Thursday, April 23, 2015
T IS FOR JOHANNES TRITHEMIUS
Does this man look like a merry prankster to you? He doesn't to me, but in fact, that's exactly what he was. And his most elaborate practical joke kept everyone fooled for roughly 500 years.
Let's go back to the beginning. Born in Germany into what sound like humble circumstances, Trithemius craved learning but had a stepfather who didn't believe in education, so he taught himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew in secret. He left home at 17 and landed at the University of Heidelberg. At the age of 20, he took refuge from a sudden snowstorm in the Benedictine Abbey of Sponheim, and decided to stay. It must not have been an A-list place, because the following year he was elected abbot. He stayed on until 1506, building the abbey's library from 50 volumes to several thousand, and writing his own two-volume work on the history of Hirsau Abbey, one of the most important Benedictine abbeys in Germany. But that treatise was soon found to contain several fictional passages. That discovery, along with Trithemius's reputation as a magician, led to a parting of the ways between him and Sponheim Abbey. Luckily, he was offered the post of abbot at St. James' Abbey in Wurtzburg, where he remained for the rest of his life. At some point he became a respected advisor to the Emperor Maximilian.
Trithemius was a prolific writer who produced many books, mainly historical works, into which he occasionally inserted references to fictional people, apparently just to entertain himself. (What a cut-up, huh?) But his most famous - some might say infamous - written work was his three-volume Steganographia (Greek for "hidden writing"), written in around 1500. Privately circulated, the books caused such a stir that Trithemius resolved never to publish them. In fact, their first publication was in 1606, fifty years after his death, and even then they were promptly placed on the Catholic Church's list of banned books.
What was the problem? Well, Books 1 and 2 described systems for encoding messages, and are thought to have been the first published works on cryptography. That was okay. But the 22-page Book 3 was, at least on its face, about communication between people through the mediation of spirits, and it was couched in the language of the occult. Trithemius described a hierarchy of angels and spirits that governed specific earthly regions at specific days and times - a handy reference tool, so that readers could know exactly which spirit to contact. Then all one has to do is write a cover message to the correct angel and conjure the spirit who'll act as courier. The spirit then delivers the cover message to the recipient, who has to conjure the spirit again himself in order to receive the secret reply message from the angel. All pretty simple, really, when you know how. To the Church, all of this was distinctly NOT okay.
Book 3 also contained many tables of numbers
without any real explanation of how to use or interpret them. But what made things even worse is that Trithemius still had the reputation of being a magician - a reputation he had acquired by, in fact, being one (although the reputation probably mattered more than the actual facts). Trithemius had no problem reconciling magic and Christianity; he's quoted as having said, "The word magic is the Persian term for what in Latin is called wisdom, on which account magicians are called wise men, just as were those three wise men who, according to the Gospel, journeyed from the East to adore, in his crib, the infant who was the Son of God in the flesh." The institution of the Church was not quite as broad-minded as its Benedictine son was, however. To the Church, magic meant black magic, which required consorting with the devil.
Steganographia remained banned for a long time, but became something of a cult classic. In 1676, a counselor to the Archbishop of Mainz claimed that Book 3 was written in code and that he had cracked it; unfortunately, he wrote up his findings in a code of his own invention, which apparently nobody cared enough to try to decipher. (No, I'm not pulling a Trithemius here! This is actually true! You can look it up!) And so things stood until 1993, when Thomas Ernst, a German professor teaching in the U.S., published a 200-page paper in a Dutch cryptology journal describing how he had figured out that Trithemius's number charts were actually all encrypted messages, written in a fairly primitive form of substitution cypher. Jim Reeds, a mathematician in New Jersey, didn't know about Ernst's findings, and in 1998 he independently cracked the code again. So it's official: in Books 1 and 2, Trithemius taught cryptography, and in Book 3, instead of talking about it, he performed it. And it only took 500 years for someone to figure that out.
You got us, Johannes Trithemius. Good one! Somewhere, I'm sure, you're holding onto your chubby sides and laughing like a lunatic.