Agrippa

First published in The Spenser Encyclopedia, General Editor A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), pp. 10-11.

 

Agrippa (Henricus Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim) (1466-1535). Famous in the sixteenth century as an evangelical humanist, a bold and aggressive satirist, and a magician who reputedly came to a bad end. His life and his writings abound in paradoxes. He was an ambitious courtier who wrote vehemently against the corruption of royal courts. From 1510 until his death, he was involved in violent controversies with the preachers, inquisitors, and theologians of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, who drove him from several positions and condemned his books; yet, while his polemics earned him a reputation as a pre-Lutheran reformer, he never broke with the Catholic church. Although a lifelong student of magic and the occult, he also proclaimed that the Scriptures and a pure faith in God offered the only way to truth.

His two major works, De occulta philosophia (ms version 1510, expanded version pub 1533) and De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium (1530; Eng tr Of the Vanitie and and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences 1569, rpt 1575), were well known throughout Europe and were drawn upon by many Elizabethan writers, including Sidney, Greville, Harvey, Nashe, Marlowe, and, almost certainly, Spenser. De occulta philosophia incorporates material from many sources, most notably the texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the Cabala (which Agrippa knew through the works of Giovanni Pico and Reuchlin), medieval magical texts such as the Picatrix, and a wide range of classical and patristic texts, especially those of a Neoplatonic bent. De vanitate is encyclopedic in a different sense. With a mixture of evangelical high seriousness, sly paradox, witty abusiveness, and shrill invective, it sets out to show that all human arts and sciences are false and of no use for salvation: only through faith in God can spiritual regeneration and true knowledge be obtained.

These two works may appear to contradict one another. But the magical Hermetic-Cabalistic-Neoplatonic syncretism of the former and the loosely skeptical fideism of the latter are both based upon an Hermetic doctrine of regeneration and deification which Agrippa also found in Christian, Cabalistic, and Neoplatonic texts, and which he understood as the central principle of both magic and the Christian religion. Moreover, while De vanitate does not spare such disciplines as logic, dicing, prostitution, and scholastic theology, it attacks only the most obviously demonic forms of magic, and actually praises others. To Spenser's generation, the attractiveness of Agrippa's two major works (and of De vanitate especially) seems to have lain in their unstable but persuasive fusion of apparently Protestant doctrines with occult and Neoplatonic ideas.

Spenser certainly knew of Agrippa, perhaps through Gabriel Harvey, who wrote in 'A New Yeeres Gift': 'A thousand good leaves be for ever graunted Agrippa. / For squibbing and declayming against many fruitlesse / Artes, and Craftes, divisde by the Divls and Sprites, for a torment, / And for a plague to the world: as both Pandora, Prometheus, / And that cursed good bad Tree, can testifie at all times' (Three Letters 3 in Var Prose p 465). Whether Spenser read De vanitate as closely as did Sidney remains in doubt (see Hamilton 1956b). But his account of the Ape's court in Mother Hubberds Tale (659-716, 794-921) suggests indebtedness to Agrippa's chapter 68, which describes life at court as 'wholye voyde of shame, and what naughtines so ever in any place is found in cruel beasts, al this seemeth to be assembled in the route of courtiers, as in one body: there is found ... the deceit of the Foxe ... the scoffinge of the Ape.' The jests of chapter 3 (eg, 'it is said of a Prieste ... who when he had many burnte offringes, to the ende he mighte not offende againste Grammar, he consecrated them with these woordes, Haec sunt Corpora mea, that is, these are my Bodies.... From whence came that opinion of the Waldenses ... and of others of later time, about the Eucharist, but of this woorde, is?') are echoed in lines 385-9 of the same poem: 'Of such deep learning little had he neede, / Ne yet of Latine, ne of Greeke, that breede / Doubts mongst Divines, and difference of texts, / From whence arise diversitie of sects, / And hatefull heresies, of God abhor'd.' De occulta philosophia is one possible source of Spenser's knowledge of Neoplatonic doctrines, of numerology, and of the Cabala; other aspects of the work, such as Agrippa's chapters on talismanic imagery (2.35-49), may also have been of interest to him. His contemporary reputation as an arch-magician (archimagus) may have contributed to Spenser's portraits of the learned magicians Archimago and Busirane.

There is a modern rpt in 2 vols (Hildesheim 1970) of a sixteenth-century ed of the Lyons Opera (nd). The standard study is Charles G. Nauert, Jr 1965 Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana, Ill). See also A.C. Hamilton 1956b 'Sidney and Agrippa' RES ns 7:151-7; Michael H. Keefer 1988 'Agrippa's Dilemma: Hermetic “Rebirth” and the Ambivalences of De vanitate and De occulta philosophia' RenQ 41:614-53; Eugene Korkowski 1976 'Agrippa as Ironist' Neophil 60:594-607; Paola Zambelli 1976 'Magic and Radical Reformation in Agrippa of Nettesheim' JWCI 39:69-103.