Johannes Trithemius was an abbot from the Benedictine monastery of Sponheim, and later the monastery of Würzburg. During his studies in Heidelberg, he was involved in learned humanistic societies, and later he applied the ideal of humanistic eloquence in his works. Trithemius built large libraries and wrote a number of mystical, monastic, historic, and biographic writings. He became famous especially due to his book Steganographia which dealt with cryptography on the basis of natural magic and astrology working with angelic mediations. Though Steganographia remained in manuscript form, it influenced occult sciences in the sixteenth century and cryptography. Trithemius was also accused of necromancy and demonic magic.
KeywordsHistorical Writing Literary Society Fictional Story Original Aspect Contemporary Knowledge
Born in a village in the valley of the river Mosel, Trithemius became one of two celebrated thinkers of this region – next to Nicholas of Cusa, as it was emphasized by his contemporary Konrad Celtis (Arnold 1991). Trithemius studied in Trier, the Netherlands, and Heidelberg, where he was influenced by the humanistic movement. Together with Celtis, Jakob Wimpfeling, and Johannes Reuchlin, he formed a Rhenish literary society there. In 1482, Trithemius entered a Benedictine monastery in Sponheim. In 1483, he was elected abbot, and in the following years, he reformed monastic life and built a large and famous monastery library containing manuscripts and printed books from different areas of contemporary knowledge. In 1505, after being denounced by the monks, he had to leave Sponheim, and after traveling through Germany, visiting the court of the emperor Maximilian I and other various courts, he accepted an offer to become abbot in the Benedictine monastery in Würzburg, where he spent the rest of his life, building a second library and reforming monastic life there.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition: Innovative and Original Aspects
Trithemius was the author of numerous mystical and monastic writings, in which he follows Jean Gerson and Nicholas of Cusa in advocating the idea of learned piety in monastic life (Brann 1999). Trithemius also wrote a number of historical writings, containing fantastic fictional stories, and cultivated a genre of bibliographical literature (Grafton 2006). In all his writings, the list of them is given by Klaus Arnold (Arnold 1991), Trithemius develops the humanistic ideal of eloquence of text.
Influenced by humanism, Hermetic writings, Neoplatonism, Pythagorean numerology, Renaissance Platonism, medieval scholasticism (Albert the Great), and Kabbalah, Trithemius created a conception of mystical magic (Brann 1981, 1999; Zambelli 2007). He worked with alchemical and astrological precepts leading to mystical magical illumination, which was kept in secret. In his unfinished and unpublished book Steganography (Trithemius 1605), the ascent to heaven is realized on the basis of a hierarchical cosmological system, with the assistance of spiritual substances. Provided that occult harmony binds all parts of reality, these substances are steganographically in a cryptic language invoked for the sake of the soul, to achieve the eternal bliss. In the book Polygraphia (Trithemius 1518), Trithemius defends himself against accusations of practicing black magic and creates another form of cryptography not comprising angelic mediations.
Impact and Legacy
Trithemius was visited in Sponheim by Agrippa of Nettesheim, who was influenced by him in both his systematic book on occult philosophy, De occulta philosophia, and his skeptical work, De vanitate (Müller-Jahncke 1991). Trithemius thus became one of the important founders of Renaissance magic and occult sciences (Walker 1975). The cryptological aspects of his work had influence on Giambattista della Porta, Paracelsus, and John Dee. On the other hand, the Carmelite Arnold Bostius, to whom Trithemius sent a part of his Steganography, and philosopher Carolus Bovillus, another of Trithemius’ visitor, accused him of advocating and practicing demonic magic. Trithemius was then also accused of necromancy and was later connected with Dr. Faustus legend (Baron 1991).
In the seventeenth century, Trithemius’ Steganographia and his cryptography still remained popular. It was considered to be the discipline of language by the members of Royal Academic Society in particular. The occult principles, i.e., the angelic-astrological mediation lying under the cryptologic theory, were neglected in the favor of encoding and enciphering. As a magician and mystical theologian, on the other hand, Trithemius was praised in modern theosophy (Brann 2006).
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