“How Letters rubbed with dust may be seen”

This is the 3rd part of an ongoing project, wherein I recreate
Book Sixteen “Of Invisible Writing” from Neopoliani Magiae Naturalis,
a 16th century text on pre-Newtonian science. Accompanying the 17th century English translation of this work are photographs and commentary of my recreations. 

The following excerpts are from Natural Magic (Magiae Naturalis) written by Giambattista della Porta (1537-1615) in 1584 A.D. Transcribed from 1658 English Edition, Printed for Thomas Young and Samual Speed, at the Three Pigeons, and at the Angel in St Paul’s Church-yard.

For this project we will be exploring:
Chapter III “How Letters rubbed with dust may be seen.”

Now I will use another artifice, that letters rubbed with dust may be read, that were before invisible, which I read was used by the ancients.  Wherefore do thus,

“That Letters rubbed with mill dust may be read.”

That as in paper, so on some unseen parts of the body, letters written may lie hid, and be opened when need is.  Write secretly on your back or arms, or other limbs, with Vinegar or Urine, and dry it that nothing may appear.  Now, to have it read, rub it over with soot or burnt paper, for so the letters will shine forth.  Or,


If you make letters with fat, Tallow or any other fatty substance, or with Gum, or milk of a Fig tree, and strew them with dust of coal or burnt paper, they will appear.  It may be by this craft, as Polyanus the Greek says, Attalus used the imprinted inscription of a beast for sacrifice.  He, to raise the valor of his Soldiers, to make them fight valiantly with their enemies, the French, that were far more in number, supposing it would be no little advantage to put them in hopes before hand of the assurance of victory, invented a trivial business, but otherwise profitable, with the priest that was to offer sacrifice.  Before the day they were to fight, he prepared for the victory.  For Sudinus the Soothsayer, being to offer sacrifice, prayed unto the gods, and cuts the sacrifice in two.  But the king used powdered Gum, and from the right to the left side, the drew these words, “Regis Victoria,” “…the Victory is the King’s…,”  And when the entrails were drawn forth, he thrust his hand into the hottest and most spongy place, and wiped clean the inscription.  But the Auger, changing the other parts, and doing his office, turns the part where this inscription was contained, “Regis Victoria.”  The matter was no sooner published, but theSoldier generally rejoiced, and shouted exceedingly, to show how ready they were to fight, so going on with a certain assurance of the victory.  And depending on this promise from the gods, they fought courageously, and subdued the French.  But to the matter.  Milk of the Fig tree will do the same, if it be written on white paper, and afterwards sent to a friend, be rubbed with coal dust strewn upon it, and made clean again, so will the letters presently appear black.  Pliny says, the milk of  Tithymals will to the like, to make the letters, and dust strewn on them to scower them.  And thus women as he says, had rather speak with adulterers, then by letters.  Ovid confirms this, admonishing maids in his Arte Amandi, how they may safely write to their sweethearts.

“Write with new Milk, it’s safe, unseen, but read

The writing with coaldust laid on full-right.

Moist flax will write as if that none had been,

And letters on your paper pass the sight.”

Also there is an art that one would not imagine, to write upon Crystal.  For, being all transparent, no man will dream of it, and the letters lie hid within.  Do it thus,

“That letters may appear upon Crystal by strewing on of fine dust.”

Dissolve Gum Arabick in water, or Gum Traganth, that it may be clear, and when it is well dissolved, it will not foul the Crystal, if you write upon it, or upon a cup or glass, for when the letters are dry, they are invisible.  No man will imagine the fraud, if a cup be sent to prison, or a glass full of wine.  When he would see the letters, rub burnt straw or paper on it, and the letters will presently be seen.  Here is another secret,

“The letters on the paper may be read, not by fire, nor water, or any other thing, but in the dust only.”

This is a secret worth knowing.  Dissolve Goat Suet with a little Turpentine.  Rub the paper with this Liquor, and keep it.  When you would send some news to your friend, lay on the paper smeared with the fat upon a letter you would send to your friend, write upon that win an Iron point, and the suit will make the characters on the letter.  Send this away, and if it be intercepted, no water will make the words visible, or any other art, but only strewing dust upon it.  Also you may make,

“That upon black paper, white letters may appear.”

The reason is this.  Mingle the white and yolk of an Egg together, that it may be liquid as ink.  With this Liquor, write on the paper what words you please, and dry them.  When the paper is dry, make a black color over it, and dry it again, and send it.  But that the letters may be visible, scrape the superficies of the paper with a broad Iron.  For so it will be, that the ink being scraped off, where the letters were, they will appear white.

“How Letters are made visible in the fire”

This is the 2nd part of an ongoing project, wherein I recreate
Book Sixteen “Of Invisible Writing” from Neopoliani Magiae naturalis,
a 16th century text on pre-Newtonian science. Accompanying the 17th century English translation of this work are photographs and commentary of my recreations. 

The following excerpts are from Natural Magic (Magiae Naturalis) written by Giambattista della Porta (1537-1615) in 1584 A.D. Transcribed from 1658 English Edition, Printed for Thomas Young and Samual Speed, at the Three Pigeons, and at the Angel in St Paul’s Church-yard.

For this project we will be exploring:
Chapter II “How letters are made visible in the fire.”

I shall show the ways how letters are not made visible by the fire, or not, unless light interpose, or may be read when they are burned.  But,

“To make letters visible by fire.”

So we may bring forth letters written between the verses, and in the close setting together, or larger distances of syllables.  Let the epistle contain some void space, that the  letters may not be seen, and if this be intercepted, it will hardly be read.  If you write with the juice of CitronsOrangesOnions, or almost any sharp things, and you make it hot at the fire, their acrimony is presently discovered.  For they are undigested juices, whereas they are detected by the heat of the fire, and then they show forth those colors, that they would show if they were ripe.  

If you write with a sour Grape that would be black, or with Cervises, when you hold them to the fire, they are concocted, and will give the same color they would in due time give upon the tree, when they were ripe.  

Juice of Cherry, added to Calamus, will make a green, so also Sow-bread, a red.  So diverse juices of fruit will show diverse colors by the fire.  By these means, maids sending, and receiving love letters, escape from those that have the charge of them.  

There is also a kind of Salt called Ammoniac, this, powdered and mingled with water, will write white letters, and can hardly be distinguished from the paper.  But hold them to the fire, and they will show black.  Also,

“Letters that cannot be read unless the paper be burnt.”

For the mixture will be white, and nothing will be seen, but when it is burnt, the paper will be black, and the characters will be white.  Take the sharpest Vinegar and the white of an Egg.  In these, steep Quicksilver, and stir it well, and with that mixture make letters on the paper.  Burn the paper in the fire, and the letters will remain unburnt.  Or make the letters on the paper with Gum, or any kind of Salt or Lime.  These being they cannot be seen at the fire, when the paper is burnt and made black, they will appear white.  If you will, you may,

“Write letters that cannot be seen but by interposition of fire.”

Do it thus.  Mingle Ceruse, or some other white color, with Gum Traganth, soaked, and of this mixture is made a matter of the same color with the paper, that it cannot be discerned from it, nor cause suspicion.  Then this is put between the eye and the light of a candle, the eye cannot pass through where the letters are written, and you shall see them darkly.  This is the reason of the optics.  For that part of thick matter opposed against outward light, hinders it, that the rays cannot come to our sight.  And so the prints of the letters are seen as a shadow.

Urushiol and You, or, “That rash I got at Pennsic”

Every year when folks return from Pennsic I hear someone lament about a mysterious and terrible rash they got during war. Some attribute it to overexposure to the sun, some to an unknown allergen, others to just the heat or friction. All of these things are terrible, and still cause for concern, but more often than not the culprit is likely urushiol.

Urushiol is an oil that can be found on the leaves and stems of plants like; poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.  A common myth is that these plants only occur near wooded areas or around other large growth, but that isn’t true! These can occur anywhere, even in the middle of a field, which means camping in the Serengeti isn’t defense enough against contact with urushiol.  These plants are also common year round, and the oil can remain active for 6 months, so urushiol should be a concern to those camping during any time of the year, not just at war.

The common idiom for identifying these plants is “leaves of three, leave them be” but poison sumac can have as many as thirteen leaves. Take time to learn how to identify these plants so you can avoid them, which is the best way to prevent contact.

I highly recommend participating in one of Lady Rue’s “Pennsic poison walks” to help you learn about potential hazards you could encounter while camping at Cooper’s Lake!

Another common myth is that you should run water over an affected area to remove the poison. Since urushiol is an oil, water only spreads it to other areas but does not remove it from your skin. Special products are needed to safely remove urushiol from your skin, and it is crucial to do so as soon as possible.

Below are items you can use to make an affordable (~$15) “urushiol first aid kit

  • outdoor skin cleanser. $7
  • travel towels. $3
  • generic version of Benedryl (dyphenhydramine) $2
  • antiseptic gel  or anti-itch cream (hydrocrotisone) $5
  • cotton balls $3
  • hydrogen peroxide $4 + atomizer/spritz bottle
  • large ziplock bag

While I’m already on my soap box, let’s talk about the sun, everyone’s true opponent at war.  I know some of you have been looking forward to showing off your Pennsic-bod as boldly as D’ner; but seeing your full body sunburns breaks my heart. 😦

Please wear something, even if that just means a thin white cotton or linen tunic and a straw hat… and for the love of all that is holy, PLEASE wear sunscreen!!! Also HYDRATE, and I don’t mean with rum, please drink at least 1 gallon of water over a 24 hour period if you are going to be exposed to the sun for most of the week/s.

If you wind up with a sunburn before you even make it home, keep the following in mind:

  • Avoid popping blisters, or scratching the rash.
  • Wash the burn with cool water and apply an after-burn product (aloe).
  • Take ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen to relieve pain.

The care instructions for urushiol exposure and sunburn are ironically contradictory. If you get a rash from urushiol, then the blisters need to weep and you need to AVOID water on the rash. If you get a rash from UV exposure you need to avoid touching the blisters and you DO need to apply water. Having both of these ailments at the same time can prove to be problematic which is why it is so important stay vigilant!

I love you all, please stay healthy and have a magical war! 🙂

Lord SdSV

Assassin Card Games #(1-2)

This project was submitted to the A&S Competition at The 20th Anniversary Celebration of The Tournament of the White Hart (2017) at the Shire of Port Oasis (Barboursville, WV) where it won the championship and earned me the title of Artisan of the White Hart XX.

For obvious reasons, assassination is difficult to recreate in our society and even when it comes in the form of play is still dubious at best.  To remedy this I spoke with the Æthelmearc Royal Assassin’s Guild to help generate some ideas for assassin games that could be played at our local event, Sicilian’s Revenge.

Due to the cozy nature of the event, the Pennsic Assassin Games didn’t translate very well to our venue so I wanted to think of something on a smaller scale. When the autocrat asked me to take up the mantle of “Games Master” for Sicilian’s Revenge, which bestowed me with the duty of organizing a station for tabletop games, I thought card games would be a perfect way to fuse the spirit of the Pennsic Assassin Games with my new duties.

Because I wanted to give the attendees a gaming experience unlike any they may have had with extant card games, I decided to seek inspiration from modern card games.  After much research I decided to draw from two modern games, “Exploding Kittens” published by popular topical comics blog “The Oatmeal” as well as the wildly popular game “Love Letter” published by AEG in 9 different editions.

In the game Exploding Kittens players draw cards each turn with a variety of effects until they draw an exploding kitten, in which event the player is immediately out of the game.  This was a very easy game to modify thematically; I simply replaced the kittens with poisons, diffuses with antidotes, etc until a rather surreal game turned into a historically relevant one.  As for Love Letter, very little modification took place; the game is about different members of a medieval court trying to deliver love letters to a princess while impeding the efforts of your fellow suitors/ in my version- different members of a medieval court are trying to deliver clandestine missives to the queen while assassinating your fellow spies.

Once I had converted the games’ themes to suit my needs I then set out to illustrate the individual cards in a fashion that would mimic period card games.  Because “Love Letter” includes various members of court, and because my converted version of “Exploding Kittens” involved a lot of archetypal imagery I chose to use the Tarot de Marseille as the visual inspiration for the cards in both decks (specifically an uncut sheet of cards found in Milan c.1500 that had not been colored) I created the illustrations using India ink on bleached hot-press paper.

After the illustrations for both decks had been completed I covered them in protective acrylic sleeves since they would need to be handled heavily during the event. To reinforce each card, playing cards that had been previously used in Vegas casinos were slipped inside each sleeve behind the illustrations.

Poison Apple Subtlety

This project was displayed at Sicilian’s Revenge 2014 at the Shire of Port Oasis (Huntington, WV), and previously at the Tournament of the White Hart 2013 at the Shire of Port Oasis.

Although marzipan fruit is a perfectly period project to work on (marzipan originated in Spain in the first century, and started to be shaped into fruit a century later in Italy) this particular project was inspired by a thought experiment that arose after working on my 16th Century Household Poisons, specifically the recipe titled “Sleeping Apple”


“Sleeping Apple”

The “Sleeping Apple” from Neopoliani Magioe Naturalis doesn’t resemble an apple, but the concept of a sleeping apple immediately conjures the image of the apple from Snow White that was poisoned with a sleeping curse. Upon reading the original Grimm fairy tale again I was surprised to discover that the apple wasn’t cursed, but crafted.

“Then she went into her most secret room — no one else was allowed inside — and she made a poisoned apple. From the outside it was beautiful, white with red cheeks, and anyone who saw it would want it…

…Now the apple had been so artfully made that only the red half was poisoned.”

The words “artfully made” and “from the outside” really struck a chord with me and connected the dots between the crafted core from Neopoliani Magioe Naturalis and the popular Italian subtlety.


Voila! A variation that looks more realistic, if you used a clove for the stem instead of marzipan it would almost be possible to pass it off as a real apple.

While the story of Snow White was published after period and is German in origin, it is important to point out that the word “italian” in late period Europe was synonymous with poisoner. In other words, both the sleeping apple recipe and the art of marzipan fruit both came from late period Italy — and by associating both of these features with the Evil Queen, it made the character seem all the more evil.

This is all fun and entertaining conjecture of course, not research. Nonetheless I thought it would be fun to follow through with this thought experiment and try my hand at crafting a realistic marzipan apple with a secret core inside.

For this subtlety I chose to make a safe edible core using the same ingredients and techniques one might find in cake pops or Oreo truffles. I then carefully enclosed the core in fresh marzipan that I had dyed with a pale yellow food coloring and allowed it to harden slightly at room temperature. After the apple had began to harden I added further detail by painting on red food coloring using a brush and food color markers.

I often make these poison apples as a tribute to my late mentor Fiachra Bonesetter, who suggested that I create something fun and tangible to help spread my knowledge of period poisons; but my all time favorite specimen was the one that I crafted for Sicilian’s Revenge 2014, during which I had the great fun of feeding it to Their Majesties! -evil laugh-

Dark Indulgences #(1-4)

This project was displayed at Sicilian’s Revenge: Palio di Sicilia 2016 at the Shire of Port Oasis (Huntington, WV).

This is an ongoing scribal series, in which I make and bestow scrolls of personal fealty inspired by the abuses of indulgences by the Catholic church during the late Middle Ages. (13th-16th centuries) By swearing a moral and civil oath, each scroll provides the recipient a perpetual pardon from assassination by my hands.

目潰し (Metsubushi): 15th Century Shinobi Weapon

This project was displayed at The Blackstone Raid 2016 at the Barony of the Blackstone Mountain (Ripley, WV) in celebration of the Society’s 50th anniversary.

This was the second project in my “Shinobi” series, wherein I explore the various implements and techniques 16th century Japanese assassins would have used during their missions.

The documentation I submitted for this project is available to read at the link below:
目潰し (Metsubushi): 15th Century Shinobi Weapon

手箱 (Tebako): 14th Century Japanese Lacquered Personal Accessory Box

This project was submitted to the Dirty Dozen Donation Derby at The Blackstone Raid 2016 at the Barony of the Blackstone Mountain (Ripley, WV) where it won the populace choice, baronial choice, and royal choice awards.

This was the first project in my “Shinobi” series, wherein I explore the various implements and techniques 16th century Japanese assassins would have used during their missions.

The documentation I submitted for this project is available to read at the link below:
手箱 (Tebako): 14th Century Japanese Lacquered Personal Accessory Box

Scytale & Alberti Cipher Disk

This project was submitted to the A&S competition at The Festival of the Passing of the Ice Dragon 2016 at the Barony of the Rhydderich Hael (Buffalo, NY) where it placed 2nd in the novice category.

The documentation I submitted for this project is available to read at the link below:
Scytale & Alberti Cipher Disk: A Juxtaposition of Early and Late Period Encryption Devices