A True Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
The Most Important Teachers of Paracelsus: Nature and Folk Wisdom
Paracelsus became an important doctor and an outstanding thinker. He had great teachers who taught him. His first teacher was his own father, followed by many outstanding personalities, such as bishops and abbots, amongst them Bishop Johannes of Trithemius (Johannes von Trittenheim) who was one of the greatest adepts of Alchemy and Astrology of his time. But also well known doctors such as the humanist and reformer Joachim Vadianus were among the teachers of Paracelsus. He was a very good friend of Paracelsus’s father and chancellor of the University of Vienna where Paracelsus studied for a few years. He insisted, however, that his best teacher was nature itself from whom he learned through simple observations. His best teachers were not the books which only talked about nature. So he stated: “If there were no teachers of medicine in the entire world how could this art be learned other than from the hand of God’s written book of nature?” He always emphasized: “The light of nature and not the lamp of apothecary illuminated my way. I entered through the honest door of nature and her voice led me on my path.”14 This was not only essential for the professional career, but also in a metaphoric sense, to follow your path authentically and tirelessly. He travelled by foot, always searching for something useful to do or to learn something – either through nature itself or from the modest people of the area. He was always ready to learn folk wisdom. He writes that he learnt from the Jewish people, gypsies, midwives, farmers, the eldest, barbers and the herdsmen.15 He always insisted that healing was a higher art and could not be learned by studying books. It has to be learned by experience.16 Therefore, the streets and the land itself became his main work and study places. For this reason, he traveled a lot without fear of foreign and far away countries or the frequent wars he encountered. There was another reason which kept him from remaining in one place too long and to prefer the safety of unknown streets. The reason was the accusations and persecutions. We will talk about them later. The latter refers more to the last stations of his life from 1524 onwards and not so much to his long travels from 1515 to 1523.
During this span of eight years he wandered from the utmost West of Europe, Spain, to the Middle East, and from North Europe, Scandinavia, down to Africa (Egypt and Algeria). He also traveled through Russia and Turkey. To travel became an essential part of his life. He was convinced of and showed that good doctors should travel, for each region holds in its surrounding nature its own specific medicine for all inhabitants. At each opportunity he used to say: “Each country is a leaf in the Codes of Nature.”17 Corresponding to this he invited all healers to help in deciphering these codes.
The first teachers
First of all he had to learn a lot in order to be able to draw such conclusions and to make this work successful. He started this work with his father. He had important teachers who all had great knowledge of the philosophia adepta and the related arts. Amongst them was also his father.18 Paracelsus did not abandon totally his regular studies. He was taught in the so-called free arts: Latin Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Music, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy. He knew the Latin language according to the rules which were given by the humanists of this epoch. From 1509 until 1512 he studied at least three courses of medicine at the University but it is not known if he graduated. He got a basic elementary training in monastery schools – one was located in Carinthia, the other one was the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Paul in the Lavant valley near Villach. Thus, his first teachers were of the church and therefore, he not only became acquainted with nature but also received very profound lessons.19 He grew up under the guidance of priests. Thus, his deep knowledge about the church and philosophy is self-explanatory. As teachers he had at least four bishops and one abbot, the famous Johannes von Trithemius of Sponheim.20
Most of these teachers had great knowledge of Alchemy, especially Trithemius, who brought the humanists, such as Reuchlin, an adept of the kabbalah, into his Monastic library. It is said that Trithemius lead a secret hermetic society where the young Paracelsus was also a member. In this society its members studied, in accordance to the mysteries of Mother Nature, the secret numbers which were hidden behind parables and allegories of the Holy Scriptures. The abbot apparently saw a primordial importance in them.21
Trithemius taught great alchemists of his time such as Cornelius Agrippa who was very much admired by Paracelsus. After he finished the University he completed his studies with Trithemius. Already after his first lessons in the monasteries of Saint Andrew and Saint Paul he found teachers with similar interests. Among them was the bishop Erhart (Eberhart Baumgaertner), an alchemist who was able to convey to him the complete knowledge of the folk wisdom about metals and their transformations. This knowledge awakened a keen interest in Paracelsus which made him enter, also as a very young man, into the miners’ school of Fuggers, in Hutenberg, near Villach. This center opened a large area for medical and chemical observations and experiments for his father and himself.
Studies at the University
In the year 1507, at the early age of 13, Paracelsus began his studies of medicine at different universities of Europe. Here his life as a wandering traveler began and his travels as a student were no exception. At this time students traveled from one university to the next to find the best professors and, according to Paracelsus’ own statement, “seeking the foundations of medicine.”23 Up to 1516, when he was 22 years old, he mainly researched at the universities of Germany and Italy. During his later travels through almost all of Europe he visited also universities in the North, such as the famous Oxford University in England, the oldest University in Scandinavia – the Uppsala University in Sweden – or the University of Deventer in Holland where Erasmus had been taught.24 He also studied at the French University in Montpellier whose medical faculty was known as one of the best faculties of France.
He began his search for universities in the heart of Europe, in the German-speaking part, in Vienna. Most likely he began in this city following the advice of the humanist and religious reformer Vadianus who had already taught him in Villach and who probably encouraged his father to send his son to the German Universities of Medicine. Besides his work as a doctor, Vadianus was also a poet and a professor of medicine. Between 1516 and 1517 he even became the chancellor of the University of Vienna. Later, Paracelsus even dedicated to Vadianus one of his great written works – the opus Paramirum. He remained in Vienna for two years and received his Bachelor at the Faculty of Arts. He further studied in Germany at the University of Tuebingen where his father also had studied, and in Basel and Ingolstadt. He complained that the old scholastics with their narrow-mindedness ruled these universities. Paracelsus was very demanding and probably because of this he decided to cross the Alps in 1512 and to study in Italy. One has to consider that Italy was the best country to study medicine in the 16th century. Therefore, he remained on this peninsula up to 1516. Some years he lived in Ferrara, a city in the North of the country, at the river Po. This city had a remarkable humanistic and progressive atmosphere. In Ferrara he met famous medical specialists, such as Niccolo Leoniceno, who greatly influenced him. The Italian medical humanism had its first outstanding representative with Leoniceno. He did pioneer work in the translation of old medical texts from Greek and Arabic, and in the year 1493 he published the first description of the disease Syphilis which Paracelsus extensively analysed in his studies. At the University of Ferrara Paracelsus received his diploma of Inner Medicine and Surgery.
It is supposed that he took the name of Paracelsus in the city of Ferrara for the first time. The students had the habit of adapting his name to the Latin or Greek language. Thus, the names Erasmus or Frobenius emerged. Paracelsus tended to use this name through the significance of his family name Hohenheim: “to live at a high location”.28 “Para” means “beyond” and refers to the infinity which cannot be defined. “Celsus” comes from Latin and means “high, elevated, sublime“. According to this hypothesis Paracelsus means „beyond that which is high“. Without doubt he liked the prefix “para”. In some of the titles of his main works one can find this prefix, for example in the titles “Paragranum” or “Opus Paramirum”.
… to be continued