Category Archives: 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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Filed under History of medicine, Renaissance Science

The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part III

You can read Part I here and Part II here

Although I dealt with the special case of Vienna and the 1st Viennese School of Mathematics in the first post of this series, it is now time to turn to the general history of the fifteenth-century university and the teaching of astronomy. Although the first, liberal arts, degree at the medieval university theoretically encompassed the teaching of the quadrivium, i.e. arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, in reality the level of teaching was very low and often neglected all together. Geometry was a best the first six books of Euclid and at worst just book one and astronomy was the Sphaeraof Sacrobosco, a short non-technical introduction.

This all began to change in the fifteenth century. The humanist universities of Northern Italy and of Poland introduced dedicated chairs for mathematics, whose principle purpose was the teaching of astrology to medical students. However, to fully understand astrology and to be able to cast horoscopes from scratch students first had to learn astronomy, which in turn entailed first having to learn arithmetic and geometry, as well as the use of mathematical and astronomical instruments. The level of mathematical tuition on the university increased considerable. The chairs for mathematics that Galileo would occupy at the end of the sixteenth century in Pisa and Padua were two such astrology chairs.

As the first European university, Krakow introduced two such chairs for mathematics and astronomy relatively early in the fifteenth century.


The founding of the University of Krakow in 1364, painted by Jan Matejko (1838–1893) Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was here at the end of the century  (1491–1495) that Copernicus first learnt his astronomy most probably in the lectures of Albert Brudzewski (c. 1445–c.1497) using Peuerbach’s Theoricae Novae Planetarum and Regiomontanus’ Astronomical Tables. Brudzewski also wrote an important commentary on Peuerbach’s Theoricae Novae Planetarum,Commentum planetarium in theoricas Georgii Purbachii (1482).Krakow was well endowed with Regiomontanus’ writings thanks to the Polish astrologer Marcin Bylica (c.1433–1493), who had worked closely with Regiomontanus on the court ofMatthias Corvinus (1443–1490) in Budapest and who when he died bequeathed his books and instruments to the University of Krakow, including the works of Regiomontanus and Peuerbach.

From Krakow Copernicus went on to Northern Italy and its humanist universities. Between 1496 and 1501 he studied canon law in Bologna, Europe’s oldest university.


The entry of some students in the Natio Germanica Bononiae, the nation of German students at Bologna; miniature of 1497. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here he also met and studied under/worked with the professor for astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara (1454–1504), who claimed to be a student of Regiomontanus and it is known that he studied under Luca Pacioli (c. 1447–1517), who was also Leonardo’s mathematics teacher. Although none of Novara da Ferrara writings have survived he is said to have taken a critical attitude to Ptolemaic astronomy and he might be the trigger that started Copernicus on his way. In late 1501 Copernicus moved to the University of Padua, where he studied medicine until 1503, a course that would also have included instruction in astrology and astronomy. In 1503 he took a doctorate in canon law at the University of Ferrara. Sometime in the early sixteenth century, probably around 1510 he wrote an account of his first thoughts on heliocentricity, now known as the Commentariolus, which was never published but seems to have circulated fairly widely in manuscript. We will return to this later.

The first German university to install a dedicated chair for mathematics/astronomy was Ingolstadt in the 1470s.


The Hohe Schule (High School), The main building of the University of Ingolstadt 1571 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with the North Italian universities this was principally to teach astrology to medical student. This chair would prove to be an important institution for spreading the study of the mathematical sciences. In 1491/1492 the humanist scholar and poet, Conrad Celtis (1459–1508) was appointed professor of poetics and rhetoric in Ingolstadt. Celtis had a strong interest in cartography as a part of history and travelled to Krakow in 1489 in order to study the mathematical sciences. In Ingolstadt Celtis was able to turn the attention of Andreas Stiborius (1464–1515) and Johannes Stabius (1468–1522) somewhat away from astrology and more towards cartography. In 1497 Celtis received a call from the University of Vienna and taking Stiborius and Stiborius’ star student Georg Tannstetter (1482–1535) with him he decamped to Vienna, where he set up his Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, with Stiborius as professor for mathematics. In 1502 he also fetched Johannes Stabius. From 1502 Tannstetter also began to lecture on mathematics and astronomy in Vienna. Stiborius, Stabius and Tannstetter form the foundations of what is known as the 2ndViennese School of Mathematics. Tannstetter taught several important students, most notably Peter Apian, who returned to Ingolstadt as professor for mathematics in the 1520, a position in which he was succeeded by his son Philipp. Both of them made major contributions to the developments of astronomy and cartography.

Stabius’ friend and colleague Johannes Werner also studied in Ingolstadt before moving to and settling in Nürnberg. One of the few astronomical writing of Copernicus, apart from De revolutionibus, that exist is the so-called Letter against Werner in which Copernicus harshly criticised Werner’s Motion of the Eighth Sphere an essay on the theory of precession of the equinox.

Another graduate of Ingolstadt was Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531), who having had a successful career as an astronomer, astrologer and globe and instrument maker was appointed the first professor of mathematics at the University of Tübingen.


The Old Auditorium University of Tübingen Source: Wikimedia Commons

Amongst his student were Sebastian Münster (1488–1552) the most important cosmographer of the sixteenth century and Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), who as a enthusiastic fan of astrology established chairs for mathematics and astronomy at all of the protestant schools and universities that he established starting in Wittenberg, where the first professor for lower mathematic was Jakob Milich (1501–1559) another graduate of the University of Vienna. Milich’s fellow professor for astronomy in Wittenberg Johannes Volmar (?–1536), who started his studies in Krakow. The successors to Milich and Volmar were Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574) and Erasmus Reinhold (1511–1553).

Another Melanchthon appointment was the first professor for mathematics on the Egidien Obere Schule in Nürnberg, (Germany’s first gymnasium), the globe maker Johannes Schöner (1477–1547), who would play a central role in the heliocentricity story. Schöner had learnt his mathematics at the university of Erfurt, one of the few German universities with a reputation for mathematics in the fifteenth century. When Regiomontanus moved from Budapest to Nürnberg he explained his reasons for doing so in a letter to the Rector of Erfurt University, the mathematician Christian Roder, asking him for his active support in his reform programme.

The Catholic universities would have to wait for Christoph Clavius (1538–1612) at the end of the sixteenth century before they received dedicated chairs for astronomy to match the Lutheran Protestant institutions. However, there were exceptions. In Leuven, where he was actually professor for medicine, Gemma Frisius (1508–1555) taught astronomy, astrology, cartography and mathematics. Amongst his long list of influential pupils we find Johannes Stadius (1527–1579), Gerhard Mercator (1512–1594) and John Dee (1527–1609). In France, François I appointed Oronce Fine (1494–1555) Royal lecturer for mathematics at the University of Paris. He was not a very impressive mathematician or astronomer but a highly influential teacher and textbook author. In Portugal, Pedro Nunes (1502–1578) was appointed the first professor of mathematics at the university of Coimbra as well as to the position of Royal Cosmographer.


The University of Coimbra Palace Gate. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the mathematical sciences, driven mainly by astrology and cartography, established themselves in the European universities, where the professors and lecturers, as we shall see, played a central role in the reform and renewal of astronomy.








Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of medicine, Renaissance Science

If you’re going to lecture others on the need to learn history then it pays to get your own history right.

The HIST_SCI HULK has been slumbering very peaceably somewhere deep in the catacombs under Mathematicus Mountain the home of the Renaissance Mathematicus’ humble cave. However, the pungent smell of #histsci bullshit drifted downwards on a draft disturbing his slumbers and now he is raging through the underground chambers demanding access to the blog.

In the Guardian, journalist Van Badham has written an article criticising Senator Simon Birmingham’s vetoing of research grants approved by the Australian Research Council, with the following title.

Simon Birmingham is the one who needs a history lesson in western civilisation

Her criticism centres round what she sees as Birmingham’s lack of historical awareness, banging on about the fact that the vetoes are mostly of humanities research and that if Birmingham had more knowledge of history then he would be more aware of the origins of the western civilisation he wishes to defend. For itself Van Badham’s criticism is valid and would be OK if her own knowledge of the history of science weren’t so abysmal, as illustrated by the following paragraph.

It’s a tender solidarity exhibited here by a man of science to the humanities community. The habit of scientists to offend the “common sense” standards of their times with research has historically proven quite dangerous.Rhazes, the medical pioneer of ninth century Baghdad, was beaten blind with his own compendium by a priest. The humanist Michael Servetus, a 16th century physician credited with discovering pulmonary circulation, was tortured and burned along with his books on the shores of Lake Geneva at the personal behest of John Calvin. In the 17th century, Galileo spent his last years under house arrest, forced by the church to recant the heretical belief that the earth orbited the sun.

We can of course assume that Badham got her history of science information from all those professional humanities scholars that she is arguing Birmingham should be supporting with research grants. However, if we did so, we would be very wrong. Her source is a pop article published in Wired in 2012 by a woefully ignorant staff journalist, Olivia Solon, under the title:

Galileo to Turing: The Historical Persecution of Scientists

There are several more horrors in the original article but I shall only deal here with the three examples that Badham paraphrased. The original Rhazes paragraph reads as follows:

Rhazes (865-925)
Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī or Rhazes was a medical pioneer from Baghdad who lived between 860 and 932 AD. He was responsible for introducing western teachings, rational thought and the works of Hippocrates and Galen to the Arabic world. One of his books, Continens Liber, was a compendium of everything known about medicine. The book made him famous, but offended a Muslim priest who ordered the doctor to be beaten over the head with his own manuscript, which caused him to go blind, preventing him from future practice.


Portrait of Rhazes (al-Razi) (AD 865 – 925), physician and alchemist who lived in Baghdad Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons

I love the arrant chauvinism of He was responsible for introducing western teachings, rational thought and the works of Hippocrates and Galen to the Arabic world.It smacks of the old style: the Islamic world only conserved the Greek heritage until Renaissance Europe could inherit it and develop it further. The Persian physician Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (854–925) or al-Rāzī for short was one of the two most significant Islamic medical authorities, who made important original contributions to medical knowledge. He was also, like many other Islamic scholars, a polymath who wrote on medicine, alchemy, philosophy, logic, astronomy and grammar. Historians of medicine are convinced that al-Rāzī suffered from cataracts at the end of a long, very productive and very successful life, which caused him to go blind. There are various anecdotes about the cause of his blindness. One of them attributed to Ibn Jujil (c.944–c.994), an Adulusian Arab physician, says that it was caused by a blow to his head by his patron Mansur ibn Ishaq, the governor of his birthplace Rey and an early employer, for failing to provide proof for his alchemy theories. Note, not a Muslim priest. Another, recorded by Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226–1286), a Syriac Christian Bishop, and Miguel Casiri (1710–1791), a Maronite scholar, was that it was caused by a diet of only beans. Somehow this differs somewhat from the film ripe fantasy account delivered up by Solon and parroted by Badham

Michael Servetus (1511-1553)
Servetus was a Spanish physician credited with discovering pulmonary circulation. He wrote a book, which outlined his discovery along with his ideas about reforming Christianity – it was deemed to be heretical. He escaped from Spain and the Catholic Inquisition but came up against the Protestant Inquisition in Switzerland, who held him in equal disregard. Under orders from John Calvin, Servetus was arrested, tortured and burned at the stake on the shores of Lake Geneva – copies of his book were accompanied for good measure.


Miguel Serveto Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve actually written a whole blog post on the Spanish physician, theologian, cartographer and Renaissance humanist Miguel Serveto (1509 or 1511–1553) under the title Not a martyr for science. Serveto was even more of a polymath than al-Rāzīand made contribution to a bewildering range of topics. His execution had absolutely nothing to do with his discovery of the pulmonary circulation but was entirely the result of his highly heterodox religious views. He did not escape from Spain but from Vienne in France, where he had been imprisoned on suspicion of heresy. Fleeing to Italy he stopped in Geneva, a strange decision as he had already had a major dispute, by exchange of letters, with Calvin on the subject of Christian doctrine. He was arrested, tried, found guilty of heresy and burnt at the stake. Interestingly not only the Catholics and Calvin were happy to see him executed but Luther and Melanchthon as well. Serveto really knew how to make enemies.

Galileo (1564-1642)
The Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei was trialled and convicted in 1633 for publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. His research was instantly criticized by the Catholic Church for going against the established scripture that places Earth and not the Sun at the center of the universe. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for his heliocentric views and was required to “abjure, curse and detest” his opinions. He was sentenced to house arrest, where he remained for the rest of his life and his offending texts were banned.


Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Marucelliana Source: Wikimedia Commons

If I were God, I would arrange it so that every time a journalist typed the name Galileo a miniature thermo-nuclear device would materialise over their workplace and upon detonating would reduce their computer to a meagre pile of radioactive dust and a small mushroom cloud.

If Galileo didn’t exist then people like Solon and Badham would have to invent him. He’s the one example that is always used when they want to prove that somebody, in particular somebody religious, tried to suppress science or a scientist. The trial in 1633 had multiple causes of which the nominal scientific one was probably the least important. It was simply the stick used to beat an uppity subject. To stretch an analogy it’s about the same as Al Capone being charged with tax evasion.

The main cause was a clash of egos: Galileo with an ego the size of the Peter’s dome, whose hubris made him blind to every day reality and Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VII, with an equally large ego and the manic paranoia of an absolutist ruler beset on all sides by real and imaginary enemies. Galileo’s hubris misled him into thinking that he, a mere mathematicus, could hoodwink an absolutist, paranoid Pope. He discovered that he couldn’t and was brought down to earth rather quickly if, for the circumstances, comparatively gently. As for Galileo “publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory”, his problem was that he didn’t really have any. As I have said on previous occasions, Dialogo is strong on polemic but lacking in facts. Galileo’s crowning proof, Day 4’s theory of the tides would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. As has been pointed out many times, and not just by me, in 1633 the empirical evidence still spoke clearly in favour of geocentrism and not for heliocentrism. I will add the usual caveat that this does not excuse the Church’s behaviour towards Galileo but also doesn’t let Galileo off the hook for having poked a sleeping bear with a sharp stick.

Ms Badham would have been wise if she had checked her ‘historical sources’ before using them as an example to support her attack on Simon Birmingham’s apparent lack of historical awareness.

P.S. I promise that after three negative ones in a row the next post will be a positive one.








Filed under History of Astronomy, History of medicine, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

Renaissance mathematics and medicine

Anyone who read my last blog post might have noticed that the Renaissance mathematici Georg Tannstetter and Philipp Apian were both noted mathematicians and practicing physicians. In our day and age if someone was both a practicing doctor of medicine and a noted mathematician they would be viewed as something quite extraordinary but here we have not just one but two. In fact in the Renaissance the combination was quite common. Jakob Milich, who studied under Tannstetter in Vienna, was called to Wittenberg by Philipp Melanchthon in 1524, as professor for mathematics, where he taught both Erasmus Reinhold and Georg Joachim Rheticus. In 1536 he became professor for anatomy in Wittenberg and was succeeded by Rheticus as professor for mathematics. Rheticus in turn would later become a practicing physician in Krakow. The man, who Rheticus called his teacher, Nicolaus Copernicus, was another mathematical physician. My local Renaissance astronomer Simon Marius was another mathematician who studied and practiced medicine. That this was not a purely Germanic phenomenon is shown by the Welsh mathematicus and physician Robert Recorde and most notably by the Italian Gerolamo Cardano, who is credited with having written the first modern maths book, his Ars magna, and who was one of the most renowned physicians in Europe in his day.

These are only a few well-known examples but in fact it was very common for Renaissance mathematician to also be practicing physicians, so what was the connecting factor between these, for us, very distinct fields of study? There are in two interrelated factors that have to be taken into consideration, the first of which is astrology. The connection between medicine and astrology has a long history.

Greek legend says that Babylonian astrology was introduced into Greece by the Babylonian priest Berossus, who settled on the island of Kos in the third century BCE. Kos was the home of the Hippocratic School of medicine and astrology soon became an element in the Hippocratic Corpus. At the same time the same association between astrology and medicine came into Greek culture from Egypt in the form of the Greek-Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistos. Both the Egyptians and Babylonians had theories of lucky/unlucky, propitious/propitious days and these were integrated into the mix in the Greek lunar calendar. The Greeks developed the theory of the zodiac man, assigning the signs of the zodiac to the various part of the body. If a given part of the body was afflicted it would then be treated with the plants and minerals associated with its zodiac sign. The central role of astrology in medicine can be found in both the Hippocratic Corpus, in Airs, Waters, Placesit is stated that “astronomy is of the greatest assistance to medicine”and in Ptolemaeus’ Tetrabibloswe read, “The nature of the planets produce the forms and causes of the symptoms, since of the most important parts of man, Saturn is lord of the right ear, the spleen, the bladder, phlegm and the bones; Jupiter of touch, the lungs, the arteries and the seed; Mars of the left ear, the kidneys, the veins and the genitals; the sun of sight, the brain, the heart, the sinews and all on the right side; Venus of smell, the liver and muscles; Mercury of speech and thought, and the tongue, the bile and the buttocks; and the Moon of taste and of drinking, the mouth, the belly, the womb and all on the left side.” The connection between astrology was firmly established in Greek antiquity and was known as iatromathematica, health mathematics.

The theory of astrological medicine disappeared in Europe along with the rest of early science in the Early Medieval Period but was revived in the eighth century in the Islamic Empire when they took over the accumulated Greek Knowledge. The basic principles were fully accepted by the Islamic scholars and propagated down the centuries. When the translators moved into Spain and Sicily in the twelfth century they translated the Greek astrology and astrological medicine into Latin from Arabic along with rest of the Greek and Arabic sciences.

During the High Middle Ages, Christian scholars carried on an energetic debate about the legitimacy, or lack of it, of astrology. This debate centred on judicial astrology, this included natal astrology, mundane astrology, horary astrology, and electional astrology but excluded so called natural astrology, which included astrometeorology and astro-medicine both of which were regarded as scientific. To quote David Lindberg, “…no reputable physician of the later Middle Ages would have imagined that medicine could be successfully practiced without it.”


Woodcut of the Homo Signorum, or Zodiac Man, from a 1580 almanac. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Beginning in the fifteenth century during the humanist renaissance astrological medicine became the mainstream school medicine. It was believed that the cause, course and cure of an illness could be determined astrologically. In the humanist universities of Northern Italy and Poland dedicated chairs of mathematics were established, for the first time, which were actually chairs for astrology with the principle function of teaching astrology to medical students. Germany’s first dedicated chair for mathematics was founded at the University of Ingolstadt in about 1470 for the same reason.


Zodiac Man The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry c. 1412 Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of moving type printing another role for mathematicians was producing astronomical/astrological calendars incorporating the phases of the moon, eclipses and other astronomical and astrological information needed by physicians to determine the correct days to administer blood lettings, purges and cuppings. These calendars were printed both as single sheet wall calendars and book form pocket calendars.


Renaissance Wall Calendar, 1544 Source: Ptak Science Books

These calendars were a major source of income for printer/publishers and for the mathematici who compiled them. Before he printed his legendary Bible, Johannes Guttenberg printed a wall calendar. Many civil authorities appointed an official calendar writer for their city or district; Johannes Schöner was official calendar writer for Nürnberg, Simon Marius for the court in Ansbach, Peter Apian for the city of Ingolstadt and Johannes Kepler for the city of Graz. Official calendar writers were still being employed in the eighteenth century. As I explained in an earlier post the pocket calendars led to the invention of the pocket diary.

Marius: [Alter und Newer Schreibcalender], [1602]  (Scan Nr. 150)

Simon Marius: Alter und Newer SchreibCalender auf das Jahr 1603 Title page Source: Deutsches Museum

With mainstream medicine based on astrology it was a short step for mathematicians to become physicians. Here we also meet the second factor. As a discipline, mathematics had a very low status in the Early Modern Period; in general mathematicians were regarded as craftsmen rather than academics. Those who worked in universities were at the very bottom of the academic hierarchy. At the medieval university it was only possible for graduates to advance to a doctorate in three disciplines, law, theology and medicine. It was not possible to do a doctorate in mathematics. With the dominance of iatromathematica, which depended on astrology, for which one in turn needed astronomy, for which one needed mathematics it was logical for mathematicians who wished to take a university doctorate, in order to gain a higher social status, to do so in medicine. The result of this is a fascinating period in European history from about 1400 to middle of the seventeenth century, where many of the leading mathematicians were also professional physicians. When astrology lost its status as a science this period came to an end.





Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of medicine, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The problem with Jonathan Jones and #histSTM

It cannot be said that I am a fan of Jonathan Jones The Guardian’s wanna be art critic but although I find most of his attempts at art criticism questionable at best, as a historian of science I am normal content to simply ignore him. However when he strays into the area of #histSTM I occasionally feel the desire to give him a good kicking if only a metaphorical one. In recent times he has twice committed the sin of publicly displaying his ignorance of #histSTM thereby provoking this post. In both cases Leonard da Vinci plays a central role in his transgressions, so I feel the need to make a general comment first. Many people are fascinated by Leonardo and some of them feel the need to express that fascination in public. These can be roughly divided into two categories, the first are experts who have seriously studied Leonardo and whose utterances are based on knowledge and informed analysis, examples of this first group are Matin Kemp the art historian and Monica Azzolini the Renaissance historian. The second category could be grouped together under the title Leonardo groupies and their utterances are mostly distinguished by lack of knowledge and often mind boggling stupidity. Jonathan Jones is definitely a Leonardo groupie.

Jones’ first foray into the world of #histSTM on 28 January with a piece entitled, The charisma droids: today’s robots and the artists who foresaw them, which is a review of the new major robot exhibition at the Science Museum. What he has to say about the exhibition doesn’t really interest me here but in the middle of his article we stumble across the following paragraph:

So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer [my emphasis]. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.

Now I have no doubts that amongst his many other accomplishments Leonardo turned his amazingly fertile thoughts to the subject of automata, after all he, like his fellow Renaissance engineers, was a fan of Hero of Alexandria who wrote extensively about automata and also constructed them. Here we have the crux of the problem. Leonardo was not “one of the first recorded inventors of robots”. In fact by the time Leonardo came on the scene automata as a topic of discussion, speculation, legend and myth had already enjoyed a couple of thousand years of history. If Jones had taken the trouble to read Ellie Truitt’s (@MedievalRobots) excellent Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) he would have known just how wrong his claim was. However Jones is one of those who wish to perpetuate the myth that Leonardo is the source of everything. Actually one doesn’t even need to read Ms. Truitt’s wonderful tome, you can listen to her sketching the early history of automata on the first episode of Adam Rutherford’s documentary The Rise of the Robots on BBC Radio 4, also inspired by the Science Museums exhibition. The whole series is well worth a listen.

On 6 February Jones took his Leonardo fantasies to new heights in a piece, entitled Did the Mona Lisa have syphilis? Yes, seriously that is the title of his article. Retro-diagnosis in historical studies is a best a dodgy business and should, I think, be avoided. We have whole libraries of literature diagnosing Joan of Arc’s voices, Van Gough’s mental disorders and the causes of death of numerous historical figures. There are whole lists of figures from the history of science, including such notables as Newton and Einstein, who are considered by some, usually self declared, experts to have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. All of these theories are at best half way founded speculations and all too oft wild ones. So why does Jonathan Jones think that the Mona Lisa had syphilis? He reveals his evidence already in the sub-title to his piece:

Lisa del Giocondo, the model for Leonardo’s painting, was recorded buying snail water – then considered a cur for the STD: It could be the secret to a painting haunted by the spectre of death.

That’s it folks don’t buy any snail water or Jonathan Jones will think that you have syphilis.

Let’s look at the detail of Jones’ amazingly revelatory discovery:

Yet, as it happens, a handful of documents have survived that give glimpses of Del Giocondo’s life. For instance, she is recorded in the ledger of a Florentine convent as buying snail water (acqua di chiocciole) from its apothecary.

Snail water? I remember finding it comical when I first read this. Beyond that, I accepted a bland suggestion that it was used as a cosmetic or for indigestion. In fact, this is nonsense. The main use of snail water in pre-modern medicine was, I have recently discovered, to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis.

So she bought some snail water from an apothecary, she was the female head of the household and there is absolutely no evidence that she acquired the snail water for herself. This is something that Jones admits but then casually brushes aside. Can’t let ugly doubts get in the way of such a wonderful theory. More importantly is the claim that “the main use of snail water snail water in pre-modern medicine was […] to combat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis” actually correct? Those in the know disagree. I reproduce for your entertainment the following exchange concerning the subject from Twitter.

Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner)

Hello, you may have read that the Mona Lisa had syphilis. This thread points out that is probably bollocks

 Dubious theory – the key evidence is her buying “snail water”, but this was used as a remedy for rashes, earaches, wounds, bad eyes, etc…

Greg Jenner added,

Seen this ‪@DrAlun ‪@DrJaninaRamirez ? What say you? I’ve seen snail water used in so many different Early Modern remedies

Alun Withey (@DrAlun)

I think it’s an ENORMOUS leap to that conclusion. Most commonly I’ve seen it for eye complaints.

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @DrJaninaRamirez yeah, as I thought – and syphilis expert @monaob1 agrees

 Alun Withey

‪@greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez @monaob1 So, the burning question then, did the real Mona Lisa have sore eyes? It’s a game-changer!

Mona O’Brian (@monaob1)

‪@DrAlun @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez interested to hear the art historical interpretation on the ‘unhealthy’ eyes comment!

Alun Withey

‪@monaob1 @greg_jenner @DrJaninaRamirez doesn’t JJ say in the article there’s a shadow around her eyes? Mystery solved. *mic drop*

Greg Jenner

‪@DrAlun @monaob1 @DrJaninaRamirez speaking as a man who recently had to buy eye moisturiser, eyes get tired with age? No disease needed

 Mona O’Brian

@greg_jenner Agreed! Also against the pinning of the disease on the New World, considering debates about the disease’s origin are ongoing

Jen Roberts (@jshermanroberts)

‪@greg_jenner I just wrote a blog post about snail water for @historecipes –common household cure for phlegmy complaints like consumption.

Tim Kimber (@Tim_Kimber)

‪@greg_jenner Doesn’t the definite article imply the painting, rather than the person? So they’re saying the painting had syphilis… right?

Minister for Moths (@GrahamMoonieD)

‪@greg_jenner but useless against enigmatic smiles

Interestingly around the same time an advert was doing the rounds on the Internet concerning the use of snail slime as a skin beauty treatment. You can read Jen Roberts highly informative blog post on the history of snail water on The Recipes Project, which includes a closing paragraph on modern snail facials!




Filed under History of medicine, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

A breath of fresh air

I’m supposed to be preparing a lecture on the eighteenth-century pneumatic chemists and I noticed this morning that today is the birthday of Stephen Hales who was responsible for a small invention that made pneumatic chemistry possible, so I decided to write a post about him.

Stephen Hales, aged 82, by J.McArdell after T. Hudson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Hales, aged 82, by J.McArdell after T. Hudson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hales, who is largely unknown today, except by experts, was regarded in the eighteenth century as one of the most important English natural historians with an international reputation amongst both natural historians and chemists. Born on the 17th September 1677 the tenth child and sixth son of Thomas Hales, heir to the Baronetcy of Beakesbourne and Brymore. As a younger son he was destined for the clergy and duly ordained in 1703 after graduating BA in 1700 at Corpus Christi College Cambridge. He obtained a fellowship in the same year and qualified MA in 1704. He remained in Cambridge until 1708 devoting his time to the study of the sciences mostly in tandem with William Stukeley, who would later become Newton’s physician. The two of them, being Cambridge men, studied Newton’s physics and astronomy as well as John Ray’s natural history.

Family connections found a curacy for Hales, which was the start of his long and successful church career, the high point of which was being appointed private chaplain to Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales and mother of George III in 1751. He was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by the University of Oxford in 1733 and is said to have turned down the offer of a canonry at Windsor from George II. Princess Augusta held him in such esteem that she had a monument erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey after his death in 1761, at the ripe old age of 83.

Stephen Hales monument Westminster Abbey Copyright: Westminster Abby

Stephen Hales monument Westminster Abbey
Copyright: Westminster Abby

However as stated above Hales was not only a successful pastor but also a very successful and important amateur natural historian making him an excellent example of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglican clergymen who devoted themselves to the study of the sciences making substantial advances to many fields. This historical phenomenon, of course, makes a mockery of the claims of the Gnu Atheists that religion and science are incompatible and that belief in God somehow hinders scientific thought.

Hales who became a member of the Royal Society in 1718 devoted his scientific studies to the circulatory systems of plants and animals. The results of his experimental studies on plants where published in his Vegetable Staticks. Hales determined the direction and force of sap flow in plants by inserting glass tubes into the stump of a vine with the branches cut off. He also inserted glass tubes containing water into the root systems of plants to determine the water absorption rate. Hales’ greatest achievement in his plant studies was to measure the transpiration rate. Through a series of complex and ingenious experiments he was able to determine how much water a plant perspired during its growing season and to demonstrate that this transpiration helped to draw water up through the roots.

Hales carries out similar experiments over many years on the circulatory systems of animals, which he published in his Haemastaticks in 1733. He later published both books together as his Statical Essays. Using the same method of inserting glass tubes into arteries and veins of various animals, Hales made the first ever blood pressure measurements. He then went on to measure cardiac output and compare pulse rates and blood pressure. These experiments were conducted on live animals without the benefits of sedation, which led his friend and neighbour, Alexander Pope, a dog lover, to condemn him for his cruelty to animals.

During his plant experiments Hales noted that air was expelled by his plants along with the water and he set out to devise methods to collect and measure the quantities of air thus produced. This is where Hales becomes interesting for the pneumatic chemists, who succeeded him in the eighteenth century and thus for my planned lecture. Hales devised a series of apparatuses to collect the air, which culminated in his invention of the pneumatic trough. A device that could be set to the general purpose of collecting gases separated from the generating apparatus.

Pneumatic Tr From Vegetable Staticks, opposite page 262 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pneumatic Tr From Vegetable Staticks, opposite page 262
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The pneumatic trough would go on to be further developed by Henry Cavendish, William Brownrigg, Joseph Priestly and Antoine Lavoisier all of whom would use it in the discovery of various gasses, most notably hydrogen and oxygen; discoveries that would lead to the discovery of the composition of water and the beginnings of modern molecular chemistry. All of these researchers acknowledged their debt to Hales and his invention.

Throughout the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century all of the great natural historians who laid the foundations of modern biology also acknowledge their debt to Hales for his pioneering work in both animal and plant physiology. It is only in the late nineteenth century that he began to be forgotten and to slide into obscurity; to become only the subject of study of specialist historians of science and no longer to be counted amongst the great natural historians.

As we have seen Hales was not just a brilliant theorist but also a very practical investigator designing and building complex experimental apparatus with which to conduct his researches. He applied this practical bent to the solution of an important social problem. His researches into air were a continuation of work begun in the seventeenth century by people such as Boyle and Hooke into air and its properties. One of the central concerns of these researches was the investigation of bad or foul airs, like those found in swamps, mines and enclosed spaces, such as prisons or ships. In fact Brownrigg’s development of Hales’ pneumatic trough was dedicated to this research. Hales was one of several researchers to invent a ventilator driven by bellows worked by hand and in larger versions by windmills to provide fresh air to enclosed spaces. Hales’ ventilators were a success and were widely employed in ships, prisons and mines.

Image of a Ventilation Bellows devised by Stephen Hales Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Image of a Ventilation Bellows devised by Stephen Hales
Source: Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Addendum: 17 September 2020

Matthew Paskins on Facebook made the following important comment:

I think it’s an important part of Hales’ legacy that his celebrated ventilators were trialled by his contacts among slaveship owners, and that ventilation was advanced by supporters of slavery as a meliorist response to the conditions on board slaveships.

Hales is a classic example of those small scientific researchers, who upon investigation turn out not to be so small after all, who get lost and forgotten in our hagiographical presentation of the so-called giants of science. Next time you are at your doctors having your blood pressure checked spare a thought for the Reverend Stephen Hales the very first person to measure blood pressure.


Filed under History of Chemistry, History of medicine