The Philosophy of Natural Magic, by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, L. W. de Laurence ed. , at sacred-texts.com
At Cologne, on the 14th of September, 1486, there was born into the noble house of Nettesheim a son, whom his parents called in baptism Henry Cornelius Agrippa. Some might, at first thought, suppose that the last of the three was a Christian name likely to find especial favor with the people of Cologne, the site of whose town, in days of Roman sovereignty, Marcus Agrippa's camp suggested and the colony of Agrippina fixed. But the existence of any such predilection is disproved by some volumes filed with the names of former natives of Cologne. There were as few Agrippas there as elsewhere, the use of the name being everywhere confined to a few individuals taken from a class that was itself not numerous. A child who came into the world feet-foremost was called an Agrippa by the Romans, and the word itself, so Aulus Gellius explains it, was invented to express the idea, being compounded of the trouble of the woman and the feet of the child. The Agrippas of the sixteenth century were usually sons of scholars, or of persons in the upper ranks, who had been mindful of a classic precedent; and there can be little doubt that a peculiarity attendant on the very first incident in the life here to be told was expressed by the word used as appendix to an already sufficient Christian name.
The son thus christened became a scholar and a subject of discussion among scholars, talking only Latin to the world. His family name, Von Nettesheim, he never latinised, inasmuch as the best taste suggested that—if a Latin designation was most proper of a scholar—he could do, or others could do
for him, nothing simpler than to set apart for literary purposes that half of his real style which was already completely Roman. Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim became therefore to the world what he is also called in this narrative—Cornelius Agrippa.
He is the only member of the family of Nettesheim concerning whom any records have been left for the instruction of posterity. Nettesheim itself is a place of little note, distant about twenty-five miles to the southwest of Cologne. It lies in a valley, through which flows the stream from one of the small sources of the Roer. The home of the Von Nettesheims, when they were not personally attached to the service of the emperor, was at Cologne. The ancestors of Cornelius Agrippa had been for generations in the service of the royal house of Austria; his father had in this respect walked in the steps of his forefathers, and from a child Cornelius looked for nothing better than to do the same.
It is proper to mention that among the scholars of Germany one, who before the time of Agrippa was known as the most famous of magicians, belonged to the same city of Cologne; for there, in the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus taught, and it is there that he is buried.
Born in Cologne did not mean in 1486 what it has meant for many generations almost until now—born into the darkness of a mouldering receptacle of relics. Then the town was not priest-ridden, but rode its priests. For nearly a thousand years priestcraft and handicraft have battled for predominance within its walls. Priestcraft expelled the Jews, banished the weavers, and gained thoroughly the mastery at last. But in the time of Cornelius Agrippa handicraft was uppermost, and in sacred Cologne every trader and mechanic did his part in keeping watch on the archbishop. Europe contained then but few cities that were larger, busier, and richer, for the Rhine was a
main highway of commerce, and she was enriched, not only by her manufacturers and merchants, but, at the same time also, by a large receipt of toll. Commerce is the most powerful antagonist to despotism, and in whatever place both are brought together one of them must die.
Passing by the earlier times to about the year 1350 there arose a devilish persecution of the Jews in many parts of Europe, and the Jews of Cologne, alarmed by the sufferings to which others of their race had been exposed, withdrew into their houses, with their wives and children, and burnt themselves in the midst of their possessions. The few who had flinched from this self-immolation were banished, and their houses and lands, together with all the land that had belonged to Cologne Jews, remained as spoils in the hands of the Cologne Christians. All having been converted into cash, the gains of the transactions were divided equally between the town and the archbishop. The Jews, twenty years later, were again allowed to reside in the place on payment of a tax for the protection granted them.
In 1369 the city was again in turmoil, caused by a dispute concerning privileges between the authorities of the church and the town council. The weavers, as a democratic body, expressed their views very strong and there was fighting in the streets. The weavers were subdued; they fled to the churches, and were slain at the altars. Eighteen hundred of them, all who survived, were banished, suffering, of course, confiscation of their property, and Cologne being cleared of all its weavers—who had carried on no inconsiderable branch of manufacture—their guild was demolished. This event occurred twenty years after the town had lost, in the Jews, another important part of its industrial population, and the proud city thus was passing into the first stage of its decay.
In 1388 an university was established at Cologne, upon the model of the University of Paris. Theology and scholastic philosophy were the chief studies cultivated in it, and they were taught in such a way as to win many scholars from abroad. Eight years afterwards, churchmen, nobles, and traders were again contesting their respective claims, and blood was again shed in the streets. The nobles, assembled by night at a secret meeting, were surprised, and the final conquest of the trading class was in that way assured. A new constitution was then devised, continuing in force during the lifetime of Cornelius Agrippa.
The Von Nettesheims were likely to be on better terms with the archbishop than with the party who opposed him, and they were in the emperor's service. This must have influenced the early years of Agrippa. In these early years he displayed a rare aptitude for study, and, as Cologne was an university town and printing, discovered shortly before his birth, was carried on there in the production of Latin classics, the writings of ascetics, scholastics, and mystics like Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, it was only natural he should avail his eager desire for knowledge at these sources. He was remarkably successful in the study of European languages also, becoming proficient in several. Thus his years of home training were passed until he arrived at the age when princes are considered fit to be produced at court. He then left Cologne and became an attendant on the Emperor of Germany, Maximilian the First, whom he served first as secretary, afterwards for seven years as a soldier. At the age of twenty he was employed on secret service by the German court. At this time Spain was in a chaotic political condition. Ferdinand, the widower of Isabella, was excluded from the crown after his wife's death, that inheritance having passed with his daughter Joanna, as a dower, to her husband Philip, who was the son of Maximilian. In September,
[paragraph continues] 1506, Philip died, shortly before having declared war against France. Thus it was that Cornelius went to Paris, ostensibly to attend the university there, but in reality to keep Maximilian advised of the important news regarding the French. In the capacity of secret service, in which he was engaged more than once, he showed himself abundantly able to preserve diplomatic secrets, though concerning his own affairs he was open, frank, and free. Thus he is silent in regard to official duties at this time. In attending the university Agrippa came in contact with several other minds who had a love for the occult—mystics who found in him a natural leader to guide them into the realms of the unknown. With these he organized a secret band of Theosophists, or possibly Rosicrucians. Among these mystics was one more prominent as the friend of Agrippa, who might be regarded as second in leadership, an Italian by the name of Blasius Cæsar Landulphus, who afterwards became noted in medicine, and also a professor in the University of Pavia. Among them were MM. Germain, advocate, and author of a history of Charles V., etc.; Gaigny, theologian, linguist, Latin poet, and successively procurator, rector, and chancellor of the Paris University; Charles Foucard, M. de Molinflor, Charles de Bouelles, canon, professor of theology, and author of works on metaphysics and geometry, among which he treated of the quadrature of the circle and the cubication of the sphere, and other unusual matters; Germain de Brie, canon, linguist, and writer of Greek verse; MM. Fasch, Wigand, and Clairchamps; and Juanetin Bascara de Gerona, a young Catalonian nobleman, temporarily at Paris while on his way to the court of Maximilian.
Disturbances in Spain had spread to Aragon and Catalonia, and in the district of Tarragon the Catalonians had chased one of their local masters, the Senor de Gerona, the last named of the secret band above.
[paragraph continues] Agrippa and his friends devised a plan whereby Gerona could be restored to his estates. The capture of a fortification known as the Black Fort was necessary to the enterprise, and to effect this a daring stratagem was decided upon. As the whole province of Tarragon could thus be held against the rebellious peasantry it was believed the emperor, Maximilian, would sanction the enterprise in behalf of his kin, and Gerona went to the German court for this purpose. Agrippa also returned to Cologne for a season early in 1507.
It was over a year afterwards when the plans of the conspirators were carried out. The Black Fort was captured, as planned, by a stratagem. After remaining there for a time, Agrippa was sent with some others to garrison the place of Gerona at Villarodona. Landulph had, meanwhile, gone to Barcelona, and it was deemed prudent that Gerona, the peasants of the whole country being now in arms, should join him there. Gerona was, however, captured by the infuriated rustics, who immediately organized themselves in great force to storm his castle and exterminate the garrison there, who-, in Gerona's absence, were under the charge of Agrippa. Timely warning of the attack was conveyed to the garrison. To escape by breaking through the watches of the peasantry was madness, to remain was equally futile. But one way of escape presented itself—an old, half-ruined tower three miles distant, situated in one of the mountain wildernesses which characterize the district of Valls. The tower stood in a craggy, cavernous valley, where the broken mountains make way for a gulf containing stagnant waters, and jagged, inaccessible rocks hem it in. At the gorge by which this place is entered stood the tower, on a hill which was itself surrounded by deep bogs and pools, while it also was within a ring of lofty crags. There was but one way to this tower, except when the ground was frozen, and these
events happened in the midsummer of 1508. The way among the pools was by a narrow path of stone, with turf walls as hedges. The site of the tower made it inexpugnable in summer time. It was owned by an abbot, who gave them permission to occupy and fortify it. This they accordingly done, having a poor bailiff, in charge of the place, for company.
The retreat to the tower was safely accomplished under cover of night. Gerona's place was sacked the next day by the peasants, who sought fiercely for the German, as they termed Agrippa. The hiding place of the conspirators becoming known, the flood of wrath poured down towards the tower, but the strength of the position was then felt. With a barricade of overthrown wagons the sole path to the besieged was closed, and behind this barrier they posted themselves with their arquebuses, of which one only sufficed to daunt a crowd of men accustomed to no weapons except slings or bows and arrows. The peasantry, discovering that the tower was not to be stormed, settled down to lay strict siege to the place and thereby starve its little garrison into surrender.
Perilous weeks were passed by the adventurers, but more formidable than actual conflict was the famine consequent on their blockade. Perrot, the keeper, taking counsel with himself as how to help his guests and rid himself of them at the same time, explored every cranny of the wall of rock by which they were surrounded. Clambering among the wastes, with feet accustomed to the difficulties of the mountain, he discovered at last a devious and rugged way, by which the obstacles of crag and chasm were avoided and the mountain top reached. Looking down from there he saw how, on the other side, the mountain rose out of a lake, known as the Black Lake, having an expanse of about four miles, upon the farther shore of which his master's abbey stood. He found a way to the lake through a rocky gorge,
but from there to the abbey was a long way, and, to men without a boat, the lake was a more impassable barrier than the mountain. He returned to the tower, where the little garrison heard the result of his explorations. It was seen that a boat was necessary to effect an escape, and to procure that a letter would have to be sent through the ranks of the vigilant besiegers, whose sentries were posted at all points, and who allowed no one to approach the tower; not even the good abbot himself, who had vainly tried to turn the peasants from their purpose.
Under these circumstances the ingenuity of Agrippa was severely tested, and he justified the credit he had won for subtle wit. The keeper had a son, a shepherd-boy, and Agrippa disfigured him with stains of milk-thistle and the juice of other herbs, befouled his skin and painted it with shocking spots to imitate the marks of leprosy, fixed his hair into a filthy bunch, dressed him like a beggar, and gave him a crooked branch for a stick, within which there was scooped a hollow for the letter. Upon the boy so disguised—a fearful picture of the outcast leper—the leper's bell was hung, his father seated him on an ox, and led him by night across the marshes by the ford, where he left him. Stammering, as he went, petitions for alms, the boy walked without difficulty by a very broad road made for him among the peasantry, who regarded his approach with terror and fled from his path. The letter was safely delivered, the boy returning the next day with the desired answer, ringing his bell at the border of the marsh at dark for his father to bring him in. Agrippa and his companions spent the night in preparations for departure. Towards dawn they covered their retreat by a demonstration of their usual state of watchfulness, fired their guns, and gave other indications of their presence. This done, they set forth, in dead silence, carrying their baggage, and were
guided by Perrot, the keeper, to the summit. There they lay gladly down among the stones to rest, while their guide descended on the other side and spread a preconcerted signal, a white cloth, upon a rock. When he returned they ate the breakfast they had brought with them, all sitting with their eyes towards the lake. At about nine o'clock two fishermen's barks were discerned, which hoisted a red flag, the good abbot's signal. Rejoicing at the sight of this, the escaped men fired off their guns in triumph from the mountain-top, a hint to the besieging peasantry of their departure, and, at the same time, a signal to the rescuers. Still following Perrot, they next descended, along ways by him discovered, through the rocky gorge, to the meadows that bordered the lake. Entering the boats, before evening they found themselves safe under the abbot's roof. The day of this escape was the 14th of August, 1508. They had been suffering siege, therefore, during almost two months in the mountain fastness.
Cornelius Agrippa being safe could quit the scene, and done so without waiting to see how the difficulty would be solved between the Catalonian peasants and their master. It perplexed him much that he had no tidings of Landulph, his closest friend. The abbot advised him to go to court again, but Agrippa replied that he had no mind to risk being again sent upon hazardous missions. After remaining several days in the abbey he set out, with an old man and his servant Stephen, for Barcelona. Antonius Xanthus, the companion of Agrippa, had seen much of the rough side of the world, was useful as a traveling companion, and became a member of Agrippa's secret league.
Not finding Landulph at Barcelona they traveled to Valentia. From there they sailed for Italy, and by way of the Balearic Islands and Sardinia they went to Naples, where, disheartened by not finding Landulph,
they shipped for Leghorn, and then traveled to Avignon. There they learned, from a traveling merchant, that Landulph was at Lyons. The friends now corresponded, Cornelius writing December 17th—nearly four months after he had left the abbey in search of his friend, the 24th of August. We may imagine many of the things these friends wrote each other. It was the suggestion of Agrippa that all the members of their league be called together that they might be absolved of their oaths regarding the Spanish conspiracy and to resume, once more, their former pleasant relations. He also hoped that Landulph might be able to visit him at Avignon and talk their secrets over, as he was unable to leave for Lyons, his funds being exhausted, until after the lapse of a little time.
The foregoing account, which has been condensed from Mr. Henry Morley's excellent Life of Cornelius Agrippa, is continued in that part of this volume that starts with the heading of "Agrippa and the Rosicrucians." Agrippa's life now becomes so interwoven with mysticism that we give Morley's account in full. The next chapters in his life are replete with the fruition of his mystic nature, its full-blown flower being The Occult Philosophy, or Three Books of Magic, the writing of which completes his early life.