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Ciphers in Magic
Techniques of Revelation and Concealment

Budapest University of Technology and Economics

Cryptography and magic are often associated. Ciphers—as means of secrecy

—seem to find their natural place in magic texts. In traditional historiogra-
phy, magic and alchemy were often represented as secretive, whereas modern
science was portrayed to be open. According to this view, openness is a posi-
tive value that supports academic research. In contrast, secrecy, which is held
rather to be historically characteristic of technology, magic, and alchemy, has
been abandoned by modern science. This old understanding has obviously
been challenged, as many scholars have shown how secrecy in science
became not only a tool of protecting knowledge from intellectual competi-
tors, but also a dynamic social practice, a force that creates and organizes
groups, and influences the mechanisms of exclusion-inclusion. The contents
of secrets are often not relevant for the study of the dynamics of secrecy; the
ability to withhold or share information in itself becomes a power enabling
social control, regardless of the object of secrecy.
The role of secretive practices is not much simpler in the case of magical
manuscripts, either. The focus of this article is on how one major means of
secrecy, cryptography, was used in magical texts and handbooks. It argues
that late medieval and early modern magic texts frequently included ciphers;
however, these do not seem to be tools for hiding the message. Their
encryption made no content inaccessible. The function of ciphers was, rather,
to invite engagement with the text, which can be described as a special
maneuver in the rhetoric of secrecy.
The issue of secrecy has become a crucial research topic in recent decades in
various fields of intellectual history as well as the historiography of science.

My research was supported by the OTKA K 101544 Grant. The English version
of the first half of the article was based on Teodóra Király’s translation of my originally
Hungarian text.

Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft (Winter 2015)

Copyright 䉷 2015 University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved.

PAGE 125
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126 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

The books and studies by William Eamon on the literature of secrecy of

late medieval and early modern Europe,1 by Agostino Paravacini Bagliani on
medieval secrets in medical science and magic,2 by William Newman and
Anthony Grafton on secrecy in the areas of early modern alchemy and astrol-
ogy,3 and by Pamela Long on practices of secrecy assuring intellectual owner-
ship4 are well known.
One of the many merits of these publications is the effort they make to
define the notions of secrecy and openness appropriately. Another author work-
ing in this field, Koen Vermeir, gives closer attention to the relationship
between these two categories. By conducting a concept analysis as well as
analyzing historical examples, he argues that the two concepts do not neces-
sarily negate one another, and that therefore they cannot be defined as one
another’s opposites. He claims that both secrecy and openness are categories
with a range: things are not either completely secret or absolutely public—
they are partly hidden to certain groups, while being partially public for
another audience.5 (This argument is not entirely novel. As early as 1970
John Cohen wrote that the secrecy of a given piece of information is not an
absolute feature; rather, he argued that it should be seen as a scale measuring
how carefully one hides information, what risks one takes to keep it secret,
and what obstacles anyone who wants to uncover this secret might face. As
Cohen points out, secrecy can only be defined in relation to a community
with which one wishes to share the secret information.)6
Vermeir goes on to emphasize that ‘‘secret as content’’ and ‘‘secrecy as
action’’ do not necessarily coincide, however close these two categories may
seem to be at first sight. Many handbooks—both historical and contemporary
—containing ‘‘secrets’’ that only a selected audience is supposed to know are
in fact widely publicized (secret without secrecy), while the secrets of some

1. William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and
Early Modern Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
2. Il Segreto / The Secret, ed. A. Paravacini Bagliani, Micrologus, vol. XIV (Florence:
SISMEL, 2006).
3. William Newman and Anthony Grafton, eds., Secrets of Nature: Astrology and
Alchemy in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001).
4. Pamela O. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of
Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2001).
5. Koen Vermeir, ‘‘Openness versus Secrecy? Historical and Historiographical
Remarks,’’ The British Journal for the History of Science 45 (2012): 165–88.
6. John Cohen, Homo Psychologicus (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1970),
133–38. I thank Csaba Pléh for calling my attention to Cohen’s book.

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 127

esoteric circles seem banal or empty once they are uncovered (secrecy with-
out a secret). The rhetoric of secrecy is a recurring feature of early modern
science—several kinds of knowledge had the exciting trademark of secrecy
that in effect could easily be obtained by any literate person. Similarly, advo-
cacy of the value of ‘‘publicity’’ in the seventeenth century did not mean
actual publicity—as it does not mean it today, either. Many writers, past and
present, have argued that open access to information is a value, when the
reality is that, because of the special customs of publication, or because of
intentional secrecy, these writers’ knowledge is not widely accessible at all.7
The contrasting concepts of secrecy and openness are much discussed in
historiography of science. Robert Merton’s four well-known scientific norms
—universalism, communalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism—
have had a long-lasting influence on how researchers approached the issue.8
One of the norms, communalism, is particularly relevant here. According to
this norm, scientific achievements should be made freely available to anyone,
since knowledge is the common intellectual property of society, not of the
individual. Merton, of course, was fully aware that his norms do not necessar-
ily describe the reality of scientific research. He looked at them as the ethos
of scientific research, a set of values that would guarantee the free and effec-
tive progress of science, and one that academic institutions of democratic
societies strive to achieve in an ideal world. In historiography, however, the
norms were taken up in a somewhat simplified way. Researchers simply
accepted the view that openness is a positive value that supports academic
research, and that secrecy, which is more characteristic of the history of tech-
nology, was fortunately abandoned by modern science. Science, in this
understanding, has become open, whereas technology has remained secre-
This view was, of course, challenged in regard to both the past and the
present of scientific practice. John Ziman pointed out that Merton’s norms
are constantly being violated in the twentieth century, and these violations

7. Koen Vermeir, ‘‘Openess versus Secrecy,’’ and Pamela O. Long, ‘‘The Open-
ness of Knowledge: An Ideal and its Context in 16th-Century Writings on Mining
and Metallurgy,’’ Technology and Culture 32 (1991): 318–55.
8. Robert Merton, ‘‘Science and Technology in a Democratic Order,’’ Journal of
Legal and Political Sociology 1 (1942): 115–26.
9. David Hull, ‘‘Openness and Secrecy in Science: Their Origins and Limita-
tions,’’ Science, Technology and Human Values 10 (1985): 4–13; Ernan McMullin,
‘‘Openness and Secrecy in Science: Some Notes on Early History,’’ Science, Technology
and Human Values 10 (1985): 14–23.

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128 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

are somewhat natural in the so-called postacademic phase of science.10 Histo-

rians examining early modern science and technology realized that retaining,
hiding, or restrictedly sharing information had a much greater and more con-
structive importance in science and craft industry than previous authors had
The latest thematic issue of The British Journal for the History of Science illus-
trates vividly how historiographic research has moved from the conventional
and unreflexive view that contrasted openness and secrecy, mapping this pair
of opposites onto another one, that of science and technology.12 Editors Koen
Vermeir and Dániel Margócsy argue that the focus of the research on secrecy
has been narrowed down too much to the very topic of secrets themselves,
when in fact acts of secrecy would be a more fruitful object of investigation.
As Georg Simmel put it, in what is perhaps the first systematic analysis of the
social role of secrecy, secrecy functions as an organizing tool of social hierar-
chy.13 Vermeir and Margócsy regard secrecy in science as more than a tool
for protecting knowledge from intellectual competitors: in their view it is a
dynamic social practice, a self-maintaining force that creates and organizes a
group, establishes and manages hierarchy within it, and fundamentally influ-
ences the mechanisms of exclusion-inclusion. Often, the content of the secret
is not really relevant in the study of the dynamics of secrecy; the ability to
withhold or share information in itself becomes a power enabling social con-
trol, regardless of the object of the secret.14 Although not strictly related to
the past science, one can here refer to the works of the anthropologist Tanya
Luhrmann, who studied the psychological, social, or sometimes even healing
effects of initiation into secret mysteries in rites of contemporary groups of

10. John M. Ziman, ‘‘Postacademic Science: Constructing Knowledge with Net-

works and Norms,’’ Science Studies 9 (1996): 67–80.
11. See Koen Vermeir and Dániel Margócsy, ‘‘States of Secrecy: An Introduc-
tion,’’ in ‘‘States of Secrecy,’’ ed. Koen Vermeir and Dániel Margócsy, a special issue
of The British Journal for the History of Science 45 (2012): 153–64; Karel Davids, ‘‘Craft
Secrecy in Europe in the Early Modern Period: A Comparative View,’’ in ‘‘Openness
and Secrecy in Early Modern Science,’’ ed. Karel Davids, a special issue of Early
Science and Medicine 10 (2005): 341–48; Stephan R. Epstein, ‘‘Craft Guilds, Appren-
ticeship, and Technological Change in Preindustrial Europe,’’ The Journal of Economic
History 58 (1998): 684–713.
12. Koen Vermeir and Dániel Margócsy, eds. ‘‘States of Secrecy,’’ a special issue
of The British Journal for the History of Science 45 (2012).
13. Georg Simmel, ‘‘The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies,’’ American
Journal of Sociology 11 (1906): 441–98.
14. Vermeir and Margócsy, ‘‘States of Secrecy.’’

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 129

magic, trying to discover how the act of sharing a secret becomes a tool of
group formation and group cohesion.15


Having outlined the historiography of and approaches to secrecy, this part of

the article will focus on one specific practice of secrecy: the application of
secret writing, that is, the use of cryptography.
Despite the fact that science is conventionally regarded as a public affair,
there are long-standing traditions of encrypting scientific results.16 One of the
earliest and perhaps most publicized cases are the anagrams Galileo Galilei
sent to the envoy of Prague in Florence (and indirectly to Kepler). The first
message (smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras) preceded the 1610
appearance of Sidereus Nuncius, and documented the discovery of the
moons of Saturn: Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi (I have observed
that the uppermost planet is a triplicity). The Florentine scientist acted in a
similar way when announcing the moonlike (that is, phase-having) behavior
of Venus. But for the last two letters, this anagram was meaningful on its
own: Haec immatura a me iam frustra leguntur—o y (these immature things are
yet read by me in vain—o y). Its other form, using all the letters, Cynthiae
figuras aemulatur mater amorum, (the Mother of Loves [Venus] imitates the
forms of Cynthia [the moon]), documented Galileo’s real discovery.17
Sixty years later similar anagrams were sent by the first scientists of the
Royal Society, Christian Huygens, Robert Hooke, and even Isaac Newton
to the Society’s secretary, Henry Oldenburg, about discoveries that they had
not had the opportunity to confirm, or simply had not published yet.18

15. Tanya Luhrmann, ‘‘The Magic of Secrecy,’’ Ethos 17 (1989): 131–65.

16. Ernan McMullin, ‘‘Openness and Secrecy in Science: Some Notes on Early
History,’’ Science, Technology and Human Values 10 (1985): 14–23; David Hull,
‘‘Openness and Secrecy in Science: Their Origins and Limitationism,’’ Science, Tech-
nology and Human Values 10 (1985): 4–13.
17. Mario Biagioli, Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy (Chi-
cago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); idem, ‘‘From Ciphers to Confidentiality:
Secrecy, Openness and Priority in Science,’’ British Journal for the History of Science 45
(2012): 213–33.
18. Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London for Improving of Natural
Knowledge, from Its First Rise (London: Printed for A. Millar in the Strand, 1756–57),
vol. 2, 345, and vol. 3, 179 and 190. See also: Kristie Macrakis, ‘‘Confessing Secrets:
Secret Communication and the Origins of Modern Science,’’ Intelligence and National
Security 25 (2010): 183–97; Biagioli, ‘‘From Ciphers to Confidentiality’’; Gábor
Zemplén, ‘‘Newton’s Strategic Manoeuvring with Simple Colours and Diagrams: A
Radical Historical Interpretation,’’ in Conflicting Values of Inquiry: Ideologies of Episte-

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130 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

Nevertheless, anagrams are not ciphers. They are not based on the substi-
tution of letters, but on their transposition. The most important difference is
that anagrams often have several solutions. This is why Kepler could solve
Galileo’s first anagram in a completely different way, making sense of it in
light of his own Mars-related theory. Anagrams cannot be broken as a cipher,
and they are not meant to be channels of secret communication. The goal of
these scientists was to document their own scientific hypotheses and the pri-
ority of their discovery in an age when the mechanisms of establishing prior-
ity were not yet established. There existed patent office–like institutions, and
publishing a discovery in a book or journal was also an available alternative,
but a particular scientist never knew where the system leaked—which editor,
patent specialist, or assessor of a contest would pass on crucial information.
We now know that the very idea of Galilei’s telescope was also the result of
such a leaking,19 so we are not surprised that Tycho Brahe felt the need to
have his own press operating on the island of Hven, the place of his astro-
nomical discoveries. The process of printing a discovery, which meant to
secure its priority, involved risking that very priority. The use of anagrams
did not aim at disguising, it was rather meant to provide protection from the
risks inherent in the process of recognition and publication. It was a defense
The motivations of the astronomer Michael Van Langren might have been
similar to those of Tycho Brahe, when he published a small book in 1644 in
Spanish, with the title La verdadera Longitud por mar y tierra. The book puts
forward a solution to one of the most urgent scientific problems of the age,
the exact determination of longitude. This had become a burning issue in
navigation: based on the position of the Sun and the stars, it was relatively
easy to determine the latitude of the position of one’s ship in the open ocean,
but for exactly determining the longitude (and thus, answering questions
such as ‘‘How far is America from here?’’ or ‘‘Where do the continental
shelves begin under the water?’’), they would have needed more precise
chronometers than were available at the time. Sovereigns recognized the
importance of the problem, and founded grants to encourage scientists to

mology in Early Modern Europe, ed. Tamás Demeter, Kathryn Murphy, and Claus Zittel
(Leiden: Brill, 2014), 221–45.
19. Mario Biagioli, ‘‘Venetian Tech-Transfer: How Galileo Copied the Tele-
scope,’’ in The Origins of the Telescope, ed. Albert van Helden, Sven Dupré, Rob
van Gent and Huib Zuidervaart (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011),
20. Biagioli, ‘‘From Ciphers to Confidentiality.’’

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 131

solve it. Van Langren finally found the solution. However, we are not in the
position to assess whether or not he was right, because he enciphered his
proposition before he printed it, and this cipher text—not longer than a
paragraph—still resists code breakers. The first solution that we can actually
read was proposed a hundred years later, when, in the mid-eighteenth cen-
tury, John Harrison developed such precise clocks that the determination of
longitude on open sea finally became possible.21
Proper ciphers—that were not used to ensure priority, but rather con-
cealed a longer text and could be actually solved—were used only to a limited
extent in scientific and technological texts. A well-known case is that of
the Renaissance engineer Giovanni Fontana (ca. 1395?–1455). Fontana used
substitution ciphers in entire books, among them his Bellicorum Instrumentorum
Liber, describing his complex military machinery, and his Secretum de Thes-
auro, on mnemotechnic devices. He used simple, monoalphabetic substitu-
tion ciphers.22 What his motivations might have been we can only guess, but
we are probably not very far from the solution if we suppose that he wished
to add to the secrecy of the description of the technological devices as well
as demonstrating how his substitution cipher itself functioned. As cracking
Fontana’s code was not hard, one could more properly call this procedure
the rhetoric of secrecy than a real secretive technique.
The motivations of Robert Boyle were different. He relied more heavily
on proper cryptographic methods, such as name substitution, code words,
and monoalphabetic ciphers. (The latter procedure, monoalphabetic substitu-
tion, is the simplest method in cryptology; one specific character stands for
one specific letter, and thus, since this method is vulnerable to frequency
analysis, it is usually fairly easy to break.) Boyle applied these in his private
letters, not his published documents. The purpose of his secrecy was different
from that of Huygens, Hooke, and Newton. It was not to secure the priority
of a discovery; rather, he did not wish the results of his alchemical experi-
ments to be found out. No professional codebreakers would have been

21. Valero-Mora and Ibáñez Ulargui, ‘‘The First (Known Statistical Graph:
Michael Florent van Langren and the ‘Secret’ of Longitude,’’ 2010, http://www
.datavis.ca/papers/langren-TAS09154.pdf (accessed March 13, 2015).
22. Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York: Colum-
bia University Press, 1923–58), vol. 4, 150–82; Alexander Birkenmajer, ‘‘Zur
Lebensgeschichte und wissenschaftlichen Tätigkeit von Giovanni Fontana (1395?–
1455?),’’ Isis 17 (1932): 34–54. Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber (München, Bayerische
Staatsbibiliothek, Cod. Icon. 242), Secretum de thesauro experimentorum ymaginationis
hominum (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, Cod. Lat. Nouv. Acq. 635). See also Horst
Kranz and Walter Oberschelp, eds., Mechanisches Memorieren und Chiffrieren um 1430:
Johannes Fontanas Tractatus de instrumentis artis memorie (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2009).

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132 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

stopped by his encryption, however. His purpose was, instead, to exclude his
learned assistants from the communication of his secrets.23
In the old secrecy–openness dichotomy, alchemy certainly fell on the
secretive side, considered to rely on all kinds of methods that excluded unin-
vited readers from alchemical communications. In recent decades, however,
historians have increasingly noticed that secrecy in alchemy is a more com-
plex issue; in fact, it was not in all cases more secretive than other occupations
of the period.24 To be sure, metals were represented by special graphic sym-
bols, and many alchemic documents combine symbolic language-use with
chemistry. However, direct and intentional encryption, as seen in Boyle’s
letters, was rare; in any event only a few ciphers applied in alchemical texts
from before 1600 are known. One of them is from the Beinecke library,
the sixteenth-century Latin and German collection of alchemical (and partly
medical) recipes of a certain Martin Roesel of Rosenthal from around 1586,
in which some recipes are encrypted in a numeric monoalphabetical cipher.25
Another one is from the national library of Madrid, the Libro del Tesoro attrib-
uted to Alfonso the Wise, a twenty-page text, which is almost entirely
encrypted.26 Both manuscripts have been identified and researched by the
historian of alchemy Agnieszka Rec, who convincingly argues that the rela-
tive lack of cryptography in sixteenth century alchemy is due to the fact that
the kind of secrecy guaranteed by ciphers do not actually fit the special needs
of the alchemists. In fact, she writes:

[C]iphers represent an entirely different tool than that commonly wielded in the
service of alchemical secrecy. The other methods alchemists relied on to conceal their

23. Lawrence M. Principe, ‘‘Robert Boyle’s Alchemical Secrecy: Codes, Ciphers

and Concealments,’’ Ambix 39 (1992): 63–74.
24. The traditional view contrasting secretive alchemy with open chemistry or
public mining methods: Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, ‘‘From the secrecy of alchemy to the
openness of chemistry,’’ in Solomon’s House Revisited, ed. Tore Frängsmyr (Canton:
Science History Publications, 1990), 75–94; Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship. The
criticism and reappraisal of this view: William Newman, ‘‘Alchemical Symbolism and
Concealment’’ in The Architecture of Science, ed. Peter Galison and Emily Thompson
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 59–77; Tara Nummedal, Alchemy and Authority
in the Holy Roman Empire (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 2007).
25. MS Beinecke Mellon MS 27 (fol. 23r). See: http://brbl-net.library.yale.edu/
pre1600ms/docs/pre1600.mell027.h tm (accessed March 13, 2015). See Agnieszka
Rec, ‘‘Ciphers and Secrecy Among the Alchemists: A Preliminary Report,’’ Societas
Magica Newsletter 31 (2014): 1–6.
26. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS reservado 20, http://bdh-rd.bne.es/viewer
.vm?id⳱0000057764&page⳱1 (accessed March 13, 2015).

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 133

ideas—Decknamen, allegories, and others—were meant to exclude the great mass of

the unworthy, but they were by design legible to those with the appropriate knowl-
edge, that is, other adepts. When a text instructed the alchemist to ‘‘take the green
lion’’ (recipe leonem viridem), he would know to reach for his supply of antimony ore.
Ciphers present an entirely different barrier to entry. Revealing their contents does
not require a particular body of knowledge, but rather a single piece of information:
the cipher key, whether obtained directly or figured out. Any reader can recover the
text if he can get the key. Acquiring that key becomes much easier when an earlier
reader writes in the solution next to the cipher, . . . With ciphers, then, being worthy
is entirely beside the point, and the alchemist very quickly loses control of his reader-
ship. It is precisely this quality that makes ciphers uncommon in alchemical manu-
scripts, which, as books of secrets, were meant to be written in a particular language
understood by a chosen group.27

A third, similar source is the diary of Johannes Cementes of Kolozsvár, a

sixteenth-century jewelry maker who worked in the mint of Cluj (then part
of Hungary: Kolozsvár) as a ‘‘cement-guy’’: a refiner of precious metals. His
diary, from the mid-sixteenth century, consists of almost two hundred pages,
and is basically a collection of recipes, including those for such pursuits as
jewelry-making, gold refining, and alchemy, written partly in Latin, partly in
Hungarian.28 The diary is entitled The Book of Happiness. More precisely, the
title is ‘‘The name of this book is happiness, if you live with it the way I do,’’ and
the very title itself is enciphered. The author provides the code key right at
the beginning on fol. 2v, which enables those few sentences that are
encrypted to be read. All three alchemical texts use a simple monoalphabetic
method; as such, they do not constitute the highest achievement of cryptog-
raphy available in their period, which had gradually left the level of the vul-
nerable monoalphabetic ciphers, turning to so-called homophonic ciphers.
What is a homophonic cipher? Homophonic ciphers combined three or
four cipher characters (i.e., homophones) belonging to each letter of the
plain alphabet. They added separate characters signifying double letters and
syllables, a number of nullities, or dummy characters without meaning, and
finally and most importantly a set of nomenclators, or code words corre-
sponding to the most frequent particles of the given language, the key names,

27. Rec, ‘‘Ciphers and Secrecy,’’ 4–5.

28. Herzfelder Armand Dezso, ‘‘Kolozsvári Czementes János könyve’’ (The book
by Johannes Cementes of Kolozsvár), Magyar Könyvszemle (1896): 276–301, 351–73;
Zolnai Gyula, ‘‘Jegyzetek Czementes János könyvéhez’’ (Notes to the book by Johan-
nes Cementes), Magyar Könyvszemle (1896): 373–77.

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134 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

and the geographical and political unities to be mentioned in the given politi-
cal context. This was the usual system followed in early modern diplomatic
correspondence: rulers, archbishops, politicians, and even everyday spies used
this strategy when communicating with their ambassadors, envoys, and col-
Such a system resisted brute force frequency analysis efficiently. Nullities,
signs without meaning, were meant to confuse the code breaker, and
nomenclators—signs standing for often used names, territories, and notions—
had the function of avoiding words with easily recognizable structure. Even
though this method seems to be quite outdated in our post-Enigma period,
one has to admit that such homophonic systems, using special characters for
syllables (and sometimes several characters, that is, homophones, for the same
syllable), are not particularly easy to decrypt. Usually only a solid knowledge
of the historical background and a correct identification of the language of
the plain text will allow the codebreaker to succeed. Even though this kind
of cipher was used after 1400, and became well known and widely available
in sixteenth-century diplomacy, civil practitioners did not really use it until
the seventeenth century.


We find similar cryptography in magical texts, the scribes of which also satis-
fied themselves with the use of monoalphabetic ciphers. Magic, just like
alchemy, had been represented in the traditional literature as secretive in con-
trast to science, which was supposed to be open.29 However, as we have seen,
this simplifying opposition has, fortunately, been lately modified.30 Still, and
most interestingly, learned magic and cryptography seem to have had an
unusually close relationship in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They
share their major authors, to start with. Works of Cornelius Agrippa and
John Dee contain secret alphabets, whereas Johannes Trithemius, Athanasius
Kircher, and Gerolamo Cardano were all authors noted in both the history
of magic and the history of cryptography.
In late medieval magical manuscripts, written or compiled by anonymous
authors, accessible and popular in circles of students and the low clergy,
cipher alphabets and shorter encrypted messages appear in considerable quan-
tity. Some of these alphabets and messages were the inventions of the scribes,
others appeared in such widespread and often copied texts as the Picatrix, the

29. Brian Vickers, ed., Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
30. Vermeir, ‘‘Openness versus Secrecy.’’

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 135

Book of Runes, and a number of short hermetic and Salomonic texts.31 In the
Book of Runes for example—a Latin talismanic text on manipulating planetary
spirits—the spirits’ names are to be engraved on metal plates in a runic alpha-
bet associating the sacred aspect of the runes with the celestial forces. This
was the most famous, but not the only, magical text featuring a runic script.
In a German manuscript from the late fifteenth century, for example,
runic characters were used for transcribing various names and notions of the
divinatory, prognostic, and occasionally demonic material of the book. In a
demonic invocation written in proper German, for example, the following
terms are spelled in runes: boes geist (malign spirit), diabolo diaboliczno, satana
sataniczno, and kum her zuo mir (come to me).32
Cipher alphabets in magical texts have two common traits. First, they all
stay on a relatively simple level, not stepping beyond the usual monoalphabe-
tic system, despite the fact that by this time, the turn of the fifteenth and the
sixteenth centuries, homophonic systems complemented with nomenclatures
were known. Furthermore, ciphers in magic manuscripts usually encrypt
short fragments of texts, and more often than not, these text fragments func-
tion as names of planetary spirits, as characters to be inscribed in a planetary
talisman used for benign and evil magical purposes, or simply as demonic
Proceeding in time, and looking at early modern manuscripts of magic,
the picture does not change substantially. The wide range of magic alphabets
collected in the comprehensive book by Gilles le Pape (Les écritures magiques)
are again without exception monoalphabetic, be they of Arabic, Hebraic,
Irish, or Western European origin. Cornelius Agrippa’s celestial alphabets,
the many anonymous talismanic ciphers, and even the famous Freemason
cipher belong to this simple category.34
Encrypting methods in these cases do not in the least seem to be used as

31. Benedek Láng, Unlocked Books, Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval
Libraries of Central Europe (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2008), chaps.
3 and 9. MS Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. Lat. 1375, fol. 19r., about which see
also Láng, Unlocked Books, 132. MS BAV Pal. lat. 1375 fol. 270v, on which: Láng,
Unlocked Books, 117.
32. Hartmut Beckers, ‘‘Eine spätmittelalterliche deutsche Anleitung zur Teufels-
beschwörung mit Runenschriftverwendung,’’ Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deut-
sche Literatur 113 (1984): 136–45.
33. Dresden, Sächsische Landesbibliothek N. 100, fol. 198r–200v; BAV, Pal. lat.
1439, fol. 346r–347v. Hartmut Beckers, ‘‘Eine spätmittelalterliche deutsche Anlei-
34. Gilles le Pape, Les écritures magiques (Milan: Arché, 2006).

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136 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

means for hiding information. This is not only because these cipher alphabets
are easy to break, but also because the accompanying text, which is left open,
clearly reveals what the coded text is about. Ciphers make no content inac-
cessible. It seems very likely that the special characters used to denote or
conjure up the magical content of the spiritual world in effect worked to call
attention to the ritual of the text, rather than hide it. Their mysterious
appearance worked more like a strategy of exposure, an advertisement by
means of the rhetoric of secrecy. The purpose of using special letters was not
so much to satisfy cryptographic needs as to provide a channel of communi-
cation with the spiritual world.
It does not seem to be an over-interpretation of the phenomena to say that
scribes of magic ciphers took Saint Augustine’s famous argument seriously.35
In Augustine’s model, magic appears in the context of the theory of signs as
an act of communication with the demonic powers. All superstitious prac-
tices, including divinatory and astrological procedures, presuppose an implicit
or explicit agreement with demons. This is valid even in the case where the
operator—deceived by the demons—is not aware of the pact, because this
pact is secured by the magical language, signs, and rituals applied by him.
Secret characters in late medieval magical texts turn this semiotic argument
upside down. Authors and scribes use secret characters exactly with the pur-
pose of magical communication. Augustine warned that we might easily start
talking in the language of demons simply by following some seemingly inno-
cent magical methods, and thus, we might get involved in demonic magic.
But what was for him a major reason for rejection seems here to have become
a program to be followed. Codes and ciphers in magic texts often serve to
name planetary spirits, or as celestial alphabets to communicate with planetary
spirits (not necessarily with demons), and it is exactly through the application
of such signs that the user of magic might get closer to the spiritual realms.
In my view, this explanation applies well to most medieval and early mod-
ern cases of encrypted forms of magical knowledge. However, exceptions
may be found. One is the famous Copiale cipher, a whole book encrypted
with a homophonic method, broken fairly recently by a Swedish-American

35. His fullest account of magic is to be found in Book II of the De doctrina christi-
ana, and in the De civitate Dei VIII–X. See Robert Markus, ‘‘Augustine on Magic: A
Neglected Semiotic Theory,’’ Revue des Études Augustiniennes 40 (1994): 375–88;
Claire Fanger, ‘‘Magic,’’ in Karla Pollman, Willemien Otten, et al., The Oxford Guide
to the Historical Reception of Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 860–
65, as well as Fanger’s dissertation chapter on Augustine’s sign theory, entitled
‘‘Inventing the Grand Dichotomy,’’ in Signs of Power and the Power of Signs (PhD
dissertation, University of Toronto, 1994).

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 137

research team (Kevin Knight, Beata Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer).36 The
second is less well known: an entirely enciphered manuscript from the small
Hungarian village of Nagybajom, recently broken by two Hungarian
researchers (Hanna Vámos and István Vadai).37 These books contain consider-
ably longer texts than the above examples of talismanic ciphers, more than
a hundred pages. Since one of them used a homophonic, and the other a
polyalphabetic method for encryption, they are not easy to break. Each con-
tains initiation rituals specific to a certain sect: respectively, the Copiale to
the Oculists and the Nagybajom manuscript to the Freemason community.
Ciphers in these two cases serve less than in the previous ones to call the
reader’s attention to the text; the rhetoric of secrecy has a different role here,
closer to what had been emphasized by Georg Simmel, Koen Vermeir, and
Tanya Luhrman, as described above. Relying on their analyses, I would claim
that encryption here is a social practice, expressing and regulating how far
certain information is shared, and how far one might belong to a specific
community. Secrecy indeed becomes an organizing tool of social hierarchy,
fundamentally influencing the mechanisms of exclusion-inclusion, and form-
ing a group of those who grasp the mystery. These late examples provide a
different pattern of ciphers and secrecy than the previous fifteenth- and
sixteenth-century examples.


Recent literature has considered the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the
age of dissimulation par excellence.38 In the early modern period, ‘‘dissimula-
tion’’ named not merely an ad hoc behavior, as it always had in Latin, but a

36. For the Copiale, see Kevin Knight, Beáta Megyesi, and Christiane Schaefer,
‘‘The Copiale Cipher,’’ http://www.isi.edu/natural-language/people/copiale-11.pdf
(accessed March 13, 2015); idem, ‘‘The Secrets of the Copiale Cipher,’’ Journal for
Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism 2 (2012): 314–24; and see also http://stp.ling
fil.uu.se/⬃bea/copiale/ (accessed March 13, 2015).
37. Hanna Vámos, ‘‘Leleplezett titok: Pálóczi Horváth Ádám titkos, szabadko-
muves dokumentuma’’ (Unveiled secret, the Freemason document of Ádám Pálóczi
Horváth), in Magyar Arión Tanulmányok Pálóczi Horváth Ádám muveirol (Hungarian
Arión, Studies on the works of Ádám Pálóczi Horváth), ed. István Csörsz Rumen
and Béla Hegedüs (Budapest: rec.iti, 2011), http://rec.iti.mta.hu/rec.iti (accessed
March 13, 2015).
38. Brief selection from the literature of dissimulation: Perez Zagorin, Ways of
Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1–14; Jon R. Snyder, Dissimulation and the
Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2012); Carlo Ginzburg, Il Nicodemismo: Simulazione e dissimulazione nell’Europa del

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138 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

cultivated courtly practice, which had rules of etiquette that could be

systematized—an ‘‘art,’’ as can be seen from Torqueto Acceto’s 1641 book,
the Della dissimulazione honesta. Courtiers and royals, officers and politicians,
spies and ambassadors, philosophers and scientists always covered up their real
motives and intentions in order to survive and step up on the career ladder.
People necessarily concealed their true motives, emotions, intentions, and
thoughts in diplomatic and commercial meetings, in wartime and at peace
treaty negotiations, in discussing heritage and property issues, often showing
something different to all of their communication partners at the same time.
Such events naturally happened frequently in politics and court intrigue, but
they were also part of other areas of life. One needed to be able to control
his emotions and behavior in order to play his proper role in his social or
private life.
Dissimulation and secrecy were intertwined in practice. Faking is conceal-
ing the real thought, emotion, or intention in such a way that it makes even
the act of faking secret and unknown. So does dissimulation have a similarly
close relationship with the main written tool of secrecy, cryptography? I am
not aware of any studies on this problem, although it seems to me a crucial
issue in the two hundred years between 1500 and 1700, a period that was
the heyday not only of dissimulation but also of cryptography.
Jon Snyder, a historian studying the early modern ‘‘art’’ of dissimulation,
contrasts it with wearing a mask. If you put on a mask, you are being honest
about covering your real face. Anyone looking at you will know that they
do not see you as you really are. If you dissimulate, however, you act as if
you were not hiding anything, as if wearing an invisible mask that still covers
you.39 This is what made life difficult for those who lived in the age of the
arts of dissimulation: they did not know what was underneath the masks, and
they did not know who was actually wearing a mask and who was not. In
this way cryptography seems to be rather different: it does not cover up its
ruse, but in fact advertises it.
It is not cryptography (the concealing of messages in an obviously secret
code), but rather steganography (the concealing of the existence of messages
altogether, or the hiding of secret messages in apparently nonsecret text) that
corresponds to this activity. Cryptography transforms an accessible text into
a code that is no longer legible to everyone, but that is self-evidently a cipher.
Seeing an encrypted message motivates one to break the code, whereas in

’500 (Turin: Einaudi, 1970); Vı́gh Éva, Barocco etico-retorico nella letteratura italiana
(Szeged: JATE Press, 2001).
39. Snyder, Dissimulation, xiii.

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 139

contrast, by hiding the fact that a message is present, steganography yields no

such motivation. While enciphering results in a message that is clearly wear-
ing a mask, steganography dissimulates (so to speak) even the mask. It is thus
more effective if real hiddenness is a concern.
Technically speaking, steganography may be done in various ways. Ancient
messengers were said to have written messages on their scalp, which was then
hidden behind their growing hair (although this may be an altogether
unlikely scenario). Another more widespread technique was to use invisible
ink or miniaturized letters, so the cognoscenti would know that they must
read the first letters of every word in an innocuous open document to make
up the true, secret message. One might also write characters in bold, flagging
the secret message in an otherwise nonsecret text. Steganography is real dis-
simulation, pretending to be nothing, or something else. Cryptography by
comparison is an honest genre: visible, if not legible. Cryptography and dis-
simulation are two faces of (the act of ) secrecy. Magical texts often used the
first, but much more rarely the second.
The differences and relations between cryptography, steganography, and
magic can be demonstrated through a look at a story that has been told
elsewhere,40 but bears repeating because it is exceptional in several ways. In
many of the above texts, magic was concealed by ciphers. In this last example,
however, ciphers are concealed by magic. The story is related to the famous
Steganography of Abbot Trithemius. As we have seen, steganography, the hid-
ing of the very fact that there is a message to decrypt, is generally safer than
cryptography, which serves to make the message visible but unreadable.
Johannes Trithemius wrote three books on what he calls Steganography, but
the first two books actually explain basic rules of cryptography, giving exam-
ples of how to encipher texts. The author finally offers examples of steganog-
raphy as well, such as how to hide a message in a longer text. The receiver
of the hidden message—so the example goes—is supposed to read only the
first letter of every other word, and thus he can reconstruct what was sent to
him. The enemy will see the text, but will not suppose that there is a message
to find and reconstruct.
Now the hiding of the information was so successful in the first two books
of Trithemius’ Steganography, that many readers only noticed the cover text,
not the hidden message. In part, this may have been because the cover text
itself was dubious enough. We should not forget that, for various reasons,

40. The case is also quoted by Vermeir, ‘‘Openness versus Secrecy,’’ 174, to illus-
trate the gradual character and the simultaneous appearance of the parts of the
openness-secrecy dichotomy.

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140 Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft  Winter 2015

Trithemius had to fight against the charge of demonic magic in the last dec-
ades of his life; it is really not so surprising that many readers took the seem-
ingly demonic cover text seriously. The book was not printed until a hundred
years later, when the famous authority of cryptography, Gustavus Selenus,
proved, by decoding some of it, that the magical appearance of Trithemius’
book was just a cover for the steganographic content. (Gustavus Selenus was
in fact Duke Herzog August, prince of Braunschweig, who wrote his crypto-
graphic book under a pseudonym.)41 The abbot’s book was finally printed
(interestingly enough, by a protestant publisher).
But the Steganographia had three books, and Gustavus Selenus actually gave
a key to the seemingly magical content only of the first two. The third book,
by contrast, resisted decryption for a further five hundred years. Instead of
being seen as an innocent manual on ciphers and steganography, in the opin-
ion of many, it really was an occult text, containing planetary spirit names
and a long list of numbers serving for astrological computation. Clearly, it
was what it seemed to be: a text on astral magic. Even in the secondary
literature, authors generally agreed that the first two books of Trithemius
were a well-disguised cryptography, but the third book was demonic non-
But, in the 1990s, the very same thing ultimately happened to Trithemius’
third book as had happened to the first two in the seventeenth century. The
German scholar, Thomas Ernst—and simultaneously but independently, the
American Jim Reeds—pointed out that the spirit names and numbers were
not nonsense magical operations, but rather a code that could actually be
cracked.42 The third book was written to demonstrate the functioning of a
cryptographic system (a homophonic system, by the way). However, it was
also a case of steganography, that is, not only an enciphered but also a hidden
message, where angel names and astrological data turned out to be the non-
secret content manipulated to disguise the message. Trithemius was finally
cleared from the charge of demonic magic, and simultaneously he proved his

41. Gustavus Selenus, Cryptomenytices et cryptographiae libri IX (Luneburg, Sternen,

1624). On Duke August: Gerhard Strasser, ‘‘The Noblest Cryptologist: Duke August
the Younger of Brunswick-Luneburg (Gustavus Selenus) and His Cryptological
Activities,’’ Cryptologia 7, no. 3 (1983): 193–217; idem, ‘‘Die kryptographische
Sammlung Herzog Augusts: Vom Quellenmaterial für seine Cryptomenytices zu
einem Schwerpunkt in seiner Bibliothek,’’ Wolfenbütteler Beiträge 5 (1982): 83–121.
42. Thomas Ernst, ‘‘The Numerical-Astrological Ciphers in the Third Book of
Trithemius’s Steganographia,’’ Cryptologia 22 (1998): 318–41; Jim Reeds, ‘‘Solved:
The ciphers in book III of Trithemius’s Steganographia,’’ Cryptologia 22 (1998): 291–

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Láng  Ciphers in Magic: Techniques of Revelation and Concealment 141

period’s brightest author of cryptography and steganography, who was able

to deceive his many learned readers for a hundred years with the two first
books, and for five hundred years with the third.
What Trithemius managed to hide was a method of cryptography. How-
ever, the technique he used to hide it can be called steganography, because
he concealed that he was actually writing about ciphers. The mask behind
which he hid his cryptography was magic—and all this activity was a most
successful practice of dissimulation.
The argument of this article is that ciphers played many different roles in
early modern texts. Sometimes they served to ensure priority. In other texts
they aimed to exclude certain readers while including others. In alchemy,
where we would expect ciphers to occur in great quantities, ‘‘Decknamen,’’
figurative language, allegories, and symbols had a strong group-forming effect
among readers, authors, and practitioners, while proper ciphers were used
only to a limited extent, because they simply did not seem to be an adequate
means of secrecy in this field. In magical texts, finally, the purpose of using
cryptography was often not to make the spiritual content inaccessible, not to
mask or cover it, but rather to highlight it.
These manifold uses of cryptography illustrate richly why the study of
secrecy might be a more relevant issue than study of secrets. Motivations for
hiding something—in particular with ciphers—might prove more varied
than we would expect. Establishing priority, delimiting the circles of the
initiated and the excluded persons, inviting engagement with the text, dem-
onstrating the performance of a given method were all usual objectives.

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