Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (15 September 1486 – 18 February 1535) was a German knight, an ambassador, magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer, and alchemist, and as it appears a soldier and possibly even an independent Freyfechter.
Agrippa’s history is fascinating in many ways, full of drama, war, free-thinking, controversy, magic, desperate poverty, several jail sentences and the deaths of two dearly loved and deeply mourned wifes and several children.
He was born in the Free Imperial City of Cologne on 15 September 1486, almost exactly a month after the Duke of Austria, Kaiser Frederick III had given the Marxbrüder their first priveleges. The name Agrippa is uncommon at the time and it has been suggested to have been added to his name as a result of him being born feet first, as this was how the Romans were thought to have used the name. However, the city of Cologne is also founded on the remains of the Roman colony Aggripina and his name might therefore refer to his family’s origin in Cologne.
Cologne is associated with the House of Austria, the Habsburgers, and Agrippa’s family was of minor nobility who had served the royalty of Austria for many generations. His father directly assisted Emperor Frederick III. Agrippa remained a Catholic throughout his life, but he was also openly sympathetic to the protestant reformist Martin Luther.
With this in mind it is interesting to note that another early and contemporary Freyfechter; Andre Paurñfeyndt was also Austrian, being a resident of Vienna. Furthermore, Cologne was an important city during the violent consequences of the Protestant Reformation, as is clear from the Cologne War and the events that led up to it.
Originally, a freifechter appears to have been a form of fencing master that was allowed to travel freely and learn, teach and arrange tournaments all over the empire. However, after the forming of the Marxbrüder guild, the title is seized and monopolized by this guild as 2nd below the rank of Meister des Schwerdt, the highest rank of the fencing guild.
To complicate this picture, there was a distinct power struggle between Calvinist dukes & princes and the catholic emperor of the HRE, where the dukes sought to create alliances and troops through various means. Cities like Straßburg and Cologne were Free Imperial Cities, and as such quite independent of the rules and regulations of the HRE and could thus have their own regulations. It is thus perfectly possible that there may have been Freyfechtere without ties to the Marxbrüder guild and perhaps even completely independent Freyfechtere.
Regardless, in 1570, the Duke of Mecklenburg gives a new fencing guild its official charters, a guild named the Freyfechter von der Feder. This is the same duke that Straßburg Fechtmeister and Freyfechter Joachim Meyer has just been appointed as Master at Arms to, just the year after him publishing his treatise and the year of his death. Meyer’s possible involvement in these events still remains to be researched.
Returning to Agrippa, he came to be mostly known for his works on alchemy, astrology, mysticism, theology and occultism, and according to notes of one edition Göthe’s Faust he is part of the roots of the Faustus legend, alongside of Paracelsus and Johann Faust and Marlowe mentions him in his play Dr. Faustus, although this myth more relates to lies, slander and superstition from his political and religious enemies.
In reality he was a free-thinker and a fierce opponent against the European Witch Hunts, personally defending women who were accused of witchcraft, which at least in one case got him into quite serious problems with the Inquisition. However, he was so persistent in his defense of the accused woman that he succeeded in having her receive absolution from the Vicar of the church of Metz, thus exhonerating the woman completely, saving her life.
Furthermore, he also wrote two books; Der Adel des weiblichen Geschlechts and Die Überlegenheit der Frauen, putting forward the idea that woman was in fact superior to man. For all this he is also regarded as an early feminist.
His unfair notority as a demonic figure can be traced in various popular culture, ranging from Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Dr. Frankenstein studies in Ingolstadt (see below) reading the works of Agrippa, to the black dogs of the Omen movie, to the Harry Potter series and Hellboy.
There are numerous stories about how he used his rumoured knowledge of the black arts by summoning of demons, raising the dead and other similar acts and below is a very interesting episode related to the fencing guild Freyfechter von der Feder. This short passage describes an incident in Ingolstadt involving Agrippa, taken from the Faustus chapbook commentaries of 1587 .
“Likewise, there was a student who unfortunately got into godless company, by the name of Heinricus Cornelius Agrippa, a fine student and Freyfechter, who came to Ingolstadt just as the Katzianers  had invited the students to a fight.
But although they could all have accepted, some students told the others they should stay calm. They knew someone who could master them all, him all of the others followed.
Heinricus Cornelius offered them an earnest fight, and told them to defend themselves, as he alone would defeat them all. Now as they came to strikes, he brought out (cast) his black magic that could devour all swords. The furriers  worried that if that happened with their fencing weapons it could even reach past their Katzbalgers, and took to the heels and left. This Henricus always had a black dog with him.” 
Several things are interesting in this short passage. The furriers are likely a reference to the fencing guild of the Marxbrüder. The Katzianers is likely a reference to the Hungarian family of which Johann Katzianer (1491-1539), would become an important Imperial Army commander and this story might even involve him.
Was Agrippa ever in Ingolstadt? At this time I have no proper confirmation of this. However, he was only about 15km away in 1509, when visiting Johannes Trithemus at the Monastery of St. Jakob at Würtzburg. Perhaps it is about this time that this story takes place. It would fit with the fact that he was knighted already in the Summer of 1511 and thus wouldn’t have been likely to called a freyfechter after that date.
If Agrippa really was an independent Freyfechter, and thus not a member of the Marxbrüder, is currently hard to tell. This story is written down in 1587, about 50 years after his early death in 1535 and it is difficult to tell how trustworthy this source is. It is certainly quite possible as we know that Agrippa’s early employer Emperor Maximilian I had a passionate interest in Kunst des Fechtens and warfare. And as mentioned earlier, Agrippa’s contemporary Andre Paurñfeyndt was a Freyfechter, writing his highly influential printed fencing treatise in 1516, a work which likely influenced Freyfechter Joachim Meyer.
Furthermore, the fencing guild Freyfechter von der Feder is thought to have received their first recognition as early as in 1570, by the Duke of Mecklenberg. The Duke of Mecklenberg is also the patron that Fechtmeister Joachim Meyer dedicated his 1570 treatise to and who also employed Meyer as a Master-at-Arms of the court in Schwerin, right before Meyer’s death in 1571.
Looking to Agrippa’s life, it is clear that he had certain military talents, although he is believed to have been reluctant to use them as he wished to focus on other intellectual challenges. Even from a very young age Agrippa was very well known for his intellect. He is said to have exhibited a very good memory, have spoken eight languages fluently and is even said to have refused to speak any other language than Latin at one point.
It is certain that Agrippa began his education at the University of Cologne on July 22nd, 1499 and that he graduated with a licentiate in Arts on March 14th, 1502 from under Petrus Capitis de Dunnen. He reportedly also received degrees in canon and civil law and medicine.
After completing his studies Agrippa lectured in various universities in countries all over Europe. He also spent a good amount of time wandering about in Germany, France and Italy working as a theologian, physician, legal expert and soldier.
During his early years he spent in total about seven years in the service of Kaiser Maximilian I, mostly, probably, as a soldier in Italy. Kaiser Maximilian I had formed the first Landsknecht regiments in 1487 with the assistance of Georg von Frundsberg, basing them on the Swiss Reißläufer.
It is thought that Maximilian I used Agrippa as a spy on missions to various locations including the University of Paris, where he entered as a student, at the age of 20.
In the summer of 1508 Agrippa was given responsibility for a mission to return the Spaniard Juanetin de Gerona, a fellow student from his days in Paris, to power in a town called Terragon where he had been thrown out by a peasant revolt. In return Gerona would ally himself with Kaiser Maximilian I against his own king, Ferdinand of Spain. Agrippa’s mission was to take over a fort overlooking Terragon through subterfuge using a small band led by himself. The mission was successful and the small band seized the great fort of Fuerto Negro.
In the winter of 1509-1510, at the age of 23, he goes to the monastery of St. Jakob at Würzburg to meet Johannes Trithemus (Brill, 1992). Here they discuss magic and its status as a branch of knowledge and its role on modern culture.  Shortly after this meeting, Agrippa finishes the three books included in De occulta philosophia libri tres in an attempt to rejuvenate the art of magic through assembling an intellectual and theoretical foundation based on an extensive collection of sources. Trithemus receives a copy some time before 8 April 1510 and gives it generous amounts of praise.
In 1509, he teaches at the University of Dole in the Free County of Burgundy, lecturing on Johann Reuchlin‘s De verbo mirifico – a book that treats mystico-cabbalistic ideas – and as a result, Agrippa was denounced, behind his back, as a “Judaizing heretic.” This appears to have been very frustrating for Agrippa, judging from his vitriolic response.
In 1511 Agrippa returned to Cologne and properly enters military service for Kaiser Maximilian I and King Louis XII of France, after which he receives his knighthood in the field, for reasons unknown at this time. He is not very happy with his experiences though and writes:
“I was for several years by the Emperor’s command, and by my calling, a soldier. I followed the camp of the Emperor and the King: in many conflicts gave no sluggish help: before my face went death, and I followed, the minstrel of my death, my right hand soaked in blood, my left dividing spoil: my belly filled with prey and the way of my feet was over corpses of the slain: so I was made forgetful of my innermost honour. and wrapped round fifteenfold in Tartarean shade” (epistle 18, bk 2).
In July 1512 Agrippa is caught, alongside of 300 German soldiers, and imprisoned near Pavia by the Swiss, but is freed by the Marquis of Monferrat, William Palaeologus. Once freed he joins the marquis and settles down in Pavia. This is also the time where he marries for the first time and has his first son.
On September 14, 1515, at the age of 29, Agrippa fights alongside of Maximilian Sforza‘s Swiss and Italian forces at the Battle of Marignano against the French, but finds himself on the losing side, and consequently writes in his journal about losing near all his possessions and his estate in Pavia. Having lost so much, he now settles down in Monferrat’s chief town of Casale, Italy and teaches at the University of Turin.
From here on, his military life is over, apart from a brief interlude of designing war engines in his treatise Pyromachy in 1527, a book intended as a personal gift to King Francois I of France, and he instead dedicates himself to writing and teaching. But as this is somewhat irrelevant to the readers of this article, I will here mostly refer you to other authors and articles.
In February 1531, while living in Antwerp, Agrippa revises his De occulta philosophia libri tres, originally written twenty years earlier, and dedicates it to Hermann of Wied, Archbishop of Cologne, an early supporter of the Protestant Reform which led up to the Cologne War.
The printing in 1533 is instantly denounced as heretical by the Dominican Inquisitor Conrad Köllin of Ulm and his critics attempt to prohibit the sale and reading of his books and Agrippa himself is accused of impiety, at the time a capital crime punishable by death. However, having successfully defended his works before the magistrates of Cologne, and having the approval of the Archbishop of Cologne, the books were duly printed in 1533.
Finally, according to his friend and pupil Johann Weyer, Agrippa dies in 1535 at the age of 49 in Grenoble, among strangers in a hostile land . His corpse is laid to rest in a Dominican convent, by his most hated enemies.
1. … as retold in Das Kloster, weltlich und geistlich. Meist aus der ältern deutschen Volks-, Wunder-, Curiositäten-, und vorzugsweise komischen Literatur, a 12 volume compilation, made by Stuttgart antiquarian Johann Scheible in 1845-1849.
These volumes collect magical and occult texts, chapbooks, folklore, popular superstition and fairy tales of the German Renaissance and the 1587 print is heavily extended with religious, moral commentary.
2. The Katzianers mentioned above might be, or be related to, Johann Katzianer (1491-1539), a Carniolan aristocrat and an Imperial Army commander who later would distinguish himself through several military campaigns under Emperor Ferdinand I von Oesterreich.
This could also be a nick-name for the Marxbrüdere whose patron saint was St. Mark, the saint whose symbol is the Winged Lion. In this sense, “Katzianer” would mean something along the lines of “cat fighters“. Later in the text the fighters are referred to as “furriers” which was a common profession for the Marxbrüdere. However, other archival material seems to indicate a deeper meaning with the word Katzianer as sometimes fencers are referred to as being both Marxbrüdere and Katzianere.
3. The furriers mentioned in the text are likely members of the fencing guild Marxbrüder as the Marxbrüder members were also all artisans and commonly members of the furriers, peltiers and animal skin workers’ Guilds.
4. The black dog, which has been claimed to be his demonic familliar, might actually have a grain of truth to it, as Agrippa’s friend Johann Weyer writes that he had two dogs, a black male named Monseiur and a bitch named Mamselle, which Agrippa was very affectionate towards. This was after Agrippa divorcing his third wife in 1535, at a time where he was a very lonely man.
5. “Desgleichen war ein Student, der sich leider viel alzubaldt einließ mit Gottloser gesellschafft, mit namen Heinricus Cornelius Agrippa, ein feiner Student unnd Freyfechter, der kam auff ein zeit gehn Ingolstat, da die Katzianers, deren etliche waren, den Studenten einen kampff aussbotten.
Kun unangesehen, das man ihnen wol het willfärig können sein, so schlugen sich doch etliche Studenten darein, baten die andern, sie solten mass halten, sie wüsten einen, der sie allein bestehen würde, dem folgten die andern alle.
Heinricus Cornelius botte ihnen einen ernstlichen kampff auss, sie solten sich wehren, denn er sie allein bestehen wolte. Da es nun zu streichen kommen wolt, braucht er sein Schwartzkunst dermassen, das er alle Schwerter fraß, die Kürschner besorgten, geschehe das mit ihren Fechtinstrumenten, so würde es etwan uber den Katzenbalg auch gehen, nahmen das fersen gelt und zogen dauon. Dieser Henricus hat stetts ein Schwartzen hundt bey ihm gehabt.”
6. … according to Johann Weyer‘s De praestigiis daemonum
Agrippa, Heinrich, (1509, 1533). De occulta philosophia libri tres, 1992 reprint. E.J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands.
Freake, James & Tyson, Donald (1992). Three Books of Occult Philosophy. 7th ed. Llewellyn Publications. St. Paul, USA.
Morley, Henry (1856), The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Chapman and Hall, London, UK.
Scheible, Johann (1846), Das Kloster, weltlich und geistlich. Meist aus der ältern deutschen Volks-, Wunder-, Curiositäten-, und vorzugsweise komischen Literatur, Verlag der herausgebers. Stuttgart, Germany.