Category Archives: History of medicine

Renaissance science – XLII

As with much in European thought, it was Aristotle, who first made a strong distinction between, what was considered, the two different realms of thought, theoretical thought epistêmê, most often translated as knowledge, and technê, translated as either art or craft. As already explained in an earlier post in this series, during the Middle Ages the two areas were kept well separated, with only the realm of epistêmê considered worthy of study by scholars. Technê being held to be inferior. As also explained in that earlier post the distinguishing feature of Renaissance science was the gradual dissolution of the boundary between the two areas and the melding of them into a new form of knowledge that would go on to become the empirically based science of the so-called scientific revolution. 

A second defining characteristic of the developing Renaissance science was the creation of new spaces for the conception, acquisition, and dissemination of the newly emerging forms of knowledge. We have followed the emergence of libraries outside of the monasteries, the establishment of botanical gardens as centres of learning, and cabinets of curiosity and the museums that evolved out of them, as centres for accumulating knowledge in its material forms. 

Another, space that emerged in the late Renaissance for the generation and acquisition of knowledge was the laboratory. The very etymology of the term indicates very clearly that this form of knowledge belonged to the technê side of the divide. The modern word laboratory is derived from the Latin laboratorium, which in turn comes from laboratus the past participle of laboare meaning to work. This origin is, of course, clearly reflected in the modern English verb to labour meaning to work hard using one’s hands, and all of the associated words, the nouns labour and labourer etc. It was only around 1600 that the word laboratorium came to signify a room for conducting scientific experiments, whereby the word scientific is used very loosely here. 

Of course, laboratories, to use the modern term, existed before the late sixteenth century and are mostly associated with the discipline of alchemy. Much of the Arabic Jabirian corpus, the vast convolute of ninth century alchemical manuscripts associated with the name Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān is concerned with what we would term laboratory work. It would appear that medieval Islamic culture did not share the Aristotelian disdain for manual labour. However, in Europe, the practical alchemist in his workshop or laboratory actually working with chemicals was regarded as a menial hand worker. Although, it should be remembered that medieval alchemy incorporated much that we would now term applied or industrial chemistry, the manufacture of pigments or gunpowder, just to give two examples. Many alchemists considered themselves philosophical alchemists, often styling themselves philosopher or natural philosopher to avoid the stigma of being considered a menial labourer. 

The status of artisan had already been rising steadily since the expansion in European trade in the High Middle Ages and the formation of the guilds, which gave the skilled workers a raised profile. After all, they manufacture many of the goods traded. It should also be remembered that the universities were founded as guilds of learning, the word universitas meaning a society or corporation. 

So, what changed in the sixteenth century to raise the status of the laboratorium, making it, so to speak, acceptable in polite society? The biggest single change was the posthumous interest in the medical theories of Theophrastus of Hohenheim (c. 1493–1541), or as he is better known Paracelsus (c. 1493–1541), based on his medical alchemy, known as chymiatria or iatrochemistry, a process that began around 1560. 

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

The new Paracelsian iatrochemistry trend did not initially enter the Renaissance university but found much favour on the courts of the European royalty and aristocracy and it was here that the new laboratoria were established by many of the same potentates, who had founded new libraries, botanical garden, and cabinets of curiosity. The Medici, Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs, and Hohenzollerns all established laboratoria staffing them with their own Paracelsian alchemical physicians. Many of these regal loboratoria resembled the workshops of apothecaries, artisans, and instrument makers. Techné had become an integral part of the European aristocratic court. 

It was in the Holy Roman Empire that the Renaissance laboratory celebrated its greatest success. The most well documented Renaissance laboratory was that of Wolfgang II, Graf von Hohenlohe und Herr zu Langenburg (1546–1610). In 1587, having constructed a new Renaissance residence, he constructed a two-story alchemical laboratory equipped with a forge, numerous furnaces, a so-called Faule Heinz or Lazy Henry which made multiple simultaneous distillations possible, and a vast array of chemical glass ware.

Graf Wolfgang II. zu Hohenlohe-Weikersheim, Portrait by Peter Franz Tassaert in the great hall of the castle in Weikersheim Source: Wikimedia Commons

His library contained more than five hundred books, of which fifteen were about practical chemistry, for example from Georg Agricola (1494–1555), author of De re metallica, Lazarus Ecker (c. 1529–1594), a metallurgist, and books on distillation from Heironymous Brunschwig (c. 1450–c. 1512), thirty-three about alchemy including books from Pseudo-Geber (late 13th early 14th centuries), Ramon Llull (c.1232–1316), Berhard von Trevesian (14th century), and Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560–1605), sixty-nine books by Paracelsus, and twelve about chemiatria including works by Leonhard Thurneysser (1531–1596), Alexander von Suchten (c.1520–1575) , both of them Paracelsian physicians, and Johann Isaac Hollandus (16th & 17th centuries!), a Paracelsian alchemist and author of very detailed practical chemistry books. The laboratory had a large staff of general and specialised workers but was run by a single laborant for sixteen years.

Wolfgang’s fellow alchemist and correspondent, Friedrich I, Duke of Württemberg (1557–1608) employed ten Laboranten in the year 1608 and a total of thirty-three between 1593 and 1608.

Friedrich I, Duke of Württemberg artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friedrich had a fully equipped laboratory constructed in the old Lusthaus of a menagerie and pleasure garden. A Lusthaus was a large building erected in aristocratic parks during the Renaissance and Baroque used for fests, receptions, and social occasions.

New Lusthaus in Stuttgart (1584–1593) Engraving by Matthäus Merian 1616 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also had laboratories in Stuttgarter Neue Spital and in the Freihof in Kirchheim unter Teckabout 25 kilometres south of Stuttgart, where he moved his court during an outbreak of the plague in 1594. Friedrich was interested in both chymiatria and the production of gold and gave a fortune out in pursuit of his alchemical aim. However, he also used his laboratories for metallurgical research.

Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560–1605) was a Paracelsian physician, hermetic philosopher, and alchemist. In 159, he published his Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom) in Hamburg, which contains the engraving by Paullus van der Doort of the drawing credited to Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527–1604) entitled The First Stage of the Great Work better known as the Alchemist’s Laboratory.

Heinrich Khunrath Source. Wikimedia Commons
Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae title page Source: Wikimedia Commons
The First Stage of the Great Work better known as the Alchemist’s Laboratory. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Khunrath was one of the alchemists, who spent time on the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, also serving as his personal physician.

Rudolf II portrait by  Joseph Heintz the Elder, 1594. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rudolf ran several laboratories and attracted alchemists from over all in Europe.

Underground alchemical laboratory Prague Source

John Dee and Edward Kelly visited Rudolf in Prague during their European wanderings. Oswald Croll (c. 1563–1609) another Paracelsian physician, who visited Prague from 1597 to 1599 and then again from 1602 until his death, dedicated his Basilica Chymica (1608) to Rudolf.

Title page Basilica Chymica, Frankfurt 1629 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Polish alchemist and physician Michael Sendivogius (1566–1623), who in his alchemical studies made important contributions to chemistry, is another who gravitated to Rudolf in Prague in 1593.

19th century representation of the alchemist Michael Sendivogius painted by Jan Matejko Art Museum  Łódź via Wikimedia Commons

His De Lapide Philosophorum Tractatus duodecim e naturae fonte et manuali experientia depromti also known as Novum Lumen Chymicum (New Chemical Light) was published simultaneously in Prague and Frankfurt in 1604 and was dedicated to Rudolf.

Michael Sendivogius Novum Lumen Chymicum 

The German alchemist and physician Michael Maier (1568–1622), author of numerous hermetic texts, served as Rudolf’s court physician beginning in 1609. 

Engraving by Matthäus Merian of Michael Maier on the 12th page of Symbola avreae mensae dvodecim nationvm Source: Wikimedia Commons

Along with Rudolf’s Prague the other major German centre for Paracelsian alchemical research was the landgrave’s court in Kassel. Under Landgrave Wilhelm IV (1532–1592), the court in Kassel was a major centre for astronomical research. His son Moritz (1572–1632) turned his attention to the Paracelsian chymiatria, establishing a laboratory at his court.

Landgrave Moritz engraving by Matthäus Merian from Theatrum Europaeum Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Rudolf, Moritz employed a number of alchemical practitioners. Hermann Wolf (c. 1565­ 1620), who obtained his MD at the University of Marburg in 1585 and was appointed as professor for medicine there in 1587, served as Moritz’s personal physician from 1597. Another of Moritz’s personal physicians was Jacob Mosanus (1564–1616, who obtained his doctorate in medicine in Köln in 1591. A Paracelsian, he initially practiced in London but came into conflict with the English authorities. He moved to the court in Kassel in 1599. He functioned as Moritz’s alchemical diplomat, building connection to other alchemists throughout Europe. Another of the Kasseler alchemists was Johannes Daniel Mylius (1585–after 1628). When he studied medicine is not known but from 1612 in Gießen he, as a chymiatriae studiosus, carried out chemical experiments with the support and permission of the landgrave. In 1613/14 and 1616 he had a stipend for medicine on the University of Marburg. He was definitely at Moritz’s court in Kassel in 1622/23 and carried out a series of alchemical experiment there for him. How long he remained in Kassel is not known. He published a three volume Opus medico-chymicum in 1618 that was largely copied from Libavius’ Alchemia (see below)

Astrological symbol from Opus medico-chymicum Source: Wikimedia Commons

The most important of Moritz’s alchemist was Johannes Hartmann (1568–1631), Mylius’ brother-in-law.

Johannes Hartmann engraving by Wilhelm Scheffer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hartmann originally studied mathematics at various Germany universities and was initially employed as court mathematicus in Kassel in 1591. In the following year he was appoint professor for mathematics at the University of Marburg by Moritz’s father, Wilhelm. In the 1590s, together with Wolf and Mosanus he began to study alchemy and medicine in the landgraves’ laboratory. In 1609, Moritz appointed Hartmann head of the newly founded Collegium Chymicum on the University of Marburg and professor of chymetria. Hartmann established a laboratory at the university and held lecture courses on laboratory practice. 

Collected works of Johannes Hartmann Source

The four German chymetria laboratory centres that I have sketched were by no means isolated. They were interconnected with each other both by correspondence and personal visits, as well as with other Paracelsian alchemists all over Europe. Both Croll and Maier although primarily associated with Rudolf in Prague spent time with Moritz in Kassel.

I now turn to Denmark, which in some senses was an extension of Germany. Denmark was Lutheran Protestant, German was spoken at the Danish court and many young Danes studied at German universities. Peder Sørensen (1542–1602), better known as Petrus Severinus, was one of the leading proponents of Paracelsian iatromedicine in Europe. It is not known where Severinus acquired his medical qualifications. In 1571, he became personal physician to King Frederick II until his death in 1588 and retained his position under Christian IV. In 1571, he published his Idea medicinæ philosophicæ, which was basically a simplified and clear presentation of the iatromedical theories of Paracelsus and was highly influential. 


Severinus moved in the same social circles as Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) and the two were friends and colleagues. Severinus’ medical theories had a strong influence on the astronomer and Tycho also became an advocate and practitioner of Paracelsian alchemical medicine.

Portrait of Tycho Brahe at age 50, c. 1596, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Tycho began to construct his Uraniborg on the island of Hven in 1576, he envisaged it as temple dedicated to the muses of arts and sciences. The finished complex was not just a simple observatory but a research institute with two of the most advanced observatories in Europe, a papermill, a printing works and in the basement an alchemical laboratory with sixteen furnaces for conduction distillations and other chemical experiments.

An illustration of Uraniborg. The Tycho Brahe Museum Alchemical laboratory on the left at the bottom

Tycho took his medical research very seriously developing medicines with which he treated colleagues and his family.

In the south of Germany Andreas Libavius (c. 1550–1616) took the opposite path to Severinus, he totally rejected the philosophies of Paracelsus, which he regarded as mystical rubbish, whilst at the same time embracing chymetria. Having received his MA in 1581, somewhat late in life in 1588, he began to study medicine at the University of Basel. In 1591, he was appointed city physician in Rothenburg ob der Taube, later being appointed superintendent of schools. 

Andreas Libavius artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1597, Libavius published his Alchemia, an alchemical textbook, a rarity in a discipline that lived from secrecy. It was written in four sections: what to have in a laboratory, chemical procedures, chemical analysis, and transmutation. Although, Libavius believed in transmutation he firmly rejected the concept of an elixir of life. In the laboratory section of his Alchemia, he contrasted Tycho’s laboratory on Hven, which, being Paracelsian, he viewed as defective with his own vision of an ideal alchemical laboratory.

Source:Wikimedia Commons

Roughly contemporaneous with Libavius, the German physician and alchemist Daniel Sennert (1572­–1637), who played a significant role in the propagation of atomic theory in chemistry, introduced practical laboratory research into his work in the medical faculty of the University of Wittenberg. Sennert represents the beginning of the transition of the laboratory away from the courts of the rulers and aristocrats into the medical faculties of the universities. 

Portrait of Daniel Sennert engraved by Matthäus Merian Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the seventeenth century the medical, alchemical laboratory gradually evolved into a chemical laboratory, whilst remaining a part of the university medical faculty, a transmutation[1] that was largely complete by the early eighteenth century. Herman Boerhaave (1668 – 1738), regarded as one of the founders of modern chemistry in the eighteenth century, his Elementa Chemiae (1732) was one of the earliest chemistry textbooks, was professor of medicine at Leiden University. A generation earlier, Robert Boyle (1627–1691), who ran his own private laboratory, and whose The Sceptical Chymist (1661) was a transitional text between alchemy and chemistry, was still a practicing alchemist, although he rejected the theories of Paracelsus.  

[1] Pun intended

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

Renaissance science – XXXX

As we have seen in previous episodes, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was one of the leading natural historians of the sixteenth century. The first ever professor for natural history at the University of Bologna.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605). attributed to Ludovico Carracci. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He created the university’s botanical garden, one of the oldest still in existence. Collected about 4760 specimens in his herbarium on 4117 sheets in sixteen volumes, which are still preserved in the university and wrote extensively on almost all aspects of natural history, although much of his writing remained unpublished at his death. However, despite all these other achievements in the discipline of natural history, visitors to Bologna during his lifetime came to see his teatro di natura (theatre of nature), also known as his natural historical collection or museum.  This was housed in the palatial country villa that he built with the money he received from the dowry of Francesca Fontana, his wife, when he married her. His theatre contained some 18,000 specimens of the diversità di cose naturali (diverse objects of nature). These included flora and fauna, as well as mineral and geological specimens. He wrote a description or catalogue of his collection in 1595. 

In 1603, after negotiation with the Senate, Aldrovandi arranged for his teatro di natura to be donated to the city of Bologna after his death in exchange for the promise that they would continue to edit and publish his vast convolute of unpublished papers. This duly took place, and his collection became a public museum in the Palazzo Poggi, the headquarters of the university, opening in 1617, as the first public science museum.

Palazzo Poggi Bologna c.1750 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with all of his natural history undertakings, Aldrovandi’s natural history museum was not the first, there being already ones in the botanical gardens of the universities of Pisa, Padua, and Florence but none of them approached the scope of Aldrovand’s magnificent collection. Also, later, the University of Montpelier had its own natural history collection. However, it wasn’t just institutions that created these early natural history museums. Individual apothecaries and physicians also set about collecting flora and fauna. 

The apothecary Francesco Calzolari (1522–1609) had an impressive Theatrum Naturae in Verona with 450 species on display. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Francesco Calzolari’s Cabinet of curiosities. From “Musaeum Calceolarium” (Verona, 1622) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, the papal physician, Michele Mercati (1541–1593), who was superintendent of the Vatican Botanical Garden, had a notable collection concentrating on minerology, geology, and palaeontology in Rome 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Engraving made by Antonio Eisenhot between 1572 and 1581, but published in 1717, representing the Vatican mineral collection as organized by Michele Mercati Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato (1523–1620?)  published Dell’Historia Naturale in Naples in 1599, which was based on his own extensive natural history collection and containing the first printed illustration of such a collection. 

Portrait of Ferrante Imperato by Tanzio da Varallo  Source: Wikimedia Commons
Title page of Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons
Engraving from Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons

In the sixteenth century it became very fashionable for rulers to create cabinets of curiosities also know by the German terms as Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer. These were not new and had existed in the two previous centuries but in the Renaissance took on a whole new dimension. These contained not only natural history objects but also sculptures and paintings, as well curious items from home and abroad, with those from abroad taking on a special emphasis as Europe began to make contact with the rest of the world. 

The curiosity cabinet is a vast topic, and I don’t intend to attempt to cover it in this blog post, also it is only tangentially relevant to the central topic of this blog post series. I will, however, sketch some aspect that are relevant. Although they covered much material that wasn’t scientific, they were fairly obviously inspired by various aspects of the increasingly empirical view of the world that scholars had been developing throughout the Renaissance. We don’t just go out and actually observe the world for ourselves, we also bring the world into our dwellings so that all can observe it there. They represent a world view created by the merging of history, art, nature, and science. Although principally the province of the rich and powerful, for whom they became a status symbol, some notable Wunderkammer were created by scholars and scholars from the various scientific disciplines were often employed to search out, collect, and then curate the object preserved in the cabinets. 

Some of these cabinets created by the Renaissance rulers also had sections for scientific instruments and their owner commissioned instruments from the leading instrument makers of the era. These are not the average instruments created for everyday use but top of the range instruments designed to demonstrate the instrument makers skill and not just instruments but also works of art. As such they were never really intended to be used and many survive in pristine condition down to the present day. One such collection is that which was initially created by Elector August of Saxony (1526–1586), can be viewed in the Mathematish-Physikalischer Salon in the Zwinger in Dresden. 

Portrait of the Elector August of Saxony by Lucas Cranach Source: Wikimedia Commons
Planetenlaufuhr, 1563-1568 Eberhard Baldewein et al., Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon

Equally impressive is the collection initially created by Wilhelm IV, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, (1532-1592), who ran a major observational astronomy programme, which can be viewed today in the Astronomisch-Physikalische Kabinett

Portrait of Wilhelm IV. von Hessen-Kassel by Kaspar van der Borcht († 1610) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Equation clock, made for Landgrave William IV of Hesse-Kassel by Jost Burgi and Hans Jacob Emck, Germany, Kassel, 1591, gilt brass, silver, iron Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City via Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly Cosimo I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany (1519–1574)

Agnolo Bronzino, Porträt von Cosimo I de’ Medici in Rüstung, 1545, Source: Uffizien via Wikimedia Commons

had his cabinet of curiosities, the Guardoroba Nuova, in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, designed by the artist and historian of Renaissance art Giorgi Vasari (1511–1574), who, as I have documented in an earlier post, in turn commissioned the artist, mathematician, astronomer and cartographer, Egnatio Danti (1536–1586), to decorate the doors of the carved walnut cabinets, containing the collected treasures, with mural maps depicting the whole world. Danti also designed the rooms centre piece, a large terrestrial globe. 

Source: Fiorani The Marvel of Maps p. 57

The alternative name Wunderkammer became common parlance because various German emperors and other rulers somewhat dominated the field of curiosity cabinet construction. Probably the largest and most spectacular Wunderkammer was that of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II (1552–1612).

Rudolf II portrait by  Joseph Heintz the Elder 1594 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was an avid art collector and patron, but he also collected mechanical automata, ceremonial swords, musical instruments, clocks, water works, compasses, telescopes, and other scientific instruments. His Kunstkammer incorporated the three kingdoms of nature and the works of man. Unusually, Rudolf’s cabinet was systematically arranged in encyclopaedic fashion, and he employed his court physician Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632), a Flemish humanist, minerologist, physician, and naturalist to catalogue it. De Boodt had succeeded Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) as superintendent of Rudolf’s botanical garden.

Rudolf II Kunstkammer

Although it was a private institution, Rudolph allowed selected professional scholars to study his Wunderkammer. In fact, as well as inanimate objects Rudolf also studiously collected some of Europe’s leading scholars. The astronomers Nicolaua Reimers Baer (1551–1600), Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) all served as imperial mathematicus. The instrument maker, Jost Bürgi came from Kassel to Prague. As already mentioned, Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) and Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632) both served as superintendent of the imperial botanical gardens. The later also served as personal physician to Rudolf, as did the Czech naturalist, astronomer, and physician Thaddaeus Hagecius ab Hayek (1525–1600). The notorious occultist Edward Kelly (1555-1597) worked for a time in Rudolf’s alchemy laboratory.

When Rudolf died his Wunderkammer was mostly transferred to Vienna by his brother and successor as Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias, where it was gradually dissipated over the years. Although, his was by far the most spectacular Rudolf’s was only one of many cabinets of curiosity created during the Renaissance by the rich and powerful as a status symbol. However, there were also private people who also created them; the most well-known being the Danish, naturalist, antiquary, and physician Ole Worm (1588­–1654).

Ole Worm and Dorothea Worm, née Fincke artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Son of Willum Worm a mayor of Aarhus, he inherited substantial wealth from his father. After attending grammar school, he studied theology Marburg and graduated Doctor of Medicine at the University of Basel in 1611. He also graduated MA at the University of Copenhagen in 1618. He spent the rest of his life in Copenhagen, where he taught Latin Greek, physics, and medicine, whilst serving as personal physician to the Danish King, Christian IV (1577–1648). He died of the bubonic plague after staying in the city to treat the sick during an epidemic.

As a physician he contributed to the study of embryology. Other than medicine he took a great interest in Scandinavian ethnography and archaeology. As a naturalist he determined that the unicorn was a mythical beast and that the unicorn horns in circulation were actually narwhal tusks. He produced the first detail drawing of a bird-of-paradise, proving that they, contrary to popular belief, did in fact have feet. He also drew from life the only known illustration of the now extinct great auk.

OLe Worm’s Great Auk Source: Wikimedia Commons

Worm is best known today for his extensive cabinet of curiosity the Museum Wormianum a great collection of curiosities ranging from native artifacts from the New World, to stuffed animals and fossils in which he specialised.

1655 – Frontispiece of Museum Wormiani Historia Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with other cabinets, Worm’s collection consisted of minerals, plants, animals, and man-made objects. Worm complied a catalogue of his collection with engravings and detailed descriptions, which was published posthumously in four books, as Museum Wormianum. The first three books deal respectively with minerals, plants, and animals. The fourth is archaeological and ethnographical items. 

Title page 
Museum Wormianum. Seu historia rerum rariorum, tam naturalium, quam artificialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quæ Hafniæ Danorum in œdibus authoris servantur. Adornata ab Olao Worm … Variis & accuratis iconibus illustrata. Source

A private cabinet of curiosity that then became an institutional one was that of the Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Kircher referred to variously as the Master of a Hundred Arts and The Last man Who Knew Everything belonged very much to the Renaissance rather than the scientific revolution during which he lived and was active.

Athanasius Kircher engraving by Cornelis Bloemaert Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was author of about forty major works that covered a bewildering range of topics, which ranged from the genuinely scientific to the truly bizarre. Immensely popular and widely read in his own time, he quickly faded into obscurity following his death. Born in Fulda in Germany, one of nine children, he attended a Jesuit college from 1614 till 1618 when he entered the Jesuit Order. Following a very mixed education and career he eventually landed in the Collegio Romano in 1634, where he became professor for mathematics. Here he fulfilled an important function in that he collected astronomical data from Jesuit missionaries throughout the world, which he collated and redistributed to astronomers throughout Europe on both sides of the religious divide. 

Given he encyclopaedic interests it was perfectly natural for Kircher to begin to assemble his own private cabinet of curiosities. In 1651, the Roman Senator Alfonso Donnini (d.1651) donated his own substantial cabinet of curiosities to the Collegio, and the authorities decided that it was best placed in the care of Father Kircher. Combining it with his own collection, Kircher established, what became known as the Musæum Kircherianum, which he continued to expand throughout his lifetime.

Musæum Kircherianum, 1679 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The museum became very popular and attracted many visitors. Giorgio de Sepibus published a first catalogue in 1678, the only surviving evidence of the original layout. Following Kircher’s death the museum fell into neglect but was revived, following the appointment of Filippo Bonanni (1638–1725), Kercher’s successor as professor of mathematics, as curator in 1698. Bonnani published a new catalogue of the museum in 1709. The museum prospered till 1773 till the suppression of the Jesuit Order led to its gradual dissipation, reestablishment in 1824, and final dispersion in 1913.

Filippo Bonanni, Musaeum Kircherianum, 1709 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we have seen cabinets of curiosities often evolved into public museums and I will close with brief sketches of two that became famous museums in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570–1638) was an English, naturalist, gardener, and collector. He was gardener for a succession of leading English aristocrats culminating in service to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. In his duties he travelled widely, particularly with and for Buckingham, visiting the Netherlands, Artic Russia, the Levant, Algiers, and France. Following Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, he was appointed Keeper of the King’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey.

John Tradescant the Elder (portrait attributed to Cornelis de Neve) Source: Wikimedia Commons

On his journeys he collected seeds, plants, bulbs, as well as natural historical and ethnological curiosities. He housed this collection, his cabinet of curiosities, in a large house in Lambeth, The Ark.

Tradescant’s house in Lambeth: The Ark Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was opened to the public as a museum. The collection also included specimens from North America acquired from colonists, including his personal friend John Smith (1580–1631), soldier, explorer, colonial governor, and Admiral of New England.

His son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662) followed his father in becoming a naturalist and a gardener.

John Tradescant the Younger, attributed to Thomas de Critz Source: Wikmedia Commons

Like his father he travelled widely including two trips to Virginia between 1628 and 1637. He added both botanical and other objects extensively to the family collection in The Ark. When his father died, he inherited his position as head gardener to Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France working in the gardens of Queens House in Greenwich. Following the flight of Henrietta Maria in the Civil War, he compiled a catalogue of the family cabinet of curiosities, as Museum Tradescantianum, dedicated to the Royal College of Physicians with whom he was negotiating to transfer the family botanical garden. A second edition of the catalogue was dedicated to Charles II after the restoration.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around 1650, John Tradescant the Younger became acquainted with the antiquarian, politician, astrologer and alchemist, Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), who might be described as a social climber.

Elias Ashmole by John Riley, c. 1683

Born into a prominent but impoverished family, he managed to qualify as a solicitor with the help of a prominent maternal relative. He married but his wife died in pregnancy, just three years later in 1641. In 1646-47, he began searching for a rich widow to marry. In 1649, he married Mary, Lady Mainwaring, a wealthy thrice widowed woman twenty years older than him. The marriage was not a success and Lady Manwaring filed suit for separation and alimony, but the suit was dismissed by the courts in 1657 and having inherited her first husband’s estate, Ashmole was set up for life to pursue his interests in alchemy and astrology, without having to work. 

Ashmole helped Tradescant to catalogue the family collection and financed the publication of the catalogue in 1652 and again in 1656. Ashmole persuaded John Tradescant to deed the collection to him, going over into his possessing upon Tradescant’s death in 1662. Tradescant’s widow, Hester, challenged the deed but the court ruled in Ashmole’s favour. Hester held the collection in trust for Ashmole until her death.

In 1677, Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant collection together with his own collection to the University of Oxford on the condition that they build a building to house them and make them available to the general public. So, the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s second university museum and Britain’s first public museum, came into existence on 24 May 1683.

The original Ashmolean Museum building on Board Street Oxford now the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford Source: Wikimedia Commons

My second British example is the cabinet of curiosities of Hans Sloane (1660–1753), physician, naturalist, and collector.

Slaughter, Stephen; Sir Hans Sloane, Bt; Source: National Portrait Gallery, London via Wikipedia Commons

Sloane was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Killyleagh a village in County Down, Ulster. Already as a child Sloane began collecting natural history items and curiosities, which led him to the study of medicine. In London, he studied botany, materia medica, surgery, and pharmacy. In 1687, he travelled to Jamaica as personal physician to the new Governor Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Albemarle died in the following year, so Sloane was only in Jamaica for eighteen months, however, in this time he collected more than a thousand plant specimens and recorded eight hundred new species of plants, starting a lifetime of collecting.

Sloane married the widow Elizabeth Langley Rose a wealthy owner of Jamaican sugar plantation worked by slaves, making Sloane independently wealthy. There followed a successful career as physician, Secretary of the Royal Society, editor of the Philosophical Transactions, President of the Royal College of Physicians, and finally President of the Royal Society. Throughout his life, Sloane continued to collect. He used his wealth to acquire the natural history collections of Barbadian merchant William Courten (1572–1636), papal nuncio Cardinal Filippo Antonio Gualterio (1660–1728), apothecary James Petiver (c.1665–1718), plant anatomist Nehemiah Grew, botanist Leonard Plukenet (1641–1706), gardener and botanist the Duchess of Beaufort (1630–1715), botanist Adam Buddle (1662–1715), physician and botanist Paul Hermann (1646–1695), botanist and apothecary Franz Kiggelaer  (1648–1722), and botanist, chemist, and physician Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738).

 When he died Sloane’s collection of over seventy-one thousand items– books manuscripts, drawings, coins and medals, plant specimens and more–was sold to the nation for £20,000, well below its true value. It formed to founding stock of the British Museum and British Library, which opened in 1759.

Montagu House, c. 1715 the original home of the British museum

The natural history collection was split off to found the Natural History Museum, which opened in South Kensington in 1881.

The Natural History Museum. This is a panorama of approximately 5 segments. Taken with a Canon 5D and 17-40mm f/4L. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance practice of creating cabinets of curiosities played a significant role in the creation of modern museums in Europe. It also provided scientists with collections of materials on which to conduct their research, an important element in the development of empirical science in the Early Modern Period. 





Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, History of science, History of Technology, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXIX

Over a series of episodes, we have followed how the Renaissance Humanists introduced materia medica into the university curriculum developing it from a theoretical subject to a practical empirical field of research and then over time, how the modern scientific study of botany developed out of it. We have also seen how some of the same energy was invested in laying down the beginnings of the modern scientific study of zoology. The beginnings of this evolution at the end of the fifteenth century coincided with the beginnings of the so-called Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration, which as I stated in the first episode on navigation I prefer to refer to as the Contact Period, when Europeans first came into contact with lands and peoples unknown to them, such as the Americas or sub-Saharan Africa, and at the same time vastly increased their knowledge of countries such as India; they also became acquainted with a vast number of new medicinal herbs and other plants as well as animals, which played an increasing role in their studies in these areas. 

Exotica out of the plant and animal kingdoms were not unknown to the European scholars, after all Alexander the Great had conquered Persia and Northern India and the Romans Northern Africa. They brought knowledge of these lands and their flora and fauna back into Europe and even imported many of those plants and animals. Famously, Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants and the Romans fed Christians to the lions in the Circus Maximus. Some of these exotica were also recorded in the works of Aristotle, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny. Later in the Middle Ages the Islamic forces created an Empire that stretched from China to Spain and the Islamic scholars also recorded much of the flora and fauna of this vast Empire. A lot of that material came into Europe during the twelfth century Scientific Renaissance when large quantities of Arabic material was translated into Latin. 

However, this knowledge of natural historical exotica was purely second hand and the European recipients in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had no way of knowing how accurate it was or even if it was true. They had no first-hand empirical verification. Were the accounts of real plants and animals or mythical ones. Just looking at the proto-zoological works of both Conrad Gesner and Ulisse Aldrovandi illustrates this problem. Both of them include many animals that we now know never existed, myths and legends from other times and other cultures. They had no way of differentiating between the real and the mythical, although they both put hesitant question marks behind some of the mythical beasts that they served up for their readers.

The vastly increased voyages of trade and exploration, although one could simply write trade as almost all exploratory voyages where motivated by the hope of trade, during the contact period gave the Renaissance scholars the chance to go and search out and describe the exotica with their own eyes. When talking about Renaissance zoology we saw that the French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517–1564) travelled as a diplomate in Greece, Crete, Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine between 1546 and 1549 and observed and wrote about natural history there. Under the botanists Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) translated Garcia de Orta’s important materia medica text Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia, into Latin from the original Portuguese and published it in Europe in 1567. He also acquired information about the flora of the Americas by questioning seafarers returning to the Iberian Peninsula from there. Clusius’ interest in the materia medica and natural history of the newly discovered Americas didn’t end with just collecting information from returnees, he also translated and published in Latin. the work of Nicolás Monardes (1493–1588)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monardes was born in Seville the son of Nicolosi di Monardis, an Italian bookseller, and Ana de Alfaro, the daughter of a physician. He graduated BA in 1530 and obtaining a first degree in medicine in 1533, began to practice medicine in Seville. He obtained a doctorate in medicine from the University of Alcalá de Henares in 1547. He wrote extensively on the materia medica of the Americas. In 1565, he published his Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales in Seville, which was based on the reports of a wide range of people returning from the Americas. In 1569, he published an extended version, his Dos libros, el uno que trata de todas las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de la medicina, y el otro que trata de la piedra bezaar, y de la yerva escuerçonera. A second volume expanding on the material in the first two books, Segunda parte del libro des las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de la medicina; do se trata del tabaco, y de la sassafras, y del carlo sancto, y de otras muchas yervas y plantas, simientes, y licores que agora nuevamente han venido de aqulellas partes, de grandes virtudes y maravillosos effectos appeared in Saville in 1571. A single edition of all three books, Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de neustra Indias Occidentales, que sirven en medicina; Tratado de la piedra bezaar, y dela yerva escuerçonera; Dialogo de las grandezas del hierro, y de sus virtudes medicinales; Tratado de la nieve, y del beuer frio was published in Saville in 1574, with a second edition appearing in 1580.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

 In 1574, Platin in Antwerp published Clusius first translation De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis quorum in medicina usus est. Plantin published a revised edition, Simplicium medicamentorum ex novo orbe delatorum, quorum in medicina usus est, historia, in 1579. In 1582, Clusius produced a compendium of revised translations of the work of Garcia de Orta, Nicolás Monardes, and Cristóbal Acosta, to who we will return shortly. A further revised edition appeared in 1593 and a last revision in 1605. In 1577, John Frampton, a sixteenth century English merchant, published an English translation of the 1565 Spanish text, Ioyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde, wherein is declared the rare and singular vertues of diuerse and sundrie hearbes, trees, oyles, plantes, and stones, with their applications, as well for phisicke as chirurgerie in London. A new expanded edition based in the 1574 Spanish text appeared in 1580.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before we turn to Acosta, we need to deal with Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478–1557), who preceded him.

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés Source: Wikimedia Commons

Oviedo was a Spanish, soldier, historian, writer, botanist, and colonist, who participated in the colonisation of the West Indies already in the 1490s. Born in Madrid, he was educated at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, where he served as a page to the Infanta, Juan de Aragón, until his death in 1497. He then spent three years in Italy before returning to a position as a bureaucrat in the Castilian imperial project. In 1514, he was appointed supervisor of gold smelting in Santo Domingo and in 1523 historian of the West Indies. He travelled five more times to the Americas before his death. 

In 1526, he published a short work, La Natural hystoria de las Indias, with few illustrations, in Toledo. It was translated into Italian appearing in Venice in 1534, with French editions beginning in 1545, and English ones beginning in 1555. In 1535, part one of a longer and more fully illustrated Historia general de las Indias was printed in Seville, which contained the announcement of two further parts. He continued to work on a revised version of part one and on parts two and three until his death in 1557, but they were first published in an incomplete edition in 1851 entitled, Natural y General Hystoria de las Indias. English and French editions of the 1535 Seville publication appeared in 1555 and 1556 respectively. The Saville publication is a ragbag of topics but contains quite a lot of both botanical and zoological information. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Portuguese physician and natural historian, Cristóbal Acosta (c. 1525–c. 1594), whose work was partially included in Clusius’ 1582 compendium, is thought to have been born somewhere in Africa, because he claimed to be African in his publications.

Cristóbal Acosta Source: Wikimedia Commons

He first travelled to the East Indies, as a soldier, in 1550. He returned to Goa with his former captain, Luís de Ataíde, who had been appointed Viceroy of Portuguese India, in 1568, the year Garcia de Orta died. He worked as a physician in India and gained a reputation for collecting botanical specimens. He returned to Europe in 1572 and worked as a physician in Spain. In 1578, he published his Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias orientales (Treatise of the drugs and medicines of the East Indies). This work included much that was culled from Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia but became better known that Orta’s work. The last entry was a treatise on the Indian Elephant, the first published in Europe. The work was translated into Italian in 1585 by Francesco Ziletti.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cristóbal Acosta is not to be confused with José de Acosta (c. 1539–1600), the Jesuit missionary and naturalist.

José de Acosta Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Medina del Campo, Spain José de Costa joined the Jesuit Order at the age of thirteen. In 1569, he was sent by the Order to Lima, Peru. Ordered to cross the Andes to journey to the Viceroy of Peru, he and his companions suffered altitude sickness; Acosta, as one of the earliest to do so, gave a detailed description of the ailment, attributing it correctly to “air… so thin and so delicate that it is not proportioned to human breathing.” Acosta aided the Viceroy in a five-year tour through the Viceroyalty of Peru, seeing and recording much of what he experienced. He spent the year of 1586 in Mexico studying the culture of the Aztecs. In 1587, he returned to Spain. He published many, mostly theological, works in his lifetime but is best known as the author of De Natura Novi OrbisDe promulgatione Evangelii apud Barbaros, sive De Procuranda Indorum salute (both published in Salamanca in 1588) and above all, the Historia natural y moral de las Indias(published in Savile in 1590). 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his Historia natural y moral de las Indias he presented his observations on the physical geography and natural history of Mexico and Peru as well as the indigenous religions and political structures from a Jesuit standpoint. His book was one of the first detailed and realistic descriptions of the New World. Acosta presented the theory that the indigenous populations must have crossed over from Asia into the Americas. The work was translated into various European languages, appearing in English in 1604 and in French in 1617.

Historia natural y moral de las Indias Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted that just as the early Renaissance natural historians in Europe relied, to a great extent, for their information on plants, herbs and animals on farmers, hunters, foresters, and others who lived and worked on the land, so the Europeans studying the materia medica and natural histories of Asia and the Americas depended very heavily on the information that they received from the indigenous populations. This was particularly the case in the next natural historians that I will briefly present.

Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499–1590) was born Bernadino de Rivera in Sahagùn in Spain and attended the humanist University of Salamanca and there joined the Franciscan Order, changing his name to that of his birthplace, as was the Franciscan custom, and was probably ordained in 1527. He was recruited in 1529 to join the Franciscan mission to New Spain.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He helped found the first European school of higher education in the Americas, the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in 1536. He learnt the Aztec language Nahuatl in order to be able to confer with the indigenous population about materia medica and natural history. In 1558, he was commissioned by the new provincial of New Spain, Fra Francisco de Toral, to formalise his studies of native languages and culture. He spent twenty-five years researching the topic with the last fifteen spent editing, translating, and copying. He was assisted in his research by five graduates of the Collegio, all of whom spoke Nahuatl, Latin, and Spanish, and as well as helping him to interview the elders about the religious rituals and calendar, family, economic and political customs, and natural history, also participated in research and documentation, translation and interpretation, as well as painting the illustrations. In the text he credited them for their work by name. 

Out of this research Sahagún created a twelve volume General History of the Things of New Spain, the manuscript was sent to Philip II of Spain. It was never printed, and the manuscript was bought by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1580. He put it on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and it is generally known as the Florentine Codex. The volume that deals with natural history is titled Earthly Things and is the most heavily illustrated, containing paintings of thirty-nine mammals, one hundred and twenty birds and more than six hundred flowers. The hundreds of New World plants listed in the Florentine Codex are presented according to an Aztec system of taxonomy. The Aztec divided plants up into four main groups: edible, decorative, economic, and medicinal. 

The Florentine Codex Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Florentine Codex Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sahagún’s Historia general was not the only book on indigenous materia medica to emerge from the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco. In 1552, a native graduate, Martín de la Cruz wrote a Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis (Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians) in Nahuatl, which was translated into Latin by Juan Badianus de la Cruz (1484–later than 1552) an Aztec teacher at the Collegio. The original Nahuatl manuscript no longer exists. The manuscript is a compendium of two hundred and fifty medicinal herbs used by the Aztecs. The Latin manuscript sent to Spain changed hands many times over the years before landing in the Vatican Library. In 1990, it was returned to Mexico, where it now resides in library of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.

Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis Source: Wikimedia Commons
Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the seventeenth century copies of the manuscript were made by Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657) and Francesco Stelluti (1577–1652), both members of the Accademia dei Lincei. The Dal Pozzo copy in now in the Royal Library at Windsor but the Stelluti copy has disappeared. 

For many years, Ulisse Aldrovandi hoped to get a commission from the Spanish Crown to study the natural history of New Spain but in the end, King Philip II sent his personal physician, Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514–1587) there to study the medicinal plants and animals.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of Jewish extraction, he studied medicine at the University of Alcalá from 1530 to 1536 and was connected with the leading scholars of the period. In the area of botanical studies, he won a good reputation for his study of the medical effectivity of plants and his translation into Spanish of Pliny’s Naturalis historia. In 1570, Francisco Hernández shipped out to the Americas accompanied by his son Juan, and the cosmographer Francisco Domínguez, who had been commissioned by the king to map New Spain.

Like Sahagún he learnt Nahuatl and acquired most of his knowledge by interviewing the indigenous population. He was accompanied in his work by three Aztec painters– baptized Antón, Baltazar Elías, and Pedro Vázquez–who provided the illustrations for his work. His work describes over three thousand plants unknown to Europeans, an incredible number when one considers that Dioscorides’ Materia Medica only contains about five hundred. Hernández sent at least sixteen bound volumes of manuscripts back the Philip before he returned in 1577. Theses were three volumes of twenty-four books on plants, one volume of six treatises on animals, eleven volumes of coloured illustrations, and at least one volume of dried plant specimens, there may have been more. 

As with Sahagún, there were problems when it came to the publication of his work. He intended to publish three editions, one in Spanish, one in Latin, and the third in Nahuatl for the indigenous population of New Spain. However, his voluminous material was in a mess, and he was unable to complete the mammoth task that he had undertaken, so the book remained unpublished in his lifetime. Philip II placed the manuscript in the library of the Monasterio y Sitio de El Escorial en Madrid (Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial), where it was destroyed in a fire in 1671. 

In 1580, Nardo Antonio Recchi (1540–1594) was appointed Hernández’s successor as Philip’s personal physician and took on the task of trying to bring order into Hernández’s chaos. Recchi produced a four-volume edition of Hernández’s work and Juan de Herrera (1530–1597), the architect of El Escorial began the process of preparing it for publication in 1582. However, by the time of his death in 1587 little progress had been made and the project died with him. However, Recchi had taken a copy of his manuscript back to Naples with him and it became the grail for all of the European natural historians, including, Giovanni della Porta, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Carolus Clusius, were eager to study the treasures that Hernández had brought back from the New World.

Part of Hernández’s work, the Index medicamentorum, an index that lists Mexican plants according to their traditional therapeutic uses, was published in Mexico City; the index was arranged according to body part, and it was ordered from head to toe. A Spanish translation appeared as an appendix to the medical treatises of Juan de Barrios (1562–1645) in 1607.  

A Spanish translation of Recchi’s four-volume edition was prepared by Fra Francisco Ximénez with the title, Quatro libros de la naturaleza y virtudes de las plantas y animales and published in Mexico City in 1615.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Accademia dei Lincei under the leadership of Prince Federico Cesi (1585–1630) took up the task of publishing a Latin edition of Recchi’s work. A partial, heavily redacted edition under the title Francisci Hernandez rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus appeared in print in 1628, however the project was laid on ice when Cesi died in 1630. Finally, a complete Latin edition of Recchi’s four volumes, edited by Johannes Schreck (1576–1630) and Fabio Colonna (1567–1640), was published in Rome, including material from Hernández’s original manuscripts not used by Recchi, with the title, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium mexicanorum historia a Francisco Hernández in indis primum compilata, de inde a Nardo Antonio Reccho in volumen digesta (1648–51)

Source:Wikimedia Commons

Of course, what I have sketched above was only the beginning of the European awareness of the natural history of the world outside of Europe and down to the present-day thousands of research expeditions by scientists from all other the world have continued to add to our knowledge of the extraordinary diversity of flora and fauna on our planet. 


Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXVIII

There is a strong tendency to regard the so-called scientific revolution in the seventeenth century as a revolution of the mathematical science i.e., astronomy and physics, but as I have pointed out over the years many areas of knowledge went through a major development in the period beginning, in my opinion around 1400 and reaching, not a conclusion or a high point, but shall we say a stability by about 1750. During the seventeenth century one area of knowledge that experienced major developments was that of the life sciences, mostly in combination with medicine. One area that had intrigued humanity for millennia, which found an initial resolution during the second half of the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries was the puzzle of conception and procreation; in simple words, how are babies made? The starting point of this development is usually taken to be the work of the English physician, William Harvey (1578–1657),

William Harvey portrait attributed to Daniël Mijtens, c. 1627 Source: Wikimedia Commons

better known for his discovery of the blood circulation, who wrote a Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium, which was first published 1651, the main message of which was summed up on the frontispiece by the inscription Ex ovo omnia – All things come from an egg.[1]

The frontispiece Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium showing Zeus freeing all creation from an egg with the inscription Ex ovo omnia – All things come from an egg. Source Welcome Collection

It is not a coincidence that Harvey acquired his doctorate in medicine in Padua a Northern Italian, Renaissance Humanist university. Towards the end of the sixteenth century some of the Renaissance Humanist natural historians and physicians had taken up the study of embryology, not as many as had taken to botany or even as many as had taken to zoology, but the most significant work was produced by Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendende (1533-1619), who was Harvey’s teacher.

As we have seen in this series as a whole, and specifically in the episodes on natural history, the Renaissance Humanists, who regarded themselves as the inheritors of classical antiquity, turned to sources from classical antiquity as their inspiration, motivation, and role models, when undertaking scientific endeavours. For the transition from materia medica to botany the major role model was Dioscorides, for zoology Pliny and Aristotle. For embryology, although both the Hippocratic Corpus and the Galenic Corpus both contain writings on the topic, it was principally to Aristotle that the Renaissance humanists turned as role model.

It has become fashionable in recent times to heavily criticise Aristotle both as a scientist and as a philosopher of science, and even to suggest that he hindered the advancement of science through his posthumous dominance. His critics, however, tend to ignore that he was for his time quite a good empirical biologist. Yes, he got things wrong and also made some, by modern standards, ridiculous statements, but a lot of his biological work was based on solid empirical observation, so with his embryology.

In the Early Modern Period, there was a heated debate between the supporters of two different theories of embryology preformation and epigenesis. The theory of preformation claimed that the male sperm contained a complete preformed, miniature infant, or homunculus, that was injected into the female womb where it grew larger over the pregnancy before emerging at birth. 

A tiny person (a homunculus) inside a sperm as drawn by Nicolaas Hartsoeker in 1695 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Opposed to this the theory of epigenesis in which the form of the infant emerges gradually, over time from a relatively formless egg. The theory of epigenesis was first proposed by Aristotle in his De Generatione Animalium (On the Generation of Animals). This work consists of five books of which the first two deal with embryology. I’m not going to give an account of all that Aristotle delivers here but just note two things. For Aristotle human procreation is the male sperm, activating the female menstrual blood. 

A brief overview of the general theory expounded in De Generatione requires an explanation of Aristotle’s philosophy. The Aristotelian approach to philosophy is teleological, and involves analyzing the purpose of things, or the cause for their existence. These causes are split into four different types: final cause, formal cause, material cause, and efficient cause. The final cause is what a thing exists for, or its ultimate purpose. The formal cause is the definition of a thing’s essence or existence, andAristotle states that in generation, the formal cause and the final cause are similar to each other, and can be thought of as the goal of creating a new individual of the species. The material cause is the stuff a thing is made of, which in Aristotle’s theory is the female menstrual blood. The efficient cause is the “mover” or what causes the thing’s existence, and for reproduction Aristotle designates the male semen as the efficient cause. Thus, while the mother’s body contains all the material necessary for creating her offspring, she requires the father’s semen to start and guide the process.

Source: The Embryo Project Encyclpopedia

 Secondly, he developed his theory of epigenesis by the empirical examination of the foetuses in incubating birds’ eggs.

Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566) in his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt (1554) and Pierre Belon (1517–1564) in his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt and his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt were both heavily influenced by Aristotle, and both included discussion on reproduction in their works. Famously, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) carried out studies of the human embryo and foetus amongst his more general anatomical investigations but these first became known in the nineteenth century so played no role in the historical development of the discipline. 

A page showing Leonardo’s study of a foetus in the womb (c. 1510), Royal Library, Windsor Castle via Wikimedia Commons

The Italian physician Julius Caesar Aranzi (1529–1589),

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

who was lecturer for anatomy and surgery at the University of Bologna, published his De humano foetu opusculum, which contains the first correct account of the anatomical peculiarities of the foetus in Rome in 1564. Further editions appeared in Venice in 1572 and in Basel in 1579. 

As with much else in sixteenth century zoology, a lead was taken by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), who followed Aristotle in making daily examinations of fertilised chickens’ eggs, to follow the development of the embryo. He wrote in his Ornithologiae tomus alter de avibus terrestribus, mensae inservientibus et canoris (1600):

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“ex ovis duobus, et vinginti, quae Galina incubabat, quotidie unum cum maxima diligentia, ac curiositate” (each day, with the greatest care and curiosity, I dissected one of twenty-two eggy which a hen was incubating).

Although he describes in detail his embryological observation the lavishly illustrated volume only contains one picture of embryological interest, that of a chick in the act of hatching. 

Volcher Coiter (1534–1576), a Dutch student of Aldrovandi’s, who, before his studies with Aldrovandi, also studied with Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562) and Bartolomeo Eustachi (c. 1505–1574), and then Guillaume Rondelet(1507–1566) after his time in Bolgna, and who became town physician in Nürnberg in 1569, also took up the systematic study of the development of chicken embryos at Aldrovandi’s urging.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He published the results of his studies in his Externarum et Internarum Principalium Humani Corporis Partium Tabulae in Nürnberg in 1572, that is twenty-eight years before Aldrovandi published his.

Source: Welcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Skeleton of a child from Externarum et Internarum Principalium Humani Corporis Partium Tabulae

It has been speculated that Aldrovandi was in fact publishing the results of Coiter’s research without acknowledgement. In 1575, Coiter published his book on ornithology De Avium Sceletis et Praecipius Musculis, which contains detailed anatomical studies of birds. 

As already stated above the major Renaissance work on embryology was by Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendende (1533-1619), or more simply Girolamo Fabrici.

Source: Welcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

Hieronymus Fabricius got his doctorate in medicine under Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562) in Padua in 1562. He succeeded Falloppio as professor for surgery and anatomy. Fabricius was responsible for the construction of the university’s first permanent anatomical theatre. Here he gave lectures and anatomical demonstrations dissecting the uterus and placenta of pregnant women in 1586. He began lecturing on the foetus in 1589 and embryology in 1592. 

Fabricius’ work displays attempts to balance traditional views and the knowledge he has won from his work. His first book on embryology, De formato foetu was published in about 1600 with many editions appearing between 1600 and 1620. His studies in embryology were much more extensive than any previous researcher and in this, his first publication on the topic, he divides embryology into three areas, firstly semen and the organs that generate it, secondly how semen interacts and generates the foetus, and finally the form of the foetus. His planned book on semen never appeared and is considered lost and his book on the generation of the foetus, De formation ovi et pulli, was published posthumously in 1621.

L0008411 Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Engraving 1604 De formato foetu. [De brutorum loquela. De venarum ostiolis. De locutione et eius instrumentis liber / Fabricius Published: 1604] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

In part one of De formato foetu, Fabricius discusses the form of the foetus and uterus based on his dissections. He discusses and criticises Aranzi’s De humano foetu opusculu.

L0008414 Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images – Engraving De formato foetu. [De brutorum loquela. De venarum ostiolis. De locutione et eius instrumentis liber Fabricus, Hieronymus Published: 1604 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

In part two he discusses the umbilical vessels, placenta etc. He follows the views of Galen and Aristotle although he gives some original but mistaken views on the placenta, which he had examined in greater detail than any previous investigators. 

L0008418 Plate from “De formato foetu…” Fabricius, 1604 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images – Engraving De formato foetu. [De brutorum loquela. De venarum ostiolis. De locutione et eius instrumentis liber Fabricus, Hieronymus Published: 1604 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

De formation ovi et pulli (On the Formation of the Egg and of the Chick) was earlier work than De formato foetu but only appeared in print two years after his death.


This book is also in two parts the first of which deals with the formation of the egg, whilst the second covers the generation of the chick within the egg.

L0012570 Plate from “De formatione ovi et pulli”, Fabricius 1621 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Chicken and egg. Engraving De formatione ovi et pulli Fabricius, Hieronymous Published: 1621 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

As before, the book is a balance act between the traditional views of Galen and Aristotle, and the knowledge that Fabricius had gained through his own research. Once again, he discusses and criticises Anzani’s views.

Both books are richly illustrated with engraved plates. 

Hieronymus Fabricius books represent the high point of Renaissance embryology and whilst far from perfect they laid the foundations for the work of his most famous student William Harvey. 

[1] The information on Harvey and his book is taken from Matthew Cobb’s excellent, The Egg & Sperm RaceThe Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, The Free Press, 2006, which tells the whole story outlined in it’s almost 19th century title.


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

Renaissance science – XXXVI

As I have sketched in recent episodes of this series, the adoption of materia medica into the curriculum for medical studies at the Renaissance universities, led fairly rapidly to an empirical turn in the study of simples (i.e., medical herbs) and over time the study of plants in general. Initially, this consisted largely of going out into nature and observing growing plants in their natural habitat and recording those observations. At first just individual physicians acquiring knowledge for themselves and their teaching and then later taking the students out on field trips and doing the teaching on the growing plants rather than in the lecture halls. Academics very soon took the next natural step and began collecting plants within the universities as teaching and research material. At first, in the form of living plants in the newly created university botanical gardens, modelled on the earlier monastic medical herb gardens. The next step was dried plants collected in herbaria, to provide study and teaching material, when the living plants were not available in winter etc. The final step was to transfer the newly acquired empirical knowledge onto the printed page in a new generation of herbals containing both illustrations and verbal descripts of the plants together with instructions in their usage. 

These collections of plants–living, dried, printed–all had one limiting factor in common, their scope.  If you restricted your botanical excursions or field trips, commonly called botanising or herborizing, to what could be reached by foot in a day, a weekend or even a week, then your plant collections are going to be by definition local. However, the botanical physicians of the sixteenth century were very much interested in extending their plant collection beyond, in fact well beyond, the local. How could they achieve this? The first possibility, and one that was indeed utilised, was travel. Longer journeys, beyond the local radius, to go botanising in other areas, other regions and this is exactly what some of those Renaissance botanical physicians did. 

Perhaps, the most extreme example of the roving Renaissance botanist was Charles de l’Écluse, L’Escluse (1526–1609), better known under his nom de plume Carolus Clusius, who during his lifetime travelled extensively throughout Europe, studying the local flora wherever he went.

Portrait attributed to Jacob de Monte Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1560s, Employed by the Augsburger banking dynasty, the Fuggers, as a tutor to one of the sons of Aton Fugger (1493–1560), he undertook a plant collecting expedition to Spain, which resulted in his,  Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia: libris duobus expressas, published by Christoph Plantin in Antwerp in 1576. Whilst in Spain, he also took the opportunity to question those travellers returning from the Americas about the flora of the New World. 

Anton Fugger portrait by Hans Maler zu Schwaz (1480/1488–1526/1529) Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1573, he was appointed director of the imperial botanical garden in Vienna by Emperor Maximilian II. Here, he used the opportunity to carry out an extensive survey of the flora of Austria. This included ascents of the Ötscher and Schneeberg mountains in Lower Austria in order to study their botany. This knowledge flowed into his Caroli Clusii Atrebatis Rariorum aliquot stirpium: per Pannoniam, Austriam, & vicinas quasdam provincias observatarum historia, quatuor libris expressa also published by Christoph Plantin in 1583. Pannonia is the Roman name for the western part of Hungary

Maximilian II portrait by Nicolas Neufchatel Source: Wikimedia Commons

He continued his botanical surveys in the area around Frankfurt am Main, where he resided from 1587 to 1593, then he was appointed professor of botany at the University of Leiden, where he established the Hortus Botanicus, the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands.

Hortus Botanicus Leiden in 1610. Print by Jan Cornelisz. Woudanus and Willem Isaacsz. van Swanenburg. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As well as his longer periods in Spain, Austria, and Frankfurt, Clusius also travelled extensively throughout Europe observing and collecting botanical data wherever he went. He travelled to England four times: 

Rarer but important were long-distant journeys to visit colleagues. Often, combined with herborizing, such trips could take weeks or months. Clusius, ever the restless soul, made four trips to England in the course of his career–twon in 1579 and 1580, when he was residing in Vienna. On the second, he had originally planned to go only as far as the Netherlands, but on learning that Francis Drake’s expedition had returned to Plymouth after circumnavigating the world, he took ship across the Channel to meet the explorer and his crew. In his Exoticorum libri (1605), Clusius described many of the objects he had acquired on that trip, including a root that he named after Drake. En route, he visited friends, colleagues, and patrons, including Wilhelm, Landgrave of Hessen, noted for his interest in the observational sciences.[1]

In terms of his wanderings, Clusius, whilst, here given as an example of the travelling botanist, is exceptional, other physicians and proto-botanists also travelled throughout Europe and also further afield, observing and recording the flora in the regions that they passed through. They transmitted the information that they thus acquired to other interested colleagues throughout Europe by publication or by correspondence. The latter brings us to the other widespread method of acquiring botanical knowledge from outside of your own locality, the botanical Republic of Letters. 

There were no scientific societies or scientific institutions other than the universities but the herborizing and botanising physicians, apothecaries and fellow travellers formed a Europa wide community via their republica literaria. In the first instance this referred to those who had published on materia medica, herbals or other botanical works but it also referred to the extensive exchange of letters between these practitioners. Returning to Clusius, as well as being a constant traveller, was also an inexhaustive letter writer corresponding with fellow botanists all over Europe and beyond. His surviving correspondence numbers about 1500 letters from 320 correspondents in six languages between 1560 and 1609. 

Clusius was by no means unique in the scope of his correspondence. Conrad Gessner (1516–1565), who was one of Clusius’ correspondents, had an even bigger circle of correspondents, who supplied much of the natural history information that landed in his publications. Many others we have encountered, including Felix Platter (!536–1614) and Joachim Camerarius the Younger (1534–1598) had large correspondence circles. As in other areas of the Republic of Letters, recipients of letters often passed on the information that they contained to their own circle of correspondents and also locally by word of mouth. Interestingly, the students of medicine, from all over Europe, studying at the major university medical faculties in Norther Italy, Montpellier and later Leiden, often acted as postal couriers carrying letters and packages in both direction between hometowns and universities. Through these exchanges the newly acquired botanical knowledge permeated the whole of Europe.

As well as illustrations and verbal descriptions the postal missives often contained herbaria, seeds, bulbs, or even complete plants thus enabling botanists to extend their public and private botanical gardens beyond the local. Clusius notoriously commissioned imperial representatives in Constantinople to supply him bulbs for his imperial botanical garden in Vienna.

Gessner described tulips flowering in the garden of Heinrich Herwart in 1559. However, it was Clusius, who having planted tulips in the imperial botanical garden in Vienna in 1573, who published the first major work on tulips in 1592, planting them in the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden in 1593. This was the start of the tulip mania, which culminated in the massive financial crash in the tulip market in 1640.

A tulip, known as “the Viceroy” (viseroij), displayed in the 1637 Dutch catalogue Verzameling van een Meenigte Tulipaanen. Its bulb was offered for sale for between 3,000 and 4,200 guilders (florins) depending on weight (gewooge). A skilled craftsworker at the time earned about 300 guilders a year Source: Wikimedia Commons

This notorious episode is symptomatic of a change in the botanical Republic of Letters at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century. Throughout the sixteenth century the exchange of seeds, bulbs, and plants was carried out on the basis of friendship and common interest, without money being involved, By the turn of the century a flourishing commercial market in plants and flowers had begun to develop throughout Europe of which the tulip mania was the most extreme development.

[1] Brian W. Ogilvie, The Science of DescribingNatural History in Renaissance Europe, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2006, ppb 2008, p. 77

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

Renaissance science – XXXII

Following the publication of the major natural history texts in the new print technology and the dispute amongst humanists concerning the errors in Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, the next major developments were not driven by a direct interest in botany as botany, but by a desire to reform the teaching and practice of medicine. In their personal dispute Niccolò Leoniceno (1428–1524) and Pandolfo Collenuccio (1444–1504), although they disagreed on the quality of Pliny’s work, agreed that for the identification of the plants discussed by Pliny, Dioscorides, and Theophrastus a study of the literature was insufficient and needed to be substantiated by a study of the plants growing in the wild. 

As the Ferrarese professor of medicine and critic of Pliny, Niccolò Leoniceno, queried in 1493, “Why has nature provided us with eyes and other organs of sense but that we might discern, investigate, and of ourselves arrive at knowledge?”[1]

Collenuccio wrote in his Pliniana defensio in 1493:

For fitness to give instruction in botany, it does not suffice that a man read authors, look at plant pictures, and peer into Greek vocabularies … He ought to ask questions of rustics and mountaineers, closely examine the plants themselves, note the distinction between one plant and another; and if need be he should even incur danger in testing the properties of them and ascertaining their remedial value[2]

This awareness of the necessity of empirical study of the plants under discussion kicked off the study of practical botany in the sixteenth century. We will follow this development in future post and here just mention the publication of guides to such a study in the 1530s, by two students of Leoniceno. Euricus Cordus (1486–1535) published his Botanologicon, a discussion on the topic between five participants in 1535 with a second edition appearing in 1551.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Musa Brasavola (1500–1555) published his dialogue on the topic, Examen omnium simplicium medicamentorum, quorum in officinis usus est in 1537.


Here I will address Leoniceno’s motivation for his studies and their consequences. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his detailed philological study of Pliny, Dioscorides, and Theophrastus, Leoniceno’s concerns were with the medical treatment of patients. He wanted to be certain that when applying the herbal remedies of Dioscorides or Galen that the apothecaries, who produced the medical concoctions had correctly identified the simples to be used. To fulfil this aim, he was of the opinion that medical students should learn the materia medica, as part of their studies. This idea was revolutionary in the medical education on the medieval university. In the Middle Ages the materia medica, the preparation of herbal medicines, was the province of the monks in their hospices and the apothecaries and not the learned professors of medicine. This changed under the urging of Leoniceno and his students. 

A chair for simples was established by Pope Leo X in Rome in 1513 with the appointment of Guiliano da Foligno. However, La Sapienza was closed with the sack of Rome in 1527. The chair was re-established in the middle of the century. The first permanent chair for medical simples was established at the University of Padua in 1533. At the University of Bologna Luca Ghini (1490–1556) began lecturing on the topic in 1527 and was appointed professor in the academic year 1533-34.

Luca Ghini Source: Wikimedia Commons

At Ferrara, Leoniceno’s own university, Antonio Musa Brasavola and his student Gaspare Gabrieli (1494–1553)

Antonio Musa Brasavola Source: wikimedia Commons

as well as the Portuguese physician Amato Lusitano (1511–1568), author of a key works on Dioscorides, Index Dioscoridis (1536); Enegemata in Duos Priores Dioscoridis de Arte Medica Libros (Antwerp, 1536); In Dioscorides de Medica materia Librum quinque enarrationis (1556), pushed the study of materia medica.

Statue of Amato Lusitano in his hometown Castelo Branco Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1543, Grand Duke Cosimo reopened the University of Pisa and wooed Ghini away from Bologna to hold the chair of simples. As the century progressed the smaller universities such as Parma, Pavia, and Siena followed suit. 

The study of simples did not remain confined to the Italian universities. When Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566) was appointed professor of medicine at the University of Tübingen he began teaching Dioscorides’ Materia medica.

Portrait of Leonhart Fuchs by Heinrich Füllmaurer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guillaume Rondelet (1507–166) began to teach Dioscorides at the University of Montpellier, a major centre for the study of medicine, in 1545.

Guillaume Rondelet Source: Wikimedia Commons

When the University of Leiden was founded by William of Orange in 1575, the professors of medicine were almost all graduates of the North Italian universities, who brought the teaching of simples with them.

Having established themselves as authorities in the field of materia medica the medical authorities now applied themselves to establishing that authority over the apothecaries, creating a medical hierarchy with themselves at the top and the apothecaries answerable to them. This was a major change in the field of medicine in the Early Modern Period. Throughout the Middle Ages the various branches offering medical services, university educated physicians, barber-surgeons, apothecaries, midwives, and herbalists existed parallel to each other with differing cliental. The barber-surgeons and the apothecaries served the needs of the physicians but were not beholden to them. If the patient of a physician needed a bloodletting, a barber-surgeon was called in to perform the task. If a physician’s patient required a herbal remedy, then this was supplied by an apothecary. However, the three branches functioned largely independently of each other. This would change during the sixteenth century. 

To effect this change, the physician moved away from the medieval system of control through the universities and guilds, setting up colleges of physicians organised and legitimised by the ruling political authorities. These colleges of physicians were responsible for the activities of all physicians within their political domain. The apothecaries mirrored this move by setting up colleges of apothecaries, later the barber-surgeons would do the same. The political authorities in the Italian states also set up the Protomedicato, a board of physicians appointed to oversee the medical provision within the area. The concept of the Protomedicato predated the introduction of the materia medica into the university medical curriculum but the major change was that the apothecaries were now answerable to the Protomedicato, which had the power to control their activities. To check that they were using the correct simples in their recipes, to control the quality simples and so forth. The physicians now also had the power to grant or deny a licence to an apothecary, who wished to open for business within their area of control. 

The final act of dominance of the physicians, with their newly won knowledge of materia medica, was the Antidotarium. This was a catalogue of antidotes or remedies issued by the college of physicians that proscribed for the apothecaries how these were to be concocted. Through these various developments the apothecaries had ceased to be independent and were now subservient to the physicians. As with the other developments, this power takeover within the medical professions, whilst it had its roots in Northern Italy was not restricted to it and spread fairly rapidly throughout Europe and the European colonies. Later the barber-surgeons and the midwifes would also become incorporated into this medical hierarchy.

[1] Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature, University of California Press, 1994. ppb, p 158 

[2] Findlen, p. 165

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Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXX

The life sciences and geoscience did not play any sort of significant role in medieval academia. This changed during the Renaissance, which saw the emergence over the sixteenth century of natural history, in its modern meaning, in particular botany. This a several subsequent episodes of this series will deal with the various aspects of that emergence[1].

As is the case with almost every development in the sciences during the Renaissance, if one wants to understand the emergence of natural history in this period, then one first needs to know what existed earlier. One first needs to understand what existed in antiquity and then examine how the knowledge from antiquity was received and regarded in the Middle Ages. 

There was no coherent, single area of knowledge in antiquity that can be labelled natural history but rather three distinct areas of information about plants and animals that would partially coalesce many centuries later, during the Renaissance. The first of these areas was philosophy and in the first instance the work of Aristotle (384–322). In his vast convolute of books Aristotle also turned his attention to animals, his principal work being his History of Animals (Latin: Historia Animalium).

Historia animalium et al., Constantinople, 12th century (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, pluteo 87.4) Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is very much an application of his philosophy to a largely empirical study of animals based on observation. Aristotle says that his is investigating the what i.e., the factual facts about animals, before establishing the why i.e., the causes of these characteristics. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287), who took over as head of the Lyceum after Aristotle, applied Aristotle’s philosophy to the world of plants in his Enquiry into Plants (Latin: Historia Plantarum) and his On the Causes of Plants (Latin: De causis plantarum).

The frontispiece to an illustrated 1644 edition of Historia Plantarum by the ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus Source: Wikimedia Commons

The second area of interest in antiquity was medicine and the use of plants in the treatment of ailments. Here the central text is the On Medical Materials (Latin: De materia medica) of the Greek physician, Dioscorides (c. 40–90 CE). This five-volume work, composed between 50 and 70 CE, contains description of about 600 plants as some animal and mineral substances and approximately 1000 medicines made from them. The emphasis is very much on the medical, so the botanical descriptions of the plants are fairly simple but the descriptions of their medical uses comparatively extensive and detailed. The therapeutical work of the Greek physician Galen (129–c. 216) also contains lists and descriptions of simples i.e., that medicinal plants or a vegetable drug with only one ingredient. 

Our last source from antiquity is vast, sprawling encyclopaedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History) of the Roman aristocrat Gaius Plinius Secundus (23/24–79 CE), known in English as Pliny the Elder, the book that would go on to give the discipline its name. This monumental work, 37 books in 10 volumes, was intended to cover, according to Pliny, “the natural world or life” and covers topics including astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacology, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, art, and precious stones, so not natural history as we now know it. Nothing in it is original from Pliny himself but is drawn together from a myriad of diverse sources. It claims to contain 20,000 facts drawn from 2,000 books. Unlike, Aristotle’s work it is not based on empirical observation. On plants, Pliny lists far more plants than Dioscorides, but they are by no means all medicinal, one of Pliny’s main sources was the works of Theophrastus.

Die Naturalis historia in der Handschrift Florenz, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82.4, fol. 3r (15. Jahrhundert) Source: Wikimedia Commons

We now turn to the reception of these authors from antiquity in the Middle Ages. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280) included Historia Animalium in his edition of the works of Aristotle and would go on to write works on zoology and botany in his own writings. However, these played no significant role in the curricula of the medieval universities. The works of Theophrastus remained unknown in Europe during the Middle Ages, although his name was known through other sources such as Pliny

Albertus Magnus, engraved portrait, Jean-Jacques Boissard, Icones, 1597-99 (Linda Hall Library)

Galen was one of the major medical influences on the medieval European universities next to Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine, but mostly in translation from Arabic into Latin and not from the original Greek. As I pointed in an earlier episode the discovery and translation of Greek manuscripts of Galen’s work by Renaissance humanists led to a neo-Galenic revival as opposition to the work of Vesalius. 

A group of physicians in an image from the Vienna Dioscurides; Galen is depicted top center. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The De materia medica of Dioscorides did not need to be rediscovered either in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance because it never went away. In the medieval period manuscripts of the De materia medicacirculated in Latin, Greek, and Arabic. It was present even in the Early Medieval Period. Probably the most famous manuscript is the so-called Vienna Dioscorides, an elaborately illustrated, Geek manuscript produced in Constantinople for the imperial princess Anica Juliana (462–527), daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Anicius Olybrius (died 472). The manuscript was created in 512. The illustrations are thought to have been copied from the of Krateuas, a first century BCE Greek herbalist, none of whose work has survived.

Vienna Dioscorides Folio 83r Rubus fruticosus (bramble) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Vienna Dioscorides Folio 167v, Cannabis sativa (hemp) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The illustrations in the Vienna are stunning but exemplify a major problem, not just with De materia medica but with almost all other medieval herbal manuscripts. The, probably, mostly monks who copied them over the centuries did not make their plant drawing by looking at real plants but merely copied the drawing from the manuscript they were copying. This meant that the illustrations degenerated over time and were oft barely recognisable by the Renaissance. 

The medicine taught at the European, medieval universities was notoriously theoretical and almost wholly book based. This meant that the texts on medicinal plants by Galen and Dioscorides found little use on the universities. Instead, they were consulted by the apothecaries and the monks, who cared for the sick in the hospices of their monasteries, the earliest European hospitals. 

Hôtel-Dieu de Paris c. 1500. The comparatively well patients (on the right) were separated from the very ill (on the left). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia was, of course, ubiquitous throughout the High Middle Ages, which given the number of errors, myths, and falsehood it contained, was perhaps not such a good thing. Pliny is the main source for all the monsters and strange human races, such as the headless Blemmyes or the one-legged Sciapods, found on medieval Mappa mundi.

A Blemmyae from Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Source: Wikimedia Commons
A monopod. From the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the Renaissance shift towards the creation of the modern natural history began, as we will see, with a philological analysis of the Naturalis Historia.

Right up to the late fifteenth century the three fields of natural history information, the philosophical, the medicinal, and the encyclopaedic remained separate areas dealt with for completely different reasons. Beginning in the late fifteenth century and continuing throughout the sixteenth, as we will see, they began to fuse together and to evolve in phases into the modern discipline of natural history. Over the next few episode we will follow that evolution.

[1] In writing this and several of the following episodes, I shall be moving out of my safe zone as a historian of science. I don’t usually include sources in my essays, as I regard them more as newspaper columns for the general reader than academic papers. However, in this case I want to point my readers to Brian W. Ogilvie’s The Science of DescribingNatural History in Renaissance Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2006, ppb. 2008), which together with other sources formed the backbone of my writings on this topic. It is a truly excellent book and I recommend it whole heartedly to my readers. Brian Ogilvie is naturally not to blame for any rubbish that I might spout in this and the following blog posts. 


Filed under History of medicine, Natural history, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The black sheep of the Provence-Paris group

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

Jean-Baptiste Morin Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

The tomb of Claude Dormy Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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


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

Renaissance Science – XXIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manuscript of Rupescissa c. 1350

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

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

Johannes Hartmann Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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


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

Source:Wikimedia Commons

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

Le Jardin du Roi Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renaissance Science – XIX

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

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

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

Portrait of Gabriele Falloppio artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Matteo Realdo Colombo artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Bartolomeo Eustachi artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girolamo Fabrizi d’Acquapendente artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Giulio Cesare Casseri artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Adriaan van den Spiegel artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Pieter Pauw Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Leiden anatomical theatre in 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Otto Heurnius Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Reinier de Graaf Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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