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Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius

Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius

also known as Agrippa von Nettesheim

(b. near Cologne, Germany, 14 September 1486; d. Grenoble, France, ca. 18 February 1535)

magic, alchemy, philosophy, medicine.

Agrippa’s father, Heinrich von Nettesheim, was a citizen of Cologne; nothing is known of his mother. Agrippa’s surname and epithet indicate both his birthplace (Cologne was formerly Colonia Agrippina) and the origin of his family (Nettesheim, a village near Cologne); his given names suggest a Dutch or Flemish influence. Agrippa married three times. His first wife, who came from Pavia and was married to him in 1514, died in 1518 in Metz. They had a son, Theodoricus, who was born in 1515 and died in 1522. Six children were born to his second wife, Jeanne Loyse Tissie, whom he married in Geneva in 1521; she died in 1528. A third union, apparently unhappy, took place the following year.

Agrippa enrolled at the University of Cologne on 22 July 1499. While there he studied law, medicine, magic sciences, and theology—particularly under Peter Ravenna. He also served in the army of Emperor Maximillian I for several years. At the age of twenty he made his first trip to Paris to study; he then went, again in military service, to Catalonia, and finally to Dôle, where he gave lectures on Johann Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico, In 1510 he spent a short time in London where he stayed with John Colet, the friend of Erasmus, and then he returned to Cologne, where he held theological disputations. That same year, in Würzburg, he met Johannes Trithemius, the abbot of St. Jacob’s monastery. This was probably the most important meeting of Agrippa’s life for Trithemius encouraged him to finish the De occulta philosophia. Following this, Agrippa led a restless, roving life throughout Europe, especially in Italy. Among the places he visited were Milan, Pisa, Pavia (where in 1515 he expounded Hermetic writings), and Turin (where he taught theology), sometimes as an independent rhetorician, sometimes in military service.

In 1518 Agrippa was a public advocate in Metz and the defense lawyer in a sorcery trial; the latter service aroused such opposition that he had to leave town. He then went to Geneva via Cologne and became a physician. During 1523 and 1524 he was a salaried town physician in Fribourg, Switzerland. After 1524 he was at the court of Francis I in Lyons, where he was personal physician to the queen mother and court astrologer. He was always in monetary difficulties and constantly being dunned by his creditors.

In 1528 Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands, summoned Agrippa to become historian and librarian in Antwerp. Two years later he published his polemic De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio et de excellentia verbi Dei, which he had begun to draft while still in Lyons. In 1531 he published the first of the three books of the De occulta philosophia (the fourth book is apocryphal), which had probably been written around 1510—1515. After the death of Margaret he returned, via Brussels and Cologne, to Lyons, where he was often persecuted because of his writings. He died in great poverty.

Agrippa’s personality and curriculum vitae are still open to dispute, as is the authorship of his works. He has been described as an “honest, fearless, and generous man … but somewhat vainglorious … ., whereby he himself several times spoiled his chances at success” and also as a scientific swindler. Today Agrippa’s importance is considered to lie in social criticism that is embodied in his works on magic as well as in his polemic against the vanity and uncertainty of science. He has his De occulta and De incertitudine to thank not only for his fame but also for the doubt cast upon his having been a scientist. For a long time historians lumped him together with Reuchlin and even with Ramón Lull, for he attempted to combine Neoplatonic mysticism and magic—subject to nature—with Renaissance sketpticism. Recent historical investigation does not support this view, however, and assigns him a central place in the history of ideas of the Middle Ages; he is seen as characterizing the main line of intellectual development from Nicholas ofCusa to Sebastian Franck. Modern opinion evaluates him on the basis of his Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Hermetic influences–primarily in the De occulta philosophia–without insisting on his skepticism.

The basic idea of Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia is that from the void God had created several worlds, three of which constitute the All: the domain of the elements, the heavenly world of the stars, and the intelligible cosmos of the angels. These and the things existing in them are endowed with the spiritus mundi (the soul, the fifth element, the quint a essentia in the sense of the Aristotelian “ether”), which is set above the four classical elements. This spirit of’ the world represents the all–germinating force (comparable to the “germ–form” of the Stoics). At the center of these three worlds is man, who, because he is a microcosm and thus represents a mirror image of the macrocosm, can obtain knowledge of everything. The effectiveness of magic, according to Agrippa, is based on the connection of the three worlds. Only the human spirit can uncover the hidden forces present in matter, and by the latter’s aid man can also call on greater forces to serve him. What Agrippa meant by this becomes evident in his small work De triplici ratione cognoscendi Deu,n (1516), in which the role of the cabala as intermediary step in his system signifies that true knowledge is to be found only in the love of God.

Although Agrippa was an admirer of Luther, he understood the verbum Dei as a Catholic; in one letter to Melancthon he called Luther the invincible heretic. Although this aspect of his thought is often neglected, it occupies the key position in his polemic on the arts and sciences, De incertitudine. This work gives emphasis to the tension between the verbum Dei and human knowledge, without providing any basis for the skepticism of which Agrippa has often been accused. Rather, at the beginning of the era of natural science, it is one of the first testimonials to knowledge of the limits of human understanding. Incertitudo here means a real uncertainty of existence, based on the concept of the human being as a created entity.

The question of why the otherwise critical Agrippa published nearly simultaneously two such opposing work as De occulta philosophia and De incertitudine remains open. In the former he appears to follow the metaphysical and speculative tradition of natural philosophy, while in the latter he attempts to overcome the magic of the verbum mirificum. There is no satisfactory explanation for this, a fact of which even Agrippa himself was aware. With a Faustian restlessness (he is considered the historical prototype of Goethe’s Faust) he always returns to this theme in his letters; posterity has often considered this a fault in his character. Such a conflict is representative of Agrippa’s age, however, and demonstrates a point of view widely held in Germany during the Renaissance.


I. Original Works. Agrippa’s writings are collected in his Opera omnia, 2 vols. (Lyons, n.d.: 2nd ed.. Lyons, 1600). During his lifetime thereof was edited: De occulta philo–sophia, 3 vols. (Vol. 1, Antwerp, 1531; complete ed., Cologne, 1533); De incertitudine et vanitate scientiartnn argue artium declamatio (Antwerp, 1530: Cologne, 1531); Liber de Iriplici ratione cognoscendi Dewn (1516); In artem brevem Ravtnundi Lulli commentaria (Cologne, 1533). Not in Opera oninia: “Contra pestem antidoton,” in P. Poitier, Insignes curationes... et observationes centum, Vol. I (Cologne, 1625).

II. Secodary Literatur.SECONDARY LITERATURE. Works on Agrippa are M. H. Morley, The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 2 vols. (London, 1856): Auguste Prost, Les sciences ei les arts occultes aux XVIe siecle: Corneille Agrippa. sa vie et ses oeuvres, 2 vols. (Paris, 1881–1882); J. Orsier. Henri Cornelis Agrippa, sa vie et son oeuvre dares sa correspondance (Paris, 1911): A. Reichl, “Goethes Faust and Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Euphorion, 4 ( 1897) 287–301; G. Ritter, “Ein historisches Urbild zu Goethes Faust (Agrippa von Nettesheim),” in Preussische Jahrbuecher, 141, no. 2 (1910), 300–324; J. Meurer, “Zur Logik and Metaphysik des Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Renaissance and Philosophic, Beitrage zur Geschichte der Philosophic, Adolf Dryoff, ed., Vol. XI (Bonn, 1920); E. Hahn, “Die Stellung des H. C. Agrippa von Nettesheim in der Geschichte der Philosophic,” diss. (Munich–Leipzig. 1923): R. Stadelmann. “Zweifel and Verzweiflung bei Agrippa von Nettesheim,” pp. 80–86 of Vom Geist de.s ausgehenden Mittelalters, Vol. XV of the series Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift ftir Literaturwissenschaft and Geistesgeschichte (Halle, 1929); E. Cazalas, “Les sceaux planetaires de C. Agrippa,” in Revue de l’histoire des religions 110 (1934), 66–82: E. Metzke, “Die ’Skepsis’ des Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrifi fiir Literanuwissen.schaft and Geistesgeschichte, 13 (1935), 407–420; L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and ExperimentalScience, V (New York, 1941), 127–138; H. Grimm, Neue deutsche Biographie, I (Berlin, 1953), 105–106; Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Agrippa von Nettesheim, His Life and Thought, diss. (University of Illinois, 1955), and “Agrippa in Renaissance Italy; the Esoteric Tradition,” in Studies in the Renaissance, 6 (1959), 195–222; P. Zambelli, “Umanesimo magico-astrologico et raggruppamenti segreti nei platonici della preriforma,” in Umanesimo e esoterismo, Enrico Castelli, ed. (Padua. 1960), 141–174; R. Schmitz, and K. U. Kuhlmay, “Zum Handschriftenproblem bei Agrippa von Nettesheim,” in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, 46 (1962), 350–354; R. Schmitz, “Agrippa von Nettesheim und seine Bemerkungen ueber die Wirkungen der Magic in Medizin and Pharmazie,” in Pharmazeutische Zeitung, 110 (1965), 1131–1138: Charles G. Nauert, Jr., “Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought,” in Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, 55 (Urbana, I11., 1965); and G. Rudolph, “‘De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum,’ Tradition und Wandlung der wissenschaftlichen Skepsis von Agrippa von Nettesheim bis zum Ausgang des 18. Jahrhunderts,” in Gesnerus, 23 . no. 3/4 (1966), 247–265.

R. Schmitz

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Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius (1486-1535)

Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius (1486-1535)

German soldier and physician, and an adept in alchemy, astrology, and magic. He was born at Cologne September 14, 1486, and educated at the University of Cologne. While still a youth he served under Maximilian I of Germany. In 1509 he lectured at the University of Dole, but a charge of heresy brought against him by a monk named Catilinet compelled him to leave Dole, and he resumed his former occupation of soldier. In the following year he was sent on a diplomatic mission to England, and on his return followed Maximilian to Italy, where he passed seven years, serving various noble patrons.

Thereafter he practiced medicine at Geneva, and was appointed physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I; but, on being given some task which he found irksome, he left the service of his patroness and denounced her bitterly. He then accepted a post offered him by Margaret, duchess of Savoy, regent of the Netherlands. On her death in 1530, he traveled to France, where he was arrested for some slighting mention of the Queen-Mother, Louise of Savoy. He was soon released, however, and died at Grenoble in 1535.

Agrippa was a man of great talent and varied attainments. He was acquainted with eight languages and was evidently a talented physician, soldier, and theologian with many noble patrons. Yet, notwithstanding these advantages, he never seemed free from misfortune; persecution and financial difficulties dogged him and in Brussels he suffered imprisonment for debt. He frequently made enemies, and the persecution of the monks with whom he often came into conflict was bitter and increasing.

His principal works were a defense of magic, entitled De occulta philosophia, which was not published until 1531, though written some twenty years earlier; and a satirical attack on the scientific pretensions of his day, De incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium atque Excellentia Verbi Dei Declamatio, also published at Antwerp in 1531. His other works included a treatise De Nobilitate et Praecellentia Feminu Sexus, dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy out of gratitude for her patronage.

His interest in alchemy and magic dated from an early period of his life and gave rise to many tales of his occult powers. It was said that he was always accompanied by a familiar in the shape of a large black dog. There is a tradition that on his death he renounced his magical works and addressed his familiar thus: "Begone, wretched animal, the entire cause of my destruction!" The animal fled from the room and plunged into the Saone, where it perished. It was said that at the inns where he stayed, Agrippa paid his bills with money that appeared genuine enough at the time, but which afterward turned to worthless horn or shell, like the fairy money which turned to earth after sunset. He was also said to have summoned the spirit of Cicero (died 43 B.C.E.) to pronounce his oration for Roscius, in the presence of John George, elector of Saxony, the earl of Surrey, Erasmus, and other eminent people. Cicero duly appeared, delivered his famous oration, and left his audience deeply moved. Agrippa was supposed to have a magic glass in which it was possible to see objects distant in time or place.

One other story concerning the magician is worthy of record. About to leave home for a short time, he entrusted his wife with the key of his museum, warning her to permit no one to enter. But a curious boarder in their house begged for the key, till at length the harassed hostess gave it to him. The first thing that caught the student's attention was a book of spells, which he began to read. A knock sounded on the door. The student took no notice, but went on reading, and the knock was repeated. A moment later a demon entered, demanding to know why he had been summoned. The student was too terrified to make reply, and the angry demon seized him by the throat and strangled him. At the same moment Agrippa entered, having returned unexpectedly from his journey. Fearing that he would be charged with the murder of the youth, he persuaded the demon to restore him to life for a little while and walk him up and down the market place. The demon consented; people saw the student apparently alive and in good health, and when the demon allowed the semblance of life to leave the body, they thought the young man had died a natural death. However, an examination clearly showed that he had been strangled. The true state of affairs leaked out, and Agrippa was forced to flee for his life.

These fabrications of the popular imagination were probably encouraged rather than suppressed by Agrippa, who loved to surround his comparatively harmless pursuits of alchemy and astrology with an air of mystery calculated to inspire awe and terror in the minds of the ignorant. It is known that he had correspondents in all parts of the world, and that from their letters he gleaned the knowledge which he was popularly believed to obtain from his familiars.


Agrippa, Henry. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. London: Chthonois Books, n.d.

Agrippa von Nettesheim, H. C. Philosophy of Natural Magic. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

. Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1971.

Federmann, Reinhard. The Royal Art of Alchemy. New York: Chilton Book, 1969.

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