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Johannes Trithemius

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Johannes Trithemius
Detail of Tomb Relief of Johannes Trithemius by Tilman Riemenschneider
Born1 February 1462
Died13 December 1516(1516-12-13) (aged 54)
Alma materUniversity of Heidelberg
Known forSteganographia,
Trithemius cipher
Scientific career
FieldsTheology, cryptography, lexicography, history, occultism
InstitutionsBenedictine abbey of Sponheim,
St. Jakob zu den Schotten
Notable studentsHeinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Johannes Trithemius (/trɪˈθɛmiəs/; 1 February 1462 – 13 December 1516), born Johann Heidenberg, was a German Benedictine abbot and a polymath who was active in the German Renaissance as a lexicographer, chronicler, cryptographer, and occultist[citation needed]. He is considered the founder of modern cryptography (a claim shared with Leon Battista Alberti) and steganography, as well as the founder of bibliography and literary studies as branches of knowledge.[1][2][3] He had considerable influence on the development of early modern and modern occultism. His students included Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus.

Early life


The byname Trithemius refers to his native town of Trittenheim on the Moselle River, at the time part of the Electorate of Trier.

When Johannes was still an infant his father, Johann von Heidenburg, died. His stepfather, whom his mother Elisabeth married seven years later, was hostile to education and thus Johannes could only learn in secret and with many difficulties. He learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. When he was 17 years old he escaped from his home and wandered around looking for good teachers, travelling to Trier, Cologne, the Netherlands, and Heidelberg. He studied at the University of Heidelberg.



Travelling from the university to his home town in 1482, he was surprised by a snowstorm and took refuge in the Benedictine abbey of Sponheim near Bad Kreuznach. He decided to stay and was elected abbot in 1483, at the age of twenty-one. He often served as featured speaker and chapter secretary at the Bursfelde Congregation's annual chapter from 1492 to 1503, the annual meeting of reform-minded abbots. Trithemius also supervised the visits of the Congregation's abbeys.

Trithemius wrote extensively as a historian, starting with a chronicle of Sponheim and culminating in a two-volume work on the history of Hirsau Abbey. His work was distinguished by mastery of the Latin language and eloquent phrasing, yet it was soon discovered that he inserted several fictional passages into his works. Even during Trithemius's lifetime, several critics pointed out the invented sources he used.[4][failed verification][5] [6] His forgery regarding the connection between the Franks and the Trojans was part of a larger project to establish a link between the current dynasty of Austria with ancient heroes. While his colleagues like Jakob Mennel and Ladislaus Suntheim often inserted invented ancestors in their works, Trithemius invented entire sources, such as Hunibald, supposedly a Scythian historian.[7][8] For his research on monasteries, he utilized “Meginfrid,” an imagined early chronicler of Fulda and Meginfrid's nonexistent treatise De temporibus gratiae to substantiate Trithemius's ideal of monastic piety and erudition, which were supposed to be the same values shared by the monks of the ninth century.[9] Others opine that Meginfrid was not strictly forgery but the combination of wishful thinking with faulty memory.[10]

In the process though, Trithemius became a famous builder of libraries, which he created in Sponheim and Würzburg.[11][12] In Sponheim, he set out to transform the abbey from a neglected and undisciplined place into a centre of learning. In his time, the abbey library increased from around fifty items to more than two thousand.

His efforts did not meet with praise, and his reputation as a magician did not further his acceptance. Increasing differences with the convent led to his resignation in 1506, when he decided to take up the offer of the Bishop of Würzburg, Lorenz von Bibra (bishop from 1495 to 1519), to become the abbot of St. James's Abbey, the Schottenkloster in Würzburg. He remained there until the end of his life.

Trithemius seemed to have a falling out with Maximilian regarding their differences when the emperor wanted to organize a separate ecclesiastical council in 1511, in slight of Pope Julius II. The relationship recovered after Julius's death, though.[13]



Trithemius was buried in St. James's Abbey's church; a tombstone by the famous Tilman Riemenschneider was erected in his honor. In 1825, the tombstone was moved to the Neumünster church, next to the cathedral. It was damaged in the firebombing of 1945, and subsequently restored by the workshop of Theodor Spiegel.



Notably, the German polymath, physician, legal scholar, soldier, theologian, and occult writer Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535) and the Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer Paracelsus (1493–1541) were among his pupils.

The Faust legend


Trithemius had a reputation as a necromancer.[14] The Faust legend is strongly based on a legend involving Maximilian, his first wife Mary of Burgundy and Trithemius. Through his 1507 account, Trithemius was the first author who mentioned the historical Doctor Faustus, or Johann Faust of Knittlingen. In a letter he wrote to the polymath Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, another famous occult writer and supposed magician – he appeared to criticize the vanity of Faust, who possessed inferior skills and went against the teachings of the Church. Literary scholar Andrew McCarthy opines that Trithemius considered himself a true necromancer, who studied in order to gain knowledge of the workings of the universe without attracting publicity.[15]

Being summoned to the emperor's court in 1506 and 1507, he also helped to "prove" Maximilian's Trojan origins. In the 1569 edition of his Tischreden, Martin Luther writes about a magician and necromancer, understood to be Trithemius, who summoned Alexander the Great and other ancient heroes, as well as the emperor's deceased wife Mary of Burgundy, to entertain Maximilian.[16] In his 1585 account, Augustin Lercheimer (1522–1603) writes that after Mary's death, Trithemius was summoned to console a devastated Maximilian. Trithemius conjured a shade of Mary, who looked exactly like her when alive. Maximilian also recognized a birthmark on her neck, that only he knew about. He was distraught by the experience though, and ordered Trithemius never to do it again. An anonymous account in 1587 modified the story into a less sympathetic version. The emperor became Charles V, who, despite knowing about the risk of black magic, ordered Faustus to raise Alexander and his wife from death. Charles saw that the woman had a birthmark, which he had heard about.[17] Later, the woman in Goethe's Faust became Helen of Troy.[18] The story of Maximilian, Mary of Burgundy and the Abbot "Johannes Trithem" later appeared as one of the Grimms' Tales.[19]

According to John Henry Jones, the blooming of the Faustus myth was fuelled by the witch craze of the time.[20]


Polygraphiae (1518) – the first printed book on cryptography
A chart from Steganographia copied by John Dee in 1591

Trithemius' most famous work, Steganographia (written c. 1499; published Frankfurt, 1606), was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1609[21] and removed in 1900.[22] This book is in three volumes, and appears to be about magic—specifically, about using spirits to communicate over long distances. Since the publication of the decryption key to the first two volumes in 1606, they have been known to be actually concerned with cryptography and steganography. Until recently, the third volume was widely still believed to be solely about magic, but the "magical" formulae have now been shown to be covertexts for yet more cryptographic content.[23][24] However, mentions of the magical work within the third book by such figures as Agrippa and John Dee still lend credence to the idea of a mystic-magical foundation concerning the third volume.[25][26] Additionally, while Trithemius's steganographic methods can be established to be free of the need for angelic–astrological mediation, still left intact is an underlying theological motive for their contrivance. The preface to the Polygraphia equally establishes that the everyday practicability of cryptography was conceived by Trithemius as a "secular consequent of the ability of a soul specially empowered by God to reach, by magical means, from earth to Heaven".[27] Robert Hooke suggested, in the chapter Of Dr. Dee's Book of Spirits, that John Dee made use of Trithemian steganography to conceal his communication with Queen Elizabeth I.[28] Amongst the codes used in this book is the Ave Maria cipher, where each coded letter is replaced by a short sentence about Jesus in Latin.[29]

The reason for Polygraphia and Steganographia as covertexts being written are unknown. Possible explanations are that either its real target audience was the selected few such as Maximilian, or that Trithemius wanted to attract public attention to a tedious field.[30][31][32]


Tomb relief of Johannes Trithemius by Tilman Riemenschneider
Catalogus illustrium virorum Germaniae, 1495
  • Exhortationes ad monachos, 1486
  • De institutione vitae sacerdotalis, 1486
  • De regimine claustralium, 1486
  • De visitatione monachorum, about 1490
  • Catalogus illustrium virorum Germaniae, 1491–1495
  • De laude scriptorum manualium, 1492 (printed 1494) Zum Lob der Schreiber; Freunde Mainfränkischer Kunst and Geschichte e. V., Würzburg 1973, (Latin/German)
  • De viris illustribus ordinis sancti Benedicti, 1492
  • In laudem et commendatione Ruperti quondam abbatis Tuitiensis, 1492
  • De origine, progressu et laudibus ordinis fratrum Carmelitarum, 1492
  • Liber penthicus seu lugubris de statu et ruina ordinis monastici, 1493
  • De proprietate monachorum, before 1494
  • De vanitate et miseria humanae vitae, before 1494
  • Liber de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis, 1494
  • De laudibus sanctissimae matris Annae, 1494
  • De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis, 1494[33]
  • Chronicon Hirsaugiense, 1495–1503
  • Chronicon Sponheimense, c. 1495-1509 - Chronik des Klosters Sponheim, 1024-1509; Eigenverlag Carl Velten, Bad Kreuznach 1969 (German)
  • De cura pastorali, 1496
  • De duodecim excidiis oberservantiae regularis, 1496
  • De triplici regione claustralium et spirituali exercitio monachorum, 1497
  • Steganographia, c. 1499
  • Chronicon successionis ducum Bavariae et comitum Palatinorum, c. 1500-1506
  • Nepiachus, 1507
  • De septem secundeis id est intelligentiis sive spiritibus orbes post deum moventibus, c. 1508[34] (The Seven Secondary Intelligences, 1508), a history of the world based on astrology;
  • Antipalus maleficiorum, 1508
  • Polygraphia, written 1508, published 1518
  • Annales Hirsaugienses, 1509–1514. The full title is Annales hirsaugiensis...complectens historiam Franciae et Germaniae, gesta imperatorum, regum, principum, episcoporum, abbatum, et illustrium virorum, Latin for "The Annals of Hirsau...including the history of France and Germany, the exploits of the emperors, kings, princes, bishops, abbots, and illustrious men". Hirsau was a monastery near Württemberg, whose abbot commissioned the work in 1495, but it took Trithemius until 1514 to finish the two-volume, 1,400-page work. It was first printed in 1690. Some consider this work to be one of the first humanist history books.
  • Compendium sive breviarium primi voluminis chronicarum sive annalium de origine regum et gentis Francorum, c. 1514
  • De origine gentis Francorum compendium, 1514 - An abridged history of the Franks / Johannes Trithemius; AQ-Verlag, Dudweiler 1987; ISBN 978-3-922441-52-6 (Latin/English)
  • Liber octo quaestionum, 1515
  • Marquard Freher, Opera historica, Minerva, Frankfurt/Main, 1966
  • Johannes Busaeus, Opera pia et spiritualia (1604 and 1605)
  • Johannes Busaeus, Paralipomena opuscolorum (1605 and 1624)

See also



  1. ^ Holden, Joshua (2 October 2018). The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-18331-2. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  2. ^ Rodriquez, Mercedes Garcia-Arenal; Mediano, Fernando Rodríguez (15 April 2013). The Orient in Spain: Converted Muslims, the Forged Lead Books of Granada, and the Rise of Orientalism. BRILL. p. 383. ISBN 978-90-04-25029-1. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  3. ^ Zambelli, Paola (2007). White Magic, Black Magic in the European Renaissance. BRILL. p. 251. ISBN 978-90-04-16098-9. Retrieved 20 February 2022.
  4. ^ Arnold, Klaus (1991). Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516). Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Bistums und Hochstifts Würzburg, 23 (English = Sources and research on the history of the diocese and bishopric of Würzburg, #23) (in German) (2. Aufl. ed.). Würzburg: Schöningh. pp. 144–157. ISBN 978-3-877170-23-6. OCLC 470202364. 2., bibliographisch und überlieferungsgeschichtlich neu bearb. Aufl. (English = 2nd Edition, updated bibliographical and historical lore)
  5. ^ Brann, Noël L. (1 January 1981). The Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism. BRILL. p. 95. ISBN 978-90-04-06468-3. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  6. ^ Grafton, Anthony; Grafton, Professor of History Anthony (2009). Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West. Harvard University Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-674-03257-6. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  7. ^ Wood, Christopher S.; Wood, Professor Christopher S. (15 August 2008). Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art. University of Chicago Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-226-90597-6. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  8. ^ Bastress-Dukehart, Erica (19 August 2021). The Zimmern Chronicle: Nobility, Memory, and Self-Representation in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Routledge. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-351-88018-3. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  9. ^ Muller, Richard A.; Thompson, John L. (20 August 2020). Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: Essays Presented to David C. Steinmetz in Honor of His Sixtieth Birthday. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 26. ISBN 978-1-7252-8377-0. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  10. ^ Amphora. Alcuin Society. 1972. p. 10. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  11. ^ Grafton 2009, p. 56.
  12. ^ Grafton, Anthony (30 June 2009). Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea. Harvard University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-674-03786-1. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  13. ^ Brann 1981, p. 98.
  14. ^ Dery, Mark (1994). Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Duke University Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-8223-1540-7. Retrieved 25 July 2023.
  15. ^ McCarthy, Andrew D. (1 April 2016). Staging the Superstitions of Early Modern Europe. Routledge. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-317-05068-1. Retrieved 25 July 2023.
  16. ^ Brann, Noel L. (1999). Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe. SUNY Press. p. 165. ISBN 9780791439616. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  17. ^ Baron, Frank (2013). Faustus on Trial: The Origins of Johann Spies's 'Historia' in an Age of Witch Hunting. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 95–103. ISBN 9783110930061. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  18. ^ Waas, Glenn Elwood (1941). The Legendary Character of Kaiser Maximilian. Columbia University Press. pp. 153–162. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  19. ^ Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm (1981). The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm. Institute for the Study of Human Issues. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-915980-71-0. Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  20. ^ Jones, John Henry (3 March 2011). The English Faust Book: A Critical Edition Based on the Text of 1592. Cambridge University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-521-17503-6. Retrieved 2 February 2022.
  21. ^ Indice de Libros Prohibidos (1877) [Index of Prohibited Books of Pope Pius IX (1877)] (in Spanish). Vatican. 1880. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  22. ^ Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1900) [Index of Prohibited Books of Pope Leo XIII (1900)] (in Latin). Vatican. 1900. p. 298. Retrieved 2 August 2009. index librorum prohibitorum tricassinus.
  23. ^ Reeds, Jim (1998). "Solved: The ciphers in book III of Trithemius's Steganographia". Cryptologia. 22 (4): 191–317. doi:10.1080/0161-119891886948.
  24. ^ Ernst, Thomas (1996). "Schwarzweiße Magie: Der Schlüssel zum dritten Buch der Stenographia des Trithemius". Daphnis: Zeitschrift für Mittlere Deutsche Literatur. 25 (1): 1–205.
  25. ^ Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 50-55
  26. ^ Walker, D. P. Spiritual & Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), pp. 86-90
  27. ^ Brann, Noel L., "Trithemius, Johannes", in Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, ed. Wouter J. Hanegraff (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006), pp. 1135-1139.
  28. ^ Robert Hooke (1705). The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke. Richard Waller, London. p. 203.
  29. ^ Predel, B. (1994), "Cr-Cs (Chromium-Caesium)", Cr-Cs – Cu-Zr, Landolt-Börnstein - Group IV Physical Chemistry, vol. 5d, Springer-Verlag, p. 1, doi:10.1007/10086090_968, ISBN 3540560734
  30. ^ Muchembled, Robert; Bethencourt, Francisco; Monter, William; Egmond, Florike (March 2007). Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-521-84548-9. Retrieved 22 November 2021.
  31. ^ Brann, Noel L. (1 January 1999). Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe. SUNY Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-7914-3962-3. Retrieved 22 November 2021.
  32. ^ Ellison, Katherine (10 June 2016). A Cultural History of Early Modern English Cryptography Manuals. Routledge. p. 51. ISBN 978-1-315-45820-5. Retrieved 23 November 2021.
  33. ^ Digital Version MGH-Bibliothek Archived 2007-06-30 at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ Trithemius, Johannes (1522). "De septem secunda Deis id est intelligentiis sive spiritibus moventibus ... - Johannes Trithemius - Google Books". google.com.


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