spoletani-cipher

A curious book called “The Devil in Britain and America” by John Ashton (1896) reproduced an image of some writing that…

is supposed to be the only specimen of Satanic cal[l]igraphy in existence and is taken from the ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam,’ etc., by Albonesi (Pavia, 1532). The author says that by the conjuration of Ludovico Spoletano the Devil was called up, and adjured to write a legible and clear answer to a question asked him. Some invisible power took the pen, which seemed suspended in the air, and rapidly wrote what is facsimiled. The writing was given to Albonesi (who, however, confesses that no one can decipher it), and his chief printer reproduced it very accurately.” (Preface, pp.v-vi)

This basic “Devil’s Handwriting” story has been reproduced & rehashed many times on the Internet: my thanks to the indefatigable Dave Oranchak for passing it my way last summer, when I used it as a slide for my London Rare Book School talk… (but then forgot to post it here, d’oh! Sorry!)

Though at first sight it all seems rather like an urban myth, it turns out that Albonesi’s book (with the catchy title “Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syriacam atque Armenicam et decem alias linguas characterum differentium alphabeta circiter quadraginta et eorundem invicem conformatio“) is not only very real, but also (according to a book chapter by Daniel Stolzenberg) one of “the foundational texts of Oriental philology, as well as [one] of the earliest studies of comparative linguistics” (p.308). In fact, a copy recently sold at auction for $6899.

So… what was the Devil doing in Albonesi’s details, exactly? Well, it turns out that Albonesi (1469-1540) corresponded with the French linguist, astronomer, diplomat & cabalist Guillaume Postelon the subject of this and other magical or otherwise unusual alphabets” (p.308, note 21), and the story of Ludovic of Spoleto’s alleged encounter with the Devil seems to have arisen from there.

However, from my own crypto historian viewpoint, I have to say that Trithemius’ idea of hiding ciphers behind a demonological or necromantic facade was very much of the moment circa 1532: so I strongly suspect that what we’re looking at here is probably a cipher concealed behind a devilish story, rather than (say) some kind of quasi-moralistic hoax.

But can we crack it? Well… there are some problems. The best scan I have (at the top of the page, taken from the 1539 edition) isn’t of excellent quality, and it contains many similar-looking characters which could well be copying errors introduced when the book was prepared for printing. Hence transcribing this may not be quite as easy as many other ciphers you’ll see.

Still, it does largely resemble a “pitchfork-themed pigpen” cipher, and the cipher shapes look to have been consciously improvised around Devilish themes (pitchforks and bats?), so there may well be some kind of simple underlying symmetry to its letter/cipher organization that emerges once you get the hang of it. Plaintext is likely to be Latin or Italian, I guess. Unless it’s Adamic, Enochian, or the Green Language, of course, but I’m not holding my breath for any of those. 🙂

Guesses: it’s possible the “bats” are groups of “enciphered I” shapes (i.e. III or IIII, etc) while the ‘.’ is an enciphered U/V. The flourished pitchfork might encipher the full stop at the end of a sentence. Might the plaintext turn out to be nothing more than a joke making fun of Albonesi or Postel? Could be! Hopefully we shall see…

PS: I can’t now find the online copy of Albonesi’s book, but here are links to screengrabs of p.426 and p.427, in case you want to see the text surrounding it.

23 thoughts on “The Devil’s Handwriting…

  1. Tricia on March 30, 2013 at 8:39 pm said:

    Forks and bats – whose else?

  2. Hi Nick.

    It is written in Latin.

  3. It’s a very simple cipher. ( X = D) !
    Characters are usually composed of two characters.

    The beginning is :
    Dei !! Ie. cini.es mine i Dei.

    ( Ie = Inri)

    Further decrypt itself.

  4. ( X = 10 = DEI = D)

    Hi Josef.

  5. Dave: I’ve got David King’s book here somewhere, but I really don’t remember seeing a reference to this in that… I’ll go and have a look, thanks for digging it up!

  6. bdid1dr on April 15, 2013 at 10:36 pm said:

    I can’t resist, Nick & friends:

    You might like to see what Kircher’s “Tabula Combinatoria” might offer, as a possible source for this particular item.

  7. Pingback: Top-25 der ungelösten Verschlüsselungen – Platz 12: Die Handschrift des Teufels – Klausis Krypto Kolumne

  8. Telaxius on August 10, 2014 at 4:13 am said:

    I cant seem to find anything at the website Josef… Referenced…
    could someone help me with this?

  9. SirHubert on November 11, 2015 at 6:25 pm said:

    The whole book is online here:

    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=ucm.5324320575;view=1up;seq=442

    Has anyone actually published a verbatim translation of this page, rather than the summary in Ashton’s book? I can manage the Latin, and the Italian looks fairly straightforward so I don’t mind spending a couple of hours doing this if it would help (and if nobody better qualified has already done so)?

  10. SirHubert: I put my transcription of the first page onto the Cipher Foundation website here: http://cipherfoundation.org/older-ciphers/devils-handwriting/

  11. SirHubert on November 11, 2015 at 10:34 pm said:

    Nick: sure, and that’s a great help (I think infrascriptos for israscriptos?) but I was talking about a translation rather than a transcription. Have I read the Italian right, and is the cipher a treasure hunt?

  12. SirHubert: (infrascriptos fixed, thanks) – I’m really not sure you what you think is a treasure hunt?

  13. SirHubert on November 11, 2015 at 10:55 pm said:

    Okay…how do you translate this bit?

    ‘sel Cavaliero Marchantonio figliolo de riccha donna da Piace[n]za, ha ritrovato tutti li dinari che laso Antonio Maria, & se no in qual loco sono.’

    My Italian is pretty suboptimal but isn’t the gist of it something like: ‘whether the Chevalier Marcantonio, son of the ? lady of Piacenza, has found all the dinars which Antonia Maria had left and, if not, where they are.’

    Isn’t this the question which the enciphered text purports to answer?

  14. SirHubert on November 11, 2015 at 10:57 pm said:

    Antonio, not Antonia – iPhone spellcheck fail.

  15. SirHubert: I really wasn’t sure about that bit, it definitely needs a more definitive translation. But you could easily be right, and I think it would be a very good exercise to try to identify Cavaliero Marchantonio. Pallavicino is a ten-second guess?

    PS: I also just found p.143 of “Die Merckwürdigkeiten Der Königlichen Bibliotheck zu Dreßden” …, Volume 1 By Johann Christian Götze (1743), which discusses this very same cipher – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=iitfAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA143&lpg=PA143

  16. SirHubert: there’s a little more in a Notes & Queries response by Reverend H. H. Wood from 1855 – https://books.google.com/books?id=wQs4AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA189 . This indicates that the original question (to the Devil) was about the Cavaliero Marchantonio etc.

    The original Notes & Query query was in the same volume, and referred to a 1746 poem describing the Devil’s Handwriting: https://books.google.com/books?id=wQs4AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA146 .

  17. SirHubert on November 12, 2015 at 1:53 pm said:

    Nick: yes, and also this:

    http://www.archive.org/stream/woodslifetimes01claruoft/woodslifetimes01claruoft_djvu.txt

    In the moming we saw Queen’s College… Our guide showed us a book said to have been written by the DEVIL, Ambrosii…
    introductio Dt chaldaicam linguam (Papiae x539), where al L 2IU v ° are ‘ Ludovici Soletani raeceta, sire, ut vulgo dicitur, coniuraNo cure subscri2#ta DAEMONIS resonsione: The letters look like Chinese.” (Life of A. ]3en. wiek, ed. J. E. ]3. Mayor (I885, hot published), p. 375.)’

    (3) ‘ The book narrates how an Italian conjured the arch-fiend “per Talion, Ansion et Amlion” to tell him whether
    all the property which devolved to him by right had been received, and if hot where the rest was. No sooner had this
    rather commonplace and sordid question been written down, than an unseen hand whisked up the pen and scribbled at a great pace a most remarkable reply, in letters based on Old Iberic, and probably chosen for the profusion of prongs and tridents which embellish the alphabet. Unfortunately, just as the excitement is rising as to the real nature of the response, Ambrosius says coolly that he did not care much to unravel the answer since no good comes of investigating such things : and no one else has deciphered a letter of it, so as to form any sense.’–The Bodleian had a copy (4 ° A. 55 Art. Selden), from which a collection of autographs had cut out the engraving in question : an unmutilated copy has recently been presented (press-mark Or. e. I).

  18. SirHubert: nice find, thanks! I shall tidy all these up and add them to a page on the Cipher Foundation website very shortly.

  19. D.N. O'Donovan on November 12, 2015 at 4:21 pm said:

    Examples of several Old Iberic (Old Iberian) scripts
    in wiki article (en.) “Iberian language”

  20. Whooo-ee! Some beautiful dialogue/discoveries. Keep on, keeping on, y’all ! (For once, I have nothing to contribute to this subject…… Whew!)
    bd

  21. Michael Douman on December 3, 2017 at 11:40 am said:

    I’m not a physicist but the answer to this translation is simple. It uses the DQ uid equation from: https://books.google.co.za/books?id=C0joCAAAQBAJ&pg=PA137&lpg=PA137&dq=DQ+uid&source=bl&ots=Yt2ALGlwxg&sig=c2mLQCLxWAR7qneQoaBm8Q-SqJk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiPhYq54O3XAhXnLMAKHUPkCxsQ6AEIQzAE#v=onepage&q=DQ%20uid&f=false

    I’m sure if you use this equation you can convert the 32 characters to numbers and put in binary which can give you a translation.

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