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German monk's 500-year-old mystery solved

A 16th-century cleric's writings seem to be teachings on the occult. But there's a more prosaic secret in his words

Monday, June 29, 1998

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

His boast startled and confused Renaissance Europe.

Johannes Trithemius, a German abbot, leading scholar and counselor to Emperor Maximilian I, had found a means of delivering messages within 24 hours that required no letters, no books, no messengers.

What could he mean? Could he project images onto the moon? Could he communicate telepathically? Did this purported man of God work through demons?

The mystery would persist for centuries, no doubt to the delight of Trithemius, who seemed to be as interested in self-promotion as in his intellectual pursuits. He published his secret in a slim volume that, at face value, was a textbook on the occult, leading the Catholic Church to ban it.

La Roche College professor Thomas Ernst, with a copy of the Steganographia. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

But almost 500 years after Trithemius set down his pen, a German professor at La Roche College, Thomas Ernst, has unlocked his secret. Trithemius, it seems, has had a good long laugh.

This was no astrological treatise. Rather, what modern occultists continue to regard as a black-magic manual was an exercise in encryption, employing a cipher system that substituted numerals for letters.

All of Trithemius' references to otherworldly spirits and instructions on making talismans "was a very effective smokescreen," Ernst said, that provided an excuse to include long tables of numbers. Trithemius was no magician, but he was a master illusionist.

"The only magic," he added, "is really that of words."

The encryption technique Trithemius employed is an early, primitive version of what would centuries later beget the Enigma machine, the ingenious device that Germany used during World War II to encrypt messages and that the Allies famously used to read those messages. Even more sophisticated versions are used today for, among other things, encrypting cell phone messages, said Jim Reeds, a mathematician at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J.

Though Ernst cracked Trithemius' cipher in 1993 and published a 200-page German-language report in a prestigious Dutch journal, Daphnis, in 1996, Reeds independently broke the code himself this spring.

"I thought this would really make people sit up and look," Reeds recalled thinking after solving the 500-year-old problem. But while preparing his own report for publication in a cryptology journal, he stumbled upon Ernst's paper.

"My heart sank," he said.

Though Ernst's discovery had escaped wide notice, a subsequent report in The New York Times highlighted it, and Reeds has prepared a paper for publication in a cryptology journal.

It was just a matter of chance that Ernst happened upon Trithemius (tre TAY mee us). A scholar of neither cryptology nor the occult, the 40-year-old native of northern Germany had come to America 10 years ago to continue his study of languages. After completing his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, Ernst was introduced to cryptology by a German professor at Pitt, Klaus Conermann.

A specialist in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Conermann had shown Ernst a music cipher -- a piece of sheet music with a text message hidden in the notes. After Ernst solved the cipher, Conermann suggested that he tackle a more substantial puzzle -- the famous Third Book of Trithemius' "Steganographia" trilogy.

That discussion launched Ernst on an intellectual quest that would involve not only deciphering the book, but also the more complex task of solving the riddle of the man Trithemius (1462-1516).

"He was really a self-made man," Ernst said. At the age of 20, he joined a down-at-the-heels monastery at Sponheim. He soon took over as abbot and began transforming Sponheim into one of the leading libraries in Europe. By 1506, it contained several thousand volumes.

During the Renaissance, monasteries were more than just residences and centers for meditation. They were academic centers, and monks copied texts by hand.

Trithemius, when not dealing with monks with complaints of writer's cramp, built a reputation as a monastic reformer. He gained renown as a bibliographer and was a prolific writer of histories and chronicles.

Between 1498 and 1500, he produced "Steganographia," a title deriving from Greek and meaning "hidden writing." The books were landmarks -- the first texts to address cryptography.

The first two books were conventionally written, both explaining how to encrypt messages and then providing examples. One technique, for instance, was to stretch each letter of a secret message into a word. He would then assemble the words into awkward prose, often in the form of pious sermons.

Despite the serious nature of the plain text, the secret messages themselves were often playful. "Don't take this monk; he likes to drink good wine and is strange," read one. "Jacob Seitz wants to knife you; watch out," read another.

To Ernst, this seemed to be risky behavior for a Benedictine monk. "Why would someone who represented the church use piety to display irreverent sayings?" he wondered. But as Trithemius would demonstrate in his Third Book, he liked to play dangerously.

Unlike the first two books, the third volume never includes a manual on how to produce the ciphers. Instead, Trithemius makes it appear as an astrological treatise. His communication system, as he explained it, involved conjuring one of 28 "planetary intelligences," or spirits, four for each of the seven planets then known.

He provided detailed instructions on sending messages -- using rose oil ink, draw a picture of one of the planetary spirits, draw a picture of the person who is to receive the message, fold them together, wrap them in whitewashed linen, place in a container and hide the container.

He included tables of numbers, supposedly to calculate angles relating to each of the spirits.

In actuality, the numbers were the whole point of the 22-page treatise. Those numbers were encrypted messages.

Both Ernst and Reeds picked up on the same clues to the code. As they scanned the rows of numbers, the patterns suggested messages that were being repeated. Each time the message was repeated, however, the numbers increased by 25.

For instance, if Mississippi were encrypted as 1-2-3-3-2-3-3-2-4-4-2 in its first iteration, it would be repeated as 26-27-28-28-27-28-28-27-29-29-27. It appeared that Trithemius had prepared 28 different versions (one for each planetary "intelligence") of a 25-character alphabet.

The question then became: what alphabet? In the 15th century, the alphabet was still evolving. For instance, some alphabets used "uu" or "vv" instead of "w." Use of the letter "y" was just beginning.

Trithemius' alphabet is missing "j," "k," "u" and "y." It includes "th" from the Greek theta, "sch" from Hebrew and "tz" from who knows where, Ernst said.

Trithemius had written the book in Latin, but some of the messages were in German, some in Latin. One message is the Latin equivalent of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." Another was the beginning of the 21st Psalm. And a third harkened back to the style of the first two books: "The bearer of this letter is a rogue and a thief."

In 1506, Trithemius showed the book to a visiting mathematician from France. The mathematician focused on the occult trappings and missed the cryptographic angle. Trithemius didn't bother to correct him and the mathematician left, spreading tales about how Trithemius was conjuring spirits.

The controversy apparently didn't affect Trithemius' role as a counselor to nobility, Ernst said.

Trithemius was able to weather the controversy, though his role as an adviser to Maximilian may have fed it further, Ernst said. Supposedly, after the death of Maximilian's bride, Trithemius mounted an illusion during which Maximilian was able to see, but not touch, the spirits of his dead bride and some of his predecessors.

"No one knows if this is legend or if he did a 'David Copperfield,"' Ernst said. But he developed a reputation as a conjurer of the dead.

Controversy would survive Trithemius' death. In 1676, Wolfgang Ernst Heidel, counselor to the Archbishop of Mainz, claimed to have decoded the Third Book. But Heidel caused dismay by encrypting his solution, causing many to dismiss his claim.

Reeds and Ernst, after decoding Heidel's solution, say he got it right.

Though Trithemius' Third Book is important in the history of cryptography, "the actual decoding act was very simple. Schoolkids could do this kind of decoding." Ernst took two weeks to figure it out; Reeds finished the task in two days.

So why did it remain obscure for so long?

Part of the reason relates to the mechanics of book reproduction in the 16th century. Trithemius' original manuscript was reportedly burned. When people made copies, they often made mistakes while transcribing lists of numbers that they did not understand, Ernst said.

Also, the number patterns that seemed obvious to modern readers may have been harder to discern in the 16th century. Until that time, people usually used an abacus or similar device for calculating, Ernst explained. Arithmetic -- performing calculations using written numbers -- was just coming into vogue.

But ultimately, Trithemius' sleight of hand was effective. "People believe what they read," Reeds said. If Trithemius said his technique relied on talismans and planetary spirits, that's what people believed.

Even today, an Internet search for "Trithemius" using a Web browser produces dozens of links to Web sites that deal with the occult.

"I think the reason is, people just didn't look," Reeds said.

Trithemius, Reeds is sure, would have enjoyed it all.

"Three people who get this in 500 years -- that's not bad," he said. "The sleight of hand, I guess, did the trick."



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