Trithemius to Maximilian I: English translation
At the request of the above mentioned prince and lord elector, Philip Count Palatine and Duke of Bavaria, I, Johann Trithemius, now Abbot of St James at Würzburg, but then the superior of St Martin in Sponheim in the diocese of Mainz, began to write eight books on the mysteries of steganography. I was midway through composing the third book of this work when events took a turn which I shall tell as briefly as I can.
On Palm Monday (?) in the year 1499, in the second Roman indiction, I sent a letter by way of a merchant to inform my friend Arnoldus Bostius, Carmelite of Ghent, of what I had been doing lately and what I was busy studying. I said I was at work on a new and noteworthy book on steganography, giving details of the contents of each book in order. Before my letter reached Ghent, Bostius was taken to Christ during Easter week. The prior of that house received the letters in place of him, opened them and read them. Astounded, I imagine, by the novelty of my proposal, he shared them with many other enquirers to be read and recopied. So it was that in a short space of time my letter was broadcast throughout Germany and France, being copied again and again and bringing many learned men into a state of stunned amazement: so much so that they were unsure what to think of me. There were not a few who kept claiming that the proposals in this letter were frivolous, impossible and fraudulent and that I had dreamed them up out of shameless self-aggrandisement. Others said: Abbot Trithemius claims to do weird and wonderful things, and if he is really able to, it could only be by the agency of demons, for it would all seem to go beyond the bounds of nature. If on the other hand he is not able, who can doubt that he is a charlatan who should be refuted by all good and learned men. But neither side was right, for what I proposed was of natural origin. Of all those who jumped to conclusions about my inventions, by far my most prejudiced critic, Charles Bovelles, jumped late into the fray. A Picard by extraction, after roaming through Upper Alsace he came to Sponheim to enjoy my hospitality before returning to France via Trier. I showed him every possible kindness and cheerfully provided him with full hospitality for as long as he was with me. Then, as literary minded friends do, I brought out all my work for my grateful friend to see, including the above mentioned book on steganography which was then still unfinished. Bovelles saw it and casually read it, saying with his mind elsewhere that he admired it, and he praised it without caring how it ought to be interpreted. But since he did not ask for the key to understanding it, he was not entitled to hear or see what was in that composition of mine.
He then returned to France and repaid me with evil for good, in foul breach of the bond of Christian friendship. When questioned by our mutual friend Germain de Ganay, later bishop of Orleans, about his stay with me and what he saw in Sponheim, he replied with falsehood for truth and lies for favours, judging and condemning what his intelligence was not equipped to comprehend. For since he thought that learning ought to be rewarded with envy and deceit, he wrote a letter to the aforesaid scholar which was full of falsehood, lies, injuries and insults. In it he referred to the Steganographia which he had failed to understand, and wrongly, lyingly and offensively declared that I was an adept of vile arts, a wizard and a necromancer. Let me, with God’s blessing, briefly respond so that future generations will know that I am innocent and Bovelles is disloyal, malicious and recklessly dishonest in this case. I steadfastly affirm, truly declare and confidently swear in my heart that I have never had any dealings with demons or evil or harmful magical and necromantic arts. Everything I have written or have undertaken to write is pure, healthy, natural and in no way contrary to Christian faith. I therefore do not fear to submit my works to the scrutiny of good and learned men whenever and as often as is required, and I have no intention of shrinking from their judgement. I have interrupted this preface with the story of Bovelles and his thoughtlessness for good reason: so that all may know that on due reflection I have consigned the Steganographia to the shadows, not because I fear the rash judgment of Bovelles, but so as not to give likeminded men cause to suspect me in like fashion. It is my preference to please my rivals with silence rather than incite them with letters or provoke them to madness with writings. I have decided that it is better to condemn all my ingenuity to perpetual silence rather than be branded with a reputation for harmful magical or necromantic superstition by a mistaken public opinion. So let the Steganographia languish in the dark rather than circulate in Bovelles’s clique, which makes a practice of jumping to conclusions and blackening a good man’s name from sheer malice. However my friends have urged me to let my other rivals know that Bovelles inflicted a manufactured injury on me, while keeping the Steganographia under wraps, by publishing the present work, which I call Polygraphia, in six books. Let those who wish read this volume – let my friends not gag at reading it – and when they have understood the mysteries hidden here they shall be the unbiassed judges of whether it is natural or superstitious. I am sure I know that it is all genuine, pure, natural and free from any use of evil superstition.
Whenever speech goes out in disguise the reasoning should be this: a madman misuses a defensive sword for destruction when a sane man carries it as his protection. There is nothing evil in it, but warped men abuse good things for ill. Equally, anyone who presumes to condemn this publication of mine is a living witness that he never understood it in the first place. Mysteries are wrapped in riddles so that the secrets of owls are not freely opened to imps. If anyone is happy to know this, let him cast aside envy and read.
I am a Christian after all, I am a priest and monk subject to the rule of St Benedict. I love Christ and adore him devoutly at all times with what sincerity of mind I can muster. I have not, do not and with God’s protection I will not have dealings with demons, nor any studies in magical, necromantic or profane arts, either in rituals or writings. Whoever thinks so thinks ill, injures me and promotes the open lie of Bovelles. But now with no further ado let me set out what is contained in each book of Polygraphia in order.