During the Thirty Years’ War, a Swedish general wrote an encrypted letter to a German Major. Can a reader decipher this message?

I’m looking forward to HistoCrypt 2019, which will take place in Mons, Belgium. Especially, I’m looking forward to the talk I will give. It’s about Ernest Rinzi’s journal, one of the most unusual cryptograms I have ever seen. It was solved by Tony Gaffney, who is the co-author of the paper I wrote for the conference proceedings. To my regret, Tony won’t attend HistoCrypt, but he is listed as co-speaker in the program.

 

The letter

Tony recently forwarded me an unsolved encrypted letter from the 17th century he had received from Philip Neal. Philip is a very knowledgeable Voynich Manuscript expert, who operates a highly recommendable Voynich manuscript web page. He has a B.A. in Classics and Modern Languages from Oxford University, which enables him to read old letters, including the ones from the 17th century that are assumed to mention the Voynich manuscript.

The letter this article is about has no relationship to the Voynich manuscript. It was written by a general Baner (probably Swedish field marshal Johan Banér (1596-1641)) in 1640, during the Thirty Years’ War. The recipient is a Major Stallhausen, about whom I couldn’t find anything online. Here is the first of two pages:

Source: Copia litterarum interceptarum Generalis Baners Hoff in Si-lesia 29 Decembr. 1640 [ 568 239r , 568 239v , see also 239r , 239v ]

Here’s the second page:

Source: Copia litterarum interceptarum Generalis Baners Hoff in Si-lesia 29 Decembr. 1640 [ 568 239r , 568 239v , see also 239r , 239v ]

The letter is written in German. Most of the content is in the clear, only the most important parts are encrypted. The ciphertext passages consist of two-digit and three-digit numbers.

 

Transcription

Here’s a transcription of the letter made by Philip Neal:

Copia Intercipirtes Schreibens General Baners an General
Major Stallhausens

Woledler Bestrenger Vast: undt Mannhafter engsanders
freundlicher lieber her General Major

Es wirdt der herr General Major mein iungstes am 16 des zu Erfurth
ausgefertigtes schreiben, welches ich im Duplo, als im Exemplar
34  20  78  83  508  das andere aber 77  92  513  11  93  88  43
18  64  26  24  29  23  13  12  85  28  70  16  27  25  7  78
62 23 568 abgehen lassen, empfangen, undt daraus mein intent
undt vorhaben, undt wasgestelle ich ihm, seine last zuverleichtern in
begriff genossen, verstanden haben. Mit solcher meiner domals
angedeuteten March, nun bin ich heutiges tages bis hieher nach hoff
progredirt, undt gesonnen, woher es nimmer die Ratio Belli*, undt des
feinds Succendirente Continance erleiden will,  92  39  73  43  30
27  69  24  78  27  69  66  50  39  21  71  37  16  64  40
33  62  51  75  98  63  77  27  442  loszugehen, undt meinen
aeussersten fleis anzuwenden. Ob bey iczigem zustand do des feindes
Armee, noch sonderlich keine winterquartier genossen, Ein solcher
vorsprung zugewinnen, wodurch die allgemeinen gerechten sachen, wolfarth
procurirt undt zua dem lang desiderirten zweck, die tohr wider auffen
gesperrt werden kann, undt ich das dabey nicht unzuchtig mutmassen
es werde der feindt seine aeusserste macht van allen oefters her
colligiren, undt so starck als es ihm muglig mir entgegen leitten
66  25  38  85  39  90  82  43  63  75  77  92  13  28  29  21
36  83  93  41  93  18  33  32  23  27  11  30  62  361  40  74
55  84  10  77  62  43  41  92  So wollt der herr General Major
63  18  23  39  16  778  79  84  71  27  46  28  29  25  51  27
70  75  64  84  92  30  13  24  42  46  53  63  71  86  32
73  43  83  62  77  98  33  27  51  62  64  773  41  29  62
11  30  86  69  464  18  16  772  36  88  68  28  81  86
766  27  32  13  41  26  24  16  77  23  62  87  29  97
86  55  90  775  63  62  67  767  88  2  86  32  92
79  48  57  86  49  80  90  23  13  44  28  29  25  77  79
31  62  77  57  92  85  28  81  90  20  68  33  62  98  mich
aber von zeitt zu zeit  40  16  23  28  29  27  13  32  24
64  19  92  36  77  62  31  24  770  27  64  15  18  36
83  77  75  60  88  783  86  64  wie sein undt des
feindes gelegenheit sein eigentlich undt unschundiglich berichten damit
ich ihnen indas mals mit seiner andeutung  38  24  29  77  92  27
23  13  41  44  98  86  26  18  23  28  81  86  37  90  23
77  73  29  25  27  9?  62  64  57  33  62  79  86
11  96  24  52  97  62  64  kommt thut damit dem herrn
General Major in gottes schutz empfehlen. Datum Hoff den 29 Decem:
A 1640

des herrn General

Maior

Dinstwilliger

B

 

Deciphering approaches

Frequent readers of this blog will easily recognize with what kind of method this letter was probably encrypted: with a nomenclator. A nomenclator is an encryption method based on a substitution table that replaces each letter of the alphabet and some frequent words with a number (or another character sequence). The following is a very simple example:

A=1
B=2
C=3

Z=26
London=27
Paris=28
Rome=29
today=30
tomorrow=31

Using this nomenclator the plaintext WILL TRAVEL FROM LONDON TO PARIS TOMORROW encrypts to:

23 9 12 12 / 20 18 1 21 5 12 / 6 18 15 13 / 27 / 20 15 / 28 / 31

For centuries, nomenclators were by far the most popular encryption method. The following French nomenclator is from the 17th century:

Nomenclator-Post

Source: “Briefe durch Feindesland” by Gerhard Kay Birkner in the proceedings of the conference “Geheime Post”

As mentioned many times on this blog, breaking a nomenclator message is far from easy. Most unsolved nomenclator messages I have introduced over the last five years have not been solved by my readers. As far as I know, there is currently no codebreaking expert in the world who specilizes in breaking nomenclators. I hope, this will change some day.

The easiest way to solve a nomenclator message is usually to find a description of the nomenclator used. If this is not possible, there are still ways to break such a message. Many nomenclators were poorly constructed (for instance, two-digit numbers stood for the letters, while three-digit numbers represented words). Very often, weaknesses of this kind can be exploited. The nomenclators of the 17th century were not the best, so the chances are not too bad that the one used here contains weaknesses. If a reader can solve this message, please leave a comment.


Further reading: Top 50 crypto mystery solved: Thomas Ernst deciphers Fredinand III’s encrypted letters

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13501820
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/763282653806483/

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Kommentare (4)

  1. #1 Thomas
    2. Juni 2019
  2. #2 Richard SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    2. Juni 2019

    Using the word section code from the 1624 work by Selenus, I get (for the first couple of code lines):

    DIXNEBERQUATABESHTESEGEMOCQUEMABECERCIBEMLROCENORCABOCQUEMABECER

    This makes less than no sense to me, and is almost certainly a “fail”… but being ignorant of Latin, I throw it out there nonetheless… on the unlikely chance there is something in it.

  3. #3 Richard SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    2. Juni 2019

    …. well I’m mostly ignorant in German, too, which the rest of the letter is written in. But it looked to have various Latin word parts, so…

  4. #4 Philip Neal
    Yorkshire
    10. Juni 2019

    I have just seen this, thanks for the mention. I have tried more than once to decipher the message without success. Sequences such as 464 18 16 772 look like two complete words separated by a two letter word (in? an? zu?) but I could never hit on consistent decryptions of them all. Histories of the war indicate that Baner was about to march on Regensburg when he wrote the letter, which could be another clue.