From Virile Woman to Womanchrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature

By Barbara Newman | Go to book overview

7.Renaissance Feminism and Esoteric Theology: The Case of Cornelius Agrippa

Of the myriad "defenses of women" produced in Renaissance Europe, the most flamboyant and fascinating is one of the first. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim ( 1486-1535), already a polymath and occultist of some fame, was but a young man of twenty-three, preparing to teach his first course at the University of Dôe in Burgundy, when in 1509 he delivered the brilliant inaugural lecture that became the kernel of his treatise De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (On the Nobility and Superiority of the Female Sex).1 The oration was dedicated to Margaret of Savoy, princess of Austria and Burgundy and de jure president of the university, whose patronage Agrippa wished to secure. Unfortunately for the young scholar's career, however, he roused the ire of the Franciscan Jean Catilinet with his ensuing course, a series of lectures on Reuchlin's kabbalistic text De verbo mirifico. Within a year the friar's diatribes would force Agrippa out of his post and out of town. After this summary denial of tenure, it was not until twenty years later that he published De nobilitate, with its original dedication, in the Antwerp edition of his works ( 1529).

Once in print the treatise enjoyed a virtual succès de scandale. A second edition appeared in 1532, others in 1567, 1603, and 1643. Shortly after its publication the work was translated into French and Italian; within fifteen years it was also available in German and English. A Polish version came out in 1575, a Dutch one in 1611. Between 1530 and 1801 at least eighteen separate translations appeared, not counting reprints and innumerable plagiarisms by other writers. But despite this enthusiastic reception, Agrippa's translators and publishers proved to be radically at odds over the interpretation of his remarkable tract. At the same time that seventeenth-century feminists were appropriating De nobilitate as a precursor text, misogynists were promulgating it as a satire on women.2 Nor have modern interpreters reached agreement about its author's intentions. Its shifting tonal registers

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