Sixteenth Century Society & Conference location:Geneva date:28-30 May 2009
In 1519, the renaissance scholar Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa successfully pleaded in favor of a suspected witch in his role as the city advocate of Metz. Several years later, he wrote skeptically against both magic and the inquisition in his book De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium atque excellentia verbi dei declamation and in his now lost treatise Adversus lamiarum inquisitors. On the basis on this activities and on the circumstance that he was the teacher of Jan Wier, one of the most famous opponents of the witch hunts, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa has become known as a disbeliever in witchcraft and even as an early opponent of witch trials.
We critically review Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s opinion about witchcraft as it emerges from his oeuvre as a whole, including his last major work De occulta philosophia, and show that his position was far more nuanced than has hitherto been assumed. In contrast with the prevailing view, we argue that Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa did believe that witches could work magic and that their activities were far more harmful than those of learned magicians. One consequence of this reappraisal is that Agrippa’s influence on Jan Wier is in need of a revision as well. We briefly sketch how, given our reinterpretation, Agrippa may have influenced his pupil’s thinking.