, Volume 71, Issue 2, pp 183–195 | Cite as

Polygraphia and the Renaissance sign: The case of Trithemius

  • Hope H. Glidden


The Polygraphia is marginal to the language reform that philologists and grammarians undertook in the sixteenth century. Etymology, pronunciation, and orthography were disciplines that, each in its way, struggled to introduce order into the chaotic vernacular. By contrast, ciphers raised to an art the natural property of language to dissemble. In a time in which the scholastic, exegetical model became problematic, the Polygraphia offered a model that was both artful and pre-scientific. It taught the art of dissembling meaning through the use of codes and ciphers, but it also introduced the notion that meaning could be retrieved by applying a law, or ordering principle, to the coded text.

It is not surprising that secret writing was the object of experiments by some of the same scientific minds, such as Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci and Francis Bacon, that also experimented with such ocular instruments as telescopes, microscopes, and even bezicles. Or that nature should later be construed by Galileo as a script of signs to be read. The scientific mind knows that appearances hide the secrets of nature, just as textual codes hide meaning. As a deliberate fabrication of chaos, cryptography reminds us of that fact. In a sense, cryptography is a magical subverting, then reinstating, of order. Just as Prospero, the Renaissance magus, created tempests to enact the power of his art, but then calmed the winds to show his power over his dominion, the Renaissance cryptographer worked at scrambling letters, at creating a semantic storm, the better to return his reader to the calm of transparent meaning.


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Copyright information

© Wolters-Noordhoff 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hope H. Glidden
    • 1
  1. 1.Tulane UniversityNew OrleansUSA

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