Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/John Trithemius

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A famous scholar and Benedictine abbot, b. at Trittenheim on the Moselle, 1 February, 1462; d. at Würzburg, 13 December, 1516. The abbot himself, in his "Nepiachus", gives an account of his youth, which was a time of hard suffering owing to the harsh treatment of his selfish stepfather, who allowed the talented boy to grow up in complete ignorance till the age of fifteen, when he learned reading and writing as well as the rudiments of Latin in a remarkably short time. But as his persecution at home did not cease, he ran away, and after a painful journey succeeded in reaching Würzburg, where the well-known humanist, Jacob Wimpheling, was teaching; here the ambitious youth pursued his classical studies till 1482. In order to revisit his home he determined to make an excursion to the neighbourhood of Trèves accompanied by a comrade; it was January and the young men travelled afoot. A short visit to the monastery of Sponheim was to prove of decisive importance for the young Trithemius; hardly had the travellers taken leave of the monks when a snowstorm obliged them to return to the monastery. At the invitation of the prior, Henry of Holzhausen, who had quickly discerned the talents of his young guest, Trithemius remained in Sponheim; eight days later he received the habit of the order and made his vows in the same year, 8 December. His life in the monastery was exemplary; he commanded the respect of his brethren, and the love of his superiors. The proof of the respect in which he was held by all was the fact that although he was the youngest member of the community, and had not yet been ordained, he was elected abbot at the age of twenty-two, during the second year of his life in the order. His election was a great blessing for Sponheim. With youthful vigour and a firm hand he undertook the direction of the much-neglected monastery. He first turned his attention to the material needs of his community, then set himself to the much more difficult task of restoring its discipline. Above all, his own example, not only in the conscientious observance of the rules of the order, but also in the tireless pursuit of scientific studies, brought about the happiest results.

In order to promote effectively scientific research, he procured a rich collection of books which comprised the most important works in all branches of human knowledge; in this way he built up the world-renowned library of Sponheim for the enriching of which he laboured unceasingly for twenty-three years till the collection numbered about 2000 volumes. This library, unique in those days, made Sponheim known throughout the entire world of learning. The attractive personality of the abbot also helped to spread the fame of the monastery. Among his friends he numbered, not only the most learned men of his time, such as Celtes, Reuchlin, and John of Dalberg, but also many princes — including the Emperor Maximilian, who held him in great esteem. But the farther his reputation extended in the world the greater became the number of malcontents in the monastery who opposed the abbot's discipline. Finally he resigned as head of his beloved abbey, which he had ruled for twenty-three years, and which he had brought to a most flourishing condition; after his departure the monastery sank into its former insignificance. The Emperor Maximilian desired to bring the famous scholar to his Court, and to make him the historiographer of the Imperial House with a life-long pension; he was also promised rich abbeys. But Trithemius sought the quiet and peace of a more retired life, and this he found as abbot of the Scottish monastery of St. Jacob, at Würzburg (1506). Here he found only three monks, so he had ample opportunity to display the same activity he had shown at Sponheim. He spent the last ten years of his life in the production of many important writings. Only once did he leave his monastery (1508) for a short stay at the imperial Court. He died at fifty-five years of age and was buried in the Scottish church at Würzburg.

The Order of St. Benedict was indebted to this energetic abbot for his zealous promotion of the Bursfeld Congregation, for his encouragement of learning in the order, and for his earnest furtherance of monastic discipline. "The great abbot", says one of his biographers, "was equally worthy of respect as a man, as a religious, and as a writer." Of his more than eighty works only part have appeared in print. The greater number of these are ascetical writings which treat of the religious life and were published by John Busaeus, S.J., under the title "Joannis Trithemii opera pia et spiritualia" (Mainz, 1604); they are among the best works of devotional literature produced at the time. Marquard Freher published a part of his historical works as "Joannis Trithemii opera historica" (Frankfort, 1601). This collection, however, did not include the two famous folio volumes, published in 1690 under the title of "Annales Hirsaugiensis". Trithemius also wrote interesting contributions on points of natural science, then much debated, and on classical literature. The question whether he, by citing two otherwise unknown authorities (Megiahard and Kunibald), was guilty of intentional forgery, is still under debate by some critics. Surely the inscription on his tomb testifies to the truth:


Hanc meruit statuam Germanae gloria gentis Abbas Trithemius, quem tegit ista domus (The Abbot Trithemius, the glory of the German race, whom this house covers, merited this statue).


[Note: A portrait of John Trithemius was printed in Thevet's Livre des Vrais Pourtraits, Paris, 1584.]

SILBERNAGEL, Joh. Trithemius (Landshut, 1868); RULAND in Chiliancum, new ser., I, 45-68 (Bonn, 1869); SCHNEEGANS, Abt. Joh. Trithemius u. Kloster Sponheim (Kreuznach, 1882); JANSSEN-PASTOR, Geschichte des Deutschen Volkes, I (Freiburg, 1897).

NICHOLAS SCHEID