Here’s a link to a short video piece on the Moustier cryptograms from November 2015, courtesy of Belgian television network Notélé (Christophe M reminded me of this recently, but Etienne had also noted this here back in July).

Incidentally, I tried to grab the video stream so that I could transcribe the text for you here, but sadly Notélé’s online video streaming software proved to be too cunningly clever for the various Firefox add-ons I tried, so I gave up. *sigh*

Going through the film yielded two things that I didn’t previously know about the Moustier cryptograms:

(1) According to church records, the artisan who did the stonecutting (the film says in “1848”, but I’m sure the actual date was 1838) was a local sculptor called Pierre Brébant (?) from Tournai, a mere 15 miles away from Moustier. (However, I can find no trace of him, please let me know if you can do any better).

(2) Philippe Connart’s theory about the Moustier cryptograms is that their letter-shapes mimic the 10th century Merovingian-era palaeography employed by a monk in the Abbaye at St Amand les Eaux (formerly known as Elnon Abbey or Elnone Abbey), in a copy of works by the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople Gregory of Nazianzus.


I have to say I’m really not sure that Connart’s hypothesis really hits the spot: it’s a gigantic leap from the 10th century to the 19th century without any kind of obvious intermediary, or motivation, or need, or connection, or indeed boring churchy paperwork to support it. And of the two unusual letters that Connart highlights (a square-cut C and a zigzaggy S), only the first seems to appear in the Moustier carvings, which could easily be coincidental.

But what sits most awkwardly with me about this is that the Moustier carving simply doesn’t look like the work of a sculptor trying to emulate some high-class 10th century writing. Apart from the presence of a few unusual shapes, the carving looks rather amateurish and awkward: the letter-heights are inconsistent, while the letter-shapes also seem somewhat inconsistent.

Anyway, as always, opinions on this differ.

Namurois Crosses?

Incidentally, “La Belgique Mystérieuse” (1973) refers readers interested in the Moustier mystery to look at a number of ancient Namurois crosses whose inscriptions have resisted all interpretation. (“On connait également dans le Namurois plusieurs croix funéraires anciennes dont le texte mystérieux a résisté jusqu’à présent aux tentatives les plus ingénieuses d’interprétation.“). (p.119)

However, the best-known thing fiting that description was La Croix de Saint-Géry near Chastre, which is a 3-metre-tall cross without any trace of writing whatsoever. (Someone hit it with a car in 2013, knocking the top part of the cross clean off: but it has since been re-erected). Unlike Moustier’s curious carvings, the enigma there is simply that nobody has any idea where the cross came from (it was first mentioned in the 16th century, but seems older).

An 1875 letter by Camille Van Dessel (reproduced on p.284 [p.314 of the PDF] here) pointed to a notice by a M. Bamps in the Bulletin des Commissions royales d’art et d’archéologie suggesting two similar monuments:

L’une a été déterrée dans la plaine derrière Boekrak, l’autre à Zonhoven. M. Bamps prétend que ce sont des croix expiatoires, dont la première fut établie à la suite d’un abus de pouvoir du seigneur de Vogelzanck, la seconde à la suite d’un sacrilège commis en enterrant une statue miraculeuse.

Bamps’ note appears in full here (p.105 [p.119 of the PDF]): but both of the mysterious crosses whose histories Bamps tries to trace also have no inscription.

Hence my current belief is therefore that the Moustier set of inscriptions remains entirely unique in Belgium: but please feel free to leave a comment here if you can correct me. 🙂

A copy of Paul de Saint-Hilaire’s (1973) “La Belgique Mysterieuse” arrived in the post today. I saw it mentioned here, and ordered it because it seemed to be the only book out there (apart from Rudy Cambier’s Knights Templar / Nostradamus stuff) where Moustier Church’s strange cryptograms are discussed at all.

It’s a handy little thing, that divides its mysterious subject matter into:
(1) Megalithic Belgium
(2) Templar Belgium
(3) Lost Treasure Belgium
(4) Alchemical Belgium
(5) Fantastic(al) Belgium
(6) Underground Belgium, and – of course –
(7) Secret Belgium.

Each chapter finishes up with a suggested tour around the Belgian countryside to take in the major landmarks it discussed. So… what does our man say about Moustier, then?

* On p.60, Saint-Hilaire says that the cryptograms may relate to a treasure hidden in the 19th century. (But without giving any sources or references – annoyingly, there is no bibliography).
* On p.119, he notes that the cryptograms are laid out in the same way as you would expect to see “The Tables of the Law” (i.e. the Ten Commandments), but that it has so far proved impossible to find the key.
* On p.129, he speculates that examining some windows of the church and a small chapel in the village might prove useful in decrypting the inscriptions. (But, again, without giving any sources or references).

And that’s all Saint-Hilaire says about Moustier. It’s not much, true: but it is what it is.

* * * * * * *

Having mused on the Moustier enigma for the last few weeks, my own conclusions are:
* I don’t believe that it was carved before 1800
* I don’t believe that it uses a simple substitution cipher
* I don’t believe that it uses a transposition cipher
* I do believe that it includes copying mistakes
* I do believe that it was copied from a written version, not from a carved text
* I do believe that the written version was probably devised for the rebuilding of the Church
* I do believe that the resemblance to The Tables of the Law will prove to be no coincidence

Put all that together, and I suspect that the cipher that was used was very probably what is generally known as the Vigenère cipher (even though it was actually first invented by Bellaso, but we’ll let that pass).

The immediate question is, of course, is whether this is historically plausible for the proposed date? I’m sure it is – in fact, at that very time, it was renowned as le chiffre indéchiffrable, i.e. ‘the unbreakable cipher’.

I also have here a fascinating (if occasionally meandering) book by Ole Immanuel Franksen called “Mr Babbage’s Secret”, which reveals that Charles Babbage had quietly worked out the basic principles of how to crack Vigenère ciphertexts as early as 1846. This was later independently worked out by a Frenchman called de Viaris in 1888, who published his results in the “Génie Civil”, but without attracting much attention.

Because the Vigenère cipher was particularly popular in France, I predict that the plaintext will turn out to be in French: and moreover, I suspect that the key word will turn out to be something to do with the Ten Commandments (or perhaps Christianity in general), or perhaps even the name of something featured in a church window (as Saint-Hilaire speculated).

Anyway, that’s pretty much as good a set of constraints as my historical sleuthing has been able to generate, and I suspect there’s no more useful information out there we can get our hands on. So now it’s probably time to move to phase #2: checking the transcription and doing a bit of cryptanalysis. If it’s a Vig, can we work out what its key-length is? Hopefully we shall see! 🙂

Cipher Mysteries reader Keith Walker was intrigued by the Moustier cryptogram story I recently ran here, and decided to try to hunt down the “published report (Moulart, Basècles; Esquisse religieuse) that the ancient altar of St. Martin was sold or offered for sale at Basècles in 1843” mentioned by the NSA. And just so you know what we’re talking about, here’s a picture of the big old altar in question:


What’s good is that he found a scan of the 1910 report by curé Moulart. But what’s confusing is that the relevant passage (near the bottom of page 7) appears to say the opposite of what the NSA article said. Specifically, it says:-

“Dirigeons nos pas vers le bien-amié patron de Basècles, Saint Martin.
Son autel nous est venu de Moustier en 1843. On y voit un rétable avec colonnettes sur lesquelles des corbeilles, d’où s’échappent des flammes, image de la dévotion ardente qui doit animer notre amié dans la prière.”

…which Keith (quite reasonably, I think) translates as…

“Let’s make our way to the beloved patron saint of Basècles, Saint Martin.

His altar came to us from Moustier in 1843. There is an altarpiece with small columns on which baskets, out of which flames are escaping, the representation of the burning/ardent devotion that must animate our souls in prayer.”

So it seems fairly clear that the altar of St. Martin in Basècles actually came from Moustier in 1843, rather than went to there then. Hence I think what we are looking at here is quite probably the altar of St. Martin that was in Moustier before the two new [and apparently enciphered] side-altars were built & installed in 1838. Hence the old altar probably sat around in a shed or similar store for 3 or 4 years before being cleaned up and moved on to Basècles in 1843. Certainly, I think it looks slightly older than Moustier’s two side altars… but probably not a century older, I’d hazard.

Keith wonders whether the Moustier cryptograms may therefore be connected with this altar in some way: though, against that notion, curé Moulart does transcribe lots of other inscriptions from Basècles, and it would probably be fair to expect that if there was something noteworthy about the Basècles St. Martin altar he would have included that too. Even so, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; so the old Moustier altar might well be worth a closer inspection, if anyone just happens to be passing by the church in Basècles.

Incidentally, Moulart happily mentions a chronogram from the church (p.5) placed above the main door in 1779, though (oddly) the letters he highlights in the text apparently making up the chronogram seem to add up only to 1768:


Here, C + V + C + I + I + I + V [+ S???] + M + D + L + V = 1768.

I’m pretty sure that Moulart forgot to include the “XI” at the end of “SURREXI“, which would bring the total up to 1779 (i.e. the number you first thought of).

PS: there’s a little more history on Basècles church here, including a close-up of the carving of St. Martin on the altar. Note the lack of funky inscriptions!

Having recently written up the Moustier Cryptograms here (thanks to a declassified issue of the NSA’s in-house “Cryptolog” magazine), I bought a copy of Rudy Cambier’s (2002) book “Nostradamus and the Lost Templar Legacy“, simply because it appeared to contain just about the only thing written about Moustier in the last 40 years.

Initially, Cambier speculated that the cryptogram’s ten pairs of lines of scrambled text contained a somehow-obfuscated version of the Ten Commandments. But given that “the [two] Tablets abound with consonants” (p.132), he dropped that notion and instead hypothesized that the original author “might not have provided the vowels – through a well-known cryptographic expedient” (p.132), i.e. an abjad. Cambier then tells us that this hunch “actually appeared to be the case, and this is what may be considered quite a stroke of luck“, and that he decrypted them on that basis “on three winter evenings in December 1995, with a little effort and a little skill” (p.130).

But what does it say? He claims that the tables “indicate […] to the long-awaited one, to him who will be capable of deciphering them, the secret place where the [Knights Templar] belongings lie hidden” (p.130). Annoyingly, though, Cambier goes on to say that anyone interested in understanding how his lengthy argument goes should instead refer to the article by François Descy in “Le Courrier de l’Escaut” that ably summarizes it.

And therein lies a problem, in that there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this article online. On Le Courrier de l’Escaut’s website, it says that the paper has been following Cambier’s theories for many years, and that its first article covering them appeared on “le 11 février 1998”, but I don’t know whether or not that is the particular article to which Cambier is referring. I’ll try to get a copy, see what it says…

Anyway, according to local historian Jean Connart, work was undertaken on Moustier Church in June 1838 “in accordance with the plans of Philibert Pluvinage and Pierre Joseph Lemaitre”. But who were these two men, exactly?

I turns out that Philibert Pluvinage (b. 1770) was a lay clerk at Moustier Church and also Moustier Philharmonic Orchestra’s first conductor (in 1811). The Tournai archives hold an 1810 document describing Pluvinage’s church-related duties. It’s not clear if he married Françoise Joseph Lepoutte (b. 9th January 1766 Moustier, d. 30th October 1842), for I suspect “Philibert Joseph Pluvinage” was actually his father.

There’s a little more detail on Pierre Joseph Lemaître to be had:
* born & baptised 31st March 1741 in Moustier, Hainaut, Belgium.
* married Catherine Joseph Dehors on 5th May 1779. They had 11 children.
* got a law degree & became a lawyer at the Supreme Council of Hainaut.
* succeeded his father as clerk of Moustier (1794-1807).
* succeeded Willaumez as Mayor of Moustier (1807-1818).
* died 12th November 1822 in Moustier.

Hence it would seem that the 1838 work on the Church was carried out according to plans in part drawn up by the Mayor of Moustier at least 15 years earlier. But without actually seeing those plans (which may well be in an archive somewhere, you never know), that’s just about all we can say for the moment.

So… now that I’ve had a few days to think about this new (to me) cipher mystery, what do I think?

For a start, I have to say that I don’t believe that the two altars look even remotely medieval. Rather, apart from the apparently amateurish quality of their inscriptions, I think they resemble the kind of 18th/19th century monstrosities I recall seeing in churches all over France. (But please correct me if you think I’m wrong!). From the pictures in Cambier’s book, the two altars look to have been made from exactly the same material, by exactly the same builders, and at exactly the same time: so I don’t really buy into the notion suggested by Jean Connart that the St Martin’s altar may have been brought in from elsewhere (and then duplicated for the other altar). So, the only workable explanation I can currently see is that the two side altars were made together in 1838 following the collapse of the church roof during rebuilding work.

And yet the overall mystery remains… why on earth would a church of that general date have cryptograms on its altars?

Having pondered this for a while, I think the explanation will most likely turn out to be that these are imperfect copies of a much older pair of cryptograms that were in Moustier for many years. In fact, they may be not so much cryptograms as badly faded inscriptions (say, from the churchyard?), somehow tied up with the history of the church or town. As such, I suspect that we may stand little chance of deciphering them without an earlier (& hopefully less degraded) copy of them to work with. Hence I believe the best place to search for them would be in the pre-1838 notebooks or sketchbooks of Belgian antiquaries. Someone must have seen a pair of enigmatic inscriptions and copied them down, surely?

Yet I also have to note one odd possibility. Rudy Cambier’s book is all about how he believes Michel Nostradamus was simply an opportunist who took a much older book written in the Picard language (e.g. from the Franco-Belgian border area in the North) and adapted the verses to his contemporary French (Nostradamus was from Provence in the South). And, curiously, “Moustier” is directly mentioned in Nostradamus’ Century I, verse 95:-

Devant moustier trouvé enfant besson,
D´heroic sang de moine & vetustique:
Son bruit par secte langue & puissance son,
Qu´on dira fort eslevé vopisque.

Here, “besson” is an old-fashioned word for “jumeau” – twin. So this would seem to be talking about twin things in front of Moustier. OK, it’s a bit of a long shot, but… might this be a fragmentary fossil of a reference to the (admittedly putative!) earlier twin pair of inscriptions that ended up being (badly) duplicated in Moustier Church’s side altars? I don’t know, it could well be no more than a coincidence but… it’s an interesting thought, right? 😉

After many years of searching, I finally have a viable excuse reason to go to Belgium that doesn’t involve chocolate, waffles, mussels, chips, or beer. 🙂 And it’s all thanks to the National Security Agency…

I should explain. A few weeks ago, the NSA very generously declassified back issues of its in-house journal “Cryptolog” from August 1974 to Summer 1997 (though admittedly quite heavily redacted in places). Hence I’ve started working my way through them, looking (unsurprisingly) for any Cipher Mysteries stories that haven’t otherwise come to my attention. (Note that there are two Voynich-related snippets listed in the overall index, but these contain nothing obviously new or particularly surprising).

Hence the September 1974 issue of Cryptolog is where I found this particular story. It’s about a church in the Belgian town of Moustier which has a pair of rather curious cryptograms, which Professor Jean Connart (who was writing a history of Moustier), “has been trying since 1961 to discover the meaning” of. Without success, of course.

The first cryptogram is on the church’s St Martin’s Altar (photo by Koen Van de moortel)…

Moustier Church, St Martin's Altar

…and the second is on its Virgin’s Altar (photo also by Koen Van de moortel, but scaled up and sharpened by me)…

Moustier Church, Virgin's Altar

What’s nice is that the Cryptolog pages answer many of the questions you’d have asked about Moustier Church if you’d had the chance:

According to parish records, the church at Moustier was in such dilapidated condition about 1836 that repairs were needed to/prevent total ruin of the building. In addition, the winds of November 1836 had taken off part of the roof. In June 1838, some work was undertaken “in accordance with the plans of Philibert Pluvinage and Pierre Joseph Lemaitre. “A stonemason (un tailleur de pierre) received board and lodging for 18 days.” (Italics Prof. Connart’s)

In spite of these repairs, the church was (c.1840?) in such poor condition that part of it collapsed when the roof was raised. The contractors had to rebuild the choir and the side chapels (where the altars are) from the ground up.

There is a published report (Moulart, Basecles; Esquisse religieuse) that the ancient altar of St. Martin was sold or offered for sale at Basecles in 1843. Basecles, a Belgian town near the French border, contains the Church of St. Martin which dates from 1779 and is considered the best product of the Tournai School. Does the Moustier St. Martin’s altar come from Basecles? Were both it and the Virgin’s altar constructed in l843? Or does only the stonecutting date from that time? Answers to these questions could have a bearing on the date of the Moustier cryptograms and their underlying message.

Given that we have reasonable photos of these cryptograms (rather than the hand-drawn monochrome copies that appear in the Cryptolog pages) to work with, we’re arguably at an advantage over the NSA right from the start. And from that I can see that the letter carving is really rather… variable. The height of each row of letters seems inconsistent, with the vertical bars on the U in “LUBΓPNID” plainly different lengths; each row is 7, 8 or 9 characters long; there seems to be no obvious rationale as to whether individual characters have serifs or not; while some characters appear to be formed of merged pairs of letters, possibly accidentally (copying ciphers onto paper is hard, let alone onto stone) or deliberately (to squeeze them into a rectangle), it’s hard to tell.

Yet from the distinctive ‘R’ shape, and the closeness of the match between the materials and framing motif, I think it very likely that the two were carved by the same person at basically the same time.

If you want to take this on, here are my (provisional) transcriptions. I’ve transcribed the “Γ” character as ‘F’, the “Λ” character as “^”, and the composite “Γ-merged-with-L” character as “[“. And being in Belgium, you’ve got Flemish, French, German, and Latin (at least) to choose from as possible plaintext languages. Just be grateful that the dating seems to rule out Klingon. 😉

Moustier Church, St Martin’s Altar cryptogram

V M G H W H[
M G [ K H V R
^ L R N F S X V

R A [ G K T D
C [ T R ^ Q M

Moustier Church, Virgin’s Altar cryptogram

M F ^ N V D [
N ^ P V J H M ^
L F N ^ B K P

R N [ C H Z R P
M D X R ^ P L N
H F ^ L D N X W
E N L V N D ^ P N

As far as the transcription goes, I’m far from sure about what’s going on here. I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the mystery might arise from a laziness in the carver, because “E” only appears in the Virgin’s Altar, while “[” appears twice as much in St Martin’s Altar. That is, might “[” simply be a lazy ‘E’, and “^” a lazy “A”? Or might “[” instead be a merged “L + Γ” pair?

As far as letter frequencies go (~27 unique shapes used):
16: N
12: P / L / R
10: F / ^ (note that I included the one instance of ‘A’ in the count for ‘^’)
9: V / D
8: B / H
7: M
6: [
5: K
4: W / X / G
3: J / C/ Q
2: Z / S / T/ E
1: I / Y / U

As far as the cryptanalysis goes, there are quite a few patterns:
3-grams: BFP (2 instances, both in the St Martin’s Altar cryptogram)
2-grams: R^ (4 instances), ^P, PN, ^L, PM (3 instances), plus 14 other 2-grams that repeat once.

PS: Koen Van de moortel describes the cryptograms as a “table with 700 year old secret code, referred to in the “Centuries” from Yves de Lessines, stolen and published by Nostradamus“. Basically, the story there is about a 14th century Cistercian monk called Yves de Lessines, whose book “Les Centuries” Rudy Cambier (of the University of Liège) recently claimed was reused by Nostradamus for his Prophecies. Cambier also claims in his book that “Les Centuries” also describes where the Knights Templar hid their treasure. Just so you know!