*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 18th of February 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The famous 19th century British Poet John Southey wrote a curious poem called “Cornelius Agrippa: A Ballad.” It’s a strange poem about Cornelius Agrippa, who was thought to be a dangerous mystic/alchemist/conjurer. In the poem, a boy gets into his study, and in reading Agrippa's books, the devil appears and kills him. Listen:
On the Study-table a book there lay,
Which Agrippa himself had been reading that day;
The letters were written with blood therein,
And the leaves were made of dead men's skin;—
Eventually, the devil appears to the boy, and…
His eyes red fire and fury dart
As out he tore the young man's heart;
He grinn'd a horrible grin at his prey;
And in a clap of thunder vanish'd away.
The poem ends with
Henceforth let all young men take heed
How in a Conjurer's books they read.
So, who was this Cornelius Agrippa? Full name Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was a kind of early modern Carmen Sandiego- always on the move, periodically disappears, and shows up in the historical record in a new town with a new profession. Let’s get the highlights.
- He was born in 1499 to minor nobility in Cologne.
- He attended his home University and graduated in 1502
- Claimed multiple degrees in multiple subjects, but none of it can be verified
- He disappears from the record for a time and shows up again in 1509 when he is sent on a secret diplomatic mission to Spain by Emperor Maximillian (?!)
BY 1509 he is lecturing in Burgundy on the work of the humanist Johann Reuchlin- Reuchlin was a Hebraist and played with the ideas of Christian Kaballaists (this is a Jewish mysticism interpreted in light of Christianity)
Agrippa becomes controversial in some theological circles and starts moving- he is still working in some capacity for Emperor Maximillian but goes to Germany where he meets an Alchemist that starts Cornelius on his first work on the Occult.
We know he’s sent on another diplomatic trip to London where he meets the Humanist John Colet and gets to know the English Humanists (in 1510, so just pre-reformation).
He spent most of the 15-teens in Italy working as a diplomat/courier for the Emperor and writing on the occult- revising and expanding his Three Volume De occulta philosophiae.
In 1520 he got into hot water with the Inquisition when he defended a woman accused of being a witch.
We find him working as an official city orator and physician in Geneva. From there, he is called to Lyon to be the physician to the mother of Francis I, King of France.
Something happens around 1528, and he is gone from the court of Francis and has been invited back to England by King Henry VIII to help him with his divorce troubles. Instead, he becomes a courtier to emperor Charles V. (Quick note: Francis, Henry, and Charles are perhaps the three most prominent names in 16th c. politics)
He keeps writing- his works are a strange mix of natural philosophy, Christian mysticism, and an attack on modern science. It was controversial enough for him to be booted by Charles V.
Agrippa goes back to France, where he is arrested on the order of Francis I because apparently, Agrippa said some unkind words about the King’s mom.
He’s let out of jail soon after. According to a former student of his, he traveled with a black dog who some thought was a demon. On this day, the 18th of February in 1535, the dog- sensing the end of Agrippa, jumped into a river, and later that day, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim died.
His life took place across Europe, in theological and philosophical circles, and on both sides of the Reformation watershed. He traveled with humanists, was harassed by the Catholic Church but never joined the Reformation cause. His work has suffered in that it can be cryptic. It is hard to know what he is actually criticizing and extolling. Nevertheless, he was remembered enough to be named a favorite author of Percy Bysshe Shelley and became the subject of John Southey’s Ballad. The one of a kind Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was 48 years old.
The Last Word for today comes from 1 John.
3 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of February 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite video games used to trick you into learning included Carmen San Diego, Math Blaster, and the Oregon Trail, Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who learned everything he needed to learn from the Legend of Zelda. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.