...books sustain us in our desire for future bliss, soften the misery of our present exile...( Libri enim sunt qui noblis futre felisitatis desiderium faciunt, presentis exlii miseri as minuunt ) De laude scriptorum : in praise of scribes, Johannes Trithemius. trans Roland Bohrendt (Coronado : 1974)

Born Johann Heidenberg in the year 1462, Trithemius took his Latin name from his birthplace Trittenheim on the banks of the Mosel river in the Western Germany, near what is now the Luxembourg border. His natural father died at an early age, and his mother re-married to a merchant by the name of Zell. Johann and his step-father did not see eye to eye, especially in matters of literary taste and Johann left the home at 15, convinced a 'life of letters' was the only path for him. Soon after he found himself enrolled in the University at Heidelberg. In 1482, after he'd completed his studies, he and a friend were returning to their hometown in the Mosel valley when a snowstorm descended upon them. They took refuge in the monastery of St. Martin in Sponheim. A year later, Johann joined that same monastery, where he became abbot for 23 years as a Benedictine monk. Over time he built the library (armarium) up to some 2000 volumes, largely transcribed in the scriptorium by his own monks.¦ He actively pursued an ideal of 'learned piety', through mystical theology, ecclesiastical history and (most controversial for an abbot at that time) humanist studies. These wide areas of interest also brought him into regular contacts with texts of occult sciences, astrology, Pythagorean number theory and Cabala . In 1499, Trithemius declared himself (out of the blue) an exponent of the occult arts. The news spread through the Church administration.

During the 16th century cryptography became fashionable, the subject of many books by such authors as Trithemius, Cardano, della Porta, de Vigenere who introduced a wealth of new cryptographic techniques which did not become fully assimilated into practice until the 18th and 19th centuries- all shared interest in magia naturalis which can explain the use of cryptography as an illustrative example, but this explanation has not been taken as covering Trithemius's motives at the time. By 1505 Trithemius was forced to leave the Sponheim monks and took a new position at the monastery of St. Jacob in Würzburg until he died in 1516 at age 44. His manuscripts at the time (which seem a strange esoteric blend to us now) cryptography , conjuration, alchemy, optics, theology and history - and his assertions that these were all ways to seek the knowledge of God earned him a Faustian reputation even before his own death. Since that time, Trithemius and his contemporaries, especially Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus, have become the template of the Renaissance cabals , especially following Mary Shelley and D. P. Walker whose tales have all connected Trithemius's cryptography with demonic magic. His planned project De demonibus, an encyclopedia of demons, for which he only ever is known to have completed the preface, along with his angelic study De Septum secundeis likely also contributed to his historical reputation.*



Other excerpts from De Laude Scriptorum:

"The word written on parchment will last a thousand years ... The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Only time will tell."

"In no other business of the active life does the monk come closer to perfection than when caritas drives him to keep watch in the night copying the divine scriptures. . . . The devout monk enjoys four particular benefits from writing: the time that is precious is profitably spent; his understanding is enlightened as he writes; his heart within is kindled to devotion; and after this life he is rewarded with a unique prize."

"However useful the findings of the scholar may be, they would never reach posterity without the skill of the scribe...all would soon be forgotten if the zeal of the scribe did not transform our efforts into letters...it is the scribes who lend power to words and give lasting value to passing things and vitality to the flow of time...without scribes the written word would not long survive unscathed but would be exposed to destruction by chance and weakened by age."
The printing press had only been introduced to Europe (through Mainz, Germany) by Johannes Gutenburg some two decades earlier. The technology had by this point only begun to spread to Gaul (France) and Albion (England), though it took off very quickly especially in the Netherlands, which was known to be a non-censoring country (Lax and liking it for almost 500 years...)and which was soon exporting books of all political and religious flavors all over the known world. After leaving home, Johann spent some time in the Netherlands, roughing it before settling into school.
¦ Many of the monks resented this, given the invention of the printing press. Trithemius, however, had visited printer's shops and knew for the most part they were run by people who could barely read their own tongue, let alone read Latin. So he distrusted all printed books.
* This accusation makes little or no sense given Trithemius wrote in later life several tracts proposing a united front with theologians of his day in taking the offensive against 'human conveyors of the demonic arts' : witches and sorcerers. By the late 16th c. there was rumor he had summoned the dead wife of Emperor Maximilian at his request, which was later taken up in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Goethe Faust .

Sources:
  • Trithemius and magical theology : a chapter in the controversy over occult studies in early modern Europe / Noel L. Brann. Albany : State University of New York Press, c1999
  • Renaissance curiosa : John Dee's conversations with angels, Girolamo Cardano's horoscope of Christ, Johannes Trithemius and cryptography, George Dalgarno's Universal language / by Wayne Shumaker. -- Binghamton, N.Y. : Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies, 1982.
  • In praise of scribes = De laude scriptorum / Johannes Trithemius (John of Trittenheim) ; translated by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie ; edited & with an introd. by Michael S. Batts. -- Vancouver : Alcuin Society, 1977
  • Trithemius, Johannes, 1462-1516. Steganographia, hoc est, Ars per occultam scripturam animi sui voluntatem absentibus aperiendi certa / authore ... Ioanne Trithemio ... ; praefixa est huic operi sua clauis, seu vera introductio ab ipso authore concinnata ; hactenus quidem a multis multum desiderata, sed a paucissimis visa, nunc vero in gratiam secretioris philosophiae studiosorum publici iuris facta ... Francofurti: Ex officina typographica Ioannis Saurii, sumptibus Ioannis Berneri, anno 1608

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