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Noel L. Brann, Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe (Albany, New York, 1999). x + 354 pp. ISBN: 0-7914-3962-3

Christopher Celenza
Michigan State University

Johannes Trithemius, 1462-1516, the Benedictine, was a notable monastic humanist. He studied at the University of Heidelberg, where he was in contact with a number of illustrious German fifteenth century thinkers, among whom were Johann von Dalberg, Conrad Celtis, Jacob Wimpheling, and Johannes Reuchlin. Trithemius, together with some of them, helped form the Rhenish literary sodality, an important vehicle in the German humanist movement, and went on to become abbot of two different monasteries, at Sponheim (1482-1506, abbot from 1484), and then Würzburg, where he remained for the last ten years of his life.

He was also a noted student of the occult, thanks to which he became a figure of controversy in his own life and, as Noel Brann argues in this study, for some time after he died in 1516. He announced his newfound penchant for occult studies in a letter of 1499, which discusses his work in the field of steganography, the art of writing secret messages and transmitting them over long distances through angelic messengers. Thereafter, cryptography of various sorts would be a major preoccupation of his, as would justifying in general the type of magic he believed himself to be practicing.

Brann has previously published a major study on the Abbot's less esoteric works (see The Abbot Trithemius (1462-1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism, Studies in the History of Christian Thought, 24 [Leiden, 1981]). In the present work he offers an examination of Trithemius's magical work, arguing that Trithemius is especially interesting not so much because of the way he practiced magic, but rather because of the manner in which he justified it and the contextual place it held in his life and output. On the one hand Trithemius wrote a number of works, often quite vehement, warning against commerce with demons, i.e., the Antipalus maleficiorum, the Liber octo questionum, the encyclopedic De daemonibus (this last in outline only), and a work now lost, the De morbo caduco et maleficiis. On the other hand, he also produced a number of works which were either apologetics for

magic -- as in certain sections of his autobiographical Nepiachus, and certain important letters of the years 1503-1505 -- or further extensions of his magical work, like the Polygraphia (another, less radical cryptographic work), or the especially controversial De septem secundeis, which dealt with occult influences on human behavior. This latter work drew on the same system of planetary angels which he had used in his steganographical work and which critics such as Bovelles would identify with the demonic servants of Satan.

After a welcome chapter surveying with a broad brush the patristic and medieval inheritance, Brann goes on to examine both sides of Trithemius's occult-oriented work, i.e., the anti-demonological and the overtly magical. Throughout Brann stresses certain central themes concerning Trithemius and his place. A fundamental ambiguity in Trithemius's work, Brann shows, is that he was never really able to come up with systematic criteria for distinguishing between demons and angels, both of whom are in our vicinity. He was not purely a naturalist, in the sense that, for him, spiritual entities could indeed be called into service in magical operation; the magus could in his view go beyond the natural world. But since, as Trithemius himself had outlined, demons are fundamentally tricky entities, well skilled in the art of making themselves appear to be what they are not, how could one know whether the spirit coming to one's aid was a demon or an angel? The fact that Trithemius never really satisfactorily answered this question provided an opening for his contemporary and later critics.

Related to this practical ambiguity was Trithemius's own criterion for the practice of magic. The magician must fundamentally be a pious person, Trithemius suggested numerous times, and must, he would often insist, live a life removed from worldly cares. The human will, the voluntas, is important for Trithemius, both in a practical sense -- an essential aspect underlying the efficacity of magic was the operator's belief that it was efficacious -- and in a larger sense as well, in that the operator himself had to possess a pure (and "purified") will. Here the radical interiority of Trithemius's magical vision comes to the fore, as Trithemius insisted repeatedly that every external effect of magic should be accompanied by an internal effect in the operator himself. Connected

to this is a fundamental general subjectivity in Trithemius. In his Nepiachus he is the first to admit that his own "love for study and books has been immoderate" and that quicquidem in mundo scibile est, scire semper cupiebam -- "whatsoever was knowable in the world, I always desired to know." But he also tells us that the precondition for being a successful magus in general is to own a lot of books. Obviously, then, Trithemius himself always fits his own paradigm; the true magus knows with inner certitude that he is doing nothing illicit. The difficulty came when others had to extract something more concrete by way of a criterion for judging when a line had been crossed. Because Trithemius's real criterion of purity was inner and fundamentally subject-oriented, others looking in were free, essentially, to read their own conclusions into Trithemius's style of magical thought.

Another important factor in considering Trithemius, Brann argues, is that Trithemius adhered to a notion of "theologia magica," which Brann defines as a "conscious attempt ... to recapture the religious origins of magic and to harmonize its precepts with Christian dogma." Connected to this is the idea that Trithemius should be properly considered less a Renaissance reviver of the ancient magical tradition and more a continuator in a chain of patristic and medieval speculation, wherein a place had always been left open for licit magic. The thirteenth-century German Dominican Albert the Great, teacher of Aquinas, was a personal hero for Trithemius; Brann demonstrates well that Trithemius saw attacks on Albert as attacks on his own style of thought. There was of course a "Renaissance" dimension to Trithemius's thought as well; when Agrippa dedicated his first redaction of the De occulta philosophia to Trithemius in 1510, in the preface he said that in ancient times magic was well-esteemed, but then during the early Christian era was ruined by false magicians. Now, Agrippa wrote -- presumably reflecting conversations he had had with Trithemius and positions with which they would be in agreement -- it was time to revive it.

A lengthy penultimate chapter discusses Trithemius after Trithemius, as it were. Here Brann attempts to show the various positions taken toward the Trithemian tradition. He argues (169) that the real struggles in dealing with magic in early modern Europe were not

between Protestants and Catholics and were rarely confessional in any sense of the word, but rather reflected a basic opposition between those who wished "to blend magic with the principles of their theology and those who aspired to purge theology of magic." Of those against the Trithemian tradition, some, in a skeptical vein, treated Trithemius as a charlatan; some, more seriously, treated him as a dangerously heterodox demon-worshiper. Of those in favor of Trithemius, some praised the man, but damned the few writings where he seemed to have crossed the boundary of orthodoxy; others went so far as to suggest that in magic one might find a reconciliatory force, able to heal the Protestant/Catholic divide.

All good books raise questions even as they answer others. How original was Trithemius? Occasionally Brann's intense focus on Trithemius and immersion in Trithemian materials seems to lead to an overestimation -- sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit -- of Trithemius's originality in certain areas. Certainly many of Trithemius's general tendencies and specific formulations were present in the thought of Ficino, who also saw himself as a continuator in a tradition, rather than as a pure reviver, and even mentioned Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus as part of the prisca theologia tradition, if not, certainly, as prisci theologi (cf. P.O. Kristeller, Il pensiero filosofico di Marsilio Ficino [Florence, 1988, 2nd ed.] 17-18, n.6). Ficino too, especially in the De vita, sought to stretch the boundaries of orthodoxy to include in legitimate Christian practice seemingly heterodox rituals; in the Apologia to that work he, like Trithemius, intoned the Hermetic commonplace that the word magus in antiquity was a word suggesting a wise priest (cf. Ficino, De vita, eds. C. Kaske and J. Clark [Binghamton, New York, 1989] 396-98, where the word "magus" is said to signify a "nomen evangelio gratiosum, quod non maleficum et venificum, sed sapientem sonat et sacerdotem."). In the chapter on Trithemius's reception, Brann sometimes seems to suggest that later thinkers are referring principally to Trithemius when in fact they refer to a number of thinkers, among whom Trithemius was only one. Without diminishing Trithemius's own individuality as an historical actor, perhaps one might suggest that he is representative of a general position in early modern Europe, a partaker of a certain mentalité.

But I do not mean with these small cavils to diminish the value of this fine study. It will be impossible in the future to do serious work on the Abbot of Sponheim's occultist tendencies without consulting Brann's well-researched and synthetic work.

Christopher S. Celenza, Michigan State University