Think Piece

An Early Modern Historian Plays (Word) Games

by guest contributor Miles Pattenden

By Miles Pattenden

During lockdown in Australia, I pitted my wits against the cryptography of a seventeenth-century Spanish priest. It hadn’t been how I planned to spend 2020 but, you know. Global events have made strange bedfellows of many of us.

Gaspar Sanz (1640-c.1710) is best known today as a composer of classical guitar music but in his lifetime he had much-loved side interests in Kabbalah and Latin puzzles.  My formal work on Sanz, which appears in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, uses his oeuvre to reflect on a wider phenomenon of clerical community-building in Baroque Spain. This focus comes in part because we know surprisingly little about Sanz for a man whose music is so celebrated. Where he lived, even when he died: it is all up for question.

In fact, almost everything we can know about Sanz comes from his puzzles. So here I wanted to reflect on the experience of working on them and, specifically, of setting aside the detached mode of history in which I was trained to break a ‘fourth wall’ between my role as historical analyst and ludic participant.

Fig. 1 – Gaspar Sanz, Ecos sagrados, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, 4 H.eccl. 697 m, p. xxix (0037).

Sanz’s Puzzles

Sanz was the author of at least half a dozen pamphlets in Latin and Spanish. Most survive in just one copy. Far more probably never survived and form part of the seventeenth century’s “legion of lost books.” Sanz translated the Jesuit Daniello Bartoli’s famous treatise on ‘the Man of Letters’ from Italian. And he wrote a 150-page panegyric in praise of Pope Innocent XI (r. 1676-89), the Ecos sagrados, which imagines a reader in Rome hearing the hills and city churches resounding the pope’s praises.

All Sanz’s works contain puzzles of different descriptions. The Ecos sagrados, for instance, rejoices in no fewer than fifty-eight anagrams worked around the pope’s name, pattern poems, a quintuple acrostic poem (“Carmina achrostichide quina constructa”) (fig. 1), chronograms, palindromes, a “monosyllabic epigram”, “riddles” (aenigmata), and a cryptic diagram, the “Obeliscus Odescalchi” (fig. 2). We do not know exactly what purpose all these word games served. To praise the pope is Sanz’s ostensible gambit. But to criticize the French, to engage in spiritual reflection, and to amuse his friends are all plausible, or part-plausible, alternatives.

Fig. 2 – Gaspar Sanz, Ecos sagrados, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, 4 H.eccl. 697 m, (0153).
Fig. 3 – Daniello Bartoli, El hombre de letras, Madrid 1678, p. xv, Biblioteca Histórica de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, BH FOA 28407

Sanz’s other works incorporate such alternative exotica as palindromic labyrinths and Gematria puzzles (on which more below). This one (Fig. 3), from the preface to his translation of Bartoli, is amongst the more memorable and perplexing.

Clue to the Riddle: “Know readers, that you have the answer to the aforesaid puzzle, but no one can solve it except time”.

Sanz himself clearly derived a great deal of fulfilment from his jouissance, which raised a question for me as I worked on him: how could I write about his texts without first being able to solve his puzzles? My sense of responsibility as a scholar demanded that I play his game. But how?

Sanz must have expected his original readers to recognize the rules which would have led to solutions, for he rarely specifies them in the texts themselves. Yet, 400 years on, I was a novice scholar who needed to learn what they were. The whole thing was a fresh kind of challenge. And an exciting one too, even if my most relatable experience to it thus far was having done battle with the odd cryptic crossword.

Anatomy of Sanz’s Puzzles

Most of Sanz’s ‘puzzles’ are of the kind that need to be understood rather than solved (familiar territory for the litterateur, if not necessarily for the religious historian). Take the multitude of anagrams that grace the pages of his magnum opus the Ecos sagrados. They are clearly there to show Sanz’s erudition with Latin – and not only through his ability to construct meaningful Latin phrases but also through his construction of ones that speak personally to the subject of his enterprise.

Thus, from among the anagrams of “Innocentivs Vndecimvs” [Innocent XI] we find:

EN De SINV COMI INVNCTVS [behold in the bosom of Como, anointed] (Pope Innocent was from Como)

And from among those of “Innocentivs Vndecimvs Pater Sanctvs” [Innocent XI, the Holy Father]:

EN NVNC IVDICAS SANCTA VT SIMON PETRVS [Behold, now you judge holy things as Simon Peter]

The “Carmina Acrostichide Quina Constructa” is likewise similarly clever: the five words in each horizontal line can be read together to form a legitimate Latin sentence. The first four lines:

You, Innocent, will sit unimpaired as a judge

He [who] knows no wickedness not even in name

A shining captain [who] is counted sailing by divinity

The one in office by offering praise gains the burden of the world

Only in a few cases, such as two riddles at the end of the Ecos sagrados, is a ‘solution’ required. Sanz gives ‘cryptic’ clues in these cases, but they aren’t exactly as straightforward as those in a modern crossword.

Riddle I (fig. 4):Theme and solution of the sacred riddle: All say that virtue rests in the middle, when the extremes rush together, or faults remain.Although in the middle is the great virtue of the Father,may you not, even so, grant his extreme faults. The letters which you see show this, the symbols of Christ, with which the supreme glory of the Father shines here,of Jesus, of the servants of God, Christ’s Vicar has exultedif you unite the end letters of the Pontiff. See! The end [i.e. start and finish] letters in the Pope are the marks of Jesus. But if you read them with the initials he is Pius.See!  By exalting these sacred signs of Christ you are sanctifying your prayers for Innocent XI.” And “The pontifical authority to be read both ways: ‘And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 16:19).”
Riddle II (fig. 5): “When written in the Spanish tongue and clearly examined, the sacred name of his Innocent Holiness reveals five times over the harmonic proportion of the sesquialtera [3:2] (which amongst mathematical proportions is especially perfect).” And the verse, “This holy name has five thrice, and ten once/ See! It bears two hundred and two; read everything/ By whichever number you like that mighty proportion shines out/ Which this year confers, on account of three and then two/ The year is the fifth of the Gracious Father’s pontificate/ And the one in which the name the sacred relationship is present/ Besides, this year is the light of the Holy See and the City/ Thus the world too praises the See’s first lustrum [a five-year period in Ancient Rome].”
Fig. 4 – Gaspar Sanz, Ecos sagrados, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, 4 H.eccl. 697 m, p.111 (0151)
Fig. 5 – Gaspar Sanz, Ecos sagrados, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, 4 H.eccl. 697 m, p.112 (0152)

Only a good deal of playing around with the words and letters of Innocent’s name(s) – that time-honored technique of trial and error – produced results. The first aenigma can be solved by extracting the first, middle, and last letters of the words “InnocEntiuSUndecimuS” and “PonTIfeXSummUS” to reveal “Iesus” and “Christus” (reversing and substituting the “PX” of “pontifex” for Greek chirho (XP). As per the clue, the first letters of the four words can also be extracted to form an anagram of “Pius.”

The second riddle involves identifying the three “fives” in Innocent’s name: the five vowels, five consonants, and five syllables; then the “ten,” which is the ten letters of “Innocencio”; and, finally, the “two hundred and two,” the two “C”s and two “I”s in that word (Roman numerals).

The riddle also asks how Innocent’s name forms a perfect proportional sesquialtera ratio, which can be explained because the number “five” is made up of three and two (which Innocencio has thrice over) and the number “ten” is six plus four, two numbers which also form the sesquialtera twice over. This is interesting, not least because it shows how Sanz’s puzzles intersected his musical interests. Harmonic ratios mattered to him in both spheres so he looked for them in numbers and letters as well as in sound.

Sanz’s Number Puzzle

Returning to the number puzzle in fig. 3. This is Gematria, a form of Kabbalah in which the letters in a particular word are assigned numerical values which are then summed. But the challenge is how to recover the word from the sum even when one guesses this? We need both the language and the Gematria’s key.

Kabbalah Gematria used a logarithmic scale for its key with, in Latin, A=1, B=2, C=3, etc… but J=10, K=20, L= 30, etc… and S=100, T=200, etc. Yet these values did not necessarily correspond with Sanz’s text.

In fact, an obscure pamphlet, which survives in a single copy in Madrid, sets out his alternative system. Sanz dropped the value assigned to the letter “K” because “the K does not count as it is not needed in the Spanish tongue,” he explained, and also “because it has already been excluded from this attribution and count, even in Latin works, by geniuses who have more than enough authority to say so.”

An intuition, that the first word or two might well refer to the patron to whom the text was dedicated, then provided the crucial breakthrough. 361 could be “Savus” (80+1+100+100+80) and 254 “Melinus” (20 + 5+ 10 +9 +30 +100 +80).

At this point I realized that I could probably run a quick programme in Microsoft Excel, using an imported Latin wordlist, to solve the rest. But by now that felt like cheating – hardly an authentic way to crack the code. Instead, I spent a happy afternoon sitting in the shade of a great ghost gum wrestling with this seventeenth-century quasi-sudoku:

210 = Sanctae (80 + 1 +30 + 3+ 90 +1 +5)

167 = Romanae (70+40+20+1+30+1+5)

121 = Ecclesiae (5+3+3+10+5+9+1+5)

217 = Cardinalis (3+1+70+4+9+30+1+10+9+80)

349 = Creatus (3+70+5+1+90+100+80)

The puzzle’s conceit is that the sum of all seven of these numbers is “1679,” the year that would have followed the book’s publication. The Gematria thus “predicts” Savo Mellini’s elevation to the cardinalate. Hence the cryptic clue: “only time can solve it.”

Historical Puzzlers as an Emotional Community

My point in this think-piece is that the experience of solving Sanz’s puzzles cut to the heart of my self-conception as an historical researcher. To put it simply, in solving the puzzles one is inevitably drawn deep into Sanz’s thought-world to share in its emotional experiences.

That thought world, once constructed in dialogue with various other Spanish and non-Spanish clerics, is now largely forgotten. Yet it was complex and intricate and playful: a world in which games had meaning, resonances, aesthetics, and associations, and in which the ludic could be a culture- and community-building practice.

I wondered, as I was working all this out, what Sanz would have made of a stranger like me toiling away in an unknown southern land to unmask the intimate secrets of his texts? I thought too of the game cultures in which I (and others) more regularly participate. How will they look to historians four centuries on? Will they seem as incomprehensible to them as Sanz’s odd forms of puzzling perhaps do to us?

Above all, I also noted how much I enjoyed Sanz’s puzzling, at least when I made progress. I began to believe I was feeling some of the things that Sanz and his earlier readers did. I partook of his joy at the quickness of his conceits. Once or twice I winced at his ‘near misses.’ Many times, I wracked my brain at just what on earth he was doing.

Occasionally, I even wondered if I could come up with better solutions than his. What if, for instance, Sanz had followed the modern Spanish spelling of Innocent’s name in the Ecos sagrados’ second riddle? “Inocencio” plus the “XI” converted into Spanish “once” (eleven) in fact reveals a far more perfect sesquialtera than the one of Sanz’s contrivance (3 x triple letters and 2 x double letters):

Such novel ‘solutions’ undoubtedly helped me join what Barbara Rosenwein has termed an “emotional community” of fellow players, albeit one whose previous members all superannuated to the sky centuries ago.

Does any of this matter? Yes, if it helps us understand this kind of clerical culture of (word)play, which has yet to be studied widely even in its more technical aspects – in part because they are hard to comprehend and in part because they are easily dismissed as ephemeral.

But also yes, if it causes us to wonder how our various emotional communities come with us into all our encounters with sources. There is always a value to sharing feelings with long-dead authors, along with their abstract ideas or the concrete facts they (often unintentionally) reveal. The question is: can that value be playfully expressed?

Miles Pattenden is Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Australian Catholic University and Co-Editor of The Journal of Religious History. His books include Pius IV and the Fall of the Carafa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Featured Image: Instrucciòn de Mùsica sobre la Guitarra Española (1674). This is a “hidden portrait” that could be Gaspar Sanz although no definite portrait remains of him.

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