The Mystery of Jean Bodin

Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime (Colloquium Heptaplomeres de Rerum Sublimium Arcanis Abditis) annotations, and critical readings by

by Jean Bodin, translated with an introduction, Marion Leathers Daniels Kuntz
Princeton University Press, 509 pp., $25.00

The book here presented in translation was once a secret, disseminated in manuscript copies among a few chosen spirits, and referred to with bated breath, if mentioned at all, though it may have been a power in the background, or the underground. It is in fact the Heptaplomeres, written by Jean Bodin in the late sixteenth century. The Latin text was not printed until 1857. A partial French translation appeared in 1914. There has been no English translation until now, when the Heptaplomeres in full is at last revealed to the English-speaking world.

Jean Bodin (1530-1596), a French lawyer, possibly of Jewish descent on his mother’s side, was confronted like all his generation with the problem of the wars of religion. His early life is obscure, but he would seem to have moved from Catholicism to an interest in Reform, and to have found a compromise in the party of the politiques, believers in religious toleration. In 1571 he became associated with François de Valois, youngest son of Catherine de’ Medici, the leader or figurehead of the politique party. Bodin became completely identified with François and the politiques. He was with the French prince in England during his unsuccessful courtship of Queen Elizabeth I; he followed François to Antwerp and was a prominent member of his entourage during his brief reign as Duke of Brabant, an abortive attempt to found a state in which religious toleration would be practiced.

The collapse of that regime in 1584 ruined the hopes of the politiques and broke Bodin’s career. In the dark years of the end of the century he was in eclipse, and somewhat sullied his earlier liberal reputation by declaring after the death of Henri III for Mayenne and the Catholic League, though he joined Navarre, now Henri IV, as soon as he began to be successful and had abjured Protestantism.

Bodin was one of the most learned men of his age, author of important books on history and on political theory. He believed in monarchy as the best form of government and as the best for France; his legal definitions of sovereignty in his Methodus (1566) and République (1576) were very influential. His sense of order is also apparent in his survey of universal nature, the Universae naturae theatrum (1596), arranged under headings which recall those of Renaissance memory-theaters. Historians of thought are aware of Bodin’s many-sided mind, but the work of his which has come into prominence today, owing to the contemporary interest in witchcraft, is his De la démonomanie des sorciers (1580). For this liberal man of encyclopedic culture believed intensely in the reality of magic, and of the witches’ sabbath, and by his extreme intolerance of supposed witches was highly influential in fomenting the terrible witch craze.

In the Heptaplomeres, Bodin gives his secret views on religion, and as Marion Kuntz rightly remarks in her introduction, it connects with all his other works, including the Démonomanie. As a key to the state of mind through which a learned magistrate could feel it his duty to burn supposed witches, and to write with passion against their supposed alliance with demons, the Heptaplomeres is an important document for what has been called one of the most mysterious episodes in the history of Europe—the witch craze of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. And this work is important for the history of religion, for it is a remarkable survey of comparative religion.

The Seven who hold these colloquies about Secrets of the Sublime are Coronaeus, a Roman Catholic; Fredericus, a Lutheran; Curtius, a Calvinist; Toralba, who represents natural religion; Senamus, who accepts all sects; Salomon, a Jew; Octavius, a Moslem. There are no atheists; the tone is in fact profoundly religious. Each speaker expresses his own view with complete frankness, yet there is no quarreling. The meetings end with the singing of psalms in perfect amity.

Each of the Seven is given such a fair hearing that the reader, unaccustomed to hearing his own side and its opposite as well, may wonder whom he is to follow, and this is no doubt intentional. You may follow whom you will provided that you are tolerant of the others and join with them in psalms and hymns. Who of the Seven was Bodin’s own favorite? There have been various opinions about this. The late Pierre Mesnard believed that it is the Catholic, who convoked the assembly and, in a manner, presides over it. Others have argued for Toralba and natural religion. A case could be made for the Moslem who, unlike the Christians, does not persecute (Octavius is in fact a convert to Islam from Christianity).

Readers of this translation may decide that it is Salomon, the Jew, who seems to have the most authority. When all the others have made their points, we wait to hear what Salomon will say, and he comes out very clearly and strongly, very certain of his profound knowledge of the Law and of its mystical interpretation in the Cabala. However much the others may disagree with him, they defer to him and to his ability to clarify the greatest difficulties from the secret shrines of the Hebrews.

As one reads and rereads the book, one becomes more and more aware that its guiding theme is the Law, the sacred Law given by Jehovah to the Jews through Moses, recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and from which both Christianity and its various sects, and Islam, are all derived. The point of contact between them all is the Law, expounded in its purity by Salomon, together with Cabalistic interpretation of its mysteries.

In the introduction to her translation, Marion Kuntz rightly stresses the importance of Cabala in Bodin’s work, though she makes no systematic attempt, either in her introduction or in her notes, at tracing his sources for what he calls Cabala. François Secret has said that, although Bodin knew Hebrew, he might have derived most of what he says about Cabala in the Heptaplomeres from secondary sources. This all-important question must await further investigation. In the meantime it can be said that Bodin discusses at some length the question of forced conversion, the problem of the marrano compelled to conform outwardly to a religion in which he does not believe. This may indicate that the rumor of his descent from a refugee from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 may have some truth in it, and that his obsession with toleration and with what he calls Cabala may have deep personal roots. Salomon rejects what he suspects as efforts by Christian Cabalists to convert him, and states firmly that he expects a Messiah to come in the future.

Whatever his sources, Salomon is respected by the others as a Cabalist. This comes out particularly clearly in the third book. Toralba states that divine matters are hidden in a certain occult discipline called Cabala. It is expected that Salomon will speak on this but he is silent. They break up after singing a hymn to the accompaniment of lyres and flutes, but return later to discuss, in the third book, the theme of truth hidden in allegories and fables. Salomon explains that Cabala means tradition, and that it is a method for finding hidden meanings in the Scriptures which is understood only by the learned. As an example of Cabalist allegorical interpretation he takes the story of Adam and Eve. Adam sinned, but not because he tasted the forbidden fruit offered to him by his wife, as people imagine in their childish error. The story is an allegory of a victory of the sensual part of man over the intellectual part.Similarly, the talking serpent is an allegory which only those versed in Cabala can understand. Some of the allegories quoted by Bodin he could have found in the writings of Philo Judaeus, and not taken directly from the Zohar.

It would seem that Cabala, or Bodin’s conception of the Jewish mystical tradition, is really the sublime secret of the Heptaplomeres, which enables all the Seven to meet on a mystical level. No ecumenical solution of the religious differences is sought or arrived at. The conclusion states that the speakers remained in their various opinions, talked no more of religion, but nourished their piety in a profound harmony and integrity of life.

The cosmology which is the setting for this remarkable essay in comparative religion is a magical one, operated by angels and demons as agents of the Eternal God. “God’s majesty,” says Salomon, “seems more awesome because of the service of angels and demons than if he cared for all things in and of Himself, as He is able to do.” Though angels and demons belong to the normal framework of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this intense sense of their omnipresence and power suggests a Cabalist mentality, and it is this vivid belief in good and bad spirits which makes Bodin so obsessed with the danger of bad magic. For magicians can have a “wicked alliance with demons” and can cause untold harm. Fredericus, the Lutheran, is particularly aware of bad magic and describes a witches’ sabbath. It is here that Bodin’s Heptaplomeres connects with his Démonomanie and its indictment of witchcraft.

As D.P. Walker has pointed out, much of Bodin’s polemic against magic in the Démonomanie is directed against Pico della Mirandola and Henry Cornelius Agrippa, that is to say, it is against Renaissance magic. Pico’s advice in his Magical and Cabalist Conclusions about “marrying earth and heaven” by magical procedures, about use of Cabalist letter-formations in magic, is quoted with horror as the wicked teachings of a magician. Pico’s statement that the hymns of Orpheus have as much power for magic as the psalms of David for Cabala is an abominable attempt to equate pagan incantations for attracting the demon, Pan, with the pure use of the psalms by a pious Cabalist. In fact, Pico is presented as teaching the use of Cabala for magic, a most wicked degradation of the true religious meaning and use of Cabala.

And if Pico is a wicked magician, Agrippa is much worse. Bodin’s fulminations against the De occulta philosophia, Agrippa’s handbook of Renaissance “Magic and Cabala,” are alarming. It is an utterly damnable work, and the black dog which was seen to leave Agrippa’s house at his death and to jump into the Rhône was the demon who had inspired his master’s evil practices. The wrong use of Cabala by such sorcerers is compared with the true Cabala, which is a spiritual discipline and a method of Scriptural exegesis used by good and holy men. It draws out deep meanings through allegorical interpretation of the text and leads the devout into holy secrets.

The same contrast between bad magic and good Cabala is implied in the Heptaplomeres. In the second book, dreadful cases of magic are collected, the witches’ sabbath is described, and Agrippa’s dog jumps into the Rhône. In the third book, Salomon expounds the true and holy Cabala, its method of allegorical exegesis, using at times the same words as are used in the Démonomanie on these themes. Comparison of the Démonomanie with the Heptaplomeres brings out that Bodin’s condemnation of Pico and Agrippa was the disapproval of a Cabalist of bad and unlawful uses of Cabala. Though Bodin nowhere actually states in the Démonomanie that it was Pico and Agrippa and their disciples who let out the demons and were responsible for the awful increase in the number of those agents of the demons, the witches, this may be implied.

Bodin has no difficulty in proving that the Law of God condemns sorcery and witchcraft. Texts on this from the Old Testament are assembled in the preface to the Démonomanie. Thus we can begin to see that Bodin, the magistrate, prosecuting witches, fits with Bodin, the devout believer in the Law of God. He is proclaiming the Law in the demonic world by controlling demons, just as he proclaims it in the religious world as the root of all true religion.

Bodin does not sweep away all Renaissance themes. His pages on universal harmony in the Heptaplomeres have a true Renaissance ring; in fact his reaction from certain aspects of the Renaissance has much of the Renaissance in it. But he bans Renaissance magic. He may represent something like a crisis in the European tradition, a shift from Renaissance occultism that was made in the name of a purer occultism, of Cabala returned to its Hebraic sources. He is a kind of puritan as he dismisses Orphic singing as diabolical and demands a pure Cabalism, purged of Renaissance contamination. Is it possible that the European witch craze might be, in one of its aspects, a symptom of this shift?

The Démonomanie was first published in 1580; the writing of the unpublished Heptaplomeres is usually dated 1593, but Marion Kuntz claims to have found the date 1588 on a manuscript. At any rate the two works belong in the same phase of the late sixteenth century, and they are undoubtedly closely connected. Their writer was a theorist of French monarchy and in a position to be familiar with court circles, and this is curious. For at this time those great artistic manifestations of the Renaissance magical tradition, the French court spectacles, were produced. The sirens and satyrs of the Ballet comique de la Reine (1581) would presumably have been classed as demons by Bodin; they were in fact used in the Catholic League’s propaganda against Henri III as a sorcerer. And a famous contemporary of Bodin, Giordano Bruno, published at Paris in 1582 a book containing incantations of the type which Bodin thought most diabolical. Bodin’s magical universe is, in theory, quite close to Bruno’s. There are passages in the Heptaplomeres which remind us of Bruno, for example Bodin’s insistence that the stars are living animals, moving because they are alive. Yet Bodin is obviously not, like Bruno, a magus. No doubt he would have strongly approved the burning of such a dangerous magician.

It is strange to think that these two men impinged on the Elizabethan world at about the same time. Bodin was in England in 1581 accompanying François d’Anjou and having conversations with Queen Elizabeth I (Marion Kuntz refers to an unpublished thesis by Kenneth McRae which contains evidence about Bodin and the Queen). A year later, Bruno came to England.

An Englishman who might have been influenced by Bodin—and this has been suggested—is Francis Bacon. This is perfectly possible since Bacon in his early youth, in 1576, stayed at the English embassy in Paris at the time when Bodin was prominent among the politique supporters of François d’Anjou. Or Bacon could have met Bodin in England. Nor is it necessary to suppose an actual meeting for Bacon to have become aware of Bodin’s encyclopedic historical, political, and scientific erudition. And there are aspects of Bacon’s outlook, his disapproval on moral grounds of the Renaissance magus, his Hebraic mysticism, which might chime in with that of Bodin, though with variations.

Bodin’s attitude to natural philosophy and science is as closely connected with the Law of God and with Cabala as is his demonology. For the laws of nature are, he believes, hidden in the divine law and can be drawn from the Scriptures through Cabalistic interpretation. Hence his Universae naturae theatrum is an exposition of the law of nature as revealed both in nature and in the Scriptures, which secretly contain that law within them. These ideas are also present in the Heptaplomeres in which Toralba expounds a way to God through nature, and both he and Salomon speak of the revelation of nature in the Scriptures. Toralba explains that the ten headings of the Decalogue correspond to the ten spheres of the universe, and that therefore the study of the Law is also study of the world. The hidden treasures of nature are concealed, says Salomon, in the Law of God, and the Decalogue is an epitome of natural law. Thus, for Bodin, science is in fact natural law, and natural law is the same as, or concealed in, the Divine Law taught in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it can be drawn out, or revealed, from the Scriptures through Cabalistic exegesis.

Bodin on the Law of God and the law of nature brings us to a subject of great importance, namely to “Needham’s Question.”

One of the most impressive scholarly achievements of our time is Joseph Needham’s amazing history of Chinese science. The question which this great scholar asks is why did modern science develop in the West, but not in China, which in the Middle Ages was scientifically ahead of the West? Seeking for an answer he suggests that it might be because Chinese culture lacked the idea of a celestial law-giver, the idea so strongly imprinted on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and which, developing as the laws of nature, formed the basis of the seventeenth-century advance. He thinks that the turning point, at which the West pulled ahead of China, came between Copernicus (1473-1543) and Kepler (1571-1630), who was one of the first to express laws of nature in mathematical terms. It is at exactly that point between Copernicus and Kepler that Bodin stands.

Did he stand alone, or was he affected by some vast movement of his times, a movement involving tremendous vindication of Judaic Law and intense spiritual training in Jewish Cabala? The great work of Gershom Scholem has revealed the history of Cabala after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and how a movement of intense expectation of a Messiah developed among the dispersed Jews. The connections of this immensely powerful movement with the general history of culture have only just begun to be explored. I suggest that Jean Bodin’s Heptaplomeres, at the end of which the Expulsion is significantly mentioned, is a work which should be examined from this point of view.

Marion Kuntz has based her translation of Heptaplomeres on the Latin text published by Noack in 1857, a text which Roger Chauviré, an excellent Bodin scholar, criticized as unreliable. An Edinburgh scholar has spent many years collating manuscripts in preparation for a translation based on the best texts; an enterprise which she abandoned on hearing of the Kuntz project. It might be argued that Marion Kuntz has not followed sound principles in taking the Noack text as her foundation, though she has collated Noack with two manuscripts. Her translation, when compared with the Noack text, reveals a good many inaccuracies. The Noack text has been reprinted (Stuttgart, 1966) and is thus available for use by scholars with her translation.

Her annotation is sadly inadequate. She has used standard works of reference such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopaedia to elucidate obvious points, but for the difficult or inaccessible works and authors she gives no help, simply leaving blanks. It is true that for a satisfactory annotation of the Heptaplomeres a team of experts in many fields would be required. The Kuntz annotation is only a stop-gap; the work remains to be done.

In her introduction she surveys what is known of Bodin’s life. She admires his religious attitudes but evades his darker side, the role played by the Démonomanie in reimposing the stereotype of the witch, which Johann Weyer had questioned. In fact she makes no mention of the great witch craze or of the essential part played by Bodin’s work in encouraging it, an extraordinary omission.

She has not noticed the condemnation of Pico della Mirandola and Renaissance magic in the Démonomanie and so naturally misses the reflection of this in the Heptaplomeres. She assumes that Bodin is an uncritical follower of Pico della Mirandola, that he is practically a Renaissance Neoplatonist, a believer in prisca theologia, belonging within the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition as formulated in the Renaissance. The truth would appear to me to be that, although there are Renaissance and Neoplatonic elements in the Heptaplomeres, there is a great shift from Pico’s position in Bodin’s outlook. Salomon does not admire prisci theologi; they were sorcerers. Renaissance magic is banned. There is, I think, a basic misunderstanding of Bodin’s position in describing the Heptaplomeres as “truly a Renaissance book.”

Following a rumor of some connection between speeches on different religions by Guillaume Postel, when at Venice, and the speeches in the Heptaplomeres, Marion Kuntz tries to connect Bodin’s thought closely with that of Postel. It is true that both Bodin and Postel believed in French monarchy, were influenced by Cabala, and showed interest in Islam, but their attitudes were different. Postel was, like Pico, a Christian Cabalist, and had vast missionary aims; Bodin appears not to have been a Christian and was against Christian Cabala (this has been noticed by François Secret). Postel, however eccentric, was a better oriental scholar than Bodin. On all these counts, it would seem that Postel belongs to a different line from that of Bodin, though of course it is not impossible that Bodin might have adapted Postel material to his own purposes.

Jean Bodin is something of a mystery and will remain so until far more work has been done on the many problems surrounding him. Marion Kuntz has drawn attention to him, and this may stimulate a long-overdue movement of new research on this important figure. The style of her translation combines an enthusiasm which carries the reader along, with a certain dignity. She has not cheapened the Heptaplomeres. And she brings out the personalities of the speakers, particularly that of Salomon, whose impressive presence dominates the work.


Bodin’s Demons March 3, 1977