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Henry Cornelius Agrippa's Biography (Books) (Photos)

Henry Cornelius Agrippa
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was a German magician and occult writer, astrologer, and alchemist. He may also be considered an early feminist.

His career was diverse: secret agent, soldier, physician, orator, and law professor, in Cologne, Paris, Dole, London, Italy, Pavia, and Metz. In 1509, he set up a laboratory in Dole in the hopes of synthesizing gold, and for the next decade or so traveled Europe, making a living as an alchemist, and conversing with such important early humanist scholars as Colet and Reuchlin. In 1520, he set up a medical practice in Geneva, and in 1524 became personal physician to the queen mother at the court of King Francis I in Lyons. When the queen mother abandoned him, he began practicing medicine in Antwerp, but was later banned for practicing without a license, and became historiographer at the court of Charles V. After several stays in prison, variously for debt and criminal offenses, he died in 1535.

Agrippa's wrote on a great many topics, including marriage and military engineering, but his most important work is the three-volume De occulta philosophiae (written c. 1510, published 1531), a defense of "hidden philosophy" or magic, which draws on diverse mystical traditions - alchemy, astrology, Kabbalah. A later work, De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum (Of the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences), attacks contemporary scientific theory and practice.

Many of his opinions were controversial. His early lectures on theology angered the Church, and his defense of a woman accused of witchcraft in 1520 led to his being hounded out of Cologne by the Inquisition. In his own day, Agrippa was widely attacked as a charlatan. After his death, legends about him were plentiful. Some believed him to be not only an alchemist but a demonic magician, even a vampire. In one account, he traveled to the New World.

His real name was Heinrich Cornelis. After the fashion of the time, he latinized Cornelis into Cornelius and awarded himself the bogus noble title of Agrippa Von Nettesheim, from the Roman founder of Cologne and the name of a place near Cologne. Undisciplined, unstable and erratically brilliant, Agrippa was often forced to live by his wits and played at different times the roles of occult scholar and alchemist, faith healer and demonologist, court astrologer, theologian, lawyer and doctor (he studied both medicine and law at Cologne, apparently without taking a degree), historian; town orator, financial adviser and secret political agent. He worked now for the Pope and now for his rival the Emperor, switching sides as opportunity offered. He founded secret societies whose members he was not above exploiting. He mixed with royalty at one moment, only to find himself in prison for debt the next.

Educated at the University of Cologne, while still a youth Agrippa served under Maximilian I, of Germany. In 1509, when lecturing at the University of Dole, a charge of heresy was brought against him by a monk, John Catilinet, and to avoid any prosecution and probable harsh punishment, Agrippa left Dole and resumed his former occupation of soldier. The following year Agrippa was sent to England, on a diplomatic mission, and on his return followed Maximilian to Italy, where he spent 7 years serving various noble patrons. After practicing medicine at Geneva, he was appointed physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I. After that he took a position under Margaret, Duchess of Savoy, Regent of the Netherlands, but not before falling out of favor with his former patroness. His capacity to assemble bitter foes was a constant throughout his life.

Agrippa moved restlessly about Europe until his enemies caught up with him at Grenoble. Prison and torture left him so broken that he only survived his release a matter of weeks. Much of his career is shrouded in mystery and even before his death he had become the center of stories in which he figured as a master black magician. Goethe drew on some of these stories for the title character of his play Faust.

Agrippa's best-known work, De Occulta Philosophia (Occult Philosophy) was published in three volumes in 1531 but had been written much earlier, in 1510, possibly during a visit to England. It is based on ideas current at the time: that man is a miniature copy of God, made 'in the image of God' as the Bible says; that the whole universe, taken together, is God; and that man is therefore a miniature copy of the universe. The universe (the macrocosm or 'great world') is built on the model of man (the microcosm or 'small world') and so, like man, it has a soul. Agrippa said that everything which exists has a 'soul' or spiritual component, part of the total world soul, which shows itself in the magical properties of herbs, metals, stones, animals and other phenomena of Nature. For instance, the magnet attracts iron, whoever wears the stone called heliotrope becomes invisible, and a sure contraceptive for a woman is to drink mule's urine every month because mules are sterile.