A true Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
His life and his medical, religious and social work through Central Europe, Part IV
A great Instructor
Basel was a very important stage in his life, despite the conflicts he had to face, since it was the only occasion in which he could practice officially as a professor. Paracelsus didn’t miss the opportunity to instruct the maximum number of people; and, as we will see, he did it with great skill and success. Not in vain it is said that every good healer is a good instructor. They are complementary activities. His disciples, at least the closest ones, were able to see for themselves how he healed and researched and to what conclusions he arrived to; but they also were able to hear his lessons on medicine. In fact, he always practiced as an instructor. In this area we are obliged to highlight his intervention and practice as a professor at the University of Basel during the time in which he lived in that city. As we have already seen, the reason for having to leave the city and his position as a teacher was due more to the reaction of the conservative sectors, which did not accept his innovations in the teaching nor the medical practice fields, than to the rejection of his students or disciples. He could have stayed in this comfortable university position during the rest of this life, earning a very good salary if he had accepted to adapt to the orthodox teaching and medical practices. But this was impossible for Paracelsus and, once more, this time as a professor, he demonstrated that his convictions were higher than his needs and that his talents as an instructor were also excellent. In his classes at the university he informed the essential core of his medicine system. (1)
Paracelsus worked as university professor of medicine at least from the month of June and during the whole summer of 1527 –ignoring the usual academic vacations- and the following fall and part of winter. As any other professor, he taught illness diagnosis, preparation and prescription of medications, treatment of wounds and injuries and surgery and dissection. (2) The essence of what he taught in Basel is probably included in his book Archidoxa and in the books on medicine he wrote a few years later, Paragranum and Opus Paramirum. He also preoccupied himself with printing for the students the qualities expected of a good doctor which were exposed in the published volume by Toxites in 1571 as An excellent treatise, by P.T. Paracelsus, the famous and experienced German philosopher and doctor. (3)
He was very successful in his classes, earning the applause and enthusiasm of the students. In 1527 he managed to have 31 new medicine students signed up while in his previous course only 5 students had signed up (4). He taught, not only registered university students, but also tried to instruct non-academic healers or curers such as barber surgeons and even people outside the healing field, even though this posed a challenge to the academic tradition. His friend and respected humanist Boniface Amerbach, for example, attended his classes taking notes. (5) In a public letter, signed June 5 of that year, he ended saying: “Come with a good will to study our attempt to reform medicine” (6). He even attracted students from faraway places.
For the benefit of all, instead of speaking Latin, as it was customary in those years in European universities, he spoke German, his vernacular language and that of the majority of his students and disciples. This was an absolute novelty in the academic life of that time. It was a new transgression that irritated the conservative sectors of the college. According to Hartmann, the use of German in the teachings of medicine, oral or written, generated a reform in the science similar to the one Luther generated in religion; it meant the beginning of the free thinking in science. With this, the old belief in the academic authorities started to debilitate. (7) The paradox is that Paracelsus, for whom teaching and writing in German was an honor, utilized precisely the most interesting neologisms in Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, and sometimes even mixed them with Arabic (8).
He also broke moulds in the clothes he wore as teacher. He did not use the typical toga of a distinguished professor but only the simple smock of an artist, at times stained with residues from the chemistry and medical laboratory, he used in the practices (9); because he believed, more than anyone, in the practices as a teaching method. On one occasion he had no qualms in coming to class carrying a plate human excrements to teach and show his students that “decay is the beginning of all birth” (10). He was probably also a pioneer in taking his students on vacation to continue teaching them in other areas outside of the strict university setting. Thus, in the fall of 1527 he traveled from Basel to Zurich with the most loyal group of his student followers (11).
There were probably those students who, attracted by his knowledge and intention to acquire his art and use it for their own purposes, followed him in his roaming after Basel, living in the taverns of the villages (12). We must not forget that his most loyal followers saw Paracelsus, according to Hartman, “as a god and a monarch of all mysteries and king of the spirits” (13). It was to these followers he transmitted some body of knowledge he did not want to reveal to anyone else, since he thought it was too powerful to be revealed to the non-initiated (14). In fact, he was always extremely reticent to reveal some of his secrets, even to his most intimate disciples. The obliged stealth of the Rosicrucian alchemists impeded Paracelsus to disclose some of his knowledge (15). Precisely for this reason, one of the favorite disciples of Paracelsus, who received his words of praise, Oporino, would speak very bitterly against his teacher. However, after Paracelsus death, he lamented his own indiscretions and expressed great veneration towards him (16). Oporino became a famous professor of Greek in Basel and the editor of Vesalius.
On the other hand, and as we will see in more detail in the next chapter, Paracelsus completed his role as instructor with preaching and writings of religious and theologian nature, especially between the years of 1524, when he arrived to Salzburg in a very agitated social context, and 1535, when he was invited by the Pfafers-Ragatz Benedictine monastery where he remained for some time. In the majority of cities we went through during those years he gave spiritual teachings which most likely were mixed with his teaching instructions about medicine.
A great writer
Luckily, many of these teaching instructions have been preserved in the form of books. Even though he only dedicated himself to writing during 15 years of his life (17), especially during the later years, he came to amass many written pages. He not only wrote about medicine –in which he is recognized with the authorship of 50 different works – but also about other subjects, for him very much related to medicine, such as alchemy, magic, philosophy, natural history, astrology and astronomy. However, it is necessary to highlight that his knowledge had no limits and he even cultivated other disciplines like religion, theology, geography and history. For example, in the latter subject, he did a study on the region of Carinthia when he was employed by the Fuggers in the city of St. Veit to search for the veins of gold in the region. The book was titled Chronicles of Carinthia (18). His strictly religious work is much more extensive than the geographic work. There have been preserved, belonging to him, 40 theological monographs, 16 biblical commentaries, 20 sermons, 20 works on the Eucharist and 7 works about the Virgin Mary. However, half of these writings have not been properly edited (19). He wrote the majority of them between 1529 and 1535. Of special mention is the monumental study he did on the psalms of David, written in Alsace in 1528 (20).
In regards to astronomy, he wrote a book titled On Meteors in which he describes a magnetic iron meteorite which had fallen near the town of Ensisheim. In 1528 Paracelsus approached this city purposely to study the meteorite (21). Three years later, precisely in August of 1531, he was able to observe thoroughly the comet Halley – which would not be baptized until 1665- while he was in Saint Gall. From this direct observation was born the Interpretation of the Comet (22). In this book he made an accurate astrological prediction, announcing a future bloodshed. He was referring to the religious wars which devastated central Europe during those years and about which we would talk later on. This was not the only astrological prediction he made and wrote about. Precisely, one of the few books he was able to publish while alive, Practice, was about this type of predictions (23). In addition, in 1536 he wrote an almanac which he titled Forecasts for the Following 24 Years (24). Although without a doubt, his great astronomical masterpiece would be the one he would title Astronomia Magna or Philosophia Sagax, considered by many his most important work, in which he defends astronomy as a truly Christian practice. He wrote it between 1537 and 1540, a year before his death. In this masterpiece he shows his great Universalist and Cosmic vision and formulates theories about the universe and the life it houses. It treats technology from the point of view of the Baconian spirit, predicting technological utopias in which “pipes and crystals” will “carry the human voice over a distance of hundred miles” (25). This work is the best proof of the maturity Paracelsus had achieved, a little before his death.
Finally, regarding his written medical work, his main works were the ones he titled Paragranum, Opus Paramirum, The Great Surgery Book, and the treatises on syphilis (26). He wrote Paragranum between 1529 and 1530, when a year had already passed since he had abandoned Basel. It was his first important study about medicine, in which preface he launches invectives against academic medicine and his high priests and sets the basis of the new medicine, introducing the four pillars, already mentioned, that such science should have: philosophy (which must provide the scientific foundations of the healing arts), astronomy (Paracelsus, like his contemporaries, considered astrology as a central aspect of medicine), alchemy and virtue. He wrote Opues Paramirum between 1531 and 1535, mainly in Saint Gall, although he probably had already conceived it in Basel in 1527, or is even possible that in this city he had already drafted some fragments. This was also an essential work about his medical science since it contains the basic medical doctrines he defended. It is at the same time an attempt to establish the basis of biochemistry. This work, as we have already mentioned, is dedicated to the great humanist and reformist, the Swiss Vadianus. Finally, in the Great Surgery he summarized the many medical experiences he had throughout his life. Written in 1535, he published it in Augsburg at the end of the summer of 1536, after a bad editor tried to publish it in Ulm. He dedicated it to the archduke and future emperor of Austria, Ferdinand. It was a success and the most reedited of all books. With it, his social reputation momentarily made a big climb back.
This was one of the only five works he could see published during his life. The first book he managed to publish was De Gradibus et Compositionibus Receptorum et Naturalium. He published it in Basel in 1526 (27). Luckily, his followers or disciples took responsibility of compiling most of his written documentation and editing it since the fifties, especially twelve years after his death. In this work, Adam of Bodenstein, Michael Schutz (Toxites), Gerhard Dorn and Theodor and Arnold Birkmann stood out (28).
Despite the many written pages he left –in the German edition, his complete edited work, Opera Omnia, occupies ten volumes with a total of 1818 pages, to which we must add 680 pages about surgical writings- and despite the great scientific value of his writings, Paracelsus continues to be more attractive for his life than for his written works. His works have not always been well understood; often full of allegories and directed especially to the alchemists of his time, which makes their understanding difficult to modern erudition. In addition, he used his own terminology because in his writings he addressed many topics for which he did not have appropriate terms (except with Sanskrit and other eastern languages). Therefore, he invented many words –such as “alkahest”, the universal solvent of alchemy, or “acthna”, an invisible sub terrestrial, or “ileiades”, the element of air (29)- to express their meaning; but only a few of them received the right of citizenship of our language (30). He has also been criticized for the frankness of some writings, in the sense that he used a style which is not always refined or educated; but this was normal in this time. Paracelsus distinguished himself for expressing his thoughts in a brief, concise manner and without ambiguity. In this sense he has been compared to other great scientists or philosophers such as Thales, Heraclitus, Pythagoras or Hippocrates (31).
We need to keep in mind that the majority of writings were dictated to his disciples. Thus, they were the ones who wrote what Paracelsus dictated to them. On the other hand, we have already mentioned that he read few books. His disciples testified that he wrote some of them without using any memoranda or manuscript as documental basis (32). All the printed material he had when he died was composed of a Bible, the New Testament, the commentaries of Saint Jerome about the gospels and only one book of medicine (33). Not in vain he said on more than one occasion, as we have already noted, that the only good book needed in order to be a doctor is the book of nature: “It was the book of Nature, written by the finger of God, which I studied –not those of the scribblers, for each scribbler writes down the rubbish that may be found in his head-“ (34).
Paracelsus could not be any clearer about whom he should trust to study, investigate and apply his knowledge as a doctor and to write his treatises.