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.

The Islamic World & the Copernican Revolution

Summaries & Reviews

The Islamic Phase of the Copernican Revolution

            The story of the European adaptation of a heliocentric universe is normally told through Western astronomers; Nicolous Copernicus (1473-1543) serves as the beginning of the tale in most cases, his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of 1543 hailed as a revolutionary tome. Its ideas were primarily original, or at the very least a result of Western influence. Recent work by historians such as Noel Swerdlow, Otto Neugebauer, George Saliba, and F. Jamil Ragep have challenged this interpretation, however, suggesting instead that Copernicus was heavily influenced by a sect of Islamic astronomers known collectively as the Marāgha School.[1] The evidence for such an association is formidable. Many of Copernicus’s techniques, thought processes, and mathematical proofs are strikingly similar to those of his Islamic predecessors.

The most obvious evidence linking Copernicus’s work to that of the Marāgha School exists in the mathematical strategies both use to simplify the Greek, Ptolemaic model, a goal both entities had in common. Nasir al-Din al-Tūsī (1201-1274) proved a mathematical device, known as Tūsī’s Couple, and used it to describe lunar motion (by way of generating linear motion from multiple circular motions) in his 1260-61 Tadhkira fi ‘ilm al-hay’a. Copernicus uses the exact same theorem — and includes a proof of it in the same format, using the same letters, as his Islamic predecessor — in De revolutionibus.[2] Copernicus also makes use of a mathematical technique termed ‘Urḍī’s lemma, named after its inventor, Mu’ayyad al-Din al-‘Urḍī (1200-1266), to eliminate the need to use Ptolemy’s cumbersome equants to account for planetary motion of the upper celestial spheres. Scholars hypothesize that he was exposed to this approach via some rendition or commentary on Ibn al-Shātir’s work, Shātir (1304-1375) being one of the many astronomers who utilized ‘Urḍī’s lemma in his cosmology.[3]

Additional evidence can be found in more the subtle traces of Islamic logical processes extant in Copernicus’s work. Both Copernicus and his Islamic colleagues use comets as a way to explain the possibility of a moving earth in line with observational physics, and, as F. Jamil Ragep argues in an article on the subject, Islamic sources were commenting on the possibility of a moving earth if natural philosophical epistemologies could be produced to explain the physics behind such a notion — an idea that medieval Westerners viewed as impossible.[4] Thus, the groundwork for Copernicus’s theories appear to have been lain not by his Western predecessors but by his Islamic ones.

Based on this evidence, I believe that the Marāgha School, and in particular al-‘Urḍī, al-Tūsī, and al-Shātir, belong in the narrative of the Copernican Revolution, having laid important mathematical and intellectual groundwork for the advances Copernicus and his European colleagues would expand upon. A notable impediment to this interpretation is the lack of a solid connection between Copernicus and the Marāgha School, but more work is being done to elucidate this association, and hopefully new evidence will reveal more than just a methodological link between the two parties.

[1] George Saliba, “Islamic Science and Renaissance Europe: The Copernican Connection,” Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).

[2] George Saliba, “Islamic Science and Renaissance Europe,” 197-199.

[3] Ibid, 204-205.

[4] F. Jamil Ragep, “Tūsī and Copernicus: The Earth’s Motion in Context,” Science in Context 14 (2001): 160.