This project is a digital surrogate of a very special book, housed in Texas A&M University’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archive. The book is a first edition by Henry Cornelius Agrippa and its real title is De occulta philosophia libri tres, or, in English, Three books on occult philosophy, published in 1533. You may be asking who was this Agrippa character? Why on earth is he important? Well, his great work on magic, De occulta philosophia was so popular that it earned itself a place on the indices of Venice, Milan, and Rome in 1554 as well as in the processes of the Holy Office at Friuli (Klaassen 199). Agrippa’s influence on the subject of magic is evident through history, an example of which Frank Klaassen wrote about and that I will summarize for you: in the late 1560s Humphrey Gilbert (an adventurer, explorer, parliament member, and fan of medieval ritual magic, specifically necromancy) employed the demon Azazel to call up the ghosts of a select group of magicians: Adam, Job, Roger Bacon, and Cornelius Agrippa (169). So, less than thirty years after his death, Agrippa had already been tightly associated with the greatest magicians of the ancient and Christian eras.
Originally, Agrippa’s work was published as three separate books. 1533 saw the first edition of all three books bound together. To briefly summarize the contents of the books, the first book deals with the elemental world and the magical properties of physical objects. The second book concerns itself with the celestial and mathematical world. To Agrippa, the celestial world is more powerful than the elemental world because it more closely approaches the divine for, as Agrippa himself says (though I translate to English) “he that will choose a disposed matter, and most fit to receive, and a most powerful agent, shall undoubtedly produce more powerful effects. For it is the general opinion of the Pythagoreans, that as mathematical things are more formal than natural, so also they are more efficacious: as they have less dependence in their being, so also in their operation” (Agrippa ed. Tyson 234). The material is presented as a vast library of interwoven and overlapping, sometimes contradictory, information that only those with experience and practice could understand and wield properly, thereby forcing his readers to construct their own approaches to the discipline.
Agrippa begins the third book by framing his entire magical enterprise as a quest for divine truth through religious experience. He says that those who “confide only in natural things, are wont very oft to be deceived by evil spirits; but from the knowledge of religion, the contempt and cure of vises arisith, and a safeguard against evil spirits” (Agrippa ed. Tyson 441). Agrippa regards all natural magic as involving the threat of demons. Because of this, he employs three of the same strategies one would find in medieval ritual magic according to Klaassen:
First, pious and religious behavior can protect the operator from demons… Second, pure magic cannot be accomplished by regulating technique (such as avoiding unknown words) but only by discovering the truth through divine illumination. Third, divine illumination not only helps the operator to discover the truth… it is also an end in itself and the central goal of high magic (203).
Here is where we can see a true marriage of magic and Christianity. According to Agrippa, in order to use magic to its full potential to expel demons from this world in the name of Christianity, one must proceed with caution and truly understand the nature of the truth being discovered. Practice and piety were key factors in using magic to its full potential and thus eliminating the risk of running afoul of a demon.
Agrippa’s influence might well be attributed in part to the way in which he presented his work. His magic was familiar, taking existing magical traditions and reformulating them to include Kabbalistic elements. And so, this brief introduction brings us to the part of this particular copy that I am primarily interested in: the handwritten French inscription located on the last page of text. I will admit now that I have no French, and am indebted to a number of my colleagues who helped me to decipher the translation. Roughly, it says, “once you do everything that is contained here I will be at your command Beelzebub” (Agrippa 362).
The way in which the liquid used to write the inscription has dried and preserved over time as well as the smearing underneath it suggest that blood, rather than ink, was used. And then of course, there is this. This is an image that is surrounded by textual information about the symmetry of the human body, and to me appears to be covered in the same liquid that was used to write the marginalia at the end of the book. But, the Cushing has yet to test the material used to write the inscription as there is much question surrounding whether or not it can be done without damaging the artifact.
Now I want to turn back to the inscription itself. I became extremely interested in the ‘you’ that the unknown reader (which is what I call the author of the marginalia) calls upon in their inscription. Perhaps they are looking toward future readers, although I cannot say as to whether they had an intended future audience (perhaps a friend or relative who would receive the book by way of gift) or if they left this message for any future reader that may come across the text. Perhaps the unknown reader had a partner and together they were working to call upon Beelzebub. The possibilities are endless, and thus far in my research I have been able to find no concrete answers, but that this kind of speculation is possible harkens back to why books as objects, and particularly this book as object, is an important field of study beyond a mere study of the content it contains. The book itself was originally a means of communication from Agrippa to his readers. The marginalia in Cushing’s copy created a second strand of communication: from reader to reader. The book itself, then, has a power separate from the magical content within its pages. The unknown reader makes what I believe is an important distinction in his message to that effect: “what is contained here.” There is no mention made of doing what Agrippa or any other occult philosopher or magician has said to do in the book, rather, he calls upon what is contained here, in this exact book. The unknown reader bestows a power unto this single copy that other editions do not have; and because this person found it to be singularly important, it has been marked as such and therefore treated as such.
Following the inscription is a magic signature. The signature is a DIY job constructed from various symbols that can be found in the text itself.
The beginning sequence is the Greek representation for the Archangel Michael, As you can see, it is the Greek symbol contained in the book. An ‘L’ sign, representing unity according to Kaballistic study, and a Hebrew kaph, which in Kabbalah represents both the fist and submission, follow it. I believe that the signature itself, then, means unity with and submission to (or under the fist of) the Archangel Michael. Here we can see a practical application of Agrippa’s belief of the connection between magic and Christianity. His book stresses that good Christian men can wield magic in order to cleanse the world of demons, and so an unknown reader used this particular book to attempt to conjure Beelzebub to aid him in his endeavor.
Thus far, I have treated each of the words in the inscription save the magic signature as one long sentence, as there is no visible punctuation. However, one last possibility is that the unknown reader was writing AS Beelzebub, saying that he will be at the command of whichever human does what is contained in the book. This alternate possibility, that the unknown reader was posing as a demon, raises a slew of questions about the provenance of the book—if this theory is the correct one, then there was a thought out plan for other people to see it. The unknown reader was participating in a charade, playing at being a demon, and actively trying to draw other people in by “legitimizing” the work. So, then did the unknown reader truly believe?
So what about Beelzebub? As I learned, it is important to distinguish between Beelzebub and Satan because they are not the same being and therefore serve different roles. Here’s a short excerpt about Beelzebub from The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology, (and yes, this is an actual book that exists). I found this information particularly interesting with regard to Agrippa’s book:
The Pharisees accused Jesus of exorcizing demons in Beelzebub’s name, for according to belief, the power to expel unclean spirits was gained through pacts with demons. The incident is recounted in Matthew (12:24-29), Mark (3:22-27), and Luke (11:14-22)” (25).
While Beelzebub is the prince of demons, Satan is the personification of evil, the head of all demons, including Beelzebub. He is “the opposite and opponent of God, the Prince of Darkness, and the subverter of souls” (Guiley 222). In the modern era, a common error is the belief that Beelzebub and Satan are interchangeable, when in fact they are not. They are different entities, and as Guiley states in her encyclopedia, Beelzebub is the oft called upon demon used to gain the power to expel other demons from the earth. In the context of De occulta philosophia, these distinctions match perfectly, and shed some light on why the unknown reader would call upon the power of Beelzebub to use the magic that Agrippa teaches.
So, this fascinating marginalia led me to question the use of the book as an object versus just the content held therein. I began to research other first edition copies to see what I could find. So far I have been able to see three other copies, which I will briefly discuss here. I was fortunate enough to see another 1533 edition of De occulta philosophia libri tres in Illinois at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and studied their copy, held in their Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This copy was also missing its title page. I took some photos that I later compared to the Cushing copy. What I found was surprising: the editions were vastly different. I had been hoping that it would have an original title page so that I could run a comparison between a definite first edition and Cushing’s copy, which has a facsimile title page, but alas, this one also had no title page, but this did not mean that the book held no answers.
Take, for example, the decorated letters ‘C’ and ‘M’ above. While Cushing’s features a dark background and a little cherubic boy stepping on a goat-like figure, Illinois’s copy features a man holding a bone with a highly stylized background. Cushing’s ‘M’ is all outline, a plain letter with a simple bird standing behind it. The ‘M” in the Illinois copy has a black background, a similarly simple letter, but a cherubic figure kneeling behind it. The differences hold throughout both books— each letter is different between the two copies. These stark differences indicate that the woodcuts were either changed out in between printing, which seems unlikely, or that the editions are different, though they both purport to be a first edition. And so I began to wonder, which is the first edition? Or is either a true first edition? Either way, what on earth is going on with these books? I noticed that the printed marginalia and overall line justification is formatted differently between copies, and many of the charts are formatted differently as well. Then the truly perplexing difference: the diagrams of men. In the interest of time I will show you only one of these men, though there are five total in the ideal copy I inspected from the Bodleian, which match the diagrams in every other edition I have looked at save for Cushing’s. This poor guy is completely missing from Cushing’s copy.
Upon close inspection, I discovered that pages 161-164 are missing, as are their corresponding signature marks (oiii and oiiii should occur in these pages). Pages 274 and 275 are missing as well, and the corresponding signature mark (ziiii) is also absent. This indicates to me that the pages themselves are gone, not that there has been a pagination error. Unfortunately, today I do not have time to discuss the pagination of the book, but it is, as they say, a hot mess. But, that is for another day and another paper.
The fact that both the Illinois copy of the book and Cushing’s copy of the book actually say they are first editions, but are printed in entirely different manners, leads me to believe that Cushing’s copy, the one containing many printer’s errors and some missing pages, was not printed from the same form as the rest of the first editions. It’s sloppy overall compilation that I carefully tracked from the front to back cover lead me to believe that this was some sort of rush job, perhaps printed by Soter and Hetorpius, the same printers who printed all of the first editions, but it seems to me that it was either a proof print or a rushed job done after the first print set or something similar.
And that brings me back to the discussion of this book as singly powerful. It is obviously different from the other first editions. Further, the unknown reader has treated it as something special—and they marked it as such. The unknown reader has done something particularly interesting with this text by writing the marginalia—it is not often that we are able to see such a practical use derived from a text. Sure, marginalia is not uncommon, but this kind of marginalia that truly shows how someone believed so firmly in the book’s contents that they attributed real power to the object containing it? Personally, I find it fascinating.
not about the book
Special thanks to Cushing Memorial Library and Archives for encouraging my ongoing obsession with this book. An emphatic thank you as well to the generous funding and hosting provided by Texas A&M’s Center for Digital Humanities Research (CoDHR) and especially to Dr. Bryan Tarpley, who helped this project come alive.
about the editor
Michaela Baca is a PhD candidate in English at Texas A&M University specializing in later medieval and early modern women’s writing and digital approaches to feminist book history and bibliography. You can contact her at michaela 510 [at] tamu [dot] edu.