Sanguinary Proceedings Against Witchcraft (2/4)

A name that has in some way become famous in the annals of magic, is that of John Trithemius, abbot of Spanheim, or Sponheim, in the circle of the Upper Rhine. He was born in the year 1462. He early distinguished himself by his devotion to literature; insomuch that, according to the common chronology, he was chosen in the year 1482, being about twenty years of age, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St. Martin at Spanheim. He has written a great number of works, and has left some memorials of his life. Learning was at a low ebb when he was chosen to this dignity. The library of the convent consisted of little more than forty volumes. But, shortly after, under his superintendence it amounted to many hundreds. He insisted upon his monks diligently employing themselves in the multiplication of manuscripts. The monks, who had hitherto spent their days in luxurious idleness, were greatly dissatisfied with this revolution, and led their abbot a very uneasy life. He was in consequence removed to preside over the abbey of St. Jacques in Wurtzburg in 1506, where he died in tranquillity and peace in 1516.

Trithemius has been accused of necromancy and a commerce with demons. The principal ground of this accusation lies in a story that has been told of his intercourse with the emperor Maximilian. Maximilian’s first wife was Mary of Burgundy, whom he lost in the prime of her life. The emperor was inconsolable upon the occasion; and Trithemius, who was called in as singularly qualified to comfort him, having tried all other expedients in vain, at length told Maximilian that he would undertake to place his late consort before him precisely in the state in which she had lived. After suitable preparations, Mary of Burgundy accordingly appeared. The emperor was struck with astonishment. He found the figure before him in all respects like the consort he had lost. At length he exclaimed, “There is one mark by which I shall infallibly know whether this is the same person. Mary, my wife, had a wart in the nape of her neck, to the existence of which no one was privy but myself.” He examined, and found the wart there, in all respects as it had been during her life. The story goes on to say, that Maximilian was so disgusted and shocked with what he saw, that he banished Trithemius his presence for ever.

This tale has been discredited, partly on the score of the period of the death of Mary of Burgundy, which happened in 1481, when Trithemius was only nineteen years of age. He himself expressly disclaims all imputation of sorcery. One ground of the charge has been placed upon the existence of a work of his, entitled Steganographia, or the art, by means of a secret writing, of communicating our thoughts to a person absent. He says however, that in this work he had merely used the language of magic, without in any degree having had recourse to their modes of proceeding. Trithemius appears to have been the first writer who has made mention of the extraordinary feats of John Faust of Wittenburg, and that in a way that shews he considered these enchantments as the work of a supernatural power.

It is particularly proper to introduce some mention of Luther in this place; not that he is in any way implicated in the question of necromancy, but that there are passages in his writings in which he talks of the devil in what we should now think a very extraordinary way. And it is curious, and not a little instructive, to see how a person of so masculine an intellect, and who in many respects so far outran the illumination of his age, was accustomed to judge respecting the intercourse of mortals with the inhabitants of the infernal world. Luther was born in the year 1483.

It appears from his Treatise on the Abuses attendant on Private Masses, that he had a conference with the devil on the subject. He says, that this supernatural personage caused him by his visits “many bitter nights and much restless and wearisome repose.” Once in particular he came to Luther, “in the dead of the night, when he was just awaked out of sleep. The devil,” he goes on to say, “knows well how to construct his arguments, and to urge them with the skill of a master. He delivers himself with a grave, and yet a shrill voice. Nor does he use circumlocutions, and beat about the bush, but excels in forcible statements and quick rejoinders. I no longer wonder,” he adds, “that the persons whom he assails in this way, are occasionally found dead in their beds. He is able to compress and throttle, and more than once he has so assaulted me and driven my soul into a corner, that I felt as if the next moment it must leave my body. I am of opinion that Gesner and Oecolampadius and others in that manner came by their deaths. The devil’s manner of opening a debate is pleasant enough; but he urges things so peremptorily, that the respondent in a short time knows not how to acquit himself.” He elsewhere says, “The reasons why the sacramentarians understood so little of the Scriptures, is that they do not encounter the true opponent, that is, the devil, who presently drives one up in a corner, and thus makes one perceive the just interpretation. For my part I am thoroughly acquainted with him, and have eaten a bushel of salt with him. He sleeps with me more frequently, and lies nearer to me in bed, than my own wife does.”

Cornelius Agrippa
Henry Cornelius Agrippa was born in the year 1486. He was one of the most celebrated men of his time. His talents were remarkably great; and he had a surprising facility in the acquisition of languages. He is spoken of with the highest commendations by Trithemius, Erasmus, Melancthon, and others, the greatest men of his times. But he was a man of the most violent passions, and of great instability of temper. He was of consequence exposed to memorable vicissitudes. He had great reputation as an astrologer, and was assiduous in the cultivation of chemistry. He had the reputation of possessing the philosopher’s stone, and was incessantly experiencing the privations of poverty. He was subject to great persecutions, and was repeatedly imprisoned. He received invitations at the same time from Henry VIII, from the chancellor of the emperor, from a distinguished Italian marquis, and from Margaret of Austria, governess of the Low Countries. He made his election in favour of the last, and could find no way so obvious of showing his gratitude for her patronage, as composing an elaborate treatise on the Superiority of the Female Sex, which he dedicated to her. Shortly after, he produced a work not less remarkable, to demonstrate the Vanity and Emptiness of Scientifical Acquirements. Margaret of Austria being dead, he was subsequently appointed physician to Louisa of Savoy, mother to Francis I. This lady however having assigned him a task disagreeable to his inclination, a calculation according to the rules of astrology, he made no scruple of turning against her, and affirming that he should henceforth hold her for a cruel and perfidious Jezebel. After a life of storms and perpetual vicissitude, he died in 1534, aged 48 years.

He enters however into the work I am writing, principally on account of the extraordinary stories that have been told of him on the subject of magic. He says of himself, in his Treatise on the Vanity of Sciences, “Being then a very young man, I wrote in three books of a considerable size Disquisitions concerning Magic.”

The first of the stories I am about to relate is chiefly interesting, inasmuch as it is connected with the history of one of the most illustrious ornaments of our early English poetry, Henry Howard earl of Surrey, who suffered death at the close of the reign of King Henry VIII. The earl of Surrey, we are told, became acquainted with Cornelius Agrippa at the court of John George elector of Saxony. On this occasion were present, beside the English nobleman, Erasmus, and many other persons eminent in the republic of letters. These persons shewed themselves enamoured of the reports that had been spread of Agrippa, and desired him before the elector to exhibit something memorable. One intreated him to call up Plautus, and shew him as he appeared in garb and countenance, when he ground corn in the mill. Another before all things desired to see Ovid. But Erasmus earnestly requested to behold Tully in the act of delivering his oration for Roscius. This proposal carried the most votes. And, after marshalling the concourse of spectators, Tully appeared, at the command of Agrippa, and from the rostrum pronounced the oration, precisely in the words in which it has been handed down to us, “with such astonishing animation, so fervent an exaltation of spirit, and such soul-stirring gestures, that all the persons present were ready, like the Romans of old, to pronounce his client innocent of every charge that had been brought against him.” The story adds, that, when sir Thomas More was at the same place, Agrippa shewed him the whole destruction of Troy in a dream. To Thomas Lord Cromwel he exhibited in a perspective glass King Henry VIII and all his lords hunting in his forest at Windsor. To Charles V he shewed David, Solomon, Gideon, and the rest, with the Nine Worthies, in their habits and similitude as they had lived.

Lord Surrey, in the mean time having gotten into familiarity with Agrippa, requested him by the way side as they travelled, to set before him his mistress, the fair Geraldine, shewing at the same time what she did, and with whom she talked. Agrippa accordingly exhibited his magic glass, in which the noble poet saw this beautiful dame, sick, weeping upon her bed, and inconsolable for the absence of her admirer.—It is now known, that the sole authority for this tale is Thomas Nash, the dramatist, in his Adventures of Jack Wilton, printed in the year 1593.

Paulus Jovius relates that Agrippa always kept a devil attendant upon him, who accompanied him in all his travels in the shape of a black dog. When he lay on his death-bed, he was earnestly exhorted to repent of his sins. Being in consequence struck with a deep contrition, he took hold of the dog, and removed from him a collar studded with nails, which formed a necromantic inscription, at the same time saying to him, “Begone, wretched animal, which hast been the cause of my entire destruction!”—It is added, that the dog immediately ran away, and plunged itself in the river Soane, after which it was seen no more. It is further related of Agrippa, as of many other magicians, that he was in the habit, when he regaled himself at an inn, of paying his bill in counterfeit money, which at the time of payment appeared of sterling value, but in a few days after became pieces of horn and worthless shells.

But the most extraordinary story of Agrippa is told by Delrio, and is as follows. Agrippa had occasion one time to be absent for a few days from his residence at Louvain. During his absence he intrusted his wife with the key of his Museum, but with an earnest injunction that no one on any account should be allowed to enter. Agrippa happened at that time to have a boarder in his house, a young fellow of insatiable curiosity, who would never give over importuning his hostess, till at length he obtained from her the forbidden key. The first thing in the Museum that attracted his attention, was a book of spells and incantations. He spread this book upon a desk, and, thinking no harm, began to read aloud. He had not long continued this occupation, when a knock was heard at the door of the chamber. The youth took no notice, but continued reading. Presently followed a second knock, which somewhat alarmed the reader. The space of a minute having elapsed, and no answer made, the door was opened, and a demon entered. “For what purpose am I called?” said the stranger sternly. “What is it you demand to have done?” The youth was seized with the greatest alarm, and struck speechless. The demon advanced towards him, seized him by the throat, and strangled him, indignant that his presence should thus be invoked from pure thoughtlessness and presumption.

At the expected time Agrippa came home, and to his great surprise found a number of devils capering and playing strange antics about, and on the roof of his house. By his art he caused them to desist from their sport, and with authority demanded what was the cause of this novel appearance. The chief of them answered. He told how they had been invoked, and insulted, and what revenge they had taken. Agrippa became exceedingly alarmed for the consequences to himself of this unfortunate adventure. He ordered the demon without loss of time to reanimate the body of his victim, then to go forth, and to walk the boarder three or four times up and down the market-place in the sight of the people. The infernal spirit did as he was ordered, shewed the student publicly alive, and having done this, suffered the body to fall down, the marks of conscious existence being plainly no more. For a time it was thought that the student had been killed by a sudden attack of disease. But, presently after, the marks of strangulation were plainly discerned, and the truth came out. Agrippa was then obliged suddenly to withdraw himself, and to take up his residence in a distant province.

Wierus in his well known book, De Praestigiis Demonum, informs us that he had lived for years in daily attendance on Cornelius Agrippa, and that the black dog respecting which such strange surmises had been circulated, was a perfectly innocent animal that he had often led in a string. He adds, that the sole foundation for the story lay in the fact, that Agrippa had been much attached to the dog, which he was accustomed to permit to eat off the table with its master, and even to lie of nights in his bed. He further remarks, that Agrippa was accustomed often not to go out of his room for a week together, and that people accordingly wondered that he could have such accurate information of what was going on in all parts of the world, and would have it that his intelligence was communicated to him by his dog. He subjoins however, that Agrippa had in fact correspondents in every quarter of the globe, and received letters from them daily, and that this was the real source of his extraordinary intelligence.

Naude, in his Apology for Great Men accused of Magic, mentions, that Agrippa composed a book of the Rules and Precepts of the Art of Magic, and that, if such a work could entitle a man to the character of a magician, Agrippa indeed well deserved it. But he gives it as his opinion that this was the only ground for fastening the imputation on this illustrious character.

Without believing however any of the tales of the magic practices of Cornelius Agrippa, and even perhaps without supposing that he seriously pretended to such arts, we are here presented with a striking picture of the temper and credulity of the times in which he lived. We plainly see from the contemporary evidence of Wierus, that such things were believed of him by his neighbours; and at that period it was sufficiently common for any man of deep study, of recluse habits, and a certain sententious and magisterial air to undergo these imputations. It is more than probable that Agrippa was willing by a general silence and mystery to give encouragement to the wonder of the vulgar mind. He was flattered by the terror and awe which his appearance inspired. He did not wish to come down to the ordinary level. And if to this we add his pursuits of alchemy and astrology, with the formidable and various apparatus supposed to be required in these pursuits, we shall no longer wonder at the results which followed. He loved to wander on the brink of danger, and was contented to take his chance of being molested, rather than not possess that ascendancy over the ordinary race of mankind which was evidently gratifying to his vanity.


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