Entertainment: Five centuries later, how a encrypted letter from Charles V could be deciphered

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Quatre chercheurs ont présenté mercredi à Nancy leur découverte : le déchiffrement d'une lettre écrite en 1547 par Charles Quint à son ambassadeur en France, qui se trouvait dans les collections de la bibliothèque Stanislas. Pour réussir cette prouesse, six mois de travail ont été nécessaires aux cryptographes. © Jean-Christophe Verhaegen / AFP Four researchers presented their discovery in Nancy on Wednesday: the deciphering of a letter written in 1547 by Charles V His ambassador to France, which was in the collections of the Stanislas Library. To succeed in this feat, six months of work were necessary for cryptographers.

A series of "unintelligible" symbols which lights up five centuries later: four researchers presented their discovery in Nancy on Wednesday, the deciphering of a letter written in 1547 by Charles V to his ambassador to France, bringing new lighting Relations between the kingdom then led by François Ier, and the Holy Roman Empire. To succeed in this "exceptional" feat, six months of work were necessary for cryptographers from the Lorraine of Computer Science Research (Loria), associated with a historian from the University of Picardy.

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The letter, forgotten for centuries, was in the collections of the Stanislas Library, in Nancy. Cécile Pierrot, cryptographer at Loria, intends to speak for the first time in 2019 of a "encrypted letter from Charles V" (1500-1558) by chance, during a dinner. The researcher then believes in a legend, but when it is mentioned again the existence of this document two years later, she decides to dig.

Word-in-law works, and at the end of 2021 it sees for the first time the mysterious and incomprehensible letter bearing the signature of the King of Spain, addressed to his ambassador Jean de Saint-Mauris. Then begins the work of deciphering. Cécile Pierrot observes the letter at length, class "by distinct families" the some 120 symbols used by Charles V. She names them and decides to count their occurrences, to spot the combinations that could repeat themselves.

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Diabolic code

For this, she and two other researchers from the Nancy laboratory, Pierrick Gaudry and Paul Zimmermann, decide to call on computer science to "accelerate research". No artificial intelligence, here it is the human who "asks the right questions to the computer", insists the cryptographer.

The deciphering is "small steps in small steps", because the code used by Charles V is evil. In addition to its large number of symbols, "whole words are quantified with a single symbol" and vowels preceded by a consonant are marked by diacritics, an inspiration probably coming from Arabic, explains Cécile Pierrot.

Another confusing element, the emperor uses "zero symbols", which mean nothing and actually serve to mislead the opponent who would try to decipher the message. The click ends up arriving at the end of June: Cécile Pierrot manages to isolate a series of words in the missive.

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For this, the three cryptographers of Nancy called on Camille Deenclos, a specialist both of cryptography and relations between France and the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century. The historian helps them to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, by recontextualizing the letter to better understand the allusions.

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A true "Rosette stone" also helps research: a letter from Jean de Saint-Mauris preserved in Besançon, where the recipient had written in the margin "a form of transcription" by deciphering The missive that the ambassador had sent him, details Cécile Pierrot. Once deciphered, the letter "confirms the fairly degraded state" in 1547 relations between François I and the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Charles V, who nevertheless signed a peace treaty three years earlier, explains Camille DESENCLOS .

Despite this peace, the two sovereigns maintain an extremely strong "reciprocal" distrust "and seek" to weaken "mutually, she adds. Another information revealed by the deciphering of the letter: "a rumor of assassination conspiracy against Charles V who would be in France", says Camille Deenclos, rumor whose "we did not know much" before. It turns out to be "unfounded"-Charles V did not dead murdered-but this letter shows "the fear" of the prestigious monarch vis-à-vis "this potential plot", she underlines.

In his missive to his ambassador, the emperor also evokes the situation of his empire and his "political and military strategy": the use of a quantified correspondence thus allows him to "conceal" this information to his opponents. The researchers now hope to be able to identify other letters in the Emperor Europe and his ambassador, "to have a photograph of Charles Quint's strategy in Europe".

"It is likely that we still have many discoveries in the coming years", rejoices Ms. Desenclos.

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