Trithemius, Johannes°

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TRITHEMIUS, JOHANNES ° (Johann Heidenberg of Tritheim ; 1462–1516), German churchman, scholar, and al-chemist. Born in Trittenheim, he entered the Benedictine order in 1482 and became abbot of Sponheim three years later. Trithemius, who endeavored to reform the monastic system and to promote the "new learning," established a famous library at Sponheim containing manuscripts in five languages, mainly Hebrew and Greek. It was visited by many of the leading scholars of the age, notably Johann *Reuchlin (1496). Trithemius published several works, such as a Catalogus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum (1494) and De viris illustribus Germaniae (1495), but is best remembered for two celebrated works on magic, Polygraphia (1507) and Chronologica mystica (1508). Though no Hebraist, the abbot dealt in these books with subjects such as numerology, planetary influences, and the Kabbalah. He immersed himself in alchemy and occult sciences and was eventually condemned and deposed from office.

An opponent of the Inquisition, in 1510 he defended the Jews against charges of profaning the Host and of ritual murder (see *Blood Libel). Trithemius greatly influenced the astrologer and alchemist Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535), who wrote a controversial defense of magic, De Occulta Philosophia (Cologne, 1531; Three Books of Occult Philosophy, London, 1651), the last part of which drew on Reuchlin and the Kabbalah. Both Trithemius and Agrippa further influenced the celebrated philosopher and alchemist Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus ab Hohenheim, 1493–1541). The careers of Trithemius and his two disciples became fused in popular imagination to produce the tragic figure of the legendary magician Faust.


R.W. Seton-Watson (ed.), Tudor Studies Presented to A.F. Pollard (1924), 79; M. Pachter, Paracelsus: Magic into Science (1951), index; F. Secret, Les kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance (1964), 157ff.; J. Silbernagel, Johannes Trithemius (1967). add. bibliography: N.L. Brann, The Abbot Trithemius (1981); W. Vogt, in: Ebernburghefte, 20 (1986), 7–20; E. Hellgardt: in: Sprache, Literatur, Kultur (1989), 355–75; R. Auenheimer (ed.), Johannes Trithemius: Humanismus und Magie… (1991); N.L. Brann, Trithemius and Magical Theology… (1999).

[Godfrey Edmond Silverman]