Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Acontius, Jacobus
ACONTIUS, JACOBUS, latinized from Aconzio, Aconcio, or Concio, Jacopo (1500?–1566?), jurist, philosopher, theologian, and engineer, was born at Trent in the Tyrol about the beginning of the sixteenth century. Little is known of him before his coming to this country, except what is told in the ‘Ep. ad Wolfium,’ from which we learn that he devoted many years to the study of the law, that he passed some of his time in courts, and that he applied himself to literature late in life. There is no authority for the statement that he was in orders. His attachment to ideas too liberal for his age and country made it expedient for him in 1557 to take up his abode in Bâle, at that time the home of Mino Celso, Celio Secundo Curio, and many other Italian protestants. He had been preceded two months by his friend Francesco Betti, to whom was dedicated, in the most affectionate terms, his first work ‘De Methodo’ printed at Bâle in the following year by Pietro Perna, a protestant refugee from Lucca of merit and learning, who also brought out the first Latin and French editions of the ‘Stratagemata Satanæ.’ The treatise ‘De Methodo’ is written with elegance and precision. It was the commencement of a much larger work, which had long occupied the thoughts of the writer. Its object is to urge the importance of methodising existing knowledge. If thirty years were to be devoted by a youth to purposes of study, the writer would recommend that the first twenty should be applied to investigating the principles of method.
Betti and Acontius afterwards went to Zurich, where the latter made the acquaintance of Simler, Frisius, and Jo. Wolfius. He visited Strasburg, and came to England in or before 1559. He was well received, and at once showed the practical bent of his mind in a petition addressed to Elizabeth in December of that year, stating that having discovered many useful contrivances, such as new kinds of wheel machines, furnaces for dyers, brewers, &c., he prayed for a patent to secure him against imitators using them without his consent. The request was not granted, but on 27 Feb. 1560 he was allowed an annuity of 60l., which was the cause of the subsequent dedication — Divæ Elizabethæ, the ‘inscription canonisante’ of Bayle — of his ‘Stratagemata.’ Acontius is careful to point out in the ‘Ep. ad Wolfium’ that his merits as an engineer gained for him the pension; but although he admits that it allowed him leisure for study he refers to it in terms of measured gratitude. Letters of naturalisation were issued to him on 8 Oct. 1561.
Like other foreign nonconformists he attached himself to the Dutch church in Austinfriars. In 1559 Adrian Hamstedius, the minister, was excommunicated by Bishop Grindal for favouring certain Dutch anabaptists and refusing to renounce their errors. He found a supporter in Acontius, who, having been forbidden the sacrament by the bishop, addressed a long ‘Epistola Apologetica’ to the congregation in defence of himself and Hamstedius.
The ‘Epistola ad Wolfium’ was written in December 1562, although not published until 1565. It is full of useful precepts for would-be authors, but is chiefly interesting from its autobiographical nature.
Theology and literature were not his sole occupations. Mazzuchelli styles him ‘intendente di fortificazione.’ It was represented to parliament in 5 Eliz. that Jacobus Acontyus, servant of the queen, had undertaken to recover at his own cost 2,000 acres of land inundated by the Thames in the parishes of Erith, Lesnes, and Plumstead, and an act was passed decreeing that he should have as a reward one half of all such land recovered by him within four years from 10 March 1562. He also petitioned the queen on the subject, and obtained a license on 24 June 1563 to take up workmen. By 8 Jan. 1566, a tract of 600 acres had been won from the river. A portion was again lost, and then he entered into a partnership with G. B. Castiglione and some English tradesmen to make further efforts.
He enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Leicester, to whom, in August 1564, he presented a remarkable treatise on the use and study of history, which still remains in manuscript.
In 1565 he brought out his famous ‘Stratagemata Satanæ,’ printed at Bâle in Latin and French by his friend Perna. He distinguishes between the fundamental and accessory dogmas of Christianity, and reduces the number of the former to very few, among which are not reckoned those of the Trinity and Real Presence. The apostles' creed contains all necessary doctrines, and the numerous confessions of faith of different communions are the ruses of the Evil One, stratagemata Satanæ, to tempt man from the truth. Orthodox divines have objected to the dangerously catholic spirit displayed in this book, and the writer has been styled Arian, Socinian, and even Deist. His Arianism can scarcely be doubted; his theological career in England certainly favours the charge. But he deserves all honour for the strong protests against capital punishment for heresy and for the liberal reasoning in favour of toleration which give the book its permanent place in ecclesiastical literary history. It attracted great attention. Three editions of the original text appeared in the sixteenth century, and eleven (three being in England) in the seventeenth century, besides French, English, German, and Dutch translations. ‘Stratagemata Sathanæ’ is placed in the appendix to the Tridentine ‘Index Libb. Prohibb.’ (1569) among anonymous books. Evidently the title alone was sufficient to condemn the book. The Roman Index of 1877 describes it with fitting bibliographical accuracy. The opinions of theologians on the work have been collected by Crussius (Crenii Animadv. pt. ii. 32) and Ancillon (Mélange critique, i. 24–9).
Acontius's heterodox religious opinions were once more to bring him into trouble. The last we hear of him is from a letter dated 6 June 1566, in answer to a charge of Sabellianism. He is believed to have died shortly afterwards, leaving his papers under the charge of G. B. Castiglione, the queen's master of Italian and groom of the privy chamber, who published the ‘Timor di Dio.’
The following is a bibliographical list of his works: — 1. ‘J. Acontius de Methodo, h. e. de recta investigandarum tradendarumque scientiarum ratione,’ Basileæ, ap. P. Pernam, 1558. First edition, reprinted at Geneva in 1582 ap. Eustathium Vignon, ‘multo quam antea castigatius;’ again at Lugd. Bat. 1617, sm. 8vo, and in G. J. Vossii et aliorum de studiorum ratione opuscula,’ Ultraj. 1651, sm. 8vo. 2. ‘Satanæ Stratagemata libri octo, J. Acontio authore, accessit eruditissima epistola de ratione edendorum librorum ad Johannem Vuolfium Tigurinum eodem authore,’ Basileæ, ap. P. Pernam, 1565, 4to. The genuine first edition, of extreme rarity. Bibliographers are unaware of the existence of two editions of this year. The one usually quoted is in smaller type, and is entitled ‘Stratagematum Satanæ libri octo,’ &c. Basileæ, ap. P. Pernam, 1665, sm. 8vo. Reprinted Basileæ, 1582, 8vo, and ‘curante Jac. Grassero,’ ib. 1610, 8vo, ib. ap. Waldkirchium, 1616, ib. 1618, ib. 1620, Amst. 1624, Oxon. G. Webb, 1631, sm. 8vo, Lond. 1648, Oxon. 1650, Amst. Jo. Ravenstein, 1652, sm. 8vo, ib. 1674, sm. 8vo, Neomagi, A. ab. Hoogenhuyse, 1661, sm. 8vo. The French translation is ‘Les Ruses de Satan receuillies et comprinses en huit liures,’ Basle, P. Perne, 1565, 4to; printed with the same type as the first Latin 4to, wanting the ‘Ep. ad Wolfium’ and the index. The first issue of the English translation is called ‘Satan's Stratagems, or the Devil's Cabinet-Council discovered . . . together with an epistle written by Mr. John Goodwin and Mr. Durie's letter concerning the same,’ London, J. Macock, sold by J. Hancock, 1648, 4to. The date of Thomason's copy (British Museum) has been altered by him to 1647; he purchased it on 14 Feb. The translator announces that if the work found favour he would finish it, but only the first four books were published. There are three dedications — one to the parliament, one to Fairfax and Cromwell, and one to John Warner, lord mayor. The stock seems to have been sold to W. Ley, who issued it with a new title, ‘Darkness Discovered, or the Devil's Secret Stratagems laid open,’ &c., London, J. M. 1651, 4to, with a doubtfully authentic etching of ‘James Acontius, a Reverend Diuine.’ Thomason dated his copy July 7. A German translation came out at Bâle in 1647, sm. 8vo, and a Dutch version, Amst. 1662, 12mo. 3. ‘Eruditissima epistola de ratione edendorum librorum ad Johannem Vuolfium Tigurinum.’ Dated Londini, 12 kal. Dec. 1562, first published in the Latin ‘Stratagemata’ 1565, and to be found in the subsequent editions, but in none of the translations; printed separately Chemnitz, Mauke, 1791, 8vo. 4. ‘Una essortazione al Timor di Dio, con alcune rime italiane, nuovamente messe in luce [da G. B. Castiglione],’ Londra, appresso Geo. Wolfio, s.a., 8vo. Dedicated to Elizabeth. Chaufepié is the only person who seems to have seen this very rare little piece. The printer learnt his art in Italy. He worked between 1579 and 1600, and brought out many Italian books. 5. ‘Epistola apologetica pro Hadr. Haemstadio et pro seipso.’ Written in 1562 or 1563, says Gerdes, who reprinted it (Scrinium Antiquarium, vii. part i. 123) from the archives of the Dutch church, now in the Guildhall library; contains much information respecting Hamstedius, the Dutch church, and the writer. 6. ‘Epistola . . . Londini 8 idus Junii, 1566.’ Reproduced from the archives of the Dutch church by Crussius (Crenii Animadv. ii. 131). It is not known to whom the letter was addressed. 7. ‘Ars muniendorun oppidorum.’ Acontius refers to this in his ‘Ep. ad Wolfium’ as having been first written in Italian and afterwards translated into Latin while in England. Mazzuchelli says, ‘Ital. et Lat. Genevæ, 1585,’ but no such book can be traced. 8. A manuscript on the use and study of history, written in Italian, and presented by Acontius to the Earl of Leicester in August 1564, is preserved at the Record Office. It is not spoken of by any of the authorities, although made use of in the following interesting little octavo volume, dedicated to the Earl of Leicester: ‘The true order and methode of wryting and reading hystories, according to the precepts of Francesco Patricio and Accontio Tridentino, by Thomas Blundevil,’ Lond. W. Seres, 1574. The compiler states that he ‘gathered his work partly out of a little written treatyse, which myne olde friende of good memorie, Accontio, did not many yeares since present to your Honour in the Italian tongue.’ 9. ‘Liber de Dialectica.’ An unfinished work with this title is referred to in the ‘Epistola ad Wolfium,’ with the remark that the world was soon to enter upon a much more enlightened era.[Gerdes, Specimen Italiæ Reform.; ejusd. Orig. Eccles. in Belgio Ref.; Mazzuchelli, Scrittori d'Italia; Tiraboschi, Storia della Lett. It. vii. 375, 474; Bayle, Dictionnaire Critique; Chaufepié, Nouveau Dict.; Guichard, Hist. du Socinianisme; Hallam's Lit. Hist.; Strype's Grindal; Cat. of Books &c. of Dutch Church at Guildhall; Burn's Hist. of French &c. Refugees; Dugdale's Hist, of Imbanking; Cal. of State Papers (Dom. 1547–80, 1601–3, and App.]