Abbot John Trithemius
Abbot John of Tritheim, more often known as Johannes Trithemius, was a wonder of the monastic world. Born into poverty, he developed a love of letters at a young age and ran away from home to pursue his studies in Trier. In 1482, at the age of twenty, he spent a night at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Martin at Sponheim. Continuing on his way the next morning, he encountered a sudden snowstorm that forced him to return for shelter. He took it as a sign that he should remain as a monk. His new brothers must have thought the same, for the following year they elected him as their abbot when he was barely out of the novitiate. Trithemius was a reformer, eager to recover the lost glory of the “golden centuries” of medieval Benedictine life. His monastery belonged to the new Congregation of Bursfeld, a movement of monastic reform, and Trithemius became the congregation’s leading theologian.
Shocked that the monks of Sponheim had gradually sold off their books to support a comfortable (and non-literary) lifestyle, the new abbot immediately set about assembling a library which in just twenty years would become one of the best in Europe. By 1505 he had expanded the collection from 40 books to more than 2000. In addition to the expected Latin works, Trithemius collected texts in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and several European languages. For someone well-known as the author of a treatise entitled In Praise of Scribes, Trithemius did not shun the new technology of printing, for his library included both printed and handwritten works.
In 1505 Trithemius left Sponheim, having wearied his monks with exhortations to learning and better monastic observance, while taxing their finances to build up the library. It was not a happy departure, for Trithemius left without his books and full of bitterness toward many of his former confreres. The next year he became abbot of the monastery of Saint Jacob in Würzburg, where he continued his literary projects until his death in 1516.
This exhibit illustrates Trithemius’ claim to have been one of the leading Christian humanists of his day. Deeply interested in many fields of study, he sought to bring all of human learning to bear on the study of sacred theology. His legacy is complex, as you will discover in the stories told about each book. But in his brilliance and complexity, Trithemius was surely one of the greatest monks of the 1500 year old Benedictine tradition.
I. "Book on the Three Regions of the Cloistered Life and on Spiritual Practice"
II. "Commentary on the Rule of Benedict"
III. "Treatise in Praise of the Holy Mother Anne"
IV. "Two Books of Sermons on the Bursfeld Observance, Book of Mourning
about the Decline of the Order of St. Benedict in Germany"
V. "Compendium or Summary of the First Volume of the Annals or Histories
About the Origin of the Frankish Kings and People"
VI. "In Praise of Scribes"
VII. "A Compelling Story of the First Emergence and Development of the Franks
as They Came into the German Land"
VIII. "Compendium or Summary of the First Volume of the Annals or Histories
About the Origin of the Frankish Kings and People."
IX. "Distinguished Chronicle of the Monastery of Hirsau."
X. "The Annals of Hirsau...Including the History of France and Germany, the
Achievements of the Emperors, Kings, Princes, Bishops, Abbots, and
XI. "Catalogue of Ecclesiastical Authors and Famous People"
XII. "Covered Writing [i.e. cryptography]"
XIII. "Six Books on 'Many Forms of Writing' [i.e. cryptography], to which is
added A Book of the Key to 'Many Forms of Writing'"
XIV. "On the Seven Secondary Intelligences or Spirits that Move the Worlds