Category Archives: History of medicine

The black sheep of the Provence-Paris group

I continue my sketches of the seventeenth century group pf mathematicians and astronomers associated with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) in Provence and Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) in Paris with Jean-Baptiste Morin (1583–1656), who was born in Villefranche-sur-Saône in the east of France.

Jean-Baptiste Morin Source: Wikimedia Commons

He seems to have come from an affluent family and at the age of sixteen he began his studies at the University of Aix-en-Provence. Here he resided in the house of the Provencal astronomer Joseph Gaultier de la Valette (1564–1647), vicar general of Aix and Peiresc’s observing partner. For the last two years of his time in Aix, the young Pierre Gassendi, also lived in Gaultier de la Valette’s house and the two became good friends and observing partners.

In 1611, Morin moved to the University of Avignon, where he studied medicine graduating MD in 1613. For the next eight years, until 1621, he was in the service of Claude Dormy (c.1562–1626) the Bishop of Boulogne, in Paris, who paid for him to travel extensively in Germany, Hungary and Transylvania to study the metal mining industry. As well as serving Dormy as physician, he almost certainly acted as his astrologer, this was still in the period when astro-medicine or iatromathematics was the mainstream medical theory.

The tomb of Claude Dormy Source

From 1621 to 1629 he served Philip IV, King of Spain, and Duke of Luxembourg, also probably as astrologer. 

In 1630, he was indirectly asked by Marie de’ Medici, the Queen Mother, to cast a horoscope for her son, Louis XIII, who was seriously ill and whose doctor had predicted, on his own astrological reading, that he would die. Morin’s astrological analysis said that Louis would be severely ill but would survive. Luckily for Morin, his prediction proved accurate, and Marie de’ Medici used her influence to have him appointed professor for mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris, a position he held until his death in 1656.

Marie de Médici portrait by Frans Pourbus, the Younger Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Paris, Morin he took up his friendship with Gassendi from their mutual student days and even continued to make astronomical observations with him in the 1630s, at the same time becoming a member of the group around Mersenne. However, in my title I have labelled Morin the black sheep of the Provence-Paris group and if we turn to his scholarly activities, it is very clear why. Whereas Peiresc, Mersenne, Boulliau, and Gassendi were all to one degree or another supporters of the new scientific developments in the early seventeenth century, coming to reject Aristotelean philosophy and geocentric astronomy in favour of a heliocentric world view, Morin stayed staunchly conservative in his philosophy and his cosmology.

Already in 1624, Morin wrote and published a defence of Aristotle, and he remained an Aristotelian all of his life. He rejected heliocentricity and insisted that the Earth lies at the centre of the cosmos and does not move. Whereas the others in the group supported the ideas of Galileo and also tried to defend Galileo against the Catholic Church, Morin launched an open attack on Galileo and his ideas in 1630, continuing to attack him even after his trial and house arrest. In 1638, he also publicly attacked René Descartes and his philosophy, not critically like Gassendi, but across-the-board, without real justification. He famously wrote that he knew that Descartes philosophy was no good just by looking at him when they first met. This claim is typical of Morin’s character, he could, without prejudice, be best described as a belligerent malcontent. Over the years he managed to alienate himself from almost the entire Parisian scholarly community. 

It would seem legitimate to ask, if Morin was so pig-headed and completely out of step with the developments and advances in science that were going on around him, and in which his friends were actively engaged, why bother with him at all? Morin distinguished himself in two areas, one scientific the other pseudo-scientific and it is to these that we now turn.

The scientific area in which made a mark was the determination of longitude. With European seamen venturing out into the deep sea for the first time, beginning at the end of the fifteenth century, navigation took on a new importance. If you are out in the middle of one of the Earth’s oceans, then being able to determine your exact position is an important necessity. Determining one’s latitude is a comparatively easy task. You need to determine local time, the position of the Sun, during the day, or the Pole Star, during the night and then make a comparatively easy trigonometrical calculation. Longitude is a much more difficult problem that relies on some method of determining time differences between one’s given position and some other fixed position. If one is one hour time difference west of Greenwich, say, then one is fifteen degrees of longitude west of Greenwich. 

Finding a solution to this problem became an urgent task for all of the European sea going nations, including France, and several of them were offering substantial financial rewards for a usable solution. In 1634, Morin suggested a solution using the Moon as a clock. The method, called the lunar distance method or simply lunars, was not new and had already suggested by the Nürnberger mathematicus, Johannes Werner (1468–1522) in his Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ GeographiaIn Hoc Opere Haec Continentur Nova Translatio Primi Libri Geographicae Cl Ptolomaei, published in Nürnberg in 1514 and then discussed by Peter Apian (1495–1552) in his Cosmographicus liber, published in Landshut in 1524.

The lunar distance method relies on determining the position of the Moon relative to a given set of reference stars, a unique constellation for every part of the Moon’s orbit. Then using a set of tables to determine the timing of a given constellation for a given fixed point. Having determined one’s local time, it is then possible to calculate the time difference and thus the longitude. Because it is pulled hither and thither by both the Sun and the Earth the Moon’s orbit is extremely erratic and not the smooth ellipse suggested by Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. This led to the realisation that compiling the tables to the necessary accuracy was beyond the capabilities of those sixteenth century astronomers and their comparatively primitive instruments, hence the method had not been realised. Another method that was under discussion was taking time with you in the form of an accurate clock, as first proposed by Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), Morin did not think much of this idea:

“I do not know if the Devil will succeed in making a longitude timekeeper but it is folly for man to try.”

Morin was well aware of the difficulties involved and suggested a comprehensive plan to overcome them. Eager to win the offered reward money, Morin put his proposal to Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), Chief Minister and most powerful man in France. Morin suggested improved astronomical instruments fitted out with vernier scales, a recent invention, and telescopic sights, also comparatively new, along with improvements in spherical trigonometry. He also suggested the construction of a national observatory, with the specific assignment of collected more accurate lunar data. Richelieu put Morin’s proposition to an expert commission consisting of Étienne Pascal (1588–1651), the father of Blaise, Pierre Hérigone (1580–1643), a Parisian mathematics teacher, and Claude Mydorge (1585–1647), optical physicist and geometer. This commission rejected Morin’s proposal as still not practical, resulting in a five year long dispute between Morin and the commission. It would be another century before Tobias Mayer (1723–1762) made the lunar distance method viable, basically following Morin’s plan.

Although his proposal was rejected, Morin did receive 2000 livre for his suggestion from Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin (1602–1661) in 1645. Mazarin’s successor Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) set up both the Académie des sciences in 1666 and the Paris Observatory in 1667, to work on the problem. This led, eventually to Charles II setting up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, in 1675 for the same purpose.

Today, Morin is actually best known as an astrologer. The practice of astrology was still acceptable for mathematicians and astronomers during Morin’s lifetime, although it went into steep decline in the decades following his death. Although an avid astronomer, Peiresc appears to have had no interest in astrology. This is most obvious in his observation notes on the great comet of 1618. Comets were a central theme for astrologers, but Peiresc offers no astrological interpretation of the comet at all. Both Mersenne and Gassendi accepted the scientific status of astrology and make brief references to it in their published works, but neither of them appears to have practiced astrology. Boulliau also appear to have accepted astrology, as amongst his published translations of scientific texts from antiquity we can find Marcus Manilius’ Astronomicom (1655), an astrological poem written about 30 CE, and Ptolemaeus’ De judicandi jacultate (1667). Like Mersenne and Gassendi he appears not to have practiced astrology.

According to Morin’s own account, he initially thought little of astrology, but around the age of thirty he changed his mind and then spent ten years studying it in depth.

Jean-Baptiste Morin’s with chart as cast by himself

He then spent thirty years writing a total of twenty-six volumes on astrology that were published posthumously as one volume of 850 pages in Den Hague in 1661, as Astrologia Galllica (French Astrology). Like Regiomontanus, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler before him, he saw astrology as in need of reformation and himself as its anointed reformer. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first eight volumes of Astrologia Galllica hardly deal with astrology at all but lay down Morin’s philosophical and religious views on which he bases his astrology. The remaining eighteen volumes then deal with the various topics of astrology one by one. Central to his work is the concept of directio in interpreting horoscopes. This is a method of determining the times of major events in a subject’s life that are indicated in their birth horoscope. Originally, to be found in Ptolemaeus’ Tetrabiblos, it became very popular during the Renaissance. The standard text was Regiomontanus’ Tabulae Directionum, originally written in 1467, and large numbers of manuscripts can still be found in libraries and archives. It was published in print by Erhard Ratdolt in Augsburg in 1490 and went through eleven editions, the last being published in 1626. Aware of Kepler’s rejection of both the signs of the zodiac and the system of houses, Morin defends both of them.

Coming, as it did at a time when astrology was in decline as an accepted academic discipline, Morin’s Astrologia Galllica had very little impact in the seventeenth century, but surprisingly, in English translation, it enjoys a lot of popularity amongst modern astrologers.

Morin was cantankerous and belligerent, which cost him most of his contacts with the contemporary scholars in Paris and his adherence to Aristotelian philosophy and a geocentric world view put him out of step with the rest of the Provence-Paris group, but he certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of belief in his own abilities as he tells us in this autobiographical quote:

“… I am excessively inclined to consider myself superior to others on account of my intellectual endowments and scientific attainments, and it is very difficult for me to struggle against this tendency, except when the realization of my sins troubles me, and I see myself a vile man and worthy of contempt. Because of all this my name has become famous throughout the world.”


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Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of medicine, History of Navigation

Renaissance Science – XXIII

Without doubt, one of the most eccentric and certainly one of the most controversial figures of the entire Early Modern period was the iconoclastic Swiss physician Theophrastus von Hohenheim (c. 1493–1541), more popularly known as Paracelsus. Trying to write about Paracelsus is complicated by the fact that he is the source of numerous myths and legends. Even if one resorts to the old maxim of Sergeant Joe Friday in the 1950s American radio series Dragnet, “just the facts ma’am”,* you run into problems. Every fact presented by one Paracelsus researcher has been disputed by at least one other Paracelsus researcher, so I shall just give a sketch of the generally accepted facts about his life then concentrate on his medical theories and their impact in the Early Modern Period.

He was born Theophrastus von Hohenheim the son of Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, an illegitimate descendent of a Swabian aristocratic family, and his wife a bondswoman of the local Benedictine monastery in Einsiedeln in the canton of Schwyz in Switzerland, probably in 1493 or 94. Wilhelm held a Master’s degree in medicine and was physician to the mining community in Einsiedeln. Following the early death of his mother, probably around 1502, his father moved to Villach in Austria, another mining community. 

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

It is probable that Theophrastus received his early education from his father in medicine, mining, minerology, botany, and alchemy. Almost nothing in known about his further education other than that he was registered as a Artzney Doctor(Doctor of Medicine) in Strasbourg in 1525 and a year later in Basel he testified that his doctorate was from the University of Ferrara. There is, however, no other evidence to support this claim. He seems to have travelled widely throughout Europe in his youth but, once again, there are no real details of this part of his life. 

In 1525 he settled in Salzburg as a physician, but probably because of the unrest caused by the German Peasant’s War he moved to Strasbourg in 1526. In 1527, he received what should have been a major boost in his career when he was called to Basel to treat the leading humanist publisher Johann Froben (c. 1460–1527), who had been written off by his own doctors, apparently because of a gangrenous foot. During six weeks of treatment in early 1527 Theophrastus succeeded in bringing relief to the publisher and for his efforts was richly rewarded and appointed town physician of Basel. This appointment included not just the right but the obligation to hold lectures at the university. Although he probably didn’t realise it at the time, Theophrastus had reached the apex of his formal career as physician.

1493 woodcut of Basle, from the Nuremberg Chronicle Source: Wikimedia Commons

During his time in Basel, Theophrastus came into contact with many leading humanist scholars, including Erasmus, who had worked for Froben and with whom he carried out a correspondence on theological issues.

Theophrastus’ time in Basel was to put it mildly stormy. He clashed head on with the local medical establishment and began his career as medical iconoclast declaring war on the conventional university medical teachings. He held his lectures in German instead of Latin to make them accessible to everyman and rejected the authority of the standard medical texts, preferring experience and empiricism to book learning. This behaviour reached a high point when he burnt a copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, probably the most important university medical textbook, on the Basel marketplace in the St John’s Eve fire on 23 June 1527. In February 1528 his brief career as an establishment physician came to an end and Theophrastus left Basel for what would turn out to be a life as an itinerant physician until his death in 1541. 

In 1529, Theophrastus moved to the city of Nürnberg, in the early sixteenth century, one of the richest cities in Europe and a major centre for both the mathematical science including astrology and medicine. His aim was to establish himself in the thriving and lucrative market for medical books. Here he decided to enter the rumbling syphilis debate. The disease had first appeared in Europe in the late fifteenth century and in fact only obtained the name, syphilis, from Girolamo Fracastoro (c. 1477–1553) in 1530. In 1529, there were two competing “cures” for syphilis, mercury, and guaiac wood. Theophrastus took up arms for mercury and against guaiac wood. He published one short pamphlet and a longer text on the topic with success. Unfortunately, the import from guaiacum wood from Brazil was financed by the Fugger banking house and the influential Leipziger physician Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach, a Fugger client, persuaded the Nürnberger medical establishment to block a planned major work from Theophrastus on the subject. Stromer’s influence throughout the German medical establishment served to effectively end Theophrastus’ medical publishing career before it had really started.

Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach Source: Wikimedia Commons

This medical publishing block led to Theophrastus adopting the name Paracelsus, a toponym for Hohenheim, for his future publication. In late 1529, he published an astrological pamphlet under the name Theophrastus Paracelsus and a short tract on the Comet of 1531 simply under the name Paracelsus. He proved to be a fairly successful astrological author and the majority of his publication up till his death were astrological.

From now on Theophrastus, blocked by the medical establishment was forced to live from treating rich private patient. He had a brief change of fortune in 1536, when he succeeded in getting his Die große Wundarzney (Great Book of Surgery) published by Heinrich Steiner (before 1500–1548) in Augsburg. The book was a success with, to Theophrastus’ annoyance, pirate editions appearing in both Ulm and Frankfurt in the same year. It remained a much-read reference work for more than a century. Theophrastus’ live continued to go downhill until his relatively early death in 1541.

Title page from ‘Der grossen Wundartzney’ (Great Surgery Book, 1536) by the Swiss alchemist and physician Paracelsus (1493-1541). Source

By the time of his death Theophrastus could be regarded as a failure. He had manged to publish little in the way of medical literature and apart from his brief time in Basel had held no important medical positions. He had succeeded in antagonising and alienating the medical establishment and was better known for his scandals than for any contributions to medicine. If his story had ended there, he would have become a mere footnote in the history of medicine as the man, who had publicly burnt a medical textbook on St John’s Eve in Basel in 1527. However, his story experienced a remarkable posthumous renaissance, which began about twenty years after his death.

Theophrastus had written a large number of books and tracts outlining his heterodox medical philosophy, none of which were published in his lifetime. Beginning in 1560, what might be termed his fan club–Adam von Bodenstein (1528–1577), Michael Toxites (1514–1581), Gerhard Dorn (c. 1530–1584), all of them physicians and alchemists–began to publish these texts, a process that culminated in the publication of a ten-volume edition of his medicinal and philosophical treatises under the title Bucher und Schriften by Johann Huser (c. 1545–1600) in Basel from 1598 to 1591. Huser’s edition of Theophrastus’ surgical publications appeared posthumously in 1605. It is in the last third of the sixteenth century that Paracelsian medicine became a serious discipline but what was it?

Paracelsus’ medical philosophy was a complex melange of religion, astrology, alchemy, and straight forward weirdness. He was first and foremost deeply religious and fundamentally Christian. He regarded himself, above everything else, as a religious reformer and a prophet. His religious stance was at the core of his rejection of the medicine taught at the European medieval universities. Greek and Islamic medicine were both heathen and thus to be rejected. Paracelsus insisted that his medicine was one hundred percent Christian. His rejection of Greek knowledge, of course, cost him any support he might have received from the humanists, who completely rejected him. 

At the centre of his philosophy was the macrocosm/microcosm, as above so below, concept that lay at the heart of the justification for astrology. This viewed the human body as a miniature model of the cosmos, the one affecting the other. Paracelsus took this one step further believing that all the minerals found in the world were found in another form within the human body.  This tied up with his concept of alchemy.

Paracelsus’ alchemy was not the alchemy of transmuting base metals into gold and silver but a medical alchemy. This was not a new thing, The Franciscan alchemist Jean de Roquetaillade, also known as John of Rupescissa (c. 1310–c. 1368) had emphasised the use of distillation to produce medicinal elixirs in his De Consideratione Quintae Essentiae (On the Consideration of the Quintessence of all Things).

Manuscript of Rupescissa c. 1350

This very popular text was reworked and integrated into the Pseudo-Lullian Liber de secretis naturae (Book of the Secrets of Nature). Paracelsus knew both works well. Believing like cures like, Paracelsus developed alchemical mineral cures that would act upon the minerals he believed to be in the body. He also believed that the organs of the body were organic alchemical apparatuses, there being an alchemical furnace at the centre of the body. Philosophically, borrowing from the Aristotelian belief that all metals originated from two principles present in different quantities, which Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān named Mercury and Sulphur, in the eighth century. He believed that all matter consisted of three principles, his tria prima, Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt. A tripartite concept mirroring the Holy Trinity. I’m not going to go any deeper into this aspect of his alchemy or how it related to the traditional four element matter theory, but I will point out that it eventually led to the phlogiston theory in the seventeenth century. 

It was Paracelsus’ medical alchemy that his followers took up during the posthumous renaissance of his work, rechristening it chymiatria or iatrochemistry. This renaissance mostly took place not in the universities, the university professors of medicine rejecting the book burning iconoclast, but on the courts of various European rulers. First and foremost, Ernst of Bayern (1554­–1611), archbishop of Cologne, who was Johan Huser’s patron. Earlier the elector Palatine Ottheinrich (1502–1559) had been an enthusiastic supporter of Paracelsus. Later the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), Wolfgang II von Hohenlohe (1546–1610), and Moritz von Hessen-Kassel (1572–1632) were all important patrons of Paracelsian alchemy. The University of Marburg boasts that they have the world’s first professorship for chemistry, but, in fact, the chair founded by Moritz von Hessen-Kassel, with the appointment of Johannes Hartmann (1561–1638) in 1609, was for Paracelsian iatrochemistry. 

Johannes Hartmann Source: Wikimedia Commons

The chair in Marburg was followed in the seventeenth century by several other new chairs all of them being chymiatria, and closely connected with the medical departments, rather than what is now known as chemistry. However, this adoption of Paracelsian chymiatria marks two different developments. Firstly, it is the beginning of pharmacology, of which Paracelsus is often called the founder. In Germany many pharmacies are still named after him. Secondly, it is an important development in the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry, a process that took place throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with chemists, in the modern sense, in the eighteenth century strongly denying that their discipline ever had anything to do with alchemy. 

There were notable cases of scholars in the seventeenth century adopting and contributing to these developments in chymiatria, whilst stridently distancing themselves from Paracelsus and his “magic”. One notable example is Andreas Libavius (c.1550–1616), whose Alchymia (1597 is often cited as the first chemistry textbook.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his rejection of Paracelsus, he refers back to Pseudo-Lull and other medieval sources, claiming that Paracelsus was merely derivative. Another chemically inclined rejector of Paracelsus was Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644). The heated debates between the Paracelsians, the convention physicians who rejected his alchemical medicine and those who accepted it, but vehemently rejected the man actually helped to spread his ideas. 

L0003194 Portrait of J.B. van Helmont, Aufgang…1683 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Portrait of J.B. van Helmont. Engraving Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst… Jean Baptiste van Helmont Published: 1683 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

One highly influential Paracelsian, who should get a brief mention, is the Dane Peder Sørensen (1542–1602), better known as Petrus Severinus, who became chancellor of Denmark. In 1571 he published his Idea medicinae philosophicae (Ideal of Philosophical Medicine) (1571), which asserted the superiority of the ideas of Paracelsus to those of Galen and was highly influential, above all because it was written in Latin, the language of the learned rather than Paracelsus’ preferred German.


The German physician Daniel Sennert (1572–1637) author of De chymicorum cum Aristotelicis et Galenicis consensu ac dissensu (On the Agreements and Disagreements of the Chymists with the Aristotelians and Galenists) (1619), who became professor of medicine in Wittenberg, was highly influenced by Severinus, although he was one of those, who rejected Paracelsus the man. It was Sennert, who was most important in introducing the concept of atomism taken from the medieval alchemist Paul of Taranto (13th century) into the seventeenth century scientific debate exercising a major influence on Robert Boyle (1527–1691).

Source:Wikimedia Commons

Another important scholar influenced by Severinus was the Frenchman Guy de La Brosse (1586–1641) physician to King Louis XII and director of the first botanical garden in Paris Le Jardin du Roi founded in 1635. His support of Paracelsian medicine was particularly significant as the medical faculty of the university in Paris was vehemently anti-Paracelsus.

Le Jardin du Roi Paris

Perhaps Severinus’ most interesting follower was the astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546–1601). It was Severinus, as Denmark’s most powerful politician, who persuaded the king to set up Tycho’s astronomical observatory on Hven, where Tycho also built a laboratory to produce Paracelsian medicines. 

To close a brief look at Paracelsus the physician beyond his chymiatria. Shut out by the medical establishment from the universities and the lucrative medical book market, Paracelsus must have been a successful physician, as he survived over the years on his reputation for healing wealthy private patients. In his polemics on the study of medicine, Paracelsus rejected book learning in favour of empirical observation and experience. He very much favoured hands on artisanal knowledge over, what he considered, the intellectual posturing of the university physicians. All of this places him very much in line with the general trends in Renaissance science, although he was certainly more radical than most of his contemporaries. His insistence on empirical observation is most notable in two areas where he made fairly novel contributions.

Paracelsus is credited with making one of the first studies of occupational diseases. His work in this direction is based on his observations of the typical diseases of the miners working in the areas where his father was employed and where he also worked from time to time. The second area where Paracelsus distinguished himself is in his analysis of mental illness. Although his writings on the subject are to a certain extent confused and complex, he does present some remarkable insights. He clearly distinguishes between genetic mental deficiency and mental illness. He diagnosed what we would now call manic-depression and was probably the first physician to recognise the existence of psychosomatic illnesses. Lastly, his suggested treatments for the mentally ill were positively humane compared to most of his contemporaries. All of this was very much based on clear-eyed empirical observation.

Theophrastus von Hohenheim is a very complex historical figure and it is almost impossible to do him justice in a brief blog post, but, however one views him, there is no denying that he had a major influence during the Renaissance both in the promotion of iatrochemistry and the turn away from book learning towards empirical investigation, perhaps the principle distinguishing feature of Renaissance science.

*Like many an oft quoted catch phrase, Sergeant Joe Friday never actually said “just the facts ma’am”. It only turns up in Stan Freburg’s brilliant Dragnet parody “St. George and the Dragonet” (1953), which is where I know it from, never actually having heard the original Dragnet.

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Filed under History of Chemistry, History of medicine, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – XIX

The publication of Vesalius’ De fabrica certainly marks a major change in the study and teaching of anatomy at the medieval university, but, as I hope is clear, that change did not come out of thin air but was the result of a couple of centuries of gradual developments in the discipline. It also didn’t trigger an instant revolution in the discipline throughout the university system but spread slowly, as is almost always the case with major innovations in a branch of knowledge. In the case of Vesalius’ anatomy, it was not just the normal inertia inherent in theory change, but also a long-prolonged opposition by neo-Galenists. 

The beginnings of the acceptance of Vesalius anatomy took place, naturally, in his own university of Padua and other North Italian universities resulting in a dynasty of excellent professors at those universities, leading to a major influx of eager students from all over Europe. 

Following Vesalius, the first of the significant Paduan anatomists was Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562). Born in Modena, the son of an impoverished noble family. Lacking money, he joined the clergy, was appointed a canon of Modena Cathedral, and received an education in medicine at the University of Ferrara, graduating in 1548. In the same year he was appointed professor for anatomy at the university. In 1549 he was appointed professor for anatomy at the University of Pisa and in 1551 he received the same position at the University of Padua. Although, most well know today for his study of the reproductive organs leading to the naming of the Fallopian tubes after him, he made major contributions to our knowledge of bones and muscles. His major area of research was, however, the anatomy of the head where he systematically expanded our knowledge.

Portrait of Gabriele Falloppio artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier that Falloppio was Matteo Realdo Colombo (c. 1515 – 1559), who was a colleague of Vesalius at Padua. The son of apothecary born in Cremona he initially apprenticed to his father but then became apprentice to the surgeon Giovanni Antonio Lonigo for seven years. In 1538 he enrolled as a medical student at Padua, where he quickly acquired a reputation for the study of anatomy. He became friends with Vesalius and was appointed to teach his courses while Vesalius was in Basel overseeing the publication of De fabrica. Vesalius attributes many of the discoveries in De fabrica to Colombo. Their relationship declined, when Colombo pointed out errors in Vesalius’ work, leading to them becoming rivals. 

Matteo Realdo Colombo artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Colombo left Padua in 1544 and went to the University of Pisa and from 1548 he worked at the papal university teaching anatomy until his death in 1459. Colombo was also involved in priority disputes with Falloppio. His only published text, De re anotomica issued posthumously in 1559 contains many discoveries also claimed by Falloppio, most notably the discovery of the clitoris and its sexual function.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Colombo made many contributions to the study of anatomy, perhaps his most important discovery was the rediscovery of the so-called pulmonary circulation, previously discovered by Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288) and Michael Servetus (c. 1511–1553).

Bartolomeo Eustachi (c. 1510–1574), a contemporary of Vesalius, who belonged to the competition, was a dedicated supporter of Galen working at the Sapienza University of Rome. 

Bartolomeo Eustachi artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

 However, he made many important anatomical discoveries. He collated his work in his Tabulae anatomicae in 1552, but unfortunately this work was first published in 1714. 

Bartolomaeus Eustachius, Tabulae Anatomicae. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Julius Caesar Aranzi (1529/30–1589) was born in Bologna and studied surgery under his uncle Bartolomeo Maggi (1477–1552), who lectured on surgery at the University of Bologna.

Portrait of Julius Caesar Arantius (Giulio Cesare Aranzi, 1530–1589). From the Collection Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, Bologna, Italy. Source.

He studied medicine at Padua, where he made his first anatomical discovery at the age of nineteen in 1548. He finished his studies at the University of Bologna graduating in 1556. At the age of twenty-seven he was appointed lecturer for surgery at the university. Like the others he made numerous small contributions to our understanding of human anatomy, of particular importance was his study of foetuses. However, his major contribution was in the status of anatomy as a discipline. As professor for anatomy and surgery in Bologna starting in 1556, he established anatomy as a major discipline in its own right. 

A very central figure in the elevation of anatomy as a discipline at the medieval university was Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente (1533–1619). Fabrici studied medicine in Padua under Falloppio graduating in 1559. He went into private practice in Padua and was very successful, numbering many rich and powerful figures amongst his patients. From 1562 till 1565 he also lectured at the university on anatomy. In 1565 he succeeded Falloppi as professor for anatomy and surgery at the university, a post he retained until 1613. As an anatomist he is considered one of the founders of modern embryology and as also renowned for discovering the valves that prevent blood following backwards in the veins, an important step towards the correct description of blood circulation.

Girolamo Fabrizi d’Acquapendente artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Girolamo Fabrici is also renowned for several of the students, who studied under him in Padua. Giulio Cesare Casseri (1552 – 8 March 1616) not only studied under Fabrici but was also employed as his servant.

Giulio Cesare Casseri artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two of them later had a major falling out, but Casseri still succeeded Fabrici as professor in Padua. His biggest contribution was his Tabulae anatomicae, containing 97 copperplate engravings, published posthumously in in Venice 1627, which became one of the most important anatomical texts in the seventeenth century. 

Casseri was succeeded as professor in Padua by another of Fabrici’s students the Netherlander, Adriaan van den Spiegel (1578–1625).

Adriaan van den Spiegel artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Van den Spiegel was born in Brussels but studied initially in Leuven and Leiden, in 1601 he transferred to Padua, where he graduated in 1604. His main text, his De humani corporis fabrica libri decem, which he saw as an updated version of Vesalius’ book of the same title, was also published in Venice in 1627.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

For English readers Girolamo Fabrici’s most well-known student was William Harvey (1578–1657). Born the eldest of nine children to the jurist Thomas Harvey and his wife Joan Halke.

William Harvey, after a painting by Cornelius Jansen Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was educated at King’s School Canterbury and matriculated at Gonville & Caius College Cambridge in 1593. He graduated BA in 1597 and then set off on travels through mainland Europe. He travelled through France and Germany and matriculated as a medical student at Padua in 1599. During his time in Padua, he developed a close relationship with Fabrici graduating in 1602. Upon graduation he returned to England and having obtained a medical degree from Cambridge University, he became a fellow of Gonville & Caius. The start of a very successful career. His major contribution was, of course, his Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings), the first correct account of the blood circulation and the function of the heart published in Frankfurt in 1628.


He also published an important work on the development of chicken embryos in the egg, Exercitationes de generatione animalium (On Animal Generation) published in 1651.

L0010265 W. Harvey, Exercitationes de generatione animalium Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It could be argued that Girolamo Fabrici’s most important contribution to the history of anatomy was the erection of the university’s anatomical theatre. We saw in the last episode that the universities had been erecting temporary wooden dissecting spaces in winter for a couple of centuries, as described by Alessandro Benedetti (1450?–1512) in his Anatomicesivede historia corporis humani libri quique (AnatomyorFive Books on the History of the Human Body) in 1502:

A temporary theatre should be built at a large and well-ventilated place, with seats arranged in a circle, as in the Colosseum in Rome and the Area in Verona, sufficiently large to accommodate a great number of spectators in such a manner that the teacher would not be inconvenienced by the crowd… The corpse has to be put on a table in the centre of the theatre in an elevated and clear place easily accessible to the dissector. 

During the second half of the sixteenth century several institutions began to assign a permanent room for such spaces, the University of Montpellier in 1556, the Company of Barber Surgeons in London in 1557 and so on. Girolamo Fabrici raised the stakes by having the first ever purpose-built anatomical theatre designed and built in Padua in 1594. The project was the work of the Venetian polymath Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623) and the artist-architect Dario Varotari (c. 1539–1596). A closed elliptical shape with tiers of standing spaces for the observers rising steeply up the sides, giving a clear view of the dissecting table in the centre. 

Anatomical Theatre Padua design Source: Wikimedia Commons
Anatomical Theatre Padua as it is today Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Northern Italy the first to follow suit was the University of Bologna, which one year later opened its Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio now situated in the Archiginnasio Palace the main building of the university.

A general view of the Anatomical theatre reconstructed after WWI when it was destroyed by bombing. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Originally situated elsewhere, it was rebuilt in its current setting between 1636 and 1638. The Bolognese rejected the Paduan Ellipse for a rectangular room claiming it to be superior.

Of greatest interest however was the Theatrum Anatomicum built far away from Northern Italy in 1596 in the still young university of Leiden. The University of Leiden was established in 1575, in the early phases of the Eighty Years’ War, as the first university of the newly founded United Provinces.

The Academy building of Leiden University in 1614. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leuven, the original alma mater of Vesalius, was located in the remaining Spanish Netherlands. Home to both Rudolph Snel (1546–1613) and his son Willebrord (1580–1626) as well as Simon Stevin (1548–1629), who founded its school of engineering, the university was strong on the sciences for its early days. However, it was its school of medicine that would become most influential in the seventeenth century, and this school of medicine had deep connections to Padua and Girolamo Fabrici. 

The connections start with Johannes Heurnius (Jan van Heurne) (1543–1601), born in Utrecht, he initially studied in Leuven and Paris before going to Padua to study under Fabrici, where he graduated MD in 1566. Returning to the Netherlands he became a town physician in Utrecht before being appointed professor of medicine at the new University of Leiden in 1581. He introduced anatomy in the tradition of Vesalius into the still young Dutch university, as well as the Paduan emphasis on anatomical demonstrations and practical clinical work. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The anatomical theatre was introduced by Pieter Pauw (1564–1617), born in Amsterdam the son of the politician Pieter Pauw and his wife Geertruide Spiegel, he studied medicine at the University of Leiden, under Johannes Heurnius and Gerard Bontius (c. 1537–1599), another Padua graduate, graduating in 1584.

Pieter Pauw Source: Wikimedia Commons

He continued his studies in Rostock graduating MD in 1587. From here, he moved to Padua to study under Fabrici. Forced by his father’s illness he returned to Leiden in 1589, he was appointed assistant to Bontius, taking over responsibility for the medical botany. In 1592 he was appointed professor for anatomy and in 1596 he erected the permanent anatomical theatre in the same year. 

Leiden anatomical theatre in 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Otto Heurnius (otto van Heurne) (1577–1652) was the son of Johannes Heurnius and studied medicine under his father and Pieter Pauw in Leiden. He graduated MD in 1601 and was appointed assistant to his father, whom he succeeded a year later as professor, not without criticism. In 1617 he then succeeded Pieter Pauw as professor for anatomy.

Otto Heurnius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Otto’s most famous student was Franciscus Sylvius (Franz de le Boë) (1614–1672). Born into an affluent family in Hanau he studied medicine at the Protestant Academy of Sedan then from 1632 to 1634 in Leiden, where he studied under Otto Heurius and Adolphus Vorstius (Adolphe Vorst) (1597–1663), who had also studied at Padua under Adriaan van den Spiegel, graduating MD in 1622. Vorstius was appointed an assistant in Leiden in 1624 and full professor in 1625. Sylvius continued his studies in Jena and Wittenberg, graduating MD in Basel in 1637. He initial practice medicine in Hanau but returned to Leiden to lecture in 1639. From 1641 he had a successful private practice in Amsterdam. In 1658 he was appointed professor for medicine at Leiden, with twice the normal salary. 

Franciscus Sylvius and his wife by Frans van Mieris, Sr. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under Sylvius it became obvious, what had been true for some time, that Leiden had, in the place of Padua, become the leading European medical school, particularly in terms of anatomy. By the middle of the seventeenth century the change that Vesalius had introduced into the study and teaching of anatomy at the medieval university had been completed. Previously a minor aspect of the medical education, anatomy had now become a prominent and central discipline in that course of studies. Sylvius produced a stream of first-class graduates, who would go on to dominate the life sciences in the next decades that included Reinier de Graaf (1641–1673), who made important contributions to the understanding of reproduction,

Reinier de Graaf Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680), an early microscopist, who made important studies of insects, 

Jan Swammerdam Reproductive organs of the bee drawn with a microscope Credit: Wellcome Library, London. There is no known portrait of Swammerdam

Nicolas Steno (1638–1686), who made important contribution to anatomy and geology,

Portrait of Nicolas Steno (1666–1677). Unsigned but attributed to court painter Justus Sustermans. (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy) Source: Wikimedia Commons

and  Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731), an anatomist best know for his techniques for conserving anatomical specimens. 

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederick Ruysch by Jan van Neck (1683). Amsterdam Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sylvius was also one of those, who introduced chemistry into the study of medicine, which we will look at in the next episode.

For a detailed study of the work on reproduction of Harvey and many of the Leiden anatomist, I recommend Matthew Cobb’s The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, The Free Press, London, 2006


Filed under Book History, History of medicine, History of science, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – XVIII

One area of knowledge that changed substantially during the Renaissance was the study of medicine and the branch of medicine that probably changed the most was anatomy. This change has produced two notable myths that need to be quickly dealt with before we tackle the real history. 

The myths concern Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), the two most well-known anatomical practitioners of the period. According to the first myth that applies to both of them, although most often associated with Leonardo, is that they had to carry out their anatomical studies of the human body secretly, because dissection was forbidden by the Church. The second applies to Vesalius and is the oft repeated claim, in one form or another, that he singlehandedly launched a revolution in the study of anatomy out of the blue. I will deal with the Leonardo did it all in secret myth first and the Vesalius myth in due course.

To start with there was no Church ban on dissections. Like most apprentice artists in the Renaissance, Leonardo began his study of human anatomy during his apprenticeship. His master, Andrea del Verrochio (1435–1488), insisted that his apprentices gain a thorough grounding in anatomy.

Half-length portrait of Andrea del Verrocchio, Italian painter and sculptor, engraved on a copperplate by Nicolas de Larmessin and printed in a book “Académie des Sciences et des Arts” written by Isaac Bullart and published in Amsterdam by Elzevier in 1682.

Leonardo would probably have attended the public dissections carried out in winter at the local university. Leonardo being Leonardo took a greater interest in the topic than that required by an artist, and he was granted permission to carry out dissections in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence.

Old facade of the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florencebefore the completion of the porch (painting by Fabio Borbottoni, 1820-1902)

Later he carried out dissections in hospitals in Milan and Rome. From 1510 to 1511, he collaborated with Marcantonio della Torre (1481–1511) lecturer on anatomy at the universities of Pavia and Padua.

Marcantonio della Torre Source:

There is evidence that they intended to publish a book together, but the endeavour was torpedoed by della Torre’s death in 1511. Leonardo never published his extensive collection of anatomical drawings, and although there is some evidence that they were viewed by other Renaissance artists, they only became generally known in the nineteenth century and had no real influence on the development of medicine.

Leonardo Anatomical study of the arm (c. 1510) Source: Wikimedia Commons

I said above that Leonardo might well have attended public dissections at the local university, this was a well-established practice by the time Leonardo was learning anatomy. The most prominent anatomist in antiquity was Galen of Pergamon (129–c. 216 CE), whose work, however, suffered from the problem that it was largely based on the dissection of animals rather than humans.  His medical text had arrived in medieval Europe via the Arabic world in the twelfth century, but his major anatomy texts were somehow not translated at this time. In the early period of the medieval university anatomy was taught from authoritative texts rather than from dissection. This changed in the fourteenth century with the work of Mondino de Luzzi (c. 1270­–1326), professor in Bologna, who carried out the first public dissection on a human corpse in 1315. He was possibly inspired by animal dissections carried out in Salerno in the previous century. He published the results of his anatomical work, Anthomia corporis humani in 1316. This became a standard textbook. 

Titelpage ofAnathomia Mundini Emèdata p doctoré melerstat (“Anatomy of Mundinus. Published byDoktor Mellrichstadt”, 1493. Source: Erlangen University Library via Wikimedia Commons

It soon became obligatory for all medical students to attend at least one or sometimes two public dissections during their studies. These dissections were always conducted in winter, to keep the corpse fresher longer, usually in a specially constructed, temporary wooden building in the grounds of the university. By 1400 regular anatomical dissections were an established part of the curriculum in most medical schools. The corpse was dissected on a table in the middle of the room, usually by a barber-surgeon, surrounded by the students and other observers, whilst the professor on a raised lecture platform read the prescribed text (see image above), usually Mondino, sometimes supplemented by Galen’s De Juvamentis. This although Niccoò da Reggio (1280-?) had produced the first full Latin translation of Galen’s anatomical text On the Use of the Parts in 1322. The first printed edition of Anthomia corporis humani appeared in 1476 and more than 40 editions had appeared altogether by the end of the sixteenth century. A tradition of published commentaries on Modino also became established by the professors who lectured on anatomy. 

In the early years of the sixteenth century the Humanist Renaissance made its appearance in the study of anatomy with new translations of Galen directly from the Greek and a growing disdain for the earlier translations from Arabic. In 1528 a series of four handy texts in pocket size was published for students including Galen’s On the Use of Parts, in the da Reggio translation, a new translation of On the Motion of Muscles, and the translation by Thomas Linacre (c. 1460–1524) of On the Natural Faculties from 1523. Paris had now risen to be a major centre for the study of medicine and the professor for anatomy, Johannes Winter von Andernach (1505–1574) produced the first Latin translation of Galen’s newly discovered and most important De Anatomicis Administrationibus (On Anatomical Procedures) 9 vols. Paris in 1531.

Bibliotheca chalcographica, hoc est Virtute et eruditione clarorum Virorum Imagines, Jean-Jacques Boissard (1528-1602), Teodoro de Bry (1528-1598)SOurce: Wikimedia Commons

Equally important was his own textbook, Anatomicarum institutionum, secundum Galeni sententiam (Anatomical Institutions according to the opinions of Galen) 4 vols, Paris and Basel, 1536; Venice, 1538; Padua, 1558.


Earlier than this Berengario da Capri (c. 1460–c. 1530) was the first to include anatomical illustrations into his work, a commentary on Mondino published in 1521 and his Isagogae breves in anatomiam humani corporis (A Short but very Clear and Fruitful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Body, Published by Request of his Students) a year later. From the 1520s onwards there was an increasing stream of anatomy books entering the market. 

Berengario da Capri Isagogae breves in anatomiam humani corporis 1523
Anatomical plate by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi depicting a pregnant woman with opened uterus Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should by now be clear that when Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) appeared on the scene that both anatomy and dissection were well establish areas of study in the European schools of medicine, albeit the oft highly inaccurate anatomy of Galen. Of interest here is that when dissectors discovered things in their work that contradicted the contents of Galen’s work, they tended to believe the written text rather than their own eyes.

Vesalius was born Andries van Wesel in Brussels, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, in 1514, the son of Andries van Wesel (1479–1544) and Isabel Crabbe. He was born into a well-connected medical family, his father was apothecary to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian (1459–1519) and then valet de chambre to his son Charles V (1500­–1558), His grandfather Everard van Wessel was Royal Physician to Maximillian and His great grandfather Jan van Wesel received his medical degree from the University of Parvia and was professor for medicine at the University of Leuven.

A portrait of Vesalius from his De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vesalius studied Greek and Latin with the Brethren of the Common Life a pietist religious community before entering the University of Leuven in 1528. In 1533 he transferred to the University of Paris where he came under the Galenic influence of Johannes Winter von Andernach and in fact assisted him in preparing his Anatomicarum institutionum for the press. In 1536 he was forced to leave Paris due to hostilities between France and the Holy Roman Empire. He returned to the University of Leuven to complete his studied graduating in 1537. His doctoral thesis was a commentary on the ninth book of the ten century, twenty-three volume Al-Hawi or Kitāb al-Ḥāwī fī al-ṭibb by the Persian physician Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī (854–925) known in medieval Europe as Rhazes. This was translated, in the fourteenth century as The Comprehensive Book on Medicine and was a central textbook on the medieval European universities.

During his time in Leuven his was friends with Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), who became professor of medicine at the university, but is more famous for his work as a mathematician, cartographer, astronomer, astrologer, and instrument maker. According to one story the two of them, whilst out walking one day, stole parts of a corpse from a gallows to study.

Vesalius and Gemma Frisius remove a dead man from the gallows (Artist unknown).

On the day of his graduation, he was offered the position of professor for surgery and anatomy (explicator chirurgiae) at the University of Padua. With the assistance of the artist Johan van Calcar (c. 1499–1546), a student of Titian, he produced six large posters of anatomical illustrations for his students. When he realised that they were being pirated, he published them himself as Tabulae anatomicae sex in 1538. He followed this in 1539 with an updated edition of Winter von Andernach’s Anatomicarum institutionum.

Tabulae II of Vesalius’s ” Tabulae Anatomicae Sex ” (1538). Note the 5-lobed liver, which is reminiscent of simian anatomy. The original text surrounding the figure has been removed. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London, UK.  

Vesalius’s great change was that rather than regurgitating Galen and/or Mondino he devoted himself to doing his own basic research on the dissection table. Well trained by Winter von Andernach he approached his task with an open mind and wide open eyes. The result was a new catalogue of human anatomy that corrected many of the errors and mistaken beliefs contained in the works of Galen. Mistakes produced because Galen’s work was, as Vesalius was keen to point out, carried out on animals and not humans, under the assumption that a liver is a liver, whether in a dog or a human. It is also important to note that Vesalius did not think that he had overthrown Galen, as is often claimed, but that he had corrected Galen.

Vesalius took the results of his investigations to Basel, where he assisted the printer/publisher Johannes Oporinus (1507–1568) to prepare his monumental, and, its fair to say, revolutionary work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, published in 1543.

Portrait of Johannes Oporinus by Hans Bock Source: Wikimedia Commons

He simultaneously published an abridged edition for students, his Andrea Vesalii suorum de humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (which only contained six images)

The book contains 273 highly impressive and informative illustration that are usually attributed to Johan van Calcar, but there are doubts about this attribution.

Vesalius Fabrica frontispiece Source: Wikimedia Commons

Each of the seven books is devoted to a different aspect of the body: Book 1: The Bones and Cartilages,

Book 2: The Ligaments and Muscles,

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Book 3: The Veins and Arteries,

Book 4: The Nerves, Book 5: The Organs of Nutrition and Generation,

Book 6: The Heart and Associated Organs,

Figure of the heart rolled toward the right side but also showing the recurrent laryngeal nerves. Woodcut illustration from the Fabrica (Vesalii, 1543), Liber VI, p. 564 (due to a mistake in the page numbering, this should be p. 664). Courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.  

Book 7: The Brain. 

From the 1543 book in the collection in National Institute of Medicine. Andreas Vesalius’ Fabrica, showing the Base Of The Brain, including the cerebellum, olfactory bulbs, optic nerve.

(All De Fabrica images via Wikimedia Commons

Vesalius almost singlehandedly raised the study of anatomy to new levels and the book was a financial success despite the very high printing costs. A second edition was published in 1555 and there is evidence that Vesalius was preparing a third edition, which, however, never appeared. The fame that De fabrica brought him led to him being appointed imperial physician to Charles V. When he announced his intention to leave the University of Padua, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici offered him a position at the University of Pisa, which he declined. He remained at the imperial court becoming physician to Philipp II, following Charles V’s abdication. In 1559 when Philipp moved his court to Madrid, Vesalius remained at the court in the Netherland. In 1564 he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which he never returned, dying on the journey home. There are numerous speculations as to why he undertook this pilgrimage, but the final answer is that we don’t know why.

Vesalius revolutionised the study of anatomy and was followed by many prominent successors in Padua and other North Italian universities, which we will look at in the next episode of this series. However, his own work was not without error, and he left much still to be discovered by those successors. Also, he was much attacked by the neo-Galenists, that is those whose work was based on the new translations direct from the Greek originals and who rejected the earlier ‘corrupt translations’ from Arabic. Jacobus Sylvius (1478–1555), one of his earlier teachers from Paris, even went so far as to claim that the human body had changed since Galen had studied it.  


Filed under Book History, History of medicine, History of science, Renaissance Science

Kill or Cure!

One of the defining aspects of the so-called scientific revolution was the massive increase in experimentation as a method to discover or confirm knowledge of the natural world, replacing the empirical observation or experience of Aristotelian scientia. Ignoring the trivial and fatuous, but unfortunately still widespread, claim that Galileo invented experimental science, it is an important area of the history of Early Modern science to trace and analyse how, when and where this methodological change took place. This transition, a very gradual one, actually took place in various areas of knowledge acquisition during the Renaissance and might well be regarded as one of the defining features of Renaissance science, separating it from its medieval predecessor.

One, perhaps surprising, area where this transition took place was in the testing of poisons and their antidotes, as brilliantly researched, described, analysed and reported by Alisha Rankin in her new book, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science.[1]


The starting point  for Rankin’s fascinating story is that it was apparently considered acceptable for a large part of the sixteenth century to test poisons and above all their supposed antidotes on human beings. No, you didn’t misread that last sentence, during the sixteenth century test on poisons and their antidotes were carried out by physicians, with the active support of the ruling establishment, on condemned prisoners, truly shades of Mengele and Auschwitz.

This medical practice of testing didn’t, however, begin in the Renaissance but there are precedence cases throughout history beginning in antiquity and occurring intermittently all the way up to the Renaissance. Testing poisons and their antidotes mostly on animals, although tests on criminals existed as well. Rankin’s opening chapter is a detailed sketch and analysis of poison trials that preceded the Renaissance, as well as a general history of poisons and their antidotes.

Her second chapter then deals in detail with the trial ordered by Pope Clement VII in 1524 of the antidote Oleum Clementis created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. Here a new chapter in the history of testing was opened, as this antidote was tested on two condemned prisoners under the supervision of a physician. Both prisoners were given a dose of a known strong poison and one was given a dose of the antidote. The prisoner, who received the antidote survived and the trial and its results were publicised creating a medical sensation.

Rankin explains that there was an obsession with poison and poisoning amongst the rich and powerful during the Renaissance, so the interest in methods of both detecting poisons and combating their effects was very strong amongst those in power, the most likely victims of an attempted poisoning. This also meant that there was an interest amongst physicians, apothecaries, and empirics to find or create such potions, as a route to fame and fortune.


Having set the scene, in the rest of her book Rankin takes us through the sixteenth century through periods of testing on both humans and animals, into the seventeenth and the scientific revolution. Along route she introduces us to newly invented antidotes and their inventors/discoverers but also to an incredible amount of relevant contextual information.

We learn, for example, that poison antidotes were not considered poison specific but worked against all poisons, if they worked at all. We also learn that plagues were not, like other more common ailments, to be caused by an imbalance of the four humours, as taught by Galen, but were a poisoning of the body, so that a poison antidote, should or would function as a cure for plagues as well.

Alongside the purely medical descriptions, we also get the full spectrum of the social, political, cultural, ethical, and economic contexts in which the poison trials took place. A poison trial sanctioned by a head of state and carried out by a learned physician had, naturally, a completely different status to one carried out by an empiric on the town square during a local fair.

(I’m still hunting for a possible translation into modern English of the term empiric. This is, usually, simply translated as quack, and whilst it is true that many empirics were what we would now call quacks, the spectrum of their medical activities was not just confined to conning people. Quite a lot of them did offer genuine medical services, no more and no less effective than those of the university educated physicians.)

Rankin goes into great detail on how the physicians sought to present their trials, so that they were seen to be scholarly as opposed to the snake-oil salesman trials of the empirics. Writing detailed protocols of the progress of the victim’s condition following the administration of the poison dose and the antidote, noting times and nature of vomiting, sweating, diarrhoea etc, giving their trials at least the appearance of a controlled experiment. This is contrasted with the simple public presentations of the empirics.


Also, important, and highly relevant to the historical development of science, Rankin discusses and analyses the use of the terms, ‘experience’, ‘experiment’, and ‘proof’ in the descriptions of poison trials. The transition from Aristotelian experience to empirical experiment being one of the defining characteristics of the scientific revolution.

In the final section of her book Rankin expands her remit to cover the history of the universal cures on offer during the period, both the exotic imported kind as well as the locally discovered/invented ones.

An important element of the whole story that Rankin deals with extensively is how the various vendors of antidotes and universal cures advertised and promoted their wares. Hereby, the question whether reports of successful trials or testimonials from cured patient carried the greater weight is examined. We are of course well into the age of print and there was a flourishing market for books and pamphlets praising one’s own wonder products or damning those of one’s rivals.

Rankin tells a highly comprehensive tale of a fascinating piece of Renaissance medical history. It is thoroughly researched and presented in exhaustive detail. A true academic work, it has extensive endnotes (unfortunately not footnotes), a voluminous bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, and an excellent index. It is also pleasantly illustrated with the, in the meantime ubiquitous, grey scale illustrations. However, despite the academic rigour, Rankin has a light, literary style and her prose is truly a pleasure to read.

I really enjoyed reading this book and I would say that this volume is a must read for anybody involved in the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance medicine but also more generally for those working on the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance science, or simply Early Modern and/or Renaissance history. I would also recommend it, without reservations, for any general readers, who like to read well written accounts of interesting episodes in history.

[1] Alisha Rankin, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2021


Filed under Book Reviews, History of medicine

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.


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


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

The man who printed the world of plants

Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) is justifiably famous for having produced the world’s first modern atlas, that is a bound, printed, uniform collection of maps, his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Ortelius was a wealthy businessman and paid for the publication of his Theatrum out of his own pocket, but he was not a printer and had to employ others to print it for him.


Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens , Museum Plantin-Moretus via Wikimedia Commons

A man who printed, not the first 1570 editions, but the important expanded 1579 Latin edition, with its bibliography (Catalogus Auctorum), index (Index Tabularum), the maps with text on the back, followed by a register of place names in ancient times (Nomenclator), and who also played a major role in marketing the book, was Ortelius’ friend and colleague the Antwerp publisher, printer and bookseller Christophe Plantin (c. 1520–1589).


Plantin also published Ortelius’ Synonymia geographica (1578), his critical treatment of ancient geography, later republished in expanded form as Thesaurus geographicus (1587) and expanded once again in 1596, in which Ortelius first present his theory of continental drift.


Plantin’s was the leading publishing house in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, which over a period of 34 years issued 2,450 titles. Although much of Plantin’s work was of religious nature, as indeed most European publishers of the period, he also published many important academic works.

Before we look in more detail at Plantin’s life and work, we need to look at an aspect of his relationship with Ortelius, something which played an important role in both his private and business life. Both Christophe Plantin and Abraham Ortelius were members of a relatively small religious cult or sect the Famillia Caritatis (English: Family of Love), Dutch Huis der Leifde (English: House of Love), whose members were also known as Familists.

This secret sect was similar in many aspects to the Anabaptists and was founded and led by the prosperous merchant from Münster, Hendrik Niclaes (c. 1501–c. 1580). Niclaes was charged with heresy and imprisoned at the age of twenty-seven. About 1530 he moved to Amsterdam where his was once again imprisoned, this time on a charge of complicity in the Münster Rebellion of 1534–35. Around 1539 he felt himself called to found his Famillia Caritatis and in 1540 he moved to Emden, where he lived for the next twenty years and prospered as a businessman. He travelled much throughout the Netherlands, England and other countries combining his commercial and missionary activities. He is thought to have died around 1580 in Cologne where he was living at the time.


Niclaes wrote vast numbers of pamphlets and books outlining his religious views and I will only give a very brief outline of the main points here. Familists were basically quietists like the Quakers, who reject force and the carrying of weapons. Their ideal was a quite life of study, spiritualist piety, contemplation, withdrawn from the turmoil of the world around them. The sect was apocalyptic and believed in a rapidly approaching end of the world. Hendrik Niclaes saw his mission in instructing mankind in the principal dogma of love and charity. He believed he had been sent by God and signed all his published writings H. N. a Hillige Nature (Holy Creature). The apocalyptic element of their belief meant that adherents could live the life of honest, law abiding citizens even as members of religious communities because all religions and authorities would be irrelevant come the end of times. Niclaes managed to convert a surprisingly large group of successful and wealthy merchants and seems to have appealed to an intellectual cliental as well. Apart from Ortelius and Plantin, the great Dutch philologist, humanist and philosopher Justus Lipsius (1574–1606) was a member, as was Charles de l’Escluse (1526–1609), better known as Carolus Clusius, physician and the leading botanist in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. The humanist Andreas Masius (1514–1573) an early syriacist (one who studies Syriac, an Aramaic language) was a member, as was Benito Arias Monato (1527–1598) a Spanish orientalist. Emanuel van Meteren (1535–1612) a Flemish historian and nephew of Ortelius was probably also Familist. The noted Flemish miniature painter and illustrator, Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1601), was a member as was his father a successful diamond dealer. Last but by no means least Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525– 1569) was also a Familist. As we shall see the Family of Love and its members played a significant role in Plantin’s life and work.


Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens Museum Platin-Moretus  via Wikimedia Commons Antwerp in the time of Plantin was a major centre for artists and engravers and Peter Paul Rubins was the Plantin house portrait painter.

Christophe Plantin was born in Saint-Avertin near Tours in France around 1520. He was apprenticed to Robert II Macé in Caen, Normandy from whom he learnt bookbinding and printing. In Caen he met and married Jeanne Rivière (c. 1521–1596) in around 1545.


Jeanne Rivière School of Rubens Museum Plantin-Moretus via Wikimedia Commons

They had five daughters, who survived Plantin and a son who died in infancy. Initially, they set up business in Paris but shortly before 1550 they moved to the city of Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands, then one of Europe’s most important commercial centres. Plantin became a burgher of the city and a member of the Guild of St Luke, the guild of painter, sculptors, engravers and printers. He initially set up as a bookbinder and leather worker but in 1555 he set up his printing office, which was most probably initially financed by the Family of Love. There is some disagreement amongst the historians of the Family as to how much of Niclaes output of illegal religious writings Plantin printed. But there is agreement that he probably printed Niclaes’ major work, De Spiegel der Gerechtigheid (Mirror of Justice, around 1556). If not the house printer for the Family of Love, Plantin was certainly one of their printers.

The earliest book known to have been printed by Plantin was La Institutione di una fanciulla nata nobilmente, by Giovanni Michele Bruto, with a French translation in 1555, By 1570 the publishing house had grown to become the largest in Europe, printing and publishing a wide range of books, noted for their quality and in particular the high quality of their engravings. Ironically, in 1562 his presses and goods were impounded because his workmen had printed a heretical, not Familist, pamphlet. At the time Plantin was away on a business trip in Paris and he remained there for eighteen months until his name was cleared. When he returned to Antwerp local rich, Calvinist merchants helped him to re-establish his printing office. In 1567, he moved his business into a house in Hoogstraat, which he named De Gulden Passer (The Golden Compasses). He adopted a printer’s mark, which appeared on the title page of all his future publications, a pair of compasses encircled by his moto, Labore et Constantia (By Labour and Constancy).


Christophe Plantin’s printers mark, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Engraving of Plantin with his printing mark after Goltzius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Encouraged by King Philip II of Spain, Plantin produced his most famous publication the Biblia Polyglotta (The Polyglot Bible), for which Benito Arias Monato (1527–1598) came to Antwerp from Spain, as one of the editors. With parallel texts in Latin, Greek, Syriac, Aramaic and Hebrew the production took four years (1568–1572). The French type designer Claude Garamond (c. 1510–1561) cut the punches for the different type faces required for each of the languages. The project was incredibly expensive and Plantin had to mortgage his business to cover the production costs. The Bible was not a financial success, but it brought it desired reward when Philip appointed Plantin Architypographus Regii, with the exclusive privilege to print all Roman Catholic liturgical books for Philip’s empire.



In 1576, the Spanish troops burned and plundered Antwerp and Plantin was forced to pay a large bribe to protect his business. In the same year he established a branch of his printing office in Paris, which was managed by his daughter Magdalena (1557–1599) and her husband Gilles Beys (1540–1595). In 1578, Plantin was appointed official printer to the States General of the Netherlands. 1583, Antwerp now in decline, Plantin went to Leiden to establish a new branch of his business, leaving the house of The Golden Compasses under the management of his son-in-law, Jan Moretus (1543–1610), who had married his daughter Martine (1550–16126). Plantin was house publisher to Justus Lipsius, the most important Dutch humanist after Erasmus nearly all of whose books he printed and published. Lipsius even had his own office in the printing works, where he could work and also correct the proofs of his books. In Leiden when the university was looking for a printer Lipsius recommended Plantin, who was duly appointed official university printer. In 1585, he returned to Antwerp, leaving his business in Leiden in the hands of another son-in-law, Franciscus Raphelengius (1539–1597), who had married Margaretha Plantin (1547–1594). Plantin continued to work in Antwerp until his death in 1589.


Source: Museum Plantin-Moretus

After this very long introduction to the life and work of Christophe Plantin, we want to take a look at his activities as a printer/publisher of science. As we saw in the introduction he was closely associated with Abraham Ortelius, in fact their relationship began before Ortelius wrote his Theatrum. One of Ortelius’ business activities was that he worked as a map colourer, printed maps were still coloured by hand, and Plantin was one of the printers that he worked for. In cartography Plantin also published Lodovico Guicciardini’s (1521–1589) Descrittione di Lodovico Guicciardini patritio fiorentino di tutti i Paesi Bassi altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (Description of the Low Countries) (1567),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

which included maps of the various Netherlands’ cities.


Engraved and colored map of the city of Antwerp Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plantin contributed, however, to the printing and publication of books in other branches of the sciences.

Plantin’s biggest contribution to the history of science was in botany.  A combination of the invention of printing with movable type, the development of both printing with woodcut and engraving, as well as the invention of linear perspective and the development of naturalism in art led to production spectacular plant books and herbals in the Early Modern Period. By the second half of the sixteenth century the Netherlands had become a major centre for such publications. The big three botanical authors in the Netherlands were Carolus Clusius (1526–1609), Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585) and Matthaeus Loblius (1538–1616), who were all at one time clients of Plantin.

Matthaeus Loblius was a physician and botanist, who worked extensively in both England and the Netherlands.

NPG D25673,Matthias de Lobel (Lobelius),by Francis Delaram

Matthias de Lobel (Lobelius),by Francis Delaramprint, 1615 Source: Wikimedia Commons

His Stirpium aduersaria noua… (A new notebook of plants) was originally published in London in 1571, but a much-extended edition, Plantarum seu stirpium historia…, with 1, 486 engravings in two volumes was printed and published by Plantin in 1576. In 1581 Plantin also published his Dutch herbal, Kruydtboek oft beschrÿuinghe van allerleye ghewassen….


Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is also an anonymous Stirpium seu Plantarum Icones (images of plants) published by Plantin in 1581, with a second edition in 1591, that has been attributed to Loblius but is now thought to have been together by Plantin himself from his extensive stock of plant engravings.

Carolus Clusius also a physician and botanist was the leading scientific horticulturist of the period, who stood in contact with other botanist literally all over the worlds, exchanging information, seeds, dried plants and even living ones.


Portrait of Carolus Clusius painted in 1585 Attributed to Jacob de Monte – Hoogleraren Universiteit Leiden via Wikimedia Commons

His first publication, not however by Plantin, was a translation into French of Dodoens’ herbal of which more in a minute. This was followed by a Latin translation from the Portuguese of Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e Drogas da India, Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indios nascentium historia (1567) and a Latin translation from Spanish of Nicolás Monardes’  Historia medicinal delas cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven al uso de la medicina, , De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est (1574), with a second edition (1579), both published by Plantin.His own  Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia: libris duobus expressas (1576) and Rariorum aliquot stirpium, per Pannoniam, Austriam, & vicinas quasdam provincias observatarum historia, quatuor libris expressa … (1583) followed from Plantin’s presses. His Rariorum plantarum historia: quae accesserint, proxima pagina docebit (1601) was published by Plantin’s son-in-law Jan Moretus, who inherited the Antwerp printing house.


Our third physician-botanist, Rembert Dodoens, his first publication with Plantin was his Historia frumentorum, leguminum, palustrium et aquatilium herbarum acceorum, quae eo pertinent (1566) followed by the second Latin edition of his  Purgantium aliarumque eo facientium, tam et radicum, convolvulorum ac deletariarum herbarum historiae libri IIII…. Accessit appendix variarum et quidem rarissimarum nonnullarum stirpium, ac florum quorumdam peregrinorum elegantissimorumque icones omnino novas nec antea editas, singulorumque breves descriptiones continens… (1576) as well as other medical books.


Rembert Dodoens Theodor de Bry – University of Mannheim via Wikimedia Commons

His most well known and important work was his herbal originally published in Dutch, his Cruydeboeck, translated into French by Clusius as already stated above.


Title page of Cruydt-Boeck,1618 edition Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plantin published an extensively revised Latin edition Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXXs in 1593.


This was largely plagiarised together with work from Loblius and Clusius by John Gerrard (c. 1545–1612)


John Gerard Source: Wikimedia Commons

in his English herbal, Great Herball Or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), which despite being full of errors became a standard reference work in English.

The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes / by John Gerarde

Platin also published a successful edition of Juan Valverde de Amusco’s Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano (1568), which had been first published in Rome in 1556. This was to a large extent a plagiarism of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543).


Another area where Platin made a publishing impact was with the works of the highly influential Dutch engineer, mathematician and physicist Simon Stevin (1548-1620). The Plantin printing office published almost 90% of Stevin’s work, eleven books altogether, including his introduction into Europe of decimal fractions De Thiende (1585),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

his important physics book De Beghinselen der Weeghconst (The Principles of Statics, lit. The Principles of the Art of Weighing) (1586),


Source: Wikimedia Commons

his Beghinselen des Waterwichts (Principles of hydrodynamics) (1586) and his book on navigation De Havenvinding (1599).

Following his death, the families of his sons-in-law continued the work of his various printing offices, Christophe Beys (1575–1647), the son of Magdalena and Gilles, continued the Paris branch of the business until he lost his status as a sworn printer in 1601. The family of Franciscus Raphelengius continued printing in Leiden for another two generations, until 1619. When Lipsius retired from the University of Leiden in 1590, Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609) was invited to follow him at the university. He initially declined the offer but, in the end, when offered a position without obligations he accepted and moved to Leiden in 1593. It appears that the quality of the publications of the Plantin publishing office in Leiden helped him to make his decision.  In 1685, a great-granddaughter of the last printer in the Raphelengius family married Jordaen Luchtmans (1652 –1708), who had founded the Brill publishing company in 1683.

The original publishing house in Antwerp survived the longest. Beginning with Jan it passed through the hands of twelve generations of the Moretus family down to Eduardus Josephus Hyacinthus Moretus (1804–1880), who printed the last book in 1866 before he sold the printing office to the City of Antwerp in 1876. Today the building with all of the companies records and equipment is the Museum Plantin-Moretus, the world’s most spectacular museum of printing.


2-021 Museum Plantin Moretus

There is one last fascinating fact thrown up by this monument to printing history. Lodewijk Elzevir (c. 1540–1617), who founded the House of Elzevir in Leiden in 1583, which published both Galileo’s Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze in 1638 and Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode Pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences in 1637, worked for Plantin as a bookbinder in the 1560s.


Nikolaes Heinsius the Elder, Poemata (Elzevier 1653), Druckermarke Source: Wikimedia Commons

The House of Elzevir ceased publishing in 1712 and is not connected to Elsevier the modern publishing company, which was founded in 1880 and merely borrowed the name of their famous predecessor.

The Platntin-Moretus publishing house played a significant role in the intellectual history of Europe over many decades.




Filed under Book History, History of Mathematics, History of medicine, History of Physics, History of science, Renaissance Science

3 into 2 does go!

It would of course be totally unethical for me to review a book of which I am one of the authors. However, as my contribution is only six of two-hundred pages, of which three are illustrations, and the book is one that could/would/should interest some (many) of my readers, I’m going to be unethical and review it anyway.

Thinking 3D is an intellectual idea, it is a website, it is exhibitions and other events, it is a book but above all it is two people, whose idea it is: Daryl Green, who was Fellow Librarian of Magdalen College, Oxford and is now Special Collections Librarian of the University of Edinburg and Laura Moretti, who is Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews. The Thinking 3D idea is the historical investigation of the representation of the three-dimensional world on the two-dimensional page particular, but not exclusively, in print.

The Thinking 3D website explains in great detail what it is all about and contains a full description of the activities that have been carried out. For those quarantined there is a fairly large collection of essays on various topics from the project.

In 2019 Thinking 3D launched a major exhibition with The Bodleian Libraries Oxford as part of the commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, Thinking 3D From Leonardo to the Present, which ran from March 2019 to February 2020 and which I have been told was quite exceptional.

thinking 3d002

As an extension and permanent record of that exhibition Bodleian Libraries published a book, Thinking 3D: Books, Images and Ideas from Leonardo to the Present[1], which appeared in autumn 2019. This is both a coffee table book but also, at the same time, a piece of serious academic literature.

thinking 3d001

The book opens with a long essay by Green and Moretti, The history of thinking 3D in forty books, which delivers exactly what the title says. This is an excellent survey of the topic and it is worth reading the book just for this. However, it does contain one historical error that I, in my alter ego of the HIST_SCI HULK, simply cannot ignore, at least not if I want to maintain my hard won reputation. Having introduced the topic of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus the authors write:

As mentioned above, the oft-published heliocentric diagram, and its theoretical propositions, are what launched this book into infamy (the book was immediately put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books [my emphasis]), but the execution of this relational illustration is simple and reductive.

De revolutionibus was published in 1543 but was first placed on the Index sixty-three years later in 1616 and more importantly, as I wrote very recently, not for the first time, it was placed on the Index until corrected. These corrections, which were fairly minimal, were carried out surprisingly quickly and the book became available to be studied by Catholics already in 1621.

Other than this I noticed no other errors in the highly informative introductory essay, which is followed by an essay from Matthew Landrus, Leonardo da Vinci, 500 years on, which examines Leonardo’s three-dimensional perception of the world and everything in it. It was for me an interesting addition to my previous readings on the Tuscan polymath.

The main body of the book is taken up by sixteen fairly short essays in four categories: Geometry, Astronomy, Architecture and Anatomy.

Geometry starts off with Ken Saito’s presentation of a ninth century manuscript of The Elements of Euclid, where he demonstrates very clearly that the author has no real consistent, methodology for presenting a 3D space on a 2D page.   This is followed by Renzo Baldasso’s essay on Luca Pacioli’s De divina proportione (1509). Here the three dimensional solids are presented perfectly by Pacioli’s friend, colleague and one time pupil Leonardo. We return to Euclid for Yelda Nasifoglu’s investigation of the English translation of The Elements by Henry Billingsley in 1570. This volume is totally fascinating as three-dimensional figures are present as pop-up figure like those that we all know from our children’s books. The geometry section closes with a book that I didn’t know, Max Brückner’s Vielecke und Vielflache (1900) presented by George Hart. This is a vast collection of photographs of paper models of three-dimensional figures, which I learnt also influenced M. C. Escher a master of the third dimension.

thinking 3d004

Luca Pacioli De divina proportione


Karl Galle, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, kicks of the astronomy section with Johannes Kepler’s wonderfully bizarre presentation of the planetary orbits embedded in the five regular Platonic solids from his Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596). Yours truly is up next with an account of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (1610) and it’s famous washes of the Moon displaying three-dimension features. Also covered are the later pirate editions that screwed up those illustrations. Stephanie O’Rourke presents one of the most extraordinary nineteenth century astronomy books James Nasmyth’s and James Carpenter’s The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite(1874). This contains stunningly realistic photographic plates of the Moon’s surface but which are not actually real. The two Jameses constructed plaster models that they then lit and photographed to achieve the desired effect. We close the astronomy section with Thinking 3D’s co-chef, Daryl Green, taking on a survey of the surface of Mars with the United Stated Geological Survey, Geological Map of Mars (1978).

thinking 3d005

Johannes Kepler Mysterium Cosmographicum

Turning our attention to architecture, we travel back to the twelfth century, with Karl Kinsella as our guide, to Richard of St Victor’s In visionen Ezekielis; a wonderfully modern in its presentation but somewhat unique medieval architectural manuscript. The other half of the Thinking 3D team, Laura Moretti now takes us up to the sixteenth century and Sebastiano Serlio’s catalogue of the buildings of Rome (1544), which has an impossibly long Italian title that I’m not going to repeat here. We remain in the sixteenth century for Jacques Androuet du Cerceau’s Le premier [et second] volume des plus excellent bastiment de France (1576–9), where our guide is Frédérique Lemerle. Moving forward a century we close out the architecture section with Francesco Marcorin introducing us to Hans Vredeman de Vries’s absolutely stunning Perspective (1604–5).

thinking 3d008

Hans Vredeman de Vries Perspective

It would not be too difficult to guess that the anatomy section opens with one of the greatest medical books of all time, Andreas Vesalius’ De fabrica but not with the full version but the shorter (cheaper?) De humani corporis fabrica libroum epitome, like the full version published in 1543 in Basel. Our guide to Vesalius’ masterpiece is Mark Samos. Camilla Røstvik introduces us to William Hunter’s The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774), as she makes very clear a milestone in the study of women’s bodies with its revolutionary and controversial study of the pregnant body. For me this essay was a high point in a collection of truly excellent essays. We stay in the eighteenth century for Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty’s Exposition anatomique des organes des sens (1775). Dániel Margócsy present a fascinating guide to the controversial work of this pioneer of colour printing. Anatomy, and the book as a whole, closes with Denis Pellerin’s essay on Arthur Thomson’s Anatomy of the Human Eye (1912). Thomson’s book was accompanied by a collection of stereoscopic images of the anatomy of the eye together with a stereoscope with which to view the 3D images thus created; a nineteenth century technology that was already dying out when Thomson published his work.

thinking 3d009

William Hunter The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus

The book closes with a bibliography of five books for further reading for each essay, brief biography of each of the authors, a glossary of technical terms and a good general index. All sixteen of the essays are short, informative, light to read, easily accessible introductions to the volumes that they present and maintain a high academic quality throughout the entire book.

I said at the outset that this is also a coffee table book and that was not meant negatively. It measures 24X26 cm and is printed on environmentally friendly, high gloss paper. The typeface is attractive and light on the eyes and the illustrations are, as is to be expected for a book about the history of book illustration, spectacularly beautiful. The publishing team of the Bodleian Libraries are to be congratulated on an excellent publication. If you leave this on your coffee table then your visitors will soon be leafing though it admiring the pictures, whether they are interested in book history or not. I don’t usually mention the price of books that I review but at £35 this beautifully presented and wonderfully informative volume is very good value for money.

[1] Thinking 3D: Books, Images and Ideas from Leonardo to the Present, edited by Daryl Green and Laura Moretti, Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2019.


Filed under Book Reviews, Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of medicine

The Swinging 1660s

Readers of my occasional autobiographical posts will know that I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970s and was a fully-fledged member of the drug freak generation. Indulging freely in a wide range of illicit substances, something I neither regret nor overly value; it was how it was. However, always the born historian, when my drug freak colleagues were busy lighting up that spliff or dropping that tab, I was also busy reading up on the report of the 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission or the Scythian shamans use of cannabis or Albert Hofmann’s synthesis of LSD at Sandoz or the medieval outbreaks of St Anthony’s Fire caused by ergot-based drugs. In other words I didn’t just want to get high but also to discover the history of humans getting high.

Later in my life during the time that I managed the monthly #histsci blog carnival On Giants’ Shoulders and then ran the weekly #histsci journal Whewell’s Gazette I regularly read a lot of blogs and one blog that I very much enjoyed was Benjamin Breen’s Res Obscura. Though not strictly a #histsci blog Res Obscura is a wonderful cornucopia of erudite, entertaining, enlightening and educational essays about, well, obscure things as the blog name says.

Given this two rather disparate aspects of my life I was delighted when I discovered that Benjamin Breen had written and published a book with the title, The Age Of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade*. I knew that this was a book that I wanted to read and read it I have and it has fulfilled all my expectations.


Now it might seem at first glance that my youthful adventures in the age of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll and Breen’s academic opus about the beginnings of the global drug trade in the early modern period would have little or nothing in common but appearances can be deceptive and in this case they are. One of Breen’s central themes in his book is that the dichotomies that characterised the world of drugs in the 1960s and 70s, medical–recreational, legal–illicit, natural–synthetic were in fact created during the European confrontation with exotic new drugs from South America and Asia during the Early Modern Period, which shaped the way we see intoxicants today.

Early in his book Breen explains to the reader, or in my case reminds him, that the word drug originally meant dry goods, as is still obvious in the North American drugstore or the German Drogeriemarkt. This meant that the “drugs” that the early European trader–explorer brought back home from all over the world included not only what we would now call drugs but also a very diverse range of other goods, including herbs and spices, dyes, soaps, incenses, pigments or even jewels. Although, one should add than many of these non drug dry good were often also regarded as medicines. One should also remember that three of our everyday commodities, coffee, chocolate and tobacco, were originally viewed as medicinal drugs.

Breen narrative centres around two of the early European empires the Portuguese and the English, as the main sources for the introduction and establishment of intoxicant drugs into European culture. The book is divided into two sections. The first of these, entitled Invention of Drugs, begins with the Portuguese search of new drugs in the jungles of Brazil, inspired by the discovery of quinine, the ground up bark of the cinchona tree, by the Jesuits in Peru. We then move on to the selling of the new drugs in the Apothecaries of Europe. This section closes with a fascinating discussing Fetishizing Drugs about the relationship between drug use, religion and magic in Early Modern Africa.


The second section, Altered States, tackles the whole concept of intoxication. It opens with the strange, under the counter so to speak, relationship between the Portuguese, oft Jesuit, discoverers and importers of drugs and the natural philosophers of the English Royal Society. This exchange of information and knowledge, whilst for a period highly active, remained largely clandestine because of the religious, political and philosophical clash that existed publically between the two parties. But the exchange did take place and was highly fruitful. Historians of science in the know will perhaps be aware of Robert Hooke’s dope smoking activities but as Breen shows there was very much more. We now move on to the problems involved in trying to describe and classify states of intoxication. The only real reference point for the Europeans was getting drunk on alcohol, whereas the highs produced by the alkaloids contained in the drugs imported from South America and Asia are very different. I know this from personal experience.  Try explaining an acid trip to somebody whose only experience of deliberately losing control of ones mental facilities is getting pissed!

The second section closes with what might within the context of the book be described as a case study. Entitled Three Ways of Looking at Opium it chronicles how the perception and acceptance of opium changed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Breen starts with a fact that was completely new to me, the opium poppy is actually a native European plant and the perception that opium comes into Europe from Asia is one of those changes that took place in the early modern period. Breen relates how a fairly positive image of opium as a medicinal drug gradually changes to a negative one, a process accelerated in the nineteenth century by the successful synthesis of the of first morphine and later heroine from raw opium; the synthetic forms becoming the acceptable medical drugs, whereas raw opium becomes an unacceptable illicit substance.


The book closes with a meditation on our attitude to drugs then and now under the title, Drugs Past and Present.

This is a truly polymathic, historical achievement; Breen weaves together a world history out of elements of the social, cultural and core histories of exploration, discovery, botany, chemistry, medicine, pharmacology, trade, economics, magic, religion and philosophy. As was to be expected from the author of Res Obscura this book is beautifully written and is a real pleasure to read. It is well presented with a wide range of grey in grey illustrations. There are extensive, highly informative endnotes, requiring the somewhat tiresome two bookmarks method of reading, a useful bilingual (Portuguese and English) glossary, a very comprehensive bibliography and an excellent index.

Whatever your historical interests, if you like reading good quality, excellently researched and equally excellently written history, then do yourself a favour and read Breen’s fascinating academic excursion through the world of the Early Modern drug trade.

*Benjamin Breen, The Age Of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2019






Filed under Book Reviews, History of medicine

Physicians to the fore – creating a new medical hierarchy in the Early Modern Period

People with only a minimal knowledge of the history of medicine might be forgiven for automatically thinking of doctors when talk turns to medical consultation, diagnosis and treatment in earlier ages. However in the High Middle Ages and down into the Renaissance physicians, barber surgeons, apothecaries, midwifes, herbalist all competed with each other for patients, in particular the university educated physicians and apothecaries were rivals. In the Early Modern Period the physicians set a campaign in motion to create a medical hierarchy with themselves at the top able to dictate to the other practitioners. Historian of medicine Hannah Murphy has written an excellent volume describing this process of social change in the world of medicine in Reformation Nuremberg, A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Nuremberg[1]


The introduction to Murphy’s is titled Inventing Medical Reform and starts with Joachim Camerarius’ Short and Ordered Considerations for the Formation of a Well-Ordered Medicine (1571) outlining his proposed reform of medicine in the city of Nuremberg in which physicians would be authorised to oversee the work of apothecaries and only physicians would be permitted to undertake diagnosis. As a brief side note this is the physician Joachim Camerarius the younger, the son of the much more famous Joachim Camerarius the elder, classicist, colleague and biographer of Philipp Melanchthon.


Joachim Camerarius the younger Source: Wikimedia Commons

The programme set out by Camerarius in his Short and Ordered Considerations was not immediately accepted and put into practice by the Nuremberg city council but over the next few decades something similar was gradually put into place in Nuremburg; a process that involved a major political, cultural and social war between the physicians and the apothecaries. This gradual development is the subject of Murphy’s book. The rest of the introduction is devoted to a general road map of her work.

The book is divided into six chapters or perhaps, better said sections, each one of which deals with an aspect of the life and work of Early Modern physicians and how they relate to the changes in the role and status of the physicians that were taking place. These topics are initially handled for a given individual, and then developed for the city of Nuremberg in general with parallels being drawn for other cities and regions within the Holy Roman Empire. So what initially appears to be a very narrow and specialised study widens to cover a substantially area of Europe.

The opening chapter looks at a new, contemporary pharmacopeia, the Dispensatorium of Valerius Cordus, i.e. a catalogue of recipes for medical remedies. This area would become central in the dispute between the apothecaries and the physicians who could prescribe the remedies and which remedies should or could be prescribed.


The second chapter takes a detailed look at the position, role, and status of the city physician and how it differed from that of other sections of society in particular from that of the apothecaries. Moving on Murphy deals with the subject of anatomy, another area where the role of the physician would undergo a major change especially following the work of the century’s greatest anatomist, Andreas Vesalius. Turning away from the practical Murphy next addresses the role that books played in the life and work of the physician. We remain, for the next section, in the realm of the written word. In the absence of journals, which today play a major role in transmitting medical and related information, the early modern physicians had their correspondence. I personally am constantly amazed at just how many letters early modern scholars exchanged in their lifetimes with their colleagues throughout Europe. Thankfully, for the historian, some of these collections of correspondence have survived down the centuries and provide us with as valuable a source of information, as they once provided their authors and recipients. The final chapter returns to the starting point and a closer detailed look at Camerarius’ New Order of Medicine. Moving on Murphy now shows how the status and function of the physicians and apothecaries did change over time and the moves and disputes that accompanied those changes.


The book closes with a brief conclusion summarising what had been achieved by the Nuremberger physicians, I quote:

In their legal and civic battle with apothecaries, in their claim to profession primacy over surgeons and midwifes, in their bid to establish themselves as the arbiters of legitimate medicine, early modern physicians were decisively victorious.

They had succeeded in establishing a new order, one that basically still exists today. This leads to a, for historians, very interesting epilogue in which Murphy outlines how these not insignificant changes in the medical landscape of Europe became forgotten and at the same time mythologised down the succeeding centuries.

The book is pleasantly illustrated with the, in the mean time standard for academic publications, grey in grey prints. It has extensive endnotes, which largely consist of bibliographical references to the even more extensive bibliography of primary and secondary literature. The academic apparatus is rounded off by a good index.

Despite extensive historical research resulting in a highly detailed and dense text with intensive historical analysis, Murphy’s book is well written and a comparatively light read. Murphy has written an excellent book that delivers up a masterful demonstration of how a narrowly focused piece of historical research can be worked and presented so that it shines a light on a wide ranging historical development. The book should be of interest to anybody involved in the history of European medicine over the last five hundred years but will also make an interesting read for any early modern historian interested in going beyond the boundaries of their own discipline.

[1] Hannah Murphy, A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Nuremberg, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2019

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