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Julian Harrison, "Help Us Decipher This Inscription", British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog, 8/3/2015:

Visitors to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy may have noticed that we have one or two objects on display, in addition to the many manuscripts and documents telling Magna Carta's 800-year-old story. One of those objects is a double-edged sword, found in the first section of the exhibition, on loan to the British Library from our friends at the British Museum. The item in question was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. […]

An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire. It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown. Can you have a go at trying to decipher it for us? Here's what the inscription seems to read:


A note added 7/7-10 by Marc van Hasselt (Utrecht University, Hastatus Heritage Consultancy):

Inscribed swords were all the rage in Europe around the year 1200. Dozens of them have been found, from England to Poland, from Sweden to France. While researching a specific sword-blade found in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands, I found around a dozen other swords which had striking similarities. One of those swords was the River Witham sword, making it part of a large international family. Using the excellent research by Thomas Wagner and John Worley, an image of a hugely successful medieval workshop was created, making ‘magical’ swords for the elite. The swords themselves are of a high quality, but what most catches the eye are the inscriptions. Both their mysterious contents and the similarities in the lettering are striking. A sword from Sweden might use the same slightly curved X as the River Witham sword. A sword currently in Berlin has an I-S contraction also used on a sword found in the Netherlands. These similarities go so far as to suggest the same hand in making the inscriptions. However, their contents are still a mystery, regardless of their origins.

There is some debate on the language used in the inscriptions. But looking at the other European finds, it seems most likely that this language is Latin. This makes sense in the context of 13th-century Europe, as Latin was the international language of choice (like English is today). To elaborate, let's compare the River Witham sword to the sword from Alphen: both start with some sort of invocation. On the River Witham sword, it is NDXOX, possibly standing for Nostrum Dominus (our Lord) or Nomine Domini (name of the Lord) followed by XOX. On the sword from Alphen, the starting letters read BENEDOXO. Quite likely, this reads as Benedicat (A blessing), followed by OXO. Perhaps these letter combinations – XOX and OXO – refer to the Holy Trinity. On the sword from Alphen, one letter combination is then repeated three times: MTINIUSCS, which I interpret as Martinius Sanctus – Saint Martin. Perhaps a saint is being invoked on the River Witham sword as well?

Additional reading:

Thomas Wagner, John Worley, Anna Holst Blennow, & Gunilla Beckholmen, "Medieval Christian invocation inscriptions on sword blades",  Waffen- und Kostümkunde, 2009:

There are no satisfying explanations as to why most blade inscriptions are incomprehensible. Of course, it is likely that the sword smiths who did the metal work for the inscriptions were illiterate; however, the craftsmen could not have failed so regularly and ruined so many valuable blades with illegible inscriptions. Most epigraphic scholars suggest an initial-based abbreviation system; however, this thesis is only to be proved, if the inscrutable alignments of letters could be assigned to a common prayer, psalm or bible quote. This was hitherto only possible, if the inscriptions consisted of (at least some) full Latin words and not only initial sequences . Wegeli himself and Erben tried to relate the suspected initials with a prayer or a sentence spoken in conjunction with the sword presentation ceremony or in German “Schwertleite” . This was a ritual, probably of Germanic origin, in which the father handed down the sword to his grown-up son as a sign that he can defend himself and the tribe. During the Middle Ages the “sword presentation ceremony”, performed by the liege lord or a cleric, put the warrior into service of the former, as a vassal in the first case or as a “miles Christi ad servitium Iesu Christi” (“soldier of Christ in service of Christ”) in the second . Unfortunately, as yet it has not been possible to identify such a traditional type of ceremonial dicta latina that was carved on a sword blade. Moreover, this theory presupposes that the inscriptions were generalized. However, quite conversely, the inscriptions (even though sometimes showing a constancy of letters) are extremely variable and appear to be very personal. One might say the individual secret of every sword bearer. It must have been a special dictum so obvious and so self-evident to him that it was not necessary to spell out its significant meaning.

John Worley & Thomas Wagner, "How to make swords talk: an interdisciplinary approach to understanding medieval swords and their inscriptions", Waffen- und Kostümkunde, 2013:

It is our premise that if one is to understand the meaning of a historical or archaeological artifact it is important to understand its context as well. That is to say, we try to understand the object, the time period from which it came and how the whole picture fits together. In accordance with the theoretical framework of Lorraine Daston, our medieval swords can be considered “talking things” . Their “loquaciousness” derives from their mythical and material properties as well as from the cultural purpose for which they were produced. Interpreting historical items in this manner is a task not without its fair share of complexity. We would suggest that the most fruitful way to approach such a spider web of interdependency is by way of an interdisciplinary study. A study that utilizes a hermeneutic methodology and checks the feasibility of the proposed hypotheses by way of a dialectic relationship with the objects of study. Given the importance of clearly defining such complex terms, we shall explain exactly what we mean.



  1. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    See also:

    "British Library asks for help deciphering a medieval sword" (8/9/15)

    by Michelle Starr

    It might help to compare the inscription on the River Wiltham sword with those on the sword found at Alphen aan den Rijn in the Netherlands



  2. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

    XOX is obviously "love and kisses."

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

    The lack of any spacing or punctuation hinting at internal structure makes it a lot more opaque. Absent those cues, the standard inscription on modern British coins would be the rather baffling ELIZABETHIIDGREGFD, which gets more confusing as it goes along. But I'm hoping someone will come up with a plausible theory that it represents the Norman French analogue of IITYWIMWYBMAD.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

    I have no expertise whatever to offer, but given that the experts seem to be stumped, one wonders whether going into a medieval smithy for a magical sword inscription was rather like going into a 21st-century tattoo parlor and asking for a Chinese proverb.

  5. Rubrick said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

    "It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown."

    Nice attachment ambiguity there. My first thought was "Why is writing in an unknown language more likely to be religious than not?"

  6. Jaysen said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 10:04 pm

    Surely the X is for Christi.

    If the rest are initials of Latin religious words, then it would be a matter of looking up common words that match. O could be Omnes, D could be Deo, N could be Nostra, and so on. I'm not sure whether NDXOXCH… standing for "Nostra Deo Christi Omnes Christi Cuncti Hec…" would be a good start to any sort of prayer. Google translate makes that out to be "Christ our God, we all have all these…"

    I'm stuck at any good options for the W.

  7. Matt said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 11:29 pm

    The inscription has a "W." Does Latin have W's?

  8. Janey said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:12 am

    Ha, yes, I like it!

  9. Janey said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:14 am

    Gregory Kusnick's comment, that is.

  10. Jeroen Mostert said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:20 am

    I now rather want a katana inscribed with +ROTFLMAOOMGWTFBBQ+. Though tacky now, with any luck it will baffle archaeologists in a few centuries.

  11. Jason Stokes said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:30 am

    I'm imagining a future archeologist trying to decipher the mystic incantation SWALK.

  12. Jenny Chu said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:51 am

    To what extent were acronyms used in 13th century Europe? I am reminded of my bafflement when I first started reading Vietnamese newspapers and came across terms like UBNDTƯTP.HCM (Ủy ban Nhân dân Trung Ương Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, or Ho Chi Minh City Central People's Committee).

  13. Michael Watts said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 4:12 am

    No, Latin doesn't have W. No G or J, either.

  14. zoetrope said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 4:57 am

    By looking at common phrases in Latin prayers, I come up with the following hypotheses for the BENEDOX and the DIOX inscriptions:

    Dominum Iesum Christum for DIC
    In Spiritum Sanctum or something like that for ISS, and the F could be for Filio, but no idea about the T
    Benedic Domine for the BENEDO part, and the X could be Christus, as Jaysen said
    Christus Spiritus Deo or something like that (don't know any Latin sorry for all the wrong word endings!) for CSD
    Domine Iesu for DI at the start of the DIOX inscription

    The letters which are obviously not Latin, like W and Z could maybe be parts of the sword owner's name.

  15. richardelguru said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 6:46 am

    Rather reminds me of the sort of lettering you get done out in flint on some churches, for example at Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh in Suffolk:
    A-N-JS-B-S-T-M-S-A-H-K-R which is supposed to stand for "Ad Nomina JesuS, Beati Sanctae Trinitas, Maria Sanctorem Anne Honorem Katherine Reconstructus"

  16. Aaron said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 8:00 am

    "A study that utilizes a hermeneutic methodology and checks the feasibility of the proposed hypotheses by way of a dialectic relationship with the objects of study."

    Oh dear. Perhaps we ought to inscribe *this* on a sword and cause the archaeologists of the future true bafflement.

    [(myl) It would be more contemporary to inscribe it on a military rifle.]

  17. Robert Coren said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    @Michael Watts: Come again? No G in Latin?

    I also have to note that the quotation from Wagner et al. is the first time I have seen Schwertleite as other than the name of one of Wagner's lesser Valkyries.

  18. Roger Lustig said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 11:16 am

    "If you can read this, you can get a good fiefdom."

  19. Keith said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    Latin might not have G, J or W, but those letters could well be initials of an English or other Germanic name.

  20. Reza Ghalavand said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:56 pm

    Guys, I've casted one of my old school spells on this:

    which caused it to form into this:
    "+ 14 4 24 15 24 3 8 23 4 18 7 8 4 24 15 18 22 9 +"
    (you guess what I did)

    Still it kind of sucks, but through being a wise magician that I am (literally meaning being a fan of true detective) I already knew that those + signs are clues to what the tricky goldsmith wanted me to know. So I added a series of alternating +'s and -'s just to realize how wasteful the equation of life could be (which is not I insist! :) ):

    "+14-4+24-15+24-3+8-23+4-18+7-8+4-24+15-18+22-9+" –> "0"

    Hope this helps some bright mind.

  21. Vincent Daly said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    Tell Gaius Julius Caesar that Latin has no G.

    Gaius could also br written Caius, and Julius was written Iulius, but there are plenty of Latin words with g. Gloria, gratia, ago.

  22. min said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    The serifs of the W look so weird. Is there any info on the typeography that could help with linking it to language? The first R is totally different from the 2nd, looks like it is a different letter. I do not want to argue with the experts, but for me that is not an R at all.

  23. Robert Coren said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    Heh. I just noticed that my comment contains two instances of the name "Wagner", with quite different referents.

  24. Paul said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 11:46 am

    Far from this being an advert for a well-known British brand of beef tea, I am imagining the Xes merely as punctuation spacing the groups of initials- the CH is probably Christus – and that the inscription combines Latin with medieval German, neither of which disappointingly do I remember much of. My little modern German suggests something along the lines of 'Who taketh away the sins', etc. (R for Redemptor?) and the OR VI could be an invocation to victory or virtue, as there was no Pope named Or… V1 of any contemporary relevance.
    Have you asked GCHQ?

  25. john brenson said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

    I'm wondering whether the first characters are as expected in a Latin-ish abbreviation script, but the "c" is actually a break, not a letter, followed by a Germanic phrase of HWD which maybe sounds like HWT or certainly commencing HW? It's possible that the scribe appreciate that the initial Latinate letters would be understood as they are, and followed with a similar shortening of his own Germanic script?

  26. TC said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 2:18 am

    I've seen X0X before in old Alba Script on table stones….usually meant along the lines of "Christ-Scarified-Christ" or X0X…so in a weapon ,kinda the bearer was at war to sacrifice himself for Christ in war (Death) for Christ….in a religious meaning just as a lamb or such. X0X = (Christ EUG Christ) EUG meaning Death for a reason or purposes. kinda like the struggle to prevalence…all had over promenade meaning and high influence during the period.

  27. Antonio Garcia Hurtado said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 9:30 am

    "תתחגרעכטחארטנחאכעכטפתת" +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+
    The aramaic text start with [hagar], gird. The problem is that double tau interacts with the first suposed [yod], and reads [het].
    Another question is the shape of "W", not waw, cause those ancient aramaic alphabets does´nt use waw. I think we must read [nun].
    You need parse this "scriptio continua", to make translation.

  28. Thomas Crofts said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 11:49 am

    Treating it as Latin (with typical Greek abbreviations for 'Christus') here is a rude disambiguation. It is based on Cappelli's Sigle ed Abbreviature Epigrafiche, and treating the W (as often enough in Latin epigraphy) as two Vs. I am also trying to think of what a 13th century sword might want to say. (despite my efforts here, I would be more persuaded by an interpretation linking it directly to one of the more violent Psalms):

    Nomine Domine XristO XristuS Hoc Ullo Viro Devoto Regno Gloriae Hostes Domini XristO Ruam Ubique Inveniam

    "In the name of Lord Christ [.] Christ wishes this thing [:] that through some man devoted to the kingdom of glory I should strike down the enemies of Christ wherever I find them"

    Thomas Crofts

  29. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

    From Francis Heaney on Facebook: "I mean, it's obvious, isn't it? Clearly it's a cryptogram with the spaces removed. Decoded, it describes what the sword can do: cut up a knight into thin slices, or, as it puts it, FLAY A NOBLE TO LAYERS."

  30. Antonio Garcia Hurtado said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    There are several issues that alter the apparent reading:
    Initial and ending, double taw, with a "kaf". reading "תתך" and "כתת".
    Confusion betwen "Aleph/Zayin" in transcription, (C/G).
    Full value for "ayin" due to inner line.

    "תתך חגר עינך ט חארט נחזך עינך טפ כתת"

    The most important thing is to recognize the Aramaic alphabet, since the Roman Empire only used Aramaic as their official language and its shapes can be confused with the modern latin alphabet.

  31. David wasley said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

    The sword is speaking in visual signs as are the letters inscribed.
    My observation belongs to the gematria of the Jerome bible and a number
    To latin dictionary. Interpretation involves an enormous oversight
    By scholars concerning the Alphabetvm Nvmerorvm. If this helps,
    The convivia of four signs – (say what you see) – gladivs & crux & crvx &
    Lvnatvs are the numbers – 67+58+58+96 = 279. Remember photivs and his library
    of 279 books. There is a 6th c. inscription on a stone in somerset – Sagitarivs N Artirvs Agni Leo – which adds to 279. Why this number? The answer is to be found in jerome
    Salvvm fac temet ipsvm et nos – 279 – save yourself and us. Lvke 23:39.
    Or signa avtem eos qvi crediderint – 279 – and these signs will accompany those who believe. Mark 16:17. Some are far more potent as in lvke 24:36 Jesvs stetit in medio eorvm – jesvs himself stood among them = 279.
    Then the first signs I believe in their convivia or number train = Pater Noster Qvi Est In Coeli = 279 the first line of the Lord's Prayer or Ego Svm Via Et Veritas Et Vita – I am the way the truth and the life. The five wounds of Christ are the full gematria of qvinqvi vvlnes christi in gematria + letter + word = 279.

    The Sword will carry these incantations forever to those who can see the signa data and remain hidden to those who are not Christians . These are the promises of possession in times of stress and persecution. The remaining letters on this and other blades in addition
    To the combination of detailed signs they are carrying again add to a number value which can be matched to the jerome latin text. If you may remember, St iltvdvs in the life by Samson knew the five keys of knowledge – he was not called a theologian. The five keys
    Qvinqve Claves Scientiae are hidden bible convivia as is the phrase pictvra et logos et nvmeros = 279 in its gematria.

  32. janko said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 2:42 am

    XORVI means Croats….
    North of the Great Moravia is where Alfred the Great states as Croatian lands (890 AD). In his Geography of Europe relaying on Orosius, Alfred the Great says:
    "To the north-east of the Moravians are the Dalamensae; east of the Dalamensians are the Horithi (White Croats)
    In addition, the names "chrowati et altera chrowati" is mentioned in the so-called Prague Charter from 1086 AD..
    Bílí Chorvati, White Croats,Bijeli Hrvati..
    Tanais Tablets 2nd-3rd century AD Rostov-on-Don, Russia
    Among the names on the tablets are those of three men: Horoúathos, Horoáthos, and Horóathos (Χορούαθ[ος], Χοροάθος, Χορόαθος)

  33. Glyn said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    I like the numbers idea best, perhaps the maker made thousands of swords these were milestones e.g. the 10,000th. though given the spread around eroupe, perhapse they were for staints, that travelled or there body-guards, that's my thoughts.

  34. M. Sox said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    To the BRITISH LIBRARY,Dear Fellows

    My transcription of the inscription from the sword
    [Lincolnshire 1825;British Museum 1858,1116.5]:


    ND________Noster Dominus/Nostro Domino
    XO________reX Orbis
    XG________reX Gudaeorum
    HWDN____Hal W*D*N (*=vowel)
    CHD______CHristus Deus
    XORVI____reX ORBIs/Regi ORBI/Rege ORBI


    M. Sox, Karlsruhe (15.08.2015; 3:17)

  35. Qafqa said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    I think it's all Latin, all initials. The W stood out to me as odd as the Latin V is used also, so it had to not be Latin, and so I posited a personal name. Once I had that, I found a ruler from the appropriate timeframe with a style that matched and got:

    XOX (the Trinity)
    Wilhelm (II)
    Dei (gratia),
    Germania (et)
    Dei (nutu)
    XO (Christus)

    In the) Name of the Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
    Count of Holland WIlliam II by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
    Christ reigns, (Christ) Conquers, (Christ) Commands

    Furthermore, William II has British connections, his father having been raised in Scotland, and his Kingship of Germany also matches the manufacture of the blade.

  36. Qafqa said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

    I feel good enough about this solution that I'd love to get it to Julian Harrison, since comments were closed on the original article. Help appreciated!

  37. Qafqa said,

    August 16, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

    I believe this is all in Latin, all initials. The big key to my solution was the W: since V is used elsewhere it cannot also be being used to spell the same sound in Latin, so it stood to reason that it was the start of a personal name. Starting there, I looked for a ruler of the appropriate time period with a style that matched the inscription, and got:

    XOX (the Trinity)
    Wilhelm (II)
    Dei (gratia),
    Germania (et)
    Dei (nutu)
    XO (Christus)

    Which translated is:
    (In the) Name of the Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
    Count of Holland William II by the grace of God, King of Germany and Hainault by the will of God
    Christ reigns, (Christ) Conquers, (Christ) Commands

    Furthermore, William II has a British connection: his father was raised in Scotland, but his kingship also matches the manufacture of the blade.

    I'm confident enough in my solution that I'd love to get this to Julian Harrison (comments were closed in the original blog post), if anyone can help.

  38. xGregory Stevens Cox said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

    I propose that:
    [1] The inscription is likely to be in Latin and that the letters stand for words.
    [2]In The Daily Telegraph 8 August 2015 ‘Lady Amelia’ suggested that the X could be a marker rather than a letter. ‘outlaw state’ suggested that the X was a chi –χ- a Greek letter that starts the name of Χριστος = Latin Christus.
    [3] The letter W is anomalous. A possible reason for the W is that it is the initial of a name.
    [4] WDR could therefore be a name along the lines of e.g. Walter de Richmond.
    [5] The inscription probably starts with an invocation.
    The British Library suggests ‘Nostrum (sic) Dominus (Our Lord) or Nomine Domini name of the Lord)’.
    [6] An invocation is likely to be in the vocative case – Noster Domine.
    [7] The X may be read as a chi = Christe
    [8] The name of the Lord might easily be followed by an adjective –
    Noster Domine Christe Omnipotens
    [9] After the Invocation would come the petition.
    [10] Christ is being invoked, presumably for his protection of the owner of the sword –
    Christe, Custodi Hunc [or Cura Hunc]
    [11] and then the sword is involved –
    Gladio Hoc
    Christe, Custodi Hunc W…..De…..R…. Gladio Hoc
    [12] The petition ends with another invocation –
    Domine Christe Omnipotens Rex Visibilis Invisibilis
    [13] The whole inscription then reads –
    Noster Domine Christe Omnipotens invocation
    Christe, Custodi Hunc W…. de… R….Gladio Hoc petition
    Domine Christe Omnipotens Rex Visibilis Invisibilis invocation.
    Our Lord Christ all-powerful, Christ protect this W…DE…R with this sword,Lord Christ all-powerful, king seen and unseen.
    [14] There is a certain elegance about the composition – invocation-petition-invocation. The usage of Hunc…Hoc is chiastic –
    Hunc W D R
    Gladio Hoc.
    [14] The concept of Christ as visibilis invisibilis was a topos of medieval theologians. There is a discussion about the nature of Christ – visibilis invisibilis – in Book 4 of the Sententiarum libri quinque of Peter of Poitiers – more or less contemporary with the sword's date.
    [15] Rather than taking X as being chi – Christe, it could be construed as the sign of the cross and a transliteration along these lines is possible:Nomine Dei/Domini + Omnipotentis + Custodi Hunc W D R Gladio Hoc Domine + Omnipotens Rex Visibilis Invisibilis [In the name of God + the all-powerful + guard this WDR with this sword Lord + all-powerful, king visible and invisible].
    This was posted on The Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2015.

  39. JOSE LUIS GIL said,

    August 21, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

    Dear All,
    I very much agree with the last (and highly cultured) Comment of Mr. Gregory Stevens. However, I would like to offer my small contribution in case it may be useful to solve this riddle.
    Of course, we can assume that the symbol appears at the beginning and end of the text seems Pate Cross. This would lead us to believe that this is a Templar sword. Moreover, closely observing registration seems that signs that occupy positions 7 and 12 are precisely opposite: if the first resembles a G, the second seems a C. Moreover, the sign at position 11 does not seem an R, but rather an "n" in lowercase.
    By the age dating of the sword, the pseudo religious character of the registration, which can be a mixture of languages (Latin still not disappeared, English not yet stabilized), and assuming that the 'X' sign is just a separator, my modest proposal could be something like this:
    Nomine DeiXOmnipotentisXCHange What Do Not aRe CHangeDXORVI (in Orbe)

  40. Bruno Rapallo said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

    As you can verify at the following link,
    ten days ago I tried to decipher the full inscription as a medieval Latin acronym (the owner of the sword, may be, was a knight named Wilhelm, Willelmus or Willielmus in medieval Latin):


    Of course I am not sure at all that my interpretation is correct.

    Best regards by Bruno Rapallo from Genoa-Italy

  41. Gregory Cox said,

    August 23, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

    Molte grazie. Chi sa? La sua versione mi sembra possibile.
    Gratias tibi ago, Gregorius.

  42. Bruno Rapallo said,

    August 24, 2015 @ 6:06 am

    @ Gregory Cox
    Thank you very much indeed. Taking into account that the first "R" and the second are graphically very different (the first "R" could actually be "N"), there is another possible version:


    It is very plausible and reasonable your version too, that I like very much.

    Ego quoque magnas tibi gratias habeo,

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