Trust in Untrustworthy Businesses: Communication in diplomatic espionage from the early middle ages to the 16th century

Trust in Untrustworthy Businesses: Communication in diplomatic espionage from the early middle ages to the 16th century

By Desiree Scholten

Published online (2009)

Introduction: Where would 007 be without Q`s wondrous collection of explosive cell phones, watches which are in fact satellite transmitters and navigation systems in lipstick? Nowhere- he would be isolated from M and all other parts of the alphabet in London MI headquarters. In the Middle Ages spies dabbled in politics and wagered their lives on infiltration missions, just like James Bond…but without inventions with which he could make calls for help in case emergency. How do these medieval spies complete their missions? How do they know of their missions, and of the latest developments in politics, which may alter the approach with which they undertake their missions?

In this paper I would like to investigate how written communication between spies and those who sent them is conducted in an age where texting and e-mail were not an option. How does one keep his, or her, messages secure from hostile eyes? I will sketch the development of the uses of the written word, and in particular the word written in cipher as used in espionage in the Middle Ages from the fall of the Roman Empire to the sixteenth century.

As shall become apparent in this paper, it is in this period that there is some form of repetition in history: the use of written material in political practice and communication, as well as the establishment of permanent communication services which function by means of ambassadors and secretaries as it existed in the Roman Empire reappears in a somewhat altered form in the Late Middle Ages. I do not mean to say that in the Early Middle Ages kings did not communicate with one another or with their noblemen, but this communication was conducted in a different manner; namely by means of people who were employed because of their current situation and location, rather than the Late Medieval travellers who undertook a specific journey at order of the king because of their function as official representative. It is for this reason that communication and political change should not be studied separately.

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