Friday, May 27, 2011


Included among the many books in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne of  an esoteric outlook is a book entitled Polygraphiae by Trithemius (1462 -1516).

The story goes that the young Trithemius studied at the University of Heidelberg where he became acquainted with the magical arts. Taking shelter from a snowstorm at the Benedictine monastery of Spondheim he became a monk, then the Abbot of Spondheim in the following year. In this position he re-installed discipline, repaired and restored the monastery and established one of Europe’s great libraries with over 2,000 manuscripts, including many works on science and philosophy.

Typical of the fate of many Renaissance Hermetic philosophers, Trithemius was often accused of sorcery and wizardry. The Emperor Maximilian I summoned him in 1503 in order to interrogate him on matters of faith, but Trithemius insisted he was a Christian and Humanist. In addition to being an Abbot of a Christian monastery, Trithemius was also a lexicographer, historian, cryptographer, and polymath as well as occultist. His fame as an occultist originates primarily from the infamy of his  Steganographia  which instructs how to conjure and talk to angels. Trithemius was the teacher of  Cornelius von Agrippa and Paracelsus, while the English Hermetic philosopher John Dee was also influenced by him .

In her scholarly work 'The Occult  philosophy of the Elizabethan Age' (1979) Dame Frances Yates noted-

In 1509-10, Agrippa was in Germany, visiting the learned abbot Trithemius, and it was about this time that he wrote the first version of the De occulta philosophia.  The manuscript of this version exists. It is dedicated to Trithemius, who was undoubtedly an important influence on Agrippa's  studies.

In his less controversial work Polygraphiae Trithemius elaborates at length and in detail upon different forms of secret writing, formulas for making codes and methods of encryption and decryption. Modern-day computer security also relies upon sophisticated codes and programmes of encryption and code in order to function without interference or fraud.

With his love of languages along with his interest in the secret, hidden and undiscerned, it’s little surprise that Sir Thomas Browne not only possessed a copy of Polygraphiae pub. Cologne 1571 (S.C. page 30 no. 17) by Trithemius, but is also credited with coining the  word ‘cryptography’ into the English language. The first recorded usage of the word according to the OED occurs  in ‘The Garden of Cyrus' in which Browne alludes to -
‘the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starrie Booke of Heaven'.

See also blog entry  - Cryptography and Gaffarel's astrology
Wikipedia entry   - Library of Sir Thomas Browne -  a short introduction and selection of book-titles.


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