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.