Category Archives: History of Alchemy

The swashbuckling, philosophical alchemist

If you go beyond the big names, big events version of the history of science and start looking at the fine detail, you can discover many figures both male and female, who also made, sometime significant contribution to the gradual evolution of science. On such figure is the man who inspired the title of this blog post, the splendidly named Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), who made contributions to a wide field of activities in the seventeenth century.

Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) Anthony van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

To show just how wide his interests were, I first came across him not through my interest in the history of science, but through my interest in the history of food and cooking, as the author of an early printed cookbook, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (H. Brome, London, 1669).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born 11 June in Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire, in 1603 into a family of landed gentry noted for their nonconformity, he, as we will see, lived up to the family reputation. His grandfather Everard Digby (born c. 1550) was a Neoplatonist philosopher in the style of Ficino, and fellow of St John’s College Cambridge, (Fellow 1573, MA 1574, expelled 1587), who authored a book that suggested a systematic classification of the sciences in a treatise against Petrus Ramus, De Duplici methodo libri duo, unicam P. Rami methodum refutantes, (Henry Bynneman, London, 1580, and what is considered the first English book on swimming, De arte natandi, (Thomas Dawson, London, 1587). The latter was published in Latin but translated into English by Christopher Middleton eight years later. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

His father Sir Everard Digby (c. 1578–1606) and his mother Mary Mulsho of Gayhurst were both born Protestant but converted to Catholicism.

Sir Everad Digby artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

His father was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot and Kenelm was taken from his mother and made a ward first of Archbishop Laud (1573–1645) and later of his uncle Sir John Digby (1508-1653), who took him on a sixth month trip (August 1617–April 1618) to Madrid in Spain, where he was serving as ambassador.

Sir John Digby portrait by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen Source: Wikimedia Commons

Returning from Spain, the fifteen-year-old Kenelm entered Gloucester Hall Oxford, where he came under the influence of Thomas Allen (1542–1632).

Thomas Allen by James Bretherton, etching, late 18th century Source: wikimedia Commons

 Thomas Allen was a noted mathematician, astrologer, geographer, antiquary, historian, and book collector. He was connected to the circle of scholars around Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (1564–1632), the so-called Wizard Earl, through whom he became a close associate of Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621). Through another of his patrons Robert Dudley, Early of Leicester, (1532–1588) Allen also became an associate of John Dee (1527–c. 1608). Allen had a major influence on Digby, and they became close friends. When he died, Allen left his book collection to Digby in his will: 

… to Sir Kenelm Digby, knight, my noble friend, all my manuscripts and what other of my books he … may take a liking unto, excepting some such of my books that I shall dispose of to some of my friends at the direction of my executor.

Digby donated this very important collection of at least 250 items, which contained manuscripts by Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Richard Wallinford, amongst many others to the Bodleian Library.

Digby left Oxford without a degree in 1620, not unusual for a member of the gentry, and took off on a three-year Grand Tour of the continental. In France Maria de Medici (1575–1642) is said to have cast an eye on the handsome young Englishman, who faked his own death and fled France to escape her clutches. In Italy he became accomplished in the art of fencing. In 1623 he re-joined his uncle in Madrid, this time for a nearly a year and became embroiled in the unsuccessful negotiations to arrange a marriage between Prince Charles and the Infanta Maria. Despite the failure of this mission, when he returned to England in 1623, the twenty-year-old Kenelm was knighted by James the VI &I and appointed a Gentleman to Prince Charles Privy Chamber at the time converting to Anglicanism. In 1625 he secretly married his childhood sweetheart Venetia Stanley (1600–1633). They had two sons Kenelm (1626) and John (1627) before the marriage was made public. 

Venetia, Lady Digby by Anthony van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

Out of favour with Buckingham, Digby now became the swashbuckler of the title. Fitting out two ships, the 400-ton Eagle under his command and the 250-ton Barque under the command of Sir Edward Stradling (1600–1644), he set off for the Mediterranean to tackle the problem of French and Venetian pirates, as a privateer, a pirate sanctioned by the crown.

Arbella, previously the Eagle Digby’s flagship

Capturing several Flemish and Dutch prize on route, on 11 June 1628 they attacked the French and Egyptian ships in the bay of Scanerdoon, the English name for the Turkish port of Iskender. Successful in the hard-fought battle, Digby returned to England with both ships loaded down with the spoils, in February 1629, where he was greeted by both the King and the general public as a hero. He was appointed a naval administrator and later Governor of Trinity House. 

The next few years were spent in England as a family man surrounded by a circle of friends that included the poet and playwright Ben Johnson (1572–1637), the artist Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), the jurist and antiquary John Seldon (1584–1654), and the historian Edward Hyde (1609–1674) amongst many others. Digby’s circle of friends emphasises his own scholarly polymathic interests. His wife Venetia, a notable society beauty, died unexpectedly in 1633 and Digby commissioned a deathbed portrait and from van Dyck and a eulogy by Ben Johnson, now partially lost. 

Venetia Stanley on her Death Bed by Anthony van Dyck, 1633, Dulwich Picture Gallery Source: Wikimedia Commons

Digby stricken by grief entered a period of deep mourning, secluding himself in Gresham College, where he constructed a chemical laboratory together with the Hungarian alchemist and metallurgist János Bánfihunyadi (Latin, Johannes Banfi Hunyades) (1576–1646), where they conducted botanical experiments. 

In 1634, having converted back to Catholicism he moved to France, where he became a close associate of René Descartes (1596–1650). He returned to England in 1639 and became a confidant of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609–1669) and becoming embroiled in her pro-Catholic politics made it advisable for him to return to France.

Henrietta Maria portrait by Anthony van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here he fought a duel against the French noble man Mont le Ros, who had insulted King Charles, and killed him. The French King pardoned him, but he was forced to flee back to England via Flanders in 1642. Here he was thrown into goal, however his popularity meant that he was released again in 1643 and banished, so he returned to France, where he remained for the duration of the Civil War.

Henrietta Maria established a court in exile in Paris in 1644 and Digby was appointed her chancellor. In this capacity he undertook diplomatic missions on her behalf to the Pope. Henrietta Maria’s court was a major centre for philosophical debates with William Cavendish, the Earl of Newcastle, his brother Charles both enthusiastic supporters of the new sciences, William’s second wife Margaret Lucas, who had been one of Henrietta Maria’s chamber maids and would go on to great notoriety as Margaret Cavendish prominent female philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, and from the French side, Descartes, Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), Pierre Fermat (1607–1665), and Marin Mersenne. Digby was in his element in this society.

Margaret Cavendish and her husband, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne portrait by Gonzales Coques Source: Wikimedia Commons

After unsuccessfully trying to return to England in 1649, in 1653, he was granted leave to return, perhaps surprisingly he became an associate of Cromwell, whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to win for the Catholic cause. He spent 1657 in Montpellier to recuperate, but returned to England in 1658, where he remained until his death. 

He now became friends with John Wallis (1616–1703), Robert Hooke (1635–1703), and Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and was heavily involved in the moves to form a scientific society, which would lead to the establishment of the Royal Society of which he was a founder member. On 23 January 1660/61 he read his paper A discourse concerning the vegetation of plants before the founding members of the Royal Society at Gresham College, which was the first formal publication to be authorised by that still unnamed body. The Discourse would prove to be his last publications, as his health declined, and he died in 1665.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Up till now the Discourse is the only publication that I’ve mentioned, but it was by no means his only one. Digby was a true polymath publishing works on religion, A Conference with a Lady about choice of a Religion(1638), Letters… Concerning Religion (1651), A Discourse, Concerning Infallibility in Religion (1652). Autobiographical writings including, Articles of Agreement Made Betweene the French King and those of Rochell… Also a Relation of a brave and resolute Sea Fight, made by Sr. Kenelam Digby (1628), and Sr. Kenelme Digbyes honour maintained (1641). Critical writings on Sir Thomas Browne, Observations upon Religio Medici (1642), and on Edmund Spencer, Observations on the 22. Stanza in the 9th Canto of the 2d. Book of Spencers Faery Queen (1643). 

What, however, interests us here are his “scientific” writings. The most extensive of these is his Two Treatises, in One of which, the Nature of Bodies; in the Other, the Nature of Mans Soule, is looked into: in way of discovery, of the Immortality of Reasonable Soules originally published in Paris in 1644 but with further editions published in London in 1645, 1658, 1665, and 1669. Although basically still Aristotelian, this work shows the strong influence of Descartes and contains a positive assessment of Galileo’s Two New Sciences, which was still relatively unknown in England at the time. It also contains a form of mechanical atomism, which, however, is different to those of Epicure or Descartes.

Source

Digby’s most controversial work was his A late discourse made in solemne assembly … touching the cure of wounds by the powder of sympathy, originally published in French in 1658 and then translated into English in the same year. This was a discourse that Digby had held publicly in Montpellier during his recuperation there.

Source

This was a variation on Weapon Salve, an ointment that was applied to the weapon that caused a wound rather than to the wound itself. Digby was by no means the first to write positively about this supposed cure. It has its origins in the theories of Paracelsus and the Paracelsian physician Rudolph Goclenius the Younger (1572–1621), professor at the University of Marburg, first published on it in his Oratio Qua defenditur Vulnus Non Applicato Etiam Remedio, in 1608. In England the divine William Forster (born 1591), the physician and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574–1637), and the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) all wrote about it before Digby, but it was Digby’s account that attracted the most attention and ridicule. In 1687, an anonymous pamphlet suggested using it to determine longitude. A dog would be wounded with a blade and placed aboard a ship before it sailed. Then every day at noon the weapon salve would be applied to the blade causing the dog to react, thus tell those on board that it was noon at their point of departure. 

Also in 1658, John Wallis dedicated his Commercium epistolicum to Digby who was also author of some of the letters it contained.

John Wallis by Sir Godfrey Kneller Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1657, Wallis had published his Arithmetica Infinitorum, an important contribution to the development of calculus.

Source

Digby brought the book to the attention of Pierre Fermat and Bernard Frénicle de Bessy (c. 1604 – 1674) in France, Fermat wrote a letter to the English mathematician, posing a series of problems to be solved. Wallis and William Brouncker (1620–1684), who would later become the first president of the Royal Society, took up the challenge and an enthusiastic exchange of views developed between the French and English mathematicians, with Digby acting as conduit for the correspondence. Wallis collected the letter together and published them as his Commercium epistolicum

As already stated, A discourse concerning the vegetation of plants was Digby’s final publication and was to some extent his most interesting. Digby was interested in the question of how to revive dying plants and his approach was basically alchemical. He argued that saltpetre was necessary to the process of revival and that it attracted vital air, which is the food of the lungs. He is very obviously here close to discovering oxygen and in fact he supports his argument with the information that Cornelius Drebbel had used saltpetre to refresh the air in his submarine. In the paper he also hypothesises something very close to photosynthesis. Others such as Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644) were conducting similar investigations at the time. These early investigations would lead on in the eighteenth century to the work of Stephen Hales (1677–1761) and the pneumatic chemists of the eighteenth century. 

Digby made no major contributions to the advancement of science, but he played a central role as facilitator and mediator between groups of philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists promoting and stimulating discussions in both France and England in the first half of the seventeenth century. He also played an important role in raising the awareness in England of the works of Descartes and Galileo. Although largely forgotten today, he was in his own time a respected member of the scientific community.

Digby is best remembered, today, for two things, his paper on the powder of sympathy, which I dealt with above, and his cookbook, to which I will now return. The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened was first published posthumously by one of his servants in 1669 and has gone through numerous editions down to the present day, where it is regarded as a very important text on Early Modern food history. However, this was only one part of his voluminous recipe collection. Two other parts were also published posthumously. Choice and experimental receipts in physick and chirugery was first published in 1668 and went through numerous editions and translation by 1700, and A choice collection of rare chymical secrets and experiments in philosophy first published in 1682, which also saw many editions. What we have here is not three separate recipe collections covering respectively nutrition, medicine, and alchemy but three elements of a related recipe spectrum. We find a similar convolute in the work of Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1615–1691), Robert Boyle’s sister, an alchemist/chemist in her own right and an acquaintance of Digby’s. 

There is little doubt in my mind that Sir Kenelm Digby Kt. was one of the most fascinating figures of the seventeenth century, a century rich in fascinating figures. 

As was also believed when he died on his birthday in 1665, his epitaph read

‘Under this Tomb the Matchless Digby lies;

Digby the Great, the Valiant, and the Wise:

The Ages Wonder for His Nobel Parts;

Skill’d in Six Tongues, and Learn’d in All the Arts.

Born on the Day He Dy’d, Th’Eleventh of June,

And that Day Bravely Fought at Scanderoun.

‘Tis Rare, that one and the same Day should be

His Day of Birth, of Death, and Victory.’

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Chemistry, History of Mathematics, History of science

The demise of the occult sciences 

In the comments Giulio asked:

Will you ever (or have you already) write a detailed account on how astrology and more in general the various pseudo-sciences have been abandoned as scientific belief?

I have in the past actually blogged on this topic, but it was long ago, so I’ve decided to write an updated post about it. To some extent the topic is much too complex and too vast to deal with completely in one blog post, so this will be at best a sketch. The first thing is to define what exactly we mean by the pseudo-sciences or as I prefer to call them the occult sciences, where here the term science is used in its original, more general sense of knowledge, rather than any modern definition of the term and occult means hidden. The occult sciences fall into three general areas astrology, alchemy, and magic. Each of them ceased to be regarded as part of the accepted canon of scientific belief, in the modern sense, differently, and so must be discussed separately.

Macrocosm-Microcosm Lucas Jemnnis Museum Hermeticum (1625)

Today, when people use the term astrology, they generally mean natal or genethliacal astrology that is the casting of a horoscope or natal chart that includes the exact date, time, and location of a person’s birth. The interpretation of this chart supposedly maps out the subject’s life. However, traditionally this was just one branch of judicial astrology. The other branches of judicial astrology are mundane or political astrology, which deals with world affairs, electional astrology, which concerns the determination of the most auspicious moment to begin an undertaking or enterprise, which can be anything from a wedding to a war, and horary astrology that attempts to answer a question asked at the exact time the horoscope is cast. As well as judicial astrology there was natural astrology, which had two branches, astro-medicine or iatromathematics, and astro-meteorology, weather forecasting by horoscope. 

Throughout the Middle Ages, various scholars rejected the legitimacy of judicial astrology, whilst at the same time accepting that of natural astrology, so I will deal with them separately, starting with the two branches of natural astrology. Astro-medicine or iatromathematics was, with one small exception which I will deal with later, the only area of the occult sciences taught extensively in the European universities. Astro-meteorology was also studied rather than taught at the universities, as a subdiscipline of astronomy. At the beginning of the seventeenth century iatromathematics was still taught widely and in fact had been the major reason for the establishment of chairs for mathematics at the Renaissance universities. However, as the century progressed it just sort of melted away as the innovations in medicine introduced during the Renaissance took over the curriculum. One cannot say there was a specific point where iatromathematics was formally rejected at the universities but by the end of the century it was no longer taught. However, outside of the universities it continued to flourish for quite a long time with both qualified physicians and other healers offering their astrological services for money to all those prepared to pay.

The case with astro-meteorology is different and presents an interesting case of the application of an empirical methodology. Already in the sixteenth century at the height of popularity of astrology, scholars were very much aware of the fact that the empirical basis or justification of astrology was, to say the least, very thin and some of them set about trying to correct this deficit. One area in which they did this was astro-meteorology.  Already in the High Middle Ages people began to keep weather diaries in which they recorded the horoscope for the day alongside observations of the actual weather in order to determine if there was an actual correlation between the two. Roger Bacon (c.1220–c. 1292), who was a fervent believer in astrology, kept one, as did, later, Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), who wrote the most infamous refutation of astrology. During the Renaissance weather diaries were kept by Johannes Stöfler (1452–1531), definitely pro astrology, the Nürnberg mathematicus Johannes Werner (1462– 1522), also pro, and the astronomers Tycho Brahe (1546–1522), David Fabricius ((1564–1617), and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), all of them practicing astrologers. They, of course, found no correlation and astro-meteorology quietly died away during the seventeenth century. The weather diaries, however, laid the foundations for scientific meteorology.

The case of judicial astrology is somewhat different, apart from anything else it never found entry to the European universities. Having said that, nearly all professional astronomers in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance were practicing astrologers and no self-respecting ruler was without an official court astrologer. This was still very much the case in the early seventeenth century but by the end of the century judicial astrology had also lost its status. Over time, various explanations have been offered for this decline. Earlier scholars, who didn’t actually study the history of astrology, attributed this decline to Pico’s Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem published posthumously. However, this work was strongly rejected and refuted by astrologers and actually had very little impact. Another false thesis was that the advent of heliocentric astronomer dealt the death blow to astrology. However, the historian of astronomy Robert Westman famously stated in a footnote that there were only ten Copernican’s, those who accepted his whole system cosmology and all, between the publication of De revolutionibus in 1543 and 1600, a historian of astrology pointed out that all ten were practicing astrologers. The advent of heliocentrism had almost no impact on the belief in judicial astrology and why should it? Astrology is about the position of the planets on the ecliptic at a given point in time, the horoscope, which translates as time picture, and the ecliptic still existed in heliocentric astronomy. 

As with astro-meteorology, there were attempts to provide natal astrology with an empirical basis in that collections of natal horoscopes were coupled with the biographies of the subjects, whose horoscopes they were. Johannes Petreius (c. 1497–1550), who published De revolutionibus, also published the first such printed collection, Libelli duo: De Supplemento Almanach; De Restitutione temporum et motuum coelestium; Item Geniturae LXVII insignes casibus et fortuna, cum expositione, by Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576) and an expanded edition, Libelli quinque, four years later. Petreius also planned to publish the much larger collection of Erasmus Reinhold (1511-1553), but he died before he could and the collection, which is still extant, was never published. Perhaps the most famous such collection is the Brief Lives of John Aubrey (1626–1697), which were only published for the first time in the nineteenth. As with the weather diaries, the horoscope collections failed in their aim to provide an empirical basis for natal astrology but did provide an impetus for the modern concept of history. 

So why did natal astrology lose its intellectual status towards the end of the seventeenth century? Natal astrology, in fact astrology in general, took its metaphysical legitimisation, especially during its heyday in the Renaissance, from the microcosm-macrocosm analogy, as above so below, which had its roots in Greek philosophy. With the advent of the new modern metaphysics of the scientific revolution, astrology lost this legitimisation. It didn’t go away but was no longer considered academically respectable. The death knell was rung by Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) in his scurrilous Isaac Bickerstaff parodies in which he mercilessly attacked John Partridge (1644–c. 1714) a leading English astrologer of the period.

Alchemy is a completely different story as, unlike astrology, it was never established on the European universities. In fact, whereas astrology enjoyed for a long time almost universal acceptance, alchemy was in general viewed with widespread scepticism. Strangely, it was only through the work of the highly controversial Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) that alchemy became for a brief time partially acceptable. Paracelsus’ medical theories were heavily alchemical. He regarded the human body as a sort of alchemical furnace and many of his remedies were based on minerals rather the more conventional herbal cures. Because of this he is regarded as the founder of pharmacology. During his lifetime he was generally regarded as a figure of derision but following his death there developed a strong Paracelsian medical movement in the second half of the sixteenth century promoting his mineral based alchemical medicine, known as iatrochemistry. 

The University of Marburg claims to have the world’s first chair for chemistry, established in 1609, with Johannes Hartmann (1568–1631) as its first incumbent. The chair was established by Moritz von Hessen Kassel (1572–1632) son of the astronomer Wilhelm IV. Unlike his father, Moritz, was a passionate supporter of alchemy and Paracelsian medicine. He founded the Collegium Chymicum and called Hartmann as Professor for Chymiatrie (iatrochemistry). This marks the beginning of a gradual transition or mutation from classical alchemy to modern chemistry. Because of its intermediary nature, being neither the one nor the other, historians of alchemy have taken to referring to it, during this period, as chymistry. Throughout the seventeenth century proponents of iatrochemistry included the Wittenberg professor of medicine Daniel Sennert (1572–1637), who played a central role in the introduction of corpuscula theory, schoolteacher Andreas Libavius (c. 1550–1616), who wrote a textbook on the topic, Alchemia, published in 1596, and the Belgian physician Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644). Although all of them propagated iatrochemistry, they rejected Paracelsus, the man who had founded it, because of his mysticism.

At the end of the seventeenth century alchemy was still alive and well with Robert Boyle (1627–1691), who is normally credited with being the founder of modern chemistry, because of his The Sceptical Chymist (1661), Isaac Newton (1642–1726), and John Locke (1632–1704) all active practitioners, but they were amongst the last academic to be so. However, towards the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, the German physicians Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682), a fan of Boyle’s work, and Georg Ernst Stahl (1659–1734) developed the phlogiston theory out of Paracelsus’ matter theory. The theory was wonderfully wrong, but it was the first comprehensive scientific theory in chemistry and during the eighteenth-century various scholars developed a lot of chemistry out of it. During the second half of the century chemistry moved out of the medical faculty and became a scientific discipline in its own right. Alchemy was no longer considered respectable by academics. Interestingly, the early chemists, although they used the laboratory equipment developed by the alchemists and also their methods of analysing chemical compounds, pretended that their discipline had never had anything to do with disreputable alchemy.

Magic is a bit of a problem because it’s not one thing, but a collection of diverse practices gathered together under a single term. Although the existence of magic was accepted by almost everybody during the Middle Ages, it was, unlike astrology and alchemy, never considered acceptable by anybody, but was in fact condemned as demonic. This changed for a brief period during the Renaissance with the advent of so-called Natural Magic. This was the metaphysical belief that it was possible to directly manipulate nature by harnessing the celestial forces that governed astrology and alchemy. I’ve written a whole blog post about its genesis, so I’m not going to repeat it all here. Natural magic was, it seems a short-lived phenomenon, and the last scholar of note who investigated it was Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who read and extensively excerpted the vast Magia Naturalis of Giambattista della Porta (1535(?)–1615), but never published anything on it in his lifetime.

We have now reached the end of our trail and I think it is clear that the occult sciences were not so much killed off by the evolution of modern science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but gradually faded into the background during that evolution. Although they ceased to be academically respectable, they never actually went away. If you google any of the terms’ astrology, alchemy, or natural magic today, you’ll find literally thousands of offers to initiate you into their secrets. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I’ve read serious magazine article in both English and German commenting on what they see as a serious renaissance of interest in astrology. What goes around comes around. 

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Magic

Occult studies towards a modern approach.

This review is very much a co-production with Dr Petra Schmidl, an expert on Islamicate occult studies, and she is in fact the lead author

The last couple of decades has seen a steady increase in both the volume and the quality of the studies of the occult sciences, magic, astrology, and alchemy, along with the acknowledgement that these studies very much belong to any attempt to produce a complete picture of the history of science. 

I have already, in the past, mentioned that I regularly attend the Tuesday evening lectures at the International Consortium for Research in the HumanitiesFate, Freedom and Prognostication. Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe a research institute located on the University of Erlangen.  I have also reviewed two books on the occult sciences that have their origins in said institute, Darrel Rutkin’s excellent Sapientia Astrologica (Springer, 2019) and the equally excellent, Prognostication in the Medieval World eds. Matthias Heiduk, Klaus Herbers and Hans-Christian Lehner (De Gruyter Reference, 2021). Today, I’m looking at another book than came, not directly from but via the same source, Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice.[1] This is a collection of papers presented at the three-day international conference Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University in 2017.

The book opens with a thirty-two-page introductory essay, written by Liana Saif (Warburg Institute & Universitè Catholique de Louvain) and Francesca Leoni (Ashmolean Museum) that is both a polemic and a manifesto. It opens with a definition and explication of the term occult sciences–magic, astronomy, astrology–respective Islamicate cultures. This is followed with a chronological description of how the historiography of this discipline has changed and evolved over the decades. In particular they emphasise that occult studies have progressed from being handled as a stand-alone exotic topic, to becoming imbedded in their cultural and especially scientific contexts.  The introductory essay closes with an explanation of how the approach of the original conference and the resulting book is an advance on previous presentation of the topic. They argue that theoretical presentations and the occult sciences and practical aspects, meaning material culture, talisman etc., have in the past been handled separately in conferences and publications and their aim in this conference and the resulting book was to bring together researchers on the two aspects and see how they interact. The introduction closes with a nine-page bibliography covering the whole topic.

The book itself is presented in two equal halves of six papers each, the first six on theory the second on practice. The book closes with a thirty-four-page postscript by Travis Zadeh (Yale University), which takes a deeper look at the theory/practice divide in occult studies.  

The theory papers are:

1) Charles Burnett (Warburg Institute) on the the three divisions of magic as presented by Maslama al-Qurṭubī (d. 964), the author of the Ghāyat al-ḥākim (“the Goal of the Sage”) also known by its Latin title “Picatrix”. They comprise alchemy, talismans, and nīranjāt, “a magical practice that includes a combination of mixing and processing ingredients, invoking spiritual beings, burning incense (suffumigation), and making figurines to manipulate spiritual forces.” (p. 50-51). 

2) Bink Hallum (British Library) provides an overview of the early Arabic awqāf literature. He begins with searching for pre-Islamic developments in China, Greece, and India, and introduces in the second part new evidence, such as newly discovered treatises written before the 13th c. 

3) Liana Saif provides a study of the Risāla al-sīḥr (“Letter on Magic”) comparing various version and manuscripts.

4) Michael Noble (Ludwig Maximillian University, Munich) follows with a closer look on the Sirr al-maktūm (“The Hidden Secret”) of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) as well as on his predecessor’s work, the Kitāb al-Milal wal-niḥal (“The Book of the Religions and Sects”) by ˁAbd al-Karīm al-Sharastānī (d. 1153) to delve into the soteriological aspects of Sabian astral magic. 

5) In the next paper, Noah Gardiner (University of South Carolina) investigates the Naẓm al-sulūk fi musāmarat al-mulūk (“Regulation of Conduct: On the Edification of Kings”) by ˁAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī (d. 1454), a treatise that he places at the intersection between occult sciences, namely lettrism, and historiography. 

6) The first part closes with Maria Subtelny introducing the Asrār-i qāsimī (“Qasimian Secrets”) by Kāshifi (d. 1504/05), a manual of the occult sciences, whose author played, together with his son Fakhr al-Dīn ˁAlī Ṣāfī (d. 1532/33), “a key role in the popularisation of Persian literature on the occult sciences” (p. 267). 

Although the second part of the book is about practice i.e., material culture, it actually opens with two textual examples.

7) Jean- Charles Coulon (Institute de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris) introduces the Kitāb Sharāsīm al-hindiyya (“The Book of Sharāsīm, the Indian”). Having described and discussed the seven existing manuscripts he closes with the Arabic Text and an English translation of the introduction to the introduction to the Kitāb Sharāsīm al-hindiyya. 

8) This is followed by Matthew Melvin-Koushki (University of South Carolina) discussing a treatise by Kemālpaşazāde Aḥmad (d. 1534), who uses lettrism to “scientifically prove the Ottoman sovereign’s [Selīm I. (d. 1520) – pgs] conquest of the Mamluk capital [Cairo – pgs] to be cosmically inevitable” (p. 383) and to promotes by this means his courtly career. 

9) Turning now to material culture Maryam Ekhtiar (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Rachel Parikh present examples of arms and armour “talismanic in nature” (p. 420), also documenting the human need for encouragement and protection when faced with the threat of war and death. They discuss the materials used, in particular stones that possess “magical and medicinal properties” (p. 422), and list talismanic motifs and symbols such as the seal of Solomon or the hand of Fāṭima. 

10) In his contribution Farouk Yahyo (SOAS) first reflects generally on the talismanic properties of calligrams, graphically arranged script often in the form of an animal. He then discusses the specific case the case of the Lion of ˁAlī in South-East Asia. His study provides insights into Sunnī and Shīˁī adaptions of the motive, its alteration in a Muslim society in contact with Buddhist traditions, and on the efficacy of objects inscribed with this calligram. 

 11) Francesca Leoni (Ashmolean Museum) follows this with a presentation of a stamped talisman (late 19th, early 20th c.) whose rich collection of inscriptions and diagrams provides a nearly encyclopaedic reference text of talismanic contents used in Islamicate societies. 

12) The final paper written by Christiane Gruber (University of Michigan) introduces a recent development in Turkey, talismanic cards and magnets offered for sale in today’s Istanbul markets. Her essay stresses not only the relevance of the topic up to today but also points to actual changes of the political settings in Turkey and its neighbourhood that are reflected in these objects. 

The papers mostly begin with a general introduction integrating the topic in an often broadly defined context and concluding with a high-quality case study. The papers do not have an introductory abstract, which would probably have been an aid to the potential reader. They do, however, have extensive footnotes and all papers close with comprehensive bibliographies. 

Most quotes are provided in their original languages and script accompanied by an English translation. A great number of figures accompanies the essays. In particular, the practice papers include some very beautiful full colour illustrations. In the essays now and then a table is also included that summarizes the contents and presents it in a more neatly arranged. Usually, terms, e.g., in Arabic, are translated or shortly explained, concise information added to persons, dynasties, places, events and the like. 

Frequently reappearing topics are discussions of the terminological and classificational issues, the interdependencies of reason, religion and superstition, differences in Shīˁī and Sunnī attitudes towards the occult sciences, the coherencies of Sufism and occult sciences and the transfer of knowledge. Repeatedly featured are the Rasāˀil of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāˀ and Maslama al-Qurṭubī’s Ghāyat al-ḥākim. Other subjects appearing in the fourteen essays can be easily accessed via the well-elaborated index. As to be expected from Brill, the physical presentation of the book is first class, good quality paper, very readable font, and solid binding. Though, of course, being Brill the list price, at €219/$249, is well beyond the financial capabilities of many potential readers. 

This book should interest all those working in occult studies, in particular, of course, those active in the cultural and intellectual history of the Islamicate societies. Its greatest strength is its inclusion of both the theoretical and epistemological basics but also considering the material manifestations, indicating a route for future research. If the book has a deficit, it is the very strong emphasis in the collected papers on magic and the comparative paucity of content on astrology and alchemy. Maybe a future conference and subsequent volume of collected papers could even out this deficit. 


[1] Leoni, Francesca; Melvin-Koushki, Matthew S.; Saif, Liana; Yahya, Farouk (eds.): Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice(Handbook of Oriental studies. Section One, Ancient Near East / Handbuch der Orientalistik 140). Brill: Leiden, Boston 2020

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Magic

Christmas Trilogy 2021 Part 1: The evolving views of the Last of the Magicians

Some time back, it seemed that several times a year someone would post an article or a blog post on the Internet along the lines of, “Shock! Horror! Outrage! did you know that Isaac Newton was a practicing alchemist?” All the historians of science, who know their Newton, would shrug their shoulders, and quietly repeat, actually we have known about this for a long time. It is quite interesting to look at how the views of Newton the alchemist have changed over time, but first a little bit of general background on his alchemical activities.

There are two more or less popular takes from people who have never bothered to investigate the topic. There are those, who claim that Newton merely dabbled a bit in alchemy, so historian shouldn’t take it seriously. Others claim that Newton first took up alchemy in his dotage, after his scientific career was over, an old man’s foible. Both of these are fundamentally wrong. 

Newton was a dedicated student and practitioner of alchemy for thirty years from 1666 to 1696, massively reducing his engagement when he moved to London. He had a shed built in the gardens of Trinity College, which he used as his alchemical laboratory for six weeks before the start of winter and six weeks at the end of winter every year. 

Isaac Newton’s rooms. View of the rooms occupied by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) at Trinity College, Cambridge. His rooms were on the first floor between the Great Gate and the Chapel. The small room projecting from the Chapel was probably his alchemical laboratory. Source:

This is of course the same period in which he did all of his ground-breaking work in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and optics. In these decades, he also did extensive work on theology and historical chronology. I sometimes get the impression that he never slept.

He accumulated a substantial library of books on alchemy, as well of hermeticism, at least 170 titles. There are quite literally reams of his writings on alchemy, a total of over one million words! He took notes on his readings and even copied out pages of some alchemical texts. Apparently, Newton seldom made annotations in the books that he owned but he heavily annotated two of his alchemical volumes, Eyraeneus Philaletha Cosmopolita, aka George Starkey’s Secrets Reveal’d and Lazarus Zetzner’s Theatrum chemicum.[1] 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

From his readings, Newton complied lexica of alchemical symbols and veiled terms in an attempt to decode the texts he was consuming. It is very obvious that Newton’s engagement was very serious and on a very large scale.

So, how did his contemporaries react to Newton’s alchemical activities? The straightforward answer is they didn’t because they didn’t know about them. Newton stuck to, what might be termed, the alchemists’ honour code that is only to communicate about his alchemical activities with other adepts and even then, in veiled terms. He even once rebuked Robert Boyle, a fellow practitioner, for publishing an article on alchemy.

When Newton died, his papers passed into the possession of his half-niece Catherine Barton and her husband John Conduitt. When they died the papers passed into the possession of their only daughter Catherine, who was born in 1721. In 1740, Catherine married John Wallop, Viscount Lymington, the eldest son of the Earl of Portsmouth. Catherine’s son John Wallop inherited the title from his grandfather in 1762. John Wallop senior had died in 1742. Newton’s papers, now in possession of the Portsmouth family were stored in a trunk and basically forgotten about for about for more than a century. 

In 1872, Isaac Newton Wallop[2], 5th Earl of Portsmouth donated Newton’s papers to Trinity College both his and Newton’s alma mater.

“Horseflesh”, the 5th Earl of Portsmouth, caricature by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1 July 1876. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A committee chaired by the astronomer John Couch Adams and the physicist George Stokes was set up to review the papers. In a process that lasted sixteen years, this committee only selected Newton’s mathematical and scientific papers rejecting the rest to protect the reputation of their scientific hero. The bulk of the papers were returned to the Portsmouth family. One could describe this action as, “if we ignore Newton’s alchemical, theological, and chronological activities, then we can pretend they never took place”. 

This committee’s behaviour was not the only negative reaction to Newton’s alchemical activities during the nineteenth century. In 1831, the Scottish physicist, David Brewster (1781–1868),

Inner picture of a cigar box from the early 1900s with a portrait of Brewster. Source: Wikimedia Commons

nowadays best known in popular culture as the inventor of the kaleidoscope,  published a hagiographical biography of his personal hero Isaac Newton, The Life of Sir Isaac Newton (J. Murry, 1831), as a reaction to the, as he saw it, denigrating biography written by the French astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774–1862) and published in 1822. During the research for his biography, Brewster was mortified when he discovered that his hero had dabbled in alchemy, he wrote:

There is no problem of more difficult solution than that which relates to a belief in alchemy … by men of high character and lofty attainments.

He further argued that Newton was of “a peculiar bent of mind”, the same mind that was otherwise “of such a power and so nobly occupied with the abstraction of geometry.”

Brewster also refused to believe that Newton was a unitarian, stating that he was upright, orthodox, church-going Anglican. This led to a dispute with Augustus De Morgan (1806–1871, himself a unitarian, who vigorously defended Newton’s Unitarianism. Newton, in fact, devoted a lot of time and effort trying to prove that the Catholic Church had falsified the Bible to create the Trinitarian doctrine[3].

 In 1936, the Portsmouth family sold of the baulk of Newton’s papers by public auction. An act that brings tears to the eyes of every dedicated historian of science. Fortunately, the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), a true Cambridge man born so to speak, into the university, his father was a Cambridge lecturer, bought up a large chunk of Newton’s papers, also acquiring other papers from other buyers after the auction and donated them to King’s College Library.

Caricature of J M Keynes by David Low, 1934

He read through the documents that he had acquired and like Brewster was disappoint that his hero was a practicing alchemist and baptised him, in an essay, “the last of the magicians”, hence the title of this post. He also wrote “the last wonder child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.” Like Brewster he couldn’t understand why Newton would engage in something “wholly devoid of scientific value” and viewing Newton’s obsession as an aberration stated, “geniuses are very peculiar.”

In the late 1950s, two professional historians of science, Rupert Hall (1920–2009) and Marie Boas (1919–2009), began to examine the Portsmouth papers and came up with a, for professionals, peculiar reaction, in that they simply denied that Newton had practiced alchemy. For Hall and Boas, it was unthinkable that the scientist Newton would indulge in anything so unscientific as alchemy, what he was doing was legitimate chemistry and be merely consulted alchemical texts for their descriptions of laboratory methods. Well after all, nearly all the standard laboratory analytical practices in chemistry were devised/discovered/created/invented by alchemists. To be fair to Hall and Boas, Newton did in fact use the knowledge of chemical analysis that he had acquired through his alchemical activities to devise new, improved methods for assaying metals, when working at the Royal Mint. It was also Hall and Boas, who insisted that Newton’s “chemical activities” took place after he had effectively stopped producing real science and mathematics. The old man dabbling. I think the most charitable thing one can say about Hall and Boas’ efforts is, there are none so blind as those that will not see. 

The Big Bang in research into Newton’s alchemy can be dated to the publication of The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemyor the Hunting of the Green Lyon by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs (1930–1994) in 1975 by CUP.

Here was a full-length monograph that dealt with Newton’s alchemy, as alchemy, in great depth and detail. No denial, no repulsion, just a highly readable but seriously academic analysis of the alchemical activities of the good Isaac, without value judgement. It was through this book that I first became aware of Newton the alchemist and the book also changed my attitude to the so-called occult sciences. Like most people of my generation, these were not science and so were not of interest to an apprentice historian of science. These days I spend at least as much time and effort defending the study of the occult science, as I do the “real” sciences. 

Dobbs wrote several more books on Newton’s alchemy and how it fitted, in her opinion, into the rest of his activities, both scientific and theological. Important in the acceptance of her work was the active support that she and her theories received from Richard Westfall (1924–1996), author of the, up till now, best biography of Newton, Never at Rest CUP, 1980). As well as establishing beyond any reasonable doubt that Newton was a serious alchemist, Dobbs developed a theory based on her interpretation of the evidence that Newton had adopted the concept of action at a distance, against the prevailing mechanical philosophy leading to severe criticism from Leibniz and the Cartesians, from his alchemical research. This theory found a lot of general acceptance and up till recently, I too accepted it.

In 1988, Oxford University Press published a reader Let Newton Be! A new perspective on his life and works, with essays on all aspects of his work including his occult activities. Two of the essays Newton, matter, and magic by John Henry and The secret life of an alchemist by Jan Golinski accept and deal with Newton’s alchemy as a normal part of his intellectual makeup. Both accept Dobbs’ hypothesis that Newton’s concept of force derived from concepts of occult power.

In 2016, Cambridge University Press published the second edition of their Newton reader, The Cambridge Companion to Newton, which contains an essay from William R. Newman, one of a group of prominent historians of alchemy, who in recent years have completely rewritten the history of the topic. In his essay, A preliminary reassessment of Newton’s alchemy, Newman effectively demolishes the Dobbs theory showing that it doesn’t work. Instead, he proposes a new theory that Newton’s alchemical studies influenced his optic investigations in the late 1660s. 

Newman was working on an in-depth study and analysis of Newton’s alchemy, which appeared as a book in 2018, Newton the AlchemistScience, Enigma, and the Quest for Nature’s “Secret Fire” (Princeton University Press).

This will certainly prove to be the definitive account of Newton’s alchemy for the next years and my copy is somewhere near the top of my to read list, I hope to delve not to far in the future. 

Over the centuries the reactions to Newton the alchemist have gone from ignorance, we didn’t know he was one, to abhorrence and bewilderment, to if we ignore it it doesn’t exist, to acceptance and serious historical analysis.


[1] I owe this snippet of information to Cornelius J. Schilt’s excellent Isaac Newton and the Study of ChronologyProphecy, History, and Method (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) p. 96. The book is my current bedtime reading and a review will follow sometime next year.

[2] Yes, that really is his name!

[3] For an excellent analysis of the 19th century Newton biographies I heartily recommend Rebekah Higgitt’s Recreating NewtonNewtonian Biography and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science (Pickering & Chatto, 207), which I reviewed here 

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Renaissance Science – XXIV

It might be considered rational to assume that during the period that is viewed as the precursor to the so-called scientific revolution, which is itself viewed as the birth of modern science, that the level of esotericism and the importance of the occult sciences would decline. However, the exact opposite is true, the Renaissance saw a historical highpoint in the popularity and practice of esotericism and the occult sciences. We have already seen how astro-medicine or iatromathematics came to dominate the practice of medicine in this period and horoscope astrology continued to be practiced by almost all astronomers till well into the seventeenth century. We also saw how, not just due to the efforts of Paracelsus, the practice and status of alchemy also reached a high point during this period. Now, I would like to take a look at the emergence of natural magic during this period and the processes that drove it.

There was nothing new about the supposed existence of magic in the Renaissance, but throughout the Christian era magic was associated with demonic forces. It was thought that people, who practiced magic, were calling on the power of the devil. Augustinus, who had been a practicing astrologer and believed that astrology worked, thought it could only do so through demonic forces thus his famous condemnation of the mathematici, by which he meant astrologers and not mathematicians. What was new in the Renaissance was the concept of a magic, natural magic, that was not dependent on demonic forces. This is the origin of the concept of the distinction between black magic and white magic, to use the more modern terms for it. Various groups of texts that found prominence in the Renaissance humanist search for authentic texts from antiquity were instrumental in this development. In roughly the order of there emergence they were the philosophy of Plato and in particular the work of the Neoplatonists from the third century CE, the Hermetic Corpus, and the Jewish Kabbalah. In the first two of these the humanist scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) played a pivotal role. 

Marsilio Ficino from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ficino was the son of Diotifeci d’Angolo a physician whose patron was Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) a major supporter of the humanist Renaissance. Ficino became a member of the Medici household and Cosimo remained his patron for his entire life, even appointing him tutor to his grandson Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492).

Cosimo de’ Medici portrait by Jacopo Pontormo Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the Council of Florence (1438-1444), an attempt to heal the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, Cosimo de’ Medici became acquainted and enamoured with the Greek Neoplatonic philosopher Georgius Gemistus Pletho (C. 1355–c. 1450), who was also the teacher of Basileios Bessarion (1403–1472) another highly influential Renaissance scholar.

Portrait of Gemistus Pletho, detail of a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Returning home Cosimo decided to refound Plato’s Academy and appointed Ficino to head it, who then proceeded to learn Greek from Ioannis Argyropoulus (c. 1415–1487), another Greek, who came to Italy during the Council of Florence.

Ioannis Argyropoulos as depicted by Domenico Ghirlandaio Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today Plato is regarded as one of the greatest and most important of all Western philosophers, there is a saying that Plato is just footnotes to Socrates and Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) once quipped that Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, so it might seem strange to us that during the Renaissance Plato was virtually unknown in Europe. In the Early Middle Ages, the only one of Plato’s worked that was known in Latin was the Timaeus (c. 360 BCE) his speculations on the nature of the physical world, about which George Sarton infamously wrote in his A History of Science (Harvard University Press, 1959):

The influence of Timaeus upon later times was enormous and essentially evil. A large portion of Timaeus had been translated into Latin by Chalcidius, and that translation remained for over eight centuries the only Platonic text known in the Latin West. Yet the fame of Plato had reached them, and thus the Latin Timaeusbecame a kind of Platonic evangel which many scholars were ready to interpret literally. The scientific perversities of Timaeus were mistaken for scientific truths. I cannot mention any other work whose influence was more mischievous, except the Revelations of John the Devine. The apocalypse, however, was accepted as a religious book, the Timaeus as a scientific one; errors and superstition are never more dangerous than when offered to us under the cloak of science. 

George Sarton  A History of Science (Harvard University Press, 1959)

Strong stuff! Somehow Plato got ignored during the so-called Scientific Renaissance and unlike Aristotle his works were not translated into Latin at this time. In 1462 Cosimo de’ Medici supplied Ficino with Greek manuscripts of Plato’s work and commissioned him to translate them into into Latin, a task that he carried out by 1468-69, the works being published in 1484. Ficino also translated the work of many of the Neoplatonist in particular the work of Porphyry (c. 234–c. 305) and Plotinus (c. 204–270 CE). 

So, what does this revival in the philosophy of Plato have to do with magic, natural or otherwise? The answer lies in that which Sarton found so abhorrent in Plato’s philosophy of science. Plato’s philosophy of scienced is heavily laced with what can be simply described as a heavy dose of mysticism and it is this aspect of Plato’s philosophy that is strongly emphasised by the third century Neoplatonists. I’m not going to go into great detail as this blog post would rapidly turn into a monster, there have been numerous thick books written about the Timaeus alone but will only present a very brief sketch of the relevant concepts.

According to Plato the cosmos was created by the demiurge, the divine craftsman, as a single living entity, which he then endowed with a world soul. It was this concept of the Oneness of the cosmos that was at the core of the philosophy of the third century Neoplatonists and in Ficino’s own personal interpretation of Platonic thought. How this relates to natural magic, I will explain later after we have looked at Ficino’s translation of the Hermetic Corpus. 

In 1460, Leonardo de Candia Pistola, one of the agents Cosimo de’ Medici had sent out to search European monasteries for ancient manuscripts, returned to Tuscany with the so-called Corpus Hermeticum. This is a collection of seventeen Greek texts supposedly of great antiquity and written by Hermes Trismegistus a legendary Hellenistic creation combining elements of the Egyptian god Thoth and his Greek counterpart Hermes. Ficino interrupted his translation of Plato and immediately began translating the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin; he translated the first fourteen of the texts and Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447–1500) translated the other three.

Lodovico Lazzarelli (via his muse) presents the manuscript of Fasti christianae religionis to Ferdinand I of Aragon, king of Naples and Sicily. (Beinecke MS 391, f.6v) Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are other Hermetic texts most notably the Emerald Tablet an Arabic text first known in the eight or early nine century and the Asclepius already know in Latin during the Middle Ages. 

Once again, the subject is far to extensive for an analysis in a blog post, so I will only sketch a brief outline of the salient points. The hermetic texts are a complex mix of religious-philosophical magic texts, astrological texts, and alchemical texts. The religious-philosophical aspect has a strong similarity to the Platonic theory of the One, the cosmos as a single living entity. In hermeticism, God and the cosmos are one and the same thing. God is the All and at the same time the creator of the All. Hermeticists also believed in the principle of a prisca theologica, that there is a single true, original theology, which for Christian Hermeticists originates with Moses. They believed Hermes had his knowledge direct from Moses. A central tenet of Hermeticism was the macrocosm-microcosm theory, as above so below. Meaning the Earth is a copy of the heavens, astrology and alchemy are instances of the forces of the heavens working on the Earth. 

Macrocosm-Microcosm Lucas Jemnnis Museum Hermeticum (1625)

Combining Neoplatonic philosophy and Hermeticism, Renaissance humanists developed the concept of natural magic. Rather than a magic based on demonic influence, natural magic works by tapping directly into the forces of the cosmos that are the source of astrology and alchemy. 

The Kabbalah is a school of Jewish esoteric teaching that is supposed to explain the relationship between the unchanging, infinite, eternal God and the mortal, finite cosmos, God’s creation. Renaissance humanist believed in the ideal of the tres linguæ sacræ (the three holy languages)–Latin, Greek, and Hebrew–the languages needed for Biblical studies. The scholars of Hebrew stumbled across the Jewish Kabbalah and began to incorporate it into the Renaissance mysticism. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) an Italian Renaissance nobleman and student of Ficino

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola portrait by Cristofano dell’Altissimo (c. 1525–1605) Source: Wikimedia Commons

founded or created a Christian Kabbalah, which he wove together with Platonism, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, and Hermeticism. A heady brew! Given his own personal philosophy, which included a form of natural magic that he called Theurgy, operation of the gods, I find it more than somewhat ironic that Pico is hailed as an early rejecter of astrology.

The Christian Kabbalah was developed by Pico’s most noted follower in this area, the German humanist, Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522), who not only propagated the Christian Kabbalah but fiercely defended Jewish literature against the strong Anti-Semitic movement to ban and burn it in the early sixteenth century.

Johann Reuchlin, woodcut depiction from 1516 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was a highly influential teacher of Hebrew and became professor for Hebrew at the University of Ingolstadt. Amongst his most notable students were his nephew Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) (it was Reuchlin who suggested that Philip adopt the humanist name Melanchthon a Greek translation of his birth name, Schwartzerdt) and the Nürnberger reformer, Andreas Osiander (1498­–1522), who famously authored the Ad lectorum at the beginning of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. Even Martin Luther consulted Reuchlin on Hebrew and read his texts on the Kabbalah, whilst disagreeing with him.

Hermeticism was adopted by many leading thinkers in the Early Modern Period including Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), Francesco Patrizi (1529–1597) (an influential and much discussed philosopher in the period, who is largely forgotten today except by specialists), and Robert Fludd (1574–1637), who notoriously disputed with Johannes Kepler, rejecting Kepler’s mathematics-based science for one based on what might be described as hermetic mandalas. Even Isaac Newton (1642–1727) processed a substantial collection of hermetic literature. 

The English Renaissance historian Frances Yates (1899–1981) argued in, her much praised, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) that hermeticism played a central role in the emergence of heliocentric astronomy in the Early Modern Period. Even Copernicus appears to quote Hermes Trismegistus in his De revolutionibus in his hymn of praise of the Sun to justify its central position of the cosmos:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] Trismegistus labels it a visible god and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing. 

Yates’ thesis is now largely rejected by historians of astronomy, but her book is still praised for making people aware of the extent of hermeticism in the Early Modern Period. It is difficult to assess if hermeticism had any direct or indirect influence on the development of science during the period, but it was certainly very present in the intellectual atmosphere of the period.

Before I turn to natural magic it is interesting to note that the highly influential, humanist scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), who through the much-propagated philological analysis of texts was able to show, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, that the Corpus Hermeticum was not as ancient as its supporters claimed but was created in the early centuries of the common era and was thus contemporaneous with the Neoplatonic texts. Casaubon’s analysis was largely ignored by the supporters of hermeticism in the seventeenth century.

Isaac Casaubon artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

 As already stated above natural magic was the belief into the possibility to directly tap into the forces within the single, living, cosmic organism, of the Neoplatonists and Hermeticists, that were present in astrology and alchemy. One of the strongest propagators of natural magic was the German polymath Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535).

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim Source: Wikimedia Commons

He presented his views on the topic in his widely read De Occulta Philosophia libri III (Three Books of Occult Philosophy) the first volume of which was published in Paris in 1531 and the full three volumes in Cologne in 1533.

Man inscribed in a pentagram, from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia libri III . The signs on the perimeter represent the 5 visible planets in astrology. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In an earlier work, De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (Declamation Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts, Cologne 1527) he wrote the following explanation of natural magic:

Natural magic is that which having contemplated the virtues of all natural and celestial and carefully studied their order proceeds to make known the hidden and secret powers of nature in such a way that inferior and superior things are joined by an interchanging application of each to each: thus incredible miracles are often accomplished not so much by art as by nature, to whom this art is a servant when working at these things. For this reason magicians are careful explorers of nature, only directing what nature has formally prepared, uniting actives to passives and often succeeding in anticipating results; so that these things are popularly held to be miracles when they are really no more than anticipations of natural operations … therefore those who believe the operations of magic to be above or against nature are mistaken because they are only derived from nature and in harmony with it.

The other major figure of natural magic was the Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta (1535(?)–1615), a respected figure in the Renaissance scientific community, who authored the Magia Naturalis, first published as a single volume in 1558, which grew to twenty volumes by 1589.

Giambattista della Porta artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have written an extensive blog post on della Porta and his book here, so I won’t add more here. He describes natural magic thus:

Magick is nothing else but the knowledge of the whole course of Nature. For, whilst we consider the Heavens, the Stars, the Elements, how they moved, and how they changed, by this means we find out the hidden secrecies of living creatures, of plants, of metals, and of their generation and corruption; so that this whole science seems merely to depend upon the view of Nature … This Art, I say, is full of much virtue, of many secret mysteries; it openeth unto us the properties and qualities of hidden thins, and the knowledge of the whole course of Nature; and it teacheth us by the agreement and the disagreement of things, either so to sunder them, or else to lay them so together by the mutual and fit applying of one thing to another, as thereby we do strange works, such as the vulgar sort call miracles, and such men can neither well conceive, nor sufficiently admire … Wherefore, as many of you as come to behold Magic, must be perswaded that the works of Magick are nothing else but the works of Nature, whose dutiful hand-maid magick is.

Both Agrippa and della Porta were widely read and important parts of the philosophical debates around science in the Renaissance but it is difficult to say whether their concept of natural magic any influence on the development of science in this period. It can and has been argued that because natural magic was inductive by nature that it influenced the adoption of induction in the scientific method in the seventeenth century. There exists a debate amongst historians to what extent Francis Bacon was or was not influenced by hermeticism and natural magic. Others such as Bruno and John Dee certainly were. Dee included magic as one of the mathematical disciplines in his Mathematicall Praeface to Henry Billingsley’s English translation of The Elements of Euclid.

It probably seems strange to include a long essay on what is basically occult philosophy in a series on Renaissance science, but one can’t ignore the fact that Neoplatonism, hermeticism and natural magic were all separately and in various combinations an integral part of the intellectual debate of the period between fourteen and seventeen hundred.

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of science, Renaissance Science

Tracking the alchemical gospel through Medieval and Early Modern England

This is going to be yet another of those book reviews where I start by explaining how much the history of science has changed since I first became engaged in it, in my youth. Back in the not so good old days, the so-called occult sciences we not really considered part of the history of science by the mainstream of the discipline. In fact, they were often viewed as somehow dirty and degrading. When it first began to be suggested that Isaac Newton was an alchemist, Rupert Hall, then a leading historian of science, insisted that Newton’s activities had actually been chemistry, motivated by his work as boss of the Royal Mint and definitely not alchemy. I of course, not knowing better, stuck to the mainstream and avoided the occult sciences. Something, I now regard as rather strange given my very active advocacy for the history of astrology if one wishes to understand the history of astronomy.

As far as the history of alchemy is concerned, my eyes were opened by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs’ The Foundations of Newtons Alchemy, or the Hunting of the Green Lyon (CUP; 1976), which I read with growing amazement and enthusiasm, sometime in the early 1980s. My memory tells me that the book caused a minor sensation in the history of science world, revealing as it did, for the first time with academic rigour, the extent of Newton’s involvement with this distinctly non-scientific discipline. The effect was even greater when Richard Westfall, Newton’s greatest biographer, gave more than tacit support to Dobbs’ views on Newton’s alchemical activities. Alchemy was now a serious subject for historians of science to pursue.

Over the succeeding decades the history of alchemy became an accepted part of the history of science with excellent publications from first class historians such as Bruce Moran, Tara Nummedal, Pamala H. Smith, as well as William R. R. Newman and Lawrence Principe both together and separately. For somebody new to the discipline I can recommend Lawrence Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy (University of Chicago Press, 2013), as an excellent general introduction. William Newman’s newest book is Newton the Alchemist: Science, Enigma, and the Quest for Nature’s Secret Fire (Princeton University Press, 2018). One of the stars of the new generation of historians of alchemy is Jennifer M. Rampling, whose latest book, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy 1300–1700[1] is the subject of this book review.

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Rampling’s book delivers exactly what the title promises. She takes her reader along the winding path that the study and practice of alchemy took in England from its early establishment during the reign of Edward III (1312–1377) up to end of the seventeenth century, when those stalwart founders of modern science, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were practicing alchemists.

Before she takes the reader through four hundred years of English alchemy history, Rampling prefaces the journey with a discussion of the multiple meanings, conflicting and oft contradictory meanings, shifting meanings and evolving meanings of various central alchemical terms, most notably mercury and the stone, as in the philosophers stone. Her careful analysis demonstrates the problems involved in trying to understand alchemical writings, not only for the modern reader or historian but also for the alchemical practitioners throughout history. This chapter also serves as an introduction to the central aspect of the book, what the author calls, ‘practical exegesis’. This is the process by which the practicing alchemists reads, interprets and attempts to convert into practice, the authoritative texts that allude and hint rather than instruct openly and clearly. Throughout her narrative Rampling shows how each generation of English alchemists made great efforts to produce a consistent, at least internally rational reading of the texts and authorities that they are working with.

Rampling distinguishes two main types of practicing alchemists. On the one hand we have the philosophical alchemist, who presents long complex interpretations of the authoritative texts to demonstrate his mastery of the secrets that they contain. Such alchemists oft preferred to avoid the term alchemist referring to themselves as philosophers, or natural philosophers, who rise above the mundane production of gold, although willing, when suitably induced, to do just that. On the other hand, there are the purely practical alchemists, who head straight for the laboratory with a recipe in hand and have little time for the high-flown philosophical speculations of their colleagues. Rampling deals predominantly with those of a philosophical cast.

Readers of this blog will know that I place a lot of emphasis in the history of science on a contextual narrative i.e., under which circumstances did the science in question take place, what were the external forces driving the science and how were the practitioners embedded in their cultural milieu. In this sense Rampling’s in exemplary. Her alchemists do not speculate in thin air devoid of any contact to society in general but are firmly embedded in the cultures of their times.

Rampling’s alchemists are real people, where the sources make this possible and unfortunately the sources are often meagre, she describes their life circumstances, their professions, their non-alchemical activities and their alchemical motivations. Financing was always important for alchemists and Rampling gives in depth analysis of the texts they wrote to attract wealthy, aristocratic and particularly royal sponsors for their alchemical endeavours. How these are formulated is particularly revealing, because for much of the period under discussion alchemy, or at least multiplication i.e., the alchemical production of gold or silver bullion was forbidden by law. On the other had the Crown was perpetually destitute and more than a bit interested in alchemists’ claims to able to covert base metals into gold and silver.

The English alchemy that Rampling traces down the centuries has its roots in the alchemical texts attributed to the Majorcan mathematician, philosopher and logician Ramon Llull (c. 1232–c. 1315). Attributed is here the correct term because none of texts were actually written by the Spanish polymath, which illustrates the common practice of attributing alchemical texts to eminent authors to increase their status. However, the medieval English alchemists believed the fake attribution and worked on understanding and interpreting the pseudo-Lllullian texts.

Having laid the foundations Rampling moves on to George Ripley (c. 1415–1490), who takes up a central position in the book. Ripley is the most important English medieval alchemist and Rampling takes the reader carefully through his main writings, explaining how he interpreted and balanced out the obscurities and contradictions he found in reading the pseudo-Llullian and other writings that informed his practice.

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Have laid the basics, Rampling takes us down the years to 1700, showing how successive generations reworked the pseudo-Llullian and Ripleyian texts, creating new contributions to the alchemical canon, often reassigning known texts to new authors to give them more authority.  We learn how Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the loss of large quantities of manuscripts relevant to the study of alchemy making life difficult for the historian. However, Rampling shows how to reconstruct the alchemy of the period using literary archaeology on those texts that are still available.

Moving into the Elizabethan period we meet two new phenomena in the world of alchemy.  The English alchemist produced English translations of Latin texts making them available to a wider audience and at the same time creating a truly English school of alchemy. At the same time the English alchemists had to cope with foreign alchemists coming to their island and competing for the limited sources of sponsorship needed to set up alchemical laboratories and purchase the necessary starting materials.

Although it deals primarily with English alchemy, throughout the book the reader learns quite a lot about the continental developments, as there was, during the whole period, active exchange between the island and the mainland. Ripley is, for example, said to have travelled and studied on the continent the supposed source of much of his alchemical wisdom. The Elizabethan continental alchemists refreshed the English tradition with new continental developments in the discipline.

This exchange reached a high point in the life and work of Edward Kelley (1555–1597/8), who, better known as the scryer who mediated John Dee’s conversations with angels, was in his later life an acclaimed alchemist on the European mainland. Kelley originally travelled to Prague with Dee to try and find favour with the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, who was the biggest supporter and sponsor of the occult sciences in the whole of Europe. Dee failed to find favour on the continent and returned disappointed to England whereas Kelley remained and established himself as a leading alchemical authority. Rampling takes us skilfully through the twists and turns, and ups and downs of Kelley’s late career and yet another reworking of the pseudo-Llullian-Ripleyian canon, which found favour amongst continental practitioners

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As is now well known to Newton scholars, alchemy didn’t disappear with the advent of the so-called scientific revolution but was still strong in England in the seventeenth century, with Newton, Boyle and Locke all practitioners. Here Rampling takes us through the work of figures such as Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), who created large collections of alchemical manuscripts and books in the final phase of English alchemy.

Rampling’s extensive survey of English alchemy is a masterclass in history of science research and serves as a model for anyone who wishes to undertake such a project. Although it meets the highest standards of academic research, she writes with a light touch and an accomplished literary style making a complex and technical topic accessible to the not necessarily specialist reader. The book is illustrated with grey in grey prints and, hallelujah, it has very extensive, high informative footnotes (not endnotes!). There is a wide-ranging bibliography of both primary and secondary sources and a comprehensive index.

The Experimental Fire is probably not recommended as an introductory text for somebody completely new to the history of alchemy, they should perhaps read Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy before attempting to tackle Rampling’s more advanced text. However, anybody with some basic knowledge of the history of alchemy, and an interest in developing that knowledge, could and should read her book. For those with a serious interest in the topic The Experimental Fire is an obligatory read and must already be considered a standard work in the genre.

[1] Jennifer M. Rampling, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy 1300–1700, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2020.

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of science

A flawed survey of science and the occult in the Early Modern Period

There is no shortage of good literature on the relationships between science and magic, or science and astrology, or science and alchemy during the Early Modern Period so what is new in Mark A. Waddell’s Magic, Science, and Religion in Early Modern Europe[1]? Nothing, because it is not Waddell’s aim to bring something new to this material but rather to present an introductory textbook on the theme aimed at university students. He sets out to demonstrate to the uninitiated how the seemingly contradictory regions of science, religion and magic existed in the Early Modern Period not just parallel to but interwoven and integrated with each other.  Waddell’s conception is a worthy one and would make for a positive addition to the literature, his book is however flawed in its execution.

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Image with thanks from Brian Clegg

The book actually starts well, and our author sets out his planned journey in a lengthy but clear and informative introduction. The book itself is divided into clear sections each dealing with a different aspect of the central theme. The first section deals with the Renaissance discoveries of hermeticism and the cabala and the concept of natural magic, as a force to manipulate nature, as opposed to demonic magic. Although limited by its brevity, it provides a reasonable introduction to the topics dealt with. My only criticisms concerns, the usual presentation of John Dee as a magus, whilst downplaying his role as a mathematician, although this does get mentioned in passing. However, Waddell can’t resist suggesting that Dee was the role model for Marlowe’s Faustus, whereas Faustus is almost certainly modelled on Historia von D. Johann Faustus, a German book containing legends about the real Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–c. 1541) a German itinerant alchemist, astrologer, and magician of the German Renaissance. A note for authors, not just for Waddell, Dee in by no means the only Renaissance magus and is not the role model for all the literary ones.

Waddell’s second section deals with demonic magic, that is magic thought to draw its power from communion with the Devil and other lesser demons. As far as I can tell this was the section that most interested our author whilst writing his book. He manages to present a clear and informative picture of the period of the European witch craze and the associated witch hunts. He deals really well with the interrelationship between the belief in demonic witchcraft and the Church and formal religion. How the Church created, propagated and increasingly expanded the belief in demonic magic and witches and how this became centred on the concept of heresy. Communion with the devil, which became the central theme of the witch hunts being in and of itself heretical.

Following this excellent ´section the book starts to go downhill. The third section of the book deals with magic, medicine and the microcosm. Compared with the good presentation of the previous section I can only call this one a mishmash. We get a standard brief introduction to medieval academic medicine, which Waddell labels premodern, with Hippocrates, Galen and a nod to Islamic medical writes, but with only Ibn Sīnā mentioned by name. This is followed by a brief description of the principles of humoral medicine. Waddell correctly points out the academic or learned doctors only represent one group offering medical assistance during this period and gives a couple of lines to the barber-surgeons. It is now that the quality of Waddell’s presentation takes a steep nosedive.

Having correctly pointed out that medieval academic medicine was largely theoretical he then, unfortunately, follows the myth of “and then came Andy”! That is, we jump straight into Andreas Vesalius and his De fabrica, as I quote, “the beginnings of what we would understand as a rigorous and empirical approach to the study of anatomy.” Strange, only two weeks ago I wrote a post pointing out that Vesalius didn’t emerge out of the blue with scalpel raised high but was one step, albeit a very major one, in a two-hundred-year evolution in the study of anatomy. Of course, Waddell dishes up the usual myth about how seldom dissection was before Vesalius and corpses to dissect were rare etc, etc. Whereas, in fact, dissection had become a regular feature of medical teaching at the European universities over that, previously mentioned two-hundred-year period. Waddell closes his Vesalius hagiography with the comment that Vesalius’ De fabrica “was a crucial step in the more widespread reform of medical theory and practice that took place over the next 150 years” and although his book goes up to the middle of the eighteenth century, we don’t get any more information on those reforms. One of his final comments on Vesalius perpetuates another hoary old myth. He writes, “Vesalius made it permissible to question the legacy of antiquity and, in some cases, to overturn ideas that had persisted for many hundred years.” Contrary to the image created here, people had been challenging the legacy of antiquity and overturning ideas since antiquity, as Edward Grant put it so wonderfully, medieval Aristotelian philosophy was not Aristotle’s philosophy. The same applies to all branches of knowledge inherited form antiquity.

Having dealt with Vesalius, Waddell moves on to the philosophy of microcosm-macrocosm and astro-medicine or as it was called iatromathematics, that is the application of astrology to medicine. His basic introduction to the microcosm-macrocosm theory is quite reasonable and he then moves onto astrology. He insists on explaining that, in his opinion, astrology is not a science but a system of non-scientific rules. This is all well and good but for the people he is dealing with in the Early Modern Period astrology was a science. We then get a guide to astrology for beginners which manages right from the start to make some elementary mistakes. He writes, “You might know what your “sign” is, based on when you were born […]. These refer to the twelve (or according to some, thirteen) signs of the Western zodiac, which is the band of constellations through which the Sun appears to move over the course of a year.” The bullshit with thirteen constellations was something dreamed up by some modern astronomers, who obviously know nothing about astrology, its history or the history of their own discipline for that matter, in order to discredit astrology and astrologers. The only people they discredited were themselves. The zodiac as originally conceived by the Babylonians a couple of millennia BCE, mapped the ecliptic, the apparent annual path of the Sun around the Earth, using seventeen constellations. These were gradually pared down over the centuries until the Western zodiac became defined around the fifth century BCE as twelve equal division of the ecliptic, that is each of thirty degrees, starting at the vernal or spring equinox and preceding clockwise around the ecliptic. The most important point is that these divisions, the “signs”, are not constellations. There are, perhaps unfortunately, named after the constellations that occupied those positions on the ecliptic a couple of millennia in the past but no longer do so because of the precession of the equinoxes.

Although, Waddell gives a reasonable account of the basics of astro-medicine and also how it was integrated with humoral medicine but then fails again when describing its actual application. A couple of examples:

There were cases of surgeons refusing to operate on a specific part of the body unless the heavens were aligned with the corresponding zodiac sign, and it was not uncommon for learned physicians to cast their patient’s horoscope as part of their diagnosis.

[……]

Though the use of astrology in premodern medicine was common, it is less clear how often physicians would have turned to astrological magic in order to treat patients. Some would have regarded it with suspicion and relied instead on genitures alone to dictate their treatment, using a patient’s horoscope as a kind of diagnostic tool that provided useful information about that person’s temperament and other influences on their health. Astrological magic was a different thing altogether, requiring the practitioner to harness the unseen forces and emanations of the planets to heal their patient rather than relying solely on a standard regimen of care.

This is a book about the interrelationships between magic, religion and science during the Early Modern period, but Waddell’s lukewarm statements here, “there were cases of surgeons refusing to operate…, not uncommon for learned physicians…” fail totally to capture the extent of astro-medicine and its almost total dominance of academic medicine during the Renaissance. Beginning in the early fifteenth century European universities established the first dedicated chairs for mathematics, with the specific assignment to teach astrology to medical students.

During the main period of astrological medicine, the most commonly produced printed products were wall and pocket calendars, in fact, Gutenberg printed a wall calendar long before his more famous Bible. These calendars were astronomical, astrological, medical calendars, which contained the astronomical-astrological data that enabled physicians and barber-surgeons to know when they should or should not apply a particular treatment. These calendars were universal, and towns, cities and districts appointed official calendar makers to produce new calendars, every year. Almost no physician or barber-surgeon would consider applying a treatment at an inappropriate time, not as Waddell says, “cases of surgeons refusing to operate.” Also, no learned physicians in this time would begin an examination without casting the patient’s horoscope, to determine the cause, course and cure for the existing affliction. The use of what Waddell calls astrological magic, by which he means astrological talismans, by learned physicians was almost non-existent. This is aa completely different area of both astrology and of medicine.

Within the context of the book, it is obvious that we now turn to Paracelsus. Here Waddell repeats the myth about the name Paracelsus, “The name by which he is best known, Paracelsus, is something of a mystery, but historians believe that it was inspired by the classical Roman medical writer Celsus (c. 25 BCE–c. 50 CE). The prefix “para-“ that he added to that ancient name has multiple meanings in Latin, including “beyond,” leading some to speculate that this was a not-so-modest attempt to claim a knowledge of medicine greater than that of Celsus.” This is once again almost certainly a myth. Nowhere in his voluminous writings does Paracelsus mention Celsus and there is no evidence that he even knew of his existence. Paracelsus is almost certainly a toponym for Hohenheim meaning ‘up high’, Hohenheim being German for high home. By the way, he only initially adopted Paracelsus for his alchemical writings. The rest of his account of Paracelsus is OK but fails to really come to grips with Paracelsus’ alchemy.

To close out his section on medicine, Waddell now brings a long digression on the history of the believe in weapon salve, a substance that supposedly cured wounds when smeared on the weapon that caused them, an interesting example of the intersection between magic and medicine. However, he misses the wonderful case of a crossover into science when Kenhelm Digby suggested that weapon salve could be used to determine longitude.

 

The next section A New Cosmos: Copernicus, Galileo, and the Motion of the Earth, takes us into, from my point of view, a true disaster area:

In this chapter, we explore how the European understanding of the cosmos changed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was on the single greatest intellectual disruptions in European history, and in some ways we are still feeling its effects now, more than 450 years later. The claim that our universe was fundamentally different from what people had known for thousands of years led to a serious conflict between different sources of knowledge and forms of authority, and forced premodern Europe to grapple with a crucial question: Who has the right to define the nature of reality?

This particular conflict is often framed by historians and other commentators as a battle between science and religion in which the brave and progressive pioneers of the heliocentric cosmos were attacked unjustly by a tyrannical and old-fashioned Church. This is an exaggeration, but not by much. [my emphasis]

Waddell starts with a standard account of Aristotelian philosophy and cosmology, in which he like most other people exaggerates the continuity of Aristotle’s influence. This is followed by the usual astronomers only saved the phenomena story and an introduction to Ptolemy. Again, the continuity of his model is, as usual, exaggerated. Waddell briefly introduces the Aristotelian theory of the crystalline spheres and claims that it contradicted Ptolemy’s epicycle and deferent model, which is simply not true as Ptolemy combined them in his Planetary Hypothesis. The contradiction between the two models is between Aristotle’s astronomical mathematical homocentric spheres used to explain the moments of the planets (which Waddell doesn’t mention), which were imbedded in the crystalline spheres, and the epicycle-deferent model. Waddell then hypothesises a conflict between the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic system, which simply didn’t exist for the majority, people accepting a melange of Aristotle’s cosmology and Ptolemy’s astronomy. There were however over the centuries local revivals of Aristotle’s homocentric theory.

Now Copernicus enters stage right:

Copernicus had strong ties to the Catholic Church; he was a canon, which meant he was responsible for maintaining a cathedral (the seat of a bishop or archbishop), and some historians believe he was ordained as a priest as well.

If a student writes “some historians” in a paper they normally get their head torn off by their teachers. Which historians? Name them! In fact, I think Waddell would have a difficult time naming his “some historians”, as all the historians of astronomy that I know of, who have studied the question, say quite categorically that there is no evidence that Copernicus was ever ordained. Waddell delivers up next:

Most probably it [De revolutionibus] was completed by the mid-1530s, but Copernicus was reluctant to publish it right away because his work called into question some of the most fundamental assumptions about the universe held at the time.

It is now generally accepted that Copernicus didn’t published because he couldn’t provide any proofs for his heliocentric hypothesis. Waddell:

He did decide to circulate his ideas quietly among astronomers, however, and after seeing his calculations were not rejected outright Copernicus finally had his work printed in Nuremberg shortly before his death.

Here Waddell is obviously confusing Copernicus’ Commentariolus, circulated around 1510 and  Rheticus’ Narratio prima, published in two editions in Danzig and Basel, which I wouldn’t describe as circulated quietly. Also, neither book contained  calculations. Waddell now tries to push the gospel that nobody really read the cosmological part of De revolutionibus and were only interested in the mathematics. Whilst it is true that more astronomers were interested in the mathematical model, there was a complex and intensive discussion of the cosmology throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. Waddell also wants his reader to believe that Copernicus didn’t regard his model as a real model of the cosmos, sorry this is simply false. Copernicus very definitely believed his model was a real model.

 Moving on to Tycho Brahe and the geo-heliocentric system Waddell tells us that, “[Tycho] could not embrace a cosmology that so obviously conflicted with the Bible. It is not surprising, then, that the Tychonic system was adopted in the years following Brahe’s death in 1601”

At no point does Waddell acknowledge the historical fact that also the majority of astronomers in the early decades of the seventeenth century accepted a Tychonic system because it was the one that best fit the known empirical facts. This doesn’t fit his hagiographical account of Galileo vs the Church, which is still to come.

Next up Waddell presents Kepler and his Mysterium Cosmographicum and seems to think that Kepler’s importance lies in the fact that he was ac deeply religious and pious person embraced a heliocentric cosmos. We then get an absolute humdinger of a statement:

There is more that could be said about Kepler, including the fact that he improved upon the work of Copernicus by proposing three laws of planetary motion that are still taught in schools today. For the purpose of this chapter, however, Kepler is significant as someone who embraced heliocentricity and [emphasis in the original] faith.

With this statement Waddell disqualifies himself on the subject of the seventeenth century transition from a geocentric cosmos to a heliocentric one. Kepler didn’t propose his three laws he derived them empirically from Tycho’s observational data and they represent the single most important step in that transition.

We now have another Waddell and then came moment, this time with Galileo. We get a gabled version of Galileo’s vita with many minor inaccuracies, which I won’t deal with here because there is much worse to come. After a standard story of the introduction of the telescope and of Galileo’s improved model we get the following:

[Galileo] presented his device to the Doge (the highest official in Venice) and secured a truly impressive salary for life from the Venetian state. Mere weeks later he received word from the court of the Medici in Galileo’s home in Tuscany, that they wanted a telescope of their own. The Venetian leaders, however had ordered Galileo to keep his improved telescope a secret, to be manufactured only for Venetian use, and Galileo obliged, at least temporarily.

When they bought Galileo’s telescope they thought, erroneously, that they were getting exclusive use of a spectacular new instrument. However, it soon became very clear that telescopes were not particularly difficult to make and were freely available in almost all major European towns. They were more than slightly pissed off at the good Galileo but did not renege on their deal. The Medici court did not request a telescope of their own, but Galileo in his campaign to gain favour by the Medici, presented them with one and actually travelled to Florence to demonstrate it for them. We now move on to the telescopic discoveries in which Waddell exaggerates the discovery of the Jupiter moons. We skip over the Sidereus Nuncius and Galileo’s appointment as court philosophicus and mathematicus in Florence, which Waddell retells fairly accurately. Waddell now delivers up what he sees as the great coup:

The problem was that the moons of Jupiter, while important, did not prove the existence of a heliocentric cosmos. Galileo kept searching until he found something that did: the phases of Venus.

The discovery of the phases of Venus do indeed sound the death nell for a pure geocentric system à la Ptolemy but not for a Capellan geo-heliocentric system, popular throughout the Middle Ages, where Mercury and Venus orbit the Sun, which orbits the Earth, or a full Tychonic system with all five planets orbiting the Sun, which together with the Moon orbits the Earth. Neither here nor anywhere else does Waddell handle the Tychonic system, which on scientific, empirical grounds became the most favoured system in the early decades of the seventeenth century.

We then get Castelli getting into deep water with the Grand Duchess Christina and, according to Waddell, Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. He never mentions the Letter to Castelli, of which the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina was a later extended and improved version, although it was the Letter to Castelli, which got passed on to the Inquisition and caused Galileo’s problems in 1615. Waddell tells us:

In 1616 the Inquisition declared that heliocentrism was a formal heresy.

In fact, the eleven Qualifiers appointed by the Pope to investigate the status of the heliocentric theory delivered the following verdict:

( i ) The sun is the centre of the universe (“mundi”) and absolutely immobile in local motion.

( ii ) The earth is not the centre of the universe (“mundi”); it is not immobile but turns on itself with a diurnal movement.

All unanimously censure the first proposition as “foolish, absurd in philosophy [i.e. scientifically untenable] and formally heretical on the grounds of expressly contradicting the statements of Holy Scripture in many places according to the proper meaning of the words, the common exposition and the understanding of the Holy Fathers and learned theologians”; the second proposition they unanimously censured as likewise “absurd in philosophy” and theologically “at least erroneous in faith”.

However, the Qualifiers verdict was only advisory and the Pope alone can official name something a heresy and no Pope ever did.

Waddell gives a fairly standard account of Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino in 1616 and moves fairly rapidly to the Dialogo and Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633. However, on the judgement of that trial he delivers up this gem:

Ultimately, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” which marked his crime as far more serious than typical, run-of-the-mill heresy.

One really should take time to savour this inanity. The first time I read it, I went back and read it again, because I didn’t think anybody could write anything that stupid. and that I must have somehow misread it. But no, the sentence on page 131 of the book reads exactly as I have reproduced it here. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I never knew that to be suspected of a crime was actually “far more serious” than actually being found guilty of the same crime. One of my acquaintances, an excellent medieval historian and an expert for medieval astronomy asked, “WTF is run-of-the-mill heresy?” I’m afraid I can’t answer her excellent question, as I am as perplexed by the expression, as she obviously is.

Enough of the sarcasm, the complete sentence is, of course, total bollocks from beginning to end. Being found guilty of suspicion of heresy, vehement or not, is a much milder judgement than being found guilty of heresy. If Galileo had been found guilty of heresy, there is a very good chance he would have been sentenced to death. The expression “run-of-the-mill heresy” is quite simple total balderdash and should never, ever appear in any academic work.

Waddell now draws his conclusions for this section, and they are totally skewed because he has simple ignored, or better said deliberately supressed a large and significant part of the story. In the final part of this section, “Science versus Religion?”, he argues that the Church was defending its right to traditional truth against Galileo’s scientific truth. He writes:

This was not a fight between winners and losers, or between “right” and “wrong.” Instead, this is a story about power, tradition, and authority, about who gets to decide what is true and on what grounds.

[……]

Organised religion, exemplified here by the Catholic Church, had an interest in preserving the status quo [emphasis in original] for many reasons, some of which were undeniably self-serving.

[……]

The ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy were still taught in virtually every European university well into the seventeenth century, making the Church’s allegiance to these ideas understandable. At the same time, the Church also recognised another source of authority, the Christian scriptures, which stated clearly that the Earth did not move. On both philosophical and theological grounds, then, the Church’s position on the immobility of the Earth was reasonable by the standards of the time.  

The above quotes have more relationship to a fairy tale than to the actual historical situation. Due to the astronomical discoveries made since about 1570, by1630 the Catholic Church had abandoned most of the Aristotelian cosmology and never adopted  Aristotelian astronomy. They fully accepted that the phases of Venus, almost certainly observed by the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano before Galileo did, refuted the Ptolemaic geocentric astronomy. Instead by 1620 the Church had officially adopted the Tychonic geo-heliocentric astronomy, not, as Waddell claims, on religious grounds but because it best fit the known empirical facts. Despite efforts since 1543, when Copernicus published De revolutionibus, nobody, not even Galileo, who had tried really hard, had succeeded in finding any empirical evidence to show that the Earth moves. Waddell’s attempt to portrait the Church as at best non-scientific or even anti.scientific completely ignores the fact that Jesuit and Jesuit educated mathematicians and astronomer were amongst the best throughout the seventeenth century. They made significant contributions to the development of modern astronomy before the invention of the telescope, during Galileo’s active period, in fact it was the Jesuits who provided the necessary scientific confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries, and all the way up to Newton’s Principia. Their record can hardly be described as anti-scientific.

The Church’s real position is best summed up by Roberto Bellarmino in his 1615 letter to Foscarini, which is also addressed to Galileo:

Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. 

Put simple prove your theory and we the Church will then reinterpret the Bible as necessary, which they in fact did in the eighteenth century following Bradley’s first proof that the Earth does actually move.

Waddell then goes off on a long presentist defence of Galileo’s wish to separate natural philosophy and theology, which is all well and good but has very little relevance for the actual historical situation. But as already stated, Waddell is wrong to claim that the phases of Venus prove heliocentrism. Worse than this Galileo’s Dialogo is a con. In the 1630s the two chief world systems were not Ptolemy and Copernicus, the first refuted and the second with its epicycle-deferent models, which Galileo continues to propagate, abandoned, but the Tychonic system and Kepler’s ecliptical astronomy, which Waddell like Galileo simply chose to ignore.

One last comment before I move on. Somewhere Waddell claims that Galileo was the first to claim that the Copernicus’ heliocentric model represented reality rather than simply saving the phenomena. This is historically not correct, Copernicus, Tycho and Kepler all believed that their models represented reality and by 1615, when Galileo first came into confrontation with the Church it had become the norm under astronomers that they were trying to find a real model and not saving the phenomena.

Waddell’s account of the early period of the emergence of modern astronomy sails majestically past the current historical stand of our knowledge of this phase of astronomical history and could have been written some time in the first half of the twentieth century but should not be in a textbook for students in the year 2021.

With the next section we return to some semblance of serious state-of-the-art history. Waddell presents and contrasts the mechanical philosophies of Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes and their differing strategies to include their God within those philosophies. All pretty standard stuff reasonably well presented. The section closes with a brief, maybe too brief, discourse on Joseph Glanvill’s attempts to keep awareness of the supernatural alive against the rationalism of the emerging modern science.

The penultimate section deals with the transition from the Aristotelian concept of an experience-based explanation of the world to one based on experiments and the problems involved in conforming the truth of experimental results. In my opinion he, like most people, gives far too much attention/credit to Francis Bacon but that is mainstream opinion so I can’t really fault him for doing so. I can, however, fault him for presenting Bacon’s approach as something new and original, whereas Bacon was merely collating what had been widespread scientific practice for about two centuries before he wrote his main treatises. Specialist historians have been making this public for quite some time now and textbooks, like the one Waddell has written, should reflect these advances in our historical awareness.

Waddell moves on to alchemy as another source of experimentation that influenced the move to an experiment-based science in the seventeenth century. To be honest I found his brief account of alchemy as somewhat garbled and meandering, basically in need of a good editor. He makes one error, which I found illuminating, he writes:

Aristotle in particular had taught that all metals were composed of two principles: Mercury and Sulphur

Aristotle thought that metals were composed of two exhalations, one is dry and smoky, the other wet and steamy. These first became widely labeled as Mercury and Sulphur in the ninth century writings of the Arabic alchemist Jābir ibn-Hayyān, who took it from the mid-ninth century work, the Book of the Secrets of Creation by Balīnūs. I find this illuminating because I don’t know things like this off by heart, I just knew that Mercury-Sulphur was not from Aristotle, and so have to look them up. To do so I turned to Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy. Now, according to Waddell’s bibliographical essays at the end of the book, Principe is his main source for the history of alchemy, which means he read the same paragraph as I did and decided to shorten it thus producing a fake historical statement. When writing history facts and details matter!

Having introduced alchemy we now, of course, get Isaac Newton. Waddell points out that Newton is hailed as the epitome of the modern scientist, whereas in fact he was a passionate exponent of alchemy and devoted vast amounts of time and effort to his heterodox religious studies. The only thing that I have to criticise here is that Waddell allocates Newton and his Principia to the mechanical philosophy, whereas his strongest critics pointed out that gravity is an occult force and is anything but conform with the mechanical philosophy. Waddell makes no mention of this here but strangely, as we will see does so indirectly later.

The final section of the book is a discussion of the enlightenment, which I found quite good.  Waddell points out that many assessments of the enlightenment and what supposedly took place are contradicted by the historical facts of what actually happened in the eighteenth century.

Waddell draws to a close with a five-page conclusion that rather strangely suddenly introduces new material that is not in the main text of the book, such as Leibniz’s criticism that Newton’s theory of gravity is not mechanical. It is in fact more a collection of after thoughts than a conclusion.

The book ends with a brief but quite extensive bibliographical essay for each section of the book, and it was here that I think I found the reason for the very poor quality of the A New Cosmos section, he writes at the very beginning:

Two important studies on premodern astronomy and the changes it experienced in early modern Europe are Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (Penguin Books, 1990) and Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Harvard University Press, 1992)

The Sleepwalkers was originally published in 1959 and The Copernican Revolution in 1957, both are horribly outdated and historically wildly inaccurate and should never be recommended to students in this day and age.

All together Waddell’s tome  has the makings of a good and potentially useful textbook for students on an important set of themes but it is in my opinion it is spoilt by some sloppy errors and a truly bad section on the history of astronomy in the early modern period and the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church.

[1] Mark A. Waddell, Magic, Science, and Religion in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & London, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of medicine, History of science, Renaissance Science

Microscopes & Submarines

The development of #histSTM in the early decades of the Dutch Republic, or Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, to give it its correct name, was quite extraordinary. Alongside the development of cartography and globe making, the most advanced in the whole of Europe, there were important figures such as the engineer, mathematician and physicist, Simon Stevin, the inventors of the telescope Hans Lipperhey and Jacob Metius, the mathematical father and son Rudolph and Willebrord Snel van Royan and Isaac Beeckman one of the founders of the mechanical philosophy in physics amongst others. However, one of the most strange and wonderful figures in the Netherlands during this period was, without doubt, the engineer, inventor, (al)chemist, optician and showman Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel (1571–1631).

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drebbel is one of those larger than life historical figures, where it becomes difficult to separate the legends and the myths from the known facts, but I will try to keep to the latter. He was born to Jacob Drebbel an Anabaptist in Alkmaar in the province of North Holland. He seems not to have received much formal education but in about 1587 he started attending the Academy of the printmaker, draftsman and painter Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) in Haarlem also in North Holland.

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Hendrick Goltzius – Self-Portrait, c. 1593-1594 – Google Art Project Source: Wikimedia Commons

Goltzius was regarded as the leading engraver in the Netherlands during the period and he was also an active alchemist. Drebbel became a skilled engraver under Goltzius’ instruction and also acquired an interest in alchemy. In 1595 he married Sophia Jansdochter Goltzius, Hendrick’s younger sister. They had at least six children of which four survived into adulthood. The legend says that Sophia’s prodigal life style drove Drebbel’s continual need to find better sources for earning money.

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Drebbel’s town plan of Alkmaar 1597 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drebbel initially worked as an engraver, cartographer and painter but somewhere down the line he began to work as an inventor and engineer.

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Astronomy [from the series The Seven Liberal Arts]. Engraving by Drebbel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly, for a Netherlander, he a turned to hydraulic engineering receiving a patent for a water supply system in 1598. In 1600 he built a fountain at the Noorderpoort in Middelburg and at the end of his life living in England he was involved in a plan to drain the Fens. At some point, possibly when he was living in Middelburg, he learnt the craft of lens grinding, which would play a central roll in his life.

Also in 1598 he acquired a patent for Perpetuum mobile but which he, however, had not invented. The so-called Perpetuum mobile was a sort of clock, which was in reality powered in changes by the air temperature and air pressure had actually been invented by Jakob Dircksz de Graeff (1571–1638), an influential politician and natural philosopher, who was a friend of both Constantijn Huygens and René Descartes, and Dr Pieter Jansz Hooft (1574/5–1636) a politician, physician and schoolteacher.

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Jakob Dircksz de Graeff Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Pieter Jansz Hooft (1619), Attributed to Michiel van Mierevelt Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drebbel not only patented the Perpetuum mobile but also claimed to have invented it. His increasing reputation driven by this wonder machine earned his an invitation to the court of King James VI &I in London as the guest of the crown prince Henry in 1604. When on the court in London the Queen accidentally broke the Perpetuum mobile, Drebbel was unable to repair it.

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The barometric clock of Cornelis Drebbel patented in 1598 and then known as “perpetuum mobile”. Print by Hiesserle von Choda (1557-1665) Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the court in London he was responsible for staging masques, a type of play with poetry, music, dance, and songs that was popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He designed and built the stage sets and wonderful machines to enchant the audiences. Drebbel was by no means the only scientist-engineer to be employed to stage such entertainments during the Early Modern Period but he appears to have been very good at it. It was almost certainly Drebbel, who through his contacts imported from the Netherlands the first ever telescope to be seen in England, which was presented to James at the high point of a masque in 1609. He also built a magic lantern and a camera obscura with which he also entertained the members of the court.

Drebbel’s reputation grew to the point where he received an invitation to the court of the Holly Roman Empire, Rudolf II, in Prague in October 1610. Rudolf liked to surround himself with what might be termed wonder workers. Amongst those who had served in this capacity in Prague were Tycho Brahe, John Dee, Edward Kelley, Johannes Kepler and Jost Bürgi. There are no reports of any interactions between Drebbel and either Kepler or Bürgi, who were all on the court of Rudolf at the same time. In Prague he once again functioned as a court entertainer or showman.

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AACHEN, Hans von – Portrait of Emperor Rudolf II Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rudolf was deposed by his brother Archduke Mathias in 1611and Drebbel was imprisoned for about a year. Following the death of Rudolf in 1612, Drebbel was released from prison and returned to London. Here, however, his situation was not as good as previously because Henry, his patron, had died in 1612. He kept his head above water as a lens grinder and instrument maker.

As a chemist Drebbel published his best-known written work Een kort Tractaet van de Natuere der Elemente (A short treatise of the nature of the elements) (Haarlem, 1621).

page_1

He was supposedly involved in the invention of the explosive mercury fulminate, Hg(CNO)2, but this is disputed. He also developed other explosive mixtures. He invented a chicken incubator with a mercury thermostat to keep it at a constant, stable temperature. This is one of the earliest feedback controlled devices ever created. He also developed and demonstrated a functioning air conditioning system.

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Error-controlled regulator using negative feedback, depicting Cornelius Drebbel’s thermostat-controlled incubator of circa 1600. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He didn’t himself exploit one of his most successful discoveries, one that he made purely by accident. He dropped a flask of aqua regia (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid, normally used to dissolve gold) onto a tin windowsill and discovered that stannous chloride (SnCl2) makes the colour of carmine (the red dye obtained from the cochineal insect) much brighter and more durable. Although Drebbel didn’t exploit this discovery his daughters Anna and Catherina and their husbands the brothers, Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler (a German inventor and chemist) did, setting up dye works originally in Leiden and then later in Bow in London. The colour was known as Colour Kuffler of Bow Dye and was very successful. Kuffler later continued his father-in-law’s development of self-regulating ovens that he demonstrated to the Royal Society.

In the early 1620s Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan, came to London on a diplomatic mission. He made the acquaintance of Drebbel, who demonstrated his magic lantern and his camera obscura for the Dutch diplomat. Huygens was much impressed by his landsman and for a time became his pupil learning how to grind lenses, a skill that he might have passed onto his sons.

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Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is not known, who actually invented the microscope and it’s more than likely that the principle of the microscope was discovered by several people, all around the same time, who like Galileo looked through their Galilean or Dutch telescope the wrong way round. What, however, seems to be certain is that Drebbel is the first person known to have constructed a Keplerian telescope, that is with two convex lenses rather than a concave and a convex lens. As with all of his other optical instruments, Drebbel put on microscope demonstration introducing people to the microscopic world, as always the inventor as showman.

Drebbel’s most famous invention was without doubt his submarine. This is claimed to be the first-ever navigable submarine but has become the stuff of legends, how much of story is fact is difficult to assess. His submarine consisted of a wooden frame covered in leather, and one assumes waterproofed in someway; it was powered by oar.

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Artistic representation of Drebbel’s submarine, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

It had bladders inside that were filled with water to enable the submarine to submerge; the bladders were emptied when the vessel was required to surface. In total between 1620 and 1624 Drebbel built three different vessels increasing in size. The final submarine had six oars and could carry up to sixteen passengers. Drebbel gave public demonstrations with this vessel on the river Thames. According to reports the vessel dived to a depth of four to five metres and remained submerged for three hours traveling from Westminster and Greenwich and back again. Assuming the reports to be true, there has been much speculation as to how fresh air was supplied inside the closed vessel. These speculations include a mechanical solution with some form of snorkel as well as chemical solutions with some sort of chemical apparatus to generate oxygen. It is also reported that Drebbel took King James on a dive under the Thames. Despite all of this Drebbel failed to find anybody, who would be prepared to finance a serious use of his submarine.

In the later 1620s Drebbel served the Duke of Buckingham as a military advisor but his various suggestions for weapons proved impractical and failed, the British blaming  the inventor and Drebbel blaming the English soldiers, finally ruining whatever reputation he still had. As already stated above towards the end of his life he was supposedly involved in a scheme to drain the Fens but the exact nature of his involvement remains obscure. Drebbel died in financial straights in 1633 in London, where he was scraping a living running a tavern on the banks of the Thames.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Cartography, History of Chemistry, History of Optics, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

Kepler was wot, you don’t say?

 

The Guardian is making a serious bid for the year’s worst piece of #histsci reporting or as Adam Shapiro (@tryingbiology) once put it so expressively, #histsigh! The article in question has the shock, horror, sensation headline: Groundbreaking astronomer Kepler ‘may have practised alchemy’. Ignoring the fact for the moment that he probably didn’t, given the period and the milieu in which Kepler lived and worked saying that he may have been an alchemist is about as sensational as saying he may have been a human being.

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Johannes Kepler Source: Wikimedia Commons

The period in which Kepler lived was one in which the interest in alchemy was very widespread, very strong and very open. For eleven years he was Imperial Mathematicus at the court in Prague of the German Emperor Rudolph II, which was a major centre for all of the so-called occult sciences and in particular alchemy. In Prague Kepler’s original employer Tycho Brahe had been for years a practitioner of Paracelsian alchemical medicine (a very widespread form of medicine at the time), which to be fair the article sort of says. What they say is that Tycho was an alchemist, without pointing out that his alchemy was restricted to medical alchemy.

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Tycho Brahe Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of his colleagues was the Swiss clockmaker Jost Bürgi, who had come to Prague from Hesse-Kassel,

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Jost Bürge Source: Wikimedia Commons

where the Landgrave Moritz was a major supporter of alchemy, who appointed Johannes Hartmann (1568–1631) to the first ever chair for chemistry, actually Paracelsian medicine, at the university of Marburg. The real surprise is not that Kepler was an alchemist or practiced alchemy but rather that given the time and milieu in which he lived and worked that he wasn’t and didn’t.

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Johannes Hartmann Source: Wikimedia Commons

How can I be so sure that Kepler didn’t dabble in alchemy? Simply because if he had, he would have written about it. Kepler is a delight, or a nightmare, for the historian, there is almost no figure that I know of in #histSTM, who was as communicative as Kepler. He wrote and published eighty three books and pamphlets in his lifetime covering a very wide range of topics and in all his written work he was always keen to explain in great detail to his readers just what he was doing and his thoughts on what he was doing. He wrote extensively and very openly on his mathematics, his astronomy, his astrology, his family, his private affairs, his financial problems and all of his hopes and fears. If Kepler had in anyway been engaged with alchemy, he would have written about it. If anybody should chime in now with, yes but alchemists kept they activities secret, I would point out in Kepler’s time the people practicing alchemy, particularly the Paracelsians, were anything but secretive. And it was with the Paracelsians that Kepler had the closest contact.

There are a few letters exchanged between Kepler and his Paracelsian physician friends, which show quite clearly that although Kepler displayed the natural curiosity of a scientific researcher in their alchemistic activities he did not accept the basic principles of alchemy. In his notorious exchange with Robert Fludd, he is very dismissive of Fludd’s alchemical activities. Kepler was not an alchemist.

From a historical point of view particularly bad is the contrast deliberately set up in the article between good science, astronomy and mathematics, and ‘dirty’ pseudo- science’, alchemy. This starts with the title:

Groundbreaking astronomer Kepler ‘may have practised alchemy’

Continues with the whole of the first paragraph:

The pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler may have had his eyes on the heavens, but chemical analysis of his manuscripts suggests he was “willing to get his hands dirty” and may have dabbled in alchemy.

“Kepler, who died in 1630, drew on Copernicus’s work to find laws of planetary motion that paved the way for Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity” is contrasted with “The authors speculate that Kepler could have learned the “pseudo-chemical science.” 

A ‘pioneering astronomer’ with ‘his eyes on the heavens’, serious scientific activity, but ‘dabbled in alchemy’. Whoever wrote these lines obviously knows nothing about Kepler’s astronomical writing nor about early 17thcentury alchemy.

The article through its choice of descriptive terms tries to set up a black/white dichotomy between the man who paved the way for modern astronomy, good, and the practitioners of alchemy in the early seventeenth century, bad. However if we actually look at the real history everything dissolves into shades of grey.

Kepler was not just an astronomer and mathematician but also a practicing astrologer. People might rush in here with lots of Kepler quotes condemning and ridiculing the nativity horoscope astrology of his age, all of them true. However, he famously said one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water defending the basic idea of astrology and presenting his own unique system of astrology based entirely on aspects, that is the angular position of the planets relative to each other. The author of the piece has obviously never turned the pages of either Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum or his Harmonice Mundi. As I commented on Twitter, during a discussion of this article, Kepler’s cosmological heuristic with which he generated all of his successful astronomy was, viewed from a modern rational standpoint, quite simply bat shit insane. Things are not looking good for our pioneering astronomer.

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Kepler’s Platonic solid model of the solar system, from Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596) Kepler’s explanation as to why there are only five planets and their order around the sun! Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the other side, as I have noted on several occasions, alchemy included much that we now label applied and industrial chemistry.  For example, alchemists were responsible for the production of pigments for painters and gunpowder for fireworks and cannons, and were often glassmakers. Alchemists were historically responsible for developing the laboratory equipment and methodology for chemical analysis. In the period under discussion many alchemists, including Tycho, were Paracelsian physicians, who are credited with the founding of the modern pharmacological industry. Historians of alchemy tend to refer to the alchemy of the seventeenth century as chymistry because it represents the historical transition from alchemy to chemistry. Not so much a pseudo-science as a proto-science.

Let us now consider the so-called evidence for the articles principle claim. Throughout the article it is stated that the evidence was found on Kepler’s manuscripts, plural. But when the evidence is actually discussed it turns out to be a single manuscript about the moon. On this manuscript the researchers found:

“…very significant amounts of metals associated with the practice including gold, silver, mercury and lead on the pages of Kepler’s manuscript about the moon, catalogued as “Hipparchus” after the classical astronomer.”

Is alchemy the only possible/plausible explanation for the traces of metals found on this manuscript? Could one suggest another possibility? All of these metals could have been and would have been used by a clock and instrument maker such as Jost Bürgi, who was Kepler’s close colleague and friend throughout his eleven years in Prague. Bürgi also had a strong interest in astronomy and might well have borrowed an astronomical manuscript. Of course such a solution doesn’t make for a sensational article, although all the available evidence very strongly suggests that Kepler was not an alchemist.

One final point that very much worries me is the provenance of this document. It is four hundred years old, who has owned it in the meantime? Where has it been stored? Who has had access to it? Until all of these questions can be accurately answered attributing its contamination to Kepler is just unfounded speculation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Do you believe in magic?

I’m in a bit of a quandary about this post for two different reasons. Firstly I didn’t really want to write yet another negative post at the moment and was considering various positive options when somebody drew my attention to the article that is going to be the subject of this one. However having once read through it I just couldn’t let it go. On the other hand having always been a powerful advocate of seriously investigating the so-called occult science activities of the scholars in the Early Modern period I find it slightly bizarre to now be giving the Hist-Sci Hulk treatment to an article that appears to do just that. The article in question is posted on the Vox website and is entitled, These 5 men were scientific geniuses. They also thought magic is real.

Before dealing with the ‘5 men’ there are a couple of general points of criticism that have to be levelled at this article. To begin with the whole thing is written in a supercilious tone of superiority. Despite the authors disclaimer, “We have the benefit of hindsight today, which gives us an unfair advantage over these geniuses” he creates the impression the whole time of ‘I’m just a simple Joe’ but I’m way more enlightened than these ‘geniuses’. Not a good way to approach any historical topic. The other major failure that weaves its way through the whole article is the equating of astrology, alchemy and magic, as one and the same thing. This is of course historically a serious mistake and disqualifies the entire article from the start. The grounds for justification, academic status and the levels of acceptance of the three disciplines differ from each other, as well as over time and place. Each one of them has to be dealt with separately within the given context and they cannot and should not be lumped together. This of course relates to the authors supercilious tone of superiority and is typical of the woolly thinking of all too many gnu atheists and adherents of scientism. Anything that doesn’t conform with their, often badly articulated, concept of science is dismissed as ‘magical thinking’ and as worthless. Let us now turn to the ‘5 men’.

First up we have Tuscany’s favourite son, Galileo Galilei who apparently believed “astrology changed everything”:

Today, Galileo (1564-1642) is held up as a paragon of rationality. He advocated heliocentrism — the idea that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system — fought an anti-heliocentric church at great risk, and greatly advanced astronomy throughout Europe.

He also was something like a fortune teller.

Galileo didn’t just believe in astrology: he practiced it, conducted it for wealthy clients, and taught it to medical school students. If students at the University of Padua had taken MCATs, Galileo would have included a question about whether a Leo should date a Gemini.

Galileo wasn’t alone in keeping up on his signs. His contemporary, Johannes Kepler conducted his own astrological studies, though more reluctantly (he called people who believed in astrology “fatheads”).

Ignoring the opening paragraph and cutting to the chase a Renaissance astrologer, particularly an academic one, would object intensely to being referred to as ‘a fortune teller’. In the Renaissance astrology was generally accepted as a reputable academic disciple, a science i.e. a system of knowledge, whereas most other forms of divination i.e. fortune telling were frowned on as charlatanry. Here we have historical context, blithely ignored by our author, poking its nose in. Medical astrology, or iatro-mathematics, was a mainstream academic discipline taught at all Renaissance universities in the medical faculty, usually by the professor of mathematics. So if Galileo did indeed teach iatro-mathematics he would have been merely fulfilling the terms of his contract. I say if because it is to be assumed that Galileo did indeed teach such courses, however the proof that he did so doesn’t exists. The comment about ‘whether a Leo should date a Gemini’ is just plain stupid, as iatro-mathematics has nothing to do with judicial astrology, that is the everyday horoscope astrology, a completely different branch of the discipline.

Of course Galileo, who really did accept the truth of astrology, did practice judicial astrology famously casting and interpreting his own horoscope and those of his daughters. He also cast and interpreted the horoscopes not of ‘rich clients’ but wealthy patrons; there is a substantial difference. Rich clients would imply that Galileo’s services as an astrologer were for hire like any other street vendor, this was not the case. Rich patrons sought out Galileo’s company to share in his intellectual talents. Here his abilities to cast and interpret horoscopes became instruments of credit. Galileo entertained his patrons by supplying witty and stimulating after dinner discourses or debates or by providing the required horoscope. In exchange Galileo received favours from his patrons, a case of good wine, help with the cost of publishing his books or introductions to important and influential people such as the Pope.

On the good Johannes Kepler our author walks right into one of the most persistent myths of all in the history of science based on a classic case of quote mining, the claim that he was reluctant about astrology. Kepler was much more concerned about astrology, which he definitely believed in, than Galileo and wrote several books about it. However he totally rejected conventional horoscope astrology believing that the stars signs were artificial constructs with no significance whatsoever. He developed his own system based on planetary alignments, astrological aspects, and directio (directions, which I’m not going to explain!). Not unsurprisingly he didn’t find any takers for his reformed astrology. However his vitriolic diatribes against the conventional horoscope astrology and its practitioners, when quote mined, leads many people to the mistaken belief that he was in some way anti-astrology.

Our author next reveals, oh my god, that Newton was an alchemist. This is probably the most often ‘revealed secret’ about Grantham’s most famous son. This is titled “Isaac Newton thought alchemy was the future”, as we will see Newton was actually much more interested in alchemy’s past.

John Maynard Keynes called Isaac Newton (1642-1726) “the last of the magicians” with good reason. Newton spent half his life obsessed with alchemy, the transformative magic most frequently associated with turning different metals into gold. To make things even more complicated, in 1696, Newton became Warden of the Mint, and he became master of the Mint in 1700. The Royal Mint, of course, makes the coins for the entire United Kingdom. To be clear: an alchemist was the person in charge of making all the money.

Newton wasn’t the only respected mind who had visions of diving into gold coins. Robert Boyle is considered the father of chemistry, but he dabbled in alchemy as well. In fact, he was so committed to the alchemical cause that he fought to make alchemy legal, since Henry IV had banned it (because alchemy wasn’t good for the monetary supply). Needless to say, the repeal wasn’t necessary.

The philosopher’s stone Newton chased after wasn’t only able to “cure” metals that weren’t gold. It also had medical powers that fascinated Newton and his peers. Unfortunately, today you can only find the philosopher’s stone in the British subtitle of the first Harry Potter book.

Alchemy is not magic and any medieval or renaissance alchemist would have been deeply insulted if anybody had accused him of practicing magic. Alchemy as practiced by Newton or Boyle considered itself to be a well-founded knowledge system and it was this that attracted Newton. Newton certainly never had vision of diving into gold coins and neither did Boyle. Newton’s beliefs were in fact even weirder than our author thinks. Newton was an adherent of a widespread Renaissance philosophy known as prisca sapientia.

This theory thought that humanity had been in possession of perfect knowledge of the world shortly after the creation. This knowledge had become lost over time and Newton believed that his scientific discoveries were not discoveries but rediscoveries. He also believed that alchemy was the oldest form of knowledge and that if he could discover the secrets of alchemy he could tap into that ancient source of all knowledge. Pretty bizarre, I know, but it all formed a coherent whole in Newton’s worldview. On a scientific level the Newton experts are now convinced that his belief in alchemy enabled him to develop his theory of universal gravity, which, with its action at a distance, heavily contradicted the prevailing mechanical philosophy. The Cartesian and Leibnizian mechanical philosophers criticised his theory of gravity for exactly this reason.

Our author seems to think that there is something wrong with an alchemist becoming Warden or Master of the Mint. In fact Newton’s extensive chemical knowledge, won through his alchemical experimentation over many years, enabled him to develop and to put into practice new much improved methods of assaying metals to test the purity of coins. A major win for the Royal Mint.

The closing comment about alchemy and Harry Potter is a perfect example of the author’s childish attitude, supercilious superiority. This attitude is displayed to the full in his paragraphs about Tycho Brahe, entitled “Tycho Brahe made everyone believe he was a sorcerer”.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) created his own model of the universe and, though he didn’t get things quite right, helped advance astronomy and catalogued more than 1,000 stars. He also convinced everyone he was a sorcerer.

He did so from the unique perch of his private sorcerer’s island, Hveen (today known in English as Ven). Fantastically wealthy, Brahe built multiple observatories there, had a squad of astronomical assistants, and he used tiny automata (robots) to convince the locals he had magic powers. It didn’t hurt that he partied hard, had his nose partly sliced off in a duel and got his pet moose drunk at parties.

But Tycho didn’t just hoodwink the public into believing he was magical — he believed it too. He publically lectured against anyone who believed astrology was fake, and he also believed alchemy was the future for mystical discoveries. Brahe even became so synonymous with magic that an entire calendar of magical days was made in his honor (and his name was slapped on to give it magical credibility).

This is a bizarre mixture of half true facts and fairy stories. Tycho only catalogued 700 stars but added 300 more from the Ptolemaic star catalogue to bring his own up to 1000. He did nothing at all to convince anyone that he was a sorcerer. The island of Hven was his fief, awarded to him by the Danish King as his birth right as a highborn aristocrat and to call it a sorcerer’s island is not only wrong but also childish. He only built two observatories, one in his mansion house Uraniborg and the other a sunken observatory in the grounds called Stjerneborg. The story about the automata is a myth created by Pierre Gassendi in his biography of Tycho. The nose and moose stories are actually irrelevancies to the subject under discussion along the lines of, if I show that Tycho was weird then people are more likely to believe the rest of the shit that I’m dishing up.

Once again we have a very fundamental category error. Tycho was a practicing astrologer and a Paracelsian pharmacist neither of which activities is magic. Tycho held an oration at the beginning of a guest lecture course on astronomy that he held at the University of Copenhagen defending the validity of astrology, a not unusual presentation in that age. Rheticus’ public oration on being appointed professor for mathematics in Wittenberg was on the same subject. Tycho an adherent of the Renaissance microcosmos/macrocosmos philosophy, as above so below, also believed that alchemy served the same function on earth as astrology in the heavens but both were in his opinion ‘scientific’ and not mystical. Tycho’s interest in alchemy centred on his belief in and practice of Paracelsian medicine, a leading medical theory in some circles in Europe at the time and consisted mainly of research into and production of medicines.

The Magical Calendar is an engraving not a book and the author, Adam McLean, of the modern book on this object that our author links to writes the following:

“Although his name appears at the bottom right hand corner of the plate, the Magical Calendar probably has no direct connection with Tycho Brahe […] It seems most likely that the well known name of Tycho Brahe was associated with the Magical Calendar in order to gain a degree of publicity and supposed authority for the work. Certainly there is nothing in Brahe’s accepted corpus of writings of a similar nature.” [my emphasis]

Doesn’t quite say what our author wants it to say, does it?

Our author’s next selection is a truly bad example of low fruit. He presents us with Carl Linnaeus with the title “Carl Linnaeus classified magical animals like the hydra and believed in mermaids”.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) imposed taxonomical order on animal and plant life. In his era, scientists were discovering all sorts of new species at a rapid clip (Linnaeus himself thought that pelicans might be a myth). That rapid pace of discovery led Linnaeus to believe, perhaps reasonably enough, that humans would soon find a host of mythological animals.

Linnaeus devoted a whole section of his landmark Systema Naturae to these strange beasts. It was called Animalia Paradoxa and included:

  • the hydra
  • the satyrus (a monkey-like man, similar to Pan in Greek mythology)
  • the phoenix (the bird that rose from the ashes)

Did Linnaeus believe in these animals? It’s hard to know, and some of Linnaeus’s defenders say he only included the animals to point out how absurd they were. In the 1730s, he became famous for debunking a hydra in Hamburg. However, we can reasonably claim that Linnaeus believed he’d found a troglodyte, was pretty confident he’d seen a unicorn horn, and was very excited at the chance to find a mermaid.

Whatever the motivation, Linnaeus wasn’t alone in believing in bizarre, vaguely magical animals. Gottfried Leibniz managed to help found calculus, yet he still wanted to fill a museum with weird (and imaginary) animals like the myrmecoleon (some sort of ant-lion).

The tone of this whole section is concerned with how superior our author is in comparison with the poor benighted Linnaeus; the heavy sent of mockery cannot be overlooked. He gives no consideration to the time in which Linnaeus was working and writing. He also appears to have left his own theme, as there is nothing ‘magical’ about the things he lists Linnaeus as having done.

Linnaeus lived and worked in the eighteenth century there was no Internet, no telephones, no telegraph, not even a reliable let alone universal postal system; a letter to South America, for example, would probably take months to arrive at its destination and quite possibly might not arrive at all. Linnaeus lived all of his life in Northern Europe and was dependent on the reports of others for descriptions of non-European species of plants and animals. If he got no chance to view one personally then a tiger was just as much a mythical animal as a manticore and he had no chance of proving the real existence of the one or the other. What we have here is an eighteenth century natural historian carefully classifying all the plants and animals that are known to him through multiple written sources. It’s worth noting that Linnaeus places those mythical creatures that he classifies into a separate category that he names Paradoxa the Greek pardoxon meaning contrary to accepted opinion, i.e. dodgy. Systema Naturae went through many editions and in the later ones this category was left out. Only one real animal was included in Paradoxa, the pelican, which given the fact that travellers tales described the pelican as cutting its own breast to feed its children was not an irrational decision. None of the mythical animals was included in a category with real animals. What we have here is careful rational scientific behaviour not magical thinking.

Linnaeus included humans as primates, which of course caused a controversy in the eighteenth century. He also included two other species in the genus homo, Homo troglodytes based on the accounts of Jacob Bontius and Homo lar based on other reports. He asked the Swedish East India Company to look for confirming evidence of the existence of Homo troglodytes, which they couldn’t deliver and Homo lar was later categorised as a gibbon, again a good natural historian doing his work. Belief in unicorns, some form of single horned horse, based on the existence of narwhal tusks was still very widespread in the eighteenth century, so to try and ridicule Linnaeus or this is pathetic. The same applies to mermaids.

The author’s attempt to besmirch Leibniz is really clutching at straws. What the hell is ‘managed to help invent calculus’ supposed to mean? That’s not exactly the usual way of talking about one of the greatest mathematical achievements of the seventeenth century. Curiosity cabinets and natural history collections played a central role in scientific activities throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one of the largest, that of Hans Sloane, forming the basis of the British museum after Sloane’s death. Leibniz’ Drôle de Pensée, amusing thought, was to extend the curiosity cabinet into a much larger public exhibition space with active displays and machines alongside the passive objects displaying the full spectrum of science, technology and medicine, Science Museum anyone? That his long list of potential exhibits contains one mythical animal hardly makes this something to deride.

Our author’s fifth genius is, as would be expected, Paracelsus who apparently “loved natural magic and himself”.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) did a lot when he was alive, including basically inventing toxicology and naming zinc. But when he wasn’t revolutionizing scientific methods and naming metals, he was a big fan of magical things.

Born as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, he renamed himself Paracelsus, both because it was shorter and it literally meant he was “better than Celsus,” a first century Roman medical researcher (in Paracelsus’s defense, he may have been renamed by his biggest fans). Paracelsus wrote that from an early age the “transmutation of metals” was his obsession, and he pursued it with vigor as an adult.

When he wasn’t traveling the world performing surgeries, he tried to utilize “natural magic” to help patients. He was quoted as saying “magic is a great secret wisdom,” and while his understanding of natural magic occasionally lent itself to scientific inquiry, he also believed that “the soul strongly desires sulphur.” As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult.

In his defense, that belief in magic was grounded in a commitment to inquiry: Paracelsus thought magic was just science that wasn’t understood yet. In a way, that unites all the scientists on this list, who pursued new knowledge even when it meant looking in some very unusual places.

The claim that Paracelsus basically invented toxicology, although not original to our author (who I doubt has any original thoughts), is historically highly dubious as poisons have been studied extensively since antiquity and it is rather strangely based on the legendary Paracelsus quote Dosis sola venenum facit, the dose makes the poison. Paracelsus was not born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, I refer the reader to my earlier post on the subject of his name.

The rest of the paragraphs on Paracelsus are a confused mess of unrelated claims picked at random from other peoples writings and doesn’t earn the right to be analysed so I won’t. I would ask the author why, having suddenly introduced the term, he doesn’t actually explain what natural magic is or was. Possibly the worst single sentence in the whole sorry mess that is this article is, As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult. Anybody who actually knew anything about either Paracelsus or Aristotle could not conceive of writing this sentence, even as a parody.

Returning to my initial criticism of this apology for a historical article, astrology and alchemy are not magic if dealing academically and historically with these disciplines and because he introduces it at the end ‘natural magic’ is not magic as it is generally understood either. As often the case I find it fascinating that people who quite literally don’t know what they’re talking about think that it’s OK to write an article about the history of science on a widely read popular website. If they were to write about something popular, such as football or cars, on the same level no editor in the world would allow them to publish it, so why do they treat the history of science with such disrespect?

 

 

 

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science