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Trithemius to Arnoldus Bostius

A letter from Johannes Trithemius to Arnoldus Bostius on his Steganography

I have a great work in hand which, if ever it is published (which God forbid), the whole world will wonder at; and the title of the first book is Steganographia. There are to be four books (elsewhere, Trithemius himself says there were eight, as we shall see), each of which will be divided into at least one hundred chapters. I have started on this work at the command of a certain great prince, whom I need not name. You may ask, what does this work teach? It teaches very great things, astounding and unbelievable to those who do not know them, and unheard of in this age of the world.

For the first book contains more than a hundred ways of covertly writing whatever you please, without any suspicion, without transposing letters, without any fear, so that there shall not be any man in the world who could find out by application of natural ability, or even suspect, what might be contained in my letters, apart from him who has learned the art from me or the one who I shall teach it. The words are plain, familiar and lacking in all suspicion, but nobody lacking the art will perceive my intent for all eternity, be he however learned. And truly it is a thing of wonder.

The second book contains many even more remarkable things; to wit, by means of this art I can use fire to make known the contents of my mind to one who knows my art, over any distance, over a hundred miles or more, securely without words, writing or signs, by any messenger, and even if he were captured on the way and questioned under the severest torture he could say nothing about my message, having absolutely no knowledge of it. Whatever may befall, my message will remain forever hidden, and all the men in the world gathered together could not trace it by their natural powers. And I can do the same without a messenger when I so wish. I can as well indicate my will to one who knows the art if he is sitting in a prison, no matter how far away and how well he is guarded, even if he were sitting three miles under the earth. This I can do anywhere and everywhere, whenever and as often as I will, naturally, involving no superstition nor the aid of any spirits. Wonderful things, I say, but hear things more wonderful.

The third book teaches an art by which I can take an inarticulate man, knowing none but his mother tongue, who never knew a word of Latin, and in two hours teach him to read, write and understand ornate and fluent Latin whenever he wants, so that whoever sees his compositions shall praise his writing and assume that it was composed in Latin.

The fourth book contains many astounding effects, and all of them entirely natural: to wit, I can indicate my mind to one who know the art while eating or sitting with others, without recourse to words or nods, within any range I wish, while speaking, preaching, playing the organ or singing, without disrupting it by any other action, so that I could while preaching good and holy things indicate without words, signs or nods whatever I want to anyone in the know in a wide range, even with my eyes closed. And the fourth book contains many other arcane things which ought not to be aired in public.

These things take all who hear them aback, including many noble and learned men who suppose that it is quite impossible or else completely supernatural. To them and to you I reply as I have to many others, that many things are possible which look impossible and indeed supernatural to those who do not know the power of nature. Yet I say before my God himself, who knows all things, that the wonders I have described are far more excellent, deep and great than I could describe or you could believe; and yet all of them are purely natural, involving no deception, no superstition, no magic craft, and no invocation of any spirits. This I say, lest ill rumour reach you that I know wonders and can perform them; account me, I say, not a mage but a philosopher. For it befell Albertus Magnus himself, that deepest investigator of natural phenomena, by reason of the amazing things he did by the hidden powers of nature, to be reckoned a mage by vulgar opinion, and well I know that the same could befall me.

Would you ask how that which no other man knows came to me? Hear what I say. Not of man, nor by man did I learn these things, but by revelation from I know not whom. For in this present year (1499) I took the occasion to consider what discovery I could make which no one else knew, and I started to think whether I could work out those sensations I spoke of. After long daydreaming I completely gave up hope, deeming them impossible, and that very night I lay down to sleep, laughing at myself for my fatuity in attempting to inquire into impossible things. That night someone came into my presence, saying: The things you have considered are not pointless, O Trithemius, even though they are impossible for you, and you cannot discover them on your own or with another. I said to him: if they are impossible, tell me I pray, how they are done. And opening his mouth he taught me each one in order, showing how to do with ease what I wasted many days thinking about. Lo, before God, I do not lie but speak the truth. I have as yet taught them to no man, though often enough many have asked and promised great rewards, save only the Prince to whom I write, and him I have persuaded of the possibility of this art by open argument. For it would not be right for any other than princes to know it, or else many evils would be done by it; betrayals, deceptions, fornications and all such other things willed by evil men. But those who use the art for good might do many good things for the state thereby. Moreover, I can teach all these things in any language in the entire world, even one I have never heard. And, Bostius, I wished to inform you of these things so you will not think that I have been idle. Thus Trithemius.