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Notes on Selected Letters of Trithemius

To his brother Jakob Trithemius 4 November 1506

Out of sequence because it is the preface of book I. Jakob Trithemius, half-brother of Johannes, was his close confidant and the addressee of several fictional cipher letters in Steganographia.

To Jakob Trithemius 10 April 1505

To Jakob Trithemius 30 April 1505

To Rutger Sicamber 6 May 1505

Sicamber is the recipient of a fictional cipher letter in Steganographia.

From Joachim 11 June 1505
To Joachim 20 June 05

Joachim I Nestor (1484-1535) was Margrave of Brandenburg from 1499. We later learn that he and Trithemius first met at a council of princes in Frankfurt am Main in 1503.

To Rutger Sicamber 24 June 1505

The first of a number of long, preachy letters which Trithemius was in the habit of writing to close friends. The age he lived in had far more appetite than we do for repetitive religious exhortations, but there is reason to believe that at least some of the letters in this category concealed a steganographic plaintext: see, for instance, the rebuke to Sibutus (20 April 1506).

To Johannes Capellarius 8 July 1505

To Jakob Kymolanus 9 July 1505

Gustavus Selenus cites this entire letter as an example of a steganographic cipher text: Cryptomenices III xv.

To Johannes Capellarius 12 July 1505

Trithemius liked to write in Greek to friends such as Capellarius and Kymolanus who were studying it, but the truth is that the Greek consists mainly of quotations from the Bible, the classics and spiritual authors.

To Johannes Capellarius 18 July 1505

It is not very evident where work like the Steganographia fits into this austere rejection of learning for its own sake. Perhaps Trithemius was beginning to have second thoughts or wanted to cover himself, but it is also possible that letters of this kind contain steganographic message. Many of the extensive quotations are second hand, taken from pious anthologies (florilegia). The reference to the earth 'coming between' the sun and the moon is one of several which hint that the earth has motion through space. The idea was then controversial but not heretical: it had been proposed by Nicolaus Cusanus for philosophical reasons earlier in the 15th century.

To Steinmoel 20 July 1505

As we see in the next letter, it was Steinmoel who brought the arcane writings of Trithemius into public view.

To Jakob Kymolanus 22 July 1505

To Rutger Sicamber 29 July 1505

To Johannes Capellarius 31 July 1505

Another dull sermon of a letter, but Gustavus Selenus quotes from it as an example of a steganographic cipher in Cryptomenices III xv.

To Rutger Sicamber 12 August 1505

From de Ganay 29 July 1505

We know from Wierus that Bovelles had already brought his accusations of necromancy before de Ganay at this point. It would be good to know what message Narciscus brought by word of mouth.

To de Ganay 24 August 1505

This letter can hardly be taken at face value, and since Trithemius saw fit to publish it, there must be a fairly simple way of bringing out its real meaning, whether by steganography or otherwise, which Narciscus was to explain to de Ganay. Are the references to 'the unary', 'the binary' and 'the tertiary' a numerical code? In the letter to Kymolanus, the phrase 'reduce the multitude to unity' seems to mean 'concentrate on essential things'.

From Hopilius 30 July 1505
To Hopilius 24 August 1505

From Libanius 06 June 1505
To Libanius 20 August 1505

The letter from Libanius is another which plainly has a hidden meaning. Some of it may just be Latin rhetoric: Mars, Mercury and Saturn make good sense as war, commerce and low spirits, and the rebellious monks are elsewhere referred to as oxen. The advice of Astrophilus (Nutius?) and Libanius was presumably to lie low for a while and then return to Sponheim. However, the letter as a whole gives the same impression as the early nomenclators in which one word, such as 'Ghibellines', is systematically replaced by another, such as 'Egyptians' (Kahn, The Codebreakers p. 106).

Is the 'great philocryph' a reference to Joachim? Libanius, writing on 6 June, cannot have known of the invitation to Brandenburg issued on 11 June, but Joachim had tried to tempt Trithemius there before. If we only knew of Libanius from the letters, it would be possible to suspect that he was a fictional creation of Trithemius himself, perhaps for the benefit of Joachim, but he is referred to in the unrelated Chronicon Hirsgauense and the semi-secret Nepiachus.

To Bovelles 22 August 1505

A surprisingly sweet letter to a man who has accused Trithemius of necromancy. The correspondence with the prior of Sponheim shows that Trithemius was apt to conceal his true opinion of his enemies until he was sure of his ground.

To Philip, Elector Palatine 20 October 1505

To Jakob Trithemius 20 October 1505

Quoted as an example of steganography by Gustavus Selenus, Cryptomenices III xv.

To Rutger Sicamber 20 October 1505

To Johannes Vigilius 20 October 1505

Vigilius is the addressee of a fictional cipher letter in the Steganographia.

To Evriponus 15 December 1505

Gustavus Selenus cites this entire letter as an example of a steganographic cipher text: Cryptomenices III xv.

To Jakob Trithemius 8 January 1506

To Georg Sibutus 20 April 1506

Gustavus Selenus quotes a passage from this letter as an example of a steganographic cipher (Hanael, not in the printed edition of Steganographia but found in a manuscript known to Selenus). See Cryptomenices III xv.

To Jakob Wimpfeling 31 July 1506

Wimpfeling is the addressee of a cipher letter in the Steganographia.

To Konrad, abbot of St Stephen, Würzburg

Konrad is the recipient of a fictional cipher letter in Steganographia.

To Rutger Sicamber 12 September 1506

From Konrad 14 September 1506

To Konrad 14 September 1506

To Rutger Sicamber 20 September 1506

To Jakob Trithemius 28 December 1506

To Jakob Trithemius 24 June 1506

Is this the earliest example on record of a complaint that degrees are handed out too freely nowadays?

This letter is quoted by Gustavus Selenus, Cryptomenices III xv, as an example of a steganographic cipher.

To the prior and monks of Sponheim 31 October 1506

Blistering words: it should be borne in mind that we only have one side of the story. It is a little disingenuous of Trithemius to dispute that Philip was his lord and protector, since it is clear from other letters that he was exactly that.

From Joachim 14 November 1506
To Joachim 25 November 1506

Joachim had in effect commissioned Trithemius to write certain books for a fee, but since princes were above commerce and monks might possess no property, the relationship had to be disguised as a gift. Joachim is here making clear that the gilded sword is a real gift, not offered as a reward for services: it would seem a strange choice of present, since priests might not bear the sword.

To his mother 08 November 1506

Stern words from a loving son. 'Nos' is here used in the plural sense, contrasting with 'ego': Trithemius is including his mother in his hopes for eternity. Elsewhere, 'nos' is sometimes the plural of majesty, used with correspondents of lower status.

To Rutger Sicamber 18 November 1506

Cited by Gustavus Selenus, Cryptomenices III xv, as an example of a steganographic cipher.

From Rutger Sicamber 1 December 1506

To Rutger Sicamber 18 December 1506

From Joachim 17 January 1507

To Nikolaus Basellius 14 March 1507

Basellius is the recipient of a fictional cipher letter in the Steganographia.

To Joachim 9 April 1507

The fish was of course welcome because meat was banned during Lent. The Scots are the monks of the Würzburg convent, founded in 1139 for Scots and Irish missionaries. It seems that Trithemius did not take long to lose their confidence.

From Joachim 29 May 1507

To Dietrich 16 April 1507

The alleged miracles of Apollonius of Tyana were a favourite topic for later sceptics such as Gibbon who saw no reason to believe in the miracles of Christ either. Trithemius simply does not see a problem: the miracles of Christ were genuine and those of Apollonius were not. Here and elsewhere, Trithemius shows himself to be a pious but far from credulous man. He never once gives credence to a report of wonders in his own time or place such as the boasts of Faustus or the alchemical schemes of Narciscus.

From Joachim 28 May 1507

'Brother' with reference to the archbishop of Cologne, Hermann IV of Hessia, presumably refers to a fellow elector. Joachim's actual brother, Albrecht, later archbishop of Mainz, is not meant.

To Rutger Sicamber 14 June 1507

From Johannes de Woesbruck 4 March 1507

To Johannes de Woesbruck 28 May 1507

From Nikolaus Gerbellius 10 June 1507

To Nikolaus Gerbellius 16 July 1507

There are some strange words in this letter, not found in du Cange or the Oxford English Dictionary, but that was the style in which Gerbellius had written to Trithemius. Statanus, referring to the sun, is puzzling: if it is a mistake for statarius, stationary, it would be very interesting indeed, but Trithemius is speaking metaphorically and seems to have had no great interest in astronomy.

To Jakob Wimpfeling 27 July 1507

To Wilhelm Veldicus 12 August 1508

Veldicus is the addressee of a fictional cipher letter in Steganographia

'The Christophilus, St Paul' usually means St Paul the apostle, but this quotation is not from his writings: it may be a paraphrase of possibly St Paul the hermit is meant.

The globe and map bought for pennies must almost certainly be the Waldseemüller map, now worth millions. Like many people at the time, Trithemius seems to have seen no great significance in the discovery of the western continent: the progress of printing interests him far more.

To Johannes Capellarius 16 August 1507

To Kymolanus 15 August 1507

The availability of more books than one could read in a lifetime was the sensation of the age, a thing unprecedented in history.

To Jakob Kymolanus 16 August 1507

To Christian Massecus 16 August 1507

To Damius 20 August 1507

To Johannes Wirdung 20 August 1507

This is the earliest known reference to the historical Dr Faustus. Trithemius takes it for granted the man is a charlatan, and writes as one priest to another warning of a conman at large.

To Rutger Sicamber 31 August 1507

To Libanius 05 October 1507

Francia is the land of the Franks, western Germany: Trithemius also calls his country Alemania and Germania.

Arnold shows (Johannes Trithemius, p. 199, citing MS Augsburg, Staats und Stadtbibliothek 20 cod. 212) that Melanius is Trithemius and Megalopius is Joachim. Melantius is the prior of Sponheim. The 'binary' appears once more: is it the monastery, and is the little field the library?

Again, puzzlingly kind words about Bovelles, who caused Trithemius so much trouble.

To Joachim 15 October 1507

The gymnasium at Frankfurt is the university of Frankfurt an der Oder, founded by Joachim in 1506 during Trithemius's first visit to him.

To Jakob Trithemius 16 October 1507