Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time

March 5, 2009

Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493/94-1541), who began using the pen name Paracelsus in an astrological tract published in 1529, has long been appreciated for his revolutionary ideas in medicine and natural philosophy. Seeking a medicine that incorporated magic and alchemical preparations, and focusing on the treatment of specific parts of the body rather than the organism as a whole, he excoriated the medical establishment and its teaching that illness resulted from an imbalance of four bodily fluids called phlegm, blood, yellow or red bile and black bile. Also, he envisaged the Tria Prima of salt, sulphur and mercury as the fundamental ingredients of nature rather than the Aristotelian elements of earth, water, air and fire. His numerous followers tended toward new pathologies, chemical rather than herbal pharmaceutics, the role of sidereal powers in nature and the analogy between macrocosm (physical universe) and microcosm (human).

Paracelsus' religious zeal, evident in his explicitly theological tracts, is less celebrated, and it is therefore refreshing that Charles Webster's Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time treats both Paracelsus' illustrious contributions and his religious-ethical "mission": "Displaying total self-confidence, demonic energy and a strong sense of purpose, (Paracelsus) mounted his own audacious campaign of reform, determined, in the short time allocated at the dawn of the apocalyptic age, to produce a blueprint for scientific and medical reform as well as social transformation." With remarkable skill and erudition, Webster incorporates the findings of the last 50 years of pertinent scholarship - not neglecting the Reformation context - and produces the best English-language biography of Paracelsus since Walter Pagel's Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (1958).

Following Paracelsus' ceaseless peregrination, Webster shows that Paracelsus took on the skills and attitudes of apothecaries, barbers, surgeons, bathhouse keepers and practitioners of folk medicine - those who challenged the monopoly of physicians in the medical field - and associated with such religious reformers as Erasmus and Sebastian Franck. And Webster creatively connects the cultural-intellectual environments of Paracelsus' short stations with his religious writings, wherein one confronts an odd mixture of Mariology and Anabaptist affinities. Paracelsus' first known domicile was in Salzburg, in 1525, where he was sympathetic to the peasant grievances and articles of the German Peasants' War. Here he wrote the unpublished work De septem punctis idolatriae christianae, wherein he attacked the materialism of the Roman Church, but also distanced himself from Luther and Zwingli.

Wisely, Paracelsus and his followers were cautious with his religious tracts and most have been brought to light only in the 20th century; half still await edition. While discussing Paracelsus' stops in such cities as Strasbourg and Basel, Webster characterises the period's print culture and vituperative rhetoric, and explains why the exacerbated Paracelsus published only a few works during his lifetime. His widespread influence came only after his posthumous disciples gathered and printed volumes of his prodigious oeuvre, concentrating on the medical and philosophical.

It is welcome to see a work that brings to light such a vast array of sources that contributed to Paracelsus' theories. As Webster writes, "In some notable instances, such as his tripartite conception of matter, his ontological theory of disease or his homoeopathic therapeutics, Paracelsus demonstrated an impressive capacity to draw discriminatingly on a diverse blend of religious, Neoplatonic, alchemical and technical resources. In such cases he proved capable of contributing impressive insights in important areas of scientific theory." There is little to criticise in the richly contextualised work: although they were not among Webster's aims, perhaps more could have been said about Paracelsus' medical works and the reception of Paracelsus' theology, or about Andrew Weeks' similarly themed study, Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and The Crisis of the Early Reformation (1997).

While this work will be especially interesting for historians of science, medicine and the Reformation, Webster's work will appeal to a wide audience, for it captures in lucid prose and fascinating stories the medicine, science, magic and apocalyptic angst of early modern Europe.

Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time

By Charles Webster. Yale University Press, 352pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780300139112. Published 11 December 2008

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