The aljamiadas of Spain

16th century Spain saw an almost unique and mysterious literary tradition emerge amongst the defeated Arabic population – the aljamiadas.

The establishment of the Inquisition to purge heresy and control the Moorish population of Spain by the Catholic Kings was a strong blow to the Islamic heritage of these people. And when Spain outlawed the use of Arabic, these people were unable to continue their heritage in their sacred language.

But then a barrack room lawyer amongst them spotted the loophole – it was Arabic that was banned, not Arabic script. So the faithful continued to use their Arabic script to write in Spanish.

The reasons were simple enough. Islam gives great credence to the calligraphy necessary to write flowing Arabic script, which also has religious connotations. It was simply a question of working out which Arabic letters corresponded to their Castillian (early modern Spanish) phonemes and substituting the Roman characters for the Arabic script.

The moriscos embark at the Grao de Valencia

The first Aljamiadas appear in the mid 15th century on border territory or recently conquered parts of Islamic Spain. They flourished throughout the 16th century before coming to an abrupt end in 1609, when King Felipe III told all Moorish descendants to clear off. 325.000 moriscos were expelled from Spain between 1609 and 1613 (out of total population of just 8.9 million).

Most of the Aljamiadas are copies of pre-existing Arabic or Jewish works of religion, law or moral fiction. However, in the later 16th century original works start to appear, mainly moral literature, poetry or fiction.

An example of an Aljamiado work

There are generally agreed to be three distinct phases to these works. The earlier works are found over both Castilla and Aragon (the two kingdoms of Spain) and last until the forced conversion of the early 16th century. These are mainly reproduction works of tomes that were important to the community. They were written by mudejars, the followers of Islam who lived under Christian rule in the conquered territories.

The second phase starts after the forced conversions, and henceforth mainly vanish from the Kingdom of Castille, appearing instead in Aragon. The Moors who remained after the forced conversion were called moriscos, supposed converted Christians who came from Islamic families. They were treated as second class citizens and carefully watched for heresy by the Inquisition.

The third phase starts after 1609, when the expulsion of the moriscos started. These works continue to appear for the next few decades in north Africa, elsewhere in Europe or the near East, where the expelled moriscos settled. There are even Jewish works written by the sefardís, expelled Jews, Castillian texts written in Hebrew or Arabic script. By now more comfortable speaking Castillian that Arabic, they continued to write in Castillian using their Arabic script.

From the mudejar era, we know of such works as Poema de Yuçuf, (poem of Yuçef), a work from Aragon discussing the XII chapter of the Koran Sûrat Yûsuf. The base language is actually romantic Aragones rather than Castillian. Another work is the 1492 legal tract Suma de los principales mandamientos y debadamientos de la Ley y Sunna by Segovian Sunni muftí Içe de Gebir. The work is a compilation of laws for the mudéjar community in Castille.

The later works by the morisca community are more wide ranging in style. Most of them, as I have said, come from Aragon which had laxer religious Inquisitions than its neighbouring Kingdom of Castille. Many are religious or legal tomes, but original fiction and literary works are also known, which suggest that the moriscos had a vibrant intellectual community going at this period in time.

A page from libro de dichas maravillosas on paper (aprox 1601)

Notwithstanding that, most of the works we know of have been discovered in hiding places, as all extant copies were destroyed by the Inquisition after the Expulsion. Inside old buildings or buried in caves have been discovered caches of ancient fascinating manuscripts. In the late 19th century there was a craze for hunting out these ancient books, and many Spanish editions of such works were published in the last 1880’s and 1890’s.

Towards the later end of the 16th century a number of “exile guides” are known. Itinerario de España a Turquía or Avisos para el caminante were two popular works which aimed to guide people fleeing Spain.

The National Library of Spain has an online exposition of Aljamiada works (click on Obras if you don’t speak Spanish). What you don’t tend to get in Aljamiada works are great illustrations, the one to the right is about as inventive as they get. The reason being that the works are generally authored by one person, the scribe, and they are intent upon transmitting information. They are often written on cheaper paper which does not lend itself to lavish illustrations.

There are also many magic works on healing or traditional Islamic magic. Libro de los sueños and Libro de los dichos maravillosos were two popular works, the first on the interpretation of dreams and the second on general magic. The moriscos had a good sideline in selling magic charms and spells to the Christians, and many of the inscriptions upon these charms are Aljamiadas, Castillian or Aragonese written in Arabic script.

Colphonese lettering
Magic alphabet of the philosopher Colphoterios with Arabic transliteration below

These later magic works, interestingly enough, continue to use Arabic magic alphabets for certain spells, especially the “great seals” which tend to include spells written in the magic alphabet of the philosopher Colphoterios (which first appears in a treatise by Ibn Wahsiya in the 9th century, although he claims it is a much older alphabet; he also gives examples of other magic alphabets). These magic alphabets, known to Spanish scholars as letras anteojadas (already-seen letters), appear to derive from copies of hieroglyphics, and then are given a one to one correspondence with Arabic script or homophones. However, in many later Aljamiada works, their meanings appear to have been forgotten and they are simple rote copied from tome to tome with no understanding of their meaning – an esoteric meaning has been attributed to them.


A spell written in letras anteojadas (top left page) from libro de maravillas

Examples of letras anteojadas can be found in Castillian works as well, notable in the 11th century works commissioned by King Alphonse X “the Wise”, in his liber Picatrix or libro de astromagia, all works commissioned by Alphonse to retrieve magic and power from the Arabs scholars then ruling most of the Iberian Peninsula.

The works by Ibn Wahsiya suggest that Islamic scholars developed these alphabets from their studies of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Coptic. It appears that the Shia religious scholars had a tradition of attempting to reproduce and translate these ancient Hermetic works, and that this evolved into the Shia taste for metaphor and signs. The magical quality of such language would extend throughout the Islamic world until they reached Europe, where they formed the first occult languages that promised to unlock the magic secrets of the unknown Islamic world.

Aljamiada works of magic such as the libro de dichas maravillas also contain examples of “salomonic script”, an Arabian magic script attributed to King Salomon. It has been described as a lineal Kufic variant of Arabic, but has the peculiarities of have a straight line joining all the letters together and omitting all diacritic marks, making it difficult to interpret.

There is not, perhaps, a great deal of unique or valuable information contained within the body of Aljamiada literature. But notwithstanding that, it is a fascinating account of how a subjugated and persecuted people contrived to keep their traditions alive whilst paying lip service to the religious laws that persecuted them, and a testimony to the endless inventiveness of mankind.

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OK, so what script did Kircher mean in his 1639 letter?

Diane quite rightly pointed out on my “Kircher to Moretus reply” that we don’t know exactly which script Kircher meant when he said “Illyrian”. It’s usually taken to mean Glagolitic, but does it really?

(There’s also the question of does it matter? Close examination of the letter tends to discard the subject under discussion from being the Voynich MS. But it’s still a widely quoted quote, and I was interested, so let’s apply ourselves).

First off, let’s remind ourselves of what Kircher wrote:

Alterum denique folium quem ipsi ignoti characteris genere scriptum videbatur illyrico idiomate, charactere quem D. Hieronymi vulgo vocant, impressum sciat; utuntur eodem charactere hic Romae in missalibus aliisque sacris libri illyrico sermone imprimendis.

Which I translate as:

Finally the other leaf upon which are written types of unknown characters I observe are in the Illyric language, characters the printing of which I know are commonly called D. Hieronymi;  characters used here in Rome in various Holy Books and Illyrician printed sermons.

Some terms:

  • Illyric: We would now call this area Croatian. Kircher, as was the wont of the time, used the Roman provincial name for the area.
  • D. Hieronymi: Saint Jerome.

Now, Glagolitic is an ancient Slavic alphabet. The name Glagolithic probably wasn’t applied to the script until the 14th century. The Glagolitic alphabet was invented during the 9th century by the missionaries St Cyril (827-869 AD) and St Methodius (826-885 AD) in order to translate the Bible and other religious works into the language of the Great Moravia region.  It’s not a language, it’s a script that could be used for any of the proto-Slavic languages (in the same way that our alphabet can be used for French, Spanish, English etc). Here’s an example of the script:

This chart shows the Glagolitic alphabet with the names of the letters in Old Church Slavonic, the Cyrillic equivalents of the letters, and IPA transcription. Image from

So Glagolitic proper dates from the 9th century, and then started to evolve. When it became adopted and standardised by the Church, it became known as Old Church Slavonic with loads of variations across different regions (see the prior wikipedia link for more on that).

By the 12th century the first Slavic languages were evolving in different directions. In the late 14th century, a new script evolved for use by the Church: Church Slavonic. It’s still in use today.

Right. Where does Jerome fit in?

Well, there was a persistent myth that one of the founding fathers of the Church, St Jerome, was the chap who had invented the script. The intention appears to have been to use his authority to counter attacks by Rome upon the local Church. The alphabet was thus called by some as Hieronymian in pre-Renaissance times after his Roman name, and that’s the word Kircher used.

And here’s a 16th century Vatican printed work showing “the characters of the Illyrian language in Hieronymian script”:

Pages from a book describing Glagolitic script. (A. Rocca: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana a Sixto V… translata, Roma, 1591: Alfabeto glagolitico). Wikipedia.

So far, so clear. Kircher used the term “Hieronymi” to refer to a specific Slavic script, and furthermore identified the base language as Croatian (Illyrian). Can we corroborate this? What did Kircher himself understand by “Hieronymi”? Let’s find out.

Here’s Kirchers ’72 names of God’ image from Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus:

72 names of God in the languages of the 72 nations of the world
72 names of God in the languages of the 72 nations of the world

Kircher has carefully used Cabalah and then written out the name of God in the 72 different languages of the world. As always, philology is carefully ignored or manipulated to gain his end: You’ll notice that for English, he wrote GOOD instead of GOD. Why? Because all of the 72 names had to be four letters long. For a full interpretation of this diagram click here. I’m only interested in entry 13: Illyirici.

Damn it, he’s only gone and written it out in the Roman alphabet! BOOG. Why? I don’t know. He’s done the same in Japanese and Chinese, and where he got BOSA from for “Mexican”, or “SOLV” for Californian is beyond me (local native American dialects?). Frankly, the more I learn of Kircher, the more I agree with Descartes’s opinion of the bloke. And despite a morning searching, I have yet to find any other example of Illyrian in any of Kircher’s works.

Let’s look elsewhere. This is the Virga Aurea of James Bonaventure Hepburn published at Rome in 1616. The Virga Aurea, or to give the full title, “The Heavenly Golden Rod of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Seventy-two Praises” consists of a list of seventy two alphabets (actually seventy, plus Latin and Hebrew which are the two languages of the text of the plate). Usefully enough, “Illyricum” is included. Eighth down, left column.virga_aurea3

Comparing the Virgo Aureum with Rocca’s Alfabeto glagolitico we see obvious similarities, but at the same time, differences. Remember, they were published just 25 years apart. Hepburn’s sources are unknown, but it’s assumed (since he was head of rare books at the Vatican) that he was probably getting the info out of the books there.

Hepburn has 37 glyphs, whereas Rocca only has 33. The glyphs are also slightly different if you compare them. And neither of them really correspond with the Omniglot table I posted above. So what’s going on?

Well, Hepburn & Rocca are both confusing different versions of the script, as shown below, and certainly Rocca is missing a number from his book:

So yes, the above scripts would appear to be what Kircher knew as “Hieronymiam”.

Here’s a page from the first Croat language printed book, a 1483 work entitled Misal po zakonu rimskoga dvora:

1483 “Misal po zakonu rimskoga dvora”


It turns out that Galglithic is a right pain. A typographer writing on the website commented that:

One of the things I noticed when looking at examples of Glagolitic is the way some characters appear and disappear; I was trying to set some text in it, and whichever bit of text I tried had some extra characters that weren’t in the font or in any other examples – each one seemed to have characters unique to it. Of course, this isn’t a deficiency of the font (or of the language), but more a sign of the evolution of the written language and of the strong influences on it from Latin, Cyrillic and Church Slavonic over the years. Croatian was written in all three systems in parallel, and as a local system not widely known outside of the Balkans (despite being the oldest of the Slavic alphabets), the form of written Glagolitic has perhaps been more influenced than influencing; In some written examples there are Cyrillic characters, while in others the characters are presumably the original Glagolitic ones, or newer hybrid forms.

So it seems clear enough that for Kircher, Hieronymian would be Galgolitic. He used the name “Hieronymian” because of the ongoing myth at the time that St Jerome had invented the script, and attempts to link his name to the script; as Kircher would only have known of the script via his Catholic Church contacts, the name Hieronymian would have been the correct one to use at this period, even if elsewhere it was known as Galgolitic. The Church was printing books in the script, indeed, it was even standardising a version of the script for its own use.

It also turns out that Galgolitic is still alive and thriving in Croatia, where it’s treated as a national treasure and part of their identity.

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The Kircher to Moretus, 12 March 1639 letter

In or around October 1637, the Prague alchemist Georgius Barschius decides to get help from Athanasius Kircher in Rome, in order to be able to read a MS that he owns, which is written in an unintelligible script. He believes that Kircher might be able to help because of Kircher’s investigations into the languages of the East, in particular Egyptian. He makes copies of the writing in the MS and has these sent to Kircher by the mathematician Theodor Moretus. This submission is part of a letter from Moretus to Kircher towards the end of 1637.

In March 1639, Kircher finally responds to Moretus, saying that he has received the mysterious writing, and has not yet been successful in interpreting it. This is the letter. (extracted from

This letter has been claimed as the “missing link” that establishes a 1639 connection for the Voynich Manuscript. But is it?

No proper translation of this letter has yet been made, so I made one myself with my schoolboy Latin. The usual disclaimers apply. (more…)

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Early modern universal languages as seen through the thoughts of Kircher

I have spoken before of Kircher’s Universal Language dictionary, which aimed to reduce all words to numbers which could then be transmitted to a recipient, who would then look up those numbers in his vernacular, and so read the message.

Of course, all this translation system really does, from our modern day viewpoint, is slow translations down by introducing a dictionary reference instead of the actual word. Direct translation of words leads to interesting mixups like this one:

Anyway, in 1663 Kircher was to publish Polygraphia nova et universalis (the New and Universal Polygraphy), a grandiose tract that was to promise far more than it could deliver. It was a typical Kircher work in that it took the ideas of others, spun them around and presented in a new manner. Kircher was a master of this art, and his polygraphia is one of his masterpieces. Notwithstanding that, the polygraphia is a good example of how the intellectuals of Europe considered language and codes at this point in time, and so let’s look at the state of “universal languages” in the pre-Renaissance via this book – because the content of the book is intellectual very much on the dividing line between medieval and Renaissance thinking. (more…)

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So why did Kircher ignore the Voynich Manuscript?

Inside the Voynich Manuscript (VM) front cover, Wilfred Voynich found a letter dating from 1665, written in Latin, which purports to be from Prague scientist Johannes Marcus Marci in 1665 in which he gave the manuscript to the Roman Jesuit priest and polyglot Athanasius Kircher. Kircher already knew about the manuscript, he’d been given copies of certain pages by one Georg Baresch in the 1630’s.

You can read my analysis of the letter here.

However, the question remains: why did Kircher never do anything with this book? We know he received it, because it appeared amongst some of his personal correspondence in 1873 in the private collection of P. Beckx.

It was not catalogued amongst his possessions when he died. It was never mentioned in his writings. Nobody has ever mentioned seeing it on his shelf. To all intents and purposes, he stuffed it in a drawer and never looked at it again, despite being reminded about it on one, possibly two, occasions by Godefrid Kinner on Marci’s behalf. He owned it, but he never put it in the main body of his work. Why?

Well, to answer this question, let’s look at who Kircher was, what he was doing in 1665, and if, indeed, this book would ever have interested him. (more…)

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How did the VM come to Rudolph attention? A consideration….

It is commonly stated (see here for a discussion on this topic) that Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia, who fancied himself to be a learned man of letters, purchased the VM for 600 ducats. The only source we have for this, it seems, is a reference from a 17th century letter, after Rudolph II had died and his court had been dissolved. But how could Rudolph have acquired the book? (more…)

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