The Book of Brome (Beinecke MS 365, f. 1v) includes a word game that relies on a simple cypher (and, alas, isn’t very nice to the ladies). This puzzle provides some insight on how the literate classes entertained themselves and is not at all dissimilar to the cryptoquote puzzle in our local paper.  I’ve included a short discussion and hint for its solution under the cut.

Lady Caroline Kerrison, in her 19th-century work on the manuscript, provides the following transcription (I’ve made a couple edits indicated by * and **):

B hert hfrbprpwkth.*
B knyth hfrbprpwkth.*
B dowke lpggkth.
B Roo Bftdkth.
B ȝ[e]man Bftdkth.
B hbrf in b forme syttyng.
schuldryng of lenyng.
B cony syttyng.

Take iij claterars.
B pkf.
B kbk.
B xpmbn.

Take iij lowrars.
B bpf.
B pwlf.
B xpmbn.

Take iij schrewys.
B xbspf.
B xfskll.
B xpmbn.

Take iij angry.
B ffrkfr.
B ffpx.
B xpmbn.

Ther be iiij thyngs take gret betyng.
B stpkfksch.
B mklstpn.
B fffdkrbfd.
B xpmbn.**

Solving the puzzle requires some knowledge of how the Middle English alphabet was arraigned. The j was not usually included in the alphabet (its place in words was represented with an i).  Additionally, w was taken, at least sometimes in this puzzle, as a vowel. To help you get started, here are the first two lines:

A hert herborowith.
A knyth herborowith.

In modern English:
A hart goes to its lair.
A knight tracks a hart to its lair.

(no one said the fifteenth century was a complicated time)

Here are a few lines that I’ve created using the cipher in Modern English:

Take iii offices.
B cppk.
B sfnfschbl.
B stfwbrd.

Transcription from: A Common-place book of the fifteenth century, containing a religious play and poetry, legal forms and local accounts. Printed from the original ms. at Brome Hall, Suffolk, by Lady Caroline Kerrison. Edited with notes by Lucy Toulmin Smith.

Cover image from the Smithfield Decretals (Royal MS 10 E IV), held in the British Library.

* Lady Kerrison believes the rubricator included intended to use B at the beginning of the line here, rather than the F that appears.

** Lady Kerrison included an additional o between the x and the p, I believe that is a transcription error.

Ready for the answer?  It’s in the comments.

One thought on “A Fifteenth Century Word Game

  1. A hart herborowith (A hart goes to his lair)
    A knyth herborowith (A knight tracks the hart to his lair)
    A dowke loggith. (A buck lodges)
    A Roo Betdith. (A roe sacrifices herself?)
    A ȝ[e]man Betdith. (A yeoman mends something?)
    A hare in a forme syttyng. (A hare in its burrow)
    schuldryng of lenyng. (jostling or leaning)
    A cony syttyng. (A coney sitting)

    Take iij claterars. (Take three things that chatter)
    A pie.
    A iai. (A jay)
    A woman.

    Take iij lowrars. (Take three things that glower)
    A ape.
    A owle. (An owl)
    A woman.

    Take iij schrewys. (Take three things of sharp or biting disposition)
    A waspe. (A wasp)
    A wesill. (A weasel)
    A woman.

    Take iij angry. (Take three things which are angry)
    A ffrier. (A friar)
    A ffox. (A fox)
    A woman.

    Ther be iiij thyngs take gret betyng. (There are four things which take a great beating)
    A stokfisch. (A stock fish)
    A milston. (A millstone)
    A ffedirbed. (A feather bed)
    A woman.

    And the answer to my lines:
    Take three offices.
    A cook.
    A seneschal.
    A steward.


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