What’s in a name?

This time last year I wrote a post explaining why 1st May is probably not Paracelsus’ birthday. Today being 1st May I drew attention to this post on Twitter. Arjen Dijksman commented that because Paracelsus’ first name is Philippus, a Christian name, it might be an indication of his true date of birth. He being, presumably, born on that saint’s day, so either 3rd or 26th of May (there are two different St Philips). An interesting theory, but there are major historical problems with Paracelsus’ name, which I shall briefly sketch in the following.


Aureoli Theophrasti ab Hohenheim. Reproduction, 1927, of etching by A. Hirschvogel, 1538. Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you look at any modern source on Paracelsus, and there are many, it will almost certainly proudly state that his real name was Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (sometimes the order is different), a really impressive collection of names. This statement has however a problem, it’s not true. There is no evidence that Paracelsus ever used or was even known by this impressive string of names. It’s a fake! A modern concoction put together out of various historical sources and presented as fact. Let us look at those sources and the origins of this concoction.

During his lifetime Paracelsus referred to himself in his letters and writings simply as Theophrastus von Hohenheim. As there are no known records of his birth or baptism we don’t know if Theophrastus really was his given birth or baptismal name but we do know that von Hohenheim is his correct family name, of which more shortly. So where does the rest of the string come from?

In the 1530s he refers to himself in the third person in some of his writings as Theophrastus Aureolus. What is not clear from the context is whether Aureolus is intended as a name or whether he is titling himself Theophrastus the golden or golden one, which would be a literal translation of the combination. Given the way that he referred to himself in general this is not unlikely. He had a healthy sense of his own importance.

The name Philippus also throws up puzzles, as it turns up only once in his life, or better said after his life, on his gravestone. Beyond this fact nothing is known about this name. Was it a baptismal name? Did he acquire it later in life? Was it even his name? The simple answer to all these and many more questions is that we just don’t know.

Bombast or Bombaste (Latin, Bombastus) is in fact the correct family name. The Bombasts were a dynasty of knights who occupied the Castle of Hohenheim in Swabia, now a suburb of the City of Stuttgart. Theophrastus’ father was an illegitimate son of the family. The father used the full family title Bombast von Hohenheim but Theophrastus only used the von Hohenheim part of the name. Contrary to the oft-stated claim his family name is not the origin of the word bombastic even if his writings are perfectly described by this adjective. Bombastic comes from bombast which is a filling material for quilting.

The name Theophrastus is also quite puzzling, as it is somewhat unusual for a 16th century German youth. He himself was very proud of the name and whilst he had no time, as a scholar, for the other Greek philosophers, rejecting their work as heathen, he seems to have had a soft spot for his namesake Theophrastus of Eresos, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Lyceum in Athens.

To close this brief note we need to address his pseudonym Paracelsus. Unlike other Renaissance scholars Theophrastus didn’t originally adopt a pseudonym probably arguing that his given name Theophrastus von Hohenheim was impressive enough. However in the late 1520s Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach of Leipzig succeeded in persuading the City Council of Nürnberg to ban the publication of Theophrastus’ medical writings. This ban was taken up by other states effectively ending his career as a serious medical author. Shortly thereafter he started publishing astrological pamphlets under the name Theophrastus Paracelsus, obviously an attempt to re-launch his brand so to speak. You will often find the claim that Paracelsus means beyond or better than Celsus. Implying that he considered himself greater than the first century BCE Roman medical author Aulus Cornelius Celsus. This explanation is highly unlikely, as he never mentions Celsus in his medical writings and he initially only used the name Paracelsus for astrological publications. Paracelsus is more likely a toponym for Hohenheim meaning ‘up high’, Hohenheim being German for high home.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

6 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. Pingback: What’s in a name? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Otherwise a possible explanation is: Philippus = friend of horses. He died in the White Horse Inn in Salzburg, isn’t ?

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  6. David Blistein

    If you happen to be out there five years later, you mention two family names: von Hohenheim and Bombaste. Is one paternal and one maternal?

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