Selected letters of Johannes Trithemius: English translation
Johannes Trithemius abbot of the monastery of St James the apostle, Würzburg, to Jakob Trithemius his dear brother.
Dear brother, it was a very appropriate suggestion of yours to reassemble in one volume the personal letters describing my troubles which I am well known to have sent out from the day of my departure from Sponheim up to the day on which I took up the governance of this abbey of St James and to send them to you as a permanent reminder of me. You also gave a very good reason inducing you to ask me to do so, which none shall gainsay, that an aging man is hastening towards his end, for he shall leave the world first who entered it first. Since you are conjoined to me by the bonds of brotherhood we cannot refuse you anything when you press so hard for what certainly does not lack a good reason. Be pleased to accept this token of my love for you, this last book of our Sponheim letters in which you shall have with you an ever present means of me to mind and, if our words do their work, comforting yourself. I am very glad to have you to outlive me and inherit my studies so that they will continue to live after my death, in memory at least, when it is necessary for them to be dissolved in my body. Of course it is the least of my concerns to preserve my legacy for posterity when neither its approval nor disapproval can reach a dead man. I beg this one boon from you, to supplicate for my memory when you minister to God at the altar. I doubt not that it will benefit a mind held back from the completion of its purgatory if you make a pure offering of the host for my salvation. Farewell and remember me to God.
From my monastery of St James the Great outside Würzburg, 4 November 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Jakob Trithemius, doctor of arts and philosophy, his dear brother, greetings.
I have learned what my rivals have had the insolence to do from the account Brother Dietrich gave me. Please see to it that you keep hold of my books and the things entrusted to you, above all the secrets and the mysteries of our teaching. I am not considering a return to Sponheim unless I can bring this completely unwarranted insult to me and my friends to wider attention. The keys to my belongings, particularly the musical ones, which I placed in your care on my departure having no reason to expect disaster, must not be surrendered to anybody without my permission. I am seized by a strong suspicion of a conspiracy against me by certain of my brethren, notably the prior and one other who has never liked me. You, dear brother, must not be swayed by these evils, if inded we should speak of evils when they prepare the way to God for us. They shall come to realise that they have not embarked on a children’s game when they themselves fall into the snare they have made ready for us. Brother Dietrich, who is bringing you these letters, has been given certain instructions from us: have confidence in him and lend him your help. He is a foreigner amongst my people, but I have found him to be trustworthy. He is grieved by this turn of events and is very willing to carry out what we have ordered. Farewell.
Heidelberg, 10 April 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to his brother master Jakob Trithemius.
I have lately moved to the city of Speyer, not for pleasure but out of necessity, since I do not want to burden Heidelberg with my infirmity and would rather be amongst friends and people I know: those, above all, who I have done favours in the past, not with strangers in Neuburg where I have been laid up sick for fourteen days. I am now in the abbot of Limburg’s infirmary and am not yet completely recovered from all my ailments.
I would not want you to stay at Sponheim any longer, or my enemies might well engineer some bad turn for you, since I hear they have reacted very badly to my absence. They fear, I would venture to guess, that I might bring their disgraceful behaviour to the attention of our most godly princes, and they certainly do not fear it without reason: particularly if they think of what their consciences must be telling them, of the insubordination with which they have humiliated me on account of the considerateness my prince has shown me. What can they have to say for themselves, when I have never harmed any of them, and they have turned on me with hostility because I have taken the side of the most serene prince of Heidelberg who has always been generous and helpful to me? Oh ever blind envy, noxious to none more than itself, who do you think is harassing you? The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, and the whole world is my homeland for the love of him, and it is easy to throw one monastery aside.
But, brother, these thoughts must be kept to yourself, for the time has not come for me to divulge the secret plans of my mind openly. I am following a hidden spirit. Take your books and clothes and hurry with Brother Dietrich to join me at Speyer. I have arranged a high level post for on the staff of the abbot of Limburg who wants you as a secretary, until the light pent up in us shines out. Properly dispose of any books and belongings to do with secret teaching and everything to do with music, in good order and according to my wishes which our brother will explain to you; and give all the keys to my abbatial house to the keeping of the prior. Bring with you my books of Greek prayers, as I can no longer do without them. As for the other things needed for our more sacred philosophy, deposit them in the agreed place until the accusations against me come to an end.
Farewell my only sweet brother.
Speyer, 30 April 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim to Rutger Sicamber his most faithful friend, greetings.
I have read the list of your compositions which you sent me through my messenger Laurence the day before I wrote to you, and I could not be more impressed by their quantity. It is truly amazing how one man, occupied day and night with observing the discipline of a rule, could complete more than 136 works, both in poetry and precise prose, in ten years, for the titles alone delighted me wonderfully.
Give me time, dearest Rutger, to be able to enjoy reading your works as soon as may be. For it will not have escaped your attention what injuries my rivals have inflicted on me and what difficulties I am going through. One consolation is left to me, one impenetrable shield, the trust of my mind in God and the study of holy writings. These are my trusty companions in my wanderings which no disloyalty can take from me and no adversity can keep from following my journey wherever it leads. Let that self-pleasing tyrant rage as he will against me, let fury rail on, it shall take nothing from me which true philosophy has given and the charity of God has confirmed through my faith in Jesus Christ.
Why should I care about my forest canopy when they cannot stir me, fixed of purpose, from my plans? The whole world is my country, and everywhere there is one way up to the things above. I do not care where I live while my mortal life lasts. I prefer to live in exile with a sound mind and poor in material things rather than to flatter wastrels who none can praise and not be at fault. What kind of people my opponents are and how I scoff at them you may tell from this verse.
Wine and baths, and a pretty girl if you want one
Will send you faster on the road to Hell.
Exactly as this says the crowd of people persecuting me live with their prince, but in time I shall take steps to consign them to perpetual confusion.
Farewell and remember me to God.
Speyer, 6 May 1505.
Joachim, by the grace of God Margrave of Brandenburg, Prince Elector, to his teacher Johannes Trithemius abbot of Sponheim, greetings.
Reverend father, most famous of teachers, we are just setting off to see his sacred majesty the King of the Romans. During the same journey we are hoping to see you in person, which as you know we have always longed to do: to meet for talk and discussion of many things which I have been thinking about. Therefore we appeal to you to drop everything and present yourself in person at Bonn on the hither shore of the Rhine for the first of this coming July, where we, God willing, will also be on the same date. Your reverence will be doing me a particular favour which shall be returned with pleasure. Keep well for ever.
Given at our seat of Cölln by the Spree, 11 June 1505.
To the most serene prince Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg, elector of the Roman empire, Johannes Trithemius in reply.
It will be the greatest of pleasures to come to your highness, most serene prince for the time and place you appoint, though various bodily ailments mean that I find myself hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. Nothing would please me more, nothing at this time could be sweeter than to meet such a wise and educated prince. We shall talk and debate, discussing not small minded trivia and gossip, but difficult and important things worthy of your fertile brain, ones which suit our threefold philosophy. Whenever I happen to remember the disputations we would pursue far into the a night at Frankfurt two years ago, I think how impressive your talk is and I hear you make some weighty remark which stirs my mind again and again with love of our heavenly philosophy. As soon as I learned from reading your letter that you are coming to the Rhineland all the aches left my body and as my heart lept my weak frame and ailing limbs recovered their long lost strength, and my very bones are in a hurry to reach your majesty as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, most serene prince, please continue to grant Trithemius your favour and goodwill, since he has of his own free will made himself your servant and will place at the disposal of your government all his abilities, knowledge, property and skills. Equally it is only right, then, that you should prove an enthusiastic patron to your Trithemius, since you have received all that was his and all that was him. I know that you do me too much honour, so that I almost forgot your excellent serenity in the effort to restrain my loving fury.
But pardon me most famous prince, for I have probably gone on longer than my station warrants. I wish your highness all good health.
Speyer, 20 June 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Rutger Sicamber of Hegen, best and most studious of men.
Beloved, I have written to my daughter lady Richmodis that I am leaving for Cologne the day after tomorrow, and this is to let you know too, good Rutger, in case you want to write to our friend Beisel, or to Herbenus or our other friends, that the opportunity is there. Whatever you decide, do it at once, as I shall be here for no more than two days. And send me whatever new compositions you are working on, to give me something useful to do on a dull river journey. I cannot bear sailing without something to read, but you will know my habits, having spent a long stay with me at my monastery of Sponheim.
As Seneca says, leisure without reading is death, and the entombment of a living man. That I can philosophise according to his advice is due to fortune, nor hard work. As he says, if you want to rest in your spirit, be a poor man or act like one, for wealth has come between many people and philosophising: but poverty is convenient and secure. Nobody can devote their leisure to study and wealth at the same time: and wisdom is never content to make her dwelling in a soul which she sees to be infected with desires or wrapped up in the cares of the world.
I have often enough before now found myself wrapped up in cares, but poverty has never left me since the time when I became a monk. God has made it my companion by daily practice and it has long been something of a necessity. I have learned many things by long study but never this: what effect thinking has on the heart of a rich man.
Do you think, Rutger, that I will one day learn this too, to know men’s thoughts in full? I do not think I shall ever understand what the thoughts of rich men are like, but I have made a virtue of necessity and sing this song with a tranquil mind:
I do not want and pray to be rich, but only
To live off a few things and have no ills.
I agree with the admirable thoughts of Euripides when he says:
A lordly man is in no wise poor.
And Menander says the like:
It is not, he says, for every man but a wise on only to bear with poverty. Greedy, lustful and ambitious men may possess riches and are possessed by them, and do not think that they are mortal, but I am a follower of St Paul’s way of life, for he tells us to be content with having food and clothing. Want would be something to be depressed about, if rich men were immortal or could take the wealth they were in love with with them when they die. But since they die just the same and are buried naked like the poor, my poverty does not greatly bother me, and since I am to pass on from here I confess that I am the less grieved the more I have owned nothing transitory in this world which I loved.
The striving of the mind to understand truth, which is practised in this life through the study of the scriptures with a delight ordered towards our last end by studious men and those who spurn vanities, brings no bitterness to those facing death, for those who best understand them the perfecting of their mind, which they attempt by study, cannotbe completed before they have been released from the filth of the flesh. For human understanding is like a precious stone unpolished, for if it is polished it becomes able to contain light, beautiful, bright and transparent, with the beauty of God shining out in it. But in this mortal life there can be no complete polishing of the human intellect: it has definite levels and modes which nature appoints to it, and to which after death is added in the requisite purgatory whatever negligence failed to supply in its polishing. Our stone is polished here imperfectly, more perfectly in purgatory and most perfectly in heaven. It ought therefore to be a common effort of each one of us to exercise and polish the intellect, to bring forth pure and direct knowledge of the universal principle, God our creator, and the unfailing light of understanding.
The way of this exercise is what the continual reading of scripture shows us, if we do not neglect to punctuate reading with prayer, and prayer by the desire of love raises the mind to God. The effect involved should not deter us, for if it is persistent it conquers all: and prolonged study gradually increases understanding, as Hesiod aptly explained:
If you add a little to a little and do it often enough you will undoubtedly end up with a lot. There is no good quality without effort and no victory without engaging the foe. We sho wish to reach the sweetness of wisdom, Rutger, should always be toiling, never leaving off the study of scripture, for there is no other way to the taste of inner sweetness than determined application of the mind to the most fair light of understand ing which we seek.
When I look at the old pagan sages, let alone ours, and compare their studying with ours on equal terms, it is as clear as day that it is laughable to call us studious compared with them. Demosthenes lived to be 107, and as he lay dying he lamented that he was dying at an age when he had just begun to be wise. Socrates the teacher of Plato ended his life and his studies aged 98. Plato the prince of philosophers was eighty when he came to the end of his living and writing. Cato the Roman was studious at all times and learned to speak Greek in his eighties. And Homer tells us that the speech of Nestor, an old and decrepit man, flowed sweeter than honey in open debate.
Turning to our own authors now, those who set the standard of sacred studies at the beginning of Christian philosophy and let us see that our estimate of ourselves is as nothing. Adamantius Origen, the son of Leonis the martyr for Christ, was the most studious of men in the holy scriptures and is said to have composed six thousand books in Greek, yet into extreme old age he remained poor and humble and for the love of Christ he always stuck to his studies. Augustine the African, bishop of Hippo, the holy founder of your order, that most learned of all learned men turns out to have written more than one thousand three hundred books or treatises. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, is said to have written three hundred treatises. St Jerome, priest of Bethlehem, quite apart from publishing the Old and New Testaments produced more than six hundred books and treatises, as we read.
Countless others must be passed over. Dionysius the Areopagite the disciple of Paul the apostle and bishop of Athens. Tertullian priest of Carthage. Cyprian bishop and martyr. Dionysius bishop of Alexandria. Lactantius Firmianus. Eusebius of Caesarea, pontiff of Palestine. James of Nisibis, bishop of the Persians. Athanasius bishop of Alexandria. Hilary bishop of Poitiers. Bishop Gregory of Nazianzen. Basil bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. Clement priest of Alexandria. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople. Fulgentius, bishop of Ruspe. Gregory I, pope, previously abbot of St Andrew in Rome. Fortunatus of Poitiers. Isidore of Seville. Bede the English monk. Albinus Thuronensis abbot. Haymo abbot of Hirsfeld. Rabanus abbot of Fulda. Strabo monk of Fulda. Notker abbot of St Gallen. Peter Damian, cardinal archbishop. Anselm of Canterbury. Honorius of Autun. Sigebertus of Gembloux. Bernard of Clairvaux. Hugo and Richard of St Victor. Rupert of Deutz. Hugo of Barcelona, cardinal. Albertus Magnus. Thomas Aquinas, Vincent of Beauvais who all published many remarkable books, more than the other writers on church matters.
Oh Rutger, what are our studies compared with the works of these men? They gave all the time they had to letters, always reading or writing something which would raise their understanding to the knowledge of the highest truth and leave later generations something worth having. What, after all, are our compositions which we suppose make us stand out when compared with the most minor writings of the Fathers? As straw to wheat, as unripe fruits, which never had the time, space or warm air to grow into the food they should have been. As Horace says, we write poems everywhere, whether we are learned or unlearned and are far too anxious about silly opinion,and we do not press on to the next year, let alone the ninth.
But even if that is how things are, we should still praise the minds of our time because each of them does what he can for the love of wisdom. The more dedication anybody has to holy scripture, the richer the understanding he shall win from them. How fair and fruitful is the engagement of a studious man’s mind with the holy scriptures: it illuminates the understanding of the spirit. Reading and writing inflames a man withdrawn from worldy vanities to the love of God.
Thus St Ambrose advises us when he says: We should always be chewing and polishing the eloquence of the heavenly scriptures, rolling them round with our whole heart so that the sap of that spiritual food will spread throught all the veins of your spirit. Also the holy priest Jerome: Read the scriptures again and again and let your holy reading never be out of your hands. For if you love scriptural knowledge you will not love the vices of the flesh. Ignorance of the scripture is ignorance of Christ. According to St Paul the Christophilus, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and he who does not know the scriptures does not know God’s power and wisdom, which we properly understand purely through them. There are many things we do no know which would not be hidden from us, if like the Fathers of old continous reading was our habit.
We should take the advice of Isocrates to Daemonicus and we shall become wiser with time. If you are eager to learn, he says, you will learn much. And wishing to reinforce his pupil’s memory, he nicely adds: What you have learned already, he says, keep musing on, and what you have not yet learned apply your skills to. For it is equally bad for a listener not to learn useful speech and not to accept a good thing given by his friends.
Speyer, 24 June 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Johannes Capellarius, greetings.
On the sixth of this month I arrived in Cologne with the most serene prince Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg, something I would not wish to keep from you, since you have always strictly observed the laws of our friendship. I therefore ask you to come here as soon as possible witht the Muses and your lyre, since I am in a suitable place for it, and have more than enough time for philosohy and furthering my plans. I cannot keep you in the dark about a week of melancholising Saturn which I have spent since the day I entered Cologne, since I have been afflicted by a swelling of the left foot. I am not sure how long I shall be staying here: so drop everything and come at once, as I have plenty I want to talk to you about. Farewell. Cologne, from my hostel, which is in the square known as Drinking Square, since drinkers flock to it. You cannot miss it if you look for the Margrave’s insignia on the doors.
8 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to his friend Jakob Kymolanus of the order of Carmelites.
A few days ago when I arrived in Cologne by river, I heard that you were here in the convent of your order. I was doubtful, but our friend Jakob von Maseck confirmed it today when I invited him to dinner. As soon as the food was removed from the table I put pen to paper and wrote you the enclosed letters, not wanting to put off your wishes any longer. I insist on your coming here tomorrow morning to dine and to set aside the whole day for discussion with me. There will be nobody to interrupt us: I am alone with my household with need only for the mathematician of the Margrave of Brandenburg, indeed an extremely humane man. Let nothing keep you from coming. My servant bearing this will tell you my address. Farewell.
From my lodging house here in Cologne, 9 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot, to his most dear Johannes Capellarius, greetings
I am amazed how you have advanced in Greek letters in a short time. But I know for myself that in learning only the will to will it is required. They say that a fixed will is completely decisive everywhere. It is right and fitting, as is entirely necessary, that one who wants to achieve something in learning must give himself entirely to the study of written words and to lose his old ways(?). This is plain and requires no proof. You know that men’s desires are different and changeable from hour to hour. How true is the proverb which Virgil wrote in his Bucolics: We cannot all do everything. But our one strength is God the Father, from whom all things come, and our one lord is Jesus Christ, through whom all things come. Thus he spoke: Behold I have given you power to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all power of the enemy. St Paul the Christophilus took this power and said: Be imitators of me as I am of Christ. The world is crucified to me, and I to the world. On this account see that we walk in the spirit and do not achieve the desires of the flesh. Our Lord Jesus Christ said in the holy gospel: He who loves his father and mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. And he who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. He who wishes to become a disciple and be found worthy of him and to recieve power from him against the spirits of poverty separates himself from every fleshly condition and strips himself of every material experience and so battles the unseen enemy for the sake of his commandments. Fear not toil, for without toil and labour no good or praiseworthy work is achieved. It is written in holy scripture: In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou enjoy bread, oh man. Consider me worth your acquaintance, for I love you very much. Farewell.
Written at Cologne, 12 July 1505. Again farewell and remember me.
Johannes Trithemius abbot of Sponheim to Rutger Sicamber his most dear brother.
I promised, dear Sicamber, before I left Speyer, to give you a short account of my fortunes during the voyage and what is going on in public here and I am delighted to satisfy you, briefly, as you asked.
I left Speyer on 25 June with master Narcissus, who had just arrived from Paris, and some other men of my household, and reached Mainz by carriage that evening. The next day we took ship and sailed at a great clip down the Rhine with a fair wind, arriving at Bonn on 1 July, the eve of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We waited two days there for the arrival of the serene prince Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg, and in the meantime were generously supplied with all our needs by Hermann, the most reverend archbishop of Cologne. Towards sundown on 3 July our wait was over and the prince arrived with sixty knights: the archbishop received him with honour and kept him for three days. On the morning of the 6th we left Bonn and reached Cologne around the tenth hour. And there I am now with no certainty as to my departure.
There is a well founded rumour that the king is considering an expedition, and he will not lack allies, against your Sycambri. The princes have been in continuous debate in the presence of the king concerning the restoration of peaceful relations between my prince Philip count Palatine and all those who have sided against him. Macarius, the abbot whose monastery of Limburg was sacked, has had a great deal of trouble and lost income from the collective negotiations of the state, and daily awaits a royal audience, but nobody seems willing to repair his losses. I have put in a word for him with my prince the most serene Margrave, and I am in hopes that his royal Majesty will shortly grant him the audience he seeks.
If you want to know about my own doings, here they are in brief. I am here in a lodging house assigned to me by the prince, and I am being very lavishly supplied with all necessities by his command. Meanwhile I have been inviting all my learned and philosophical friends to dinner (indeed more often) and nothing could please me more than the talk and discussion I have been having with them. Chief among them are Dietrich Ueltzen, doctor, mathematician and charming poet. Jakob von Maseck doctor and philosopher of extraordinary erudition, with whom I have been at war and continuous strife against the folly and vain hopes of the alchemists, ever promising great things, though they have nothing themselves. Jakob Kymolanus of the order of Carmelites at Ghent, a man of pleasant and sweet wits, who is awaiting the arrival of the master general of his order from England, and with whom I have had such pleasant discussions. Georg Sibutus, a poet, and lately crowned laureate at the king’s own hand, a young man but intelligent. Johannes Capellarius, vice count of the royal town, philosopher and mathematician of Paris, a well read man of deep insights, admired by many very learned men for the liveliness of his mind. In the short space of a few days he acquired a knowledge of the Greek language in large part, reading it perfectly, understanding it adequately, and writing the script elegantly. He has been a student of Greek for barely six months, and could already teach many people: he has written a number of quite elegant letters to me in Greek. With well read men like these I am having an enjoyable time socially, and we have been researching various passages of scripture all the while.
If only I could have had you as my travelling companion, so my guests could have experienced and enjoyed your wit. I have sent my servant who brings you this on business to Speyer and Sebach, so if you want to write back to me you can do so with confidence. He will be returning to me at Cologne shortly. Farewell brother, and pray to God for me.
Cologne, 12 July 1505.
To Johannes Capellarius, mathematician, greetings
As soon as you asked us for it, we ordered a transcription of the part of my lesser Steganographia to which I gave the Greek title of γλωττουφορίαν, meaning ‘fertility of language’. As you know, it is an arcane work which nobody has yet seen, and we are sending it on condition that you keep it secret.
I do not mean to criticise your love for and unflagging study of Greek writing and your other interests in secular philosophy. I would praise them and give them wide publicity if you will take care to direct them towards the love of God. All study by mortals which is not directed towards divine charity is quite worthless and should be condemned by every Christian. We must take care that our mind stays set on its own salvation and not make secular studies an end in themselves but rather apply them to ministry and service: and that not all the time but when the needs of philosophy and spiritual wisdom make it necessary, since it is through them that we are led by loving to the knowledge of God and are confirmed by knowing into the sweetness of love. We are mortal, and the laws of nature demand that we must necessarily die. All we take with us is the progress we have made in learning and studying the knowledge and love of our good creator most high. The fruits of our other studies all vanish like a mist with the work we put into them. Every art of human devising which does not link up to divine knowledge remains in a man just as long as it remains in the body under the conditions of life, even if in this world it arrogates to itself the principal sense of the word ‘knowledge’. It gives out entirely when a man dies and expires with the other attributes of life.
The holy Christophilus refers to this worthless secular knowledge in one of his epistles. ‘For if a man thinks he knows something, he still does not know how he ought to know it. But if a man loves God, this is known to him.’
St Bernard beautifully expounds this saying in his meditations. ‘You see that he does not admire those who know a great deal if they do not know the mode of knowing. You see how he makes the fruits and usefulness of knowledge the mode of knowing. What is he saying if not that you should know with what intention, with what effort, to what end you are to know a particular thing. With what intention: it should promote salvation sooner rather than later. With what effort: the keener the more insistently it moves to love. To what end: it should lead not to empty fame and celebrity but to the salvation of you and others. Seen in this light, not all those pursuing knowledge have a single intention, nor do they have the same aim. Some wish to know a great deal having knowledge as an end in itself, and the fruit their hobby obtains is hollow, consisting of nothing. Others wish to know for worldly gain, seeking fortunes, honours and status: they are engaged in a pursuit which is nothing short of corrupt and must be classed as unworthy of the holy name of knowledge. And oh, how many people today are found to pursue knowledge to this end. And not a few want to know because they want to be known by the public, and vanity is their reward. All the above intentions in knowing are to be rejected, the aim being worthy of blame and condemnation. There are others however who wish to know in order to establish and build up their neighbours more ardently in the love of Christ: their aim is charity and their fruit, if their life accords with their teaching, is eternal bliss. And there are others who want to know so as to be built up in the law of the Lord: their aim is prudence and the reward of their good life is the well earned award of perpetual bliss.’
So, friend, you now know what the aim of our knowledge should be and in what way we ought to know. Since the aim of speculative knowledge is truth and that of practical knowledge is action, how much we know equals how much we grasp of the cognition of almighty God, who alone is truth: in fact how much we know is how much we love. True and saving knowledge of God gives birth to cognition, cognition to love, love to encounter, encounter to trust and trust to the easy procurement of anything you ask from the lord Jesus. Knowledge actually precedes the practice of virtue because nobody can faithfully desire what he does not know about.
Moreover, Jesus Christ in the gospel says to the Father: ‘This is eternal life, that they may know you the one true God, and him who you sent, Jesus Christ.’ For what else is the supercelestial enjoyment of happiness by the blessed spirits than knowledge and love of the divine majesty? The understanding of saving knowledge has love as its concomitant, and the mind cannot have fellowship with everlasting intellectual enjoyment if the knowledge is without love or the love without knowledge. Evil demons know, but because they do not have love they most certainly do not attain to the enjoyment which is born of the one and not of the other. The pagan philosophers and those found outside Christendom today may perhaps seem to have the love of the one highest truth, but because they do not know the father of the universe, the one sole God, and him who he sent, our lord Jesus Christ, they disappear when their thoughts do and in no way arrive at the enjoyment of the highest good. Our saviour, the lord Jesus Christ himself, speaks of those who do not know by faith that he has come into the world in the holy gospel. He who does not believe has been judged.
And St Christophilus: ‘Without faith, he says, it is impossible to please God.’ True knowledge is of faith, and love is of knowledge. Therefore a man who has no faith has no knowledge. And he who has no knowledge has no enjoyment.
This is what the lord Jesus himself revealed to his disciples before ascending into heaven: ‘Go into the entire world and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved and whoever does not believe will be condemned. The prime way to God, therefore, is knowledge – or cognition by faith – without which no one will be saved. So, mathematician, let all your other subjects and studies relate to this, for if you do not make them you will be taken up with foolish, worthless labour. True knowledge is that which affects rather than exalts the knower with compunction and love and makes those who it fills tearful rather than proud, as the wise man said: ‘He who adds knowledge adds sorrow for in much knowledge is much displeasure.’ Now, friend, let us take steps while we have the opportunity to make our efforts worthwhile, as the holy gospel says.
Behold the acceptable time, behold the day of our salvation. This day brings a new life and exacts new ways. Now is the time to court it and to force the body into the courtship, if we would ascend to the heavens and live eternal life with God. We have sinned enough up to now, and hindered the creator of heaven and earth. As long as we remain in our sins. Let us rise up at last, let us rise up from our sin, dear Johannes Capellarius, and confess all our sins to the priests of God, and a merciful God will pardon us. Otherwise we shall go down to Hell, and there shall never be any redemption there for ever.
Recognise the prophet Isaiah talking to us: ‘Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.’
And the Lord said through Joel: ‘Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even]to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.’
And Christophilus, the apostle Paul says, writing to the Ephesians: ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’
And for that reason the blessed prince of the apostles Peter says: ‘Brethren, be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith.’
And the Lord Jesus Christ in the holy gospel said: ‘Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.’
Christophilus the holy apostle Paul does this: ‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me, blessed for ever.’
Indeed, friend, we need great purity and sanctity if we wish to win the fruit of true wisdom with the blessed apostles of Christ in eternal happiness.
Again St Christophilus says in one of the epistles, ‘Let us seek peace and holiness with all, for without it none shall see God.’
And again in Leviticus, the Lord says to Moses, ‘Speak to all the assembly of the children of Israel and say to them, For I your Lord God am holy.’
Dionysius the Areopagite spelt out the meaning of sanctity in the chapter twelve of the Divine Names, saying, ‘Holiness is, if I may speak my mind, perfectly devoid of all wrongdoing and entirely uncontaminated by worldliness.’ Our god is holy and we are sinful and impure. But since there is no union of dissimilars, how shall there be concord between us and God?
Listen to St Augustine teaching divinity. ‘No holy and just man is without sin (he says), but he does not thereby cease to be just or holy, if he holds on to holiness with conviction.’
Holy scripture says ‘Seven times a day shall the just man fall and arise, but the wicked shall fall into evil’. ‘If he falls,’ St Jerome asks, ‘how can he be just? But he does not cease to count as just if he keeps rising to repentance. And not just seven times but seventy times seven his sins are forgiven if he turns to penitence.’ Although no one becomes holy by his own effort, since it is not of him who wills it nor of him who runs but of God having mercy, still our good will is necessarily needed for our salvation, for the grace of God to work in us. Just as no man procreates himself without a woman, and no woman procreates a human without a man, so a person’s goodwill sanctifies nobody without the grace of God, and the divine mercifulness does not do so without the good will of the person himself. God gave man free will and so he has willpower as on of his capabilities, not that he can do for himself what he wills but so that he can will himself to be granted the ability.
So it is that Christophilus says. ‘Wanting is in our grasp. Execution I do not find there.’ What can this mean, my holy investigator of divinity, when nothing suffices to good will as much itself? But he says ‘it is not of him who wills nor of him who runs but of God who has mercy’. Many literal minded people understand this sentence of Paul wrongly, mainly because of what he goes on to say: ‘Therefore he has mercy on whom he wills and hardens those whom he wills.’ Those who are too tightly wound with carnal veils around the heart are confused and often seem to despair of the mercy of God, as if the divine will should be the cause of our damnation, and not rather our own will itself, which we have scorned to conform to him. For a man who god hardens he hardens by the demerit of his own crooked will: and who he saves he saves by the goodness of his own consenting will. It is for your will to run, it is for God’s goodness to save. Grace will not save you if your will has been idle. It is impossible for a good will not to be saved. But a good will is the gift of God, seeing we cannot will good nor fulfil it without the grace of God. God is blessed and wills all men to be saved. He is always ready to have mercy on us and give us grace, and it is our mind which is too fond by far of commerce with the flesh. Every time it turns away from the highest good it puts the cloud of wrongdoing in the way, and then the grace of God who shows mercy, otherwise always so prompt barely operates in it.
Even so when the globe of the moon is facing the sun it is made bright and luminous by its splendour, and the closer it approaches to direct opposition the more it is illuminated. But if the body of the earth comes between them the moon instantly suffers an eclipse and is darkened by involutions. So when our mind is turned to God by good will and the desire of inward love it is steeped in the most beautiful and sweet illuminations of the graces, and is wonderfully strengthened in the holy sharpness of speculation. But as soon as the cloud of sin gets in the way that light fails and disappears. In vain does God’s grace shine on a spirit taken up with worldly or fleshly desires. Nor can vanity be mixed with truth, eternity with the transitory, spiritual things with fleshly, the highmost with the lowmost, or impure things with things most holy or heavenly with earthly things, that the mind may thereby know what is above and what is on the earth.
Farewell, Capellarius, and immerse yourself in saving study whose fruit in heaven is promised us, and whose ends are never held contrary to any other ends. Again farewell.
Cologne, 18 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius to Johannes Steinemoel, priest of Mochlin greetings.
I am taking the opportunity to write to you through this messenger, who is known to you and, he tells me, joined to you by a unique necessity.
This is to let you know what we think are the best arrangements for your visit to us, so your time will not be wasted. First of all you should know that the war which raged around us last year has led to the collapse of our plans, and fortune has tossed us into a storm of hostility from our enemies. We have decided to give way to it for a time, feeling that either our enemies will think better of it all, or we may find a home for our plans elsewhere with the help of our friends. And so we are off to the Mark of Brandenburg with its most serene prince, who is here at the royal conference, as he has urged me to visit him many times before by letter and messenger and now face to face. We are departing in complete uncertainty about our return, not least because after the considerable insults we received from our brethren the last thing on our mind is our return to Sponheim, unless the divine will ordains otherwise, for our weakness ought always to be in subjection and agreement with it. You should therefore put off your return to Sponheim until you eventually hear that we have gone back there, unless you want to make a pointless sixty mile journey.
We were unable to attend to the problems of your friend Vincentius because of the current disturbances, nor could they be close to our heart, in view of your conceited behaviour concerning the secrets of arcane philosophy which you gleaned from us and then, as we have been informed, hawked them around to be sold for money. You seem to think you are really somebody by virtue of your claim to have been the pupil of Trithemius. This is not the way of true wisdom, Johannes, and it is unworthy of a man of your age to place your hopes in celebrity, and to cast your pearls, for whatever price you can get, before swine. You circulate grand claims about us hoping to be thought a great man by popular opinion, and by overstepping the limit of true praise you have done me considerable harm, forgetting the old proverb: sparing with praise, twice sparing with slander. Your praise does not please us in the slightest because it is abuse of us rather than praise. It is not for all men to understand the hidden things of nature, or to root out the unexpected in well known things over and above their common use. If you will make claims for us which other people will not understand, what, you old fool, do you expect the result to be? They will say (what else?) that we are dedicated to superstitions or immersed in vanities. We did not know you had been introduced to us on those terms, but since you have overstepped the requirements of common decency between us we have reason to foresee how you will treat us in more important things. We urge you to leave off these exhibitions and think of yourself as a minister of Christ and one of ripe years who should not be hunting for mortal glory with trivia.
Farewell and remember us to God. Cologne 20 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Jakob Kymolanus, theologian, greetings.
Arnoldus Bostius, your one time fellow Carmelite in the convent of Ghent, was in my judgement a learned and holy man,. When he saw you concentrating excessively on astronomy and literature, he would try to dissuade you and tell you with well meant insistence to put more effort into the knowledge of scriptures. That was why he asked me in several of the charming letters with which, as you know, he used to be so generous, to write to steer you away from curiosity about and affectation of secular study and do my best to recruit you to the true wisdom which is found in the holy books. The good man was afraid that your tender mind would be infected by the blandishments of the muses and gradually fall into a love of worldly wisdom, which is foolishness before God, and like many before develop a distaste for holy scripture. I admire a man who requires what is right, loved him for it and could not refuse, so I have done my best to do what he wanted.
I am not sorry to have written you a wordy letter in which, as you know, I raised many and varied objections to pointless knowledge of secular literature without spiritual wisdom and an understanding of holy scripture without knowledge of secular philosophy. My final conclusion as I recall, was that a cloistered man should need and desire no more worldly learning than an understanding of the divine scriptures requires. As blessed Ambrose says: All philosophy concerning the structure of the world, such as astronomy is more false than true philosophy. It examines the spaces of the world and probes its dimensions, which cannot benefit it. Again St Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, says much the same on the Canticles. The windy chattering of philosophers is not good rain and brings the land more sterility than fertility. The wine of secular wisdom intoxicates in a bad way, for it does not build up the mind but puffs it up and closes off the ways of heavenly wisdom.
I am ashamed of these times in which our chaste virgin, heavenly philosophy, which we call theologia in Greek, is so corrupted by the rough company of various trollops that she never appears pure but is seen blemished rather than beautified by the useless, not to say vain, feathers of the philosophers. It is now necessary to parade the opinions of heathen philosophers in every sermon to Christians about their faith, as if the gospel of Christ was not sufficient for the study of heavenly doctrine and we did not have confirmation of our faith in the testimony of the divine scriptures. As far as training in Christian faith goes, the gospel of Christ our Saviour more than suffices: as St Bartholomew said when Dionysius the Areopagite introduced him to mystical theology, it is broad and large and yet concise. The gospel of Christ is large because it contains all the teaching of heavenly wisdom: it is broad because it abundantly teaches whatever is needed to strengthen Christians in their holy faith; it is yet concise because it contains nothing useless or superfluous. This fulfilment of the law and the prophets as promised in prophecy and clearly expounded in the preaching of the apostles was well understood by the upright teachers of ancient and holy memory: when they proclaimed the word to the people they put the holy teaching of Christ, the promises of the prophets and the laws of the apostles foremost.
Our stylists these days are more in number but they spatter the pure words of God with the opinions of Aristotle and Julius, and quote pagan philosophers more than the apostles of Christ. For shame, the authority of the Peripatetics has such a reputation with God’s heralds that Aristotle is more often prayed in aid than Peter and Paul the holy apostles. What good are such men’s sermons to the simple and unlearned people of God, when they aim entirely at display, not touching hearts? Those sluttish and heathen traditions should be left to the schools of the Gymnosophists, and nothing but the pure, unspotted teaching of Christ be preached in the school of Christ. Whoever invented this style of preaching mixed bran with the pure flour. I ask you, look at the words of all the holy fathers of old and their famous homilies and see if you find bran mixed with the flour of Christian purity.
I tell you, inspect the sermons and homilies of Origen, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Hilary, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome, Maximius, Severianus, Augustine, Fulgentius, Pope Gregory, Isidore, Bede, Rabanus, Albinus, Haymo, Peter Damian, Anselm, Bernard and the other holy fathers of old and you will find nothing but the teaching of Christ, true, solid, pure and free of all leaven of pagan traditions. You will see there no reference to Aristotle, the apostate Porphyrius, Plato, Averroes, Cicero or any other from the ranks of the pagans, but only the wisdom of God the father, Jesus Christ, and the apostles, holy patriarchs and prophets of his highest wisdom. In my judgement this kind of teaching is unfit for the school of Christ in which we hear, as if in confirmation of the proclaimers of the Holy Spirit, the names of men recited whose spirits were without any question completely alien to Christ. They knew the wisdom of this world but not that of God and so perished wretchedly in their vanities.
There are certain sophistical Christians who have the presumption to assert that the philosopher Socrates was, in life, death and teaching a figure to set beside our savour, making a comparison of him to Christ, which is absurd and perverse and ought not to be tolerated by Christian ears, as if he knew nothing of idol worship, when in fact, as he was about to die, as Plato records in the Phaedo, his last words were, O Crito, I owe a cock to Aesculapius, give him one and make haste. Admittedly, mortals do not know the plans of God and we are not to talk as if the damnation of so many people is a certainty, particularly those who lived before Christ our saviour was born in the flesh, but where is the need for a preacher of God’s word, in the holy church which is the school of Christ, to mix the words of pagan philosophers, ignorant of Christ with the teaching of highest truth, when holy scripture entirely suffices for Christian instruction and there is no need to borrow from elsewhere. Any preacher is a fool if he thinks that the teaching of Christ needs decorating with the sayings of pagan philosophers, when the prophet sang thus: The law of the Lord is immaculate and converts souls, the testimony of the Lord is sure and wise, sustaining his little ones. And again: the speech of the Lord is chaste speech, silver tested in the fire, tried by earth, purged sevenfold. Our lord Jesus Christ in the gospel kata John says: The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. Why should life be joined with death or light compared with darkness?
If the words of Christ are spirit and life then the words of the dead who are not in the Lord should not be mixed with them. Listen to Firmianus Lactantius: divine erudition, he says, does not want dialectic in which every type of speech is contained, for wisdom is not of the tongue but the heart: and it is not important how you use speech when the matter not the words is sought. And I am not talking of grammarians or orators whose subject is how we should speak, but wise men whose subject is how to live. Since the rationale for it is neither physics nor logic, since they cannot confer blessedness, it follows the the force of philosophy as a whole is contained in ethics, to which Socrates is said to have dedicated himself to the exclusion of all else, in which the philosophers have gone wrong since they did not comprehend the supreme good which they were begotten to desire. It is apparent therefore that all the philosophy of the pagans is false and foolish and on that account ought not to be mixed with the holy teachings of Christ, for it does not lead to the gifts of justice, nor does it strengthen the work and thinking of man.
The work of a preacher appointed in the church of God is to set out faithfully the law and doctrine of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, to arouse his hearers to compunction and devotion, and to fire them up to the observance of justice and the inward love of God with all their might. But this can only be done with the teaching of Christ, since the Holy Spirit does not confer the gifts of its grace where it comes up against the foolishnes of pagan philosophers and not the words of Christ. I never read that any one of us received the gift of the Holy Spirit from speech underpinned by appeals to pagan philosophers, nor did they ever feel the signs of internal compunction. For the spirit of God fertilises its own seed not others’; the son of God strengthens his own words with the infusion of virtue, not the witterings of pagan philosophers.
Oh for the golden centuries of the Fathers, when the Holy Spirit spoke its words to the people through them, words neither specific nor alien, for then it really did confer its grace on their hearers, recognising its own seed and not that of the pagans when it was cast. For the holy preachers afire with inspiration by the holy spirit spoke words aflame to the people of God with humble sincerity, and they smouldering with warmth volunteered in strength to observe every commandment of Christ. The words of the preachers, on fire with the grace of the spirit, left the minds and hearts of the peoples aflame, and the compassion of God among Christians worked wonderful things, and led to an increase in all virtues in preachers and hearers alike. Sinncers were suddenly converted to repentance and the incredible grace of compunction filled the minds of their hearers; and the blazing, shining love of God lit the hearts of them all and led to a contempt for earthly things and armed them heavily to bear any tribulations for the love of Christ. The speech of all learned men was Christian then, simple, pure and whole, not polluted with pagan opinion, not scarred with a mess of quotations, not punctuated with fables and amusing remarks, not swollen with curious and pointless ironies, and not calculated to improve the reputation of the preacher.
These fathers should be your model, Kymolanus, lovers of true wisdom who sought glory for Christ not themselves and put the need of their hearers first. Do not imitate those who did not preach Christ in a Christian way but sought glory from men or worldly profit. You have girded yourself for the true philosophy which professes, preaches, loves, praises and imitates Christ the virtue and wisdom of God, and you should be steadfast and faithful in loving him and prove worthy to accept the fruit of everlasting happiness. Those who imitate false wisdom cannot come to the true one. And what is false wisdom if not the things the lovers of this world consider great? The wisdom of the world, as St Gregory says, is to cloak the heart in scheming, conceal meaning with words, to present falsehood as true and truth as falsehood. Those who know it are puffed up and look down on others; those who do not are downtrodden and fearful but admire it in others. It orders those who indulge in it to seek the summits of temporal goods, to rejoice in the vanity of temporal glory won, to repay injuries with ill, and to love the wealth of this life insatiably.
But, Kymolanus, our wisdom is to do nothing ostentatiously, to reveal meaning with words, to love true things as they are and avoid false ones, to do good unprompted, to suffer evil rather than do it, to seek no vengeance for an injury, and to count it gain to be insulted for the truth. For the fear of the Lord, as scripture says, is the beginning of wisdom. Blessed is the man who finds true wisdom, and who is immersed in Christian providence. It is better to win it than do business in silver and gold. Its fruits are prime and pure, since it is more costly than any wealth, and nothing you desiere can be compared to it. He has true wisdom whose mind is enlightened by lightnings and understands the truth he loves, and loves the good that he knows. Let us take the example of the sun to distinguish understanding and love. The sun does not warm all that it shines on, and wisdom teaches many what to do, but does not continually fire up them all to want to bring about what they know. For as it is one thing to know of great wealth and another to possess it, and possession not knowledge of wealth makes a rich man, so knowing and wisely understanding many things does not make a wise man if a show of deeds does not follow. For all our wisdom consists of the one thing, knowing God and duly worshipping him above all else, and since he is the highest good, loving him with all our might.
This is the philosophy of Christianity, this is the sure wisdom of the faithful, to which all other sciences should principally be referred. This is the consummation of wisdom which all the pagan philosophers sought their life long and never could find, embrace or hold since they either kept depraved religions or rejected them all. Whoever earns the acquaintance of this perfect wisdom is truly wise and gladly devotes his whole ability and effort to it, and scorns all public and private actions to focus on contemplating it. He believes, and is not mistaken, that it is more glorious by far to investigate and know the principles of divine and human things than to cling to accumulating perishable riches or heap up vain honours. The things that relate to the cultivation of the body only are frail and earthly and do not make for a better man. For wisdom is nothing other than truth, in which is held and perceived the highest and incommensurable good, which is in no place and is never absent, for it is everywhere as a whole. This is our one cause for philosophising, desire for blessedness. The true blessedness of our mind is enjoyment of the highest and unchanging good, which arises from knowledge and love of the truth.
Now then, Kymolanus, let us seek true wisdom which consists of faith alone formed in our lord Jesus Christ, without knowledge and love of whom no one ever became blessed, as the bishop St Augustine says: He who would have salvation without a saviour and thinks he can become prudent without the true wisdom that is Christ is not healthy but sick, not wise but foolish, and he will labour in constant sickness, and will remain clueless int the shadows of ignorance. The way to true wisdom is Christ, faith is the guide, inviolate humility the warden, as is elegance and contempt for the clothing of all earthly things. St Paul the Christophilus exhorts us to this, saying: Brothers, let none deceive you. If any among you appears to be wise in this world, let him become foolish that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, and the wisdom of God is scorned by those who glory in the wisdom of vanity.
A good Christian, a lover of God, a scorner of the world, an enemy of the vices and a cultivator of the virtues, is truly wise, even if he is completely ignorant of all worldly wisdom, to whom nothing is alien unless it is incompatible with virtue. Wherever he goes he takes all that is his with him, and the whole world is his possession, for he uses all of it as if it were his. He is not broken by fear, not corrupted by power, not elated in good times, not depressed in bad. For where true wisdom is, strength of spirits, constancy and fortitude are there. A wise man grounded in the love of Christ is always the same and, as Ambrose says, is not diminished or enlarged by changes in things; does not wobble like a little boy, carried around by every wind of doctrine, but is steadfast and perfect in Christ, grounded in charity and rooted in faith. A wise man knows nothing of the defects of things and does not heed the many drives of the spirit, but shines like the sun of justice without stain before God and men.
Kymolanus, it should be our main concern to labour to turn out like them, for there is not greater of more pitiful concern than to concentrate on vain, earthly and fleeting things, since they not only do the soul no good, but harm it greatly. Let us learn useful and necessary things which it promises blessedness to know, let us not imitate those who do not know the necessary things, since they have learned superfluous ones. Farewell.
Cologne, 22 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius abbot of Sponheim to Rutger Sicamber his most dear rother, greetings.
Around ten in the morning of 18 July our most serene monarch Maximilian, King of the Romans, departed in arms from Cologne with many princes, on an expedition against your own Sycambri. The troops all went down the Rhine by ship and first directed their forces against the town of Arnhem of your own Guelders, which the royal army already had in the grip of a tight siege. These are the princes who took ship down the Rhine with the king and with their advisers. My prince Joachim Margrave of Brandenburg, Elector. Margrave Frederick his uncle, whose seat is at Anholtzbach. Ludwig the eldest son of my prince elector Philip, count Palatine and duke of Bavaria. Frederick duke of Saxony, prince elector. The Duke of Magdeburg, the duke of Brunswick, the duke of Lüneburg, the duke of Jüllich, the count of Hessia, and many other princes, dukes and counts whose names I did not note. When they came to Arnhem, the townsmen immediately surrendered to the king, and the Sycambri, daunted and fearful, all swore submission to King Maximilian. Even the duke of Guelders himself accepted the King’s terms, and peace on earth, so long interrupted, returned to men.
On 28 July the king returned to Cologne along with the princes in the same order and armament they set out in. The next day all the bells rang out all over Cologne for many an hour in celebration of peace and order. So that is how it fared with your Sycambri, which I thought you should know. There are many, however, who do not believe that the Sycambri will keep their promises to the king, since as a people they lightly spurn their oaths and are too opportunistic. The Archbishop and city of Cologne have still not come to an agreement, though several attempts have been made. And there Rutger you have what news struck me as worth telling. Any day now I shall be following this mail to Speyer. Farewell and pray for me.
Cologne, 29 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Johannes Capellarius, mathematician, greetings.
The day of my departure from Cologne is nigh at hand, and therefore if you put off seeing me, farewell. This very morning my most serene prince Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg, left Cologne to travel home by way of Westphalia and Saxony. I am to follow him in three days after first wrapping up some paperwork and business concerning my person in the royal chancellery. I beg you if it is at all possible to come for one visit before you go so we can bid each other farewell in fraternal charity, the more because we do not know whether we shall ever see each other in the flesh again. I am off to the Mark of Brandenburg with no certainty as to my return, not least because I have been gravely wounded by the insults of my rivals and I know I shall not easily be persuaded to return to Sponheim: though if I so wished there are many who might crushingly avenge those insults. I long been convinced we should obey our lord’s precepts and not to have injuries avenged, nay, rather to follow the saying of the lord Jesus to the apostles: If you are persecuted in one city, flee to another. We should have more care for our soul than our body. The soul was not made for the body but the body for the soul. If you neglect what is primary and overrate what is less important you will corrupt both. But if you look to what is primary, even if you neglect what is secondary, the secondary will be preserved by the health of the primary. We should make sure that we have a healthy, beautiful and secure soul rather than body. Evidence of the beauty will shine out from the face, which is the way to judge the whole man. The soul is the face of the conscience. For as a beautiful face pleases men to look at, a pure conscience is desirable in the eyes of God. It is sometimes best for a man to move his home for the good of his soul, so that a face which did not please his acquaintances through overfamiliarity will prove fairer in a new place because of its novelty. Very often a change of place leads to a change in a mind and its states. And though no fault of my own moves me to change my home, but the envy of others, I accept it the more gladly the less I am tied to another man’s place. I know that one God reigns in all lands, and I soldier under his command wherever I may be. Friend, you praise the letter I sent you about twelve days ago and would adorn it with amazing commendations, saying it dropped from the oracle of Apollo. I know that by this pagan word you meant to denote Jesus, who alone with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns in high heaven, with a measureless dignity and incomprehensible majesty which cannot be compared to anything. But beware, I pray you my friend Capellarius, not to give this supreme and inaccessible majesty any other name than the Christian religious custom is. I consider it most unfitting to apply the polluted names of idols which were not gods to God most high and to address the divine substance with foul pagan terms. Nowhere in the entire sequence of the scriptures do we find that the true God who we worship and adore took the names of false gods for his own, or called himself Jupiter or Apollo or any other vanities. There is in the holy scriptures no lack of most honourable and holy words which we can apply to the unnamable and more than divine majesty in all seriousness. There is no need, it is not fitting or right to express the true godhead of the creator of all things amongst ourselves with the names of demons, and terms for false gods. If I wrote well, if I sent a letter worthy of praise, the true God, not Apollo, brought it about, Jesus Christ gave it, and it did not come from elsewhere. I wrote true things to you, being enlightened by the truth, and with them I want to call your mind away from earthly, frail and transitory things, to bring you to the true philosophy which is most suited to us as Christians, being the only way by which we may come to the happiness of eternal bliss, the highest good and last end of a rational creature. Whatever we see in this world is corruptible, whatever we have is transitory, the body in which we live is mortal too, and only the mind by which we live is immortal. The Cenomanian bishop once said: All mortal things depend on wavering chance And tend to flight by their own mobility. Whatever you have today may leave you tomorrow Or even while you speak cease to be yours. We all die in the end, as holy scripture witnesses, and we are poured out like water on the ground, never to return. We all have one entrance into life, and equally one exit. We should always be mindful of this, since it is appointed to men once to die, and death does not delay but when it is least expected stands at the door. Indeed our lord Jesus Christ wanted us always to be ready for death and gave us this precept in the holy gospel: Be watchful, for you do not know at what hour your lord will come. We should always live in the state in which we hope to die, for a bad death is unthinkable if a good life went before. Nor does what follows death make for a bad death, but a bad life going before death makes it bad. So we ought not, seeing we are necessarily to die in any case, to take much thought for how our death comes about, but we should rather care above all things that our life should be arranged around good works, adorned by virtue, and it will not allow of a bad death. Death itself cannot be bad, for it is nothing but departure from the body, the laying down of a heavy burden, and the way from toil to rest. No one can die badly if he lived well, rooted in the charity of the Lord, even if men’s judgement of him was otherwise. For death is threefold. There is death by nature, of which the holy Christophilus St Paul said: it is appointed to men once to die. Strong men should not fear it, those who are wise in the philosophy of Christ should rather desire it, and poor people look forward to it. Of this it was excellently said: Death is the end of a gloomy imprisonment for the most excellent souls. To others, whose every thought is of their wants it is a torment. For we are becoming immortal. Death, as all who philosophise consider, is nothing but the end of evils here.. Death, he says, is the end of a dark imprisonment, particularly for outstanding souls. It is a grief to others whose concern is all for their own pleasure. We shall turn out immortal in the end. For all philosophisers take it for granted that death is nothing but the end of all these ills. The second is death in guilt, of which it is written: A soul that has sinned shall surely die. And again: The worst death is that of sinners whose birth was bad and ensuing life was worse. O Philobius, let us fear that death which not only kills the body but commits the soul to eternal woes. The third is death in saving grace, which brings an end to worldly pleasures, in which not nature but our sins die. This is saving death, into which we were reborn being baptised in Christ, and by grace we are buried in the Lord himself. The first kind of death should be despised by all wise men, the second should be hated by all mortals, and the third greatly hoped for by all Christians. They are wretched and rightly to be deplored who die the second death: hell takes them from this life to be tormented for eternity, not those who the heavenly hall takes up to be made happy forever. Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his saints: truly precious, for it brings the longed for end of toil, and gives lasting victory, and opens the gate of life for entry into perfect safety. The quality of a death rightly depends on that of life, and just as life is good if it is lived in virtue, bad if in sin, so death must be assessed from the actions which went before it. Thus it is that if life is spent in the love of God, and knowledge of the truth, death cannot be bad,since it is the passage to immortality. But if life was otherwise, death must necessarily be bad, since it transports one to eternal punishment. All should fear death who did not wisely walk in the law of the Lord, but preferred earthly things to heavenly and fleeting to eternal. Woe to us unhappy men, what shall we do, who necessarily die? We greatly fear our common death, for we are conscious of our misdeeds and fear the sentence of the judge we have offended. It is necessary for all those who spend their life on earth to die. As for you, let us think, late as it is, that we are soon to die, and let us mend our life, fearing death that we may die to our sins before it comes. We shall not fear the death of the flesh if we mortify our vices in the love of God and live by workds of holy piety. Who shall fear temporal death if eternal life is promised him for the merit of justice? We should never forget our death urging our life on to its end, for he who daily remembers that he must die easily spurns present things and hastens on to think of those yet to be. All that we see in this life is vain, and when we die we can take none of it with us: we shall leave this world not otherwise than we entered it, naked, poor, wanting, owning nothing save what we did in the flesh, good or bad, as the messenger of God said to John the Christophilus. Write: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for their works shall follow them. Now, says the Spirit, let them rest from their labours. Friend, let us beware lest we die worse than we were born, to go out of the world stained and burdened with sins and crimes, when we entered it with no actual sin. Let us repent with all our hearts. And because we are perishing, brothers, let us sinners purify our hands, let us double-minded ones cleanse our hearts, let us endure hardship and mourn and weep because of our sins. Let us cease from our wickedness. Let us trust in the goodness of the Lord, let us fear his threats, let us keep his commandments. Let us love each other with all our hearts. Let us say brothers, to those who hate us and revile us, that the name of the Lord may be glorified and may be seen in his bliss. Let us confess to each other, being tested by each other, since we all fight a common enemy. Let us resist our reasonings, calling on the Lord as our ally, and let us banish from us the base and impure spirits. Let us subordinate the flesh to the spirit, mortifying and enslaving it by every distress. Let us purify ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit. Let us rouse ourselves to an outburst of love and good works. Let us not grudge each other, nor become wild when begrudged. Let us rather sympathise with each other and heal each other by our humility. Let us not slander or revile each other, for we are members of each other. Let us reject indifference and laziness, and let us tand boldly, fighting against the spirits of wickedness, and we have a just advocate, Jesus Christ, with the Father, and we have him as an atonement for our sins, and let us be bound to him in a good heart, from our entire soul, and he will rid us of our sins: for the Lord is near to all who call on him in truth. As he says, “Sacrifice to God a sacrifice of praise, and give your prayers to the most high. And I shall deliver you, and you shall praise me. Let us not consign this most clear saying of father Maximus to oblivion, but hold it fast in memory and seek to fulfil it in deeds, in secure expectation of our death. Let us reject, I pray, the harmful folly which grossly deceives many by holding out hope of a longer life. We die every day by growing older, every day no less than twenty four hours is taken from our life without our ever noticing, while we promise ourselves everlasting life. When men go sailing, whether they stand, sit or lie, sleeping or waking, or whatever they do, the ship does not cease to progress little by little, and they hardly notice that the ship is taking them to their destination. Just so, Philobius, whether we wake of sleep, stand or walk, whether we want it or not, each day the moments lead us unthinking to our end. We promise ourselves vain hopes full of deceits, when we think to live for many years, though we needs must die. What if we do live for a great time, shall we not die anyway? Let one man live for thirty years and another for a hundred: when their lives reach the same end, ineluctable death, tell me Philobius, whose is the better condition? Both were born, both live, albeit to unequal years, and both are dead. Have you read the verse of Menander, “Those whom the gods love die young”? Two things commonly make death less fortunate in old men than the decease of young men. One is that an old man dying labours under a greater burden of sins: a young man had less chance to sin by living a shorter life. As Seneca says, we make our life unquiet by our fear of death, and such is men’s madness that they are driven to death by the fear of death. Thus the time at which we die is unimportant, but we must take the greatest pains to manage to die well. We shall die well if we lived well, not walking according to the flesh but the spirit. As the holy apostle says, let us walk in the spirit and not fulfil the lusts of the flesh but the spirit. So let us renounce all that is in the world over and above what is needful to sustain the body, and seek this in the end, to be free and ready to await the end which daily hangs over us. The years silently age us and as we grow our life gradually wanes. We leave infancy behind, then childhood and adolescence. Youth too swiftly passes and a period of our life which passes perishes utterly and cannot be recalled. What is left of our time is no certainty and not a moment of standing still, save that this very day we are living in we must divide up with death. Why then do men, who well know themselves to be mortal, concern themselves with amassing riches that must perish, knowing that they cannot take it with them when they die? Nature can be content with little, for she loves the mean and hates the extremes, as the Greek writer Pallades said wisely and well in a song: The mean is the best, for the heights bring on peril and the limits are a danger. Let us root out our minds from all fancies of the flesh and leave the path of destruction and deceit, that as the years lead on to old age we may see the day approaching and come as innocents to justice. And let us not imitate those men accustomed to their crimes, when their bodily powers fail and they ought to remember that they will soon pass hence, who sttep themselves in graver sins, like those who were lustful in youth and are rightly called raving old men. Let each man shake off every tie to the world, the flesh and the devil, while he may, while he has the capacity, and turn to God with his whole mind so he may with sureness await that day when he will cast off this present life and take on another. Let him take pains to live well before old age so as to die well in old age. Farewell and always consider your end. Cologne, 31 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Rutger Sicamber, greetings.
This is to let you know, Rutger, that the most serene prince Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg, has persuaded my most famous prince Philip count Palatine to release me, with my consent, to join the Margrave in Brandenburg and stay there for some time. He has wanted to get hold of me for the past four years, bombarding me with letters and messengers, wanting to bring me to his kingdom for a long stay. He is young for a prince, still in his twenty second year, adequately grounded in letters, endowed with good intelligence, and has an appetite for study. Before now it was not decently possible for me to absent myself from my monastery for so long, but now the malice of my rivals has given me cause to absent myself as much as I can with the greatest of pleasure, and I have agreed to go to the Mark, the more so because my most serene prince the Palatine has not only given me permission but encouragement to do so. My brethren may well come to discover what good my absence does them, after their charity to their father so cooled that it could not be bothered to resist a rebellion of my rivals in my absence, though it could have.
I left Cologne on 4 August and reached Speyer after vespers on the eve of St Laurence the Martyr. The Margrave left Cologne on 29 June, first providing me with supplies for the journey and three servants, and went home with his party via Westphalia and Saxony. I left the abbot of Limburg in Cologne, and my brother Jakob Trithemius with him, who I would rather have taken with me to the Mark, if I had not heeded the abbot’s pleas. As for his case against the Count of Leiningen, whose agents burned down the monastery of Limburg, as you know, has got his royal majesty to appoint a commissary, Jakob archbishop of Mainz, who will hear each side’s version and question witnesses if any are produced, and attempte to mediate a private settlement. After that, if he can bring about a settlement, well and good, but if, as I anticipate, he is unable to do so, he will refer the whole matter back to the King with his actions. The count is an impious tyrant and an enemy of mankind, and denies all knowledge of the dreadful fire, but he is plainly lying, as published testimony contradicts him. A man filled with the devil resorts to stratagems, and he plainly hopes to string it out indefinitely.
Oh evil chief of the devil’s sons, and one who takes after his father, emprestes of sacrilege, does you think you shall escape the vengeance of God? You had the monastery and its great church burnt down on your own authority, moved by hate and vengeance. You have incurred the penalty in canon law specified in book 2 question 23, chapter 8 ‘Pessimam’, you are a limb of your father the devil and deserve to be punished as such, as in question 12, 2, ‘Cum devotissimam’, and the subsequent chapter. Almighty God will not overlook you horrid crime for your covering it up temporarily, and you will not escape the wrath of the just judge because you did not submit to your punishment at once. Divine justice goes to work slowly but it makes up for delay by the severity of the punishment.
Now, Rutger, I urge you to come here to Speyer as soon as possible. I need to consult you about many things before I go to the Mark. I shall still be staying here for some days on business of mine which must be wrapped up before I leave. I have written to your prior, asking him to let you see me, and I am sure he will not refuse. Farewell.
Speyer, 12 August 1505.
Germain de Ganay to the illustrious Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, the splendour of our age, greetings.
A man of your stature must know that the beam of the sun cannot be hidden, since it traverses our hemisphere, nor can it be removed from human observation, rather the brightest ray of its light sinks into the eyes of all and grips them with rapt attention to its clarity. Equally the bright shining light of your teaching is impossible to ignore, but scatters the ray of its light on to all, however remote their locations. Thus it makes your name widely known among outsiders, being borne by wonderful messages, and they being stirred by the rumours of your unique teaching want nothing more than to be enlightened by the rays of your immense knowledge. I myself drawn by confidence in your kindness am not afraid to send you these letters, to acclaim your stature and to set out a request for you.
A letter has come into my hands which you sent to a certain Johannes Steinmoel and in the salutation, after your own name, you call him a man with an appetite for sacred things. It contains some truly unusual and remarkable philosophy, concerning both numbers and elements, but veiled in such riddles and expressed in such arcane words that it did not penetrate my understanding and far exceeded the grasp of my mind. So if you happen to have some sort of interpretation of it and are not reluctant to share it with me there is nothing I should be more eager to read. I am led to conjecture that an appropriate and lofty meaning underlies those words and relates to things more valuable than any wealth. I am a standing admirer of your reputation, and I implore you not to refuse to share it.
Our friend Charles de Bovelles, who visited your excellency when he was travelling in Germany a few years ago, has often mentioned you to me and to tell the truth has quite turned me into a follower and admirer of your virtues. Lastly, the bearer of these letters, Narciscus, who is a friend and acquaintance of your eminence, will futher explain to you the wishes of our mind, which we cannot easily cram into the confines of a letter.
Farewell, the ornament of our age and unique example of learning.
Paris 29 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius to the learned Germain de Ganay, greeting.
Your spokesman Master Narciscus came to us at Speyer on 15 August bringing your letters and welcome gifts. I have kept him with me for nearly twelve days to make sure that he should be seen not to have wasted his journey. You have conveyed great news through him, and it would not be my way to give a reply without sufficient consideration. From his story we have fully understood your mind, and as far as I am permitted I have taken pains that you shall not think yourself frustrated of your desire. I have simply been unable to satisfy you on all points at this time, because we have not been in our monastery since 1 April this year, for reasons which we have charged Narciscus to explain to you in full. As for understanding the letter which we wrote to Johannes Steinmoel last year, we have given Narciscus some introduction to it, from which you should understand the foundation of the secret things which you are striving to know.
The ternary must be completely reduced to unity if the mind would achieve perfect understanding of these things. For the unary is not a number and every number springs forth from it. Let the binary be rejected and the ternary will be convertible to unity. Germain, the true is, as Hermes says, certain without a lie and most true in the knowledge of unity. That which is higher is like that which is lower, and that which is lower is like that which is higher, for every number consists of unities alone, to perpetrate the many miracles of one thing. Do not all things flow from one thing by the goodness of the one, and whatever is joined to unity cannot be diverse but fructifies in the simplicity and aptation of the one. What is born of unity? Surely the ternary? Accept this. The unary is simple, the binary composite, and the ternary is reduced to the simplicity of the unary.
I am not Trithemius of the threefold mind, but rejoicing with one mind in the ternary number, which truly gives birth to a wondrous embryo. Its father is the sun, its mother the moon. The wind carried the seed in its womb, the earth nourished it. The father of every perfection of the whole world is here. Its strength is entire and immense. If it is turned over into the earth, you will separate earth from fire, the dense from the subtle, and the ternary now returned to itself with skill and great smoothness comes down from the earth into the heaven, and decorated once more with strength and beauty shall be turned back towards the earth: and it receives the upper and the lower force, and it shall now be potent and glorious in the clarity of unity, fit to produce any number, and all obscurity shall flee.
One is the pure beginning, the binary is compounded retreating from unity, for it is impossible for there to be two beginnings. The ternary alone therefore is made sacred, being virtuous and potent, and overcoming the binary returns into its beginning not by nature but by participation of similitude, in which without contradiction the mind of the arcane understands all mysteries in a beautiful orderly way.
This is the fairest strength of all fortitude, which conquers all worldly things, and penetrates every solid body, tainting every last thing with choice beauty, as indeed the alchemists promise in composite bodies, but the err, are deceived, and mislead all by whom they are eagerly heard. They wish to imitate nature and to make parts what is of the universal alone, since they do not understand the root of virtue. Do not go along with the alchemists, for they are worthless and the disciples of apes, enemies of nature and despisers of the heavenly things without whose intelligible knowledge alchemy is nothing.
But if a man does not understand earthly things, as our lord Jesus Christ said, how shall he find heavenly things? Our heavenly philosophy is not an earthly one, that we may faithfully behold that highest beginning which we call God with the insight of the mind by faith and cognition, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one principle, one God and one good perpetually existing in trinity of persons, believing truly, knowing purely and adoring always in the worship of the fiercest love and service, from whom are all things which ever could be. Unless the mind rises up in animation towards him it will understand nothing of those things which are beautiful but it will wilt in its ignorance.
Germain, this ascent is not vulgar, and those who are borne upwards on only one wing do not suffice with their imitation, but it is familiar with the most few, that is those who have, and not rashly, reduced themselves into unity. Do we not necessarily first raise our head when we are about to look at the heaven and bring it back after we have looked? Even if to eyes alone it is permitted to look at the sun. Ears see not. For the spirit to come down, therefore, let it become not an ear but an eye, and unity is made of the ternary by participation of the good towards the beginning, because the one is the almighty good, not two or many. If there will be no unity, there will be no conjunction of similitude in the mind, and no participation of the good, and without these no transcension: and unless these go before, it will not be able to attain understanding of superior things nor its own operation of inferior ones.
Now universal things as much as single things necessarily and also the conditions of things are some of the manifest and some of them more manifest. Moreover others are concealed and others more concealed and other most concealed from sense as well as reason. The nature of the things themselves operates this diversity. Hence it is that certain wiser men dodge others. A wise man says more if he perceives less perceptible things. Number consists of order and measurement. But measurement consists of number and order. Unity and the ternary here do not admit the binary, but casting off all multiplicity consist of the purest simplicity in born to them in the first. This is the way to the ones above, Germain, by which the ancient wise men set forth intelligibly by the leading of reason and saw many things which are now held to be beyond human comprehension by our wise men.
You would hear more fully. Concentration generates cognition, cognition bears love, love similitude, similitude communion, communion strength and strength works a miracle. This is the only way to the end of magical perfections, both divine and natural by which it is protected and confounded far from all that is superstitious, tricky or diabolical. For we very much want nothing else to be understood by magic than wisdom, that is knowledge of physical and metaphysical things, which consist of the knowledge of divine and natural strengths.
You should know that we look up to celestial harmony, not a material but a spiritual consonance, where number, order and measurement come together through the ternary to unity, and to that consonance all our lower things must be conformed. It is idle to rate the celestial harmony when the motion of the consonant stars causes a sound perceptible to the ears to form. For celestial harmony is a consonance inviolable by the number, order and measurement of distributions of bodies. But it is necessary to overgo this if there is to be prepared the ascent of the ternary to that harmony which is supercelestial, where is nothing material but all things are spiritual. There is to be assumed by the mind the similitude from which it came. For the starry harmony does not give mind nor flow into it. A certain philocryphus used to say this. Whoever has got the condition of the celestial harmony known would know both the past and the future. Yes who shall be given me, one out of thousands, who can understand this harmony? The mind is born for the supercelestial one in whose similitude it lives.
Stars understand nothing, neither do they feel, and so they do not confer wisdom on our mind nor do they have any dominion in us who walk in the spirit through whom all things were made. May rash men be gone, and vain men, and lying astrologers, deceivers of minds and prattlers of trifles. The disposition does nothing for the immortal mind, nothing for natural knowledge, nothings for supercelestial wisdom, but body has dominion strictly over body. The mind is free, and is not subjected to the stars, and does not conceive their influence, and does not follow motion but the supercelestial origin by which it was made and is fertilised, so much as it communes.
The other things which we would have answered your enquiries with, Germain, we have enclosed in a specially dedicated box to be shown to you alone by Narciscus, and we have also entrusted him with delivering the key to you, though he does not know enough, so that you will not possess a box full of secrets without profit. We have not been able to come to you in person this time as we have been called elsewhere. You shall learn our mind more fully from Narciscus, on how and when the opportunity to come to you may befall us. In our other letters we have written all that we thought should be written to you. Farewell. Remember me, I will never forget you.
From Neometis in the state of Speyer, 24 August 1505.
Wolfgang Hopilius to Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, greetings.
Trithemius, I have just received your most elegant letter. I was at once delighted and taken aback that a distinguished scholar on a higher plane than me was not too proud to write to an ant living out in the country like me. It argues that you wished to declare a taste for untutored abilities like mine. I think I can hazard a guess at how this has come about.
Our friend Narcisus, a keen student of all good subjects, may well have reported on me in terms that come close to dreams and fantasies, and certainly more than my modest abilities warrant. I would make an informed guess that you took his words at face value. Those who are of honest spirit and good intentions readily believe the good things they hear about others, and the bad things only reluctantly, and so you were inspired, as far as I can guess, to share your beautiful letters with me. I am eternally grateful as one who values the writings of a man like you. I know that nothing that can be known in human affairs escapes you and that you easily outclass and outdo all mortals alive today in knowledge and command of letters, as your writings and the testimony of trustworthy men so clearly show. Thus it is that you lavish your singular kindness on all learned men, in case those you have heard good reports of know things worth knowing, and if they are lower in the estimation of men, you value and rate them highly from your inborn good nature.
The other secrets of my heart you shall learn from our common friend Narciscus, who has immortalised your name by carving it on hearts like marble. There can be no doubt but that I recommend him highly, yet I would dearly love to persuade him to avoid the fates of Aristeus and al-Kindi, since the one ended his life prematurely and the other fell into madness, as you may well know from their writings.
Farewell and love me. From our office in Paris. 30 July 1505.
Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim to Wolfgang Hopilius, citizen of Paris, greetings.
Our friend Narciscus came to me at Heidelberg on 15 August and delivered your letters to me at a gallop, and explained the other matters you confided to him. You are surprised that I should think you worth writing to, and assume I must have been too credulous of Narciscus, as if I had not known you before he came to me. But I always knew your calibre from many different sources. Be sure and take the advice of the wise man who said: However great you are, humble yourself in all things and you will find grace with God, which is honoured by the great power of God alone and also by men.
The man Jesus Christ, the strength and wisdom of God, says the same in the holy gospel. Every one who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted. High is the heavenly fatherland to which we are all hastening, but Jesus Christ is the humble way which leads to heaven. Therefore whoever longs to go up into the high mountain of eternal happiness, let him not neglect the path of humility. And however much we progress in this world, whether in learning or living a good life, we should think more of where we are lacking than where we are gifted. For our ignorance is greater than our learning, and we have neglected more good deeds than we have done.
This is exactly what blessed Augustine was thinking of when he said somewhere: ‘A spirit is more praiseworthy if it knows its own weakness than if it takes no thought for it and looks at the wall of the world, the paths of the stars, the foundations of the earth and the gable of the heavens.’
Again, holy Jerome in one of his letters: ‘In all things this alone is perfection, a true awareness of one’s imperfection’, for the great ascent to God is an affirmation of one’s own infirmity. The holy virtue of humility is the foundation and guardian of all virtues. Let the conceited people who make space for pride in their hearts blush when they know that the way of the mind to heaven is through humility alone. Let those who consider themselves great among the wise men of this world hear that Socrates first won the palm of wisdom from Apollo when after many years of study he admitted that what he knew was that he did not know. It is pointless to call ourselves Christians if we do not follow Christ who calls himself the way in the Gospel, and just as a teacher’s behaviour becomes the pupil’s standard, a Christian imitates the humility which Christ always showed. Humility is the sound foundation of the virtues, and if it gets left out, what can we call an assemblage of the other virtues except a ruin?
The first thing for a man who wants wisdom to consider is, what he is, within and without. This self-examination will bear fourfold fruit: his own uselessness, love of his neighbour, contempt for the world, love of God. And this is the way to true wisdom, for without humility no human learning is worthwhile and pride makes it positively contemptible. The first thing for those striving for wisdom by the study of the scriptures to avoid is pride. Just as no wise man is proud, equally he who is proud never attains to wisdom. In angels and in men the origin of sin is pride. Envy does not give birth to pride, rather pride creates envy. For only the desire to outperform feels envy: and the desire to outperform is called pride, which is an evil in men and not pleasing to God, as holy scripture says: ‘God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble’. We should fear that God might let us fall into pride on the slightest pretext, as Sophocles says:
But even a man born with a large body
Should remember he may fall due to a small evil.
And Phocylides warns well against pride:
Do not be admired for wisdom or power or wealth
One god is wise, powerful and beyond rich.
The other vices only take effect in bad deeds, but pride is first and foremost a danger in good ones. Since pride is hateful to God and man you will do well, friend, to abase yourself before both so as to find grace.
Narciscus is too much obsessed with investigating occult things, and I have urged him, not for the first time, to drop his vain efforts, but in pursuit of some sort of great dream he expects very shortly to give birth to mountains of gold. Just let him blindly carry on down his chosen path until he realises he has been cheated of his desire just like all those who worked on the same nonsense before him. He has started to show signs of wavering when I tell him of the danger and difficulty of these things, which he is tackling without a tutor. You shall hear the answer to your questions from him.
Keep well. Speyer, 24 August 1505.
Libanius Gallus to Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the monastery of Sponheim, greetings.
I shall have no rest, father Trithemius, until we come through this time let me not say of evils but of trials. We were born for toil, let us toil as agents and patients, for that is exactly what we should do for our own good. You should not fear those men’s hostility towards you, for it will shortly bring better luck to your affairs. Patiently bear the love of him who died on the cross for you, do not be depressed but silently seek the counsels of God with a calm mind, for you are called elsewhere. Keep to your plans and heed not wealth or the vain honours of the world. Think of the end we are bound for, love the beginning from which we come. You are Trithemius – I bid you confess it thrice with the blade of your mind – as a Christian imitating Christ, a monk spurning the world, and a philosopher admitting no perturbance, and as you are thrice great you shall at last win through, happy in the love of Christ. As I foretold to you when I visited you in your monastery, you should remember to decline the smallest amount of Saturn, since he does not move well for you. You shall, believe me, shortly be raised up again by Mars and Mercury, and have a good condition though a lowly one. For God will not abandon you, Trithemius, and neither will Libanius. Hear the advice of one who you ought not to ignore.
Set aside hostility: better things are prepared for you.
After fifteen moons follow him who calls and no earlier.
Go now while the great philocryph is calling, and return when the heavens are made clear: then you shall see me or my messenger at Speyer.
Beware lest Saturn see your books, those witnesses to secrets.
Be prepared for the road, and forget none of those things which prosper our concerns.
Keep anacrisis in silence, and do not release the dove before the time.
Raise your head upwards and do not turn it aside.
Leave lying Phoenicians to learn too late what good is.
Trithemius, beware: do not admit the sun’s rays to caverns, for dragons are harmful.
Hide sublimer bronze in the earth no more than once.
Do not offer your bread to oxen and goats, and do not let the spirit out through lesser gateways.
Be one with yourself but – beware – not alone with yourself.
Flee every multitude, for the one is all things and without the one nothing is.
Do not lead a blind man by the hand but by the rod only.
Do not mix water with wine, and let there be no double bread on your table.
Feed birds not in the sun but in the shade and never show dogs a glass or mirror, for it is dangerous.
Do not beat a shadow, for it injures the sun.
Use ants if you enjoy catching birds at all.
Divide light in water, lest it freeze and start screaming.
Be level-headed and do not give up, Trithemius, for if no one else is concerned for you, Libanius certainly will be. Kings and princes are our friends and they will gladly give you a home knowing you only by name. The almighty permits nothing without a cause, and we should never despair of the clemency of the highest goodness. I know that you fear God, and the sharpness of your mind has purified you so you do not prize the good fortune of this world nor fear the bad. Having won such a disciple as you I share all that is mine with you. While remaining faithful in Christ alone, be a Pythagorean in the one thing that you lawfully may.
St Quentin, 6 June 1505.
Johannes Trithemius abbot of Sponheim to Libanius, his only teacher, greetings.
Best of teachers, I received, read and understood your letter on 14 July at Cologne, where a meeting of the princes of Germany is being held in the presence of the king himself. I shall follow the advice you gave, even if it means facing a huge outcry from those brethren whose tongues rant against me. Melantius and his friends have made my life unbearable, but I do not doubt he will fall into the pit he has prepared. Our friend Astrophilus has given me advice much like your own, but my mind has not changed one bit.
The prince of Brandenburg summoned me to Cologne and has arranged for me to go with him to stay in the Mark for a time. I shall follow not just your commands but also your advice as far as I can. I have taken the straw from under the oxen and goats and I am at all out war with the apes, but so far I have come out the winner. Joachim Margrave of Brandenburg, a prince worthy of eternal memory, longs to see you. He is a young man of 21 who knows Latin and is a dedicated student of true wisdom. If only we could arrange for him to see you in person and speak to you. He is a very cultivated prince: so far from being ashamed to learn he is positively eager. I wish you would write to him at once, taking your cue from our discussion and sending something from the workshop of Pelagius.
Now, I would like you to take action so that whichever of us dies first, the surviving one shall be the other’s heir. My mind is the stronger for your encouragement and it would be a pleasure and a duty to reciprocate. Pray with me as I beseech God to grant us what we want and very well ought to want. I am writing to a wise priest loved by God, who can help us with prayers and vows, for a disrupted mind to be reshaped and be one in love and knowledge of the one highest good, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and to seek out the grace of its starting point, which multiplicity degrades and unity restores. Most faithful of all teachers after God, if only what we have so often wanted could come true at last, for us to have licence to imitate the true and holy wise men who burned with longing for the love of God and held to the plank of salvation which abstraction truly united them with. What have we and the world to do with each other when we are to depart from here with all speed?
See the award which the lovers of the world have presented to me: I could not serve God as a prelate of monks without reference to the world. You know that I have never sought anything worldly, never loved anything earthly, I have fled from the pleasures of the world and spurned them and I have suffered men’s persecution for nothing, without asking for it, without cause, without fault. But I aim only to please God almighty and neither unjustly nor without cause has he permitted this persecution to befall me, and I give thanks to his goodness, for the truth is, I know that the backlash of my enemies against me will actually be for the best. I accept my lot with patience, so far as the lord Jesus allows: those who have suffered undeserved insults from men will see with what zeal they were led on to accept it. I am unmoved by the injury done me while I am seen to be myself, but I can say this with a calm mind. If it is aware of the facts, a mind spurns the distortions of rumour, knowing the truth which they in the nasty-minded crowd gloss over. Do not doubt, dear teacher, that I will as far as I can do what a lover and disciple of Christ should, and I shall bear with a calm mind what he has given us to bear. Why would I not bear them patiently when I am a Christian and a monk, not ignorant of the great reward. Pray for me, and keep well.
Written in the city of Speyer on 20 August and sent through Narciscus, a doctor of Paris, to the house of Charles de Bovelles of St Quentin, a theologian whom you know and a friend of mine, to send on to you, and I do not doubt they will be forwarded. Again farewell. 1505.
Johannes Trithemius abbot of Sponheim to Charles de Bovelles, theologian of Paris, greetings.
Charles, I am a little annoyed with the bearer of these letters, Narciscus, since he left Paris to see me without your knowing, and I wanted to have your letters. However, he has told me you are well, and you shall hear from him how my affairs are going, and what is more what I have been thinking. Let me remind you of the promise you made last year when you spent 14 days with us here at the monastery of Sponheim. Fulfil it as soon as may be and send us the deep questions on holy scripture whose headings we copied back then at Sponheim as you said you would. They will be a permanent reminder of you, and a tribute to our love of each other.
Everything you have explained in the holy writings pleases us immensely, since like the doctors of old you are well grounded and get to the heart of the matter, not given to unnecessary verbiage, and not held back through lacking the necessary background. What you wrote on the intellect pleased me and many others. It contains real Christian theology, plain and undiluted, which provides the mind with understanding and the affections with desire for the highest good, being pure, whole and clear in itself without the scars of extraneous traditions. I have never liked the sophistication of some who mingle human with divine things and spatter holy scripture, which is pure enough on its own and suffices for itself and for us, with the wordiness of the unbelievers. Jerome criticises them in his letter to Pope Damasus. In discussing the scriptures one should not procure the arguments of an Aristotle, nor fill ditches from the river of Ciceronian eloquence, nor should ears be fondled either by the petals of Quintilian or by the voice of the lecture room. What is needed is down to earth everyday language, with no bookish flavour, which explains the point at issue,sets out the meaning and clears up anything puzzling. The scripture of God is an open book, the witness of God is a bright light, offering wisdom to his little ones. The word of God does not need folding,wrapping and refolding, for that does not bestow wisdom on little ones but leaves their spirits in bewilderment and forces the minds of men to wander through every byway. ‘It is not those who fold and refold but those who explain and elucidate me’, so holy scripture says of itself, ‘shall have eternal life’.
Farewell from Speyer 22 August 1505.
To the most serene and unconquered prince Philip Count Palatine, Duke of the Rhine and of Bavaria, prince elector, Johannes Trithemius, greetings.
Most serence prince, I am forced to remain in the Mark for longer than I originally planned, being detained by the command of the most excellent prince Margrave Joachim, since I may not oppose his most holy will. He has assisted me in my straits with a great deal of support and has pressed me hard not to leave this place before Easter. Eventually I agreed to stay over Easter on condition that the messenger taking these letters to your serenity would ask for your own authorisation for me to stay. In this regard, since he will undoubtedly get your serenity’s agreement, I have thought it good to seek your indulgence hoping that you will meanwhile show forbearance to my brethren and my monastery, or else the insolence of the agitators who did not spare the shepherd would turn on the sheep as well. They have turned on a blameless man without any reason and shown me wanton contempt, so, with the agreement of your serenity I wish to step aside for a time, as delay may clarify matters. I need not tell you, most serene prince, about the insubordination of my opponents, so just consider in order why they would move against an innocent man. There is no need to spell out the well attested ways of these men, not after they demonstrated their animosity towards your cause, first when enemy forces ravaged your people and now their ill concealed agitation against your legitimate support for me under pretence of doing good. But I mean to defeat their shameless ways with patience, and they shall languish in their own malice. Farewell, magnificent prince. Berlin, 20 October 1505.
Johannes Trithemius to Jakob Trithemius his dearest brother, greetings.
If you are well, all is good. I am keeping well by God’s mercy. I left Speyer on 27 August, heading for this place with all my household in a carriage, while you were still in Cologne, and reached the Margrave’s seat, the city called Berlin, on 11 September. The prince was away hunting, that being his long established recreation. He was very pleased when he learned we had arrived, and asked the messenger why I had not brought you with me. I am now living in this unfamiliar but excellent country, which is richly endowed with all bodily necessities. The prince has been generous and helpful to me and he has ensured that I am provided with all I need. I originally planned to return to the Rhineland around St Martin’s day, but at the prince’s request I have changed my mind and he has got me to agree to stay until Easter.
My advice to you is to make your way to Neuburg and stay there with my trusted friend Johannes Damius until I come back. I tell you that you are washing and serving men with no brains. I would rather you spent your time studying books, particularly of divinity, since a knowledge of them lets the mind rise up into understanding and love of the highest good. Do not be ashamed to put curiosity to flight and to disdain subjects which oppose godly love.
There is a great difference between a curious man and a studious one. A curious man is eager to understand things which do not concern him and lead to nothing honestly useful. But a studious man is eager to understand things whose understanding relates liberally and in honest order to the nourishment and adornment of the sould. I want you to be studious, not curious, for as St Bernard says, curiosity is the frst level of pride and opposed to the grace of the Holy Spirit, whose teaching does not whet curiosity but inflames charity. Scripture too says, Do not look into things too high for you, and do not spy out harder things. For if you inquire into many things you will frequently be astounded. We ought to be learning needful and useful things whose knowledge will enlighten a mind separated from earthly things with the apprehension of the highest truth and inflame it with the love of everlasting goodness.
How foolish it is to learn vainglorious things to the exclusion of useful, necessary ones and to neglect the creator while wasting the mind on his creatures. It is pernicious and plainly damnable that many men of this age are curious and spurn the wholesome humility of Christ to seem learned and great, and meticulously scrutinise the opinions of Plato, Aristotle, Anaxagoras, Democritus, Pythagoras and all the rest, when in fact they were far removed from knowledge and teaching of the supreme truth, as if we did not have in our own ranks philosophers and learned men who we should imitate to become indolent, dispensing with the wisdom of the gentiles as it seems to me right and necessary that we should.
We have many better men than the philosophers of the gentiles whose teaching we should imitate, namely Christ’s holy apostles Peter, Paul and John, and their successors Origen, Athanasius, Hilary, Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Basil, Eusebius, Firmianus, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Bede, Rabanus, Bernard and the other doctors of the Catholic faith, whose sure knowledge of the truth inspire Christian minds to justice, enlighten the understanding truthfully, shape charity and revivify souls. Imitate these wise men as much as you can, and keep going over fruitful things by reading and learning their books, and do not allow the years of youth alotted to you to pass by wastefully. Flee from idleness as the most destructive plague of the soul, since it is the greatest enemy of hard work and study and eats up the mind like rust eating iron. Intelligence should be kept busy with good studies and a desire for true wisdom should be pitched ever higher, so that when old age arrives a mind informed with heavenly doctrines will be armed against every face of fortune.
Brother, I pray you not to be ashamed to imitate me: I have devoted all my time in the years of life up to now, as you know, in the study of scripture to the envy of the frogs. And if I had not done so, with fortune raging against me where now would I be lying low? All over the place. Even if I am not that learned, I have learned with God’s aid to stand up for myself and to scorn the many deceitful faces of fortune and to know the results of ignorance. None shall take from me what is mine, since I have learned to carry it with me, making light of all eartlhy loss. I am not fearful of wanting for the necessities of life, having the most sure promise of God in the holy gospel that he cares for us and that want of food and clothing shall not afflict those who seek first heavenly things.
Therefore, brother, I entreat you to imitate the study of good men, not for vanity and complaint but for the cultivation of the mind so you will know the light of truth, love it once known, and possess it without end once loved. Again I implore you to flee idleness, for all men are idle by preference, and idleness is a wellspring of many vices and an enemy of the soul. It saps the strength, puts out the light of the mind and renders a living man totally useless like a blockhead. No man ever grew great through idleness, nor learned, nor excellent, nor immortal in memory. How shall he live who lives for no man? But he lives for nobody who is always idle. We were born for action; since nature, who gave us nothing more precious than time abhors idleness and a vacuum. After labour let there be not sloth but rest, as little as suffices for you to rise the stronger to take action, not slumbering in complete idleness when your work is done. Love the study of the holy scriptures and you shall never be idle. For what a carnal lover says of his beloved we experience to be true in the study of the scriptures. Anyone who would not be idle should love. Love is never idle. But farewell, and love what is good, honest and useful. Again farewell.
Berlin in the Mark of Brandenburg, 20 October 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Rutger Sicamber, greetings.
Dear Rutger, when I had to send my chaplain to the Rhineland provinces I could not keep myself from writing a letter to tell you how I am keeping. By God’s grace I am living here in good physical health, holding a senior post with the prince, but almost completely deprived of the company of educated men. There are good men here, but distinctly barbarous and uneducated, much given to feasting and drinking rather than the study of literature. It is rare here to find a man dedicated to the study of the scriptures; they behave with a certain inborn rusticity and rejoice in idleness and booze. I am tolerably satisfied with the ways of the local people since they are very fervent in their observance of the Christian religion and their devotions. They very dutifully visit the temples of God and reverently throng to the feasts of the saints, and they are the more fervent in the worship of God for being, as is well known, the last of the peoples of Germany to be converted to faith in Christ. Excessive drinking is the only vice they do not acknowledge, though many abstemious people can be found amongst them, and Frankish and Swabian newcomers (as I have more than once had reason to know) easily outdo the original inhabitants in drinking.
And now, Rutger, pray to God for me to leave this place in good time with my health and return to my home country: not that I am wearied of the Mark, when I like it very much, but I want to get back to the Rhineland and wrap up all my unfinished business. I would easily forget about my home for the sake of Christ, since I consider anywhere my homeland if I am there by the will of Christ. I shall not be seeing the Rhine before Easter, since our most serene prince has insisted that I must stay here for longer than I originally planned. This is what I wanted you to know. Please write back with any news and keep well. Berlin, 20 October 1505.
Johannes Trithemius to Johannes Vigilius of Sinsheim, doctor of civil and canon law, greetings
I have sent a letter from me and a rather longer one from the Margrave to the most serene Philip, count Palatine, making a case for my prolonged stay in the Mark, to be delivered by my chaplain Dietrich who you know well, and I would ask you to make it your business to ensure he sees them. Dietrich will fill you in on my situation, so let me give you my impressions of the Mark.
The land is good and exceedingly fruitful but it is short of hardworking people to till it, being vast and wide open, and the peasants being few and idle, and fonder of drinking and idling than toil, take it from me. The people of the Mark bring on poverty by drinking and idling, illness by fasting and death by drinking, these being the three things in which they visibly outdo the other nations of Germany. These people are as if to idleness born, and many are the saints’ days on which they refuse to work, and they are under permanent threat of destitution, those who dwell in the countryside above all. Those I have seen are most observant of all the fasts and in this one thing I rate them highly above many others. But the greater part of them is far too fond of drinking bouts and so foully stain the merit of fasting, so much so that life here consists almost entirely of eating and drinking. And so much for the ways of the people.
Nothing new or remarkable is afoot here except that a serious conflict has arisen between the Duke of Mecklenburg and the people of Lübeck, and unless the mediation of their friends calms things they will certainly go to war. However my most serene Margrave, whose sister the Duke is to take to wife, has stepped in and is working hard for peace. I hope to hear from you that my serene prince Palatine is keeping well and that you will explain the need for my delayed return to his majesty. Farewell. Berlin, 20 October 1505.
Johannes Trithemius to Johannes Evriponus, Carmelite of the convent of Dahme
Our most serene prince of the Mark of Brandenburg has commanded us to write to you to return here to Cölln as quickly as possible, bringing with you the things your prior promised to his Majesty. We have completed our book on the praises of the saints, and it is waiting for you to copy it. So, then, drop all other commitments for fear of alienating your prince. Yesterday evening our chaplain Dietrich came back to us from a journey beyond the Rhine and has brought our Steganographia which you are so eager to see. Farewell.
Berlin, 15 December 1505.
To the reverend father in Christ Johannes Trithemius abbot of Sponheim, his brother Jakob Trithemius, greetings.
Your reverence’s letters brought me immense joy when I learned that you are safe and sound. And you wish to know how I am. In brief, things could be worse.
By the goodness of God I am well and, though I have no money, rich. After your return to Speyer I went to Wachenheim and stayed there for a few days, but I soon worked out that people who had forgotten my services and your good deeds looked at me askance, taking a dislike to my studies when I would not renounce them for stones and mud. I decided not to stay longer with ungrateful and deceitful men, neither mindful of benefits nor keepers of promises. As you know, I spent many days in Cologne serving the abbot as a scribe, and because of him I alienated what friends I had, spent my time with him to no benefit to myself, wore out my clothes and got virtually no reward from him. The church in Willow Valley which he wanted to assign to me is very poor and the priest’s house was burned down in a fire with the rest of the village. Let him keep it thank you very much; I have no desire to stay there. If only I had gone along with your pleadings rather than his and gone to the Mark with you, I should have been better off than working unpaid for him. Giving up on that vain hope I went down to Trier and stayed with our parents for a while until I proceeded by stages to the order of the priesthood. I shall now proceed to take your advice and stay with our friend Damius until you arrive. Stay well.
Speyer, 11 November, 1505.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to his loving brother Jakob, greetings.
By God’s mercy I am well, and if you are well all is well. I was well aware of who you were serving and I well knew the unlovingness of peasants (?) having long experience of it. But since it was your idea, you have yourself to blame if you wasted your labour. Write to our parents as soon as you can, telling them to take care in their old age and not to worry about me. Almighty God in his mercy will, I am confident, provide for me without our parents worrying, even if I never return to Sponheim. Prior Remitius has written sweetly and humbly hoping that I will return to the monastery forthwith: I have written back answering word for word, until I have established men’s mind more fully. I shall not easily believe this after being so horrendously deceived. When I am back in Speyer or Heidelberg, I shall work to find out the thinking of the brethren, and then do what seems best to me. If that means staying away, that is nothing to me, indeed i would rather do without an ungrateful monastery than stay with the wayward sheep. Farewell. Berlin, 8 January 1506.
Johannes Trithemius to Georg Sibutus, poet laureate, greetings.
I have heard that you have entered into a contest with Hermann Trebellius, and to my mind you would have done better not to. A man of your age should not flog his elders with words and wage war, as the saying goes, over goats’ wool. A boy like you is supposed to listen to his elders and learn from them, not to criticise or be unfair to his betters, even if you do know better than them. The poet Hesiod describes you exactly when he says
Potter hates potter and smith hates smith
And beggar envies beggar and poet poet.
Envy is the worst evil, and hurts nobody more than its originator, the daughter of pride, the lethal poison of the mind, and by it the devil was greatly to blame for tripping up the first man.
Consider what scripture says: Envy, it says, slays the silly young. Pope Gregory explains it when he says: We can only envy those we think have life better than us. Thus it is a little man who is slain by envy, for if he had not been inferior, another’s good would not have grieved him. There is no more monstrous monster than envy, nor a more damnable damnation, and it is rightly called the pit of wandering blindness, the hell of the human mind, the goad of contention, the needle of corruption and the entry point of diabolical obstination. Envy rebounds heavily against its originator and kills the mind it arose from like a viper killing its parent, and by it the devil’s trickery first brought death into the world. Hence Solomon instills good will in his listener when he says (Proverbs): do not eat with an envious man and do not desire his food. Envy devours all good things with its noxious heat, disturbs the soul, eats the sense, burns the breast, afflects the mind, and pastures on a man’s heart like a plague. Envy is a fire that cannot be put out. As a moth eats clothing, envy consumes him who embraces it. Watch out for the envy of your friends more than the traps of enemies. You will be greater for not envying: for he who envies is lesser. An envious man makes another’s good his own ill, which is beneath a learned man and a wise and good one. Envy is wanting from poverty alone. That is why it is better to suffer envy than to act on it.
If you want to be free from envy, do not hunt vain glory with your companions but imitate your own Tibullus (book 4):
Envy is no use, avoid vulgar fame,
The wise man rejoices in his silent breast.
Behave modestly in all things and you will be glorious without envy. Modesty is the virtue moderating the passions of the spirit, making a man pleasant and presentable to all who encounter him, his words calibrated on the scale of justice, and let there be gravity in his meaning and weight and measure in his words.
It is not right for men dedicated to literary pursuits to relish controversy and neglect more important things to wage war about pointless words. The minds of the teachers will be stripped of their state of rectitude and the hearts of the listeners will be shrouded by the cloud of vanity and never come to the secrets of wisdom. A man’s teaching is freely admired by all, praised and happily received, if modesty shines from his speech, and no quarrels about wretched reputations and no haughty pride can be seen, but with sweetness, tranquillity of voice, mind and mouth is perceived. No wise man can be proud or arrogant, and he who is lofty and proud is not wise. Our greatest reason for humility is the fact of our mortality and we have absolutely no cause for pride. What, my poet, are we if not men who must shortly die? We are like wind and shadow, as Sophocles says in the Ajax:
For I see that we have never been other than
Images our life long, or a flimsy shadow.
We live for an instant, Seneca says, and with every instant less. And this minimum nature has divided with the veneer of a long interval. For this reason it wanted one part of it to be infancy, boyhood another, youth another, and the long declination from it into old age: and after old age it has decreed a certain regression into childhood, and after that, death ends all. What else is man than stinking sperm, a sack of dung and food for worms? After being a man we shall be a rotting corpse, after a corpse worms, after the worms an evil stench and a great horror. This is the way that every man goes. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, as a man comes forth naked from his mother’s womb, so he shall return naked to the earth and shall take nothing with him of all his work. Entirely pitiful is the frailty of man; as he came so he shall return. What then shall it profit him that he laboured into the wind? All the days of his life he eats in shadow, and in much care, trouble and sadness. Deceitful is the hope of men, Cicero cries, frail our fortune and foolish our conceits, in an instant they are dashed and collapse in their tracks before ever they sighted the harbour.
So, Sibutus, think always of your end and know that you are mortal, and never let your mind touch pride, the mother of all evils. The fates are inexorable as Martial says
It is never good to pray to the wool spinning lasses,
They will stick to the day they have appointed.
We all die, and are poured out like water on earth, as he says. We are all owed to death, and our mortal deeds shall perish, and death is the last line of things. Work hard on useful things, and with them you will secure not just bodily needs but your mind will be preserved from hideous death. I shall shortly be returning to my home with you at Albiburgium, and I shall speak further about why I have been so bold as to write to you thus. You know how much I love you and will not be offended by my urgings. Farewell: I am mindful of you.
Berlin, 20 April 1506.
To the most serene prince Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg, duke of Stettin and Pomerania, Count of Rügen and Cassubia, prince elector etc, Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, good wishes.
On 14 March, as you know most famous prince, I left your seat of Berlin around eleven, and as our Astrophilus foretold, many mishaps befell me, but by God’s mercy I escaped them all. For six days I put up with an illness of stone and bladder, and was so ill that I was forced to remain in Leipzig and put myself in the hands of doctors, which I never did before. And when I reached the Rhine I was taken captive by the henchmen of that wicked count who burned the monastery of Limburg, with your serenity’s herald, my household, and one monk of the burnt convent, at about eleven on the feast of the Trinity, and taken to a nearby castle. But there they soon recognised that I was under royal protection, and released us all. The very reason they gave for seizing us was that I had taken the side of the burnt convent of Limburg in the negotiations. Because of this outrage, as your messenger will tell you, I have been unable to deliver the communications you commissioned me to bear to the archbishops of Cologne, Trier and Mainz. I shall, as soon as possible, see that they have your letters and know what you want. I can write nothing definite about my own affairs until I have spoken with my most excellent prince, who is away at present, and learn how my brethren are and what my rivals have in mind. I shall certainly not be seen in Sponheim unless all obstacles are first removed. If the insubordination of my rivals has not been reversed, I shall do one of two things: I will return to you as you have urged me, or I shall seek a place in my order which is suited to my studies, where I can make your serenity a partner in my studies. You have often heard my opinion that touring the courts of princes does not suit my plans and is not fitting in my state of life. I shall therefore seek a place to suit me anywhere in my order if I can, and if not I shall have to do what I can. I am eternally grateful to your serenity not just for the generosity you have shown but for promising more if necessary. I hope your excellency and his people keep well and live to a ripe old age. Heidelberg, 18 June 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to his friend Jakob Wimpfeling of Selestadt, greetings.
For two whole years I have not had the opportunity to write with my news, with a terrible war raging around me and, by God’s permission, my life taking a huge new direction.
About the season of Pentecost in 1504 the Bavarians, Swabians and Hessians in league with each other and various other princes, counts and cities, ravaged through the entire territory of my serene prince Philip, Count Palatine both here on the Rhine and in Bavaria, sacking whatever they found insufficiently defended sparing no place and respecting no religion, without discrimination of sex or age. They despoiled churches and stripped monasteries bare, carrying off whatever they found: chalices, altar furnishings, bells and all the vessels whether dedicated to human or divine purposes. Many great and fair towns all around me were burnt down with their beautiful churches and their foundations lie consumed by fire.
In particular the famous monastery of my order at Limburg near Durckheim was put to the torch and completely destroyed including its church and all the dwelling houses. And two monasteries near me were stripped of everything moveable inside them, one, the gate of Mary of the Wilhelmites by Alexander’s men, and one, St Disibodus of the Cistercians by the Palatines’s troops, and only a ransom spared them from burning. The farms of my monastery too were almost all either burnt down or otherwise completely destroyed.
While all this was going on around me I was forced to spend 22 weeks in the Palatine’s nearby town of Kreutznach where I took up residence on the eve of Sts Peter and Paul for fear of the enemy. With great loss of household goods, I took the precaution of moving the contents of the monastery there to keep the enemy from looting them. And what with the removal there and the removal back many items went astray or were smashed, since none of my people could be on hand to provide the necessary oversight. When the raging populace and its disturbances were eventually stilled, I returned to find my monastery nearly bare of wheat and other necessities since they had all been used up in the wartime crisis.
Then a few months later while I was away at Heidelberg, some of my monks and capuciates, lay brothers as we call them, took it into their heads to form a conspiracy against me with the Hunsrückers (who harboured a grudge against me on account of the Palatine), and poisoned the mind of the Transylvanian Duke against me. He, giving credence to false accusations against me, had several members of my household detained in defiance of ecclesiastical immunity, citing concocted evidence, all of it coming from another source. I heard the news at Heidelberg and was roused to indignation, and from 1 April 1505 up to this day I have stayed away from my monastery, not for fear of the Duke or any other man, but out of disgust to think of my ill treatment. For nine months I was in the Mark of Brandenburg with the most serene prince Joachim elector of the Holy Roman Empire, as he has wanted and implored these many years, and I am now back in Heidelberg after leaving him with no small remuneration. I shall be staying here until I see clearly what is the best thing for me to do.
There are many reasons and causes why I shall not easily agree to return to Sponheim. Not wanting to be seen to ignore my religious superiors, I shall wait for the meeting of the order to be held at Mainz at the start of September as usual. If they can come up with reasonable advice about my affairs, well and good: if they cannot, and certainly if they will not, necessity will prompt me to follow the prompting of fortune. I am hardly the first to desert a place entrusted to them because of bad treatment, nor to serve ungrateful people, for not only many abbots but even pontiffs have resigned their dignities and prelatures because of the malice of their subordinates and sought their own salvation. Almighty and most faithful God, who feeds the birds of the air and gives the beasts food in due season will, I doubt not, provide for me as long as I live, and I do not covet many things, nor do I long for great ones. I have food and clothing, in the words of St Paul, and I know how to rest content with them, as on of the Greeks said:
I do not seek to be enriched, nor do I want to
But may it be my lot to live modestly having nothing bad.
I am eager to know what you are working on, for I cannot imagine you languishing in idleness or being able to spend as much as one day without sustained writing. Farewell and remember me to God.
Heidelberg, 31 July 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Konrad, abbot of the monastery of St Stephen, Würzburg, greetings in charity.
Reverend father, friend and most dear brother, as the saying goes, need proves a friend true or false, and amidst my woes I would ask no more from you, than to come to me, if you possibly can, at Heidelberg after the chapter has been held. I am mulling over many things to say to you which I cannot commit to cold writing. I am sure you will not lack charity about the storm of persecution from certain Hunsrückers who seem to think they are doing God’s work by persecuting me without reason, moved as much by envy as by hatred of me. However, my many troubles have taught me well how to make plain the entrance to the kingdom of heaven, and I have armed myself as well as I can, being provided with the patience the lord Jesus bestows, not wishing to repay ill with ill, but to give anger a wide berth, and have now been staying away from my monastery for seventeen months now.
A number of considerations have persuaded me never to return to my monastery again. The duke of the Hunsrückers has believed everything my rivals told him and taken completely against me, though he affects to want me to come back. But I refuse to follow the command he is said to have given: ‘Let your abbot return to his monastery, he has nothing to fear’. I will do him neither good nor ill.’ You, prince, have made your attitude to me perfectly clear, and it needs no spelling out. I know just how much good you mean me, and you have plainly promised to do me no good, any more than you did before. Good riddance to you and your sycophants, I will never agree to submit to your authority ever. I follow the counsel of the Almighty, who permits nothing without a cause, and with confidence in his mercy I do not fear what evil, ambitious and ungrateful men may do to me. They have persecuted me to achieve their ambitions as events will show.
I understand that my prior has been writing eulogies of me in the name of the congregation, but full of lies concocted without reason. Men’s guile is a wonderful thing. He bombards me with letters, and whenever he visis me, he asks, begs and prays me with tearful words, in his own name and that of the congregation, to return to my monastery, promising all submission and obedience, but in secret he is plotting against me. In view of his blatant injuries and scandal, even though I could fight the injuries off with the help and backing of the most serene prince Palatine and others, and retain my abbacy while staying away from the monastery for good, in view of the duke and my rivals, I have made up my mind to resign, preferring to keep my conscience innocent of the evils which might affect it, rather than seek revenge for the insults.
I have therefore made up my mind to lay down the burden of pastoral care and serve the ungrateful wretches no longer, following the example of St Benedict and many fathers after him, who were provoked by the ingratitude of their monks to abandon the pastoral care of sick sheep and moved elsewhere for the sake of their salvation.
But let us discuss all this in full when your charity comes here to Heidelberg. The abbot of Limburg and I are expecting you and von Schuttern, and we are in high hopes that you will come.
Heidelberg, 20 August 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to his good brother Rutger Sicamber, greetings.
On the fourth of this month there came to me at Heidelberg Johannes von Schuttern, Konrad of St Stephen’s, Würzburg, and Georg in Schwartzach, abbot of my order. they were sent by the annual chapter recently held at Mainz with a commission to persuade me to return finally to my monastery. They said that two other fathers had been commissioned by the chapter to approach the Duke in the name of the Bursfeld Union as a whole and appease him for me. I heard them out and replied that there was no need for representatives to approach the duke for me, since I neither want nor expect reconciliation with him.
Far be it from me to submit to the authority of a man to whom lies appeal so strongly and truth not at all. I have suffered too insolent an injury from both the Duke and three men of my convent to return to them now, and I shall resign my abbacy as soon as I can put my affairs more or less in order. The delegation accepted my response, seeing that my mind was made up, and made no further representations, but wrote back to the abbots appointed by the chapter not to waste time on the Duke, as I was absolutely determined not to return to Sponheim. God will provide me with a place to go, and anywhere would give me a more peaceful life than Sponheim.
If you would know where I mean to go, I do not know how to answer. Three great princes would like to have me, but I do not want to seek out the courts of princes. Three major abbots of the order I belong to have also asked me to come to them. This is not wishful thinking: these are the individuals concerned, Maximilian, most serene King of the Romans, has many times, as you know, urged me to enter his service. There is no need to enlarge on the Margrave of Brandenburg, as you know how highly he rates me. The most clement prince Philip, Duke of Bavaria and count Palatine of the Rhine, has promised to provide for me generously for the rest of my life, living with the abbot of Limburg, or in his principality, whichever I wish.
Lastly, the above mentioned abbot of St Stephen’s told me that the abbacy of St James the great, apostle, outside Würzburg is to fall vacant any day now due to the resignation of the present abbot, and if I should wish to take it up, he would make every effort to push it through as soon as possible. I agreed to the offer at once, preferring to live in poverty under monastic discipline than to be rich and haunt the courts of princes. After all this, the fathers the chapter sent to me went home on 8 September. I am expecting the said abbot’s response at any moment, if of course it is acceptable to the most reverend bishop of Würzburg, and when it all goes through I shall write with further news about it all. Farewell.
Heidelberg, 12 September 1506.
Konrad, abbot of St Stephen’s, Würzburg, to Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, greetings.
Reverend father, further to our mutual agreement made at the convent of the nuns of Neuburg near Heidelberg, as soon as I returned home I want to see the most reverend bishop of Würzburg, and amidst various discussions concerning the monastery of St James I mentioned your reverence; I said it was a possibility, if his reverence liked the idea, that your reverence might be appointed to that monastery. When he heard it he said he liked it a lot, and he gratiously promised that he wanted to favour your reverence, and to offer a faithful helping hand, and told me to inform your reverence immediately. We can discuss other matters when we next meet to talk, and may the Most High be pleased to let us do so prosperously and happily.
Given at Würzburg on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Konrad abbot St Stephen’s, greetings.
Reverend father, I received your letters on 16 September at the monastery of Neuburg by Heidelberg, and read your reverence’s decision and that of the most reverend bishop. I owe you huge thanks for your charity, and I will make them as richly as I can. Even though I could be amply sustained by the favour and loyalty of princes, I am a man of the cloister and given to study of the scriptures, and I prefer to be hidden in a poor monastery than to be treated as a celebrity by courtiers. I would imitate that man of innocence who said: I have chosen to be lowly in the house of the Lord rather than dwell in the tents of sinners. I shall arrive around the end of September, having certain business to wrap up here and in Speyer, and the moment it is complete I shall make haste to come to you. Please do not hesitate to communicate my plans to the most reverend bishop of Würzburg. If anything should prevent me from appearing at the end of September, do not give up hope of my arrival. While God keeps me alive and healthy I shall certainly come, and not let you down. Farewell, stay happy, and remember me to God in your prayers. Again farewell.
Heidelberg, 17 September 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim, to Rutger Sicamber, greetings.
Dear Roger, this all too brief letter is to fulfil what I promised you in my last.
On the 16th of this month at Heidelberg I received letters from Konrad abbot of St Stephen’s informing me that Laurence the bishop of Würzburg holds me in his favour, and has not just willingly but gladly offered me the abbacy of St James’s, the former Scots monastery, but he has ordered me to make haste and take it up as soon as possible. I shall still be here at Speyer for a few days, wrapping up my affairs, and I will make my way to Würzburg as soon as I am done.
Naturally before I leave these parts I want to see you for some talk. But I can hardly come to you, as you know, because of the savagery of that incarnation of the devil (for he is best described as a devil not a man by his behaviour not his birth). So you come to me, I beg and pray. I have many things on my mind which I should like to discuss which I cannot write in a letter. I have also written to your prior to grant special leave to come and visit. Please bring with you your booklet on the various uses of letters, for you wrote certain things in it, if I remember rightly, in which a more subtle polishing will be needed, particularly as regards Greek, since you do not yet have a perfect command of it. I shall give it as much attention as I can, as your little book ought not to be published unamended from your office. Drop everything, for I shall be here for no more than four days. Farewell.
Speyer, 20 September 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the monastery of St James near the city of Würzburg to Jakob Trithemius his dear brother, greetings.
I have complied with your wishes as far as possible, dear brother, and compiled as many examples as I retain of the letters I wrote from my departure from Sponheim to the present day in this volume. I did not keep copies of absolutely all of them, mainly because I was often forced to write them in haste. However this volume contains sixty six letters of mine, with twelve from others to me, which, with that one to you, come to seventy nine. In them I use my ordinary way of writing, not striving to be admired for an eloquence which I never had, but in scholarly language which will easily be understood. As you kno w, I left my monastery on 1 April and have not returned there to this day.
I left it in 1505, on 1 April as I said, and took up this abbey of St James on 14 October the following year. In all, the time that elapsed between my leaving Sponheim and entering this place comes to eighteen months and thirteen days. To that period belong the present letters which I am dispatching to you, dear brother, not so much for your information as a reminder of me. The ones written first I sent to Sponheim and are not arranged in order but if you wish to have the order I would have put them in you can easily do so. Those I have written since or shall write in future I shall supply to you for a second volume in due time.
Farewell, from my monastery of St James the great, apostle, near Würzburg, 28 December 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the monastery of St James the Apostle outside Würzburg, to master Jakob Trithemius his only and most sweet brother, greetings.
Since I have been seized with brotherly feelings for you, I thought this first book of Würzburg letters would link up very aptly with the last volume of Sponheim letters which I dedicated to you. For in that book you read of the calamities I went through; in this one now read the compositions of a soul which has won the quiet it desired. I wrote the letters in the first volume as abbot of the monastery of Sponheim, and those in this book equally as abbot of St James’s, Würzburg.
As I did in that first book I propose to do in this, not writing out the contents of all my letters, but those at least which I thought would please you. Again, I have interspersed some of my friends’ letters to me, not all of them of course, but a few of many which I thought you would find worth reading. I urge you, brother, to imitate the studies of the wise and to flee the mental sloth of the foolish, knowing the saying of Solomon that a wise son gladdens his father but a foolish son is the grief of his mother. We should learn while our age allows us and our memory is strong, since as Seneca says truly, studies will make you famous and noble; yes without studies the spirit is sick and notable for nothing much. Human understanding is comparable to gold, for it lies bound in the dust and dung of ignorance unless it is continually purified by the file of exercise, and gold does not achieve beauty and understanding does not achieve natural knowledge.
Three things frequently block those intent on the study of the scriptures – negligence, imprudence and fortune. Negligence holds us back when we drop or skimp on the things we should be studying to our profit. Against this corruptress of saving study the best remedy is keeping good company with studious people who exercise continually in the wrestling ring of scripture: and it is found in many public schools and few monastic houses. For these days the study of scripture is spurned by many religious of all orders and flourishes in few monasteries.
Imprudence trips us up in the midst of our studies, when we do not keep to the correct order in the things we are studying. We either wish to study things which do not concern us, or deliberately neglect more useful things for less useful ones, or tackle good and useful things in the wrong order and at the wrong time. It is most unfitting for distinguished minds to be degraded with trifling studies and for those whom serious and difficult studies await to be busied with vain and useless drill. To avoid falling into this fault it is important to choose the best masters by whose teaching and, just as much, whose example we shall arrive at structure in our studies.
Fortune too is a threat to the studious in many ways, as daily experience teaches us all too well who are attempting the ascent to true philosophy. Various are the events which rock us, poverty, sickness, honours, good luck and equally bad, and each of them may take hold of a studious man’s mind now and then, making him unable to grasp the knowledge he longs for. Slowness of natural understanding, lack of books, and the scarcity of suitable teachers have kept many from making progress in salutary study. Wealth has often affected philosophisers badly, and diverted more people from study than poverty. Honour, good looks and prosperity gush with the same poison, for they furnish most people with occasion for ignorance rather than wisdom. Slowness of natural understanding can be overcome by love if you keep to hard work and persistent study.
Our forebears could blame the shortage of books, but we are spoiled by plenty, since the art of printing invented in our day at Mainz, and now spread throughout the world, has brought to light so many volumes of teachers old and new that anybody can now acquire learning for mere pennies. And these days there is no lack of teachers of good subjects, but in all countries they abound with every variety of subject, not only in Latin, but also Greek and Hebrew.
These are golden times indeed, in which the study of good literature, neglected for so many years, has flowered again. I do not wish you to imbibe more secular literature more than is needed to understand divine scripture, or you will exemplify what a wise man once said of the lovers of vanity (and there are many such today): they do not know necessary things since they have learned superfluous ones. True knowledge is that which leads to knowledge of God, improve behaviour, restrains appetites, purges the affections, enlightens the spirit in those things which pertain to the salvation of the soul, and inflames the heart with love of its creator. Saving knowledge is that which affects, not exalts, the mind with the love of God, which does not make us proud men, but lamenters, which does not run after vanity, but drawing all things into one is sweetly fortified in the divine love. I want you to study this knowledge, brother, for it alone is the fulfilment of all sciences.
The level of mastery will not exalt you the less you apply yourself to the study of scripture, but you will discover all the more to learn now you have accepted the outward sign of knowledge, which is given the name of doctorate. I do not admire brilliant grades without knowledge, or big words and little reading, but we who have many teachers look for learned men. Knowledge recommends the degree, not the degree knowledge. It is shameful for a master to be ignorant, for one who publicly bears the sign of knowledge, not tohave the necessary knowledge. What use is a circle displayed outside a dwelling where wine is not sold? Or a royal sceptre in the hands of a fool? The sign is conferred without its meaning whenever an unlearned man without knowledge is transmuted into a doctor. And it is a shame how often nowadays we find some in the schools who practise the abuse of conferring the degree of master with a sign, when the signified is not found in sufficient quantity. Would you not agree with what I say, when the world is crawling with masters and doctors, and fewer learned men and a fair few unlearned ones are found.
Take care, I urge you, to adorn your masterhood with wisdom and your priesthood with holy behaviour or you risk the double disgrace of being thought a doctor without knowledge and a priest without the merit of holiness. The knowledge necessary to you is first to know God, to understand the divine scriptures, to know the canons of the fathers, to know something about both human and divine law, insofar as it concerns your office, to practise the virtues and to love God with a pure heart above all things.
It is the business of a master of arts to know the principles he professes, to untie knots, elucidate tropes and explain all the metaphors in scripture. You are called a master of the seven liberal arts: let us see, then, how much knowledge you have acquired of each of them, so you will understand how necessary the use of them is to you.
First of all grammar, which is the foundation of the seven arts, teaches you how to write Latin, speak it aright and produce correct speech without any faults.
Rhetoric transcends the vulgar way of speaking and seeks beautiful ornament in speaking, uses tropes and various colours, and seeks to proclaim the cause assigned to it with fair, sweet words; and when it persuades, it achieves the aim of oratory and wins the prize on offer.
A knowledge of logical reasoning teaches you to distinguish true from false, so you will not be deceived by subtle talk or fall for syllogisms of fallacious arguments. Knowledge comes before the practice of the virtues, because no one can faithfully desire what he does not know: and an evil can hardly be avoided if it is not known.
Arithmetic teaches you to multiply and divide whatever numbers you are given and to find a definite root in every variety. Everything consists of number, and one who is ignorant of arithmetic never has perfection of knowledge.
A knowledge of geometry tells you how to measure the earth by combining numbers and measurements: a beautiful subject, with arithmetical shapes as its decorations, and one whereby human reasoning makes no small steps towards knowledge of the highest principle. This art it is that measures the breadth of the globe and quantifies the areas of the lands and the seas, and when it has finished rises to the status of cosmography. Nothing is more beautiful than this research in which the mind transcends the mechanism of the world and beholds the ungraspable wisdom of the creator.
Music prefigures the celestial harmony and consonance and you need the theory and practice of it so that you, a priest ordained in the church of God, will know how to sing rightly and sweetly with modulated sounds, and decorated with holy ornaments you will not fall short of the standard of priestly behaviour.
If you do not know how necessary astronomy is to a master then you are not a master. This art teaches the courses of the stars, tells the time, divides up the year, tells the hours and days. The church calendar is calculated by this knowledge, using the principle of moveable feasts, something which a Christian priest ought to know.
So there, priest, is why you need a knowledge of the seven liberal arts, so as not to be compared to a monkey on the roof or a fool on the king’s throne. Grammar gives the ability to understand Latin properly and speak it fluently. Logic teaches you to know true from false. Rhetoric gives you the power of speaking so as to persuade those hearing of the good and the true you have understood. Arithmetic and geometry together, apart from the advantages they confer on you in administration, present you with a great buttress of divine speculation, so you will be considered a proper master of things discovered and things yet undiscovered.
A great many arcane things are wrapped up in numbers and measures and are not accessible to those who are ignorant of mathematics. Music teaches the chant and astronomy the calendar of the church, and without a knowledge of them none is classed as suited to the priesthood.
But if we should wish to describe a master of the seven liberal arts, what we have said about the qualities of a priest are not sufficient. A master teaching in the schools has one discipline and a priest preaching in church has another. To the latter suffices the use of selected subjects int the arts in a general way, but the gift of teaching required in the former points to specifics of the individual arts which need investigating in particular in a specific way, so he will not only know how to use the subjects he has acquired, but also how to give his pupils rules and precepts for acquiring them.
Now you have left the schools of the artists after being made a master and taken yourself to the college of Christ and been made a priest and minister in the church of God, you should retain the practice of secular literature just as much as is necessary and then turn yourself wholly to the study of holy scripture in which true saving knowledge is contained, and supercelestial wisdom sweetly illuminates the mind. For all the knowledge of this world is vain unless it is converted to the worship of God. Holy scripture, which we rightly call divine, far excels all the knowledge and teaching of this world, for it preaches truths without ambiguity, calls the mind of a placid reader from earthly to celestial things and makes it humble for the love of God in good times and strong and steadfast in bad.
This is the current of the holy river which gladdens the city of God, at once level and deep, in which the lamb, simple and small, walks and the greatest of elephants swims. How wonderful is that river, in which a simple and unlettered Christian may securely cross with dry feet, so to say, to salvation, and a great and subtly read one may swim, if he is sensible, and drown if he looks too deeply. For it has a public side which nourishes the little ones and keeps back secrets which can lead mindthe minds of the the sublime into admiration. For in one and the same passage it tells a story and sets out a manifold mystery: on the surface it sweetly cherishes the simple and in its hidden mysteries it exercises the wise. Its open aspect is a drink which needs no cutting up, but its more obscure aspect is a food which, unless it is cut up by being explained, cannot be digested.
Saint Ambrose himself gives a rule when he says: We ought to gnaw and polish the utterances of heavenly scriptures at length, rolling it with all our spirit and heart: the juice of the spiritual food should seep into all our veins. Rich and most fertile is the field of divine scripture, and it has all delights in itself and brings forth all sweetness. And as manna in the mouth of each man tasted of what he wanted, so the divine word will put whatever flavour you want in your heart. To a Christian priest, nothing can be better, sweeter or pleasanter than spending his whole time on his heart’s desire, holy scripture, and keeping himself clean from this wicked age.
Blessed Jerome also says: love the knowledge of scripture and you will not love the vices of the flesh. May the divine scriptures be always in your hands and be turned over in your heart in fresh meditation, and do not suppose that it is sufficient for you to keep the commandments of God in your memory while forgetting to perform them, but read them again and again to do what you have learned. For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of God’s commandments receive the crown of justice from him. You should live so as to warrant acquiring the necessary wisdom of divine things and understanding of human ones. There is nothing more pathetic than the deficiency nor more contemptible the poverty of one who has been enrolled in the order of the priesthood and lacks wisdom, and has been charged with the office of teaching others and is himself a fool and an unlearned man.
Würzburg, 24 June 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James near Würzburg, to the prior and convent at Sponheim, wishing them continual fear of the divine name.
Almighty God whose power is eternal and whose will is never unjust, holy and just in all his works, who does nothing evil and permits nothing without cause. Just, holy and merciful, he has done all things with true judgement being good and omnipotent, does absolutely no injury to anybody, and he guards truth to all eternity, executes judgement for those who suffer injury, gives food to the hungry. The Lord raises the broken, the Lord loves the just. The Lord gives death and gives life, casts down to the depths and raises up again. The Lord makes poor and enriches, humbles and lifts up. He brings up the needy from the dust, and raises the poor man from the dungheap. He watches over the feet of his saints and the wicked fall silent in the shadows.
‘If the Lord were not with us’, let abbot Trithemius say, ‘if the Lord were not with us’. When wicked men rose up against us they might well have consumed us alive. When their madness and fury raged at us, the waters of the evil doers might have destroyed us. Our soul passed through a torrent of injuries and insults, and if the Lord Jesus had not stood with us our soul might have passed through the water in despair of the intolerable, or for certain would not have avenged its injury thoroughly. But blessed is the lord Jesus, who did not give us up to be deceived by the teeth of our rivals, so forcing us to endure the rule of wicked men even longer. Our soul, like an innocent sparrow, has been freed from the snare of the cruel hunters whose malice does not spare any good man.
The snare is broken and the mindless audacity of the Hunsrückers cast down, when it had sought in vain to call us away from our holy studies in defiance of the just prince. Now at last we have been freed from the many miseries which we endured in ruling the monastery of Sponheim. The snare of worldly entanglement was at odds with all our study but it has been broken by the providence of God, and we have been liberated from servitude to ungrateful men. The lord Jesus has freed my soul from evil lips and from the too scheming tongue of my rivals. You know, brothers, – will you now pronounce your witness to the truth – what unearned grievances we received from the Hunsrückers, who had no grudge against me, saying that they did what they did not out of hatred but of love for us. But we will not tolerate their evil love, since it brought our good name, which is innocent of any crime, into widespread suspicion, as if they were playing some spiteful joke on us, and even saw fit to rail against my family.
This is now the twenty fourth year since I was canonically elected abbot, and all that time which I could have used for my leisure, you be my witnesses and judges, I applied not to any kind of fleshly pleasure but entirely to the study of the scriptures, concentrating on my reading day and night, always writing something or reading it out. None of you ever found me idle, none of you ever saw or heard me given to the pleasures of the flesh or to gossipy conversation or to pointless strolls inside or outside the monastery, not preoccupied with dining, drinks and unnecessary banquets, or wasting effort on any such trivia or vanities. Nothing gave me more pleasure than ransacking the scriptures, and spending any spare time by day or night on them, forever reading or writing some good thing.
As witness to our studies I hereby name that magnificent library which I assembled by my own efforts, planning and fundraising at the cost of continual concentration and weariness, collecting no small total of volumes on the entire range of subjects, not just modern reprints but also manuscripts, amounting to more than two thousand items. It would be a waste of time to enumerate the compositions we wrote here and there amidst our pastoral duties and administrative chores, which made the monastery of Sponheim, previously unknown and obscure, a famous place.
We were dedicated to our studies, but not so excessively that we neglected other matters, you are not in a position to deny it, since you see all around you the practical and attractive buildings, the ornaments and bells which we bought for the church, the various vessels for the holy rites, and not least the beautifully restored inscriptions, for even if you do not understand what effort and expense we lavished on them, they will still arouse the admiration of posterity. Finally over the last twelve years, as a number of princes and nobles noticed and befriended us, we brought you numerous windfalls, from the generous gifts they showered on us.
We had no personal or private items, that being forbidden, but all our goods were common to you and us, and I affected absolutely no distinction of dress, food or drink. Every one of you knows this to be true. We also went to the utmost lengths to see that you lacked nothing that might be called a necessity and we succeeded – none of you endured any actual want. We never stinted you in spiritual matters either, though, after the departure of those of our brethren who liked sacred study, few of you loved spiritual excercises, but always spent your time on worthless things. We wrote, we spoke, we continually preached the word of God to you and encouraged you in season, out of season, publicly and privately, to cultivate true wisdom, but how much progress we made we would blush to declare openly.
Now, since you made yourselves unworthy of our encouragement, we have, no doubt by divine providence, been transplanted elsewhere, so that the tree should not be choked of fruit by thorns any more. The day which we had spent many years hoping for came, and when we had the opportunity to pour the blood of the ungrateful sheep over their own heads and shake the dust from my feet over them and left the land of the deaf in accordance with the precepts of the gospel.
If you will, then, listen to your actions against me point by point, so you will know that we have left you for good reason. You have always hated our studies, and reacted to all our writings with ridicule not reverence. Nobody ever liked our compositions les than our own sons. And not content to mock the booklets we produced by order of the fathers of the order you must criticise them to the uneducated people. You have always lived in defiance of authority and its wishes. You have plotted against us in one conspiracy after another, imposing an oath and threatening ostracism in the chapter for anyone revealing the details of your conspiracy to us. You invented lies about our supposed debts, which we demonstrated before you all in the chapter house to be sheer fiction invented by our alleged creditor the goldsmith of Worms. The two witnesses are alive today, the then official visitors, abbots Gerlach of Deutz and Johannes of Schonau, and their prayers have persuaded us not to take due revenge on you.
Though we were heavily weighed down by stress and responsibility for spiritual and secular matters throughout our time in charge, we could never find a single one of you to share the burden of our efforts or show genuine concern for the poor position of the monastery. How many priors of the cloister did we appoint? Apart from Nikolaus of Kreuznach, for one, and Johannes Damius Curtensius, for another, we could never find a reliable enforcer of the rule and its discipline. It is an embarassment to mention the spite with which you would always react to those who tried to persuade you to keep monastic observance. Exactly how much time and effort those we appointed as assistants put into domestic affairs we know from bitter experience, and it must be plain to each one of you. With many a groan and sigh we bore the entire burden of your pastoral care, none of you being reliable in spiritual or secular matters.
We have consistently found you to be completely useless, lacking all appetite for rectitude and community, and never looking for anything but pleasures of the flesh. Not a single one of you ever offered a helping hand, and whenever we appointed an outsider to manage administrative duties you would goad him with one malicious slander after another. In four years we were forced to polish and renovate the entire inventory of the monastery in person, and whenever we selected a cellarer from among you we noticed a major deterioration in the finances of the monastery. For the past twenty years we were required as a matter of obedience to the fathers of the order to spend most of our summers visiting all the surrounding provinces and were always unable to attend to our affairs,with the result that, what with our absences and your irresponsibility, not to say pursuit of pleasure, neither situation presents a pretty picture.
Thanks to the considerable pains we took you did not experience the least deprivation of the necessities of life until the year 1504, and the savage war against the illustrious prince Palatine, when all the monastery farmyards which supplied our food were burnt down or ruined by the Hessians and the troops of Alexander. Even so we had a cast iron prospect of recovering it all, but your stupidity, not to say disloyalty, got in the way, and your ill thought out interference spoiled the entire plan we had formed (overlooking all your misdeeds). We now see that the seeds of discord go back twelve years, since that is when all the trouble began. The Duke of Hunsrück was in other respects a dutiful prince, but some of you joined the ranks of the rumour mill against me and drove him wild with your plotting. As your pretext, since some semblance of reason was needed, you put about a fictitious story that we had decided to take the side of the elector Palatine and sworn solemn allegiance to that prince.
What, in any case, if that story had been true? Did you have to scar us with your slanders? Did we deserve the Duke’s displeasure? How did our preference for the Palatine benefit him? What effect did it have? What advantage did he gain from it? And how did it harm the duke if we favoured the Palatine’s side? We make no secret of our consistent support for the most serene prince Palatine, ever gracious and generous to us, and to this very day we wish him honour, good fortune and prosperity, but our support can confer no advantage on his majesty. Nor should it be thought that we harboured a grudge against the duke, or wish him ill, and even had we wanted to, what damage could we have done to his cause? If the Duke and his party believed your misrepresentations, the only proper response must be the words of Aristophanes somewhere:
What an unhappy fate, great gods, to be the slave of a fool!
We would gladly be persuaded that the prince is blameless in all of this, if there were not such very obvious signs of a mind led astray. What we say is true, what we wrote about this powerful man is common knowledge, we have no reason to fear his sanctions since he can apply none: we are not subject to his jurisdiction. But we will pass over it in case a kind of vindication should appear to have written the truth.
We now lay before you facts and evidence for you to contradict when you hear them, if of course you can. Who found that monk, you all know which one, having intercourse with a serf woman in the darkness of the sanctuary? Was it not you, prior, and many others with you? Was it fair for you to shield such a man and for him to endanger others by calling on worldly men to aid him? He publicly denied the deed, though it was verified by many witnesses, and to escape the punishment prescribed for his misbehaviour, with your cooperation and help, he tried to shift the blame on to our innocent associates whose hard work had caught him red handed in defiance of justice. Why did you not wait for our arrival? These things all happened while we were staying at Heidelberg and knew nothing about them. With your encouragement and advice he deceived the abbot of Schönau who was all too ready to believe his lies, and certain officials of the duke of Hunsrück, and incited them to arrest some of our blameless assistants and drive others to flight. It was they who spotted the pair alone together in a dark corner of the church which is difficult to get to with obvious signs of their guilt: which a majority of you saw and recognised, and they who watched from the eleventh hour to the second and caught them as they left the church. This was no mean disrespect, insult and defiance of us. These things were done on your advice, to our certain knowledge since we were so informed in our absence by the duke’s representatives, and there is plenty else which decency forbids us to write about.
When news of it all finally reached us, we were so outraged that we decided to stay away from the monastery for a time until we had more information about your attitude to us, and an investigation into the duke’s intentions in doing such a thing, if in fact he did. Eighteen months have gone by since then in which we have not seen a single one of you apart from the prior and have had no communication from you except for one in Brandenburg. We have been living at other people’s expense, kept afloat by the generosity of princes, and we must discern your attitude more or less from the way things have turned out unless the prior deigns to act as a reliable messenger, which time will doubtless bring to light.
Why, brothers, will you so often hammer out prayers for us to return to the monastery as if you did not know our intentions, when I repeatedly made them known to you through the prior? If you wanted us to come back to you, why did you not submit to our decrees? Why did you not arrange beseech your Duke to repay our gracious spirit? But we have heard that he several times said to his men, why does the abbot not return to his monastery? Nobody was threatening him, nobody disturbed him, nobody told him to leave, nobody forbids him to return.
We do not doubt that the Duke would prefer it if what he did at the instigation of that renegade monk had never happened, and in his regretfulness would prefer us to return. But as is the way with princes in this world he fears that if he wrote to us saying that was what he wanted it he would be seen to admit liability. Rather, he expects humility from us so that we who suffered the insult to be first to beg pardon. We cannot deny that this would be in keeping with our monastic code, and we would be very willing to do it for the love of Christ, if your persistent ingratitude was not too great an obstacle to our return. We can very well perceive the inborn graciousness of the duke, and we have not the slightest doubt we could obtain it by writing one letter. When we think of your repeated displays of ingratitude we do not want to put up with the insolence any longer and we have, with regret, taken the opportunity to break free of you in the knowledge that we have been ploughing a barren field all this while.
You must be stupid and cheap if you think I cannot see through your schemes and tales in repeatedly asking me to come back when in fact there is nothing you feared more than my return. Do you suppose we do not know about the proposals aired at the at the conclave of malice at the Pingiones? Do you suppose that we do not know about the eulogies against us which the prior concocted at Schönau in the name of you all and caused to be written down in the handwriting of Peter Slarpius. Do you think they have not come into our hands? This clear evidence of your ingratitude and ill will has given us ample reason to get away from you and put up with your insolence no more. If only we had done it earlier.
We had many invitations to take up different abbacies and consistently turned them down for the love of you. At that time there were several devoted monks among you, impressive in their manners and prudence, and we did not consider the better opportunities on offer out of regard for them. But as time passed, either death or other monasteries claimed them and we were left with you, short on self discipline and learning, long on stupidly and rashness. We often tried to call you back to the path of justice and never ever succeeded. You always had a horror of submitting to the Rule, and as a result you were never willing to put forward a prior who did not suit your behaviour.
We appointed Nikolaus Stauropolitanus as your prior, a straightforward, honest man, but when you saw that he practised Benedictine observance you plagued him with injuries, insults and laughter enough to drive him from his position and from the monastery itself. Johannes Damius Curtesius the agrippinate too was an admirable monk and a man of great integrity who drank in all manner of learning from us, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and with similar madness you rejected him as prior, mainly because he kept the purity of the rule and would not collude with your lighthearted attitude.
Oh Sponheim, Sponheim, from the day of your reformation you have always loathed good and worthwhile men. How many attempts have I made to strip you of your wretchedness but you would not consent. Now at last I am filled with weariness and have been forced to follow the brethren who you rejected with your mistreatment.
Heinrich Northeimensis was a first class man who kept to the Rule punctiliously: did not the malice of pygmies force him to return to Saxony? And those who your mad hostility expelled after him included Johannes Thoringus, now prior in Pegavia, Johannes de Dreisa, now prior of Mary’s monastery, Nikolaus Stauropolitanus the cellarer of Limburg, Johannes Damius provost of the nuns at Neuburg near Heidelberg and Johannes Venatoris the master of novices at the same monastery of Pegavia. These successive individuals held the office of prior in return, but you would not bear them because they had a commitment to monastic discipline. I pass over those who were not priors but monks and novices who the malice of your party drove to seek better fortune elsewhere. This, Sponheim, was always your sickness and vomit, and you hold it in your stomach to bad effect. In your spite you threw out good, mature, worthwhile men who I could safely rely on, the better to rage at your shepherd once I was deprived of their support.
Once the members of your household were thrown out what remained but to throw out the head of the family? Invented stories do not create a legitimate excuse: the amount of harm a man gives is the amount he takes the opportunity to do. Quite apart from the things you did to us which we listed above, we have equal reason to be outraged at your distorted tales seeing, God knows, we did none of the things which your malicious spirit concocted. We are too embarassed to spell out the crimes of some among you, crimes you are all aware of, but as the things we write on this occasion shall remain our secret, our very integrity requires us to remind you of what you will not have forgotten.
Good brothers, we implore you by the busy judgment of God in which the secrets of hearts are revealed, cease to persecute your father, since well you know that all his alleged crimes are invented. Search your souls rather and do penance for it is little comfort if your crimes escape men when they cannot be hidden from God. Read the enclosed file and you will know how much penance you need to do. We can but marvel at your gall: you do not scruple to link innocent people to your crimes, to the point where you did not think to leave us out of it.
Only modesty prevented us from drawing the attention of our religious superiors to the scandalous behaviour which you showed in our absences getting worse each time, so they would all admit how much trouble we had to put up with from you. But we have faith that the lord Jesus will know our innocence on his own, for all the things you have done to us will come to light without our revealing anything and you will take the punishment due in God’s just judgement in this life lest you perish in the trial to come. Your wrongdoing has furnished us with the opportunity to withdraw, after you have treated us as good religious have never treated their pastor.
Now therefore, in our own hand this day, of our own free will, induced, persuaded and compelled by no other person, in the name of God we resign the abbacy of St Martin at Sponheim, which we ruled by canonical election and confirmation for 23 years, two months and twenty days and sought to maintain and govern to the best of our ability and with the help of God in accordance with the purity of the rule of our most holy father St Benedict, having sought counsel before Christ crucified concerning your incorrigible disobedience and the many injuries we have sustained from you and from others, and we have been pleased forthwith to accept the abbacy of St James the Great outside Würzburg to govern at the behest of its most reverend bishop, Lorenz.
Moreover we declare and hereby avow in writing that we believe, hold and pronounce that these men are innocent, guiltless and untainted by all the injuries and insults which you raised against us: Johannes Nutius the elder, Johannes Damius, Johannes Cusanus, Johannes of Sobernheim, Johannes Pingionita the elder and Nikolaus Sculteti filius. Their innocence and integrity are abundantly clear to us since they obeyed our decrees with unblemished devotion and stood aside from your foul behaviour at every point. Moreover we declare them innocent and untainted by all the injuries, insults and slanders which have driven us to depart from you. As for those who have departed this life, with the exception of Haymus, we believe and declare them all to be innocent of your conspiracies.
May almighty God forgive your treatment of us and not account it a sin unto death but forgive you for the love of my lord Jesus Christ to whom I look for pardon of my own sins. Believe me brethren before Christ Jesus the saviour of all that I say truly that we always treated you lightly and never exposed your misdeeds against God and myself. I regard it as improper for a shepherd to speak evil of his sheep even when it is true. This, I know, only encouraged you, and a drunken beggar raised his horns at us, for you to invent falsehoods about me when I kept back the truth about you. That is why I thought it better to resign from the monastery than to raise accusations about your indecent ways in words or writing to the chapter of the province.
I am, however, absolutely certain of this: that if I had taken the case as it is to the superiors holding their annual chapter in Mainz at the beginning of September, my innocence would have been shown without doubt and not one of you would have remained in Sponheim afterwards. I have willingly borne your backbiting in public to prove myself a true disciple of Christ. I thought it better that one man should give way to many than the many be scattered abroad for the sake of the one. The lord Jesus who shall come to judge the living and dead will, I do not doubt, repay the insults and injuries I unfairly bore with a reward above what I dare ask or hope for.
As for other matters, brethren, examine your consciences in accordance with the fear of God, and elect a shepherd over you: not one to suit your evil ways but one who will lead you onwards to salvation. I know that there are two faction leaders amongst you and that both have their eyes on the abbacy: one of them, as you all know, has long been motivated by a piece of worthless soothsaying and the other is overweening about his self discipline. They both seek not God but their own enjoyment, as you can easily verify from their careers up to now, and you would soon find yourselves learning it the hard way. This is the only advice I need give you, though I fear I am talking to the deaf. Fear God and keep his commandments or you will heap sin on sin and store up for yourselves a double wrath on the day when the just judge is revealed. For the Lord is an avenger and repays his long suffering of those who sin and do no penance with the blackness of his punishments.
Farewell and may you some day know what is right. Würzburg 31 October 1506.
Joachim by the grace of God Margrave of Brandenburg, prince elector to the reverend father Johannes Trithemius, greetings.
Our great friendship and goodwill towards you, most learned father, and the memory, still fresh, of those records of devout learning which you recently showed us, impel us to write to you at once. We are dictating this to our secretary and we would firstly like you to know that we are enjoying happiness and health, and so are our wife, son, brother and sister. Our heart went out to your reverence when we heard about your enemies’ vicious plotting against you, as we gathered from your last letters and the account of our messenger. However, we are confident that with the guidance of your wisdom and equally of divine aid you will easily overcome all the scheming of ill natured men.
We have heard the bitter news that your very learned teacher Libanius has laid down the burden of his body and given back his spirit to the Most High who created him. We lament his death (if he is in fact dead, for we are still in hopes that he may be alive) as if one of our dearest friends had passed away. We always loved and marvelled at the distinction of his learning, incalculable knowledge of all the scriptures and unique, subtle intelligence. I urge your reverence, assuming you find that he is dead, to put all your efforts into ensuring that the books he left behind do not fall into the hands of outsiders, particularly those you think will be of most use to us. We will gladly bear any expenses you decide are necessary.
And now, dearest of teachers, we must keep on begging you to hurry back to us around the feast of Easter or of Pentecost. For you know how much we need your contribution to many issues and if we go without it much longer our interests will suffer. Reply with your thinking on the question via this messenger of ours: we have sent him for that reason. If you agree to our proposal (and we are quite confident that you will), specify a time and we shall send the same courier back to you with the supplies you need for your journey, and you shall not leave us without some acknowledgement.
It can also no secret between us, my unique friend, that the new teacher I have engaged is doing well all round, and I have no small hopes of great progress given time. We have enclosed a list of certain volumes which we do not have copies of and would ask you to get them for us to read as soon as you can. We also want you to know that our sister Ursula is engaged to be married to the Duke of Mecklenburg in this flesh and will officially celebrate the wedding here in Berlin. Again we ask you to act on these matters as we are confident a man like you will, and you will always have us ready to please you in any way.
Farewell. Stay mindful and loving of us, and may our long lasting friendship remain unbreakable. Again farewell and stay well always.
From our city of Tangermünde by the Elbe. St Burckhardt’s day [14 November], 1506. By our own hand.
To the illustrious prince and lord Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg etc., Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James near Würzburg, formerly of Sponheim, greetings.
Most serene and pious prince, I must heartily rejoice with you that you and yours are keeping well. I was more pleased at the success and progress of your affairs than I could say in person or write from afar. I thank you and shall be ever grateful for your excellence’s thoughtfulness about my needs, and I shall return the favour if ever I have the chance. I hope to escape the spite of my enemies with the advice of a wise man and the help of God.
Your serenity should know, unconquered prince, that I did not return to Sponheim after I left you. Even though the leader of the Hunsrückers seemingly wanted me to return to the monastery, the scheming of my unfaithful monks got in the way, to the point that I could not care less about them and I made up my mind that I would not return to Sponheim straight away. I acted on advice to stay away and lived with my most serene prince elector of Heidelberg for four months. Eventually the most reverend bishop of Würzburg arranged for me to be elected and confirmed me to the abbacy of St James, formerly the Scots monastery in the suburb, and I entered into possession of it on 15 October of this present year. It is a small place, poor and unassuming, but very suited to my plans and studies, as here I can always concentrate on myself and my books as I please. I have given up the fruitless abbacy of Sponheim together with its ungrateful monks in favour of rest and quiet, after I was there for just over twenty three years. I was not only not sorry to do so, but positively delighted, and now I would not wish I had stayed there given any amount of peace.
I would take the death of my most sweet master very hard if I knew for sure that he was dead. However I am in hopes that by God’s mercy he is still alive and will shortly visit me as he promised last year. I sent him your serenity’s letters and mine in August but I do not know whether he received them. I will do all I can to discover the facts, and even if he is dead, which God forbid, I shall take pains to see that he is not completely taken away from us. For he has left some very precious short works written with sparkling intelligence, and the more of the we can collect, the less we will feel that he is dead.
I myself have not been able to write anything from the day I left you in the Mark up to now, since I could not find a quiet place or a suitable time. I will begin the treatise in praise of St Joseph foster father of our Lord and saviour at once and I will work hard to produce the other things on your highness’s hand written list as swiftly as I can up to the limits of my ability. Meanwhile I would ask your serenity to put up with the delay patiently, and if the Lord Jesus has mercy on me and keeps me alive, with time you shall have the finished works which you implore me for. And now for other things.
Your serenity has asked me to come back to the Mark for the feast of Easter or Pentecost. I cannot give a definite reply, as, in resigning one abbacy and taking on another I am subject to the authority of a different prince. As far as I myself am concerned, I should easily be persuaded, being eager and wiling to obey the just desires of your majesty in any mater so far as I am able. However, two considerations are a bar to my own enthusiasm at this time.
Firstly, as a newcomer to the abbacy I simply could not absent myself so soon to go so far and spend a lengthy time away without the agreement of my most reverend prince, and the agreement earlier given by the Palatine will not avail, because when you change your prince you have to renew your legal clearances.
The other obstacle presenting itself (I would not wish to exaggerate but it saddens me a little) is that some of the fathers of my order are scandalised by my seeking out princely courts, and whisper all sorts of laughable concoctions about me, for instance that my previous visit to your highness was not for the honour of the Christian religion and to spread understanding of the holy scriptures but to teach certain profane things. The mob, always willing to believe ill, is making its customary hay with innocence, and since its way of thinking does not encompass the principles of natural things, what it does not understand it attributes to malign influences. An ignorant man never grasps that what he wonders at is possible, and every mind fears the force of nature according to its capacity, with the result that it is completely deceived like a blind man. But their criticisms do not register with a mind aware of goodness, since it is more inclined to laugh off the carping of the uninitiated: they ridicule a good thing when in fact they were to ignorant to learn it.
Yes, let your serenity write to my most reverend lord bishop, and if he allows me to go, that will be enough clearance for us both. However, I think it would be better advised, with all due respect to your highness’s wishes, to put off my trip to the Mark until 1508, for if I leave so soon the slanderous tongue of my enemies will start spitting at me again.
I was sorry to hear that the king of Denmark has delayed what he promised. I fear that he will have little luck with the Swedes, and the harder he tries to crush them the more he will eviscerate himself. For God reigns from on high in the kingdoms of men, as scripture says, and he gives to each one as he will. May almighty God strengthen your princedom in all good ways and deign to make it glorious, granting you every desire of your heart: as without doubt he will, if like holy David you walk innocently in his commandments with a perfect heart as you have done.
The reason why your messenger is returning late to you is that he mistakenly looked for me at Sponheim. May the most High preserve your majesty to whom I humbly commend myself.
From my monastery aforesaid of Würzburg 25 November 1506.
To lady Elisabeth de Longovico, his most honoured and sweet mother, Johannes Trithemius her son, abbot of St James, Würzburg, formerly of Sponheim, all honour and reverence, with all due expression of filial affection.
I know, mother, how can I doubt, that over more than a year when my life has been turned upside down you have felt more than a little concern. Even though we have left the boyhood years behind, as long as you still have sons you have not ceased to prove a faithful mother. I have sent Master Jakob my only brother with these letters so you can discover through a son everything that has affected a son and learn to find the absence of one son easier to bear through the presence of the other.
I emphatically do not want you to worry and imagine that I am miserable on account of rumours that I was expelled from Sponheim. Believe me, I write the truth when I say I was not forced out by force or fear but left of my own accord and after long consideration decided to stay away and resigned my abbacy, taking on the one where I am now living in peace. Many rational considerations have led me to do this, and my brother will explain them to you if you want to know the details. I am confident in the lord Jesus who permits nothing without cause, that this move will give me material to advance the salvation of every man, since it frees me from many pointless commitments and provides me with good peace and tranquillity. No one knows better than I what ungrateful people I served in Sponheim. For that reason I am not depressed, in fact I am delighted to seize the opportunity to put them behind me, and had often previously thought of giving up on them.
There is however one thing which, I suspect, will pain you somewhat: from now on you will see me in person less often, or never even, because of the greater distance separating our places of residence. Remember that you are the mother of a man destined to die and who, like it or not, you must one day be parted from, even if he were to live with you for many years, since one of us must die the first. How much consolation can there really be in brief contacts in person which death must needs extinguish with more bitterness than ever it previously seemed to bring sweetness? We transfer these vain desires to the vision of eternal blessedness in which there is lasting sweetness without end, which shall never be put out for all eternity once it has shone on us. Oh mother, let us hasten to him who we were created to take part in, and can beyond doubt attain to if we meditate on the commandments of the Lord day and night and love our very lord and God, Jesus Christ, with a pure mind, a whole heart and a burning desire in use for eternity. What need have we of a meeting in the flesh when we should seek one in the spirit?
I have taken vows to serve God and thereafter I may not take pleasure in the consolations of my parents again. I have turned my back on everything for the love of Christ and am now become a Melchizedek, without a father, without a mother, without a genealogy. I acknowledge only God as my father, and I have no mother if not the Church. No longer am I mine, nor am I your son: I am solemnly consecrated to God and signed up to his perpetual service, and therefore I have no need of your concern. Have care for what is yours, for God almighty will without doubt take care of what is his and will not despise one consecrated to him of his own free will. I give you my thanks for bringing me up with such meticulous piety when I was with you: but thereafter, now that I have dedicated myself to God’s service, he who created me will nourish me and does not need your involvement, and will no longer entrust what is his to you.
Be of tranquil mind and do not keep worrying about me, seeing the most high has so ordained my affairs that I will be happier and more fulfilled by far here in Würzburg than ever I was in Sponheim. For God who has ordered all things well has mercifully conferred this grace on me: I have the favour of many princes and if I wished a living would easily be found for me, and there would be no need to beg my parents for handouts. I have taken God as my helper, and on that account the whole world is my home to endure all travails in. And these, mother, are the terms on which we must live if we are to enjoy the eternal vision of God after death in heaven. Farewell and pray to God for me, for I would not have you dwell on me in other ways, for I have made it a rule not to dwell on you except in my prayers.
Again farewell: from my monastery at Würzburg, 8 November 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James’s, Würzburg, to Rutger Sicamber, canon of Hegen, greetings and sincere charity in the Lord.
It was good of you, and the act of a true friend, to send congratulations on my new found peace and quiet, and I am very grateful for you good wishes and study, as I surely should. Our longstanding friendship is great and capable of great things, because it did not grow from the vanity of worldly things, and the fleeting consolations of the world, but stands firm in the love of Christ and the study of holy scripture. And this is the sum of our philosophy, since we are Christians and religious bound to God, to love the lord Jesus, who is one God with the Father and the Holy Spirit in trinity of persons, with an ever pure affection, scorning all the vanities of the world and fixing our mind firmly on the holy scriptures in sobriety. This is the true friendship of the cloistered, that which divine love weaves between brothers, having God for its beginning and end, spurning the practice of vanity, and walking with its fellow in vows along the way of God’s commandments without offence.
As the prophet Jeremiah says: It is good for a man if he bears the yoke from his youth, and sits alone, for it raises him above himself. The sinew of cloistered friendship is to love solitude for the love of Christ, and to turn down the chatterings of men with a carnal outlook at all times. Only cloistered friendship is firm, for identify of wishes couples it in the love of heavenly wisdom without regard for earthly usefulness. There is no need here for fleeting gifts, gold or silver, for the one requirement of true friendship is that God must be loved purely by both. Love is born of insight, insight is bred of the continual study of the scriptures, and study feeds on the solitude it craves, as St Prosper the bishop says:
Quiet people can study the law at any time
If their hearts are empty and free of worldly clamour.
Wisdom imbues a mind tranquil and empty of care
And will be the guest of a peaceful breast.
You are solitary in your body, you live in a forest with a few like-minded brethren, you practise the study of holy scripture, and if the invisible din of the world does not penetrate your inmost heart you have prepared an easy way to the knowledge of the supreme good which is God. The mind too ought to be restrained, not stirred up inwardly by disturbance inciting frenzy nor roused by animal passions, but should be still and tranquil, but always timorous at the divine word, for it is written: Blessed is the man who is always timorous, for he of a hard heart shall fall into evil.
And the Lord says through Isaiah the prophet: On whom shall I look if not the poor man, of a contrite heart, and one who trembles at my word? Since you are fervent for the study of saving knowledge, to understand the true wisdom which is from above, first purify your mind of all stain of earthly pleasures, and then you shall profit from applying your mind to the study of the scriptures. The purer you are in affection, the more fully you will progress in understanding. And the more ardently you love the lord your God, the more you will approach to true wisdom. What else is that enjoyment by our mind of eternal bliss after the dissolution of our bodies, than an unending solemn dance of the spirit which, constant at once in the knowledge and love of the immeasurable good, takes its beginning with the cooperation of God’s grace in this mortal life through sacred studies of our own free will.
I do not admire you, Rutger, for being a poet or orator, nor praise you as a lover of worldly wisdom, but because you are a lover of holy Theosophy and worship God with a pure mind and are thought a spurner of this world: that is what I admire and praise in you, and vehemently love, and why I have admitted you to my friendship and inscribed you as a friend on my heart, without which there is no firm friendship between the cloistered. So let us proceed, Rutger, as constant friends in the sole love of Christ Jesus, dedicated with sobriety and to reading the divine scriptures together with pure hearts, so that persisting in sacred study we may arrive at understanding of the incommutable good, and always love with the intention of the whole mind him whom we know by faith, the ungraspable god himself, spurning all security in this world for the love of him, and dismayed by no setbacks.
The lord Jesus, the wisdom of God the Father, is our philosophy, and the glue of true cloistered friendship, and you ought to have no friend without him. The more you know him through the study of holy scripture and spiritual exercises with the love of fuller compunction, the more you will love him, just as nobody loves a good man they do not know, but whoever comes to know that highest, incommutable good through the faith of our belief informed by the practice of holy fervour will never love anything other than him aline. My thanks to you, Sicamber, for praying for me while sacrificing to God the father. May the love of Christ which has made you my friend always burn in your heart with spiritual sweetness. Farewell. Stay safe and sound, and may you live to be a hundred.
Würzburg, 18 November 1506.
Rutger Sicamber, a cloistered canon in Hegen to the reverend father in Christ, Dom Johannes Trithemius abbot of St James, Würzburg, his teacher and most valued friend.
Most learned Trithemius, I received your letter exhorting me to the love of Christ with huge reverence and joy. If only you would keep writing such exhortations to me so I could always advance in the love of God and become better than I am. Your letters are sweet to me, sweeter than honey, and however often I reread them they are ever better to read.
I offer you my heartiest congratulations on finding a place where worldly cares are stilled and suited to your studies, and I hope that henceforth you are going to compose many works for the common good in the monastic leisure and quiet which you were forced to go without both because of your responsibilities within the monastery and your public ones to your order.
I was seriously concerned, after you refused to return to your monastery of Sponheim, that you would withdraw to the courts of princes, since I have heard that there are many who would be glad to have you. What man of decency would not be angered by the monks of Sponheim and rightly criticise and curse them, after they undermined you so badly with their envy and malice and feared not to provoke so humiliatingly the best and most learned of men, dear to kings and princes, revered by all good and well read men, such as the order of St Benedict has not seen for three hundred years.
I am something of an authority on religious, since ten years ago I had the authority and encouragement of my superiors to take up your reverence’s invitation to spend, as you know, six months with you at your monastery of Sponheim. At your suggestion, I wrote out two volumes of my compositions in my own hand, and I took a good hard look at the ways and attitudes of your monks, and I found almost all of them – the exceptions being Heinrich of Cologne and Johannes Damius, the one now dead, the other the provost of the nuns of Neuburg – to hate and disdain all good crafts, and detract from your useful studies. I have always admired your economy in food and clothing and I have taken on the yoke of a rule to be observed with continued study of the scriptures as the ideal of building up in the spirit, and I shall never forget it as long as I live, but I shall strive to imitate you as much as I can.
I have heard from many sources that your rival, Duke Johannes, dislikes educated men and has nobody in his court who favours studious and educated people. This I can well believe. At the time when I was with you in Sponheim, for some reason or other he had to write to the supreme pontiff and the college of cardinals, but he could not find anyone in his entire duchy with the education to write Latin. If I recall rightly he was forced in the end to send his chancellor to you to ask you to write to the pope and cardinals in Latin.
For which reason I am happier than I can say that you have found a place apt to your studies, with people who will appreciate your reading and writing. There is no doubt in my mind that your monks at Sponheim were unworthy of you, and it will not be long before God the just judge gives them their reward. The one thing that saddens me about your move is that distance will mean that your letters will arrive less frequently.
Your good friend Veldicus of Dirmstein is very happy that you have found honest peace for good. He was afraid, as was I, that you would be attracted to princely courts and be lost to the quiest of the cloister. He has an urgent request for you to arrange for one of his works which you corrected to appear in print for the benefit of readers.
I too hope that some day at least one of my little books will be printed by the chalcographers, of whom there are several near you at Nuremberg. If you like the idea and are willing to help, I will take steps to send two or three of my works to you. I recently wrote a kind of almanac, filled with jests and jokes, which many people like, but since your severe taste looks down on all jokes I did not think it right to send it you since you are prone to be hostile to wit in the maturity of life and speech.
I have written to Jodok Rubeacensis, a theologian and an admirer of yours in the church of Speyer, a stout preacher of God’s word, with one book of popular songs which we both hope to see printed. I have, as you know, written four volumes of my own compositions, containing 32 works, and if you order them to be printed by the chalcographers I shall send them all to you if you send me a trustworthy messenger to convey them.
Our mutual friend Johannes Canter, a physician of Frisia, has passed away: please remember him to God. Farewell and pray for me.
Hegen, 1 December 1506.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, formerly of Sponheim, to his faithful friend Rutger Sicamber.
If I am glad, I do not doubt you are glad with me. If I am not glad you are right not to be glad along with me. I am glad to have overcome the envy of my rivals and escaped the company of ungrateful monks at last with the help of the lord Jesus Christ after 23 years of being forced to put up with their flouting my plans. I have escaped the miserable, ungrateful, stupid people and found, I hope, a place of quiet, where I can look to my salvation and devote myself to the holy study of the scriptures. I regret that I had to desert the good and innocent ones because of the ill will of the untrustworthy, though with time they will be able to provide for themselves safely if they are troubled by the company of the wicked.
You were afraid that I would throw myself on the courts of princes, there being many who made me flattering offers, and you were not the only one. But in all my misadventures, by God’s mercy I have been resolute never to desert the way of the Lord, but to keep my commitment to hold religion inviolate to my death. So let me say in your ear, boasting aside, the more my enemies raged against me, the more I felt the presence of God’s grace, and that is how, with the help of many nobles and princes, I achieved restitution for all the harm done to me, and took no vengeance at all. It was unjust of them to wag their wicked tongues in their lying way, and invent things which I never even thought of doing.
The truth is, the main cause of all the hostility to me was that I supported the prince Palatine and was granted unique favours by him. It is obvious to most people that the duke of the Hunsrückers and his men opposed the Palatines’s cause, as was abundantly clear at the time when the provincial count of Hessia looted and burned Nahegau.
Hatred of the Palatine led not only the Hunsrückers to persecute me but also some of my order, such as the abbots of St James, Mainz, and St John’s, Rheinau. For many years they and their monks spoke harshly against that mildest of princes, though he had never harmed them. They also envied my scholarly reputation and popularity and resented it whenever one of the princes honoured me.
In October 1503, when the prince electors of the Empire met in Frankfurt for discussions of state, it happened that I was summoned to attend as part of the court of prince Joachim, Margrave of Brandenburg. Also present were Raymond, cardinal of Sancta Maria Nova, priest of the Holy See and then the Lateran ambassador, and archbishops Hermann of Cologne, Berthold of Mainz, and Jakob of Trier. All the while I was the table companion of Margrave Joachim himself, and dined four times with the cardinal and twice with the archbishop of Cologne, and was grandly provided with silver tableware in my room and treated with much kindness.
When the above named abbots and monks heard of this they were racked with jealousy, and since there was nothing else they could do they raged and spread tales about me as monks ought not to do. May the almighty forgive them, for their ill will was the occasion for all the trouble that has befallen me. If it was not for their brazen incitement, my brethren would never have locked horns with me openly. But let these things be consigned to history, and may it grant me, in the future recompensation of the just, the fruit of patience, which gives the virtue of tolerance.
If our friend Veldicus has any work of his he wants printed, let him send them a fair copy of it and I will have them printed at once. And send me any of your work you wish to be printed, and you shall see what my standards are.
Rutger, you have written many works in a few years, day and night, while shouldering the burden of a canon’s life, to the admiration of many. I praise and commend your dedication to your studies, and I would praise them the more if they led you to drop secular concerns and concentrate on spiritual ones. You have now composed nearly 140 works, and few of them if any (I am not sure) build up faith or move the mind to devotion to spiritual exercise.
I pray you, Rutger, change your aims as a writer, and after writing so many things for the sons of this world now compose something for the worshippers of God. Boys’ songs are not appropriate for a man. Your studies should suit your age, and following the example of St Paul, a man should put away childish things. You are a creative and productive writer: but that is not enough unless you write what will advance your readers in the knowledge or love of the highest good, which is God, and that will win you the future reward. Farewell and pray to God for me.
Würzburg, 18 December 1506.
Joachim by the grace of God Margrave of Brandenburg, Prince Elector, to Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, greetings.
Reverend father and much beloved teacher, with all our heart we send best wishes on the new abbacy which you have now accepted, and we hope that you will have more quiet there than you used to get at Sponheim. We devoutly and humbly pray to almighty God that he will keep your reverence healthy, happy and safe there by his holy will, which led us to befriend you wholeheartedly.
We are dying to know what has become of your teacher Libanius. Is he alive or has he left this world? If he turns out to be dead, we are adamant that your reverence should not sleep before getting hold of his books. You know how useful and necessary we would find them.
In your last letter to us you promised that you would make all haste to finish what we commissioned you to compose. We would ask you to show your usual dedication, and as soon as you have finished the listed titles, instantly hire a trustworthy courier at our expense and make no delay in sending us them with all speed.
We are sending you, oh our ornament, one barrel of salted pikes and two of sardines: please accept them as a gift not a payment and as a memento of us. We could not muster a surplus of sturgeon or salmon this time or we should have sent you some. If there are any good things we can supply your reverence with, we are very happy to do so. The trust, hard work and generosity you have shown us richly deserve it. We should rightly be accused of the vice of ingratitude if we were seen to forget your good deeds on our behalf.
We really do hope you can return to us around the feast of Pentecost if it can possibly be arranged at this short notice, and we shall try hard to bring it about at no expense to you. We have plenty to discuss with your reverence which cannot be entrusted to a letter. We want you to have the requisite access to your lord bishop, who is a friend of mine, about this issue, since you cannot go without his permission, so we have sent him a letter begging him to agree to your return visit. I am in no doubt that your reverence is on my side in lobbying our friend on the issue. Please write to say how much you need for the hire of a courier at our expense. We shall meet any sum in full.
We hope your reverence is keeping well and happy.
From our seat of Berlin on the feast of St Antony, abbot [17 January], in our own hand. 1507.
I first replied to this letter at Eastertide, not by a professional courier but by a casual messenger, the one who brought me the present of fish on 6 March, it being the Saturday after Reminiscere in Lent when they arrived.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James’s, Würzburg, to good brother Nikolaus Basellius monk of Hirsgau, his sometime pupil and student, greetings.
I was sorry to hear you are ill and I pray for the clemency of God most high to restore you to your old health as soon as may be. I too, as you wrote, have suffered devastation and loneliness comparable to the prophecy of Isaiah and have been worn down with them.
Many people waged a savage war against my prince, the most serene Palatine, and almost all the farms of my then monastery were burned down of destroyed by enemy action. Eventually the king of the Romans imposed an end to the war. But certain men from the Hunsrück, wishing to get back at the prince Palatine, targetted me to get back at him, secretly encouraged my rivals behind my back, and poisoned the mind of Duke Johannes.
When you visited me at Speyer at the end of June 1505 I gave you a full account of the troubles I then had. I have since learned, what I did not then know, that every single tactic my rivals used against me was decided on by a group of my brethren in league with the abbot of Mainz, a man who has never liked intellectual people. If he had not had his villains on hand while I was away and expecting nothing of the kind, they would not have dared to try me. You will therefore not be surprised to hear, and not think I acted rashly, that I have resigned the abbacy of Sponheim in disgust at the actions of my rivals where I spent 23 years on a thankless task against my better judgement.
There is no saying how many miseries and afflictions I suffered day in day out from the worthless wretches and you would not believe me if I tried. Of course you will know quite a lot of it since you were my guest for an entire year, regularly seeing the behaviour and studies of individuals and found numerous haters of good books amongst us. What more could I do for ungratedul monks who I could never persuade to match their behaviour to the purity of the rule, and apply themselves to the study of holy scripture, the ornament of monks, but ever gaping after trifles they spurned the mandates of salvation. Finally they turned aside to evil and devised a grave secret conspiracy against me and dared use the henchmen of criminality against me in a way that I can only regard as unprovoked contempt.
I took the occasion to wash my hands of them and I do not regret it, having found a place which though poor is quiet and very well suited to my studies, affording me time and leisure for the study of the scriptures. If you wish to know who the ringleaders of the plot against me were, you need only think back to what you heard in Sponheim and you can easily sort the good from the bad. Blessed is the lord God almighty who released me from Babylon and snatched my sould from the depths of pointless cares for me to walk with him in the peace and tranquillity of mind which I always longed for with a whole heart.
Now, my dear Irbusinus, about the chronicle of your monastery of Hirsgau, I have to tell you that I have left it unfinished at the monastery of Sponheim with my books and personal effects: you must look there for what is rightfully yours and act as you see fit to reclaim it. Our earlier agreement no longer applies to me, for along with the abbacy I renounced all that went with it. I shall nonetheless be happy to do what I can for the honour of your monastery if your abbot so wishes.
Farewell and remember me in your prayers to God.
Würzburg, 14 March 1507.
To the most serene prince Joachim Margrave of Brandenburg, Duke of Stettin and Pomerania, Prince of the Rugensians and Cassubia etc., Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, wishes eternal felicity.
Wisest of princes, how can I reward your majesty? And with what am I ever to make return payment of your beneficence? Oh, the gifts you have showered on this humble and lowly man. Firstly with a very costly and beautiful gold cup at Frankfurt. Secondly when I was living in the Mark of Brandenburg, when you endowed me with many objects in gold, silver and precious stones, which must be worth a fortune. Now, with even fuller consideration of my state of poverty, you have sent me three tubs filled with salt fish, which was not a little well timed and welcome, as my brethren and I have finished them up over this Lent. If there is anything I can and may do to repay your majesty, short of all that I am, I very gladly put it at your disposal. I am hardly able to thank your highness in kind, but I would make my thanks as immortal as I can, placing myself at your serenity’s service at all times to the best of my ability and with all my heart.
Your serenity, best of princes, will be pleased to know that my dearest teacher, our friend Libanius, is still alive, safe and sound: he promises to come and see me this year if it can be arranged at all. He writes that he was ill and nearly died only two months ago.
As for my return visit to you, most clement prince, I have presented your letters to my lord the most reverend bishop of Würzburg, and he allowed me to read them to after doing so himself. He would gladly consent to your wishes if he did not fear that my absence for such a long time would be detrimental to the monastery and to me. This is mainly because I am new in my post as abbot, and the insubordination of the Scots threatens to undermine me. Now your serenity should understand that he is on your side, as you will plainly gather from his reverence’s letters which I am forwarding. I am to complete everything I was to write for your highness, and when I have finished I may go to visit your serenity in the Mark for a stay of one month or two. My wish is to obey your commands at all points, so far as I can with God, and to serve your majesty before all other princes. But I am a man under authority and I must give way to superior authority. It is my considered request that your serenity should have the patience to wait until next year coming, and then I can personally deliver the writing you commissioned having completed it here in the mean time. I can unhesitatingly inform you that my most reverend lord bishop has given me his assurance that he will not bar me from visiting your magnificence at an agreed time near the feast of Easter next year.
I have not got anything to send you this time as I have not finished correcting what is already written, but I will make sure I bring it all with me, and I will do all I can to live up to your highness’s honours, and will without fail come up with the goods. I am re-sending the technique for writing Greek which I gave you when I was there, since your highness intimated in your last letter that the old copy was missing.
May God almighty preserve your highness. Würzburg, 9 April 1507.
Joachim, by the grace of God Margrave of Brandenburg, prince elector, to Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James outside Würzburg, every greeting, with a prayer for his complete fortune and prosperity.
Reverend abbot in Christ and my most dear father, I have received your reverence’s letters with great pleasure together with the messenger you sent; he reported that you are safe and well and I learned that you are living in quiet and happiness, on which I offer my whole-hearted well wishes and give due thanks to almightly God.
Your reverence thanked me most heartily for the favours and gifts I have given you. There was certainly no need since the gifts I have sent you were small and cheap, in fact not worthy to be called gifts at all and no thanks was owing for them , and even if they did have any real financial value, they are not of a quality or quantity that you deserve in view of your actual worth. I only meant them to show my affection and goodwill to you, and that is what I would beg you to evaluate rather than those cheap presents.
I am overjoyed to hear that your teacher Libanius is safe and sound, and it if could possibly be arranged I should love to see him and speak with him.
Also I have received the letters from our friend the lord of Würzburg about your promised return visit to the Mark next year. I was still saddened because the ordering of my affairs and the soundness of my policies can only be affected badly by your long absence, and your return would not just be productive but an absolute necessity to me. But if things cannot be otherwise I must perforce be content and shall hold my breath until the appointed time. I would however ask your reverence not to delay your return beyond that time, since as you know, best friend, that for me your returning again is a necessity. I have written to my friend the bishop of Würzburg asking him not to put off your promised return any later, so do not hesitate to present my letters to him in my name.
I have also written to your prince the Palatine asking him to help find you the books you need. To clarify matters about the book proposals which I should enjoy reading, I refer you to the list I sent you from Tangermünde last year in which I specified the names of various topics which I should like to see discussed by your sparkling pen. But I shall accept anything with delight if your reverence judges that it will help me to find true wisdom and live a good life. I owe your reverence no end of thanks for your beautifully thought out technique for writing Greek which you have sent me a second time, and I would not want it to go missing from my archives for any amount of money.
Your reverence should not have any doubts about my outlook. I would never walk away from our old faith and charity. I am not a weathervane, and I could never forget the good you have done me. My approach to you is an open book – genuine, true and loving, and you shall never find it changed. Most learned teacher, I am sending you a single sword gilded inside and out, not as a quid pro quo but a sign of my admiration for you and our long established lasting friendship. I hope you will be happy to accept it and keep it to remind you of me.
I am eager to know whether my letters reached the hands of Libanius or not. You asked about Palestinus: he is still with our king, Maximilian, and we do not know when he will return. I hope your reverence will work hard on the things you know I will find useful, and you will have my gratitude in all things as long as I live. Farewell, the ornament of all Germany and ark of all wisdom. Remember me lovingly to God, for we love you passionately.
In our own hand, Berlin 29 May 1507.
To the reverend father in Christ, Dietrich bishop of Lebus, Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, prays perpetual happiness.
Most reverend bishop, most learned father, ever revered teacher, you will not be surprised that I have taken a new abbatial office if you will debate the causes which led me to decide to give in to my enemies in a fair light. You know all about the unjust injuries inflicted on me: avoiding worse ones was a rational pretext for changing abbacies. I am a lover of peace and I refuse to live in a whirl of disturbances any longer.
I am somewhat puzzled to know why your most reverend paternity wants my views on the life of Apollonius of Tyana as written down in eight books by Philostratus using the reports of Damis and other disciples of the fellow. You yourself are a man of great learning in every variety of divine and humane literature, and you cannot have missed anything I might know and write. And so I am a little embarassed to respond to your command since your intelligence and learning are incomparably greater than mine: and whatever I can suggest is certain to be found several times in the closet of your breast. But to struggle in the wrong direction and refuse to obey your commands would strike me as the sign of a rash spirit and even a disturbed one, a stain which I have always made it a rule to steer clear of. I prefer, if I must submit to another to be convicted of ignorance before your paternity rather than disobedience or insolence. I will therefore, briefly and haphazardly, in no structured argument, as I may, expound what I think of Apollonius in a simple statement, with no disrespect to anyone who knows better.
Apollonius lived at the time when the apostles and disciples of Christ preached the Catholic faith throughout Greece and Asia Minor with radiant signs and miracles, and proclaimed the life, teaching, virtues, passion and miracles of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to the gentiles, converting those who were predestined to knowledge of the highest truth and arousing the people to great wonder and reverence for him. Damis and the other adherents of Apollonius heard what the holy preachers spread throughout the world about the life and miracles of Christ and, though they did not believe what was being said about the saviour, invented similar stories about their teacher after his death, hoping to persuade dull witted men that the one they had known as a philosopher was above the level of a man and so not inferior to Christ. They supposed that people who heard the miracles written about the philosopher Apollonius, concocted though they were to deceive men, would be no slower to believe them, particularly if they were seen to be preached by upper class philosophers, than those which unlearned fishermen preached about the saviour.
Gathering boldness from the true miracles of Christ they invented similar ones about their teacher, expecting the people to give them no less credence than they saw the believers give the holy preachers, who they looked down on as simple and uneducated. When they heard that Christ had been dragged to the edge of a cliff and escaped unscathed from the midst of the Jews they told a tale of their Apollonius suddenly escaping from the presence of the emperor and turning up far outside Rome. In the same way they heard that the Lord Jesus called three dead men back to life into the mystery of baptism, and so they made up a lie that their Apollonius revived a dead girl at Rome. When the Lord was baptised the voice of his father was heard: Hercules and other gods of the gentiles are supposed to have spoken to Apollonius. Now if this is true they must have been appearances of demons, and if it is not true then Damis or Apollonius, more or less invented it like all the other things. After his resurrection the Lord Jesus went in to his disciples through closed doors: Damis lies that Apollonius was bound in shackles at Rome but could free himself as and when he wished.
It would take too long and be too tedious to write out all the miracles which Philostratus attributes to Apollonius, furnishing no reason why he was able to perform them, it being evident that he was a mortal man, and a worshipper of idols who held the pernicious error that souls repeatedly transmigrate into numerous bodies. He introduces a high-born youth before Hiarchas and the wise men of India and bitterly insults everything written and speculated about Homer, chiefly because he was supposedly a great general in the Trojan War but was not immortalised along with the others because of Homers’s spite. Then when he came back as a man he remembered the old slight and railed against all the practitioners of literature with single-minded persistence. What could be sillier than the mad idea that a man could remember what he was one thousand two hundred years ago (that being the amount of time which is said to have elapsed between the fall of Troy and the time of this man Apollonius of Tyana) when he cannot remember where, what or how he was before he emerged from his mother’s womb? How, too, can this bear any resemblance to the truth according to the Pythagoreans and Platonists when they posited the maximum number of years for transmigration and return to the original place? But decency forbids me to speak any longer about these vain delusions, vainer than dreams, and I must continue to give a brief discussion of the rest.
How plainly contrary to every principle of nature is the fiction of Damis that Apollonius held a meeting with the Indian philosophers presided over by Hiarchas and performed miracles that were never seen or heard of, such as raising up the philosophers’ chairs off the earth, or ministering the sun with sacrifices, perpetual fire, and the bottle of drink which the philosophers kept emptying, but was suddenly full again and leaking plentiful liquid, so that whenever it was drunk dry it welled up full again. I pass over other things invented with similar cheek: singers levitated, demons driven out of men by writing letters, predictions of the future, pronouncements of occult names and things, interpretation of the twitterings of swallows and birds, crimes of ghosts and wraiths unveiled, and I will tell you, most reverend bishop, in a few words, whatever miracles his people wrote about Apollonius, I will tell you what I think of the miracles of Tyaneus, as you command.
In my opinion the miracles, signs and wonders ascribed to Apollonius which we read of in the eight volumes of Philostratus, I firmly and unwaveringly believe, are inventions with no truth in them, or if they actually happened, I say without hesitation that they were brought about with the cooperation of demons. What strongly persuades me that they are fictions, lies and falsehoods is Damis himself, the disciple of Apollonius. Whenever he writes anything hard and wonderful about him he always begins by saying that his fellow disciples were absent and that he was there alone or with a very few others, and very often records that no one was with Apollonius when he performed his feats or conversed with ghosts.
If the above argument is not sufficient to persuade agreement with what I say, and somebody wishes to defend the miracles of Tyaneus, let them first tell me who he was. If Apollonius performed the miracles attributed to him, by whose power was he able to do them, his own or another’s? Hardly his own, nor can he have followed any natural knowledge in achieving them, since the power of natural magic scarcely stretches to many of the things reported of him. Apollonius was a corruptible, mortal man who can be credited of his own power beyond the common order of nature which deserves to be called a miracle. It follows that if he did any of them it was by a power not his own. True miracles are only performed by divine power and Tyaneus cannot possibly have performed them, being a worshipper of idols and full of many superstitions: he was far removed from the knowledge of God. I thus have good grounds for thinking that neither the understanding proper to his mind nor natural magic had the power to do what is recorded of him. It should not be thought that idolatry has anything in common with God’s holy spirits.
We are therefore forced to determine that if he performed the miracles which his friends wrote about it was with nothing other than the power and cooperation of demons, for it is not difficult for them to deceive the senses of men dedicated to them with false miracles even in greater things, since they have always been subtler than us by nature and industry by long experience in producing figments. But his friends do not allow Apollonius to be charged with magic. I therefore come back to my original opinion that the miracles ascribed to Apollonius, both by himself and by his disciples, are made up, invented and lying, and I do not think I would easily be persuaded otherwise unless they concede that it could be put down to the arts of demons. It can be no surprise if people given over to worldly knowledge and philosophy and totally ignorant of divine knowledge, but eager for praise and reputation amongst men, invented more false miracles about their teacher than the apostles preached true ones about our saviour throughout the world and performed in his name.
Let me sum up the whole business of Tyaneus and his miracles. If he performed the wonders which his followers wrote in praise of him he was indeed a mage and an enchanterof demons and wraiths from hell. If he did not, as is my opinion, none can doubt that it was all invented, concocted and trumped up by Damis and his other disciples to adorn their master with false praise and themselves reap eternal glory among men.
If you wonder that anyone should be so bold, consider, what did the audacity of Greek writers not presume to do from the beginning? It is the view of many that the histories of the Greeks abound in invented tales and that the whole great fall of Troy is an invention of the poets. We could willingly believe that demons were at work in the Apollonian hoax, so that the Christian religion would be held of less account for the inventions of Damis and his fellows, since Tyaneus would appear to have done no less amongster the Greeks than they heard Christ to have done amongst the Jews. They may have expected to persuade men easily that Christ was not, for all his demonstrations of miracles, God, when Apollonius had been no less notable for producing them when he was a worshipper of idols who never even wanted to have divine status preached of him. But many passages in many writings of Damis witness how eager this Apollonius Tyaneus was for the estimation and glory of men, particularly where Apollonius himself relates to his disciples how gods and spirits of the dead appeared to him in the temples of idols and spoke great things. Therefore anyone who believes that Tyaneus did the wonders recorded of him by either his natural powers, or philosophical wisdom, and the purity of holiness, or by the natural knowledge which they call physical magic should beware lest he is dishonouring Christ the saviour of all, for if he did them he was sooner an enchanter of demons than a philosopher.
This, most candid bishop, is my opinion of the miracles of Apollonius, since you wished to know it, and if anybody wants to contradict it, it would seem to me that they do not really understand how far the powers of human nature extend.
Farewell most famous pontiff and keep your Trithemius in your favour.
Würzburg 16 April 1507.
Joachim, by the grace of God Margrave of Brandenburg, to Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, greetings.
Reverend father in Christ and illustrious man. This is to let your reverence know that by divine mercy I am safe and well, as is my wife, and it is my dearest wish that your reverence is the same, and I should love to hear from you more often that you are keeping well.
My brother, the lord archbishop of Cologne has written to me enclosing the letters you gave him in March, explaining the obstacles which meant that you could not go down for a visit when you leave me for your home, since you gave me them to forward, not having a trusted messenger, and I was very pleased to do so. His reverence gave countless thanks for the books and other medicines, and I included them with my letters for you to deliver in person if you could. Since in fact you are not minded to go and see him, and since he might be wondering where the gifts are when I posted them some time ago, I have sent his own messenger to you, and I would implore you to send him the mailing.
The other more secret things which I have posted to be passed on by word of mouth must rest in your care until you are able to visit him in person. Keep well and happy and pray for us to God.
From my seat of Cölln by the Spree, 28 May 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the monastery of St James outside Würzburg to Rutger Sicamber canon of Hegen, greetings.
The long, grim tribulations of Macarius, abbot of Limburg, grieve me more the more I get to know him. Who would not sympathise with the trials he has undergone? Only those quite removed from the faith of Christ, such as those who made a bonfire of the once great monastery of Limburg. If they had not been completely lacking in faith, the insolent, impious and criminal count of Leiningen and the henchmen of impiety who serve him, they would not have destroyed temples, violated altars and converted to their own use what was consecrated to almighty God. But what do the princes of the earth do? They are appointed to avenge evil, and savagely punish small and sometimes childish crimes, but they do not notice insults to God. In my view, Sicamber, it is no wonder Christian faith these days is imperilled on all sides, devotion is dying out among men, charity is waning with religion, and impiety and cruelty reign everywhere. We suffer the evils we deserve, Rutger, since we do not truly love the supreme good. Since we nowadays lack princes who will right the vices and crimes of tyrants, we have so many who ought to be corrected. The church is on the rocks, the empire is in peril, and the number of infidels increases. What the most Christian princes of old bestowed with devout intention on the churches of God, today tyrants steal, and that usually with impunity, sparing neither God nor men. Rightly now does the church of Christ lament: In peace is my bitterness most bitter. But debate with such men is fruitless, and we should keep silent lest we speak out of place. You wrote to me that Johannes Canter Frisius, the doctor of Groningen, that learned man is dead. It is not news, it is not a wonder, if he should die, for he was mortal by nature and came hither under the law that he must some time depart hence. Now he has departed and paid his debt to nature, and conquered the most fearsome of fearsome things, and put in his past what we must dread for the future. If he lived well in Christ, he departed happily, for as St Augustine said: He cannot die ill who lived well, and cannot die well who lived ill. Oh let us so live in perennial prudence as we hope to die when the necessity comes. Cantherius has gone before us, he has overcome death and has now smitten human fear. Let us be mindful, dearest Rutger, that we shall soon be going where we mourn that he has gone, and let us live the short while that is left as if each hour were our last. For as St Paul says, we have here no abiding city, nor do we endure longer than our fathers, who all preceded us in death. Also as the bishop of Le Mans says:
We are all taken away at the urging of the fates
And are borne where our spent life calls us.
Happy are those mortals whose holy devotion always burns with the love of God, who realise they are pilgrims in this world and sigh for their heavenly home, loving no corruptible things, and with constant desire they pine for their eternal dwellings. Death is pleasant to them and not fearsome, for they are happy to leave this prison, winning an end to all ills and a beginning of good without end. Death is terrifying to those who live on such terms that they have no hope of any good after death and die receiving the reward of their despair in mind and body, eternal oblivion. Farewell. Würzburg, 14 July 1507.
To the reverend father in Christ Dom Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James’s Würzburg, formerly of Sponheim, his most admired teacher, Johannes Woesbroek, master of the mint of the most serene king of Castille, and master of the great toll gate at Bruges in Flanders, greetings.
Reverend father, nearly five years have gone by since last I was staying with your reverence in Sponheim, and since then I have had no certain word of you, your doings or your health. I should like nothing more than that you are in good health and spirits and enjoying good fortune. You have a high reputation here, and are spoken of by the learned, the noble and the powerful: there are many in this country who would like to see you and learn from your great knowledge. One of these is a distinguished doctor of civil law, Nicolaus de pulchro monte by name, a man of the widest learning in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, cosmography and theology and excellently grounded in the other disciplines of the scriptures. He is so fired by your reputation that he reckons nothing of the expense or dangers and effort of the lengthy journey to visit your paternity as quickly as he can. He asked me for letters of recommendation to your reverence, which I gave, and set off last year on the journey (a dangerous one because of the Sycambrian troubles) and reached your monastery of Sponheim on 24 February. But not finding your reverence there he returned here to Bruges in great disappointment, leaving letters from him and me at Sponheim with the prior, to be presented to you personally as soon as possible.
So, not knowing your fortunes or doings, we both despaired and had to give up asking after you. When he was there he picked up that your reverence was with the Margrave of Brandenburg in the Mark, but we never heard anything of your return to your monastery. But then, by God’s grace, master Nikolaus Beissel, who your reverence knows well, being a canon of St Germanus at Utrecht (?) and a doctor of medicine, came back from Italy and told us, having visited you at Speyer, that you were alive and well and comfortably provided for, and that you had resigned the abbacy of Sponheim to go to Würzburg and were philosophising there in peace and quiet. Our hearty congratulations, since we know that you would never fritter away your life when you would rather always be writing something to promote salvation.
The aforesaid Doctor Nicolaus is kept awake with thinking about you and dreams of you asleep at night. He will not rest until he realises his ambition of seeing your and conversing with you about true wisdom. He is a man worthy of your company, being learned and fluent in many languages, an expert on many things and on the customs of nations. He has twice been to Jerusalem, and spent a long time in Turkey. He has also visited Venice, Naples, Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca in Spain and many other places from a love of the holy scriptures. To enable him to achieve his holy ambition we both urgently ask your reverence to write back by this messenger, saying when and where is best for him to meet you. He has plenty to say to you and discuss with you which cannot be put in a letter. I really hope and believe that you would enjoy meeting him. Farewell, dearest teacher.
Bruges, Flanders, 4 March 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James’s near Würzburg, formerly of Sponheim, to Johannes Woesbroek, master of the great toll gate of Bruges, greetings.
Dearest friend, your letters arrived on 27 May together with those of one Nicolaus de pulchro monte, doctor of canon law, via a certain young man who said he must depart the following day, so that I replied more briefly than is my custom. Yes, it is true, I was with the most serene prince the lord Margrave of Brandenburg as you said, and your informant was right: I have resigned the abbacy of Sponheim and taken up another. I did this with ample reason, so let me briefly tell you why in this letter.
On 1 April 1505 I left my monastery, having been called to Heidelberg by the most serene prince Palatine, and while I was staying there, some of my monks, allied with certain Hunsruckers, hatched a secret plot against me and whipped up the duke Johannes, who you know of old, against me, so that he ordered some of my household who openly sided with me to be publicly displayed in chains like convicted criminals. When I heard of the brazen insubordination which had happened in my absence, I decided not to return to the monastery before the wrongdoers had duly expiated the insult. And so I stayed away and still am away to this present day, never doubting the justice of God, nor that they shall fall into the pit they have prepared.
So it was that on 15 October last I took up my present abbacy and resigned that of Sponheim of my own free will because of the disloyalty of the monks and the duke’s hostility. And now I am living here with time for myself and the scriptures for as long as the Most High wills it, always awaiting the last dread call which none can escape. So, if your good doctor wishes to visit me, here I hope he shall find me, unless in the meantime I am obliged to decline, being called elsewhere as before. You know how important it is to me to obey the decrees of princes.
Farewell, and remember me and love me.
Würzburg, 28 May 1507.
To the most reverend father Dom Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the house of St James, Würzburg, foremost amongst the men of Germany, Nikolaus Gerbellius Phorcensis, greetings and eternal happiness.
Most reverend father and most irreproachable abbot, since you have won for yourself such fame with posterity and unexpungeable glory with your literary monuments that you have begun to walk not on the lowly ground but under the radiant stars, the lively vigour of your wits does not lurk in idleness, languish in senility, or waver in the marrow with its powers enervated in the wrestling ring of disciplines, nor ail nor ache, but thinks up new things in daily compositions redolent of golden flowers (?), if rumour speak true, for us to admire, adore and gladly embrace with the utmost veneration. I congratulate myself again and again, most reverend father, on being born into this most happy age, in which so many illustrious men of no mean fame have arisen everywhere in Germany, amongst whom you are one, since you have used Latin letters to make Greek and Hebrew ones more eloquent among the Germans, amidst whom you are of such worth and sparkle so much that I am in a quandary to whom so great I should compare you, or place you before all alike to Chremes the miser in Terence. I do not unadvisedly doubt it to be true, since I see in you not a crossroads but a theatre of all disciplines, spacious, bountiful and glittering; I see in you not one virtue or three, but all of them churned together firmly and in legions forsooth we behold that most fitting spectacle. Magnificently and beauteously adorned with them you have attracted the spirits of many, the literary exertion of more than a few, and the eyes of all to you, and they love you earnestly, salute you in turn, and watch you in throngs.
I too am excited by them and I am dashing up obstinately to show off meaningfully this ravishing love, which has burned up our midriffs with lengthy evisceration, with these our letters, of whatever quality they may be, as we judge, and with them I believe I shall be conjoined with you, since you are not ashamed to inscribe literary men of the lowest grade familiarly in your book of friends. And if I am inscribed into your club and your friends, I affirm assseverantly that good has been done to Gerbellius, and I shall adjudge with no casual pleasure that I am not mortal but endowed with immortality.And for the rest, most reverend father, whatever is being forged and beaten on your most elegant anvil, see to it that I may know of it, being yours and entirely consecrated to your sect: or perscribe whatever you greatly desire your new consectary and soldier to know. I ardently await your letters and with the excessive veneration which it is my wont to show the writings of the most learned, I shall kiss them with eternal cedar and decorate them evermore with perpetual ivy. Farewell, most reverend father, and count me worthily as one of your friends.
Cologne, 10 June, 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, formerly of Sponheim, to Nikolaus Gerbellius Phorcensis, greetings.
Your letters arrived some time ago, dear Gerbellius, and I decided at the time to grant your wishes as I was keen to do, so you would not be deprived of the results of your confidence in me, and so our friendship would become ever more of a pleasure the more quickly it took shape. In fact I put it off all this while, but do not think you have been neglected or slighted by us, and you will ultroneously pardon our tardity if you pensiculate examussim the inexputable demands on the time of us hierodules. We needed to have a spontaneous messenger on hand to convey our letterlets to you, or they might perish on the way if they were given to petrones.
Firstly you ask us to add you to the roster of our friends, a request easily granted when we have always found it a pleasure to number all those who study good books among our brothers and dear friends. We make it a rule never to admit tenebrions and greedy incubos of wealth to our friendship, mainly because they struggle with good reading and it is always their way to snarlify against learned and well read men, We gladly accept you, hardworking Gerbellius, medioxumous though we are, into our friendship with open hands, since your ornate letters proclaim you to be a scholar and a panaret, and we promise you our loyalty and love with inviolable constancy. Nonetheless in our opinion you have been led badly astray by rumour, if I may say so without giving offence, since your praise of us far, far exceeds our deserts, but we accept your with the indulgence it deserves. I know you are not imitating those worthless palpones who deceptively appear to praise people and invent lying tidings because they are not after the man himself but gifts and money. But you praised me out of love, whose judgements are blind, and believed deceitful rumour, and a lying spirit and a willingness to deceive were far from your mind.
But consider, if I am a veracious paraphrast of your letters, and you shall know that I have understood the meaning of your true opinion. The testimonies of the truth are inviolate, for you have conceived a straightforward and obvious thing with your mind, so that someone who denies that the friendship of famous men in the ring of literature is immortal should be considered headsick rather than sound in the head. All the things gloriously done by our forbears would long since have perished with their authors had they not been endowed with immortality by the records of the friends writing them. For that reason antiquity judged people lucky if their intelligence, wisdom or courage did something worthy of remembrance and also chanced to live in times which had a large stock of well read and well known men whose friendship prompted them, when they saw something praiseworthy, to see that it would receive immortality in the firmament of letters. So you are right to promise yourself immortality from friendship with men who are famous and most named in literary circles.
Just as the stars of the heavens shine with glittering rays illuminated by the sun statanus in its circuit, so those who are joined in friendship with distinguished men of letters, often remain glorious to posterity, illustrated by the light of immortality. All learned men dash off good, honest things to their friends and are accustomed to make their names, their reputations, and not least themselves immortal in the eyes of posterity. No one ever wrote to lavish immortality on an enemy languishing in obscurity. As for myself, Gerbellius, I know that I am not erudite or a bestower of immortality, only medioxumously hardworking, but I shall do all I can not to let you regret making our friendship.
You are agog to know what the padamus is forging under our anvil. We are entertaining a rural muse and in between we are singing a strain as suitable to our intentions as our rejects permit. We have just finished a little book on St Joseph the holy foster father of Christ. We are continuing the Nepiachus, consisting of our annals from the hour of our birth to this day. We have begun a great work of twelve books about demons at the request of friends. With it we are resolved to destroy all the profane arts of magicians in general and in particular and to classify their causes, inventors, books, modes and deceptions by name and nature. And amongst these things we are continuing the Steganographia with new material, but we do not undertake to publish it yet since we are afraid of the ill will of scoundrels. Someone once said, ‘Do what nobody else can and everyone will exclaim’. But now, more like it, ‘Do something new and everyone will complain’. Let it therefore remain buried for it was condemned for appearing at the wrong time.
Farewell and love us. Würzburg, 16 July 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the monastery of St James, Würzburg, to Jakob Wimpfeling of Selestadt his unique and dearest friend, greetings.
The letters you sent me from Strasbourg on 12 June reached me on the 22nd of that month. I have seen no sign of the ones you say you sent before that. Dom Gaspar, the bishop of Bethlehem and vicar of our most reverend general praesul in pontificals has delivered the book you forwarded to me called St Bernard on the seven penitential psalms. The man who brought me the above mentioned letters also gae me as from you two books recently printed at Strasbourg; one by William, bishop of Paris, on the accumulation and plurality of benefices, and the other by Albertus Magnus, bishop of Regensburg, on the fervour of charity. Believe me, I received them with the greatest gratitude.
I sympathise from the bottom of my heart with the tribulations you have undergone, and if you think I can do anything for your comfort, let me know and you will find me willing to do all that is in my power. But your trust in the lord Jesus, and walk firmly in his ways, and the truth shall make you free. I will give you only this advice: do not be too hasty to get involved in your old monastic business, for what lies outside your condition and status should be nothing to you.
What is it to you whether Augustine wore a toga or a robe? In that book of yours on integrity you write that Bede and many others were not monks, though I reckoned them among the monks in my book On Ecclesiastical Writers, as unless you would lose me as a friend you will easily promise to verify. Let us come together if you will: you should not teach that these, particularly Bede, who I said were monks were no such thing. If you do not know that Bede was a monk, it seems to me that you have simply not read enough history. But I will let you off, as I hear that you have had more than enough trouble with the complaints of the Austin Friars.
You wanted to know if I thought there would be a place for you at Sponheim under my successor, and who he was, since you want to get away from worldly men altogether. My successor in the abbacy of Sponheim is the prior who you once met, and he had no small part in my persecution though a hidden one. I fear you will not have a place staying with him, chiefly because the prince of the Hunsrückers has little time for well read men, as you will discover if you decide to go to him.
I do not entirely rule out your wish to live with me, but to start with I would advise you to visit as one investigating the place and its people, and if you find you like it we shall discuss the conditions on which you would put it into practice. I like you and I shall gladly do what I can. My monastery is poor and small but quiet and well suited to a philosophiser. The one disadvantage is the lack of books, which I had in plenty at Sponheim.
Farewell dear Jakob and be assured that I shall never desert you.
From my monastery near Würzburg, 27 July 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James outside Würzburg to Rutger Venray Sicamber, greetings and sincere charity in the Lord.
On 1 August an untrusted messenger delivered your letters to me dated 1 May. In them you say you were sending certain songs for my book in praise of St Joseph, foster father of the Saviour, but these have definitely not reached me. Two days later another man appeared offering me your letters of 17 July, saying that somehody else had entrusted him with the together with two compositions of yours, in your hand, one containing popular odes to various tunes, the other, in prose, comprising a short disputation.
I was happy with the material, and had no objection to your lines of argument, but I wish you would steer your efforts in the direction which the times and your age call for. You are now past your fiftieth year, and it is time you considered what studies befit you from now on. Youth calls for one thing and grey old age another. The sun is setting on our life and strength and the bodily strength which noon bestowed, the eventide is consuming. It is time to take thought for the soul, which remains immortal; we have indulged the flesh enough, at least let the ass eat its necessary food, and let lust be far away. Enough of boyish compositions, and you now represent a man of ripe years take up subjects suited to greybeards and not fables.
You have written more than 136 works, and I think it is a great and praiseworthy thing that you have used the leisure which observance of a rule gives you for literary study, and concentrated on writing books rather than the pleasures of the flesh. But books ought to be evaluated by usefulness not quantity; do they train the spirit in true wisdom, do they raise the mind of the reader from earthly to heavenly things, and do they genuinely arouse divine love? The earth is swimming in countless writers everywhere, and as Horace says:
learned and unlearned, we write poems everywhere
All poets have a licence to go wild.
But only a small proportion of writers consider the edification of souls. We all write from the abundance of the heart, and commit to writing the thoughts which preoccupy us. This means that we cannot write things which are spiritual and conducive to the fervour of divine love, since (alas) we are aglow with worldly and carnal things. Without the faith and charity of Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God nobody can acquire the true and saving wisdom to write spiritual things if he thinks of carnal and transitory things.
My advice to you, Sicamber, is this: remember you are sworn to the religious life of a monk, and just as your demeanour amidst your brethren must give no offence, so you should disdain boys’ things which do not lead to salvation, and turn your mind and pen to spiritual things with all your power. From now on, I pray you, create works which will sweetly increase the love of God in you as you write and lead the mind of the reader to contempt for the world. So no more youthful games: poetry is not fitting for an old man, and you should write in prose that flatters your age. Unripe youth plays with intricate metres let me make it plain. And if you must versify, I repeat, the only poems an old man should compose are laments and maybe epitaphs for the dead, unless he is the kind of paraphrast who always writes poetry and never prose, and following Prudentius, Sedulius and the like he adopts penitence and brings the weapons of worldly wisdom to bear on divine scripture.
None of the holy doctors of old – Jerome, Ambrosius, Augustine, Gregory, Origen, John Chrysostom, Basil, Cyril and many others – is recorded to have written poems except hymns in praise of God and a few epitaphs, though they undoubtedly had the ability. They wanted their compositions to save souls and preferred writing prose to verse, mainly because it is difficult to keep the rules of metre while writing what serves a useful purpose, and learning that way is more suited to the young than the old, and it is rare for the same person to be perfect in both.
You ask me to provide a list with titles and summaries of all my works, particularly those I wrote after On Ecclesiastical Writers was published. I will do as you wish when I have the time, but I have not now been able to, with the courier waiting and my mind on other things. I am in no doubt that Veldicus admires me greatly, and I love him as much as he loves me. Whenever you have the opportunity, give my regards to our mutual friend and upright fellow philosopher, as he deserves the friendship of all good men, outstanding for the holiness of his life as for his wide reading.
Farewell, keep well, and remember me to God.
From my monastery of St James, Würzburg, 12 August 1507.
Johannes Trithemius of St James Würzburg, to Wilhelm Veldicus Menapius citizen of Dyrnstein, theologian, mathematician and our dear friend.
Dear friend, I received the letters which you sent on 5 July on 1 August together with those from Roger. I think I had better answer them in order.
Firstly many thanks for troubling to congratulate me on finding tranquillity and a suitable place to practice philosophy in freedom. I am not a little pleased myself that God in his mercy has released me from the earthly concerns which weighed me down in Sponheim and I have succeeded in shrugging the place off. I have been bearing this unsought burden of pastoral care for twenty four years now, though it has always seemed to me that I was born for the quiet of solitude rather than the tumults of the world and the quarrels of peasants. Solitude has always suited me and whenever I have been forced to abandon it I have become less fit for spiritual things.
I never forget that St John Chrysostom said, ‘Just as it is difficult for a tree next to the road to hold on to its fruit until they are ripe it is difficult for a man living by the ways of this world, that is in acts of this world, to keep hold of unstained justice to the end. Step off the road then’, he says, ‘and plant yourself in a secret place so the world will have nothing in common with you or you with it’. (On the Gospel of Matthew.) The words of St Jerome are seldom out of my mind either, when he says, ‘Why should we long for visits to cities when we are recommended to seek solitude. To me a town is a prison and solitude paradise’. As St Augustine says in his book on the singularity of clerics, ‘He who steers clears of pleasures is least enticed by pleasures, and he who does not see riches suffers least from the ravages of avarice’.
The dire poverty of my brethren and the sore needs of the place tied me up with the concerns of this world more than I liked, particularly because I lacked a loyal and experienced deputy. However I made every effort I could to remedy both states of affairs, as the buildings and my other achievements show, but eventually my brethren with their disastrous scheming with the Hunsrückers against me led me to give up and completely concede to the louts. In the end I have decided to live for the holy scriptures as much as I can and leave the world’s futile cares to the worldly since I had now given my ungrateful monks more than enough service. I am now in unworthy charge of the monastery here, which is burdened with poverty, but the responsibilities are smaller and there are not so many trying disagreements with peasants. By God’s grace I live contented with my lot, and though this place is poorer in the things that pass away I find I am better off for the abundance of peace and quiet. In accordance with the advice of the Christophilus, St. Paul, I have the nutrition needed to sustain my mortal body for the term of its life and a cloak to keep out the north wind and need nothing more.
I should love to get hold of the globe with beautiful depictions of the lands, sea and islands which, you write, is on sale at Worms, but nobody will easily persuade me to lay out 40 florins for it. Only a few days ago for mere pennies I bought myself a beautiful miniature globe printed not long ago at Strasbourg which came with a large scale projection of the globe on to a plane having the islands and regions lately discovered by Amerigo Vespucci of Spain in the western sea, going south almost to the tenth meridian, and with various other things of relevance to the same expedition.
You are only doing your duty when you say I should take my case to his reverence my lord the bishop, but it seems to me that you are not really reckoning with the constant stream of projects which princes are occupied with when you suppose that such busy people can be got to take notice of the activities of the leisurely. Believe me, I never let an old friendship drop, and no physical distance can weaken my old affection for you: and in that spirit, I would strongly advise you that what you would have me do you should go and do yourself. Let us live as friends, I pray, each thriving in God by the remembrance of the other. The secret of true friendship is to seek nothing but a partnership of hearts in the knowledge of God and spiritual progress by mutual encouragement. If either friend falls into the troubles of this savage world the other must support him with all his power. If he falls into error, the other must instantly call him back to the way of truth. If he slackens in his efforts towards salvation, arouse him, because a friendship is true and praiseworthy if it does what it was set up to do. Indeed the holy fathers held that friendship, rightly considered, is a law that requires you to love your friend no more and no less than yourself.
I heard some time ago that Heinrich von Bünau had died, but not, as you claim, that his cosmographical globe, which he once bought from your workshop, stayed with the princes of Saxony. In fact he had a surviving brother and left everything to him after his death.
Congratulations on your good news and let me rejoice with you like a true friend. Nonetheless I would remind you of the verses of Archbishop Hildebertus Thuronensis:
All mortal things depend on wavering chance
And tend to flight by their own mobility.
Whatever you have today may leave you tomorrow
Or even while you speak cease to be yours.
You say you have written some marvellous work since I was with you in Dyrmstein and you promised to show it me when I come to see you. But as I have no good reason to come to you, and frankly no desire to take a break from the quiet here, you would do better as a friend and a man to send me a list of your titles first, or better still the books themselves, which I faithfully promise to return to you once I have read and copied them out. You are probably wondering why I say I have no reason to come to you, but the reason is this.
This monastery where I am now in unworthy charge has not yet been admitted to the annual chapter of the Bursfeld fathers, as it has only recently been reformed. This means that they are completely unable to appoint me to the office of visitor, though I previously held it for twenty years in a row and it was one of my main activities. Thus by the providence of the Lord Jesus I have been granted an abundance of quiet, with no occasion for a travelling life as before. However, I should love it if you came to me some day, and I would show you the works which you marvel at. We shall see each other at some point if Jesus, who can do all things, wills it. Meanwhile whenever the opportunity presents itself, we must write to each other with love.
Pray for me brother, and for God to keep me on his path and forgive my many transgressions, which are countless, for the pains of his blessed passion.
Farewell, from Würzburg on 12 August in the year 1507.
Johannes Trithemius of the monastery of St James, Würzburg, to Johannes Capellarius, mathematician of Paris, greetings.
Most learned Johannes, I would write to you more often if I had a larger supply of messengers. I believe you already know that I have resigned the abbacy of Sponheim in view of my enemies’ hostility, so I have considered it unnecessary to write to you about my move. I set out the reasons for all the agitations against me in Cologne two years ago when you were with me at the great conference of princes. You ask what kind of time I had in the Mark of Brandenburg, what I did there, what positions the prince conferred on me, and what I am doing now. So I would summarise the things you wish to know from your letter to me.
By the mercy of God who disposes and ordains all things I had a profitable journey to the Mark. When you saw me at Cologne I was lame from a fluxion of one leg, but in the Mark the prince’s surgeon treated me and I made a full recovery. I stayed in Berlin for nine months with the Margrave himself working in an educational capacity. I translated decrees and laws for the prince, which left him much more at home in the Latin language for no great effort. At his prompting I wrote certain maxims which he enjoyed reading. He now writes Latin really ornately, speaks it fluently, and understands whatever he reads perfectly. He was tremendously generous when at last I left for home, presenting me with three hundred ducats and promising to give me more in time. Later when he heard I had been appointed to this abbacy, he sent further glittering gifts. There, in short, is the answer to your questions.
So now here I am living, I will say, all the more free to study the scriptures for being less tied up with administrative duties. The monastery where I now have charge is small and on the poor side, and entails few responsibilities for that reason. If you insist on a list of the writings I have produced in the meantime let me give you a brief account.
I have compiled a book out of my personal correspondence with my friends from the day I left Sponheim, 1 April 1505, to my accession to this abbey, 15 October of the following year. I have now added a second book, containing the correspondence up to the end of my first year in charge of this monastery, this present letter included. Next I wrote a memoir of my entire life from the time of my birth up to this year. Then I composed one book on the praises of St Joseph, fosterfather of our saviour. This summer I wrote a major book for the aforesaid lord Joachim Margrave of Brandenburg, provisionally called Pollographia. I have also written various minor works which it would be a waste of time to give titles. And as for my current projects you shall know of them when I finish them, maybe.
As for my Steganographia, whose first two books you saw at Cologne, I do not know if I shall ever publish them, for three good reasons. The first reason which deters me from publishing it is regard for the future and fear of the probable harm which might arise from its misuse by wicked men, since bad men would use our invention for bad ends no less than good men for good ones. The second is the expenditure of great effort for the prospect of small reward. You saw for yourself that it is hard going and needs close reading and could not be completed without a considerable effort. What compensation would so much work get, other than a greater or lesser quantity of gold, a transitory thing and one a Christian monk should be inclined to spurn? I have never been minded to work for worldly reward, since I regard myself as called to the vineyard of the eternal king. The third is the reaction of the uneducated classes which explains everything it does not understand as being black arts.
I have never yet written anything which anybody could fairly be puzzled at, I have never done anything disturbing, and yet I must put up with mass opinion, with many people considering me a mage, alleging that I have raised the dead, called demons up from the underworld, predicted the future, caught thieves with charms and trapped robbers. All of which is fiction and lies and I have never even thought to do such things. I freely admit that I have read books of mages, not to imitate them but to confute their ghastly superstitions at some point by denouncing them, and very soon now I am confident I shall do this if the lord Jesus Christ permits. What conclusions do you suppose uneducated people will leap to if I publish the Steganographia in view of the lies they have concocted about me when they have not yet even seen anything arcane? I have no great regard for the rumour mill of the ignorant but I am satisfied with the message of my conscience: I do not intend to give rise to malicious suspicion insofar as I may.
Stay well and happy, firm and constant in the strength of our old friendship.
Würzburg, 16 August 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, to Jakob Kymolanus of the order of Carmelites, theologian and mathematician, greetings.
Dear Kymolanus, your letter to me dated Ghent, 1 May, arrived on 31 July via a certain merchant. Your showed your usual concern for my wellbeing, for which I am forever grateful. I want you to know that I am safe and sound and that, as you say you have heard from several quarters, I have resigned the abbacy of Sponheim and of my own free will accepted the one where I am now practising poverty. The reasons for this transfer are as you heard from me when our paths crossed at Cologne two years ago.
I have sent that valuable library of two thousand volumes, which you once saw, back to Sponheim in its entirely, since it was bought with monastery funds. Neither it, nor indeed anything, is my personal property, since I am a professed monk in accordance with the rule of our most holy father St Benedict. I have taken certain short books on the mysteries and secrets of nature, which are not suited to be read by all, to Würzburg with me, but they never belonged to Sponheim. The one hundred Greek books too, and the Hebrew ones apart from that miniature printed bible, I sent back to the monastery with the rest. Since then I have used the monies awarded me by the Margrave of Brandenburg to buy books in both those languages, and if I feel the want of more I will get hold of them in time.
My successor as abbot of Sponheim is the prior, a man who you know inside and out. He does not value the study of the scriptures one bit, and if I so chose I could easily buy the Greek books from him for a song. But I do not want to take away the endowment of Sponheim which I bought at such expense. Why should I be obsessed with the lack of money when I am committed to my poverty and I am accustomed to make do with little. It appears to me that the time has come to reduce the multitude to unity. My reading has been broad, nearly unparalleled, so enough: other works shall follow when the time requires it. What need is there to persist in the want of many things, when a very few can provide for the necessary erudition.
The world today is awash with books, and so many titles are published every day that nobody could possibly read them. For the craft known as printing, which was invented in my childhood days at Mainz, the capital of the Franks, publishes a near infinity of old and new books every day. Last year, Johannes Amerbach, a citizen of Basle, published all the books of St Augustine he could find in fifteen well edited volumes. With the same thoroughness he has brought to press all the works of St Jerome and St Ambrose, and he is to do a new printing of the minor works of holy Pope Gregory, some of which have never been printed and others only badly. But so much for that.
I want to know from you what became of the letters I gave you in Cologne to be sent to Libanius Gallus in France. He has written to me in the meantime and made no mention of them, which leads me to doubt whether they ever arrived.
Your fellow Carmelite, Johannes Oudewater, promised when last I saw him off from Sponheim, to return shortly. Four years have now passed in which I have been unable to hear or gather any word of him. If you know where he is, and whether he is alive or dead, I urge you to inform me as soon as possible.
As I sit here in a place of solitude and quiet I am basking in my victory over my enemies and in sacred reading, and I am experiencing the truth which divine scripture promises. It does a man good when he has borne the yoke of the Lord from his youth, for he shall sit alone and be siletn. Pray for me to God who relieves the poor man from want to keep me safe in his will. For I know that the time of my sojourn on earth is short, and as Seneca says, we live for an instant, and with every instant less. And this minimum nature has divided with the veneer of a long interval. For this reason it wanted one part of it to be infancy, boyhood another, youth another, and the long declination from it into old age, which it does not allow to be quiet but heavy with its own troubles, as a certain man with the right perspective said in Ecclesiasticus: ‘A great ordeal has been created for all men and a heavy yoke for the sons of Adam, from the day they leave their mother’s womb to the day of their burial in the earth, the mother of all.’ For all things which come of earth turn back into earth. And on that account a man is like an illusion, since his days pass away like a shadow. Behold the brief years go by and we travel a path by which we shall not return, and filled with many sorrows we are buffetted by the continual storms of adversity. What are we wretched mortals if not wind and shadow, living amidst disturbance, and dying in a moment we constitute nothing more. Just so, Sophocles in his Ajax introduces Ulysses in his ravings, saying…
For I see that we have never been other than
Images our life long, or a flimsy shadow.
Similarly Homer the prince of poets looks on man’s misery and groans at it as I am sure you know when he says in Iliad book 17:
For in sooth there is naught, I ween, more miserable than man
among all things that breathe and move upon earth.
We are comparable to the leaves of trees, as again Homer says in book 6:
As leaves fall from the trees when winter approaches and others grow in springtime,
so one generation of men is born and another dies.
A leaf once it has fallen will never fly back to the tree, and after a man has once died he shall in no way return to this life. Ye gods above how much blind night do mortal breasts have. We live as mortals and think not that we are to die. We rejoice, revel and embrace transitory things as if we are to live forever, and when we least expect it we are snatched hence as if we had never been born. Kymolanus, let us think of our last moments while it is profitable to think of them, in case we regret the worthlessness of our life too late.
You can have the Greek grammar of Lascaris which I supplied you with at Cologne, as I no longer need it. I have got another similar one recently printed at Venice. I have found nobody engaged in reading Greek here, with the exception of Engelhardt Funck the dean of the new monastery, a learned man who is as well versed in poetry as in prose.
Farewell and remember us to God. Würzburg, 16 August 1507.
Johannes Trithemius of the monastery of St James near Würzburg to Christianus Massecus, priest of Ghent in the monastery of St James, his dear longstanding friend, greetings.
Neither words can express nor letters make known the longing I have to know what you are doing, how you are and what you have written lately when we are so far apart. Most of all I should love to see your work on chronology some day, and you have already promised to dedicate it to me. Five years have passed since you started to write your Chronicle and if you have not yet completed it, it must be the longest book ever written or you are the slowest compile ever. I am sorely afraid that you have encountered the fate I have known befall many religious sworn to obedience to their superiors these days; they have notable intelligence but are required to shoulder the cheap burdens of wordly matters, they have abilities best suited to scholarly pursuits but are forbidden to take a book into their hands.
As you requested, in my last I sent you the names of the months in Greek and Hebrew written in those scripts, but I do not really understand how they will help you in compiling your chronicles.
You say there is a Greek inscription on a golden cross which you have at your place, and I was distinctly puzzled to know how it got from Constantinople to Ghest, since the wording says that the cross was made to the order of the Byzantine emperor. But I ceased to wonder when it occurred to me that Constantinople was once sacked and looted in the time of emperor Henry IV by Godfrey count of Bouillon. His spectacular deeds in the land of Lorraine earned him the title of duke, and he was raised to the kingship of Jerusalem. He set out to lead his army to Palestine through Hungary and Bulgaria, but the outrages by emperor Alexius provoked him to capture Byzantium and so he conferred the spoils on the soldiers. May of them later returned to Germany and conferred the relics, crosses and tablets of gold and silver taken from the Greek churches on the Latin.
Remember as a Christian when you publish your chronicle that almost all chronographers have gone seriously astray in calculating the years A.D. and left out twenty four years which elapsed under consuls who were not correctly reckoned, as you will see from the subtle calculations of the monk Marianus Scotus and the theologian Augustus Westgallus of Louvain. I wrote to you at greater length about this from Sponheim three years ago via Johannes Steinmoel the priest of Mechlin. Meanwhile we ourselves have written a chronicle of the monastery of Sponheim which we then ruled at considerable length, beginning with its foundation in 1400 up to 1502. We based the order of events on the succession of abbots up to the nineteenth year of our rule, and included many references to events in Alemania which we thought worth recording. I urge you to put the finishing touches to your work so we can have the privilege of reading it. And as soon as may be inform us of events in your circles.
Our main news is that we have resigned from the abbey of Sponheim in hopes of finding peace and we have taken on the abbey of St James Würzburg where we now reside, seizing the chance which certain rivals presented to us, since they sorely disliked our sacred studies.
Farewell and pray to God for us. Würzburg, 16 August 1507.
Johannes Trithemius of the monastery of St James near Würzburg, to Johannes Damius Curtius, greetings and sincere charity in the Lord.
The bearer of these letters brother Wilhelm the orphan, nephew of abbot Macharius of Limburg has reported outrageous news to us, which astounds us if it is true. He says that the abbot of Bursfeld and another have conducted an official visitation of Sponheim and used his authority to decree on pain of discipline that among other things that our successor Nikolaus should take steps to alienate, distrain and sell all the Greek language books in the monastery, whether copied or printed, after all our great efforts to acquire them from Greece and Italy, at vast expense as you know. If this is true, and if it is it will soon get out, we urgently ask yout o go to the monastery immediately by any way you can and buy both the Greek and Hebrew books for us, or make known to us the abbot’s intentions. We will use the funds we have set aside from the generosity of princes to supply sufficient sums to buy back any available books.
Even so we find it hard to give credence to the reports. What earthly reason can have prompted the good abbot to order the sale of Greek books in which no harm is to be found? Perhaps he is seized by loathing for us or led by a bitter thirst to erase the memory of Trithemius from the earth hereby, much as we read that the Romans once did to Pope St Gregory I: after his death they found all they could of the books composed by him and consigned them to the fire. But we cannot believe that an abbot of Bursfeld sworn to devotion to Christ would think thus, since he knows he could not have deserved better concerning the reformation of the order, while we have no interest, or very little, in our remembrance by posterity. We prefer to think that he is moved by religious considerations and having found nobody capable of reading Greek at Sponheim decided that the books were well nigh useless to the place and commanded them to be sold and the proceeds applied to the necessities of the brethren.
Even so, this sale is not to my liking, mainly because I should very much like all the books I bought with large expenditure to stay in their own place as a perpetual endowment and inspiration. As you know, we spent more than 1500 gold ducats on books in the twenty four years when we were in charge, assembling a collection of great size and variety. We counted no fewer than 2000 volumes in the library of Sponheim three years ago when Heinrich von Bünau, golden knight of the dukes of Saxony, the learned orator visited us, and none of them had been there at the time of our appointment to the abbacy, as you ought to know my brother since you entered my monastery and were my minister and chamberlain for a considerable time. We assembled volumes on every department of knowledge, not just printed ones but many costly and rare ones written on parchment, so that I may say without fear of contradiction that no library in Germany is its like, for in it so many rare and antique volumes can be found in all genres of writing, religious and secular, and in a diversity of languages too: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Arabic, Indian, Russian and Tartar. And here I advisedly pass over those written in our alphabet, such as Italian, French, Bohemian and so on. I know that the total of Greek volumes, handwritten and printed, exceeds 100, and I urgently beg you to bestow your efforts on them. If any are for sale, buy them for us. We will offer a fair price for them which nobody else is likely to match, when to our knowledge nobody in the Rhineland is active and competent in reading Greek. If it turns out that the books are not for sale we shall be entirely happy provided they remain where they are. Please arrange for us to find that your action has satisfied our desire.
Farewell and remember us to God. Würzburg, 20 August 1507.
Johannes Trithemius of the monastery of St James outside Würzburg, to Johannes Virdung of Hasfurt, most learned mathematician, greetings.
Heinrich Groninger, out most reverend bishop’s secretary has shown me your letters. I see from them that you have promoted my petition to the most illustrious prince Philip Count Palatine. For this I owe you my heartfelt thanks, and I will return the favour in any way I can whenever the occasion presents itself.
I will follow your advice about the prince’s books, though I fear that any delay creates further risk, since men who take little trouble over difficult matters are most often the ones lacking in vigilance. I have given the book you provided to a copyist, and as soon as it has been copied you shall have it back without delay. And as soon as you have finished with my volumes of Berengarius which I sent to Heidelberg for you to have copied, I would like them back.
The man you wrote to me about, Georgius Sabellicus, who dares to call himself the prince of necromancers, is a gyrovague, battologist and circumcellion, and sorely needs the taste of the lash to prevent him from lightheartedly boasting wicked things in public defiance of the holy church in future. What are the titles he has conferred on himself, if not signs of a stupid and unsound mind which show him to be a timewaster and no philosopher. This is the title he has been pleased to compose for himself: Master Georgius Sabellicus, Faustus the younger, the fount of necromancers, the astrologer, the propitious mage, the chiromancer, agromancer and pyromancer, qualified in the craft of hydra. Note the dumb insolence of the man and the insane claims he makes, presuming to represent himself as a fount of necromancy when the truth is he is ignorant and poorly read and would do better to call himself a loon than a master.
I am well aware of his misdeeds. When I was coming back from the Mark of Brandenburg last year I came across this very man at the town of Gelnhausen and heard many a tall tale of him at the guest house, not to mention his brash promises. As soon as he heard of my arrival he fled from the guest house and none could persuade him to enter my presence. The doltish title he gave himself and which I have recorded for you is what a certain townsman passed on to me. Certain priests in that town told me that he said, in the presence of many, that he had acquired so much knowledge and memory of all wisdom that if all copies of Plato and Aristotle perished and the philosophy in them vanished from men’s memory, he was so clever that, like a second Ezra the Hebrew, he would restore them all, but written more elegantly. Later, when I was living at Speyer, he came to Würzburg and spurred by the same conceit he is reported to have said in front of several people that the miracles of Christ our Savour were nothing to wonder at, and that he too could do everything that Christ did whenever and as often as he wished.
Last Lent this year he came to Kreuznach and with similar moronic arrogance made great claims for himself, saying he was the most perfected man in alchemy of all that ever there were, and that he could know and do whatever people specified. Meanwhile there wa a vacancy for a schoolmaster in that same town which he landed with the backing of Franz von Sickingen, your prince’s bailiff, and he instantly embarked on the wickedest kind of education you could give the boys: he pleasured himself with them. As soon as this came to light he absconded to escape the punishment which awaited him.
This is the information I have had from reliable witnesses about the man you are so eager to have come and visit you. When he turns up, you will encounter no philosopher but a timewaster puffed up by his own nonsense.
Würzburg, 20 August 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James’s, Würzburg, to Rutger Sicamber, greetings and charity.
Dear Rutger, you wrote me a letter dated 1 August, which I received on the sixth of that month, in which you several times ask me to send you titles and summaries of all my compositions: I know you have asked me before and I have promised to do so. I shall now do as you ask and draw up a list of my publications in order of composition.
To begin with, when I was 23 I collected a summula of the virtues from the writings of the doctors in two books, which I have not been able to issue, beginning “The great virtue of the soul is to love virtue”.
At the prompting of Johannes Damius Curtensis, now the provost of the nuns of Neuburg near Heidelberg, but then a monk and my chaplain, I wrote two books on the temptations of monks, which have never been published, beginning “The human race”.
At the prompting of Nicolaus Stauronesus, the prior of my cloister in Sponheim, I wrote two books on the Rule of our holy father St Benedict beginning “Come sons and hear me, learn the fear of the Lord”.
At the request of the aforesaid Johannes Damius I wrote two books of exhortations to monks who neglect their duties, beginning “It befits the Christian soldiers”.
At the prompting of a certain friend I wrote on book on the wretchedness of this present life in which I tried to stir the spirit of the reader to contempt of the world: it was long ago printed, and begins “Since life is nothing”.
I wrote one book against monks and religious owning property at the prompting of a certain monk in Blidenstat which was printed at Mainz several years ago and begins “All are called to life” etc.
I also spent great effort writing a chronicle of my then monastery of Sponheim from the time of its foundation to 1502, listing the succession, dates and deeds of all its abbots from the first one down to me, amounting to a large volume of history in which I inserted digressions into individual years giving noteworthy events in Germany. It begins “In the year of our Lord”.
I wrote one book on the method and form of a religious visitation which was long ago printed at Nuremberg at the command of my order, beginning: “You shall visit your brethren if, as is right”.
I wrote one book on the method and form of celebrating a provincial council of the order by express command of my superiors, which was printed together with the previous one, and begins “Whereas in celebrating”.
I collected and abridged the statutes of the provincial chapters from the time of the Council of Constance to the Hirsgau chapter in one book at the command of my superiors, which was printed at Nuremberg with the previous two and begins “Whoever wants the individual statutes of the order”.
I edited the statutes of the annual chapter of the province about its observance at their command in one book in more formal style, abbreviated, there being one copy at the monastery of St Martin in Cologne and one at Sponheim, beginning “To the reverend in CHRIST”.
At the prompting of Johannes, abbot of Bursfeld, I described the method and form of celebrating an annual chapter, but before I had finished it he died, and the book is still at Sponheim with some others: it begins “To the reverend father Dom Johannes”.
At the plea of Blasius, abbot of Hirsgau, I engaged in writinga chronicle of that monastery, but when he died I suspended work on it, not knowing what reward for the work his successor would provide.
At the plea of the same abbot Blasius I wrote one book on the ruin of our order, which I gave the title Penthicon, that is Lamentable. This work was printed at Mainz, and by command of the superiors is always read out at table at the provincial chapter. It begins “When the first fair state of our order”.
At the prompting of Gerlach of Breytbach, abbot of Deutz near Cologne, I wrote one book on the praises of the saints, which was printed at Mainz and begins “To the venerable father Dom” etc.
At the plea of certain fathers of the Carmelite order I wrote two books, in the first of which I covered the origin, growth and praises of that order. In the second I listed the famous men who distinguished it. This work was printed at Mainz and begins “At the prayers and urging of the ven.” etc.
I wrote one book in praise of St Anne, the mother of the intact and most chaste virgin Mary, mother of God, at the plea of Rumoldus, prior of Frankfurt of the said order, which was printed and begins “Your wish compels me”.
At the pleas of a certain newly made priest, Nicolaus Mernicensis apud Grunes, my sometime fellow student, I wrote one book on the priestly way of life, which was printed, and begins “You asked me, dearest brother Nicolaus”.
I wrote a book for Johannes Camerarius Dalbergius Vangionus the most learned master of ecclesiastical writers, as mentioned, which was printed at Basle and begins “Having often been asked by many people”.
At the plea of Jakob Wimpfeling of Slestadt, poet, orator and famous theologian, I wrote a short book on the famous writers of Germany which I gave the title “A catalogue of the famous men of Germany”. This work was printed at Mainz and begins “Since, Jakob, there are not a few”.
I also wrote four books on the famous men of my order which have not yet been issued, the first of which discusses the origin and growth of the order in general. The second is a catalogue of canonised saints of the order. The third contains the Roman pontiffs who arose from it. The fourth covers the famous men of the order who nobly distinguished the Catholic church no less than the order itself with their writings and compositions. This work begins “I have often considered”.
I wrote one book for brother Albertus Latro of the Franciscan order on calculating the church calendar, which has not yet appeared in public. It begins: “Johannes Trithemius, abbot”.
At the command of the superiors of my order of the Bursfeld observance, as it is known from its place of origin, I wrote a difficult work on the threefold region of the cloistered, taking the occasion from certain theses which are mentioned in the prologue. This consists of three books of which the first describes the region of beginning religious, the second of those progressing, and the third of the perfect. This work was printed at Mainz, and after my dedication to our presidents it begins “When the state of monastic life”.
At the plea of a certain friend I added one book, a spiritual exercise for monks, to the said work on the three regions of the cloistered, which was printed in the same way and begins: “Since the work on the triple region”.
I then excerpted an epitome of the same exercise for monks at the request of the same friend, which was printed with the others in the same way, beginning: “Even if a spiritual formula”.
After this I began to write a long and very difficult work on the wonderful invention of steganography in eight books, and finished the first book and the second in their entirety, and the third in part, but left all the others buried inmy mind up to this day, moved by various considerations, such as the great effort and probable small rewards. It remains unfinished and shall lie untouched until good reason persuades me otherwise. This work begins: “The most ancient wise men, called philosophers in Greek”.
At the plea of Udalricus Eslingensis, theologian and canon of the great church in Cologne, I wrote a book on certain puzzles and questions about the Greek text of the gospel according to John, which has not been printed and begins: “To my friends’ many”.
I wrote another book for the same man on certain puzzles in the Psalter in the Greek version, giving short solutions to them. It begins “Recently at Cologne”.
I composed a rosary of the most holy mother Anne, divided into fifty sections, for my devotions to her, together with the hours of prayer, a cursus as we call it, and an office of the mass with a sequence, “Let them rejoice in this day”, and another beginning “Let us praise Jesus king of heaven’s holy”.
At the plea of Macharius, abbot of Limburg, I wrote two books on the misery of monastic prelates, which have not yet appeared, but remained at Sponheim. This work begins “Know the misery of monastic prelates”.
I have written more than twenty prayers said in the chapter of the order and elsewhere, some of which were printed at Mainz and other have been scattered among my friends.
At the request of devout people I have written many rosaries of varius saints, Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene and other, collects, an indefinite number of supplicatory prayers, but I have not kept copies of them all. Indeed, I have written numerous small works whose titles I cannot all recall to memory at the moment. Quite a few of these have already appeared, but others require more work, and I have left them at Sponheim, perhaps to be finished later.
At the command of the most serene prince, lord Philip, Count Palatine of the Rhine, I wrote a history of the origin and progress of the dukes of Bavaria, whose opening words escape my memory.
I have written many letters to friends and collected a few of them, those I sent early in my abbacy at Sponheim, in one book. The others are still scattered out of order in their files, and I shall move to collect them in one volume some time, if I can.
These, dear Rutger Sicamber, are the compositions I can at this time remember writing as abbot of Sponheim, during continuous administrative tasks, and, as you know, frequent visitations within my order, from the year 1483, when on 29 July I was elected abbot of Sponheim, to 1 April 1505, when I left Sponheim for the last time, never to return. From the day of my departure from Sponheim up to my entry into the abbacy of St James here, eighteen months and fifteen days elapsed in which I could write very little except personal letters, which I have since edited here into one book. Meanwhile inn the nine months when I stayed with the most serene prince Elector Joachim in the Mark of Brandenburg, as you already know, I was by no means idle, but composed various works at his command, completing some and leaving some unfinished. At the prince’s command, I abridged the histories of several saints to whom he had a particular devotion and collected many and various supplicatory prayers relating to them in one volume, beginning “For the love of you, prince, the great and difficult work” etc.
During this time in the Mark, at the command of the said prince, I wrote fourteen books in one volume on various different matters and issues from antiquity which arose from our daily discussions, giving it the title of Panaletheia, whose first prologue begins “Great teacher, there are many things” etc.
For the same prince I wrote a work called Hieraticum, necessary for dispelling various diseases, divided into thirty four sections, whose first prologue begins “The things which I approached your majesty to write” etc.
I finished writing the above three volumes in their entirety, and no one can force me to reveal the titles of the rest which I have not yet completed.
These, Rutger, are the works which I composed in twenty three years as the abbot of Sponheim. Those which follow I wrote as abbot of the monastery of St James the Apostle outside Würzburg, where I am now in unworthy charge, and all the freer to concentrate on literary work by being less concerned with external matters because of its shortage of temporal goods. Knowing as I did that the place was poor and quiet I was the keener to take it on, hoping to have more opportunity to make time for writing. You shold know that princes offered me many great and rich abbacies, but I turned them down for love of quiet and writing. But when this one was offered me, I was confident it would suit my purpose much better, knowing how poor and small it was, but I have not yet been here for a full year, so I have composed little.
First of all, I have written one book in praise of St Joseph, foster father of our lord and saviour JESUS CHRIST, adding a rosary of fifty items from the praises of his merits. Also an office with prayers and also a prose which they call a sequence. This work begins “Often with great desire I have decided to satisfy both my own devotion”.
After this I wrote two books of my personal letters for my brother Jakob Trithemius, the first containing some sixty six letters written to various people throughout the time from my leaving the monastery of Sponheim up to my entry into this place. The second likewise contains sixty letters written to variou speople in this first year of my abbacy here. This work begins “You have rightly urged me, sweetest”.
In this year I have also written a large and time consuming work in six volumes, which I have given the Greek title of Pollographia, meaning manifold writng in Latin. With amazing natural subtlety it teaches many – no, countless – ways of writing and communicating secretly and securely, without any suspicion, anywhere in any language in the world, whatever needs to be communicated or written. This work begins: “We have read that many sages of the ancients” etc. But note, Rutger, that nobody should have this work on the same basis as great and powerful princes, for by it they can without fear communicate their most secret business to those elsewhere, because the entire world could not uncover their secret meaning without knowledge of this book, but it is easily learned if you have a copy, and can be memorised without effort. I have therefore resolved to offer this work to a prince whose wisdom and integrity merit every advantage.
I have written one book, in answer to a question put to me, against the pernicious disease and vice of simony and private property amongst religious, particularly nuns, beginning “There is a certain convent of nuns” etc.
These, Rutger, are what I have composed this present year living here in the monastery of St James, since you have so often wished to know their titles and order. I am still at work on some as yet unfinished ones, whose titles and first words I shall let you know when they have reached the finishing post.
The next thing I have planned, if the most High, who alone can do all things, wills it, is to compose the biggest of my works yet, to be divided into twelve books, on the subject of demons and the profane and malevolent arts whereby they grossly deceive mankind: I have in mind to do all in my power to discredit and refute all superstitious arts of demons and men, and to demonstrate from the very books of the fools who transmit them how vain,pernicious and detestable they are. It seems to me that such a work is most needed in these times when men, learned and unlearned, are excessively curious, inquiring into things they would do better not to know. However, I am not a little daunted by the amount of difficult work involved and I have thought it sensible to put off this project of mine until I have had time to assemble in one place the necessary material for such a work. This then is the reply which I consider your letters to me warrant. If I issue anything else in future, you shall be among the first to know. Farewell and remember me to God. Würzburg, 31 August 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James at Würzburg to Libanius Gallus, his most learned teacher, greetings and perpetual charity in the Lord.
I do not know, dear Libanius, what ills our fortune inflicted on us or what good it begrudged us, when it made us one in mind and spirit by birth and by grace, but willed us to be parted in our bodies by such a great distance in space. The trouble is that each of us sorely misses the other and it cannot be remedied by talking and exchanging letters, and that only at intervals of months and often years, and lately not even that, so rare it is to find a messenger who can convey letters and return with them.
Only as recently as the end of September did I receive your letters to me, entrusted in Spain on 24 June to a merchant departing for Frankfurt, as it appears, and they were beautifully written and full of many mysteries of our philosophy. Reading them over and over I was filled with wonder and joy so that I almost seem to be beside myself as if I was not in Francia with myself but in Spain or Majorca with you. These letters will be a permanent reminder of you for as long as I live, and after our Lord Jesus Christ the thing I shall turn to most for strength in difficulties and truth in doubt. They bubble with great and wonderful mysteries in philosophy which to my mind no mortal man’s understanding can grasp if he is not first steeped in your teaching.
You hint that you mean to take up residence in your master’s cell to imitate his holy ways in your short time on earth, which will never shame you in heaven. But meanwhile what of the teacher to whom you commend a pupil to be initiated – if you are to dwell in the desert, is he to live in the world? Oh, Libanius! You are half of my soul. Hear me pleading if that is possible. Before you go through with too hard a plan let your loyal, loyal Melanius see you. The wise archcount Theophilus is with him, and with his good advice he may prove to be your new Pelagius for you, risen from the methetus. Will you depart for Majorca, Libanius, to leave Triandricus to confusion and Megalopius to depression? when each of them is now panting to reach you? You know what I should want, so now let your strongest love for us win out.
I can confirm that I have now received the books by holy Pelagius on heavenly doctrine, which I requested from you through Melanius, for which many thanks. I will faithfully return them as you wish.
You kindly asked after my affairs, Libanius. I live a much freer life here for being poorer in the things of the world. I do all I can to reduce the ternary to unary and restore my mind to itself so that a purer understanding can race to the goal set by the law of its origin. I am still in disagreement with Melantius and his clique. They are trying to undermine part of the binary, and lawlessly and with actual violence at one point took possession of a seventh subequatorial part of the little field. That paint seller of ours rotates in the orb as usual (so much for stability of place) and whenever he turns up again, he always raises new winds in my ears. Admit that the favour of God the greatest and best makes the sea calm for as long as he who gives all things wills it, and it should be a pleasure to sail it with this one regret, that when the storm is over it is shameful to dwell on our troubles.
If at any time you hear that archcount Melanius is within range of you, I urge you not to miss seeing him. He loves you dearly and, as a common friend in Christ of many people, has done me many a good turn.
I am giving these letters to be delivered to you to a man I do not know who says he is leaving for France, with instructions to convey them to Charles de Bovelles, prince of theologians who philosophise at Paris, for him to get them safely into your hands. Write back to me when you so decide forwarding your letters, if you have no other way, through Bovelles again, a friend of mine who I know well.
Goodbye and remember me to God. Würzburg, 5 October 1507.
To the most serene unconquered prince and lord, lord Joachim Margrave of Brandenburg, duke of Stettin and Pomerania, archchamberlain of the Holy Roman Empire, prince elector, Johannes Trithemius, abbot of St James, Würzburg, greeting.
Most serene prince, the first and foremost I am glad to tell you that I, your serenity’s humble spokesman, am by the mercy of God the greatest and best, safe, well and in my usual good health. Above all I hope for the success of everything relating to the prosperity of your serenity, and your wife, your son and your brother.
About the book which your serenity wrote to enquire about, I gave it to my secretary to be recopied as you wished, and in September, when he had finished it, I had it bound in covers as beautifully and attractively as possible, gilded all over on the outside in your usual style. I intended to deliver this book to your majesty as quickly as possible, and I would have done so in a couple of days had not quartain fevers detained the messenger who I was going to send, and the instant he is restored to health he shall bear the book to your highness. As for the other things which your serenity commissioned me to write, I have drafted a part, and a part is not yet finished but I am hard at work until it is. I will do my utmost to bear in mind your welcome grants to me, and even if I cannot always convey my gratitude I never cease give sincere thanks for them.
I have not sent your serenity the volume he desired with the courier of this present mail, but I think you will agree there was good reason. The man I have given this mail to is actually a poor scholar who has been my assistant for some time, and taking my advice to resume the studies which he interrupted he is to go to your serenity’s own gymnasium at Frankfurt. I did not dare to include the book in the mail for fear of the risks. I am in hopes that my messenger will shortly be well again and only too happy to travel to your grace. Your clemency used the same messenger to send me a silver sword gilded inside and out which I will say I accepted with feelings of the deepest gratitude, and I shall give as much thanks as I can, and will always go on doing so. It will serve me as a major keepsake of your serenity and a visible symbol of your goodwill.
With the good Lord’s aid I have finished my work on polygraphy, divided into six sections or books, and it has already been dedicated to your majesty. I shall make a point of having it displayed to your holy sight as swiftly as may be. May God almighty long keep you, famous prince, safe and continually happy. I humbly commend myself to you.
Würzburg, 16 October 1507.
Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the monastery of St James outside Würzburg to his dear brother Jakob Trithemius, greetings.
What I promised you at the start of this second, Würzburg, volume of my letters, dear brother, I think I have done all I can to perform. In one volume of letters I have condensed not all but some of the exemplars I promised, ones which I sent in the past year from the day when I entered this monastery up to this very day when I wrote this letter to you. Be pleased to accept the thoughts of absent friends which will revive memories of me as they unfold, though the letters I wrote myself lack the allure of beauty; but they may nonetheless move you to charity not least because they are full of brotherly warmth. Writing in haste makes for a wavering pen, so wherever you spot words in the wrong order, or defective in any part, or stumble on any blemishes do not allow the volume to be published before you have throughly corrected it. At the speed with which I wrote, it would hardly be possible not to miswrite a word here or a letter there, and you can easily correct them. Farewell and remember me. Würzburg, 16 October 1507.