A True Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
2. The first stages of his life and his learning journeys (1493-1523)
2.1 Birth and family of origin
Paracelsus was born December 17, 14931 in a small Suisse valley, very close to the village of Einsiedeln (in the Zurich region), a renowned center of pilgrimage in the heart of Europe, in the Camino de Santiago. The house in which he was born, and where he spent his childhood, is located at the shore of the Sihl river, near the bridge known as “Devil’s Bridge”. He was the only child of Elsa Oschner and Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim2 who had married the year before, in 1492. It was that same year is father had established himself in Einsiedeln as a main doctor of the region with an academic training, and where he supposedly met his future wife. She was a nurse and supervisor of the hospital of the Einsiedeln’s monastery, the same village where she was born. Although his mother died, unfortunately when Paracelsus was just 8 years old, his progenitors’ profession, undoubtedly influenced his vocation for the art of healing. Paracelsus always revered his parents. Despite the difficulties he had to face since he was a child (we will talk about them later), he always remembered his family as “quiet and peaceful”.3 His father, particularly after the death of his mother, became his great teacher and professor in all areas, especially, of course, as a doctor, but also as a naturalist scientist and alchemist – aspects which Paracelsus would integrate into the art of healing later.
Father and teacher
His father was a learned humanist who knew how to transmit the yearning for scientific knowledge to Paracelsus. As a good humanist he studied and had good knowledge of Latin, Medicine, Alchemy, Theology and Botany. In fact, he baptized his son with the name of Theophrastus due to the devotion and admiration he felt for the Greek sage Theophrastus of Eresos (372-287 BC), a philosopher disciple of Aristotle, famous for his research in Botany4 However, it was the discipline of medicine which Paracelsus best inherited from his father. Already since he was a child, Paracelsus tried to always be very close to his father’s work: he would accompany him on his visits to the sick and was also at his side when he would prepare tinctures and essences and distill elixirs for the pilgrims waiting to be cured. His father would carry out a great number of experiments in the small laboratory he had built on his residence.5 Due to this, Paracelsus, who didn’t miss any of these experiments, obtained his first knowledge of alchemy, surgery and medicine from his father, for whom it was not hard to accept his son as his main disciple. He also taught him natural history and mining.6 Paracelsus always recognized what his father taught him and he continuously remembered that he had been his first teacher. He always honored the memory of his father and constantly talked about him in very kind terms, recalling everything he had done for him and being grateful that he had never abandoned him.7 For that reason, he did not want to abandon him either when he started his perpetual pilgrimage around Europe and the world in 1507. Until his death in 1541 – at least in two occasions, in 1512 and between 1523 and 1524 – he returned to his father’s home. These visits were done as much for love as for a son’s duty. The second visit extended for more than a half year – from the end of 1523 to the summer of 1524. Perhaps Paracelsus knew it would be the last time he would see his father alive, who died in 1534. In 1538 Paracelsus wanted to return again to the village where his father had died, to visit his tomb.8 In fact, his parents were the only near relatives he had, since he never married and never had children. His only children or siblings were, in any case and as he considered them, his disciples and the vast number of people he assisted as a doctor o just as a citizen. The difficult vicissitudes he had to go through throughout his life, as we will see, would have hardly allowed him to offer, as a spouse or father, a minimally stable life to his supposed relatives.
Despite the good understanding and affection between father and son, Paracelsus lived through tremendous personal difficulties since he was very young, stressed by the death of his mother. He himself asserted in one occasion that “he grew up in great misery”. He was probably referring to the economic hardships his family had to endure, aggravated by the forced migration to Austria in 1499, when he was only five years old, due to the outbreak of the bloody war of Swabia. It took them three years to find a place of permanent residency. Finally, they settled in the Austrian town of Villach, in the region of Carintia, where his father would work for 32 years – until his death- as a town doctor. It was probably during this distressing temporary period of three years that he suffered from rickets, a weakening of the bones caused by deficiency of vitamin D, often as a result of lack of eggs and milk in the diet.9 In addition, the family – at least while Paracelsus was a child – never enjoyed financial wellbeing. The salaries of a rural doctor at the time were very poor. The fact that he came from a very ancient noble family of Swabia did not do much for him. They were a very known family in the area. They were called Bombast, and to this name they added “the Hohenheim” because their old residence had been a castle known as Hohenheim, near the village of Plinnigen, near Stuttgart, in Wirtemberg. Paracelsus paternal grandfather, who had achieved a high rank in the Order of the Hospitable Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem and had participated as a commander in a crusade of the Holy Land in 1468, became impoverished when he lost his inheritance due to an error of the High Court of Justice against him because of an accusation from a political muddle.10 Paracelsus’ father was able to study, but he had to register as “poor” in the university, specifically in the one in Tubinga, in 1481.11 Probably due to financial problems as well, he could not finish his studies in this German city, and as a result, could not obtain the formal qualification of a doctor. When he arrived at Einsiedeln, were Paracelsus would be born, to exercise as a doctor, he did it with hardly anything in his pocket. He probably never enjoyed a comfortable economic position since he could only give his son, as inheritance, the deeds of a modest state coming from the magistrates of the town of Villach, where he worked and lived, as we mentioned, the last part of his life.12
In fact, the difficult life conditions that Paracelsus, since his earliest childhood, and his family had to endure were exceptional in the society in which they had to live. The wars, the famine, the misery and the illnesses were, unfortunately, very spread in that time of general crisis in which the western world experienced the dawn of the Middle Ages. There were illnesses everywhere: plague –some of which could destroy the life of half the population of the cities and leave deserted fields-, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, leper, syphilis… The sanity levels, hygiene and diet were so low that in the beginning of the XVI century, the infant mortality of children less than one year of age was higher by 50% than that of Europe, with just a very few of the adults who would reach 50 years of age. Paracelsus himself died at 47. People would live mainly of cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats and millet). Dairy products, salt and sugar were very expensive.13
The wars helped maintain a very low life expectancy. Paracelsus lived, practically always, in countries being in state of war, especially due to the great social and religious crisis which was constituted through the traumatic break-up of the catholic religious unity and lead to conflict with part of the Protestants of the Germanic world during the first half of the 16th century. But he also lived through wars that were actually more political, like the one he suffered during his childhood in 1499, the war of Swabia, when the Swiss cantons wanted, and obtained, independence from the government of the emperor Maximilian from the Sacred Roman Empire. Due to the dénouement of this war, Paracelsus family, the Hohenheims, became foreign enemies since they came from Swabia and found themselves suddenly residing in foreign territory –in Switzerland-. Even though the war lasted only until 1500, the Hohenheims were, very probably, forced to emigrate due to the hatred between regions, and they chose Austria as their destination. For Paracelsus this was the beginning of his constant and endless roaming around the world, surviving war, social, economic and religious conflicts, up to his death.
…to be continued