The Art of Forgetting the Middle Ages: Cornelius Agrippa’s Rhetoric of Extinction

Tomas Zahora

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


The appearance of arts of forgetting during the golden age of mnemotechnics
offers a unique perspective on the interaction between history, memory, and
forgetting at a time of paradigmatic change. This article explores this interaction
through Cornelius Agrippa’s De incertitudine et vanitate artium et scientiarum,
a declamation calling for a return to simple faith and understanding.
Drawing on the work of Umberto Eco and Paul Ricoeur, I propose that De incertitudine can be read as a rhetoric of extinction analogous to arts of forgetting. Its systematic undermining of human knowledge reveals that Agrippa’s search for origins was also informed by a desire to consciously sever the links with medieval traditions. Awareness of the parameters and limitations of this aimed forgetting contributes a new dimension to understanding the work of Agrippa and his contemporaries, and also invites a reconsideration of its continuing impact on the perception of the European Middle Ages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)359 - 385
Number of pages27
JournalSixteenth Century Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Cite this