Devil’s Handwriting References

1663 – Anthony Wood

The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, antiquary, of Oxford, 1632-1695, described by Himself. p.498: [29th September 1663] “After that they [the King and Queen, and the Duke and Duchess of York] went and saw the chapple, then the library to see the divell’s hand”.
Footnote (6): some notes in the ‘Oxford Magazine’ (1890) give further information as to this autograph:-
(I) ‘A.D. 1677, August I (writer, Thomas Dixon of Queen’s College, Oxford)- “I thank you on behalf of the Colleges for the China Almanack. … It is to be put in the Archives, where the DEVIL’S HAND, which is now taken away, used to be placed.” (Hist. MSS. Commission, 12th Report, App. pt. 7 (1890), p.138).’
(2) ‘A.D. 1710, Aug. 19 (writer, Z. C. von Uffenbach)- “In the morning we saw Queen’s College… Our guide showed us a book said to have been written by the DEVIL, Ambrosii… introductio in chaldaicum linguam (Papiae 1530), where at f. 212 v[ers]o are ‘Ludovici Spoletani praeepta, sive, ut vulgo dicitur, coniuratio cum subscripta DAEMONIS responsione.’ The letters look like Chinese.” (Life of A. Benwick, ed. J. E. B. Mayor (1885, not published), p.375.)’
(3) ‘The book narrates how an Italian conjured the arch-fiend “per Talion, Ansino et Amlion” to tell him whether all the property which devolved to him by right had been received, and if not 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. Unforunately, just as the excitement is rising as to the real nature of the response, Ambrosius says cooly that he did no 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 (4o A. 55 Art. Selden), from which a collector of autographs had cut out the engraving in question : an unmutilated copy has recently been presented (pressmask Or. e. 1). In the Queen’s College copy ‘the page is well thumbed, and testifies to the interest excited by the story.’

1674 – Thomas Flatman (1637-1688)

This mocking poem (aimed at a fellow poet) is taken from p.146 of the Fourth edition of Flatman’s “Poems and Songs” (London, 1674).

To Mr. Sam. Austin of Wadham Col. Oxon on his most unintelligible Poems.

IN that small inch of time I stole, to look
On th’obscure depths of your mysterious Book,
(Heav’n bless my eye-sight!) what strains did I see?
What Steropegeretick Poetry!
What Hieroglyphick words, what all,
In Letters more than Cabalistical!
We with our fingers may your Verses scan,
But all our Noddles understand them can
No more, than read that dungfork, pothook hand
That in Queen’s Colledge Library does stand.
The cutting Hanger of your wit I can’t see,
For that same scabbard that conceals your Fancy:
Thus a black velvet Casket hides a Jewel;


1731 – John Byrom

The Private Journal and Literary Remains of John Byrom, p.516.

“We dined with Mr. Foxley on Friday and Mr. Parker on fish and pease, and about three went to Queen’s College, where we were last night, to take a copy of the devil’s handwriting, which I did, as it is in the following page.” [Image in original diary not reproduced in the book version].

1743 – Johann Christian Götze

p.143 of Die Merckwürdigkeiten Der Königlichen Bibliotheck zu Dreßden…, Volume 1 By Johann Christian Götze (1743)

Man kan nicht in Abrede sein, daß in diesem Buche, und absonderlich in den Brieffen an den närrischen Guilielmum Postellum viel besondere Dinge und Nachrichten enthalten sind. Ambrosius hat die Buchstaben und Characteres meistentheils müssen ausdrücklich verfertigen und gießen
lassen; es sind ihm aber gleichwohl noch einige abgegangen, die mit der Feder darzu gefetzet worden. Auf dem 212. Blat hat er auch des Zauberers von Spoleto Ludovici Beschwörung des Satans, nebst defen schrifftlicher Antwort in unbekannten Characteren gesetzet, die wir unserm Leser zu seiner Belustigung mittheilen wollen.
Ludovici Spoletani praeceptum sive (ut vulgo dicitur) conjuratio, cum subscripta Daemonis responsione.
Ve comando Amon, per li sette commandamenti, per li dicisette Mastri, per le dece potentissime parole, over nomi cho le quali io Mastro vostro ve invoco che seti constriti ha viniri, e per Talion, Ansion, Amlion, per Giroastro terzo, per li Ottanta Demone, & per tutte le potentie divine, che me debiate scrivere la verità in questa medesima senza fraude, inganno, duppiezza alcuna, chiaro non confuso, hapertamente che ve possa intendere, sel Cavaliero Marchantonio figliolo de ricca donna da Piacenza, ha ritrovati tutti li dinari che laso Antonio Maria, & se no in qual loco sono.
Wer hätte es glauben sollen, kaum hatte dieser Zauberer die Feder weggeleget, so haben die Umstehenden dieselbe in die Höhe steigen, und mit unbekannten Characteren auf eben das Papier, doch ohne eine Hand, die sie geführet, zu erblicken, schreiben gesehen. Was aber? Das mag der Teuffel, dieser unreine Geist, welcher mehrentheils Mist-Gabeln hingemahlet, selber lesen. Ohne Zweiffel hat er, an statt der verlangten Antwort, des Zauberers unglückliches Ende andeuten wollen, als welcher furz darauff von Bauern mit Mist-Gabeln erstochen worden. Fides fit penes autorem.
Um wieder auf Theseum Ambrosium zu kommen, so haben wir ihm auch die Syrischen Evangelia, die Jo. Albertus Widmanstadius hernach zu Wien heraus gegeben, zu dancken; wie dieser es selbst in der Borrede des Syrischen Neuen Testaments erzehlet, und von Ambrosii Geschicklichkeit in den Oriental-Sprachen ein herrliches Zeugniß ableget. Vide Colomesii Ital. Oriental. [Pauli Colomesii Rvpellensis Italia Et Hispania Orientalis Sive Italorvm Et Hispanorvm Qvi Lingvam Hebraeam Vel Alias Orientales Excolvervnt Vitae] per Jo. Christoph. Wolfium [Johann Christoph Wolf, 1683-1739] p.37.

1746 – Anonymous poem at Oxford

(Noted in an 1855 Notes & Query entry.)

Queen’s College, Oxford. – Is anything known of the “mysterious scrawl” noticed in the following lines, composed in 1746 upon a singular piece of writing in Queen’s College Library, Oxford?

“An Oxford rarity at Queen’s is shown,
Unmatch’d by all the rarities of Sloane’s;
A manuscript, yet, as the learn’d have thought,
Such as by mortal hand was never wrote.
Druids and Sybils! this transcends ye all,
A dark, oracular, mysterious scrawl:
Uncouth, occult, unknown to ancient Greece,
The Persian Magi, or the wise Chinese.
Nor runic this, nor Coptic does appear;
No, ’tis the diabolic character.
No more, ye critics, be your brains perplex’d
T’elucidate the darkness of the text;
No farther in the endless search proceed,
The devil wrote it – let the devil read!”

1855 – Response by Reverend H. H. Wood

(Vol. xi, p.146.)
Numberless inquiries have been made at various times respecting the characters alluded to in the lines quoted by your correspondent. Still, I do not suppose that any will be seriously disappointed to find that the library, though so rich in other respects, cannot boast of the possession of any such mysterious autograph. The report has arisen from the cirumstance that, in an appendix to a Grammar by Th. Ambrose (a copy of which is in the library), is what professes to be a fac-simile of certain “diabolic characters” in the possession of the author. The work is entitled Introductio in Chaldaicum Linguam, Syriacum atque Armenicum et decem alias Linguas, and was printed in the year 1539. Copies of it are contained in the Bodleian and Grenville Libraries. The author of it was Theseus Ambrosius, who describes himself as “Ex comitibus ALbonesii, I. U. Doct., Papiensis, Canonicus regularis Lateranensis, ac Sancti Petri in coelo aureo Papiae praepositus:” and I am unable at present to add any further particulars concerning him. As the book is rare, perhaps I may be allowed to quote a passage in which the author alludes to the document in question. It occurs in a letter to the famous orientalist, Postell, p. 199.

“Habeo quas nullas forsan habet, Diaboli literas, Demonis ipsius manuscriptas. Qui tum risus, qui cachinni, quae admirationes exortae fuerint, tu nosti, et cum pertinacius insisterem, remque omnem et factum, ut fuerat, recenserem. Visi fuistis omnes verbis meis fidem aliquam praestare, postmodum discessimus. Nunc vero vos qui tunc conveneratis docti homines, cum Diaboli literas acceperitis, legite si nostis, et discite Ambrosio cerere vera dicenti.”

The characters themselves, occupying seven lines, and looking as much like a small boy’s first attempt at writing Chinese as anything, occur at p. 212 b. The words of the spell (in Italian) which raised the evil spirit are also given (the object in view being to obtain an answer to the question “Sel Cavaliero Marchantonio figliolo de riccha donna da Piacenza ha ritrovati tutti li dinari che laso Antonio Maria, et se no in qual loco sono?”) and the following account of what happened on the occasion when the characters were written:

“Non tam cito pennam Magus deposuerat, quam cito qui aderant, pennam Eandem corripi et in sera sustolli, et in Eandem chartam, infrascriptes characteres velociter scribere viderunt, scribentis vero manum nullus comprehendere poterat.”

Ambrose professes to have got the account from one “qui cum multis praesens fuerat;” but he has forgotten to tell us his name, and what the amount of information was which was extracted from all the “devilment”. Let me conclude with Ambrose’s sensible resolution: “Quid vero characteres illi insinuarent, quamve responsionem ad quesita redderent, scire omnino non curavi.”

H. H. Wood
Queen’s College, Oxford