In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Cryptogrammatophoria: The Romance and Novelty of Losing Readers in Code
  • Katherine Ellison (bio)

Though his language schemes may have been practical failures, John Wilkins knew how to make readers feel as if by opening the pages of his cryptography manual, Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641), they were embarking on an underground adventure of intrigue, an exploration as exciting as traveling to a new world but even more dangerous because of its secrecy.1 As Barbara Shapiro finds, this “science-fiction writer, linguist, encyclopedist, scientific entrepreneur and administrator, bishop, politician, and preacher” was “England’s single most influential and effective organizer and purveyor of the scientific culture.”2 In Mercury, which anticipates his later work in An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668) and builds from ideas of global and even interplanetary communication in The Discovery of a New World (1638) and A Discourse Concerning a New Planet (1640), Wilkins builds suspense through twisting plots, alternates science with embedded stories of historical trickery, and showcases impossible codes—the manual’s version of fiction—only to self-reflexively tease the reader for not being [End Page 281] able to reach the correct solutions.3 Richard West, in a poem introducing Mercury, writes: “ ’ Tis not like Juglers tricks, absurd, when shown; / But more and more admir’d, the more ’tis known” (lines 77–79). Yet Wilkins’s manual is a trick, though not an absurd one. In the beginning, readers “know.” They solve code alongside the narrator, gradually gaining confidence in their new subversive literacy. By the end of the manual, however, more is left unknown than solved. Mercury invites readers into a new world, emphasizing that the way will be “easie,” yet, halfway through, abandons readers to codes that cannot be solved based on the explanations provided (89).

The seventeenth-century English cryptography manual’s tendency to test the limits of the audience’s interpretive stamina, willingness to believe what they read, and patience with narratives that resist closure is part of the mid- to late seventeenth-century negotiation with the formal conventions of fiction. Wilkins, credited by Shapiro for his talent in rousing the curiosity of readers without specialist expertise, is not unique in his structural flair and dynamic relationship with readers in Mercury ; rather, Mercury is typical of the cryptography manual as a genre at that time, which became particularly popular from the 1640s through the beginning of the eighteenth century.4 Other manuals of the period, including Samuel Morland’s A New Method of Cryptography (1660) and John Falconer’s Cryptomenysis Patefacta: Or the Art of Secret Information Disclosed without a Key (1685), although published twenty years apart from one another, also create problematic relationships between the narrator and reader in which the narrator rhetorically offers readers full access to secrets, yet structurally and pedagogically denies them the ability to complete the ciphers.5 In this way, [End Page 282] the manuals mimic the very science they teach, since the most successful cryptographic writings appear to be inclusive, straightforward texts with one meaning open to all readers yet actually exclude unintended readers from the “true” meaning buried beneath. Falconer calls the stories he narrates and the methods he teaches “cryptogrammatophoria,” a term that for him characterizes what is exotic, alluring, and even addictive about the secret conveyance of messages (131).

Seventeenth-century English cryptography manuals mediate between the conventions of romance fiction, with its depiction of exotic tales from the distant past and aristocratic ideology, and the self-reflexive critique of that idealized history that would characterize the later novel.6 So self-conscious of “the way social history is being read and interpreted,” as Michael McKeon writes in his comparison of the progressive and conservative narratives that would together lead to the novel, these manuals outline a genealogy of cryptographic history through fantastic stories of intrigue but then unravel that history by doubting the validity of many of the stories.7 Readers must solve many puzzles: the authors’ multiple, contradictory motives; codes that do not match their solutions despite narrator claims that they are “easie”; stories that legitimize cryptography as a historical practice yet are questioned for their accuracy; and chapters...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 281-305
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.