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Johannes Trithemius, humanist of the late Middle Ages

"Quicquid in mundo scibile est, scire semper cupiebam ..." (Trithemius: Nepiachus)

The universal scholar, philosopher and prince bishop Nikolaus von Kues (1401 – 1464) was born in Bernkastel-Kues. His writings on philosophy and science mean he is considered a modern day genius. As a science theoretist he focused mainly on the knowledge theory from the Latin and Greek worlds. Following this theory, he saw the natural sciences based on experience and systematic experiments –as well as the certainty of maths formulae- as the fundamental foundation of all knowledge. His works include maths problems like the squaring of the circle, or the universal concept of world religions, where all religions are united by a common core. In the year 1462, two years before the death of the important humanist and prelate of the church Nikolaus von Kues (Nicholas Cusanus), another important humanist scholar of the late middle ages named Johannes Trithemius (originally Johannes Heidenberg or Johannes Zeller of Trittenheim) was born in Trittenheim on the Mosel, just a few kilometres upriver from Kues. In 1482, after attending schools in Trier, Cologne, the Netherlands and Heidelberg, he entered the Benedictine monastery Sponheim in the Nahe valley. Shortly afterwards he was made Abbott. Under his influence, the monastery evolved into a centre of humanistic scholarship and spiritual discussion. The library that he set up contained about 2000 volumes and was an exceptional scientific collection with Greek, Latin and Hebraic writings. This library and the inspiring and nurturing atmosphere of the monastery resulted in infinite numbers of visitors, and collaborations between Trithemius and all important scholars at the time. He gained literary fame through his "De Scriptoribus ecclesiaticis", the first printed literature history and bibliography of world literature, still used today. Some of his writings, however, are now considered controversial. Among these are his history of the Sponheim monastery, in which he willingly used false information in favour of his monastery, and "The origins of the Franconian people" (De origine gentis Francorum compendium), where he freely fabricated entire paragraphs in the style of a historical novel. They were probably written to satisfy the historical needs of his benefactors, particularly Emperor Maximilian who was especially interested in a "glorified" version of the history of the Habsburg family.

After a period of internal strife, Johann Trithemius left the monastery at Sponheim in 1506 and continued his work at the Abbey of St. Jacob in Würzburg. The conditions there were hard and he died in 1516. Among his wide body of work are some rather dubious writings that dealt with secret writings ("Polygraphia"), theories of cryptography ("Steganographia"), and alchemy including magical formulae and religious-psychological interpretations of nature (based upon Aristotle's idea of "prima materia"). It is exactly these works which have lately become popular among a wider public. The above portrait was probably made around 1510, and was painted by the famous painter and graphic artist Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) from Augsburg, who influenced the German Renaissance with his own style. The original of Hans Burgkmairs's drawing is in the Musée Dondé de Chantilly in Paris.

For further information:
Klaus Arnold, Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), Kommissionsverlag Ferdinand Schöningh, Würzburg 1991
Klaus Arnold, Johannes Trithemius: —Leben und Werk. In: R. Auernheimer und F. Baron (Hrsg), Bad Kreuznacher Symposien Bd. 1, S. 1-16; München, Profil Verlag, 1991
Michael Kuper, Johannes Trithemius —der schwarze Abt; Berlin, Clemens Zerling, 1998
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