The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Frank L. Borchardt *

The Magus as Renaissance Man

Sixteenth Century Journal, 21 (1)

Spring 1990, 57-76.

The facts of the history of magic in early modern Europe are well known.  Two observations are, however, not commonly made and appear here to contribute to the discussion of Renaissance magic: (1) the unusual instance of direct contacts which bind French, German, and Italian intellectuals around the year 1500 into a tight network and (2) the widespread, virtually universal disappointment in magic expressed by the magicians themselves.  This feature of the intellectual biographies of the magi became a literary commonplace, for example, in Shakespeare and Goethe, and should henceforth be understood as an intrinsic feature of the myth of the magus.


THE AUTONOMOUS AND SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF MAGIC in the Renaissance has a remarkably young history, the origin of which can be traced to the turn of the century and Carl Kiesewetter’s Geschichte des neueren Occultismus [1] and Lynn Thorndike’s The Place of Magic in the Intellectual History of Europe. [2]  Their forerunners were either occultists, who were well enough informed but too credulous to trust, [3] or reputable scholars engaged in other enterprises such as biography and bibliography, who treated magic objectively but as subsidiary to their larger enterprises . [4]  Thorndlke eventually completed a multi-volume History of Magic and Experimental Science, which laid solid foundations for all subsequent studies of magic. [5]  By the time he was engaged in that magnum opus, he had collegiality and competition in other countries and other learned traditions.

The iconologists of the Warburg school had already detected the importance of magic for the interpretation of troublesome story-telling and

* Duke University

1. Carl Kiesewetter, Geschichte des neneren Occultisnmus, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Wilhelm Fr,edrich, 1891-95), on Renaissance magic esp. 1: 181; 2: 73-75, 319-20, 324-34, 401-3.

2. Lynn Thorndike, The Place of Magic in the Intellectual History of Europe, Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law 24, 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1905), esp. 20-26.

3. Consider as representative of the vast occultist literature of the nineteenth century, Mary Anne Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy (originally London: Trelawny Saunders, 1850; rev. ed. New York: Julian Press, 1960) and A. E. Waite, The Book of Black Magic and Pacts (London: Redway, 1898).

4. For example, Ludwig Geiger, Johann Reuchlin: sein Leben und seine Werke (Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot, 1871), 165-202; Isidor Silbernagl, Johannes Trithemius: Eine Monographic, 2d ed. (Regensburg: G. J. Manz, 1885), 93-101, 125-60; Johann Grasse, Bibliotheca Magica et Pneumatica (Leipzig: Englemann, 1843).

5. Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1923-58).


moralizing paintings and graphics. [6]  Historians and folklorists in Germany were beginning to recognize the complex ties that bound together popular superstition and learned magical speculation; [7]  the same was true in the United States. [8]  French philosophers found it necessary to unravel the hermetic traditions of the Middle Ages and produce reliable texts of the canon. [9]  The great Italian magi of the Renaissance, Ficino and Pico, received earnest scholarly evaluation. [10]  The impact of Jewish mysticism on the Christian West began to be understood; [11] and a magisterial social history of magic in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England proved that the encyclopedic works of the past had far from exhausted the field. [12]  Today, one can speak of a remarkable flowering of interest and scholarship in the whole field of the study of magic; so much so, that what was once an esoteric specialty has, like so many other once obscure pathways of intellectual tradition, produced a bibliography far too great for one student to master. 13

6. E.g., Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Durers “Melencolia I”: Eine Quellen- und Typeugeschichtlich Untersuchuung, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, 2 (Leipzig: Teubner, 1923), see 37-44.

7. Chief among them Will-Erich Peuckert, whose Pansophie: Ein Versuch zur Geschichte der weissen, und schwarzen Magie (originally 1936; 2d ed. Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1956) represented a thoughtful, comprehensive, and, for the first time, factually rigorous history of Renaissance magic in Germany.  Beyond his many biographical and editorial contributions to the field (a 1924 Boehme biography, an almost 700 page Sebastian Franck monograph, Boehme, Paracelsus, and Weigel editions), Peuckert produced two further volumes in his pansophic history: Gabalia: Ein Versuch zur Geschichte der magia naturalis im 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1967) and the posthumous revision of his 1928 work on the Rosicrucians, Das Rosenkreuz (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1973), in which see the editorial introduction by Rolf Christian Zimmermann, who recognizes and tries to explain the inexplicable neglect into which Peuckert’s work has fallen (esp. ix-xii).

8. C. Grant Loomis, White Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore of Christian Legend, Medieval Academy of America, Publication No. 52 (Cambridge, Mass. Medieval Academy of America, 1948).

9. A.J. Festugiere, La Revelation d’Hermès Trismegiste, 4 vols. (Paris: Lecoffre, 1949-52), and the Franco-American collaboration, eds. and trans. A.D. Nock and A.-J. Festugiere, Corpus Hermeticum, 4 vols. (first two vols., originally 1938-44, Paris: Société d’Editmon “Les belles Lettres,”1954-60).

10. Eugenio Garin, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Vita e dottrina, Pubblicazioni della R. Università degli studi di Firenze, Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, 3 ser., 5 (Florence: Felice Le Monnier Editore, 1937), esp. 90-116, 137-93.  Paul Oskar Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, trans. Virginia Conant, Columbia Studies in Philosophy, 6 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), esp. 314-15.

11. Joseph Leon Blau, The Christian Interpretation of the Cabala in the Renaissance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944). Francois Secret, Le Zôhar chez les Kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance (Paris: Librairie Durlacher, 1958), followed up by Les Kabbalistes chrétiens de Ia Renaissance, Collection Sigma, 5 (Paris: Dunod, 1964), and a long succession of articles in Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance.  More recently Jerome Friedman, “Sixteenth-Century Christian-Hebraica: Scripture and the Renaissance Myth of the Past,” Sixteenth Century Journal 11(1980): 67-85, esp. 79-85.

12. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Scribner’s, 1971).

13. This is particularly true of the discussion of magic in relation to the origins of modern science; see Brian Vickers, ed., Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance (Cambridge: [Cambridge University Press, 1984).  More or less current bibliography (with now about a four years lag) can be found in the Bibliographic internationale de l’Humanisnme et de la Renaissance, 18 vols. and proceeding (Geneva: Droz, 1961-1986ff.), s. v. “Sciences et Techniques” and otherwise under author.]

HHC: [bracketed] displayed on p. 59 of original


What follows depends heavily on this young tradition of scholarship.  Nonetheless, in Renaissance fashion, it also represents a return to the sources where, dispersed and varied as they are, they have been at hand.  The focus concentrates on the relatively intense flurry of magical speculation around the year 1500, chiefly because it is the best documented, and it most transparently reveals the problems of conscience faced by the Renaissance magi.  In general, the facts presented here come from the tradition of the scholarship on magic and are well understood.  Two observations on the basis of these facts are not commonly made and are meant here to contribute to the discussion of Renaissance magic.  The first describes the unusual coincidence of visits, correspondence, public lectures, and written exposition both in manuscript and in print which binds these individuals into a tight network - rather like what a humanist outsider imagines the international network of modern subatomic physicists to be.  The second observation points out another coincidence, the widespread, virtually universal disappointment in magic expressed, sooner or later, by the magicians themselves.  This feature of the intellectual biographies of the magj became a literary commonplace, for example, in Shakespeare and Goethe, and should henceforth be understood as an intrinsic feature of the myth of the magus . [14]

The title of this essay may seem to consign it to the venerable “Renaissance Man” category, that is, to the tradition of those biographical essays in which a diligent admirer seeks to cast this or that jack-of-all-trades into the elusive role of an idealized overachiever of another era.  Actually the present title comes from a somewhat different tradition.  Harold Jantz, a polymathic scholar and himself a Renaissance Man in one of the familiar senses of that term, once wrote Goethe’s Faust as a Renaissance Man (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951).  He there laid out the fifteenth - and sixteenth - century backgrounds of a major literary work of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  He did so not by inventing an ideal Renaissance Man and making poor Faust conform but rather by holding up to the literary creation certain “parallels and prototypes” (Jantz’s subtitle) from the writings of the Renaissance.  The parallels and prototypes caught or demanded

14. E. M. Butler’s book of that title, Time Myth of the Magus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), points out that Solomon burned his magic books before he died (152), and that Friar Bacon also repudiated magic: “he alone repented because of the harm he had caused to others.  Cyprian, Theophilus, Gerbert and Gilles de Rais did so for their own dear sakes” (159).  The reasons for the repudiation are, I believe, rationalizing afterthoughts and not really important in the outline of the ideal mythical biography of the magus . What is important is the consistency with which the motif of repudiation recurs, in all versions of the myth of the magus, be they historical, semi-legendary, or fictitious.  Butler concluded her study in two further volumes, Ritual Magic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949) and The Fortunes of Faust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952).


the attention of their era, had reputations which managed to survive into later times, and seemed, then and now, representative of their moment in history.  The title of this essay uses “Renaissance Man” in that sense.

The more general sense, the one that implies a remarkable diversity of talent and accomplishment, also applies to the personalities mentioned here.  They all employed their energies in more than one worthy enterprise, activist reform, diplomacy, and statecraft, or contemplative theology, philology, and historiography.  In each case, one of the many areas studied by these Renaissance men for a longer or shorter term was the occult, the esoteric, a kind of knowledge they believed to be truly new.

In the Renaissance, the “new” meant the “old,” the very old, uncontaminated by intervening commentators, pedants, and vulgarians of various sorts.  And, in truth, writings of considerable age, a few even of some antiquity, were being made newly available, ultimately from Greek (Hermes), Hebrew (Cabala), and Arabic (Picatrix).  Such works actually did have a medieval tradition - the latter two were of medieval origin - and had variously reached the Latin West long before early modern times. [15]  They were perceived as ancient on the one hand, and as despised and suppressed by the Middle Ages on the other, so that they especially attracted those who regarded themselves as innovators or discoverers of that which was ancient and wonderful and had been forgotten in the deplorable meantime.  This sense of discovery united all Renaissance intellectuals, magicians or not, regardless of their native country and the manner in which they approached the “new” knowledge, whether as a purely intellectual, psychological exercise or with the hope of some practical application. [16]

There are those who argue (a) that occultists and the occult we have always with us, [17] hence, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish Renaissance magic from any other kind, and (b) that the sole true distinguishing feature of Renaissance magic is its idealism. [18]  The latter implies that a magus, the moment he applied his knowledge to conjure spirits or predict the course of events or try to influence them, forfeited his credentials as a

15. On medieval hermeticism, see Thorndike, 2: 214-28: Konrad Burdach, Vom Mittelalter zur Reformation 3, no. 1 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1917), 293-94; 325-27; On cabalistic penetration into practical magic well before learned adoption of the tradition, see Johann Hartliebs Buch aller verbotenen Kunst [1456}, Dora Ulm, ed. (Halle: Niemeyer, 1914), 16, 18-19, compare intro. pp. XLVII, LI-LIV; on the Picatrix, also 24 and intro. pp. LIV-LVI, and especially “Picatrix” Das Ziel der Weisen von Pseudo-Magriti, trans. Helmut Ritter and Martin Plessner, Studies of the Warburg Institute 27 (London: Warburg Institute, 1962), xx-xxii.

16. I borrow the distinction from the English generation of the Warburg school: D. P Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Canmpanella, Studies of the Warburg Institute 22 (London: Warburg Institute, 1958), 75-81: Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 104, where Italian contemplative magic is distinguished from “crudely operative” German magic.

17. Peuckert, Pansophie, 2d ed, 44.

18. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, 85-86, would have non-Ficinian applied magic to be “a continuation of the medieval magic.”


Renaissance magician and became indistinguishable from his predecessors in the Middle Ages and his competitors in the popular culture of his time. [19]  The facts of popular culture lend this argument a certain plausibility.  Every indication suggests that conjuring and prognostication have always been a part of the European scene, as they are of most cultures, that fortune-tellers and potion-brewers as a class have very much more in common with their counterparts in other times and places than they have unique and specifying characteristics.  To be like fortune-tellers and potion-brewers in the Renaissance means to be like them in the Middle Ages.

This pervasive similarity indicates a profound conservatism at the core of popular and applied magic.  To be sure, practical magic might take advantage of the latest fashions, such as the aerosol exorcism readily available at any downtown sorcery supply store in any of America’s great cities, or the calculator programmed to forecast biorhythms.  No sooner had the Latin West taken cognizance of Jewish Cabala than some fortune-teller was using Notarikon and Gematria to inform a client of the outcome of tomorrow’s duel. [20]  But the basic mechanisms remain the same: a certain disposition of matter, because of hidden and powerful correspondence with the immaterial, reveals or influences the course of events. [21]

Modern astrology is perhaps the best example of the core conservatism of popular occult beliefs.  Astrology has had to make room for the discoveries of astronomy - at least as far as new planetary bodies are concerned - but it retains all the essentials of the pre-modern picture of the physical world; the quaternary organization of the elements, humors, and qualities, a theory of powerful correspondences, such as between human and celestial bodies, and a fundamentally geocentric universe.  With the exception of a few new planets, that is also the picture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century astrology and, for that matter, of twelfth- and thirteenth-century astrology as well.

But this kind of conservatism certainly cannot be claimed for the learned magicians of Italy, France, and Germany around the year 1500, who were moved especially by the novelty of the, paradoxically, “ancient” sources.  It was precisely the general unavailability of the texts and their

19. Competition from below was widespread and genuinely threatening to the respectability of the magical enterprise.  Applied magic was not driven from the marketplace by the newer, finer coin.  It was, on the contrary, popular and profitable enough to attract professors, physicians, and schoolmasters: Gerhard Eis, ed. Wahrsagetexte des Spatmittelalters aus Handschriften und Inkmabeln, Texte des spaten Mittelalters (since vol. 16 “und der fruhen Neuzeit”), 1 (Berlin: Erich Schmidt, 1956), 17-18.

20. Eis, Wahrsagetexte, 14-16.

21. The crucial word is “immaterial.”  Using a certain disposition of matter to influence material elsewhere in the universe was considered “natural.”  That was (and is) the basis of all allowable therapeutic measures in professional medicine. Cf. Brian P Copenhaver, “Scholastic Philosophy and Renaissance Magic in the Dc vita of Marsilio Ficino,” Renaissance Quarterly 37 (1984): 523-54, esp. 528-33.


alien provenance which endowed them with so much prestige and separated them radically from the familiar (and hence contemptible) magical practice of living superstition. [22]  What makes Renaissance magic a Renaissance phenomenon is, at least in part, its share in the humanists’ compulsion to return to the sources, the claim to have rediscovered, restored, and drunk at the lost and forgotten spring of ancient wisdom.

This common compulsion may not have been enough to overcome the barriers of geography and national origins which ought to have separated the magicians from one another.  But it was surely a factor in establishing the altogether remarkable network of visits, letters, reciprocal borrowings, and occasional recriminations which connected those interested in magic around the year 1500.

In 1490, Johannes Reuchlin, Hebraist and Cabalist, crossed the Alps to visit Pico della Mirandola in Florence.  The audience lasted only a few hours.  It seems to have been a rather formal affair, and we have no certainty as to the contents of the discussions. [23]  Since Pico was one of the handful of other Christian Hebraists and Cabalists active at the time, we can safely assume that their common interests played some part in the meeting.  Reuchlin, in any case, knew and profoundly respected the works of Pico and the cabalistic writings which Pico had had translated from the Hebrew.  Within only a few years Reuchlin had guided into print his mystical-magical discourse, Dc Verbo Mirifico (1494).  The Tetragrammaton is the ultimate miracle-making word, which Reuchlin, syncretizing as the Renaissance Man loved to do, bound to the Hebrew name of Jesus, as Pico had done before him. [24]  A year or so after Reuchlin’s visit, the prince of the first generation of French humanists, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, yielded to the magnetism of Italy, drawn, as he himself admitted, by the prospect of meeting Pico, among others. [25]  This was in the winter of 1491-92.  In 1494 he published his commentaries on Marsilio Ficino’s Pimandem; binding him doubly to the Florentine magi and their discovery of the “long lost” tradition of works ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus.  At about the same

22. 0n occasion, the distinction was officially recognized: “The magistrates of still Catholic Amsterdam ordered in 1555 that ‘anyone who is ignorant and untaught, who has not been authorised by their qualifications, rank, degree or other title from the liberal arts’ be forbidden from ‘exercising the aforesaid unsuitable practices of divination and similar foolishness.’”  William Monter, Ritual, Myth and Magic in Early Modern Europe (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984), 33.

23. Geiger, Reucimlin, 171.

24. 0n Pico and the name of Jesus see the last set, the cabalistic set of Pico’s Conclusiones, No. 7 in his Opera Omnia, Gian Francesco Pico, ed. (Basel, 1557; rpt. Hildesheim: Olms, 1969), 108; cf. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, 94.  On Reuchlin see De Verbo Mirificio (1495; rpt. Stuttgart: Friedrich Fromann, 1964), 90 (= sig. g[1]v); cf. Geiger, Reuchlin 183 and n. 3.

25. Eugene F. Rice, Jr., “The De Magia Naturali of Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples,” Philosophy and Humanism: Renaissance Essays in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller; ed. Edward P. Mahoney (Leyden: Brill, 1976), 20.


time, probably by 1495, he composed, but did not have printed, a treatise De Magia Naturali.  The work is largely occupied with celestial magic, “which studies the mutual attractions and repulsions that knit together heavenly and terrestrial things.” [26]  Cabalistic thought had also reached Lefèvre, and he, too, concluded that the Tetragrammaton was a miracle-making word. [27]  Lefèvre dedicated this work to Germain de Ganay, sometime bishop of Cahors, counsellor to the Paris parlement, and later bishop of Orleans. [28]

In the same year that Lefevre published his Ficino commentary and Reuchlin his De Verbo Mirifico, 1494, Reuchlin travelled to the sleepy wine-growing village of Sponheim to visit his former pupil in Greek and Hebrew, the learned abbot of the local Benedictine monastery, Johannes Trithemius.  Although Trithemius proudly acknowledged Reuchlin as his teacher in the languages which made him a true vir trilinguis, he claimed as his teacher in the occult another person altogether. [29]  One Libanius Gallus is supposed to have visited Trithemius in 1495.  Of this mysterious person we know only what we learn from Trithemius and a brief correspondence of a decade later.  Trithemius considered Libanius his “best and extraordinary teacher,” one who was in possession of the special lore of the Majorcan mystics.  Through Libanius his monastic pupil gained access to Pico’s nephew, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, editor of his uncle’s works and, at one time, both purveyor and skeptic of occult knowledge. [30]  From the correspondence of 1505, one gathers that Libanius spent time in Saint Quentin as a house guest of Charles de Bovelles (Bovillus), Lefevre’s most famous and brilliant student. [31]

26. Rice, “The De Magia,” 22.

27. Rice, “The De Magia,” 27 and n. 28.  Although there is no evidence that Lefevre knew much or anything about Reuchlin this early, they did, later, exchange friendly letters, when Reuchlin was in the midst of the controversy on the Hebrew books (1514): James D. Jordan, “The Church Reform Principles in the Biblical Works of Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1966), 140.

28. Concerning whom see Eugene F Rice, Jr., “The Patrons of French Humanism, 1490-1520,” Renaissance Studies in honor of Hans Baron, ed Anthony Molho and John A. Tedeschi (Florence: Sansoni, 1971), 691-92; also idem, The Prefatory Epistles of Jacqmmes Lefevre d’Etaples and Related Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972), 20-21.

29. On the date of the visit see Klaus Arnold, Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Bistunis und Hochstifts Wurzburg, 22 (Wurzburg: Schoningh, 1971), 77-78.

30. Arnold,Johannes Trithemius, 80-81.  On Gianfrancesco Pico see Eugenio Garin, Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance, trans. Peter Munz (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 133-35.

31. Marquard Freher, ed. Johannis Trithemii ... Opera Historica, 2 vols. (1601; rpt. Frankfurt Minerva, 1966), 2: 474-75; on Bovillus and Lefevre, see Rice, Prefatory Epistles, xi.  On the connections between Trithemius and both the Florentines and the French see Paola Zanibelli, “Agrippa von Nettesheim in den neueren Studien und in den Handschriften,” Archiv fur Kulturgeschichte 51(1969): 264-95, esp. 269-72, and nn. 20, 22.


In 1503, Bovillus had visited Trithemius in Sponheim for two weeks, studied Trithemius’s four-year-old cryptographic exercise, the Steganographia, and decided that Trithemius was the most dangerous kind of demonic magician. [32]  Bovillus did not publish this opinion of Trithemius until somewhat later in a letter to Germain de Ganay, patron of Lefèvre. [33]  Trithemius was apparently unaware of Bovillus’s hostility and innocently wrote him a friendly letter in 1505.  Two days later, Trithemius wrote a long and important letter to Germain de Ganay concerning the true nature of his magical speculations. [34]  We shall examine this letter in another context.  Germain de Ganay remained one of the major patrons of learning in France until his death in 1520, and he seems to have had an abiding interest, if not in the occult, then in the occultists and they in him. [35]

The troubles of Trithemius did not begin with Bovillus but rather go back to a letter, filled with braggadocio, which Trithemius had written in 1499 to Arnold Bostius, a Carmelite monk in Flanders.  His correspondent had died before the letter arrived.  The Prior of the Carmelite monastery in Gent opened it, permitted it to be copied, and very soon the news was all over France and Germany that Trithemius could (or claimed he could), among other remarkable tricks, communicate messages secretly without the knowledge of the messenger, indeed without any messenger at all. [36]  Trithemius publicly denied that he had any such abilities as to raise the dead, tell the future, or jinx thieves and scoundrels with incantations. [37]  Some who should have known better - scholarly but suspicious counterparts of the Abbot, themselves vulnerable because they dabbled in the mysteries - concluded that Trithemius could not possibly achieve what he claimed (or admitted to) without demonic aid.

The charges and his refutations had the predictable consequence of lending glamor to the reputation of Trithemius, already known as a scholarly and pious prelate.  The powerful and the obscure sought him out for his occult learning.  Emperor Maximilian I cultivated Trithemius and received from him a “Mystic Chronology,” a brief world history according to the principles of planetary magic, with a little angelology and demonology thrown in. [38]  In 1510, a then little known adventurer, Henricus Cor-

32. Joseph M. Victor, Charles de Bovelles, 1479-1553: An intellectual biography, Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 161 (Geneva: Droz, 1978), 14, 31-36.

33. 1509, or, as Noel L. Brann conjectures, 1506: “The Shift from Mystical to Magical Theology in the Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516),” in Studies in Medieval Culture, 11, ed. John R. Sonnenfeldt and Thomas H. Seiler ([Kalamazoo]: Medieval Institute Western Michigan University, 1977), 147-59, esp. 147-48.

34. Freher, Opera Historica 2: 471-73.

35. Rice, Prefatory Epistles, 20; Walker, Spiritual amid Demonic Magic, 35.

36. Arnold, Johannes Trithemius, 182-83.

37. Trithemius, letter to the Parisian mathematician, Johannes Capellerius, 16 August 1507: Freher, Opera Historica 2: 556.

38. Freher, Opcm’a Historica, 1: sig. **4r***2r.


nelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, looked up Trithemius in Wurzburg, where the Abbot had fled from his rebellious monks. [39]  Agrippa was returning to Germany from Dole in imperial Burgundy, where he had been lecturing on Reuchlin’s De Verbo Mirifico at the university and trying to get the attention of Margaret of Austria, Emperor Maximilian’s daughter. [40]  In the wake of his visit, Agrippa produced and dedicated to Trithemius the 1510 manuscript version of his later much emended and expanded De Occulta Philosophia.  This manuscript version must somehow have fallen into the hands of Albrecht Dürer, who employed it to encipher his no longer mysterious Melencolia I. [41]  Agrippa’s later printed version became by far the most famous and influential esoteric document of the Renaissance, [42] inviting a spurious addendum filled with demonic incantations and the blackest of black magic.  The authentic books represent a grandiose summary of the magical speculation of the Renaissance, for which Agrippa borrowed widely and without acknowledgment.  The very words of both Ficino and Pico appear in his arguments. [43]

As we began describing this network with the Italians, let us conclude with them.  The net could have been cast wider to hook, at least at the edges, Colet in England, Erasmus, and the early reformers, or extended in time to bring in Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, and John Dee, but that would move the argument a bit too far to the peripheries and away from the remarkable concentration of magical speculation in the decades around the year 1500.  That concentration was clearly one of time and not one of place.  No single country could claim a monopoly on high magic.  But the three countries most involved - Italy, France, and Germany - did each have a focal point to and from which the supranational movement of magical ideas radiated: in Italy, the Florence of Ficino and his disciples; in France, the person of Germain de Ganay in Paris or wherever else his duties took him; in Germany, the person of Johannes Trithemius first in Sponheim, later in Wurzburg, and on his travels in between.  Much is known of Ficino and his powerful influence, [44] and much more needs to be known about Germain de Ganay.  We shall take a closer look at Trithemius not because he was any

39. Arnold, Johannes Trithemius, 185.

40. Josef Strelka, Der Burgundische Renaissancehof Margarethes von Osterreich und seine literarhistorische Bedeutung (Vienna: Sexl, 1957), 66; Charles G. Nauert, Jr., Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, 55 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 25-26, 30.  On Nauert see Lewis W. Spitz, “Occultism amid Despair of Reason in Renaissance Thought, “Journal of the History of Ideas, 27 (1966): 464-69.

41. See above n. 6 and, more recently, Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Diirer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 157-71, esp. 169-70.

42. Nauert, Agrippa, 229.

43. D. P Walker, “The Prisca Theologia in France,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 17 (1954): 240 and nn. 1, 2; see also Walker, Demonic amid Spiritual Magic, 27, 91.

44. See below n. 64 and Copenhaver, “Scholastic Philosophy and Renaissance Magic.”


more important in his time than the others, but because he has been somewhat unfairly treated and his rightful place in this triad has never been firmly enough established.

The facts presented here are well known.  It is, however, not the custom to bring them together into one context lest the inviolability of national traditions somehow be threatened. [45]  As valid and enlightening as it may be to approach certain human activities from a national standpoint, the basic facts of the history of magic disallow persistence in that standpoint after starting out.  Even linguistic barriers, which ought to be the most formidable, are often insufficient to obstruct the free flow of occult speculation.  The barriers between Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew on the one hand and Latin on the other fell long before the humanists laid claim to that achievement.  There is evidence to suggest that the barriers between Hebrew and the German vernacular fell without any scholarly intervention whatsoever. [46]  The next great concentration of occult speculation, around the year 1600 - uncomfortably allied with Lutheran orthodoxy [47] - could even dispense with the mediation of Latin in certain cases, as the esoteric passed directly from one European vernacular to another.  The attraction of occult ideas is, apparently, so powerful as to overcome practically any obstacle. [48]

In the concentration of magical speculation around the year 1500, the universal mediation of Latin was still intact, [49] and vernacular magic was not an important factor, except as a dangerous competitor to both the Church and the magi.  Although printing with moveable type was already half a century old, the new technology did not play a dominant role.  At the source of Renaissance magic was the discovery of manuscripts.  To be sure, some printing took place thereafter, but the network was formed more by means of the circulation of texts and letters in manuscript.  This implies an unusual incidence of person-to-person contact, that the targeting and

45. This is not, however, to suggest that national sensitivities were in any way a negligible factor, even amidst the clearly international network of magicians.  Trithemius himself stands at the source of the traditions of national biography.  He extracted the German entries from his more universal catalogue De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis (1494) and thereby established the precedent for a patriotic “subtext” in what, on the surface, appears to be merely a reference work: see, Borchardt, “Trithemius and the Mask of Jesus,” Traditions and Transitions: Studies in Honor of Harold Jantz, ed. Liselotte Kurth (Munich: Delp, 1972), 39-40.

46. See above n. 20.

47. Robin Bruce Barnes, Prophecy amid Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 184-87, 208.

48. See, for example, Allen G. Debus, The English Paracelsians (New York: Watts, 1966), 63, 76; Serge Hutin, Les disciples anglais de Jacob Boehme aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles (Paris: Edition Denoël, 1960), 37-42.

49. Bovillus asserts that Trithemius, whose surviving writings contain no mnore than a dozen words in the German vernacular, seriously suggested that German replace Latin as the ideal international scholarly language: Victor, Charles de Bovelles, 30.


targeted individuals met face to face or had to find trusted couriers for their risky communications.  Trithemius’s cryptographies were attempts to get around that very problem, but he succeeded only in making matters worse for himself by enciphering his messages in codes that would appear to the messenger to be demonic incantations in the first place. [50]  Quite apart from the likelihood that a “crisis” in the intellectual life of Europe lured some thinkers toward the occult and thus toward one another, it was, at least in part, the very considerable risk involved in their magical speculations that led the would-be wizards to seek out the like-minded.

The risks associated with the study of magic in the context of a theocratic culture are obvious and were even more obvious to those who daily had to face possible sanctions from the Church.  This resulted in vigorous assertions of one’s own orthodoxy coupled with repudiations of other people’s charlatanism (or worse). [51]  Curiously, this “my magic is white, yours isn’t” attitude, pointed out by D. P Walker, survives in his own study of the Renaissance magicians.  His attempt to segregate Florentine and early French magical speculation from the more long-lived and, frankly, more influential German version (Agrippa, Paracelsus) rests precisely on this attitude.  The former is idealistic and pure; the latter is contaminated by the threat of practical application.  Walker raises Trithemius as a case in point. [52]  Now, Trithemius may possibly have composed incantations for the conjuring of planetary spirits, but it is far from certain.  No authentic work of his dedicated unequivocally to practical magic has come down to us; and we do have a major opus denouncing heterodox (other people’s) magic. [53]  Furthermore his defenses of magic (white, “natural,” his own kind of magic) share the idealism of his Italian precursors.  Consider the famous letter of 24 August 1505 which Trithemius wrote to Germain de Ganay.

Trithemius had written a cryptographic letter to one Johannes Steinmod which Ganay had caught sight of. [54]  Suspecting a profound meaning behind the arcane symbols, he wrote Trithemius for a decipherment or interpretation.  The good Abbot tried to explain as best he could how the basis of occult knowledge rests in the mystery’ of the Trinity. [55]  He de-

50. On Trithemius’s cryptography see Wayne Shumaker, Renaissammce Curiosa, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 8 (Binghamton: State University of New York, 1982), 91-131.

51. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, 54-55.

52. Ibid 86-89.

53. Antipalus maleficiorum, completed in 1508 and never published in full.  Books 1 to 4 in Paralipomena obsculorum . . . Joannis Trithemii, ed. Johannes Busaeus (Mainz: Lippius, 1605), 273-426.

54. Germain’s letter of 3 August 1505: Freher, Opera Historica, 2: 471.

55. Letter of 24 August 1505 to Germain: Freher, Opera Historica, 2: 471-73.  On this letter see Silbernagl, Johannes Trithemius, 2d ed., 128-31; Thorndike, History of Magic, 6: 438-39.


nounced the alchemists for promising what they could not possibly deliver:  “They err and deceive themselves and all those who pay them any mind… Do not rest content with the idiotic alchemists for they are stupid, pupils of the apes, enemies of nature, and despisers of heavenly things... [by way of contrast] our philosophy is heavenly and not earthly.”  By faith, the Abbot’s heavenly philosophy aspired toward the Trinity.  The means he employed was the study of number, order, and measure, which led in the direction of an understanding of the three and the one. [56]  “Do you want to hear more?  Study conceives knowledge, but knowledge gives birth to love, love to likeness, likeness to community, community to strength, strength to worthiness, worthiness to power, and power makes miracle.  This is the sole route to the goal of magical accomplishment, both divine and natural.” [57]

Although Trithemius employed biological imagery in this description of the spiritual process of his kind of magic (generat parit, “conceives” “gives birth to”), his underlying metaphor is gradual in the etymological sense and hierarchical in the applied sense.  One rises from study within the lowest spheres of the terrestrial, by stages, upward across the seven planetary spheres to the sphere of the stars.  But even that is not far and high enough.  “It is necessary to step beyond this, so that the ascent may be prepared by the Trinity, the ascent to that harmony that is supercelestial, where nothing is material and everything is spiritual.” [58]  The course up and beyond this ladder of spiritual advancement duplicates a nine-step process which Trithemius had proposed to his monks some twenty years before (1486), there, however, employing a formula wholly consistent with Saint Bonaventure and the conventions of medieval piety. [59]

56. Freher, Opera Historica, 2: 472, [HHC – Latin quotation omitted]  In this argument Trithemius echoes the famous words of Wisdom (11:21) which provided the theological justification for mathematical study in the Christian West well into the Renaissance and beyond.

57. Ibid. [HHC – Latin quotation omitted]  

58. [HHC – Latin quotation omitted]  

59. Sermo VII, “De novem ascensionis gradibus,” of his often printed two books of sermons or Exhortationes ad monachos. I used Johannes Busaeus ed.,Joannis Trithemii... Opera Pia et Spiritualia (Mainz, 1605), 557-61; cf. Bonaventura, Joannis mentis ad Deum, ed. and trans. Julian Kaup (Munich: Kosel, 1961), 27-33, and Brann, “The Shift from Mystical to Magical Theology,” 152, employing, however, Trithenmius’s De operatione divinii amoris as the model.


Every surviving clue indicates that Trithemius was not a mystic in the religious sense of the word.  He had, in 1486, used the language of mysticism to inspire his monks.  Twenty years later, he was experimenting with another spiritual language.  The two were closely akin and had at least one common ancestor in the Neoplatonic traditions of late antiquity, especially in the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and, of those, especially “On the Celestial Hierarchies.”  Trithemius owned a manuscript containing the complete surviving works of Pseudo-Dionysius, and around 1496 went to the trouble of translating two of them from Greek into Latin. [60]  For his earlier mystical writings, Trithemius did not need any first-hand knowledge of Pseudo-Dionysius.  The notion of spiritual ascent in general and, in particular, ascent by stages could and probably did reach Trithemius indirectly by way of the long Latin Pseudodionysian tradition of the Middle Ages. [61]  For his turn to magic, however, first-hand experience of Pseudo-Dionysius almost certainly provided connections he had previously missed, specifically those between the ascending order of the choirs of angels and the spheres of the astronomical universe.

What distinguished the magical from the mystical in these borrowings from Pseudo-Dionysius is what Trithemius left out when he was writing about magic.  His magical writings wholly exclude the “negative theology” of Pseudo-Dionysius.  They leave no trace of the denial of the limiting characteristics of the deity nor of the system of abnegations which may, depending on divine favor, result in a mystical experience for the searcher.  Trithemius had to have been aware of what he was doing (or not doing) when he omitted this crucial element of Pseudodionysian thought.  The “Mystical Theology,” one of the works which Trithemius translated around 1496, explains in terms as clear as Pseudo-Dionysius ever used how central the negations are and how, at the end of the process of meditations on the deity, negations and affirmations are both negated in a transcendence. [62]

The magical system, even at most idealistic among the Italians before Trithemius and certainly at its most hazardously practical in the writings of Agrippa after him, proceeds “positively,” “affirmatively.”  Study leads to knowledge and, by stages, to power and miracle. The process neglects the doctrine of grace and presumes that the order of the universe is such that

60. Lehniann, Merkwurdigkeiten des Abtes Johannes Trithemius, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische Klasse, Sitzungsberichte, 1961, Heft 2 (Munich: Beck, 1961), 9, 25, 59.  Lehniann is almost certainly in error (9) when lie assumes that these MSS were in Latin to begin with.  See Arnold, Johannes Trithemius, 78.

61. Martin Grabmann, Mittelalterliches Geistesleben (Munich: M. Hueber, 1926), 449-68; and more recently, Edward P Mahoney, “Metaphysical Foundations of the Hierarchy of Being,” Philosophies of Existence, ed. Parviz Moreweg (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982), 165-257.

62. Dionysiaca, ed. P Chevalier, 2 vols. (Paris and Bruges: Brouwer, 1937-50), 1: 597-602.


one can rise to supernatural power (the making of miracles, which, by definition, defies the natural order) and can do so by natural means (study).  The “negative theology” alone rescues any such process from the blasphemous conclusion that man can coerce spirit by virtue of his own activities.  However pious the intentions of the magi, their system usurped divine prerogative.  In Christian Europe the exclusive authority that could assure a spiritual result from a physical activity was the Church, and then only in the sacraments, which presumed a divine covenant and hence the consent of the deity. [63]  As vigorously as the magi attacked other people’s black magic, their own white magic had to collide with the same uncircumnavigable theological obstacle: the freedom and omnipotence of God.

It is no secret that Pico della Mirandola, toward the end of his short life, feel under the influence of Savonarola and experienced a conversion. [64]  Pico repudiated his erotic poetry, dismissed his fascination with the supposed wisdom of the ancient Egyptians (Hermes) and Chaldeans as an error of his youth, and turned all his energies to a massive defense of Christian orthodoxy.  He lived only to complete the first installment, a comprehensive attack on astrology broad enough to include the sum of magic speculation. [65]  Lefèvre d’Etaples likewise reversed himself soon after he completed his work on natural magic: “It is nonsense to believe that any magic is natural or good, for natural magic is a wicked deception practiced by men who seek to hide their crimes under a respectable name.” [66]  As early as 1508, Trithemius himself tried to explain to Emperor Maximilian how all of his speculations contained nothing but what the Catholic Church taught as matters of faith, and that he, Trithemius, rejected all other doctrines as vain, false, and superstitious. [67]  This may have been a preemptive defense, given the ambiguous character of the work he was dedicating to the Emperor.  Trithemius defended himself once again in another letter to Germain de Ganay (20 July 1515), refuting the charges of Bovillus, denying that his works contained anything that “exceeded the laws of nature or offended the norms of Christian belief.” [68]  Although these assertions in themselves may not qualify as an outright recantation, the whole tenor of

63. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, 181, and Monter, Ritual, Myth amid Magic, 32.

64. Eugenio Gamin, Portraits from the Quattrocento, trans. V. A. and E. Velen (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 206-7; idem, Italian Humanism, 108-13; Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller John Herman Randall, eds. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1956), 216; Paul Oskar Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 68-69.

65. Thorndike, History of Magic, 4: 508-9.

66. Rice, “The De Magia Naturali,” 28; idem, The Prefatory Epistles, 118.

67. Freher, Opera Historica, 1: sig. ***2r.  Cf. Ficino’s similar profession at the conclusion of the De vita: Copenhaver, “Scholastic Philosophy and Renaissance Magic,” 544.

68. “que leges nature christianeque fidei normas nec excedunt nec offendunt”: Klaus Arnold “Erganzungen zum Briefwechsel des Johannes Trithemius,” Studien und Mitteilungen zur Geschichte des Benediktiner-Ordens 83 (1972): 203.


the letter indicated aggrieved disappointment in Bovillus and in Bovillus’s wrong-headed interpretation of the esoteric works of the Abbot.  As a monk, a priest, an abbot, and, most importantly, as a Catholic Christian, Ttithemius felt he should not be subjected to such slander.  He clearly decided before his death that the notoriety which his flirtations with magic had brought him was not worth the grief that accompanied it.  He withdrew behind the protection of orthodoxy and his ecclesiastical position.

Bovillus had once been given to mystical mathematical speculations that are hard to distinguish from magic (correspondences between number and nature which reveal “influences”) and that explicitly point toward alchemy. [69]  These speculations reached into the mystical numerology of later times, where Bovillus is cited along with Agnippa as an authority. [70]  Since these activities of Bovillus coincided with his attack on Tnithemius, indeed, were directed to the identical audience, Germain de Ganay, the attack cannot be considered a repudiation of magic altogether.  It is, rather, an example of the “my magic is white, yours isn’t” preemptive polemic.  Bovillus did not, however long malinger in this uncomfortable proximity to magic.  His biographer traces a clear course of intellectual development that took Bovillus decisively away from magic and in the direction of orthodox mysticism, replete with the “negative theology” of Pseudo-Dionysius. [71]

The case of Agrippa is at once clearer and more confused than that of his former mentor or his mentor’s critic.  As early as 1525 and again as late as 1533 (two years before his death) Agrippa clearly and unequivocally rejected magic in its totality, from its sources in imagined antiquity to contemporary practice. [72]  Even before his great invective De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum (written in 1526 but not printed until 1531), Agrippa had denounced the study of Hermes (and all pagan sources) as a sin against the Holy Spirit.  His Dehortatio gentilis theologiae argued that the inspired word of God in the scriptures embraced all wisdom, hence, it was blasphemy to seek in “pagan theology” any wisdom not more immediately accessible in the Gospel. [73]

In the more comprehensive De incertitudine Agrippa reserved fully a third of his denunciations of human learning for magic and all its permutations.  The grandiose, sweeping, and often very funny denunciation of the totality of the human enterprise leads some readers (and did so even in the

69. Particularly his De XII numeris (1510), dedicated to Germain de Ganay: Victor, Charles de Bovelles, 39-41; Thorndike, 6: 442-3; Peuckert, Pansophia, 2d ed., 103-4.

70. Victor, Charles de Bovelles, 42.

71. Ibid., 174-75.

72. Nauert, Agrippa, 208-11.

73. Ibid., 209.


sixteenth century) to think that the entire work is to be taken as an elaborate joke, a feigned skepticism, and elegant and insincere rhetorical construct. [74]  Indeed, Agrippa may have been carried away by the flood of his own considerable eloquence, but the 1525 Dehortatio on pagan theology suggests something other than insincerity.

Agrippa oversaw the 1533 publication of his three books on occult philosophy.  To them he appended in the form of a Censura sive Retractio those chapters from the De incertitudine… which denounced magic. [75]  He repeatedly disclaimed his earlier magical works and then proceeded to publish them.  Whatever moved Agrippa, it was not likely to have been insincerity.  It was, first of all, a need for funds, but beyond that also a thorough ambivalence about the world: “Agrippa’s mind drifted uncertainly between intellectual despair on the one hand and a sort of omnivorous, generalized credulity on the other.” [76]  Like most of the magi before him, Agrippa turned to magic for enlightenment.  He, as well as those who flocked to his lectures in Dole and Pavia and the great market for his magical books, had the orthodox option but decided at least to investigate this alternative.  What that meant for the intellectual and spiritual life of Europe around 1500 one can only guess, though it suggests that all was not well.  This fraction of the population, if none other, was looking beyond orthodoxy but was not willing to abandon it altogether.  When their search failed, these people returned to the Church and the security of the orthodox system.  It is significant that the magi who lived long enough, Lefevre and Agrippa - even though they criticized the abuses of churchmen - never joined the Reformation. [77]

The threat of ecclesiastical displeasure and the high cost attached to it may have been sufficient to cause the practically universal repudiation of magic by the magicians.  There may also have been some other mechanisms at work, mechanisms which the poets of later times recognized instinctively and preserved in the great literature of the West.  The obvious ambivalence in the personality of Agrippa - his biographer calls it “flex-

74. Agrippa von Nettesheim, Die Eitelkeit und Unsicherheit der Wissenscliaften, ed Fritz Mauthner, 2 vols. (Munich: Georg Muller, 1913), 2: 196-97.

75. Reprinted in Henricus Cornelius Agrippa ab Nettesheim, De Occulta Pimilosophia, ed. Karl Anton Nowotny, (Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1967), 364-74 (original of 1533 paginated CCCLII—CCCLXLM).  This fascinating collection contains photocopies of the 1510 manuscript and numerous related documents.  It does not, however qualify as a substitute for a critical edition; that is promised from Professor Paola Zambelli’s seminar at the University of Florence.

76. Nauert, Agrippa, 262.

77. 0n their equivocal stance see Paola Zambelli, “Corneille Agrippe, Erasme et la Theologie Humaniste,” Colloquia Erasmiana Turonensia (Paris: Vrin, 1972) 1: 113-59.


ibility,” [78] but it was surely more binary than that -makes him representative.  Ambivalence in general and particularly toward magic characterizes all but the most genuinely mystical of the Renaissance magi, and this ambivalence in the magi almost certainly corresponds to an ambiguity in the magic they studied.

There is little evidence to suggest that outright demonolatry ever existed outside the fantasies of witch hunters.  In the Christian West, indeed, wherever the monotheistic religions held sway, magic did not function in opposition to the deity, though it may have opposed the clergy and certainly circumvented orthodoxy.  Magic represented an alternative to the generally accepted religion, whatever that may have been.  This position was not merely political but also theological.  Orthodoxies, by definition, occupy the totality of the relationship between man and God, between the natural and the supernatural.  Magic, though it may have shared many of the same premises, challenged that totality. [79]

Among the magi around the year 1500, magic was an act of piety, even of intense piety.  It assumed the existence of God and the orderliness of the universe God created.  That order allowed for nothing arbitrary or accidental.  The system was magical insofar as the material universe in every detail, minute and macroscopic, was a revelation ultimately of divine activity, and the relationship between the material signs and the greater spiritual realities was intrinsic, necessary, and knowable. [80]  It is chiefly in this last feature, the knowability of all the secrets of the universe, that magic begins to diverge from orthodoxy.  In orthodoxy, correct knowledge of the supernatural emerged exclusively from revelation, and revelation could be rightly understood only by divine favor.  In magic, all of creation, not only the inspired word, was a revelation, and access to its meaning was available virtually to anyone who made a positive effort, by study or contemplation (and, for some, by experiment) to crack the code.

Whereas the presuppositions were pious enough, acknowledging God’s power and the magnificence of his creation, the activity of magic itself imposed on God a set of limitations defined by the universe.  If one

78. Nauert, Agrippa, 217.  But consider Michael H. Keefer “Agrippa’s Dilemma, Hermetic ‘Rebirth’ and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occultaphilosophia,” Renaissance Quarterly 41, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 614-53, esp. 650: “On th[e] surface level the question which his [Agrippa’s] equivocations on the subject of magic pose for us is insoluble: his violent oscillations back and forth, his praise and condemnation of magic, his boasts, his threats, amid his recantations, are quite simply unintelligible.”

79. For an even-handed assessment of the relationships in popular practice between “folkorized” and “magical” ritual behavior see R. W. Scribner, “Ritual and Popular Religion in Catholic Germany at the time of the Reformation,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 37 no. 4 (1984): 523-54, esp. 53, 66.

80. Nowotny, Occulta Philosophia, 13 (= sig. a[i]r, p. [1]).


properly plants this seed, that tree will of necessity spring from it.  If one knows the true name and character of this planetary spirit, that influence can be turned, by force, to one’s advantage. [81]  If one learns all the principles of the ordering of nature, one can reach God who dwells beyond but contiguous to creation.  Creation rigidly bridges the abyss between humanity and God.  The order and necessity which govern nature in particular and creation in general are made to govern the supernatural and the creator.  At that moment, magic is no longer so pious, for it implies a coercive power in the hands of humanity that can finally be imposed on God.  And that impiety retroactively demolishes the entire system.

The magi did not, as a rule, pursue this logic to its conclusion, even though it was available to them implicitly in their faith as Catholic Christians and explicitly in the doctrinal utterances of various ecclesiastical authorities. [82]  Trithemius often expressed his submission to the authority of the Church, but he never dropped a hint that either the word magic or the planetary magic to which he was given necessarily concluded in a limitation of the godhead.  Agrippa often appealed to the doctrine of grace, in part to justify his fideistic skepticism about the validity of human knowledge, in part to disguise his teachings on magic. [83]  His insistence on God’s free favor, by which he concludes his three books on occult philosophy, lies athwart the entire thrust of the rest of the work.  Throughout he presents in detail what humans can do positively, by study and the manipulation of matter, to enter into and advance in the magical universe.

But no professions of orthodoxy or assent to the doctrine of grace succeeded in transforming the magical system from what it was to what the pious magi wished it to be.  From a theologically orthodox viewpoint all magic was black magic, as Lefèvre was able to recognize early.  The desire at one and the same time to remain a right believing Christian and to “tempt God” forced the magicians into a choice.  And they all chose orthodoxy.  This might not have been the case if high magic had been able to deliver what it promised in the way of enlightenment. [84]  In certain rare cases - Ficino, Reuchlin, and, somewhat later, Bruno - magic seems to have “worked,” that is, it provided a gratifying symbolic language which the

81. The fallacy rests in the displacement of material causality from the realm of nature (matter on matter seed to tree) to the supernatural (matter on spirit, talisman or incantation to some superior intelligence). Cf. above, n. 21.

82. John F Wippel, “The Condemnations of 1270 and 1277 at Paris, “Journal of Medieval amid Renaissance Studies 7 (1977): 169-201, esp. 175, where such propositions are condemned as “restrict God’s immediate and causal activity to one unique, eternal, and necessary effect” or maintain that “from this [primordial] intelligence emanate the other intelligences, the heavenly spheres, and the sublunary world, all according to eternal necessity.”  See also 187 for the condemnation of mantic writings and propositions on the knowability of God.

83. Nauert, Agrippa, 220-21.

84. Keefer, “Agrippa’s Dilemma,” 651: “His [Agrippa’s] knowledge rested upon unfulfilled promises, and the expected illuminations persistently did not arrive.”


magi perceived as consonant with orthodoxy or as a wholly adequate substitute for orthodoxy (Bruno).  For the others, magic sooner or later failed in that function.  It may even have failed for Agrippa. [85]

High magic was esoteric, that is, meant only for the few, and it stood in constant danger of vulgar misuse.  The great magical works of the past, rediscovered by the Renaissance magi, were routinely replete with dire warnings to the reader, indeed, threats if the secrets of the book were to be betrayed to the uninitiated. [86]  There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the writers, who probably believed that a mistaken incantation or a flawed talisman would not just produce disappointing results but might actually summon the wrong force, a horrible demon instead of a benevolent sprite. [87]  But quite apart from such fears, the esoteric nature of high magic flattered the would-be magician, appealed to a certain vanity, not to say, fostered the sin of intellectual pride among the searchers.  Even if they could escape this temptation, they had to distinguish themselves radically from the popular manifestation of magic in potion-brewing, prognostication, and jinxing; [88] so, high magic had to remain esoteric and could never be released for general consumption. [89]

This inability reveals another fundamental flaw in high magic.  Religious mysticism, however uncomfortable ecclesiastical orthodoxy found it, could and did spread to a larger public.  What began as a stunning and direct experience of the divine by a handful of extraordinary individuals came to rest in large-scale popular piety, a process which repeated itself throughout the Middle Ages and was in full force in the time of the magi here discussed. [90]  By contrast, magic descending to the popular level could only result in superstition or worse.  As opposed to the symbolic language of mysticism, the symbolic language of magic - as rich and evocative as it may have been for a very few highly literate and learned searchers - was completely untranslatable for broader, popular understanding.  Worse yet, every attempt at translation or successful plagiarism resulted in precisely

85..Keefer, “Agrippa’s Dilemma,” 640: “the [De vanitate] represents ... a recoil (surrounded by ironies, but a recoil nonetheless) from all but the most central of Agrippa’s beliefs”; 641: “an explicit, if disingenuous recantation of De occulta philosophia”; and 643: “The final passage of those chapters from De vanitate which Agrippa appended to De occulta philosophia as a form of recantation leaves the reader with the impression that magic is wholly damnable.”

86. E.g. “Picatrix,” Ritter and Plessner, p. xxxv and references there to the Hermetica.

87. Copenhaver, “Scholastic Philosophy and Renaissance Magic,” 531.

88. The Catholic world, before and after the Reformation, clearly distinguished popular practices of “illicit magic” from popular piety.  A confusion between them arose chiefly from the Protestant critique: cf. Monter, Ritual Myth and Magic, 6-12, 33, 68. table 4.2; Scribner, “Ritual and Popular Religion,” 71 on “certain practices explicitly forbidden.”

89. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 228.

90. Among many others, the following of “Bruder Claus,” Nicholas von der Fluhe, which left a deep and lasting impression on Bovillus: Victor, Charles de Bovelles, 13 and n. 16.


the kind of misuse the initiate dreaded.  Even at its most pious, magic had to remain esoteric.

The great poets recognized this separation from the rest of humanity as a fatal deficiency of magic, one which led the magi of poetry and perhaps their historical prototypes as well to sooner or later turn their backs on the occult.  This repudiation is as much a part of the story of the magician as any other moment in the magical journey.  When Marlowe’s Faustus declares, “Ile burne my bookes,” he repents his magic, apparently too late. [91]  When Shakespeare’s Prospero lays down his staff and buries his book, he is returning from his exile in the occult. [92]  When Goethe’s again aged Faust refuses to use extraordinary means to ban the spirit of Care, he is affirming the superiority of the ordinary, of “nature,” of life in the complex, imperfect world of realities. [93]

91 The tragicall History of Doctor Faustus, 1476: The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F Tucker, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), 194.

92. Tempest, V: 50-56: ed Frank Kerniode (London: Methuen, 1977), 115-16.

93. Goethe, Faust, lines 11,423-52: ed Erich Trunz (Munich: Beck, 1976), 344-45.