French Paracelsianism on Trial


This was my final project for Dr. Rienk Vermij’s 5523 class — Renaissance and Early Modern Science, Fall 2017. I found out in the final stretch of the semester that Hervé Baudry, a French academic, has made a similar argument to the one I attempt, although he uses Roch le Baillif’s more well-known book, Le Demosterion, to do so, and he does it far more thoroughly. It was a wonderful exercise and introduction to historical research in the early modern period, though, and I’ll definitely be careful to consult more recent scholarship and that written in other languages more thoroughly in the future.


French Paracelsianism on Trial: Roche Le Baillif’s Astrology and the Comet of 1577

Roch Le Baillif, Sieur de la Rivière (1540-1598) was an early promulgator of Paracelsianism in France whose trial and conviction between 1578 and 1580 has received far more attention than the man himself or his work. This is due to his longstanding designation within the scholarship of Paracelsianism as “le premier martyr du Paracelsisme en France,”[1] the first casualty in the epic battle between the University of Paris’s Galenist medical faculty and the rising tide of Paracelsian chemical medicine. Le Baillif is portrayed as a “fanatical”[2] Paracelsian physician intent on blaspheming his way to the very top of the ladder of aristocratic patronage. His defeat in the trial is attributed to his “vulgar” brand of Paracelsianism, inundated as it was with the less sophisticated, astrological aspects of Paracelsus’s beliefs. I will argue that this interpretation is colored by presentist tendencies to privilege the alchemical aspects of Paracelsus’s philosophy, which is understood as a precursor to modern bio- and physio-chemistry.[3] The emphasis Le Baillif places on the astrological components of Paracelsus’s worldview were, when placed in the context of the early phases of Paracelsus’s quickly accelerating absorption into mainstream natural philosophy and medicine, neither vulgar nor contemporaneously unpalatable. Roch Le Baillif’s work on the comet of 1577 proves that Paracelsus’s writings on and understandings of the relationship between the heavens and the earth were just as if not more important to early French proponents of Paracelsus as his alchemical ones — especially during a time of heightened concern about disconcerting and penetrating cosmological questions, exacerbated by an especially active cometary record.

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Alchemy in an HSCI Classroom

Alchemy in a History of Science Classroom

Alchemy has been a contentious space in which historians of science have engaged in the recurrent debate on what exactly constitutes “science,” and because of its spiritual and religious components, alchemy was often placed into the pseudoscientific category. Recent scholarship, however, has reaffirmed its position amongst other Medieval and Early Modern subsets of natural philosophy. Authors have cited its experimental programs of research, theoretical underpinning, and lab-based analysis and synthesis as evidence for its inclusion in the narrative of the history of science, and because of this, I believe that it should not be left out of a history of science survey course. Aside from its “scientific” characteristics, alchemy also provides avenues through which to discuss the interaction between practical and theoretical knowledge, entrepreneurial motivations that influenced natural philosophical inquiry, and the complicated relationship between science and religion.

I would begin a lecture on alchemy by discussing it in its eighteenth century context; this is when it was marginalized in order to legitimate the developing profession of chemistry. I would talk about how previously, the two investigative subsets were part of a larger research program focused on changing and understanding the properties of materials — notably metals, minerals, and other substances. The discussion would touch on who exactly was engaged in the pursuit (many of the “Big Men” made famous by their contributions to other fields, women, and craftsmen), and on the methods employed by these practitioners. Alchemists would read from ancient (and not-so-ancient) alchemical texts, comment on them, perform the experiments, and sometimes make modifications to the recipes, and they worked in labs where they performed distillations and synthesized compounds. I would highlight how these analytical and lab strategies are still used by scientists today.

Next, I would discuss what makes alchemy unique — its convoluted, secretive language and association with the spiritual and religious. While at first this might feel quite anti-scientific to many students, it puts alchemy (and Medieval and Early Modern scientific inquiry) into its context. Knowledge production was not always a secular affair, and alchemy’s engagement with the metaphysical, instead of a weakness, was a strength at the time it was being practiced. People sought deeper meanings for natural phenomena, and the philosophical framework from which they were working (Christianity with heavy Aristotelian influences) encouraged the search for final causes, symbols, and forms. Alchemy provides an excellent conduit for a discussion about what natural philosophy included in its lines of inquiry and elucidates the difference between itself and our modern construction of knowledge-gathering, science.

Alchemy’s significance to the history of science is therefore quite pronounced. Far from pseudoscientific magic, alchemy was a research program with goals, theories, and methods, and its practitioners were widespread and influential. As such, any survey of the history of science should include it and capitalize on the opportunity to discuss the issues alchemy brings to the forefront: early experimentalism, the relationship between practical and theoretical knowledge, and science and religion’s strong association.