Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) was one of Renaissance Europe's leading, albeit controversial, intellectual figures. He wrote a number of works on magic and the occult sciences, which Mary Shelley would later cite as an important influence in the early intellectual life of a young Victor Frankenstein. His work in the occult sciences, in tandem with his attack on human learning ('On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences', 1530), led some more pious readers to regard him as "a sorcerer and associate of demons, detested by others as an irreverent mocker and subverter of religion and good morals" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Agrippa's 'De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus', represents an early and important entry into an emerging genre of "defenses of women" produced in Renaissance Europe. 'De nobilitate' was written in 1509 but not published until 1529, with David Clapham's English translation following in 1542. The book is structured in four parts: an analysis of Genesis as the basis for Christian misogyny, an enumeration of the God-given superior qualities of women, a catalogue of famous women from the Bible and antiquity who exemplify those qualities, and a reflection on contemporary restrictions placed upon women. "Agrippa argues that the contemporary treatment of women is contrary to both divine and natural laws. According to him, laws, customs, and education all contribute to the suppression of women. Changing such human constructs is his implicit goal... Not content with proving that women are equal, he enthusiastically sets out to prove their inherent superiority to men" (Gold and Platter, pp. 189-190).
It was dismissed for generations as an expression of Agrippa's paradoxical intellectual program, but contemporary feminist scholars have argued that it should be taken seriously insofar as it anticipates some of the core tenets of modern feminism. Indeed, his program is clear from the opening pages, where he states: "[God] hath given but one similitude and lykeness of the sowle both male and female, between whose sowles there is noo maner dyfference of kind. The woman hathe that same mynd that a man hath, that same reason and speche, she goeth to the same end of blyssfulness, where shall be noo exception of kynde."
Exceedingly rare on the market — we can locate no other copies having appeared at auction.
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