closeness of the two nations. By the late 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were in a cold trade war with the Dutch¹ and British. For the most part this was carried out through embargoes, privateering, diplomacy, and the occasional taking by force of colonial outposts. The Anglo-Dutch cooperation against the Iberian powers was formalized with the Treaty of Defense of 1619. Because economic factors were foremost in this alliance, the main bodies involved, rather than the nations, were the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC), who additionally created a Council of Defense in Batavia (Modern day Jakarta, Indonesia). So hand in glove did these companies work that their employees were commonly to be found in one another’s vessels and outposts. The treaty’s regulations allowing this were to be tested in a set of unfortunate circumstances in Amboyna, Indonesia (AKA Ambon Island, present-day Maluku), in 1623.

Although the governments and companies were allied on paper, on the ground, they were still competitors; there were more-or-less petty grievances, tensions, jealousies, and mutual suspicions. Amboyna had all of these in abundance: the VOC’s governor for the area, Herman van Speult, seeing signs that the Sultan of Ternate, a former power center in the area, was favoring the Spanish, thought the British might ultimately be behind this reversal of allegiance. Their treaty stated that each country was to maintain and police the posts it occupied, which the governor interpreted as meaning that he had legal jurisdiction in the area. He rounded up suspects, tortured (waterboarding was the method employed), tried, and executed 10 employees of the EIC, nine Japanese ronin (浪人, rōnin), and one Portuguese employee of the VOC.² Four more Englishmen and two Japanese were also found guilty but pardoned.

The British, however, did not share van Speult’s opinion of the law. Instead, they believed that the joint body in Batavia should have tried the case, dubbed the incident a “massacre”, and proceeded to put out broadsheets including images drawn from martyrology, demonizing the Dutch and fomenting war.

Still, though anti-Dutch sentiment was clearly inflamed, actual war had to wait another 29 years until the pretext could be employed. The Dutch head of state (stadtholder), Frederick Henry, deeply deplored the regicide committed by Oliver Cromwell, having backed Charles I of England in the English Civil war. Indeed, there were Royalists and pro-Commonwealth factions across Europe plotting and inveigling, which, added to the mix of economic tensions, proved a powderkeg. It was lit when Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp was slow to lower his flag to General-at-Sea Robert Blake in the English Channel and the latter fired on him.

Although the “Amboyna Massacre” was hardly a true casus belli, it was now used as a pretext, as it was in the two Anglo-Dutch Wars to follow, in 1665 and 1672. It was such a never-forget moment that Jonathan Swift made reference to it in Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, having his eponymous hero board a Dutch ship called the Amboyna in Japan, pretending to be a “Hollander”. When he refuses to trample a crucifix, the Emperor promises to keep it quiet:³

For he assured me, that if the secret should be discovered by my Countrymen, the Dutch, they would cut my Throat in the Voyage.

Many pejorative terms that include the descriptor Dutch entered the English language around this time: Dutch courage—false bravado gained by the consumption of alcohol—being the most common today.⁴ Others include:

  • Dutch bargain or Dutch reckoning: an arbitrary bill that only goes up if you try to negotiate it
  • Dutch-belliedDutch-builtDutch-buttocked or Dutch-cut: poorly built or ungainly
  • Dutch comfort or Dutch consolation: summed up as “thank God it’s no worse”
  • Dutch concert: where every instrument plays a different tune
  • Dutch defense: the treacherous or cowardly delivery of a thing into enemy hands
  • Dutch leave: desertion
  • Dutch nightingale: a frog, alluding to the country’s marshiness, as well as the people’s poor singing ability
  • Dutch uncle: someone who is not a relative, yet offers frank advice and/ or rebukes as if they were
  • Dutch widow: a prostitute

In a similar period of anti-German sentiment, WWI, George V of England changed the name of his House from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. If occasions like this are enough to make the highest of royals change their names to make allegiances clear, certainly keeping around relics that tie you to whomever national hatred is turned against would also seem in need of remedy.

So much the more so in Lincolnshire, center of the wool trade with the Low Countries since the Late Middle Ages, with its own village of New Holland and district of South Holland. John of Gaunt, son of Phillipa of Hainault and Edward III held the proverbial vast tracts there, and a street in the town of Lincoln bears his name, as does a football ground formerly home to Lincoln City.

It’s hard to trace who lived in Lincoln Castle down the years, or who the descendants of this or that duke might be, but I think the sword was in this area from the time of John of Gaunt, until, during some Anglo-Dutch War, through some combination of spite and desire to not be thought of as pro-Dutch, some successor or inheritor took this ancient relic of a forgotten line and flung it into the Witham.

And for comparison, I present a Hungarian riverfind sword; this one from the 17th century, which appears to have gone into the drink shortly after its creation:

You can see that the condition of this blade bears a strong resemblance to the Witham sword; the grip is gone, there is an eating away of the flat surfaces, but the edge is intact. It is interestingly archaic in type, but I am assured of the date—perhaps it’s a sword of rank, just as the French Sabre de Troupe à Pied Modèle 1831 resembled a Roman gladius.

It is beyond my scope, and indeed my abilities, to eliminate all the variables in drawing equivalencies between these three swords, but we have the dates of manufacture for all three, and approximate dates for the submersions of the swords I’ve brought in for comparison. All three were found in large, slow-moving rivers prone to silting—all were found during dredging operations. None of them appear to have been scabbarded when sunk; generally, while the organic parts of scabbards, just as with grips decay quickly, the metal fittings do not, however none of these finds mention any such pieces. If you’re feeling that these examples are cherry-picked, that seems only natural to me, but sadly I chose them due to the scarcity of reliable evidence rather than its abundance: give me access to the arms collections of several European musea and I’ll be happy to conduct a more thorough survey.

Is the case I made airtight? Hardly, but based on the information I could access, I’ve put together what I think is a fairly compelling hypothesis. Short of making a late career change into academia or being independently wealthy with nothing but time on my hands like the guy in Tim’s Vermeer, this is where the trail must end for me: this blade with which Willem II planned to enforce his ambition to expand his realm, unite the Low Countries, and become a player on the greater European stage, passed through many hands. It was lost to the Frisians but Floris V recovered it. Willem’s family eventually achieved the high rank and status that he had sought, and the sword became an heirloom of the Lancasters. And in a time of ill-feeling between the two nations, someone saw fit to lob it in the river.


I ran across a great quote from Sir William Monson’s, Naval Tracts of 1703 that perfectly sums up the anti-Dutch sentiment in England, especially in the latter half of the 17th century:

What trades and artifices of all kinds do they set up, to the ruin of many a poor Englishman that has lived an apprentice and bondman seven years to attain his art and occupation? What trades are there in which they have not stocks going, or scriveners with money to lend? What land is to be sold, or mortgage to be had, that they have not the first refusal of? What marriages of man or woman falls amongst them that they will enrich the English with so long as any of their country or tribe is found amongst them? What maritime town, or other of account within twenty miles of the sea, opposite to Holland, that is not stuffed or filled with their people, to the improverishing of the inhabitants and dwellers? What masses of money and gold have they, against the laws of the realm, transported out of it as truth has made it plain?

I also found more terms of disparagement that include the descriptor “Dutch”, including a different meaning for Dutch bargain:

  • Dutch almanac: gibberish
  • Dutch bargain: a one-sided deal or one concluded over drinks
  • Dutch father: same as Dutch uncle
  • Dutch feast: where the host gets drunk before the guests or monopolizes the booze
  • Dutch fustian: nonsense; thieves’ jargon
  • Dutch medley: same as Dutch concert
  • Dutch nerve or Dutch spunk: same as Dutch courage

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Solving the Sword

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning

Part 4: God of the Peasants


  1. Although some will say it is not technically correct, I’ll use Holland and Dutch to refer to the United Provinces of the Netherlands and its people. This simplifies things and maintains clarity, and is a common usage.
  2. Ronin are “masterless samurai”, i.e., mercenaries.
  3. Emphasis mine.
  4. Dutch treat, also called going Dutch, is tempting, but is actually a US English term from much later, and probably refers to German (Deutsch)-speaking immigrants. There is a plethora of terms like this in the English language, with their time of origin strongly indicating the disfavored group of that day.

God of the Peasants

Revolt, flood, war, revenge, murder, and betrayal in the reign of Floris V (Solving the Sword, Part 4)

During a military incursion into West Frisia in 1256, Willem II of Holland managed to end up with only a small contingent of foot soldiers and floundering in a semi-frozen lake near the town of Hoogwoud where his foes were able to make short work of him. The most current theory of his death is that it was not deliberate. The Frisians simply saw a foreign knight leading his infantry across the iced-over Berkmeer and attacked. Only after the deed did one of them recognize the red lion of Holland and the black eagle of Germany on his arms and ask his fellow warriors what in God’s name they had done.

Generally, slaying royalty was bad business. It was much more profitable to hold them for ransom, trading them either for gold or for various other concessions than slaying them and triggering a war of vengeance. It’s quite easy to imagine the Frisians setting Willem free on the condition that he relinquish his claims on their lands, for example. As things stood, although they couldn’t have known it at the time, they had just doomed West Frisia to another three decades of war with, and ultimately complete subjugation by, Holland.

As things stood they apparently were careful with the king’s corpse, salting his remains to prevent decay, and burying him deep in the ground in a wooden box, rather than trying to hide what they had done by scattering the remains. Some presentiment seems to have been at work that they’d eventually have to return the king’s body, and I’d venture that his effects including the sword were also similarly kept safe.

Floris was only one-and-a-half years old when his father was slain. Just as with Willem’s succession at a young age, his holdings as Count of Holland and Zeeland were kept provisionally by his uncle, Floris de Voogd, until he was old enough to rule for himself in 1266. Unfortunately, eight years before his majority, his uncle passed away, precipitating a battle over the custody of his realms between his aunt Aleid (Willem II’s sister; her husband, Jean de Avesnes had also passed away in 1257, leaving her to rule Hainault) and Otto II, Count of Guelders. Otto’s victory in the battle of Reimerswaal in 1263 enabled him to become regent for the remaining three years.

Presumably to settle the bad blood between the counts of Hainault and Flanders, Floris married Jean de Avesnes’ hated rival Gui de Dampierre’s daughter Beatrix in 1269. With things in the rest of the Low Countries seemingly thus settled, the purpose of avenging the death of his father at the hands of the West Frisians, apparently always in the back of his mind, came to the fore.

Floris first invaded Friesland in 1272, but gained little ground, and had to return home in 1274 as the peasantry of Haarlem, Alkmaar, and the surrounding area joined the West Frisians in a revolt, later known as the Uprising of the Kennemers (Opstand der Kennemers),¹ The Bishop of Utrecht, who had turned against Holland near the end of Willem II’s reign, suborned the nobles whose lands bordered on his bishopric, including Gijsbrecht IV and Arnoud of Amstel, Zweder of Abcoude, and Herman VI van Woerden to seize the opportunity to also join the rebellion. Utrecht’s disgruntled craftsmen further swelled the revolt’s ranks. Floris rapidly put all these forces down, annexing the diocese of Utrecht, the regions of Waterland and Gooi, as well as the borderlands of Amstel and Woerden.

Finally in 1282, Floris was able to return to Frisia, where his victory at the battle of Vronen crushed resistance in the area and he was able to go in search of his father’s bones. Many legends surround both where Willem was buried and how it came to be known, but I’ll relate the most common (although folkloric) of these: By the time Floris reached the area of Hoogwoud, only four old men who knew the location of Willem’s corpse were still alive—after all, 27 years had passed at a time when the average lifespan was well below that, and moreover in an area plagued by nearly constant warfare. These old men were simply executed one at a time until the last begged for his life in exchange for showing the count to the location of his father’s corpse.

Digging down two and a half meters, they found the coffin, which was apparently such a triumph for Floris that he carried the remains back to Middleburg at once and interred them with solemn ceremony in the Abbey Church (Abdijkerk) there.

A chapel was built on the site of Willem’s first burial as well, which subsequently fell into ruin, but has been rebuilt within the grounds of the West Frisian Farm Museum (Museumboerderij West-Frisia).

Floris did not end his war, however, and indeed it took another six years of wars and severe flooding before the West Frisians finally decided they’d prefer to be on good terms with Holland, signing a treaty in 1289.

One of these floods in particular is noteworthy: known as the Sint-Luciavloed, it was the sixth largest in history. This North Sea tidal surge occurred on the 14th of December, 1287, the day after St. Lucia’s Day, from which it takes its name. It enveloped the river Vlie and a nearby freshwater lake, sweeping away natural clay and dune barriers, and submerging peatlands to create what is now known as the Zuiderzee, also greatly enlarging the Waddenzee and IJsselmeer bodies of water. Starum, Frisia’s oldest city and a powerful trading center, fell into decline as it no longer was accessible from the sea, with the formerly landlocked Griend taking its place even though the island in the Waddenzee it sat on was all but wiped out. Somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people lost their lives in the cataclysm, with entire villages vanishing completely. Importantly, the Zuiderzee’s inlet now divided West Frisia from Frisia proper, with Holland becoming its sole neighbor and isolation the only alternative to making peace, so peace was made.²

Floris constructed four castles in Medemblik, Wijdenes, Eenigenburg, and Alkmaar, to keep his new and restless subjects in check. However he also built dikes in the area to keep incidents like the Sint-Luciavloed from recurring, as well as many roads, and these structural improvements soon endeared him to the people, as well as increasing Holland’s importance in regional agriculture. He assaulted Frisia proper as well, but even though he gained little more than a beachhead, from 1291 on he appended Lord of Frisia to his titles.

Whatever his expectations might have been when he wed Beatrix, her father Gui seems to have been intractable. The records show that Floris’ attempt at a formal alliance in 1277 was rebuffed, and when, in 1287, Rudolf I of Germany, first of the Habsburgs, gave Floris the rights to the area that controls access to the Scheldt river (Zeeland-bewester-Schelde), thus infringing on Flemish lands, relations hit a new low. In 1290, encouraged by local nobles who supported his rule, Gui invaded the area, and when Floris arranged a meeting to try to work things out, his father-in law imprisoned him in the castle of Biervliet, a town in Zeeland. Only when the Count of Holland agreed to relinquish his claims on the area was he released.

Flanders, as had often been the case, was backed by France, so Floris sought to ally himself still more firmly to England. In 1285, Floris betrothed his son Jan to Edward I’s daughter Elizabeth, also sending the infant to be raised and educated in the English court. The treaty thus sealed provided huge advantages for Holland, including making Dordrecht the center of the wool trade from the island nation and providing fishing rights off its coast.

However, during the Great Cause of Scotland, in which Floris was one of the few legitimate contenders for succession to the throne—his great-grandmother Ada was King William I “the Lion” of Scotland’s sister—Edward I did not support him, ruling John Balliol the rightful king instead. The winds were shifting in the Low Countries as well, with Flanders finally turning its back on France, so Floris seized the opportunity to switch his allegiances as well. His cousin, Jean II of Hainault, having succeeded in 1280, was already allied with the French, and in 1296, persuaded him to join in order to finally crush the despised Dampierres. Far from accomplishing this end, however, it led to his own.

Edward I seems to have appealed to the very same nobles Floris had defeated and disgraced during the Opstand der Kennemers. They set upon Floris during a hunt, and took him prisoner with the object of delivering him to England. But the local peasantry, now solidly behind the charismatic ruler that had brought them such prosperity, rose up to prevent this. When the nobles attempted to leave Muiderslot castle with the count, they were met by an angry mob, panicked and slew him rather than allow his escape. This senseless killing spread the revolt across Holland, with commoners even in West Frisia clamoring for revenge for their count. The murderer, Gerard of Velzen, was captured and executed, while the other lords fled the country for their lives. The title of this section, God of the Peasants, is the English translation of Floris V’s nickname, Der Keerlen God, which reflects the sentiments of his subjects.

The tale I have presented here strongly suggests that Willem’s sword came back to Floris, if not when he recovered his father’s remains, then certainly by the end of his own life, after he had become immensely favored by all the commoners of his realm, which had come to include the area n which his father died, West Frisia. The close relationship between Holland and England, despite some bumps in the road, also grew considerably during his reign, which I’ll discuss further in Part 5.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning


  1. Kennemer is the demonym of Kennemerland, an area of dunes stretching from Haarlem to Alkmaar.
  2. It is known simply as “the Great Storm” in England where there was also massive flooding and damage, with hundreds dead and the decline of the port city of Dunwich.

De Gouden Koning

Willem II consolidates the Low Countries with a new sword (Solving the Sword, Part 3)

In the mid-13th century, Frederick II had been excommunicated by two different Popes, deposed as Holy Roman Emperor, a crusade against him was preached, and two different anti-kings had been elected to invade his territories, and, if possible, do him in. While certainly troubled by these events, rather than sulking, he had simply withdrawn from northern Germany and continued his consolidation of the Italian peninsula. Despite the second of the anti-kings, Willem II’s coronation in full regalia, series of battlefield victories, and the embattled HRE’s shift of focus to the south, the German princes had still not closed ranks behind a ruler they still regarded with some suspicion as Pope Innocent’s pawn: those presiding over Willem’s election had been almost entirely ecclesiastical, and some of the princes, such as the Duke of Saxony, had even directly opposed it. While still continuing to attempt to politic his way through this imperial/ pontifical mess, the anti-king withdrew his forces from the south in order to directing them instead toward goals closer to home.

This opportunity came about via Jean I d’Avesnes, Willem’s brother in law. He had married Willem’s sister, Aleid, in 1246, and supported him in the siege of Aachen. With that accomplished, Jean had a bone to pick with his mother, Marguerite II, Countess of Flanders, and entreated his new and powerful relative to take his part. Indeed the timing of his marriage suggests that it was specifically intended to gain him an ally in the Wars of Flemish Succession (as marriage often had strategic aims in those days), though it had preceded William’s election, which event must then have seemed fortunate beyond Jean’s wildest dreams. On the other hand, Willem’s ambitions in the region were already clear as well.

The bad blood between Jean and Marguerite came following the first conflict in the War of the Flemish Succession, in which Jean had battled his younger half-brother, Guillaume III de Dampierre. King Louis IX of France and Bishop Odo of Tusculum had finally intervened, settling Flanders on Guillaume and Hainault on Jean.¹

Now however, with Louis away on the Seventh Crusade, it had become clear that Marguerite had no plans to relinquish Hainault, so Jean turned on both her and the king, asking Willem to annex Hainault to his lands and give it to Jean to rule as its count which should already have been his right twice over. Hainault, along with much of central Europe, was already an Imperial fiefdom, so this act, like Willem’s later declaration of his kingship of Zeeland, was merely taking something that was his by right and attempting to make it his in fact. As for the newly crowned Emperor, the appeal of extending his rule in the Low Countries was clear. He seems to have allowed himself to be persuaded, adding Hainault to his titles. And here, finally, is where the Witham sword enters the story.

To the trained eye, the Witham sword differs greatly from the Zeremonienschwert. Although not as elaborate as ceremonial swords were to become, the latter blade is clearly meant for symbolic rather than martial use. The square grip would make it painful to wield, and it looks blade-heavy as well. As I noted earlier, the pommel has been changed. The original could have been a heavier one—based on the style of the parts of the sword that are original, I’d guess it was a large, square cross-sectioned disk—and again fairly unergonomical. The square guard is bulky and its shape ineffective. The blade is unadorned, its cross section is flat—overall it seems intended simply to look impressive sheathed, which in fact it would typically be, as the coronation ceremony has the officiant gird the king with the scabbarded sword. It was apparently used for knightings under the Habsburgs, which would have involved unsheathing it, but by then it would have been fully anachronistic and impressive mainly for its glitter and history.

Everything about the blade from Lincolnshire, by contrast, says it is a weapon of war: It has a heavy pommel to balance the weight of the blade and a sturdy, double-fullered, lenticular cross-section. The guard is thin but functional with flared ends to arrest a foe’s blade. The grip is missing, having likely decomposed in the river, which means it was of organic material, likely wood and leather, to absorb the shocks of cuts, thrusts, and parries. Shark- or rayskin, called shagreen, was a popular grip covering as the scaly surface was naturally nonslip. Even the inscription is in keeping with its warlike purpose; the invocation is meant to gain the favor of God and inspire valor in battle. It is now my conjecture that this sword was created upon the declaration of William’s kingship of Hainault, perhaps Jean’s gift to his brother in-law. It also makes sense as the last title presented in the inscription with the purpose of going to war with the Dampierres, which is exactly what occurred. Willem seems to have declared his kingship over Hainault in 1249, while his title Duke of Swabia was appended in 1254, giving a five-year window for the inscription, as the Witham sword does not bear that title. He also became King of Zeeland in 1256.

The war seems to have been focused in Zeeland, sitting between Flanders and Willem’s base in Holland.² Here Willem and Jean, and their Brabantine allies scored a series of victories in the five-year conflict. These culminated with the decisive battle of Westkapelle, in 1253, which crushed military resistance in the area, forcing Marguerite and Gui de Dampierre (his older brother, Guillaume, having been killed earlier in the conflict) to acknowledge the earlier settlement granting Hainault to Jean.

This treaty was not worth the parchment it was written on, however, as the treacherous Marguerite promised Hainault to Louis IX’s brother Charles d’Anjou. Willem entreated aid from Henry III of England to balance the scales. Charles attacked Jean at Valenciennes, where the Frenchman was soundly defeated and nearly killed. In the end it took King Louis’ return from the crusades to settle the matter and set Jean firmly on the Hainault throne. But even before all this was resolved, apparently dissatisfied with his gains in the Flemish wars, Willem had already turned to his forces against the West Frisians, his neighbors to the northeast, in a new series of battles.

Although history is somewhat obsessed with battles and conflicts, in Willem’s case it also records some of his more productive works. In 1250 he began construction of the western part of what is now known as the Schielands High Seawall—a critical piece of infrastructure for the Low Countries. He granted charters to the towns of Haarlem (1245), Delft (1246), ‘s-Gravenzande (1246), and Alkmaar (1254), thus officially recognizing these municipalities and granting them important privileges. Most of these were to become major cities thereafter. He also confirmed and extended the rights of Middelburg (1217) and Zierikzee (1248). The above image is a painting by Caesar van Everdingen from 1655 commemorating Willem’s granting of a charter to the local Dike-wardens of Spaarndam in 1255. This organization later became known as Hoogheemraadschap Rijnland, the Dutch Water Board agency of Holland, based in Leiden to this day.

He also commissioned the building of two palaces, one in Haarlem and an earlier one in des Graven Haghe, around which the city of The Hague was to grow. The latter came to be called the Binnenhof, and is today adorned with a golden statue of its builder. Though he is little known elsewhere, the Dutch venerate him as a founding father, and the continued popularity of the name Willem dates from his rule.

The statue bears the inscription:

Ter nagedachtenis van Willem II Roomsch Koning en Graaf van Holland, Begunstiger der stedelijke vrijheden, beschermer der kunst, stichter der kasteelen in ‘s-Gravenhage en Haarlem, geb. MCCXXVII †MCCLVI†

In memory of William II, King of the Romans and Count of Holland, supporter of urban liberties, protector of art, founder of castles in The Hague and Haarlem, born 1227, died 1256

Widening our focus back to Europe’s ongoing political turmoil, in 1250, Frederick II died, and was succeeded by his son Conrad IV. The pope swiftly excommunicated him, deposed him as HRE, and stripped him of his duchy of Swabia, conferring it on the anti-king instead. Already in the previous year at the papal Council of Lyon, Willem had started negotiations for an imperial coronation in Rome, even performing the Officum Stratoris et Strepae, a strange ceremony that originated with Emperor Constantine. He describes it thus:

[H]olding the rein of [the Pope’s] horse, out of reverence for blessed Peter we performed for him the office of a groom

Essentially, this was an act of humility before the Church and as such, many rulers flatly refused to do it.

The next year Willem married Elizabeth, the daughter of Otto the Child, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, thereby becoming the symbolic head of the Guelphs. The Guelfs and the Ghibellines were two opposing parties that Dante often referenced in his Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia). The Hohenstaufens (to which Frederick II belonged) essentially headed up the latter, refusing to acknowledge the church’s authority over temporal matters, while the church—predictably—backed the former. This alliance added secular backing to Willem’s former, mainly ecclesiastical support, and allowed his re-election as the German King in 1252.

These events snowballed with the death of Frederick’s successor, Conrad, even in spite of Innocent IX perishing in the same year, with disarray created in both successions. In 1254 the Rhenish League decided to pay homage to the anti-king, and his indisputable re-coronation in Rome was planned for 1256. But this was not to be.

Even with his kingship of Germany seemingly about to be settled, Willem still was focused on the consolidation of the Low Countries under his rule. He continued his campaign in West Frisia, where an expedition near the town of Hoogwoud in 28 January 1256 proved his undoing. Cut off from his troops and having lost his bearings, he tried to cross a frozen lake called the Berkmeer. The ice could not support him cap-a-pie in mail atop his destrier, so horse and rider plunged into the frigid morass beneath. In this soggy, cold, dismounted, and bemired state, the Frisians made short work of him, and buried him under a house in the region.

There are several versions of the above image, all of which seem to depict the Frisians as brutish and cruel, but really they were only trying to remain free from feudal subjugation. In this one, at least, there seems to be one dissenter among them.

It is not recorded what was done with Willem’s arms and armor, including, according to my theory, the Witham sword, but as expensive and well-wrought trophies, one can imagine the Frisians did not want to part with such gear easily. Perhaps they split the loot, each carrying off a few items.

Oh and just by the way, Willem is my 25th great-uncle. I only found this out about a week before this article’s publication. My mother-in law’s hobby is genealogy; she’s been working on my wife’s side of the family for several years now but has recently turned to mine. Closely following my penning of Part 1 (which is to say in completely independent research), she excitedly told me that I was related to Edward III of England, tracing back from my mother’s grandfather, Peter Keplinger. I found this interesting but not especially so until she mentioned his wife: Phillipa of Hainault. Yep, that’s right; I am a direct descendant of Jean d’Avesnes and Willem II’s sister Aleid.


Unexpectedly while reading Prague in Black and Gold I ran across an interesting take on the renewal of Willem’s attempt at the German kingship:

At the beginning of his reign, Otakar [II of Bohemia] supported the candidacy of Wilhelm of Holland, who was also backed by a league of Rhenish towns, but by 1254 his own chances were propitious: the German princes were not unwilling to consider him, the rich son of a Hohenstaufen princess, secret negotiations were held, and Wilhelm of Holland suggested his willingness to withdraw his candidacy if it paid off sufficiently.⁴

This fits my view that Willem was much more concerned with consolidating his power in the Low Countries than tilting at the windmill of the HRE.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor


  1. I use the French forms here as this seems to reflect both the extraction and loyalties of this family (at least initially). Jean is often given as John or Jan as well.
  2. A map representing the proper time period and region was impossible to find, so I had to adapt one; the political regions shown are generally correct.
  3. I have stressed the English translation of the ceremony’s name here.
  4. The book’s author, Peter Demetz incorrectly uses the German form of Willem’s name.

From Count to Emperor

Willem II’s coronation as German anti-king (Solving the Sword, Part 2)

I took up the challenge of deciphering the inscription on a sword found in the River Witham in Lincolnshire dating to around the 13th century and of possible German manufacture.¹ Using my limited knowledge of Latin, comparisons from other sword inscriptions, numismatics, and the styles of royalty from the appropriate region and time period, I was able to render the “indecipherable” inscription thus:


in Nomine Domini (patris et filii et spiritus sancti)
Comes Hollandia Willelmus, Rex Germania et Hainault
XpiσtOσ Regnat! (xpiσtoσ) Vincit! (xpiσtoσ) Imperat!

In the Name of the Lord; of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
Christ reigns! Christ conquers! Christ commands!

Since this links the sword to Willem II of Holland, I now will attempt to show how it fits into his story, and ultimately, how it might’ve ended up at the bottom of a river in England. And so I will, but first more background is needed.

But even before that, a minor digression: it has been pointed out that I was perhaps a bit breezy with the quod erat demonstrandum for my solution. As is typical for codebreaking, there were many abortive attempts before I reached my conclusion. In fact, it’s rather important to have tried and discarded several theories—if I had reached my solution without missteps, I’d have been pretty suspicious of it myself. In fact, even after finding a solution that worked well, I continued to tinker, seeing if anything fit even better.

There were a number of theories I pursued only to return to the drawing board; I can’t say positively how many there were, but I recall these two dead ends:

OXO is a sign for the Holy Trinity, so perhaps the XO is another one.

Nope, XOX is well documented, but there is no variant XO, and in fact, as a digraph, it makes little sense standing for three of anything.

Hey, the letterform the original article interpreted as an ⟨R⟩ looks more like a variant of ⟨N⟩.

Sorry, there are no styles I can find that follow this pattern, and the initial ⟨N⟩ is a different letterform, so why would the inscriber use two different ones?

In fact, my research for this article has already proved some of my earlier conclusions incorrect—and I’ll amend them here.

Returning to my candidate for the sword’s owner, Willem II of Holland’s life was brief but eventful. He was born in February of 1227 to Mathilde of Brabant and Floris IV of Holland. The latter died in a tournament when his son was only seven. Though Willem succeeded to the throne, he was placed under the guardianship of his uncles for five years. When he finally assumed the countship, few would have imagined this 12-year-old noble from the Low Countries was soon to become one of the most powerful kings in Christendom. Still, despite the heights he attained, he is poorly documented in history, overshadowed by his better-known contemporaries. Some imply that he was merely the pawn of Pope Innocent IX, without real power or authority. There is even a tale that the citizens of Utrecht once pelted him with stones, but there seems little basis for it. The information here is drawn in bits and pieces from a dozen sources—some of them contradictory—and stitched together in order to make some sense of it.²

Here is an early seal of the count. The image is of a type commonly used among young nobles, presenting him sitting astride a horse, hunting with a falcon and a dog.

It bears the straightforward inscription:

Seal of Willem, Count of Holland

The form is quite similar to the one I based the first part of my solution on, which helps bear it out.

In the times that Willem lived in, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) were constantly vying for power and riches but in the third year of his pontificate, during the Council of Lyon, 17 July 1245, Innocent IV went after then-HRE Frederick II in a big way. The papal bull, Ad apostolicae dignitatis apicem (Raised to the Height of Apostolic Dignity), served as final notice: Having already excommunicated him for all the various (trumped up) crimes he had committed, Innocent now declared Frederick a heretic and deposed, and clergy throughout the empire were instructed to preach a crusade against him. It should be noted that Frederick had also been excommunicated by Innocent IV’s predecessor, Gregory IX, so it was nothing new to him. When words failed to have the desired immediate effect, the pope turned to force instead, backing Heinrich Raspe, landgrave of Thuringia, as anti-king and sending him to invade Frederick’s home territory of Sicily and kill him, but though there was some initial progress, the gambit did not succeed: At the end of the next year it was Heinrich rather than Frederick who was dead, and a new catspaw was needed to advance the papal ambitions.

On the other side, under some duress, Frederick II issued the Statutum in favorem principum (Statutes in Favor of the Princes), which essentially declared the independence of the various secular princes under his rule. This, together with his denial of papal authority, allowed the various kingdoms in the empire to essentially do as they wished, and made him popular with them as long as he stayed out of their affairs and kept the clergy out as well.

Henry II of Brabant was the first choice for the next anti-king, but he pointed the papal envoys toward his young and talented nephew for the role instead. They conferred with all the parties involved and soon had a decision. On the 3rd of October 1247, the archbishops of the Lower Rhine, headed by Archbishop Conrad of Cologne and some other clerics, met in Worringen to elect the 19-year-old Willem as their new German king. Note that Roman King, German King, and HRE were used essentially synonymously. I’ve generally used German King to avoid confusion, and also because the schism was essentially a north/ south one, corresponding roughly to modern Germany/ Italy.

Certainly Innocent seems not to have disappointed. Just as Heinrich had before him, he went immediately to battle, conquering the forces of Frederick’s son and successor, Conrad IV, in Kaiserswerth and Dortmund early in 1248. Frederick responded by shifting his focus back to the Italian peninsula and southern Germany, with one notable exception.

In the spring of the same year, Willem sent his men ahead to the city of Aachen (it sits on the French-German border, so it’s also known as Aix-la-Chapelle.), where HREs had been crowned since the time of Charlemagne, but they found the gates barred, as the town remained loyal to Frederick. As a coronation was needed for Willem to seem anything but a Church-backed pretender, a siege was his only option and his troops descended in force, supported by more from Flanders, Picardy, Brabant, and later Frisia. Within five months, the besiegers had flooded much of the city by damming the nearby Wurm river, and the inhabitants were damp, hungry, and prey to the various missiles being incessantly lobbed over the walls; reports indicate that trebuchets, mangonels, and pedrerosa kind of early swivel gunwere employed in the battle. Still, they might have continued to hold out if a rumor of Frederick’s death had not begun to circulate. Thinking their leader was gone, the nobles pledged fealty to the Church and Willem; the siege was lifted, and he was finally crowned on November first.

In Part 1 I said this is where the Witham sword would enter the tale, but further research has altered my view. Indeed, another sword has presented itself for this role, the Zeremonienschwert (“Ceremonial Sword”). This sword, part of the Imperial Regalia, was made on Frederick II’s home turf, Palermo, as part of a set of vestments for his coronation as HRE in 1220. However, rather than remaining his personal possession, it passed into the hands of the German princes for safekeeping in Nuremberg, whence they would fetch it to Aachen as needed.

Apart from a few elements, the sword is original: in 1346, Charles IV of Luxembourg added a new pommel, bearing an imperial eagle on one side, and the Bohemian lion on the other. And although it is not widely acknowledged, the uppermost lozenge-shaped plates on each side of the scabbard I would posit were added by Willem II.

This detail sharply contrasts with the Byzantine style of the rest of the sword, and this particular type of eagle, with dramatically bent wings, sparse feathers, and a triangular tail, originated in the North around midcentury—indeed, the form is so synonymous with Germany, it remains essentially unchanged in today’s Bundesadler (“Federal Eagle”):

In heraldic terms, it is described as or (on a gold field) eagle displayed sable (wings outstretched, in black) beaked and membered gules (red beak and feet). A coin minted under Frederick’s rule in 1231 shows a bird barely of the same species:

As another point of information, this coin’s obverse reads, “C[a]ESAR AUG[ustus] IMP[erator] ROM[anorum]” (Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome), and the reverse, “FRIDE RICUS”. It is known as an Augustale, and was minted in Messina.

Neither the previous anti-king Heinrich nor Conrad IV were ever crowned, and so would never have even seen the regalia, and a long interregnum followed Willem’s reign, so the eagle’s addition can only have been done by him, especially as the next emperors, the Habsburgs, added a distinctive second head to the imperial eagle. As the empire came to its ultimate end in this city of the Habsburgs, the sword is currently housed in Vienna’s Kaiserliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury).

Here is Willem’s seal, dating from his coronation:

He is shown seated on a throne with the regalia of crown, scepter, and orb. It reads:

Willem, by the grace of God, king of the Romans. Always august.

Semper Augustus is an imperial motto derived from the original title of the role, Romanorum Imperator Augustus, which recalls the Roman emperor Augustus. The most coveted bloom during Holland’s tulip mania 400 years later was named Semper Augustus, with many others named for Dutch admirals and generals, so perhaps the name’s a tribute to Holland’s Roman emperor?

In any case, the inscription is quite a different formulation from that of the sword, but much more in keeping with the purposes of Willem’s election and coronation: using the phrase dei gratia, Innocent, who likely had a more or less direct hand in the seal’s creation, seeks to establish Willem’s God-given right to the temporal leadership of Christendom, and passes over his hereditary title as unimportant.

The seal of Frederick II is nearly identical in form and inscription:

Also appending:

And King of Sicily

So we can already see the different styles used for Willem, each reflecting different time periods and purposes. He goes on to attain still more titles, and which ones he uses also reflect the ends he hopes to achieve. My opinion of the sword’s ownership has not changed—only where and how it enters the story has. And I’ll get back to that in Part 3.


While doing research for Part 3, I ran across some lovely images of Willem II’s coronation as King of Germany. Of the two, the second is more contemporary, drawn from the 14th century Brabantine Deeds (Brabantsche Yeesten). In it, the imperial coat of arms is nearly identical to the Bundesadler though it anachronistically shows the two-headed eagle of the Habsburgs.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3: De Gouden Koning

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site


  1. Julian Harrison, “Help Us Decipher This Inscription”, British Library Medieval manuscripts blog, 2015.
  2. At this point I had not intended to get quite as into history as this site has since done, so I failed to cite my sources and it would be tough to reconstruct them now. Apologies to readers with such concerns.

The Sword in the Site

How I deciphered an indecipherable inscription (Solving the Sword, Part 1)

My Facebook memories tell me an article appeared in the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog roughly a year ago, with the language-nerd-clickbait title, “Help Us Decipher This Inscription”.¹ I bit and was far from disappointed.

What was presented was a sword bearing a mysterious inscription:

The item in question was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln.

The rest of the known information was as follows:

A double-edged sword, 13th century, possibly of German manufacture but discovered in England in the 19th century.

And finally, this:

An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire. It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown. Here’s what the inscription seems to read:


As an amateur historian, I’d call my knowledge spotty: I know a lot about a few specific times and places, but I have definite blind spots as well. And codebreaking, which is essentially what this comes down to? I’ve dabbled in it, and certainly have done my fair share of crosswords. As for the languages of Medieval Europe one would need to decipher this, I know a bit, and enough about the etymological drift of words from Latin and the Germanic languages. I do acknowledge a much greater than passing knowledge of the weapons and warfare of the Middle Ages due to a number of factors.

In any case, something about this particular challenge seemed to be right up my alley. I had also recently returned from a family trip to Europe full of such relics, and perhaps flushed from that experience, I decided I’d give this riddle of steel a shot.

So to work. First, it is more than safe to assume this sword belonged to an aristocrat. An inscribed sword in the hands of a man at arms would make little sense. He would be unlikely to be able to read it, let alone have any use for such fripperies. He’d have been most likely to pick out the gold wire and sell it instead of seeing such wealth squandered in this way. Meanwhile, among the elite, inscribed swords were very much in vogue.

Next, the inscription is extremely likely to be in Latin. Much as English is today, Latin was at that time a lingua franca, or international language. Typically, Latin inscriptions, even going back to Roman times, are initialisms. SPQR is a well-known example, meaning:

S[enatus] P[opulus]q[ue] [R]omanus
The Senate and People of Rome

One can also see here, this is not a strict initialism—the ⟨q⟩ appears mid-word. And in fact, initialism and abbreviations appear mixed together in many inscriptions from the period in question, which obviously increases the challenge—these letters might stand for nearly anything.

The time and location of the sword is some help, placing it in Medieval Christendom when religious and martial zeal went hand in hand, and so sword inscriptions tended to be invocations. These are generally marked by a cross appearing at least at the beginning and often also at the end, just as this one is. Such crosses, often with T-shaped crossbars, have religious and heraldic significance as a cross potent or Jerusalem cross. There are also a few better known inscription/ initialisms; DIC, NED, and SDX:

  • D[ominus] I[esus] C[hristus]: Lord Jesus Christ
  • N[omen] E[ternum] D[ei]: In the name of eternal God
  • S[anctus] D[ominus] X[ristus]: Holy Lord Christ

As can be seen above ⟨Χ⟩, the Greek letter chi, can be used, as can Latin ⟨C⟩ for Christ. ⟨X⟩ also forms a cross, and so doubles down on the symbolism.²

For the purpose of deciphering, elements of the inscription have to be relatively common dicta latina, not just any possible formulae with the pattern of the initialisms: If people couldn’t understand your sword inscription relatively easily, it would defeat the purpose. Also, if the codebreaker is just making things up, the chances of being correct rapidly decline.

Like any good codebreaker, I looked for an irregularity as a chink in the armor to exploit—a way in. It was the ⟨W⟩.

Latin contained the sound /w/, but spelled it with the letter ⟨v⟩. This ⟨v⟩ did double duty in fact, for both consonantal /w/ and vocalic /u/. In writings conservative of Latin orthography, one sees the occasional MVSEVM. On the other hand, some have used ⟨u⟩ in order to give Classical Latin its proper phonetic values, as in ueni, uidi, uici.

The letter ⟨w⟩ is a relatively recent innovation. The consonantal form of the Latin ⟨v⟩ had shifted in its pronunciation by the Medieval period, leaving the Germanic /w/ sound unrepresented in the alphabet. For a while, the runic form ⟨ƿ⟩, known as wynn was borrowed, but it’s too similar both to ⟨p⟩ and to ⟨þ⟩ (called thorn with the phonetic value /θ/ or /ð/, which was also soon dropped in favor of ⟨th⟩), so eventually, ⟨uu⟩ or ⟨vv⟩ came to be used, which soon were ligatured together, and ultimately became our modern ⟨w⟩.³ In fact, its very name reflects this origin—a doubling of ⟨u⟩.

Because of all this, it is very clear the inscription’s ⟨W⟩ cannot stand for a Latin word. So what word is this? Generally, what people want to write on swords is their name. One such is:


Which can be analyzed as:


Duke Ericus (C) of Närke (Duke)

The ⟨C⟩ here is interpreted as a chrismon—a symbol for Christ. Inscriptions using both ⟨C⟩ and ⟨X⟩ for this purpose are known. I’ll note there is some oddness with the repetition of the word dux, but other inscriptions bear out this interpretation.

Looking across the names common to the European aristocracy of the time, there is one that jumps out as both non-Latin and quite popular: it’s clear to me this name is some form of William. The name is of Germanic origin and particularly favored since the Norman conquest of England. But which William? As I have selected it because of its popularity, among the rolls of the nobility, there is many a William, Wilhelm, Wellëm, Wilhelmus, Willelmus, and Willem to choose from, so I needed a way to narrow the field.

Looking back at the example of Ericus’ sword, what appears together with the aristocrat’s name is his title. I needed to find a style, in the sense of the proper address of a noble, matching this pattern. After poring at some length over the various Williams of the period, one seemed to finally fit the bill (yes, I did): Willem II of Holland.

Why did he stand out? First of all, his title is count, so in Latin his name and title would be rendered as:

C[omes] H[ollandia] W[illelmus]

And so matching the beginning of the middle section of the inscription:


So why not choose his grandfather, Willem I of Holland? Well, it turns out Willem II also became King of Germany when Frederick II was excommunicated, and for whatever reason, the southern Belgian region of Hainault was also thrown into the bargain. So that gives us:


C[omes] H[ollandia] W[illelmus,] R[ex] G[ermania et] H[ainault]

Promising, but what about the ⟨D⟩s? Well, in the religion-obsessed Middle Ages, it’s an odds-on bet ⟨D⟩ = some form of deus. And in fact, noble styles commonly use it. I interpret this as:

C[omes] H[ollandia] W[illelmus] D[ei gratia,] R[ex] G[ermania et] H[ainault] D[ei nutu]

Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God

This not only neatly fills out this middle section, this is a very common style of form, and also reflects the way in which he received his titles: “by the grace of God” meaning he was born into this role, and “by the will of God” reflecting he came into this role later in his life. The dei nutu phrasing is used in a roughly contemporary legal argument as to whether a Parisian college was entitled to collect rent on the marketplaces and mill-houses of Rouen under Henry V of England. They make it clear Normandy was his by right of conquest, not by inheritance, with the phrase:

[…] Divino Nutu, Ducatum nostrum Normanniae, & alias Partes in Regno Franciae Nobis subjectas, Conquisivimus.

[…] by divine Providence, our aforesaid Duchy and other parts of the Realm of France are subject, by Conquest.

I consider this section solved.

Turning to the initial section, now we have confirmed the inscription is in Latin and of a Christian character, it’s very easy to understand this as the very common invocation inscription initialism:

[in] N[omine] D[omini]

In the name of God

The XOX following this, similar to the chrismon used on Ericus’s sword, is a symbol, also sometimes appearing as OXO, for the Holy Trinity.

The final section is more difficult, but the clue to it comes from Willem’s German kingship. In the words of Professor Henry Jones (Senior), “I shuddenly remembered my Charlemagne.” Ever since his rule and adoption of Roman traditions, one hymn in particular became nearly synonymous with the emperor: Laudes Regiæ—“Praises of the King”.⁶ The first six words in particular, Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (“Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!”) became Charlemagne’s battle cry, and were repeated often among the kings of Europe.

The use of this hymn is fantastically self-serving for the kings of Christendom. It closely associates their own temporal kingships with the spiritual kingship of Christ—the divine right of kings delivered in six words. So it’s not just a common motto, it is essentially THE dictum latinum among these kings. Here, for example, is an Écu á la Couronne:

The coin was issued by Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) Charles VI in 1384. The obverse bears the legend:


Charles by the grace of God, king of France

And on the reverse:

XP[iσto]C V[in]CIT X[Piσto]C R[egn]AT XP[iσto]C I[n]PERAT

In fact, numismatics in the Christian Middle Ages has much in common with the sword inscriptions of the day, and both are quite similar to noble seals: names, titles, and invocations make up much of the matter. We can already see the similarity of the style given here and the one I have interpreted for the sword. Finally, Willem is technically the anti-king. He was raised to this position by political powers in opposition to HRE Frederick II, so it is important to establish his legitimacy, which is exactly the purpose of this phrase. For all these reasons, I am on very firm ground in interpreting the last part of the inscription as:

X[piσt]O[σ] R[egnat! Xpiσtoσ] V[incit! Xpiσtoσ] I[mperat!]

Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!

The XO form for Christ is somewhat uncommon—Christus is the Latin form, but an initial ⟨X⟩ is frequently used, and as it is the Greek form, ⟨O⟩ goes along with it, and in fact the Écu á la Couronne also uses the Greek form, though a different one.⁷ I also feel the inscriber might have liked the symmetry with the OXO earlier in the inscription. This makes the full inscription:

[in] N[omine] D[omini] (patris et filii et spiritus sancti)

C[omes] H[ollandia] W[illelmus,] R[ex] G[ermania et] H[ainault]

X[piσt]O[σ] R[egnat! Xpiσtoσ] V[incit! Xpiσtoσ] I[mperat!]

So all together in English we have:

In the Name of the Lord; of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
Count of Holland Willem by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
Christ reigns! Christ conquers! Christ commands!

In summary, I think this sword was made for Willem II’s coronation as the King of Germany and Hainault, proclaiming his new title and the divine legitimacy of his office. Obviously, my explanation fits well with its German manufacture as well. I also have some ideas as to how the sword of a ruler from the Low Countries of the Continent ended up in a river in England, which I will discuss in upcoming articles. But the pieces I have presented here fit together solidly. I’d have liked to submit my solution to the British Library, but they had received such overwhelming response, comments were closed.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning

Part 4: God of the Peasants

Part 5: The Dutch Defense


  1. Julian Harrison,“Help Us Decipher This Inscription”, British Library Medieval manuscripts blog, 2015.
  2. Greek was also the language of the earliest Bibles in the West, with the Latin Vulgate appearing much later. Latin ⟨I⟩ of course corresponds to English ⟨J⟩.
  3. German ⟨ß⟩ (known as Eszett or scharfes S) is analogous as letters ⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩ ligatured together and eventually becoming a separate grapheme.
  4. Karlstad Sword, Värmlands Museum. Närke is a province in Sweden.
  5. “Pro Canonicis de Poissy” (“For the Canons of Poissy”) 16 Dec 1421, 10:161, in Rymer’s Foedera, ed. Thomas Rymer, 1739-1745. Emphasis mine.
  6. Also known as Laudes Imperiale, “Praises of the Emperor”, in Charlemagne’s case.
  7. XPC is XP[iσto]Σ, where Greek sigma is rendered as Latin ⟨C⟩.


How runes were and weren’t used in magic (Viking Esoterica, Part 2)

In the late ’90s I started hearing about cool, new, cordlessly connected devices and all the neat things they could do. They bore a strange name that gave me pause as to how it related to their functionality. Then I saw their logo and put it all together.

Let’s start with the blue, somewhat oblong round that the glyph sits on. This is the shape that rune tiles have been given in modern systems of cleromancy—there’s no evidence I know of for the shape being used during the Viking Age (793–1066). Little is known historically of this system of divination, except that “slips” or “chips” of wood were used. Tacitus describes it thus:¹

Augury and divination by lot no people practice more diligently. The use of the lots is simple. A little bough is lopped off a fruit-bearing tree, and cut into small pieces; these are distinguished by certain marks, and thrown carelessly and at random over a white garment. In public questions the priest of the particular state, in private the father of the family, invokes the gods, and, with his eyes towards heaven, takes up each piece three times, and finds in them a meaning according to the mark previously impressed on them.

The “cutting into small pieces” of “little boughs” seems to have been loosely interpreted at some point as slices, perhaps cut at a slight angle and so yielding the type of shape you see in the Bluetooth logo.  Indeed, runosophy—the use of Norse runes in esotericism—was the main vehicle for their appropriation beginning around the turn of the last century into Germanic romantic nationalism, Nazi occultism, and eventually modern neopaganism. Without any particular historical evidence for the practice, a set of interpretations of the runes was created by Austrian occultist Guido von List in his 1906 work Das Geheimnis der Runen (The Secret of the Runes), and experts would “cast the runes”, reading them in a way similar to tarot cards.In order to better do so, small, slightly oblong tiles typically with rounded corners and made of wood or fired clay were made each bearing one of the runes. You can still buy a set of these from many new age vendors. This ahistorical mumbo-jumbo is where the shape used in the Bluetooth logo originates—a major points reduction.

Next, this angular glyph without horizontal strokes clearly fits the description that I gave of runes in Part 1. Again, as per the Italic origin of the runes I recounted there, the symbol bears a strong resemblance to the Latin majuscule ⟨B⟩. However, if you look through the various runic alphabets, you will not find this among their letters. So what is it? Maybe it is a Younger Futhark bjarkan (⟨b⟩), with the angled lines that form the “loops” and meet in the middle of that letter simply continuing beyond the staff. ⟨B⟩ for Bluetooth—makes sense, right?

This is actually a figure known as a bindrune. Simply put, a bindrune is a ligature of two or more runes, in this case the runes corresponding to ⟨h⟩ and ⟨b⟩. So ⟨b⟩ is for “bluetooth”—but why ⟨h⟩? Well, the bindrune actually represents the initials of Haraldr Blátǫnn Gormsson (c. 958–c. 986). Ericsson seems to have named it after him, trying to hearken back to their Viking roots as well as referring to the king’s accomplishment of uniting the tribes, just as they aimed to unite communication protocols. Bluetooth is an Anglicization of Blátǫnn, though I’ll note that Old Norse (ON) blár actually refers to a range of dark colors, including blue, blue-black, and black. Bluetooth sounds cool, however, while Blacktooth would have suggested tooth decay which is actually the likely source of Haraldr’s heiti or byname.

Many say that monograms like this one for Haraldr Blátǫnn, magical formulae, and even secret messages are encoded in bindrunes, but as with most matters Norse, it’s important to understand what is fantasy and what is fact, even if fantasy is your interest.

In fact, among Younger Futhark inscriptions, there are not many examples of bindrunes. Of those that have been discovered and analyzed, most seem to bear no particular significance. But as I mentioned in earlier there is clear evidence that runes were thought of as magical, to such an extent that Icelandic preserves “magical symbol” as a meaning of the word, and in Faroese, it simply means “magic”. Even in ON the word also means “secret”. There are other tantalizing clues in the lexicon:²

  • Aldrrún: “life-rune”: a charm for preserving life
  • Bjargrún: “birth-rune”
  • Bokrún: rune carved on beechwood
  • Brimrún: “sea-quelling-rune”
  • Gamanrún: “gladness rune”; gaman is also “fun, amusement”; the first part cognate with English game
  • Hugrún: “thought-rune” makes you smart
  • Limrún: “branch-rune” charm of healing
  • Málrún: “speaking-rune” spell to improve one’s tact
  • Manrún: “love-rune”
  • Meginrún: “mighty rune”
  • Ǫlrún: “ale-rune”
  • Sakrún: “strife-rune”
  • Sigrún: “victory-rune”
  • Valrún: “Welsh-rune”, riddle, obscure language

The Sigrdrífumál section of the Poetic Edda contains one of the lengthiest descriptions of the various kinds of magical runes, and in fact many of the above words are hapax legomena therein. Unfortunately the text remains fairly general, simply describing what each type of runic magic is for, with few exceptions. Even among these exceptions, it typically says where the runes are to be drawn, rather than specifically what or how. We learn that bjargrúnar go on the palms and “spanning the joints”; brimrúnar go on a ship’s stem, its steering blade, and its oars; limrúnar are cut into bark and the branches of trees whose limbs bend to the east.

Indeed, the verse features a crescendo of places to write runes that includes: a shield, Arvakr’s ear, Alsvinn’s hoof, a chariot wheel, Sleipnir’s teeth, the straps of a sleigh, a bear’s paws, Bragi’s tongue, a wolf’s claws, an eagle’s beak, bloodied wings, the bridge’s end, freeing hands, merciful footprints, glass, gold, amulets in wine and wort, the welcome seat, Gúngnir’s point, Grani’s breast, the Norns’ nail, and the owl’s nose-bone. It’s hard to understand the relative scarcity of runic inscriptions given this extensive catalogue.

One that finally gets a bit more specific is about the ǫlrúnar which guard against another man’s wife betraying one’s confidences, which, honestly seems like an overly specific set of conditions to have a whole type of rune-magic devoted to. It also sounds like pretty shady business, and I can’t help but feel like a guy who needs this charm deserves what’s coming to him. But the passage is interesting because of how specific it gets:

[…] á horni skal þær rísta
ok á handar baki
ok merkja á nagli

It says that the ale-runes must be

[…] cut on the (drinking) horn
the backs of the hands
and nauð marked on the nails.

The charm sounds fairly absurd: while a rune-carved drinking horn might be common enough, the guy whose hands are bleeding from where he’s freshly gouged runes into them, and nauð—the ⟨n⟩ runescrawled on every nail just might have something to hide. Unless, I suppose, that was the height of fashion and all the cool Viking kids were doing it—actually it does sound pretty Goth. But we do learn that a normal runic letter ⟨n⟩ was used for part of this charm.

The verse continues:

Full skal signa
ok við fári sjá
ok verpa lauki í lǫg;[…]

Meaning that into the cupful both “… laukr and lǫgr should be thrown…” to complete the charm against such “poisoned mead”. Taken literally, these words mean “leeks” and “water”, respectively, so some have taken “water” to mean the drink, and “leeks” to be an herbal remedy to accompany the runic charm. I completely disagree with this interpretation—none of the other passages mention components other than runes, and this pair of words are also both names for the ⟨l⟩ rune. This, together with the command to write runes “on amulets in wine and wort [i.e., beer]” among the places to write runes seems to make it pretty clear that this was a runic charm added to a drink. Some similar elements appear in Egil’s Saga, where it is related that he cuts his hand, carves runes into a drinking horn, and then “colors the runes” with his blood. The horn, since it contains poison, explodes.

There is yet another passage that seems to point in this same direction:³

Learn victory-runes,
If you want to triumph,
And cut them on the sword’s hilt;
Some on the fuller,
Some on the valbǫst,
And twice name Týr.

Now Týr is both one of the Æsir as well as the name of the rune corresponding to ⟨t⟩. Some have interpreted the verb nefna (which I gave its literal meaning, “name”, above) in the last line as “call upon” or “say”, but again, the verse seems to very specifically deal with runic charms and writing, rather than prayer. Further, skaldic writing tends to want to vary words and not repeat them too often, so verbs that clearly refer to the writing of runes used in the Sigrdrífumál are “cut”, “mark”, and “burn”. In fact, the most commonly used one, rista (cut) is never used more than once in any given verse, and it appears near the beginning of the above passage, so I think I’m on safe ground saying that nefna also refers here to writing ⟨t⟩ runes.

So, having gotten past the confirmation bias, we come to the fact that repeated týrs are in fact found in historical inscriptions. In fact, multiples of runes appear to be a commonly used magical formula. For example, the Lindholm Amulet bears a runic text reading:

ek erilaz sa [w]ïlagaz haiteka:

The first part is a declaration by the rune master: “I am Erilaz, I am called the crafty”. It is interesting in that it strongly associates the carver with Óðinn, the discoverer of the runes: This form of emphatic self designation is similar to those the god often uses in the Grímnismál, and the heiti, “crafty”, is also one associated with Óðinn. Thus it is clear that the runemaster is calling upon, or more likely, embodying this patron god of runes for the creation of this amulet.

The second part is a magical formula. It ends with alu, which I’ve already noted is a marker for such formulae (alu also means “ale”, and mead and ale are often associated with magic). The repeated letters are also common in inscriptions as well as written descriptions. The string of óss (⟨a⟩) runes used in this one is fairly common and may stand for the naming of a certain group of gods, as “god” is the literal meaning of the rune.⁴ In fact there appear to be a set of sacred numbers used in the repetition of runes: three, eight, nine, and 13. The runes that are known to be so used are þurs (⟨þ⟩), óssnauð, and týr. In fact, just prior to the alu, we see the týr rune repeated three times.

We also find these ⟨t⟩ runes, which instead of being repeated as in the above example, are stacked, thus creating a bindrune. These are found with either three (Sjælland bracteate 2) or eight (Kylver Stone) stacked runes and resembling an evergreen tree (and one imagines that there might also have been bindrunes of nine and 13):⁵

These inscriptions seem to closely match the verse in terms of use, so apparently we have found real correspondences between these written descriptions and historical inscriptions.

Returning now to the laukrlǫgr-runes in the ǫlrúnar, I have already hypothesized that this is a glyph, which is to be written on something and then added to a full cup of drink. Extrapolating from the sigrúnar, we can interpret the use of two names of the ⟨l⟩ rune as describing a stacked bindrune in a figure such as:

And so this type of repeated and/ or stacked rune seems most likely to have been used in charms, while the other examples that are attested likely represent either scribal flourishes or even attempts to correct the error of omitting a letter—certainly an option preferable to throwing the whole works away and starting again. So while the bindrune used in the Bluetooth logo is cool, it’s unlikely that monograms such as this were used historically.

So until next time (ahistorically),

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 3: Magical Staves

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Runes


  1. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Germania, c. 98 AD, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Lisa Cerrato trans., 1942.
  2. The last entry cannot help but recall Rotwelsch, which I mentioned here.
  3. I’ve seen valbǫst translated variously, but is most reliably described as a decorative metal plate on the hilt of a sword.
  4. The Lindholm Amulet inscription is in Proto-Norse/ Elder Futhark, but I’ve used the Old Norse/ Younger Futhark rune names here for the sake of clarity.
  5. My image here is based on Sjælland bracteate 2.

Passing on Picasso

Cézanne: early proponent of iteration (Creator Styles, Part 1)

One June afternoon in 2007 found me and a few key members of the Gods & Heroes (GnH) content team at the Irish Bank (better known simply as “The Bank” in these parts). While we weren’t not sipping cool pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s in this alfresco alley, that wasn’t why we were here. After many months of attempting incremental improvements to our new player experience (NPX), we had determined to finally tear the Band-Aid off. As soon as this decision had been made, I suggested we repair to this offsite—my instincts told me we needed to stop looking at what we had and instead focus on our goals and create from whole cloth. My other motive, that actually required beer, was that we needed to loosen the hell up.

Far from being a unique occurrence in the game’s development, this was one of the last in a long chain of reworkings that had been set in motion over two years before by the epochal change to the MMO space the release of World of Warcraft had caused.

In response to this 400-pound gorilla’s arrival, we had dug in hard, established a strong and coherent art style, and amped up our gameplay. We redesigned the world and brought in a head writer to drive the creation of our narrative. The content team tripled in size once preproduction had been tackled. We built tools to simulate and tune combat in real time, and to more quickly create items, enemies, and test characters. I researched every aspect of ancient life, warfare, religion, and food, reading Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny, as well as many more esoteric sources. I made a study of the languages appropriate to the setting, writing and directing VO in Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, Faliscan, Samnitic, Oscan, Volscian, Gaulish, and Etruscan.

As afternoon stretched into evening at the Bank, the island of Telchinos took shape, together with the story of a hero shipwrecked there, the mythical creatures, pirates, and smugglers that inhabited the place, and the malevolent force behind it all. The picture shown below, of the final area of Telchinos, was actually created in the pub, along with several others. Within a week, we were playing through this new NPX, refining it and fleshing it out.

By E3 in the following month, we were solid. We were the most awarded MMO of the show, racking up a total of seven accolades, all pointing to the excellence of the content we had worked so hard for so long to redo: one Best Graphics, two Best Gameplays, and three Best of Shows. As some of you may already know, this was unfortunately the high point of GnH. The tech side did not come together, the company fell apart, the game was released by another company a few years later and had not aged well.

I’m not sure how common or uncommon this story is in games at large, but in my experience it’s extremely rare. And there are two elements to this rarity: one is the opportunity and the other is the will.

The rarity of the opportunity comes from how game dev studios are typically run. The sunk cost fallacy is alive and well in many companies, to such an extent that they’d rather fail than shift direction. I’ve fought against this several times, and I’m pleased to have scored a few wins, among them this reworking of GnH and the cancellation of Warcraft Adventures, of which I was an early and staunch proponent. I’d say that the latter was an early test of the ethos of quality that was to become a critical element of Blizzard’s brand, later evidenced by such high-profile cancellations as Starcraft: Ghost and Titan.

Then there is the will that’s needed to redo work. I know a lot of you are saying, “oh yeah, management needs to get this”, “producers should understand this”, or “engineers hate this”, but I’ve seen it across every discipline in game development. Iteration, theoretically accepted in most dev houses, is still seldom practiced. Many individuals in dev teams want to close the book—they want to see things as done, they don’t want to rework things, regardless of what lessons have been learned since they were made. I’d argue that it’s a part of human nature to want to turn the page and move on.

In fact, creators fall into two categories, according to David Galenson in his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

I’ll sidestep the debate on whether games are art or we are artists, as it’s a pointless one. I’ll try to minimize the use of these terms instead, and use creators so that everyone can feel comfortable with this factually correct label.

Galenson uses Cézanne and Picasso to iconify his two types, respectively, which he asserts exist in every creative field. The Picasso method is to plan extensively before executing a work very quickly, while the Cézanne process involves little to no planning in advance, and the work evolves slowly, based on discoveries made along the way.

The business aspect of game development would certainly prefer that we not be Cézannes. Learning things—and reacting to the things we learn—means more work. It throws schedules into disarray. It costs money. And this is definitely how things, at least in my experience, used to work. When I worked at Koei in the early ’90s, you could only be Picasso: rather than “game designers”, we were called “planners”, and that is what we literally did. We planned everything in advance and then executed it without diverting from that plan. Much of this was necessitated by the long turnaround times in early game dev: I didn’t get a working version of Liberty or Death with enough time to see if it was possible to win playing as the British. History did stack the deck against the British, but it’s important for games to be winnable. And yes, I was also responsible for game testing.

Between then and now, however, the words “iteration” and “pivot” have crept into our collective lexicon. The Agile process, which theoretically focuses development on what the player can do, has become commonplace in games as well. There is a caveat to add here that I have seen teams self-destruct because they continue to experiment indefinitely instead of deciding a direction and moving forward.

But these two approaches to game development are not absolute, just as with creators generally:²

To this point, the distinction between conceptual and experimental approaches has been treated as binary. Yet as in all scientific analysis the true distinction between these concepts is not qualitative but quantitative.

Galenson points out that pure types are actually quite rare, and it is more typical for creators to fall along a spectrum in terms of their methods. Obviously, as Galenson notes, these two styles of creativity are equally valid, just like the two painters that iconify them, but they also have downsides: Being Picasso is hard—it’s hard to have everything in your head before you do anything, ignore serendipities that occur along the way, produce in somewhat robotic fashion. Being Cézanne is hard too—starting with literally no idea what you are going to do, stopping and starting, throwing things away, never being satisfied. So of course we should think instead about where we belong on the spectrum. But where is that?

I’d argue that in the art world, conceptual and experimental don’t just represent different styles of creation, they are different kinds of art, with different goals. In conceptual art, the marks on canvas are there only to express an idea—in the Picasso case it’s the taking apart and analysis of the 3D shapes of reality and rendering them onto a 2D canvas. In fact, Picasso’s work springboards off the visual interpretation of space into flattened planes and the breaking down of perspective that Cézanne pioneered, so in a way, cubism is a Cézanne clone. On the other hand, the Cézanne process’ experimentation is essentially involved with the visual effect of the work—rather than expressing an idea, a work like this essentially is the marks on the canvas.

Since approaches, as I’ve noted, are rarely pure, there might well be a concept behind a game, but we generally acknowledge that the experience of interacting with a game is largely what it’s about. Returning to methods, the extensive rework that the GnH team took on definitely falls into the Cézanne style, as does the extreme case of cancelling games—some of his works now hanging in museums show repairs from when he attempted to destroy them by slashing the canvasses. An essential element in the personality of an aesthetically motivated experimenter is being self critical: Cézanne’s dissatisfaction with his efforts drove him to continue to strive toward the excellence he is now acknowledged to have achieved—even by Picasso.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: The Role of the Ear-Lopper

Part 3: Closing the Circle


  1. David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, 2006, emphasis mine.
  2. Ibid.


Old Norse inscriptions, religion, and magic (Viking Esoterica, Part 1)

When I was very young Norse Gods & Giants arrived. I can say no more than this factually, but it seems now to have always been with me. Even when I couldn’t yet read the book fascinated me. Some children at this age might have taken up a crayon to embellish the illustrations or add their own to obscure the text, gnawed at the page edges or simply torn them out. I did not. I carefully studied each page, absorbing the D’Aulaires’ work down to the last scintilla. I still own the first-edition 1967 copy that I pored over in this way for endless hours, more or less intact, though I’ve since bought a more recent paperback edition to spare wear and tear on the original.

Having a recently immigrated Scandinavian branch to my family, which included a great-grandmother who would speak only Swedish, I was well aware of the idea of Vikings: iconified into wooden toys, they had horned helmets, shields, spears, beards made of soft animal fur, and sailed long, dragon-prowed boats with striped sails, arriving on our shores together with Kalle Anka comic books and strange candy. But Norse Gods & Giants contained nothing so Disneyfied, cutesy or safe—it held the truth of my ancestry. It was a dark, raw, mysterious world filled with grotesque creatures, a category to which humans, as trees that had learned to walk, clearly also belonged. There were chases, contests, thefts, betrayals, murders—in short: everything.

In this world of perpetual subarctic gloom some things glittered as well: flames and sparks, golden jewelry, Baldur’s (Baldr) strange three-pronged halo, the golden feathers of the eagle guarding Yggdrasil (Yggdrasill), Kvasir, the protean god of knowledge emerging from a divine spittoon, the Mjolnir’s (Mjǫllnir) lightning crackling around the Midgard Serpent’s (Miðgarðsormr) head, the face of the first god taking shape under the warm tongue of Ymir’s cow, Odin’s (Óðinn) disembodied eye floating in Mimir’s (Mímir) well, the fiery warriors of Surt (Surtr) surging through the cracked vault of the sky, made of slain Ymir’s skull, to bring an end to all the nine worlds.

And, when I could read, there were some curious passages about a strange and magical system of letters, words, and symbols called runes (rúnar):

On the ninth night he saw that the twigs that dropped from Yggdrasil fell into shapes which spelled out words and symbols. Thus he discovered the magic of the runic letters, which he would share with the Aesir and wise men on earth. Whoever could master the runic alphabet and carve the magic letters on wood or stone possessed great powers. Through reading and writing men could now send their words to others who were far away. They could even share their thoughts with those who were not yet born.

But the runes were dangerous, too; there were evil symbols that witches and sorcerers sometimes used to put a spell on a man or his cattle.

The “ninth night” referred to here, the D’Aulaires do not hesitate to tell us, is how long Odin had been hanging himself.

Later in the book, Skirnir (Skírnir), servant of Frey (Freyr), is trying to persuade a woman named Gerd (Gerðr) to requite the pining god’s love for her. After attempting bribery and threats (solid strategies), Skirnir ups the ante:

In great anger Skirnir pulled out a stick, and on it he carved the rune þ, a rune fraught with evil magic.

And he then proceeds to cast a spell on her. Now that’s some pretty compelling stuff, especially for an impressionable youth: I sought out more sources of information, more books on Norse myth, legends, history, and eventually broadened that to world history, comparative mythology, anthropology, linguistics. I was able to appreciate all its monomythic tropes when I first watched Star Wars, such was the vat of god-spit I’d been steeping in. And then, of course, I got into making games.

Getting back to the topic of runes, it’s important to note that the reality of their origin differs from their myth. It’s not as cool as a god self-asphyxiating until he sees visions, but still pretty cool: It seems that Rhaetian (from the same family as Etruscan) speakers using the Old Italic alphabet north of the Alps which then was blended with native Germanic sacred pictographic symbols. The common origin of runes and our modern Latin alphabet is why some of them bear a greater-than-passing resemblance to the letters we know. The differences arise from the admixture of native symbols, as well as the likely need to express the sounds of the Germanic tongues for which Italic lacked the graphemes.

Although runes are typically associated with Scandinavia, its earliest form, Elder Futhark, was broadly used by continental Germanic tribes speaking a common language, and inscriptions in this alphabet have been found across much of Northern and Central Europe even as far south as the Black Sea. The names of the alphabets are essentially acronyms of the first six letters found therein: fuþark (where þ is romanized as ⟨th⟩) Elder Futhark branched into the simplified Younger Futhark and Futhork (fuþork), sometimes called Anglo Saxon runes. Runes came into being some time in the first half of the first century. Their distinctive, angular shape is actually a common feature of many early scripts, which were often carved into wood or stone. True horizontal strokes are not used in runes because carving such strokes would run with the grain of the former material, and so tend to cause it to split.

Because of how recognizable runes are, because of how graphical they are, and because of their associations with a lost world of barbarian tribes and magic, they have far outlived their original users. The 18th century saw a revival of interest in Norse legends and writing, German occultism focused on the script in the 19th century, and the last century saw its use in both fantasy writing (spurred by Tolkien in particular) and in Germanic Neopaganism. Some of these associations are very important to understand, as I’ll detail later.

Runes are not monolithic; they belong to distinctly different times and places. For the game ChronoBlade, we started the story in the Viking-Age (793–1066) world of Ragnarok, so when it came to using runes, that already ruled out Elder Futhark, mentioned above. It is too old for the period and it was used to express Common Germanic, dying out in the 8th century. Futhorc was also dismissed as belonging mainly to what was to become England. This left Younger Futhark.

Younger Futhark corresponds well in both time and place to the world of Ragnarok. Still, there are three distinct forms of this alphabet: the Long Branch variant, used in what has become Denmark, the Short Twig variant, which was used in what is now Sweden and Norway, and finally the so-called staveless Hälsinge variant, named for the specific region of Sweden it appears in. The names of these subtypes refer to peculiarities in their writing, basically having to do with the morphology of the staves, specifically whether they were full staves (long branch), half staves (short twig) or missing entirely (staveless). Some debate continues as to whether Hälsinge runes were actually a regional variant or whether in fact different alphabets were used for different kinds of writings, or even based on the material being written on. Short Twig and Hälsinge are pretty strange and unfamiliar looking and the latter seems to have been used later than the period of the gameworld. Through this process of elimination, I decided on Long Branch Younger Futhark as being the most commonly used, as well as fitting with the image of runes that people would be familiar with.

When we created a system for modular, customizable equipment upgrades (i.e., gems and sockets), it seemed like a natural fit for runes, drawing on the legends of their magical properties. The process was fairly straightforward: for every property I was trying to create a rune for, I simply searched over the names and meanings of the runes of Younger Futhark looking for a good representative.

For example, the rune corresponding to ⟨h⟩ is named hagall, meaning “hail”. Since we used enchantments corresponding to the four classical elements, having a water enchant use the hagall rune made complete sense. For damaging armor, I used thurs, a rune with the phonetic value /θ/ (in Old Norse, it’s actually spelled þurs, which I normalized per English orthography), whose name means “giant”. Coincidentally, this is the name of the rune þ that Skirnir used in the spell he cast on Gerd. And so we carried on.

I should note that such meanings have been significantly expanded upon and distorted by modern Neopagan systems of divination.

Since runes look cool, the artists were eager to use them, but unfortunately their enthusiasm overtook their knowledge. Wikipedia’s page on runes features a table of Elder Futhark, assuming runes were runes, they put them on a wide variety of elements throughout the game, which needed to be corrected later.

One of the cases that needed to be addressed was that the Elder Futhark rune corresponding to ⟨o⟩ had been used in modernity by Nazis and Neo-Nazis. This one in particular seemed to have caught the artists’ eyes, and they had used it everywhere. In fact, it’s a cool-looking rune, and although there is some degree of “taking back” that you can do, since this was also the wrong alphabet, it seemed best to simply track down all the cases and change them.

Another example was our runegate. The runegate was a magical barrier that was used throughout Ragnarok. While it looked cool, I wanted to make it consistent with the runes being used in the rest of the world. When I was given the file, it looked like this:

They were Elder Futhark runes, in a sequence reading:


Which was also complete gibberish. Instead of simply putting in the appropriate analogues from Younger Futhark, I decided to try to give the inscription real meaning. I adapted an appropriate invocation from a Danish bracteate to use the right number of letters:

houaz laþu alu
high one (Odin) protect!

The ALU sequence seems to have been used to identify an inscription as a runic charm. Old Norse uses a mark that looks something like our modern colon (⟨:⟩) to show breaks between words, and since the charm didn’t line up cleanly, I added those to the image to yield:

Like many things I’ve done regarding worldbuilding, this material is there for those who want to dig into it, which certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea. More than this, it’s about the team’s feeling that there is a consistency and internal logic in the characters, locations, and events we are making—decisions about the things we created got easier as we continued to build because of our shared sense of the world.

You should determine what makes sense to your world: historical runes refer to a specific time and place but fictional ones are also relatively easy to design keeping in mind the rules I’ve presented here. If you do decide to create your own, it’s important to diverge significantly from the real ones, as purists will be confused and possibly even offended.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: Bindunes

Part 3: Magical Staves