The life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa is veiled in myth. Agrippa was known as a pre-enlightenment physician, astrologer, soldier and magician. Born in Cologne in 1486, he lived for 48 years until he died in 1535, in either Grenoble or Lyons.
His studies in occult philosophy was looked upon with suspicion by the Church, and after all while, as his name grew to prominence, priests began denouncing him as a sorcerer in their sermons. The writer Paulus Jovius (1483-1552) claimed Agrippa was despised by many, and even accused him of necromancy.
He began studies at the university of Cologne in 1499, where he went on to receive the degree of magister artium in 1502. He then began a life under the Emperor Maximilian I as a secretary, after which he gained experience as a soldier in Italy, where he remained for 7 years.
From an early age, the life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa was dominated by a book entitled Res Arcanae, which he studied relentlessly.
He began a correspondence with Johannes Trithemius, the abbot of St. Jacob’s monastery in 1509 or 1510, and in one of the letters, he claimed he was interested in the mysterious forces of nature. During the same year, Agrippa had written a complete manuscript which he entitled De Occulta Philosophia.
Rumours quickly began to spread regarding his work, and it was said that he and some of his closest friends had created some kind of secret society.
Despite this, his academic studies led him to become a professor at The University of Dole, giving lectures on Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico.
His written work once again began to take prominence in his life, and he started to write arguments against traditional Christian misogyny, naming his work On the nobility and excellence of the feminine sex.
Jean Catilinet, the provincial superior for the Franciscans of Burgundy, publicly attacked the works of Agrippa, in a Lenten sermon he gave at the court of Margaret of Austria in Ghent. Agrippa responded to these attacks by claiming he was still an upright member of the church. In accordance with these claims, he went to produce numerous Christian writings, including Biblical commentaries, though many of these writings are now lost.
After 1524, he served at the court of Francis I in Lyons, where he was the personal physician to the queen mother, as well as court astrologer.
In the decade that followed, he traveled throughout Europe making a living as an Alchemist.
His Magical Practice
In his writings he explained the world in terms of cabbalistic analyses of Hebrew letters and Pythagorean numerology, and proclaimed magic as the best means to know God and nature.
The effectiveness of magic, according to Agrippa, is based on the connection of the three worlds. Only the human spirit can uncover the hidden forces present in matter, and by the latter’s aid man can also call on greater forces to serve him.
Though he has now grown to fame as a practicing wizard, it’s not known for sure what he, or the secret society he was said to be involved in, were actually practicing. His life remains full of mystery.
Throughout the years, the name of Cornelius has inspired many writers, as both a frightful and beguiling character. His name influences modern literary characters such as Harry Potter’s Cornelius Fudge, and Cornelius Alba of the Kara no Kyoukai anime series. His name also appears on a Chocolate Frog card in the world of Harry Potter:
“Cornelius Agrippa lived from 1486 to 1535. He wrote books about magic and wizards. Some important people thought his books were evil, so they put him in gaol for writing them.” —Chocolate Frog Card.
In Mary Shelley’s classic, he appears as the first guide in philosophy to Victor Von Frankenstein.
Agrippa was said to have been accompanied by a black dog, whom many thought was the Devil in disguise.
The story by Paulus Jovius claims he repented shortly before his death, and recognizing the dog as his downfall, untied its collar, which is said to have been inscribed with magical symbols, and he sent the dog away. The dog ran off, and jumped to it’s death in the river Saône in eastern France. Cornelius Agrippa then died in solitude.
Seventeenth century writer Francisco Quevedo (1580-1645), described Hell and it’s inhabitants, in which he claimed that Peter of Abano was accompanied by Agrippa, and was burning in Hell. Peter of Abano was the author of a book on black magic called Magica Elementa, in the thirteenth century.
The life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa is most likely tainted with false accusations and myth, but his life was interesting, and will no doubt continue to intrigue.