A True Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
Nature as the Best Teacher
Paracelsus, despite his university studies, became very critical of his teachers in various schools of medicine, where – according to him – he was not taught the true science of nature. Thus, when he left Ferrara, he decided to teach himself through books and academic teachers, and began to learn only what nature itself and the wisdom of ordinary people in the world could teach him. In 1515, at the age of 21, he began a long journey that led him first to the south of Italy. It was the period during which he travelled through Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. This journey ended in 1524 when he established himself as a general practitioner in Salzburg, Austria.
At that time, Paracelsus already had clarity about the value of nature, its greatness as the only teacher and what he called a “great laboratory with its own light.” (1) There is no doubt that even as a child he knew intuitively about this value; and this was also the reason why he wanted to be in permanent contact with nature since his childhood. In his early years – inspired by an enormous zeal to do research – he devoted much of his time to long walks through forests, which surrounding his city. On some of these trips, he was accompanied by his father who taught him botany by direct observation of the plant kingdom. Like that, he began to learn to distinguish medicinal plants at this early age. (2) But only as an adult, he could fully understand the power of nature. He even claimed that nature had been his main teacher or professional guide: “Which is the right door (to learn medicine)? Galeno, Avicenn, Mesua, Rhases, or the open nature? – I think it is the latter.” (3)
For him it was without doubt the best existing book for people, not only to learn medicine, but it also provided all the necessary knowledge. That is why, despite his intellectual background, he confirmed that he had not read many books. Once he said that in ten years he had not even read a single book.(4) Instead, he admitted that he had read “very useful but hidden things in the Apocalypse, the Bible and the Kabbalah” (5), books he considered sacred and at the same time very valuable for his theological and medical studies
Learning to be a doctor through his travels
Paracelsus often said that he relied more on conventional wisdom and also on a good drink from the open book of nature, instead of relying on the books written by modern or classical scholars. In doing just what he said, he did not hesitate to travel halfway around the world to explore this knowledge and try to put it into practice since leaving Ferrara in 1515. He repeatedly emphasized the importance of “experience” in gaining an understanding of the world, quite contrary to the learning process of memorizing ancient books. His thirst for knowledge led him to seek new countries and a variety of people to shed light on the secrets of nature still hidden. In fact, during the Renaissance the figure of a travelling healing magician and intellectual vagabond was well known as Paracelso and Agrippa. The experiences gained during his travels, during his walks through numerous cities and nations, and through his stays where he learned conventional knowledge, finally made him a great doctor.
That is why he said: “I often look for my art by indulging in the dangers of life. I am not ashamed to learn what is useful to me, even if it comes from tramps, executioners and barbers. We know that a lover goes a long way to find the woman he worships – how much more is the lover of knowledge tempted for the sake of his divine lady? (6) He further added: “The knowledge to which we have a right is not confined to the borders of our own country, nor does it run after us, but rather waits until we go in search of it. No one will become a master of practical experiences in his own home; neither will he find a teacher of the secrets of nature in the corners of his parlour. We must seek the knowledge where we expect to find it; and why should a man in search of it be despised?
Those who remain at home can live more comfortably and become richer than those who wander around, but it was never my desire to live comfortably or to be rich. Happiness is better than wealth, and a wanderer is happy even if he has no more than his basic needs. Whoever wants to study the Book of Nature must walk his feet over its pages. Books are studied by looking at the letters they contain. Nature is studied by examining the contents of the treasure of its writing in each country. Each part of the world represents one page in the Book of Nature, and all pages together form the Book containing its great revelations.” (7) For this reason, he believed that travel was a duty for all true doctors.
He took his decision to obey this duty literally – despite the extreme harshness of the conditions under which he had to do it, constantly submitting his life to fate through war, improvisation and good luck. (8) Every traveller of the 16th century was subjected to rigors and dangers, and even more so as in the case of Paracelso, who was practically destitute and wandering with all sorts of people. Nevertheless, concerning himself, he claimed: “Only the man who has nothing wanders in happiness. I think this is meritorious, and there is no shame in having travelled so far in such a cheap way.” (9)
The rooms of the inns in which he was accommodated were sometimes very offensive, noisy, full of horrible food, and the beds had to be shared with lice and other travellers. There were often fights among the drunks. Paracelsus himself described a scene he experienced during his travels in the twenties: In Friuli (during a fight among soldiers) I saw a whole ear cut off in an inn.” (10) Quite often, the innkeepers had no choice but to impose order in their homes other than by force and with the means available to them. For this reason, they sometimes banned homeless outcasts thinking they would cause problems. Paracelsus himself admitted that he was often expelled because he begged for a bowl of soup in some hostels. (11) He was probably considered a poor beggar. He realized that his appearance often gave this impression and therefore was not able to receive a good welcome. (12)
There were times when the city authorities did not even allow him to enter the city out of mistrust. This happened to him in the region of Tyrol in the mid thirties. When Paracelsus appeared in beggar’s robes in summer of 1524 at the gates of Innsbruck and asked the authorities for permission to practise as a doctor, he was despised and forced to leave: “Because I appeared without the usual collar ruffles of my colleagues, they despised me again and I was forced to leave. The mayor was accustomed to doctors dressed in silk and purple robes and not to those wrapped in sunburned clothes.” (13)
His encounters in wars and his achievements as a military surgeon.
He had to move on between the dangers of war and all the violent social and religious conflicts he experienced and suffered. A traveller could not walk quietly through the streets of Europe without experiencing the effects of these conflicts. (14) This is also the reason why no one, like Paracelsus, the tireless traveller of the 16th century, had experienced first-hand the wars, the power struggles, the horror and difficulties of the world. Sometimes he suffered from the brutality of the soldiers, most of whom were mercenaries. As he tried to fight the cholera and typhoid that usually appeared in the military camps of the time, he directly observed the terrible spectacle of the wounded, the half-dead and the dead that a doctor of the time found in the battlefield. The new firearms of the 16th century contributed enormously to the growing destruction and ruin of the war regions.
We repeat how much the hard experience of the war accompanied Paracelsus ever since. In addition to the afore said Swabian War between 1499 and 1500, which obliged his family to escape from Switzerland, and when he studied in Ferrara in 1513, he was in the middle of the war between Venice and France, on one side against Milan and on the other against the Papacy. The victory of the former could make the life of a young Swiss in the Venetian city of Ferrara uncomfortable, so he decided to leave this state. (15) It was a second time that a war forced him to leave the region. He decided to go south of the Italian peninsula, travelling through Bologna, Florence, Siena, Rome (at that time ruled by the Medici Pope Leo X) and Capua, until he came to a halt because of the invasion of Naples by the army of Charles I of Spain. Perhaps it was during this war, in the course of this year 1515, that Paracelsus, 21 years old, was employed as a wound doctor for the first time. In the city of Naples he found hundreds of Spanish soldiers infected with syphilis, which he had already dealt with. On this trip to southern Italy he did not miss the opportunity to visit the famous medical school in Salerno, Sicily. (16)
Three years later, in 1518, even further south and already on the other side of the Mediterranean in Africa, he practised as a doctor and military surgeon in the Algerian war, in which Spaniards fought with Algerians. (17) From that time onward until 1522, his professional activity seems to have been clearly linked to medical assistance for soldiers in war. In 1519, he cared for the soldiers of this country who faced the Spaniards, in 1520 he set off with the Danish troops in a war party in Sweden. Remember that the King of Denmark and Norway, Christian II, had appointed him as Royal Medicus. Between 1520 and 1521, he was captured in Russia in the Tartar and Russian Wars. At the end of this last year, he served in Italy as a surgeon in the Venetian army, which at that time was facing the Spaniards. And finally, between July and December 1522, he cared for the sick and wounded during the Turkish occupation of the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean Sea, which was ruled by the Order of Knights of St John. (18)
There is no record that Paracelsus – except as a doctor – was ever involved anywhere as a soldier in any of these wars, although some sources indicate that he always carried an enormous sabre with him – or at least it appears so in his later portraits. Other sources, however, suggest that he, like every good alchemist, always carried a stick or a cabbalistic trident, as it was carried by Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon and Henry Kunrath. (19)
… will be continued
3 MROSEK: núm.2:5.
5 BLAVATSKY: vol. IV , 174.
13 RIVIÈRE:37; PAGEL:26; BALL:319.320.
Compiled by Jordi Pomés