Did the Vat­i­can con­trol Europe with the aid of a se­cret CIPHER DISK?


World of Knowledge (Australia) - - History -

When the first Cru­saders re­turned to Europe from the Holy Land at the end of the 11th cen­tury, they brought some­thing danger­ous with them: not a for­eign dis­ease or weapons, but a math­e­mat­i­cal for­mula – one which trig­gered wars, top­pled rulers and shook the power struc­tures of the con­ti­nent.

Fre­quency anal­y­sis, which was used as an aid to break­ing clas­si­cal ci­phers, could be used to de­ci­pher all of the codes known at the time. This meant that coded let­ters – which passed through the hands of dozens of mes­sen­gers, coach­men and sailors in the Mid­dle Ages – were sud­denly no longer as safe as they once were. No one could tell who had read their let­ter be­fore it was de­liv­ered. This was a dis­as­ter for Europe’s rul­ing elite – there was no al­ter­na­tive but to carry on send­ing mes­sages be­tween kings and popes. Ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion and what the rul­ing classes des­per­ately needed was a new sys­tem of en­cryp­tion.

In this cli­mate, the scholar Leon Battista Al­berti was com­mis­sioned to in­vent an en­cryp­tion method for the pa­pacy. He quickly came up with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cipher disk com­pris­ing two ro­tat­ing di­als, a polyal­pha­betic code­breaker that was well ahead of its time. The disk shows which let­ter will be re­placed with an­other (in the right-hand im­age, N equates to A, O to Z and so on.) The user gets a new code sim­ply by ad­just­ing the disks. For the sys­tem to work, the re­cip­i­ent needed an iden­ti­cal cipher disk – and in­struc­tions on how to set it. This could be spec­i­fied ver­bally in ad­vance, or an­nounced by the first char­ac­ter of the coded cor­re­spon­dence.

For cen­turies, this disk was con­sid­ered un­break­able – and gave the Vat­i­can a huge strate­gic ad­van­tage. Us­ing the pro­tec­tion af­forded by this en­cryp­tion method, popes in­flu­enced pol­i­tics in Europe, claimed land and cities, put kings un­der pres­sure and dis­patched pow­er­ful en­e­mies – al­ter­ing Europe for­ever.

IN WITH THE NEW With the cipher disk, the Vat­i­can es­tab­lished a new era of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Be­fore its in­tro­duc­tion, sealed let­ters could eas­ily be opened or even faked.

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