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Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim

(1486 - 1535)

Henry Cornelius Agrippa

Henry Agrippa was the author of the most comprehensive and authoritative book on renaissance magic and all occult arts, De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy). He also held views on the position of women in society and on sexuality which were centuries ahead of their time. These were not simply academic ideas, he "put his money where his mouth was", successfully defending a woman in a witchcraft trial when he worked for the town council in Metz. This took considerable courage as he could easily have ended up accused himself, especially in view of his well-known dealings with the occult. He maintained that the trial was motivated by the desire of the Dominican inquisitor and other court officials to seize her small property.

Agrippa was also a respected humanist scholar and it is also believed that he may have been involved in espionage. It has long been thought that he set up a network of secret societies across Europe.

Agrippa also wrote De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium, (On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences) which venomously attacked both occult and scientific knowledge and was strangely contradictory in sentiment to the Occulta Philosophica. On the advice of Trithemius of Sponheim whom Agrippa studied with, Agrippa withheld publication of De Occulta until the second book was completed, both being published simultaneously..

Both books were extremely popular in their day, frequently attacked as heretical and reprinted in many languages. They were often studied by those seeking success in alchemical operations or wishing to use magical secrets in order to control both the natural world and the world of spirits. Those who read both books found it strange that the same author could have produced two such discordant books.

During his lifetime Agrippa aquired a repuation as an occultist and after his death there were many rumours about his having summoned demons. These subsequently led to him being featurd in a number of significant works of fiction. On his deathbed he was supposed to have released a black dog which had been his familiar. This black dog appeared In Goethe's version of Faust. The dog was the "schwarze Pudel" Mephistopheles. In Václav Havel's Faustus, Doctor Foustka indulges in witchcraft, having several books by occultists such as Agrippa, Nostradamus, and Eliphas Levi.

Mary Shelley mentioned Agrippa in her 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein; Victor Frankenstein read and admired his works. James Joyce mentions him in his novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He also appearsin Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinth – and of course in Harry Potter, appearing on a chocolate frog.

Agrippa sought to revive the works of the ancient authors, not only those considered “respectable” by modern classical scholars but also a vast body of ancient texts that claimed to offer wisdom from the very origins of civilization. These included the Hermetic texts from ancient Egypt, the Chaldean Oracles and writings of Zoroaster from Mesopotamia and Persia, the teachings attributed to Pythagoras and the secret Jewish books known as Cabala.

While at Metz, Agrippa came into serious conflict with the mendicant friars, the first case being the witchcraft trial mentioned above, the other involving Lefèvre.

In 1518 the French humanist published two short books that challenged certain legends about the Virgin Mary as unscriptural. These books came under attack from conservatives in the Paris faculty of theology. News of this controversy soon reached Metz; and Agrippa and his friends discussed the issues, particularly Lefèvre's criticism of a legend that attributed multiple marriages to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin. Agrippa upheld Lefèvre's opinion and was promptly denounced as a heretic by mendicant preachers. In the face of this attack, Agrippa wrote a defence of Lefèvre, "De beatissimae Annae monogamia". The hostility of the friars probably was the main reason why he decided to resign his position and move temporarily back to his birthplace, Cologne.

Agrippa's was born in Cologne on 14 September 1486, the son of local citizens, and matriculated at the University of Cologne in 1499, completing his BA in 1500 and MA in 1502. He later claimed to be a doctor of both laws (civil and canon) and of medicine but there is no record of him having a university degree in either subject. However, during his residence at Geneva in 1521–23, the city licensed him to practice medicine.

He also became city physician for the Swiss city of Fribourg in 1523 and When he joined the French court at Lyons in 1524, he became a personal physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of the king. At Antwerp in 1528, he supported his family by practicing medicine until he secured an appointment at the imperial court.

Agrippa's financial situation became desperate when the king was held captive in Spain and he was unable to obtain his pension from the royal household. Also, he offended the queen-mother when he refused to make an astrological prognostication for her son because he regarded predictions of the future of individuals as superstitious and contrary to church law. Louise, a firm believer in astrology, resented his refusal.

Agrippa's wife contracted the plague and died at Antwerp in March 1529. Despite this personal loss, he was hopeful of winning the patronage of the governor of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria. Though he had hoped for a higher office, he eventually accepted an appointment as imperial archivist and historiographer. He wrote several brief works as historiographer, including an account of the coronation of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in 1530 and a funeral oration later that year for Margaret of Austria.

Though he never attained fame comparable to that of Erasmus and Lefèvre, Agrippa was widely recognized in his own time as an important though unconventional scholar. He was both famous and (in some quarters) infamous.

Acknowledgements and further reading:

Sean MartinAlchemy, the Philosopher's StoneWildwood House
Gilchrist, CherryAlchemy, The Great WorkThorsons
Innes, BrianThe Search For The Philosopher's Stone Orbis
Klossowski de Rola, StanislasAlchemy, The Secret ArtThames and Hudson
Redgrove, StanleyAlchemy Ancient and ModernAres

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© Ken James 2008