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Agrippa (1486-1535)

 

Written and compiled by George Knowles

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, commonly referred to as Agrippa, was an early 16th century mystic whose writings influenced many future generations of occultists, and became part of the heritage of folk magic still practiced by Pagans and Witches of today.  Like many famous men before and after him, Agrippa was a man before his time, which made him unpopular amongst his contemporaries and frequently brought him into conflict with the church and state authorities.

Agrippa was born on the 14th September 1486 in Cologne (now Kőln), in west central Germany.  Cologne was originally a town of the Ubii, a Germanic tribe, and called Oppidum Ubiorum.  Later in the 1st century BC, the Romans established a garrison on the site, and in AD 50, the Roman Emperor Claudius I founded a colony on the same site, which he renamed Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis, after his wife Agrippina.

By the time Agrippa was born, Cologne was an important academic and publishing center where in his youth, he became famous for refusing to speak anything but Latin.  Agrippa’s real name was Heinrich Cornelis, which he Latinised into Cornelius and then awarded himself the bogus title of Agrippa Von Nettesheim, taken from the founder and the town where she lived.

In 1499, Agrippa enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at Cologne University were he excelled in his studies and even became proficient in eight languages.  He received his License of Arts in 1502.  While at the University he also became fascinated by Alchemy and natural magic, and studied much of the available Kabalistic and Hermetic literature, as was extent in those times.

In 1506, he was appointed court secretary to Maximillian I, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany.  Sent to Paris (allegedly as a spy), he studied at the University of Paris where it is said he organised a “secret society” of like-minded students, scholars and noblemen interested in alchemy and magic.  As part of a pact, they vowed to uphold envisioned a reformed world, in which they pledged to come to one another's assistance whenever needed.

Throughout 1508, Agrippa travelled around Europe visiting Spain, the Balearic Islands and Italy.  In 1509, he resided for a time in France and studied at the University of Dole, where he earned a Doctorate in Divinity and was made Professor of Theology.  With the support of the University's chancellor, the Archbishop of Besançon, Antoine de Vergy, he lectured on Johannes Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico (On the word that makes miracles).  While his courses were offered free of charge, Agrippa dedicated his lectures to Princess Margaret, daughter of Maximilian I, and governess of Netherlands.

Seeking to gain her favour, he wrote De Nobilitate et præcellentia (The Nobility of Women), but his efforts met with fierce opposition from the Franciscan order of Burgundy, and it would not be publish until 1532.  His lectures and teachings in the meantime had also caused disquiet among church officials, and Jean Catilinet, the head of the Franciscan order delivered a sermon before Princess Margaret at Ghent, accusing Agrippa of Judaicising heresy.  Moving back to the Netherlands, Agrippa again took up service with Maximilian I.

In 1510 the king sent him on a diplomatic mission to England, where as a guest of Colet, dean of St Paul's, he wrote his Expostulatio in reply to the accusations brought against him by Catilinet.  Aged just 24, Agrippa had already collated a vast store of occult knowledge, which he began to set down in a three volume work called “De occulta philosophia” (The Occult Philosophy), a compilation of all the magical and occult knowledge available at that time.

He sent a copy of the manuscript to his friend and teacher Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Spanheim near Würzburg.  In his answer to Agrippa, Trithemius wrote:  “I wonder... that you, being so young, should penetrate into such secrets as have been hid from most learned men, and not only clearly and truly, but also properly and elegantly set them forth”.  However, once again due to opposition, it would not be published until 1531.

Agrippa returned to Cologne in 1511 and resumed lecturing at Cologne University.  Later that year he entered the Army and soon became Captain - a position that reflected his influence and position among the middle classes of Nobility.  In late 1511 he took part in the Council of Pisa, as a Theologist, but was excommunicated together with other "deviants".  Agrippa spent the next few years travelling around Europe, partly in the service of William VI, the Marquis of Monferrato, and partly for Charles III, the Duke of Savoy.

In 1512, he was in Italy lecturing at the University of Pavia on Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translations of Plato's Commentarium in Convivium Platonis de amore, and Corpus Hermeticum.  By the end of 1515 he had gained Doctorates in both Law and Medicine, and dedicated his De triplici ratione cognoscendi Deum to his patron William VI.  However, when Francis I, the king of France invaded Pavia, Agrippa lost his fortune and had to leave the town.

For a time thereafter Agrippa gave lectures in theology at the University of Turin, and in 1518 due to the efforts of his patrons, he secured a position as town advocate and orator at Metz.  By this time he had written De originali peccato, On Geomancy and a treatise on the plague.  However in Metz, as had happened at Dole, his teachings soon brought him into conflict with church officials, particularly when he undertook the defence of a woman accused of witchcraft.  The main evidence being used against the woman was that her mother had been burned as a witch before her. Agrippa destroyed the case against her using the theological argument that a man could be separated from Christ only by his own sin, and not the sin of another.

Reginald Scott in his “Discoverie of Witchcraft” (1584) describes how Agrippa triumphantly “delivered her from the claws of the bloodie moonke, who with her accusers, were condemned in a great summe of monie to the charter of the church of Metz, (sic) and remained infamous after that time almost to all men”.  The inquisitor Nicholas Savin afterwards threatened to prosecute Agrippa as a supporter of heretics and witches.  As a consequence Agrippa was forced to resign from his position in Metz and returned to Cologne.

For a time thereafter Agrippa practiced as a physician at Geneva and Freiburg, then in 1524 he went to Lyons on being appointed court physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I, the King of France.  While in Lyons he wrote his Commentary on Ars brevis.  Louise was slow to pay him however, and kept him confined to Lyons in near poverty.  By mid 1526, Agrippa had still not been paid for his court duties, and when the Queen mother asked him to make a horoscope for her son Francis, he refused.  Later in a letter to a friend, he made some bitter comments about Louise, which would cause Agrippa no end of trouble.

The events that occurred during his stay in Lyons forms the perfect background for Agrippa’s next and most controversial work De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium (The Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and Arts), his attack on the astrologers and magicians of the day.  Written in 1526 when his fortunes were at low ebb, and disillusioned with the academic establishment, it was published some four years later.  Vanity was an attack on all the sciences and occult arts known to him at that time, in which he takes the view that knowledge only makes a man aware of how little he really knows.

After problems leaving France, Agrippa went to Antwerp where he regained the favour of Margaret, duchess of Savoy and Regent of the Netherlands.  In January 1529 she appointed him Archives Councillor and Historiographer to Emperor Charles V.  That same year a plague raged through Antwerp and all the city’s physicians left, all except Agrippa who stayed to treat the sick.  After it was over and the physicians returned, they accused him of practicing without a proper diploma, most likely in efforts to keep him away from their rich patients and gaining their favour.

In 1530 Agrippa published his De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum.  By the end of the year however, his patron Margaret died and Agrippa was again unpaid for his duties at the court and struggling with poverty.  His position was further weakened by the publication of his writings, which aroused new hatred from his enemies, not only church officials but the academic establishment as well.  By mid 1531 Agrippa left Antwerp for Brussels and settled in a little house in Mechlin, but suffered a term of imprisonment for his inability to pay his debts.  He was aided by Hermann of Wied, the Archbishop of Cologne, who invited him to Poppelsdorf, before moving on to Bonn.

After the publication of De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum in 1530 his works brought him again to the attention of the Inquisition, who sought to stop the printing of De occulta philosophia in 1531, and only the first book was published, but with the aid of the Archbishop of Cologne, to whom it was dedicated, the full three volume work was published complete in 1533.

The Inquisition continued their persecution of Agrippa and even urged Charles V to sentence him to death for heresy.  Fearing for his life, Agrippa fled back to France despite his strained relations with Francis I, who immediately put him in prison for the old offence with the horoscope and his disparaging comments about the Queen mother.  Charles V then changed his sentence to exile and friends soon released him.  He was last seen at the house of the Ferrand family, owned the governor of Grenoble in the Rue des Clercs, where he died on the 18th of February 1535.

(The Occult Philosophy)

Agrippa's best-known work, De Occulta Philosophia (The Occult Philosophy) is based on ideas current at the time:  in that man is a miniature copy of God, ‘made in the image of God’ as the Bible says; that the whole universe, taken together, is God; and man is therefore a miniature copy of the universe.  The universe (the macrocosm or ‘great world’) is built on the model of man (the microcosm or ‘small world’) and so, like man, it has a soul.

Agrippa says that everything that exists has a ‘soul’ or spiritual component, part of the total world soul, which shows itself in the magical properties of herbs, metals, stones, animals and other phenomena of Nature.

Agrippa considered the relationship between matter and spirit in the light of various arts and sciences, including music, geometry and, especially important, astrology.  Then he turns to the human soul and its relationship to the body, as revealed by necromancy - the summoning up of the spirits of the dead - and in the religions of all ages.

Agrippa builds up a system of the universe in which everything is part of a great spiritual whole, which is God.  Magic is the way of investigating this system but magic is only for the initiated few, for men like Agrippa himself, members – as most of them were, in fact - of secret societies.  He does not press the point fully home but his conclusion that man ‘containeth in himself all things which are in God’ is well in line with the magical theory that the magician can make himself God and wield the supreme power of God in the universe.

The Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and Arts

Agrippa's other main work forms a complete contrast to his first one. Written in 1526, at a time when his fortunes were at low ebb, and published three years later. De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium, (The Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and Arts) maintains that on balance the arts and sciences are harmful to man.  Through an encyclopedic review of all the science's and arts known to him, which provides a mine of information and holds up a fascinating mirror to the culture of the times, Agrippa contrasts the disillusion which all this knowledge brings with the spiritual strength gained through the only sure and beneficial thing on which man can rely - the divinely revealed word of God.

Agrippa was rarely an original thinker and his philosophy is a compilation of ideas from many sources.  He ransacked the works of writers ancient and modern for ideas, which he adapted in a tremendous display of erudition to his own magical system.  But second-hand though much of his occult lore is, it is shot through with moments of genuine poetic utterance:

Man and God

Agrippa argues that man contains the whole world and God in himself:

“Therefore man… hath in himself All that is contained in the greater world, so that there remaineth nothing which is not even truly and really in man himself, and all these things do perform the same duties in him as in the great world:  there are in him the four Elements with the most true properties of their nature, and in him an ethereal body, the Chariot of the Soul, in proportion corresponding to the Heaven:  There are in him the vegetative life of Plants, the senses of animals, of celestial spirits, the Angelical reason and the Divine understanding… man, being made another world, doth comprehend all the parts thereof in himself but also doth receive and contain even God himself… Therefore man is the most express Image of God, seeing man containeth in himself all things which are in God…  Whosoever therefore shall know himself, shall know all things in himself; especially, he shall know God, according to whose Image he was made.

Excerpted from the Occult Philosophy (a 17th century translation).

End.

Sources:

Man, Myth & Magic  -  Richard Cavendish.

The Encyclopedia of Witches &Witchcraft  - by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.

The Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library (CD cassette).

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (CD cassette).

 

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Agora/7850/

http://www.parascience.org/agrippa.htm

http://www.occultopedia.com/a/agrippa.htm   

 

First published on the 04th March 2007, 18:22:02 © George Knowles

 

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