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Eco: Polygraphies

Chart_in_the_hand_of_Dr_John_Dee._Steganographiae

John Dee (1527-1609), an excerpt from Steganographiae, aka Peniarth MS 423D, astrological texts in Latin, 1591. Steganographiae was originally composed by Johannes Trithemius in the 1490’s. Infamous as a work of cryptography, this excerpt was copied by hand by Dr. Dee. Peniarth MS 423D is held by the National Library of Wales. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. All rights are waived worldwide under copyright laws. This file can be copied, modified, and distributed with no permissions required.  

“Steganographies were used to cipher messages in order to guarantee secrecy and security.  However, even though disregarding many terminological details (or differences) used today by the cryptographers, one must distinguish between the activity of coding and decoding messages when one knows the key, or code, and cryptoanalysis (sic); that is, the art of discovering an unknown key in order to decipher an otherwise incomprehensible message.

Both activities were strictly linked from the very beginning of cryptography: if a good steganography could decode a ciphered message, it ought to allow its user to understand an unknown language as well.

When Trithemius wrote his Polygraphiae, which was published in 1518, before his Steganographia, and did not earn the sinister fame of the latter work, he was well aware that, by his system, a person ignorant of Latin might, in a short time, learn to write in that “secret” language (1518: biiii) (sic).

Speaking of TrithemiusPolygraphia, Mersenne said (Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, 1623: 471) that its “third book contains an art by which even an uneducated man who knows nothing more than his mother tongue can learn to read and write Latin in two hours.”

Steganography thus appeared both as an instrument to encipher messages conceived in a known language and as the key to deciphering unknown languages.

In order to cipher a message one must substitute the letters of a plain message (written in a language known by both the sender and the addressee) with other letters prescribed by a key or code (equally known by sender and addressee).

To decipher a message encoded according to an unknown key, it is frequently sufficient to detect which letter of the encoded message recurs most frequently, and it is easy to infer that this represents the letter occurs most frequently in a given known language.

Usually the decoder tries various hypotheses, checking upon different languages, and at a certain point finds the right solution.

The decipherment is made, however, more difficult if the encoder uses a new key for every new word of the message. A typical procedure of this kind was the following. Both the encoder and the decoder refer to a table like this:

Umberto Eco, Table, The Search for the Perfect Language, Polygraphies, Trithemius, p. 195

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 195.

Now, let us suppose that the key is the Latin word CEDO. The first word of the message is encoded according to the third line of the table (beginning with C), so that A becomes C, B becomes D and so on.

The second words is encoded according to the fifth line (beginning with E), so that A becomes E and so on. The third word is encoded according to the fourth line, the fourth according to the fifteenth one . . . At the fifth word one starts the process all over again.

Naturally the decoder (who knows the key) proceeds in the opposite way.

In order to decipher without knowing the key, if the table is that simple and obvious, there is no problem. But even in cases of more complicated tables the decipherer can try with all possible tables (for instance, with alphabets in reverse order, with alternate letters, such as ACEG), and it is usually only a matter of time before even the most complex of codes are broken.

Observing this, Heinrich Hiller, in his Mysterium artiis steganographicae novissimum (1682), proposed to teach a method of learning to decipher messages not only in code, but also in Latin, German, Italian and French, simply by observing the incidence of each letter and diphthong in each language.

In 1685, John Falconer wrote a Cryptomenysis patefacta: or the Art of Secret Information Disclosed Without a Key, where he noted that, once someone has understood the rules of decipherment in a given language, it is possible to do the same with all the others (A7v).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 194-6.

Eco: Perfection and Secrecy

Kircher Athanasius, 1667 Magneticum naturae regnum, Frontispiece

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece, Magneticum naturae regnum, Rome, Ignati de Lazaris, 1667, held by the Linda Hall Library, LHL Digital Collections, call number Q155.K58 1667. This engraving is often referred to with the expression, “the world is bound in secret knots.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“We might think it is a pity that the search for a language that was as perfect as it was universal should lead to such a conception of a tongue reserved for the “happy few.” But it is perhaps nothing more than our “democratic” illusion to imagine that perfection must imply universality.

In order to understand the cultural framework of both Kircher’s Egyptology and Rosicrucian holy languages, it must be remembered that for the Hermetic tradition truth was not usually regarded as accessible to the many. Indeed, there existed a marked tendency to believe that what is true is unknown and hardly knowable, if not to a restricted elite (cf. Eco 1990).

There is a radical difference between the gnostic and Neo-Platonist ideas of late antiquity (as well as their Renaissance versions–which survived in the Counter-Reformation Catholicism of Kircher) and the Christian message, as it was proclaimed throughout most of the Middle Ages.

For medieval Christianity, salvation was promised to the meek and humble in spirit, and did not require any special knowledge: everyone can understand what is required in order to deserve the kingdom of heaven.

Medieval teaching reduced the aura of mystery that accompanied the revelation–which was explained by formulae, parables and images that even the uneducated might grasp: truth was considered effable, therefore public.

For Hermetic thought, instead, the cosmic drama could only be understood by an aristocracy of wisdom, able to decipher the hieroglyphs of the universe; the main characteristic of truth was its ineffability: it could not be expressed in simple words, was ambiguous by nature, was to be found through the coincidence of opposites, and could be expressed only by initiatic revelations.

Within this tradition, public accessibility was simply not a criterion by which a perfect language was judged. If one does not understand this point, one cannot understand why the cryptographers of this period dedicated their ciphers to grand-dukes deep in military campaigns and political machinations, presenting them as arcane suggestions.

Perhaps this is all merely another manifestation of the natural hypocrisy of a century fascinated by dissimulation, a feature that constitutes the continuing charm of baroque civilization.

It remains uncertain if that celebrated book Breviarium politicorum secundum rubricas Mazarinicas (1684) really collects Mazarin’s political thoughts or is a libel invented to defame him: in whatever case, it certainly reflects the image of a man of politics in the 1600’s.

It is notable that in the chapter entitled “Reading and writing” it recommends that, if one needs to write in a public place, it is convenient to place upon a lectern several already written pages as if one intended to copy them out, letting them be visible and concealing under them the paper upon which one is really writing, guarded in such a way that no one who approaches you will be able to read it.

Resorting to ciphers is suggested, but in such a way that at first glance the message looks understandable and provides irrelevant information (the canonical reference is to Trithemius).

Not only must the message be translated in a secret writing, but this writing must also conceal its own secrecy, because a cipher that blatantly appears as such can arouse suspicion and encourage decipherment.

Thus on the one hand the mystic who writes about perfect and holy languages winks his eye at the politician who will use this language as his secret code; on the other hand the cryptographer sells to the politician a cipher (that is, an instrument of power and dominion) that for him, the Hermetic initiate, is also a key to supernatural truths.

Such a man was Johann Valentin Andreae, whom many have considered (and many still do consider) to be, if not the author, at least the inspirer of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Andreae was a Lutheran mystic and writer of utopian works, like the Christianopolis of 1619, similar in spirit to those of Bacon and Campanella.

Edighoffer (1982: 175ff) has noted that many of his authentic works, like the Chemical Weddings, abound with ciphered expressions, according to the expressed principle that “Arcana publicata vilescunt” and that one ought not to cast pearls before swine.

In the same vein Andreae used ciphered messages in his correspondence with Augustus, Duke of Brunswick. Edighoffer remarks that there is nothing surprising in this: it was a correspondence filled with political observations, one, moreover, that took place during the Thirty Years War, when the difference between political and religious comments was minimal and the risks in both were the same.

In the light of these, as it were, “private” practices of the Rosicrucians, their public appeals concerning the need to use a secret language to inaugurate a universal reform must seem even more ambiguous.

They are so to such an extent as to make credible what not only modern historians but even the supposed authors of the manifestos themselves had always claimed: the manifestos were nothing but a joke, a sophomoric game, an exercise in literary pastiche made up of all the buzz-topics of the day: the search for the language of Adam, the dream of a sensual language, glossolalic illusions, cryptography, kabbala . . . And since everything went into this pot au feu, anything could be fished out again.

Thus, as will always happen when the specter of mystery is raised, there were those who read the Rosicrucian manifestos “paranoiacally,” discovering in them what they wanted to believe anyway, and needed to rediscover continually.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 190-3.

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