Chronograms—literally, “time writing”—are dates embedded within text. As such, they are a form of hidden writing called steganography: the encoded characters maintain their own value, but are hidden within a larger text. Easily calculable to those who know what they’re looking for, they still excite the thrill of uncovering secret meaning.
That thrill was experienced by this cataloger when, for the first time ever, she came across a chronogram that had been previously unremarked. (We catalogers take our thrills where we can get them.)
Chronograms can be found in Hebrew and other non-roman scripts, and even on buildings. We will focus here on how they appear in books of the Folger’s collection: as roman numeral dates.
Characters making up the chronogram are necessarily visually distinct from the other characters in the text, and are calculated by identifying these characters and adding up their values.
The printer of this almanac (the very one giving the cataloger a frisson of delight) used roman type for the chronogrammatic characters and italic for the rest of the quotation.
Extracting the letters in roman type from MIrabILIs est DeVs In SanCtIs sVIs, Psal. 68.36, we get MIILIDVICIVI. Rearrange them from higher value to lower—MDCLVVIIIIII—and we get 1000 + 500 + 100 + 50 + 5 + 5 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, or 1666. (You can also add them up in the order they appear, but rearranging makes it easier to calculate.)
Check your chronogrammatic skills with this chronogram that includes the publication year as well in the imprint.
Embedding chronograms in title page quotations are common, but they are found in other types of text too. Here’s a Dutch colophon, also contrasting roman and italic type. Hollandsche naklank is a poem in honor of William of Orange’s ascension to the throne of England, France, and Ireland. The chronogram works out to, well, exactly what you would expect!
In this English translation of Grotius’ play, the translator’s name provides the source of the chronogram, formulated with roman type only. I don’t have the eye to determine whether the chronogrammatic characters are larger than the other upper-case characters; even if not, there is no mistaking them, since roman numeral chronograms are comprised of the characters MDCLXVI and no other.
This clever colophon in this epithalamium spells out the name of the bride in verse followed by a chronogram of the year of the wedding.
As for the image at the top of our post, it’s from this title page and is a chronogram truly “fitted for the meanest capacity”; in case we don’t get it, it tells us right out loud that it’s a chronogram.