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Paracelsus and the Paracelsians

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Paracelsus and Paracelsians

‘Paracelsus comes next on the stage; a great, anomalous, unaccountable fellow; whose history will have all the air of paradox. He reform’d and alter’d the face of medicine, and turn’d it altogether into the vein of chemistry; being the first of all mankind, who, of a profess’d chemist, was made a public Professor of medicine in an university….’
Herman Boerhaave, A new method of chemistry (London, 1727), p. 22.

Paracelsus, Operum medico-chimicorum sive Paradoxorum (Frankfurt, 1603-5).

Philipp Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim (1493-1541) took the name ‘Paracelsus’ in an attempt to present himself as a successor of one of the most famous ancient physicians ever, Celsus. But if Paracelsus sought to legitimate his medical research with a claim to be the new Celsus, his attitude to authority generally was very negative. Paracelsus’ own doctrine was a major challenge to the aristotelian concept of the four elements on which the galenic humoral medicine was based, for he argued that instead of four elements of earth, air, fire and water, there were instead three principles: salt, sulphur and mercury. Paracelsus didn’t just challenge the aristotelian understanding of matter, he also postulated a completely different understanding of disease. Now, instead of being an imbalance of the four galenic humours, where the object was for the physician to know his patient well, Paracelsus suggested that diseases came from outside the body and could be combatted by different types of cures. He turned medical theory on its head by strenuously arguing that ‘like cured like’, a medical theory that in some cases postulated the use of poisions to cure poisons (antimony being an example). All this was extremely controversial as it undermined the modus operandi of the galenic physician but Paracelsus went even further, arguing for a form of astrosophy, a method of manipulating the astral links between the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (man).

Because of the force of his critique the galenic medical establishment were fundamentally opposed to his doctrine. Shunned by the Parisian Medical Faculty the paracelsian movement had to find alternative forms of support. Initially it had seemed as if there might develop a correlation between Luther’s religious reformation and Paracelsus’ medical reform: his attack on the aristotelianism of the Schools echoed similar critiques by Luther and at times his medical reform was seen by protestant groups as a counterpart to their own calls for religious reformation. But if his burning of a text of Avicenna’s Canon in 1527 was deliberately modelled on Luther’s celebrated burning of the papal bull it did not necessarily indicate that Paracelsus agreed with Luther or the Lutherans, and he himself ended his life as a member of the Roman Catholic church. As Debus explains (1976 and 2002), it was only after his death that his theories really became known internationally and undoubtedly it was the succession of Henri IV to the throne of France which paved the way for institutional acceptance of his ideas.

Defining what Paracelsus believed in himself is a difficult task but it is child’s play  compared with the thorny subject of how his ideas were later developed by ‘paracelsians’. As Trevor-Roper (1998) says ‘not only did its meaning change with time: even at its beginning it is indistinct.’ Pumfrey (1998) offers us three overlapping orders of paracelsians: followers of the man himself; followers of ‘chymical philosophy’; and, finally,  iatrochemists. Paracelsianism has been defined by Jole Shackelford (1991) as ‘an ideology, a set of fundamental ideas about the structue of the world that comprises cosmology, but extends to the moral, social, and political values that underlie a substructure.’ The broadness of the definition reflects the complexity of both the man and the movement: the scope of what Paracelsus himself taught and the various ways his message was developed and redirected by his followers. Some have even questioned whether ‘paracelsianism’, which originated as a term of abuse by opponents of Paracelsus, can ever be properly pinned down. Like the man himself, it is a definition that is constantly on the move.

Worth had a four-volume Frankfurt 1603-5 edition of Paracelsus’s works and a commentary on his works by Adam von Bodestein, ‘Paracelsus’ first great propagandist’ (Hammond, 1998). He likewise had copies of texts by paracelsians such as Oswald Croll (ca. 1560-1609) and Johann Hartmann (1568-1631) as well as the celebrated attack on Paracelsus by Thomas Erastus: Disputationum de medicina nova Philippi Paracelsi (Basle, 1572). From these and other works it becomes clear that being a paracelsian might involve not only political dangers but also intellectual challenges. Johann Seger Weidenfeld, whose De secretis adeptorum, sive De usu spiritus vini Lulliani libri IV Worth collected in a 1684 London edition, pointed out, in his introductory letter to Robert Boyle, that probing the secrets of Paracelsus not only involved decoding the arcane concepts but also, on a more mundane level, reconstructing his obscure language. For Weidenfeld, keen to read Paracelsus’ works in later seventeenth-century Europe, the chief trouble lay in reconstructing Paracelsus’ language: ‘he abbreviates his Receipts with wonderful Accurtations, Learned indeed to the Learned, but to us seem as lame and imperfect; and besides, they are so disguised with most intricate terms of the true Philosophical Chymy, as to illude not only shallow, but profound Capacities.’

Croll chymical characters.
Oswald Croll, Bazilica chymica… (London, 1670), plate).

In the above illustration Oswald Croll presents the reader with a key to ‘chymical characters’ and an explanatory adjoining note:

A Corrolary.

‘The most ancient wise Men, whom in the Greek Tongue we call Philosophers, if at any time they found Arcanums either of Nature or Art, that they might not come to the knowledge of impious Men, they were accustomed to hide them in diverse manners and with occult Figures. So also Hermetick Philosophers were wont to decipher Terrestrial Planets, by certain Hierogylphick Notes, in which, to the Sons of Art, their latent Vertues, and admirable properties, were plainely exposed to their aspect and understanding, and by such easily perceived, though to others they were not at all known.

Now that Signes of this kind may be delivered from Sepulture, or Interment, I thought it worth while, that with the Characters of other Minerals, devised by Provident Antiquity, to divert the prophane and unworthy from exercising this Noble Art, they should by me for the sake of Hermetick Disciples be communicated (together with my former Work) to the Spagirick Commonwealth.’

Worth’s 1670 English translation of Croll’s Bazilica chymica shows us Croll’s attempt to re-package Paracelsus for the calvinist court of Christian I of Anhalt-Bernberg. As Shackelford (1998) and Hannaway suggest, Croll’s paracelsianism was intimately connected to his calvinist religious politics. For Moran (2005), Croll’s Basilica Chymica, originally published in 1609, was ‘the most important compilation of paracelsian medicines’ and certainly the text proved very influential, being reprinted and translated in a host of editions well into the eighteenth century. This publishing success was due to the subject matter of the second half of the book, which was devoted to paracelsian remedies. These, rather than Croll’s discussion of the paracelsian macrocosm and microcosm in the first half of the text, inspired Johann Hartmann’s Praxis Chymiatrica (Nuremberg, 1677), which Worth likewise collected.Worth’s copy of the Bazilica chymica, which he inherited from his father John Worth (1648-88), included an English translation of Hartmann’s Praxis.



Boerhaave, Herman (1727), A new method of chemistry (London).

Debus, Allen G. (1976), ‘The Pharmaceutical Revolution of the Renaissance’, Clio Medica 11, no 4, pp 307-317.

Debus, Allen G. (2001), Chemistry and Medical Debate. Van Helmont to Boerhaave (Science History Publications).

Debus, Allen G. (2002), The French Paracelsians. The Chemical Challenge to Medical and Scientific Tradition in Early Modern France (Cambridge).

Hammond, Mitchell (1998), ‘The Religious Roots of Paracelsus’ Medical Theory’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 89, pp 7-21.

Moran, Bruce T. (2005), Distilling Knowledge. Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Harvard University Press).

Pumfrey, Stephen (1998), ‘The Spagyric Art: Or, the Impossible work of separating pure from impure Paracelsianism: A Historiographical analysis’ in Ole Peter Grell, Paracelsus. The Man and his Reputation, his ideas and their transformation (Brill), pp 21-51.

Shackelford, Jole (1991), ‘Paracelsianism and Patronage in Early Modern Denmark’ in Bruce T. Moran (ed.) Patronage and Institutions. Science, Technology, and Medicine at the European Court 1500-1750 (Suffolk), pp 85-109.

Shackelford, Jole (1998), ‘Unification and the Chemistry of the Reformation’, in Max Reinhart (ed.) Infinite Boundaries. Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, vol 40 Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, pp 291-312.

Trevor-Rope, Hugh (1998), ‘Paracelsianism made Political, 1600-1650’ in Ole Peter Grell (ed.) Paracelsus. The Man and his Reputation, his ideas and their transformation (Brill, 1998), pp 119-33.

von Bodestein, Adam (1560), Generosi omnique in scientiarum genere expertissimi viri, Theophrasti Paracelsi ab Hohenheim Libri quatour De vita longa. Diligentia et opera Adami a Bodenstein recogniti, núncque primum in lucem aediti… (Basle).

Webster, Charles (2008), Paracelsus. Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time (Yale).

Weeks, Andrew (1997), Paracelsus. Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation (New York).

Weidenfeld, Johann Seger (1684), De secretis adeptorum, sive De usu spiritus vini Lulliani libri IV (London). The English translations are taken from the 1685 London translation: Weidenfeld, Johann Seger (1685), Four Books of Johannes Segerus Weidenfeld, concerning the Secrets of the Adepts; or, Of the Use of Lully’s Spirit of Wine… (London).


Eberhard Zetzner, Theatrum chemicum (Strassburg, 1659-1661), v1, O7v.

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