The Devil’s Handwriting is one of my favourite little cipher mysteries, for the simple reason that it manages to combine age (it first appeared in print in 1532), brevity (it’s just under seven lines) and devilish visual wit (pitchforks and bats). I have no idea who its alleged author / owner Ludovico of Spoleto was, but I have to say I’m liking him already.

All the same, one question you always have to ask with old ciphertexts is whether they are actually simpler than they first appear: really, are we making too much of a fuss about it? Having toyed with The Devil’s Handwriting for a while here at Cipher Mysteries Towers, it now seems to me that most of the character variation we see in it was probably down to a scratchy old quill (as well as someone making a copy of an unclear original) rather than a hideously Byzantine homophonic cipher. Really, I think it’ll turn out to be nothing more than a monoalphabetic simple substitution cipher, albeit one that has been dragged backwards through a couple of hedges on its lengthy route through time to us.

The difficult bit, of course, is working out what its original alphabet was and what is, for want of a better phrase, the entropic decay that has happened to it ever since. However, if we start from my nicely sharpened version of the ciphertext and look a bit more closely at the shapes used in its devil-themed alphabet, I think we can see that some of the original patterns and structures are still visible.

Firstly, the ‘flourished pitchfork’ shape seems so consistent across all of its eight instances that I for one find it hard to imagine that it was not actually a single character in the original ciphertext.


Secondly, pretty much wherever the repeated pitchfork character has an extra leg or two going off to one side from the stem, the leg(s) always seems to go clockwise.


Thirdly, there’s just something about the ‘bats’ that reminds me of improvised peasant ciphers. I can’t help thinking that these are probably just enciphering Arabic digits, with (say) three enciphered as three bats. Of course, I also believe that what we’re looking at is a book copy of a version that was itself at least a copy, so that these are far less clear than we would like (and the degradation to these ‘bat-numbers’ may well prove impossible to reverse, however much we would like to). Despite all that, I’m reasonably confident that digits are indeed what we are looking at here, and that the plaintext may well have ended with a 4-digit year, e.g. something, for the sake or argument, not entirely unlike “1512”.


Fourthly, because there only a few other characters in the cipher alphabet (e.g. the ‘::’ four-dot character, etc), I think it likely that the original monoalphabetic substitution alphabet used (say) 21 letter instances, less four or five extra characters, yielding sixteen pitchfork characters shared between four rotations, i.e. four individual shapes per pitchfork / pigpen rotation. Maybe they originally looked something like this:-


Finally, I think there seems little reason not to believe that the plaintext is in either Italian (strictly speaking Tuscan or perhaps Venetian) or Latin, with Tuscan being the one on the shortest odds at the bookies.

Is this such a scary cipher any more? Hopefully a little less than before! 😉


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.