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Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

influenced agrippa’s john occult

Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, a flamboyant and paradoxical German scholar and adventurer, was born near Cologne and was educated at the Universities of Cologne and Paris. Though he may have exaggerated his social standing and formal education to impress potential patrons, his extraordinary erudition in law, languages, medicine, and especially magic and the occult brought him international fame but only intermittent prosperity. A dynamic figure who gathered around him several secretive groups, his intellectual boldness and personal ambition provoked numerous confrontations in which, as Erasmus* once warned him, he was ill served by his short temper and sharp tongue.

Much of his life was spent as a wandering scholar, as well as a diplomat and soldier. His lectures at Dôle in 1509 on Reuchlin’s cabalistic work netted him accusations of Judaizing heresy in an era when Hebrew studies were often eyed with suspicion and inaugurated a long career of hostility with religious conservatives. The year 1510 found him in England, possibly in the service of the Emperor Maximilian, studying the epistles of St. Paul with John Colet.* The fact that he was working on his most influential study of magic ( De occulta philosophia ) during the same year is an index of the strained and potentially heterodox mingling of esoterica and piety that marks much of his work.

From 1511 to 1518, Agrippa lived in Italy, where he married a “noble maiden”   (the first of three marriages). In addition to continuing his political and military pursuits, he came into closer contact with the culture of late Italian humanism, especially those elements influenced by the cabalistic and Hermetic studies of Ficino and Pico. A lucrative government post as orator and public advocate at Metz brought him back to Germany in 1518, where he found himself both sympathetic with, and deeply ambivalent about, the thought and practice of Martin Luther.* Agrippa’s defense of a peasant woman accused of witchcraft, his participation in other theological controversies, and a general restlessness with what he perceived to be an intellectual backwater led to his resignation in 1520. Further travels seeking patronage and preferment met with varying degrees of success and frustration in Geneva, Fribourg, Lyons, Paris, Antwerp, Bonn, and elsewhere, and he served variously as physician, astrologer, lecturer, and historiographer.

Particularly painful were the years 1526–28, when, thanks in large measure to his remarkable tactlessness, he was stranded and impoverished in France after serving as personal physician to the Queen Mother, Louise of Savoy (mother of Francis I). During this period he wrote his most famous work, De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum declamatio inuectiua (1526, pub. 1530), a skeptical and bitterly satirical attack on human learning and occupations that led, predictably, to further controversy including charges of heresy. His death in Grenoble gave rise to the notorious and widely repeated anecdote that on his deathbed he cursed his demonic black dog, after which his canine companion leaped into a river.


The quality of Agrippa’s thought has been challenged from his own day to the present, from Francis Bacon’s* dismissal of him as a “trivial buffoon” to Richard Popkin’s view of him, in his important history of skepticism, as the sponsor of a “fundamentalist anti-intellectualism” depending on condemnation rather than argument or analysis. While it is true that Agrippa lacks the subtle and probing imagination of Cusanus or Montaigne,* the energy and range of both his occult and skeptical writings had a broad, international appeal among philosophers, would-be magicians, artists, and writers: Albrecht Dürer, Giordano Bruno,* Michel de Montaigne, and others draw on him, sometimes extensively. In Tudor England, Sir Philip Sidney praises him with Erasmus as inspirations for his Apology for Poetry ; he influenced John Dee* on mathematics and Reginald Scot on witchcraft; Christopher Marlowe’s* Dr. Faustus aspires to be “as cunning as Agrippa was/Whose shadows made all Europe honor him”; Thomas Nashe* casts him as a conjurer in The Unfortunate Traveller , and his prose fiction may well have drawn energy from Agrippa’s remorseless satire. His influence is felt as well in the poetry of John Davies, Fulke Greville,* possibly Edmund Spenser,* and in the work of the seventeenth-century twins, the poet Henry and the mystic Thomas Vaughan. His name continues to be associated with both skepticism and the occult long after the Renaissance. De vanitate had a profound effect on the young Goethe, and he was clearly influenced by Agrippa (and his dog) in Faust . When Mary Shelley traces the disastrous career of Victor Frankenstein, she begins with his chance discovery of “a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa,” dismissed by his father as “sad trash” but later praised by a benevolent professor as the work of a misguided man of “genius.”

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