Trithemius, Johannes


Trithemius, Johannes
(1462-1516)
   German Benedictine ab-bot, theologian, and humanist, famous for his learning and efforts at monastic reform but also for his interest in magic, astrology, and other occult sciences. He was born at Trittenheim and studied at Hei-delberg, where he associated with the leading German humanists of the time, Conrad Celtis and Johann Reuchlin. He became abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St. Martin at Sponheim in 1485 and made it a center of learning, collecting a large library. His monks, however, resisted his efforts to reform their lives and make their com-munity a center of learning. Conflict became so bitter that in 1506 he moved to the monastery of St. Jacob at Würzburg, where he served as abbot until his death. The Habsburg emperor Maximilian I was his patron, and he dedicated several works to the ruler.
   Trithemius wrote a treatise on the importance of monastic scripto-ria, De laude scriptorum / In Praise of Scribes (1492) and a number of influential chronicles and biographical collections, including De viris illustribus ordinis sancti Benedicti / On Famous Men of the Or-der of St. Benedict (1492; first published 1575); Annales Hirsaugien-ses / Annals of the Monastery of Hirsau (1509-1514; first printed in 1690; first partial edition, 1602); Catalogus illustrium virorum Germaniae / A Catalog of Famous Germans (1491-1495; first edi-tion before 1501); Chronicon Sponheimense / Chronicle of the Abbey of Sponheim (1495-1509; first printed in Trithemius' Opera histor-ica, 1601); Chronicon successionis ducum Bavariae et comitum Palatinorum / Chronicle of the Succession of the Dukes of Bavaria and the Counts Palatine (1500-1506, printed 1544); De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis / On Ecclesiastical Authors (1494). Trithemius also wrote works on monastic life and administration, on theology, on the lives of saints, on the spiritual life, as well as a collection of sermons (published in 1516), and many letters, of which about 250 survive. In his historical works, he tried to trace links between modern Germans and the ancient Trojans and Druids, sometimes inventing documen-tary sources on his own when he could not find the evidence he needed. He endorsed trilingual study of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
   Like many contemporaries who investigated recondite ancient sources, Trithemius believed that the universe is permeated by spiri-tual and astrological forces, and though he warned against dealing with demons, he was convinced that Christian theology was compat-ible with magic (that is, types of magic that refrained from invoking demons). Three of his published works dealt with such material, De septem secundéis / Concerning the Seven Secondary Intelligences (1508), which taught that human history runs in cycles defined by the cyclical ascendancy of certain astrological influences; Steganographia (not published till 1606, but previously circulated in manuscript), a study of secret writing or cryptography that invoked angelic spirits; and a less radical cryptographical tract, Polygraphia, where he omitted reference to angelic and demonic forces but applied materials from ancient Hermetic, Pythagorean, and cabalistic litera-ture in his system of secret handwriting.
   Trithemius' involvement in these occultist studies became a public issue because the French humanist Charles de Bouelles, after being allowed to read the manuscript of Steganographia during a visit to Trithemius in 1504, denounced him as a practitioner of forbidden magical arts. A denunciatory letter of Bouelles, which was widely cir-culated in manuscript and print, seemed to confirm other unsettling reports about Trithemius' interest in magic. Trithemius tried to de-fend himself in a treatise that is lost but is probably summarized in the introduction to his Polygraphia, published in 1514. A younger German enthusiast for study of the occult arts, Agrippa von Nettesheim, also visited Trithemius in 1510 and presented him with a copy of his own magical work, De occulta philosophia.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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