“Magus: A Review of the Occult Practices of Faustus and Agrippa by Anthony Grafton” – A Critical Analysis of Their Mysterious Techniques
In 1519, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a German scholar, intervened to secure the release of a poor woman who was accused of witchcraft by an overzealous inquisitor. The inquisitor claimed that these women conceived children through demons. Agrippa questioned the use of such nonsensical reasoning to justify the torture of innocent women, stating that it was not a proper approach to theology. This event is recounted in Anthony Grafton’s book, “Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa,” which delves into the evolution of magic during the 15th and 16th centuries. It highlights the contradictions and divisions that made the pursuit and understanding of hidden knowledge difficult at that time. Grafton, a professor at Princeton University, shows that the term “magic” encompassed a wide range of practices, from love potions and homemade remedies using toad bones, to more scientific disciplines like cryptography, optics, and engineering. When practiced by women or those without formal education, it often resulted in accusations of witchcraft. However, when articulated and published by learned men, it led to popular books that became bestsellers across the globe.
Not that the learned men wholly escaped censure by the religious and civic authorities for their determination to test the boundaries of human knowledge. Agrippa – whom Grafton calls “the greatest magus of the 16th century” – had to fight to get his magisterial three-volume work On Occult Philosophy past the censors by appealing directly to the bishop of Cologne; although the book immediately went through three printings, it was widely banned and, according to Grafton, effectively ended its author’s writing career. The Jesuit demonologist Martin Del Rio published a collection of tabloid-style anecdotes accusing Agrippa of practising diabolic magic: “When he and Faustus travelled together, Del Rio claimed, they paid their bills in inns with coins that seemed genuine but turned into bits of horn after a few days.”
The character of Faustus in Magus is infamous and stands out among the other colorful characters. Grafton delves into the historical truth of Faustus, attempting to separate it from the many legends that have surrounded him since his lifetime. It is speculated that the original Faustus was Georg of Helmstadt, a schoolteacher who was dismissed in 1507 for sodomy. He then reinvented himself as a traveling magician, gaining a reputation for supernatural abilities throughout the Holy Roman Empire. When he was expelled from Ingolstadt, he was made to swear an oath not to seek revenge. However, there were differing opinions on the source of Faustus’s powers at the time. Some, like Martin Luther and his followers, believed it was due to a pact with the devil (Luther even claimed Faustus referred to the devil as his brother-in-law). Others, such as the Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius, who is featured in a later chapter of the book, saw him as a fraud and deserving of punishment.
Using the prominent figures of the High Renaissance, Grafton explores the complex dynamic between religion, magic, and science. From attention-seeking individuals like Faustus to esteemed intellectuals like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who sought to combine occult knowledge from various sources with Christian beliefs, the author delves into the pursuit of a comprehensive understanding of the universe and humanity’s role in it. This also includes the desire for mastery over the natural world, which laid the foundation for the development of scientific methodology. Grafton acknowledges that while the magus may not hold the same level of respect as artists or scientists, they still play a significant role in the intricate tapestry of history.
Grafton’s inspiration for the book was influenced by the work of 20th-century scholar Frances Yates, who explored the realm of Renaissance occult philosophy. While Magus includes entertaining stories, it is primarily a scholarly examination that may be more easily understood by those already familiar with the concepts of the time period. The book ends rather abruptly after the chapter on Agrippa, leaving me curious about how the magus influenced later figures in the history of science. However, these are minor complaints. Magus offers a wealth of information and is accompanied by numerous illustrations of diagrams, codes, and pictures.
As advancements in technology and our understanding of supernatural powers continue to progress, concerns about ethical boundaries and the extent of our knowledge have arisen. In this context, taking a historical perspective on our connection with magic is especially relevant. According to Grafton, the idea of magic has played a significant role in the development of a greater concept: humans as agents capable of influencing and molding the natural world.