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lowdown — simple markdown translator

lowdown is a Markdown translator producing HTML5 and roff documents in the ms and man formats. It’s just clean, secure, open source C code with only a single dependency (libdiff). Its canonical documentation is lowdown(1) for the formatter, lowdown(5) for the syntax, and the library interface at lowdown(3).

lowdown started as a fork of hoedown to add sandboxing (pledge(2), capsicum(4), or sandbox_init(3)) and roff output to securely generate PDFs on OpenBSD with just mandoc(1).

It can also be used to show the difference between two Markdown documents with lowdown-diff, documented as the lowdown diffing engine. This uses a tree-based difference algorithm to show semantically-valid Markdown differences.

Want an example? For starters: this page, The Markdown input is rendered an HTML5 fragment using lowdown, then further using sblg. You can also see it as index.pdf, generated from groff(1) from ms output. Another example is the GitHub rendered as README.html or README.pdf.

To get lowdown, just download, verify, unpack, run ./configure, then run doas make install (or use sudo). lowdown is a project. Homebrew users can use’s tap.

For an argument against using Markdown at all, read Ingo’s comments on Markdown.


Of course, lowdown supports the usual HTML output. Specifically, it produces HTML5 in XML mode. You can use lowdown to create either a snippet or standalone HTML5 document.

It also supports outputting to the ms macros, originally implemented for the roff typesetting package of Version 7 AT&T UNIX. This way, you can have elegant PDF and PS output by using any modern troff system such as groff(1).

Furthermore, it supports the man macros, also from Version 7 AT&T UNIX. Beyond the usual troff systems, this is also supported by mandoc.

You may be tempted to write manpages in Markdown, but please don’t: use mdoc(7), instead — it’s built for that purpose! The man output is for technical documentation only (section 7).

Both the ms and man output modes disallow images and equations. The former by definition (although ms might have a future with some elbow grease), the latter due to (not insurmountable) complexity of converting LaTeX to eqn(7).

You can control output features by using the -D (disable feature) and -E (enable feature) flags documented in lowdown.1.html.


Beyond the basic Markdown syntax support, lowdown supports the following Markdown features and extensions:

You can control which parser features are used by using the -d (disable feature) and -e (enable feature) flags documented in lowdown.1.html.


I usually use lowdown when writing sblg articles when I’m too lazy to write in proper HTML5. (For those not in the know, sblg is a simple tool for knitting together blog articles into a blog feed.) This basically means wrapping the output of lowdown in the elements indicating a blog article. I do this in my Makefiles:

     ( echo "<?xml version=\"1.0\" encoding=\"UTF-8\" ?>" ; \
       echo "<article data-sblg-article=\"1\">" ; \
       echo "<header>" ; \
       echo "<h1>" ; \
       lowdown -X title $< ; \
       echo "</h1>" ; \
       echo "<aside>" ; \
       lowdown -X htmlaside $< ; \
       echo "</aside>" ; \
       echo "</header>" ; \
       lowdown $< ; \
       echo "</article>" ; ) >$@

If you just want a straight-up HTML5 file, use standalone mode:

lowdown -s -o README.html

This can use the document’s meta-data to populate the title, CSS file, and so on.

The troff output modes work well to make PS or PDF files, although they will omit equations and only use local PS/EPS images in -Tms mode. The extra groff arguments in the following invocation are for UTF-8 processing (-k and -Kutf8), tables (-t), and clickable links and a table of contents (-mspdf).

If outputting PDF, use the pdfroff script instead of -Tpdf output. This allows image generation to work properly. If not, a blank square will be output in places of your images.

lowdown -s -Tms | \
  groff -k -Kutf8 -t -mspdf >
lowdown -s -Tms | \
  pdfroff -i -k -Kutf8 -t -mspdf > README.pdf

On OpenBSD or other BSD systems, you can run lowdown within the base system to produce PDF or PS files via mandoc:

lowdown -s -Tman | mandoc -Tpdf > README.pdf

Read lowdown(1) for details on running the system.


lowdown is also available as a library, lowdown(3). This effectively wraps around everything invoked by lowdown(1), so it’s basically the same but… a library.


The canonical Markdown test, such as found in the original hoedown sources, will not currently work with lowdown because of the mandatory “smartypants” and other extensions.

I’ve extensively run AFL against the compiled sources with no failures — definitely a credit to the hoedown authors (and those from who they forked their own sources). I’ll also regularly run the system through valgrind, also without issue.


Want to hack on lowdown? Of course you do.

First, start in library.c. (The main.c file is just a caller to the library interface.) Both the renderer (which renders the parsed document contents in the output format) and the document (which generates the parse AST) are initialised.

The parse is started in document.c. It is preceded by meta-data parsing, if applicable, which occurs before document parsing but after the BOM. The document is parsed into an AST (abstract syntax tree) that describes the document as a tree of nodes, each node corresponding an input token. Once the entire tree has been generated, the AST is passed into the front-end renderers, which construct output depth-first.

There are three renderers supported: html.c for HTML5 output, nroff.c for -ms and -man output, and a debugging renderer tree.c.

A note on “real text”.

The only time that input is passed directly into the output renderer is when then normal_text callback is invoked, blockcode or codespan, raw HTML, or hyperlink components. In both renderers, you can see how the input is properly escaped by passing into escape.c.

After being fully parsed into an output buffer, the output buffer is passed into a “smartypants” rendering, one for each renderer type.


For example, consider the following:

## Hello **world**

First, the outer block (the subsection) would begin parsing. The parser would then step into the subcomponent: the header contents. It would then render the subcomponents in order: first the regular text “Hello”, then a bold section. The bold section would be its own subcomponent with its own regular text child, “world”.

When run through the -Ttree output, it would generate:

      data: 6 Bytes: Hello 
        data: 5 Bytes: world

This tree would then be passed into a front-end, such as the HTML5 front-end with -Thtml. The nodes would be appended into a buffer, which would then be passed back into the subsection parser. It would paste the buffer into <h2> blocks (in HTML5) or a .SH block (troff outputs).

Finally, the subsection block would be fitted into whatever context it was invoked within.

Known Issues (or, How You Can Help)

There are some known issues, mostly in PDF (-Tms and -Tman) output.