The Copiale Cipher – A Fascinating Story
On March 3rd 2015, we had Brother Chuck Crossett from the Maryland Masonic Research Society deliver an astonishing presentation about the Copiale Cipher – an encrypted manuscript that (until recently) no expert had been able to decipher. Hidden away for over two and a half centuries, the Copiale Cipher reveals a fascinating story. Over the past few years it has received a great deal of attention, not only from popular media and historians, but of course our masonic community as well. Why?
For those that were not able to attend the presentation, we wanted to share the essence of this story with you.
On October 24th, 2011, The New York Times released an article about how revolutionary tools helped crack a code dating back to around 1730. They were referring to the Copiale Cipher, which had been sitting around for over four decades, since it was first uncovered in eastern Germany in the 1970s.
The Copiale Cipher consists of 75,000 wonderfully crafted handwritten characters filling around 100 pages. Throughout the entire book, only two phrases were clear; “Copiale 3”, which was found at the beginning of the book and probably stands for copy #3; and “Philipp 1866” found on the flyleaf who is believed to have been the owner of this copy, sometime in the mid 19th century.
Christiane Schaefer, a philologist (expert in ancient written languages) was given dozens of photocopies of this mystery book by a colleague back in 1998. She was then leaving Germany and heading to Sweden, where she would spend the next thirteen years trying to decode it, but to no avail.
Then in January of 2011 she met Kevin Knight, a professor at the University of Southern California (Information Sciences Institute). They crossed paths after one of his lectures where he was a featured speaker at the University of Uppsala. Kevin’s main area of research, is natural language processing. He is a specialist in computer translation, where the computer automatically translates text from one language to another.
Schaefer presented Kevin with the challenge she had been struggling with for so long. Soon after their meeting, she mailed a copy of the manuscript to him, which would soon demonstrate to have been a fulfilling decision for both.
Technology proved to be at the core of decrypting the coded manuscript. But what really earned the attention of historians and the masonic community was what this book said.
At the center of their discovery they found it described a small secret society that centered on early ophthalmological practices – the Oculists. Up to this point, the oculists had been thought to be a “society” or group dedicated to the study of a burgeoning field of science. The Oculists were possibly a kind of guild or scientific society, where the latest practices were discussed, or standards of skill were judged and accredited. But hidden deeper in the text they found an 18th century Germanic version of Masonic rituals. So why are these rituals buried inside an encoded manuscript from the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists? These and many other questions may never be answered or fully understood, or at least not for now.
Chuck Crossett offers an insightful explanation of the different theories behind The Copiale Cipher in his paper delivered on March 29th, 2014, and it is available to all members of the Maryland Masonic Research Society (www.md-mrs.com). Membership is open to all who have an interest in Freemasonry.