Trithemius and Magical Theology

A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe

By Noel L. Brann

Subjects: Christianity
Series: SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions
Paperback : 9780791439623, 372 pages, November 1998
Hardcover : 9780791439616, 372 pages, December 1998

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Table of contents


1 Introduction: The Theoretical and Biographical Ingredients

The Theological-Magical Nexus
The Biographical Setting

2 The Magical Inheritance

Patristic and Medieval Demonology
The Medieval and Early Renaissance Defense of Magic

3 The Demonological Vision

The Monastic Rudiments
Sorcery Sin and Divine Providence
The Problem of Accommodating Magic to Miracle
The Witch Issue
The Problem of Learned Sorcery
The Distinction Between Sorcery and Exorcism

4 The Occult Vision

The Making of the Magical Legend
The Personal Defense
The Divine Revelation and the Esoteric Rule
The Special Appeal to Princes
Pelagius and Libanius
The Theoretical Precepts
From Occult Theory to Cryptographical Practice
Trithemius and Agrippa

5 The Debate over Trithemian Magic during the Renaissance, Reformation, and Age of Reason

Agrippa's Later Ambivalence
The Monastic Apologists
The Protestant Reaction
The Catholic Reaction
The Cryptographical and Alchemical Revivals
The "Jesuit Labyrinth" and Demonological Response
The Cryptographical Vogue
The Rosicrucian Debate
The Skeptical Shift and the Scientific Revolution

6 Conclusion: Trithemian Magic in Later Perspective
The Persisting Scholarly Conundrum
The Trithemian Will




An examination of Trithemius's "magical theology," which argued for the compatibility of magic and Christian doctrines, and its influence during the Renaissance and Reformation.


Through an examination of the Benedictine abbot Trithemius (1462–1516), this book explores the intersection of the early modern debate over occult studies with a number of contemporaneous developments: late medieval mysticism, the revival of ancient letters, the Catholic and Protestant reform movements, the witch hunts, and the scientific revolution.

A Benedictine living to the threshold of the Reformation period, Trithemius excelled for most of his career in the fields of monastic reform, mystical theology, and Christian Humanism, and then, suddenly, announced himself to the world as an advocate of magic.

In many ways paralleling the life of his more famous contemporary Faustus, Trithemius, in contrast, left to posterity a body of theoretical work in support of his magical operations. Formulated to justify his own specialty, cryptography, Trithemius's occult theory goes beyond establishing the compatibility of magic with orthodox Christian doctrine. Its basic thrust, on the model of mystical theology, is to present magic as an appropriate vehicle to convey the soul from the finite to the infinite.

Noel L. Brann has taught Renaissance and Reformation History and Early Modern European Intellectual History at universities throughout the United States. He is the author of The Abbot Trithemius (1462–1516): The Renaissance of Monastic Humanism.


"Noel Brann has chosen a controversial and little understood historical figure as the focus of this book. Although Trithemius has been treated before in biographical studies, this is the first exhaustive treatment of Trithemius's magical theology, the most elusive and most provocative aspect of his contributions. Brann's presentation is cautious, original, and persuasive. He strikes out into areas that have not been treated before. Brann is able to interpret Trithemius by revealing the background of his views, by reconstructing their contexts, and by tracing their impact. " — Frank Baron, University of Kansas