On paper Lord Edward Harley (1689-1741) was an aristocrat, a ruler, but what the Earl of Oxford and Mortimer really liked, what really kept him up at night, was collecting. He loved art, coins, engravings, medals, antiques… And especially the books, a passion that he inherited from his father along with a large library with more than 600 volumes. Throughout his life and thanks to the help of employees who went abroad in search of extravagant files, Edward came to add thousands and thousands of manuscripts.
When he died in 1741 all that happened to his widow and daughter, who in 1753 decided to sell such a mountain of papers to the country for about 10,000 pounds. Over time, what is known as the Harley Collection —a legacy that exceeds 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 letters and 500 scrolls— ended up being one of the first holdings of the British Library. Despite its value, the time it has been in the hands of experts and the fact that it contains some gems, such as the Harley Psalter or the queen’s book, the material continues to leave us with the occasional surprise. And draft, in addition.
The last: a manual of exorcisms that we have taken at least two centuries to decipher.
Its story is almost as intriguing as its content.
Among the pages and pages of the Harley family legacy was a manuscript cataloged as MS 2874 that no one ever paid much attention to. The reason: there was no way to understand it. The text began in red ink and with total gibberish, almost as if its author had dedicated himself to putting letters together at random: “Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm”. Absolute nonsense.
Such a beginning must not have pleased the experts who in 1808 were in charge of cataloging the old manuscripts of the Harley Collection because in their notes they limited themselves to describing it —somewhat with a good eye— as part of a breviary, a type of fairly common prayer book in the Christian liturgy. As for the dates, they calculated that it dated from the fourteenth century.
The matter was not given more thought. And for 214 long years those responsible for the Harley Collection continued to think that what occupied their shelves with the anodyne name of MS 2874 it was a breviary of macaronic spelling. Until now. In 2019 the specialists of the British Library began to review the funds and realized that something was missing in the work that their predecessors had done in 1808. When reviewing the pages of MS 2874, they simply found that it did not contain any of the texts one might expect in a prayer book.
What they had before them was something different: a secret writing code.
And one not very elaborate, everything is said.
Its encryption method is relatively well known to experts in the field: it replaces the vowels with the letters that follow them in the alphabet. With that key and a good knowledge of Latin, historians got down to business and set out to decipher the title. The surprise was capital. From the obtuse “Cpnkxratkp malkgnprum spkrkxxm” they went on to “Coniuratio malignorum spirituum”. In other words, what they had was “The Conjuration of Evil Spirits”.
Not a brief.
Not a prayer book.
A full-fledged exorcist’s manual, worthy of William Peter Blatty’s novel.
What would be expected at this point in history would be that the experts would ask themselves questions about the content of the manuscript, its verses, what rituals it describes and how it advises treating the possessed. Perhaps the most curious thing about MS 2874 is that—surprise!—they already knew. And they knew because the manual is actually a handwritten copy of a work relatively well known by experts and of which about thirty printed copies are preserved in Rome and Venice during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The real enigma of MS 2874 is another: why its author decided to encrypt it.
The book in the Harley collection dates back to around 1500 and if there is something peculiar about it, it is that, unlike the rest of the printed copies, its indications are encrypted. Instead of “Coniuro te diabole”, for example, he writes “Cpnkxrp tf dibbplf” and where he should put “Memento Lucifer” he includes an incomprehensible “Mfmfntp lxckffr”. “Since none of the Italian versions contain secret writing, it is almost certain that Harley’s manuscript was encrypted by the scribe who copied it. But why did he do it? ”, Collects the article that the British Library blog dedicates to the case.
Only the scribe who was in charge of copying the document has the answer, but the experts have obtained some clues that allow us to formulate quite convincing hypotheses.
The best clue is left by the first page of the manuscript, a page recycled by the amanuensis and in which the researchers were able to identify an old faded text. The document in question – visible thanks to the use of ultraviolet light – is a royal pardon granted by the monarch Henry VI to William Babington, abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, between 1446 and 1453.
With this information clear, the conclusion reached by the researchers is that the —or perhaps the— amanuensis was a monk from Bury St. Edmunds, an English religious who probably I wasn’t familiar with the exorcism manuals that circulated throughout the continent and he must have seen in that work a powerful weapon that he wanted to keep away from indiscreet readers.
“That perhaps made them uncomfortable with the content, which contributed to their decision to encrypt key parts of the manual. They might be particularly concerned about how future owners might use the manuscript.” His greatest fear was probably that someone would use it in rituals for…questionable purposes. If anyone ever had to use it, let it be at least one of the few religious in the abbey who knew how to decipher it.
It was not bad in the effortof course.
We have had to wait well into the 21st century to decrypt its content.
Pictures | British Library and Bibliothèque des Champs Libres
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism