A true Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
A Great Social Reformer
These ¨theosophical¨ teachings were certainly not at odds with Paracelsus´ sensitivity towards the problems and needs of the most disadvantaged social collectives and, in general, of all the people who suffered injustices and pain of any kind. He was always on the side of the needy, unprotected, and poor in general. In his work as a doctor he never forgot the poor and humble, whom he tried to treat as if they were his own brothers and whom he never wanted to charge for the service. His intimate, profound, and constant contact with the world of the marginalized and the poor of society made him very aware of its problems. He was able to observe very closely that the most humble collectives were the most harmed by the political and religious revolts and wars of the decades in which he lived and which exacerbated the social injustices they were suffering. Thus, he ended up committed to important groups of helpless people like the peasants and miners and even women, helping them to end the social injustices they were suffering, fighting for social equality based on Christian principles, caring less if this put him against the positions, opinions or doctrines of the governing authorities or powerful economic groups. In the social field as well, Paracelsus was a few centuries ahead and, in some way, he collaborated in establishing some basis of what would become the social movements related to the struggle for social injustice emerging mainly during the XIX century in defense of the low and poor social classes. As Pagel says ¨his life and work was a permament war against the priviledged and mighty¨ (1).
However, he never supported the struggles or violent revolts against these priviledged ones, such as were plotted and executed by some sects of ideological or religious groups of his time, such as the Anabaptists. According to him, the violent uprisings could not help improve the situation of those who were subject to injustices. Despite the serious commitment he developed with those collectives, he always advocated peaceful and pacifist means of reform without violence and, defending the values and humanist ideals of cooperation, solidarity and tolerance, to achieve the much desired harmony of classes and social justice. In spite of this, the authorities, at times, persecuted him as if he had encouraged or was chiefly responsible for the social revolts in which he found himself immersed.
Commitment to the peasants
The most obvious social war in which he became clearly involved through his commitment to the humble was the so called ¨War of the Peasants¨ (in German, der Deutsche Bauern-krieg), also called ´the revolution of the common man´ (in German, Erhebung des gemeinen Mannes). This, mainly peasant, violent, popular revolt took place in the heart of the Sacred Roman Germanic Empire, mostly in the south, west and central areas of Germany, and also affected the areas of the present Austria and Switzerland; i.e., it covered a great region of central Europe spanning from the Rhine to the Danube. In fact, the war caught Paracelsus when he was in Salzsburg in 1524. That year, when he arrived in this city to settle for the first time as a more or less stable city doctor, Salzsburg was preparing for the peasant revolt which would last until 1525. He stayed in the city for the duration of the conflict. His commitment to the zealots forced him to flee Salzsburg when the war ended to avoid retribution, probably in the form of the death penalty.
It is said that it was the most massive and generalized popular revolt in Europe before the French Revolution of 1789. During the spring and summer of 1525 there were an estimated total of 300,000 insurgent peasants and the revolt left a balance of more than 100,000 victims among the rebels. It was the result of the explosion of endemic tensions between peasants and proprietors. The peasants lived in very hard social and economic conditions which were also periodically exacerbated approximately every ten years by bad crops. In the last years, the situation deteriorated even more for the peasants because their lands, once communal, had been expropriated and fenced in. In addition, the rights of use of communcal pasture lands, the logging of forests, fishing and hunting had been restricted or suppressed; and the taxes that the lords and princes were imposing to finance the various wars in which they had been involved for a few years, had increased (2). Yet that was not all. To those hardships, the church added the requesting of tithes, another tax equivalent to one tenth of the harvest. Sebastian Frank, humanist and great friend of Paracelsus, who, like the latter, defended non-violent social and ecclesiastical reform, wrote during those years that the oppressive tithes, mortal obligations, forced labor, tributes, interest payments and other serious motives for complaints were the main reason for the so-called War of the Peasants in the twenties (3).
With this scene, it was no wonder Paracelsus understood the reasons of the humble who lived from the land to improve their life and working conditions. He not only understood them and expressed liking toward the rebels, but in some way he associated with them (4). Some sources point out that he offered his services to them as a doctor (5). Logically, the peasants quite willingly accepted the offer, given the need for assistance to those thousands wounded in combat. We must remember that Paracelsus was always appreciated as a proffesional authority and had great experience in battle fields. It might be an exaggeration to think, however, that Paracelsus was a leader of the peasant revolt of Salzsburg. Nevertheless, we know he was arrested under suspicion of fomenting the insurrection or at least the civil authorities considered his points of view to be rebellious (6). We have already mentioned that in this Austrian city he wouldn´t hesitate to publicly address the masses in the most crowded places to demand social justice and that he even distributed his own writings among the citizens. Although these writings were supposedly of religious character they probably showed his position regarding the open social conflict. His arrest was undoubtedly related to these public interventions.
With this detention his life was in danger, since repression against revolutionaries or, simply, against suspects who sympathized with the movement, was very cruel (7). However, and no one knew exactly how he did it, he was able to escape arrest, fleeing hastily from this repression, albeit cutting it close, going up the river through the ample valley of the Danube. He did not return to Salzburg until the end of his days. His biographer Pagel says he was very lucky to evade hanging. Some sources point out that his death penalty was converted to exile from the city due to his position as a doctor and because he had not carried arms during the revolts (9).
Indeed, Paracelsus did not intervene directly in the uprisings. He was a pacifist. He detested war and violence and abhored the death penalty and assassination as well as any political power which practiced and promoted such practices (10). Thus, he lamented the violence of the peasant revolts and the vulgarity of their methods –and the brawls in their taverns (11) – as much as the violent repression by the authorities against the uprisings, which included the punishment of death to all leaders of the insurrection. At the end of the war, the peasants´ situation in general –except in the mountainous areas of Switzerland – worsened. They had to endure more and more repressive politics and measures, which proved the pacifists right who, like Paracelsus or the trinitarian pacifist branch of the Anabaptists, always advocated progress and social reforms without violence or wars.
Against the injustices in the commercial pharmaceutical field
The Paracelsian pacifist social reformism also had a great opportunity to really be applied during the months in which Paracelsus was an official municipal doctor in Basel. During this period he tried to act clearly and decisively in favor of the sick exploited by pharmacists and medicine merchants, trying to demonstrate how through political power, even if in the municipal sphere, social justice could be taught, even if it went against powerful collectives, such as the pharmacists, and very powerful companies that negotiated with pharmaceuticals. Shortly after Paracelsus assumed the position of municipal doctor and saw that many city pharmacies lack basic conditions, he asked the municipal counsel to demand that these establisments obtain a municipal license and be subject to supervision, and that he be given permission to regularly inspect and examine pharmacies to see if the components of the medications were correct or not, thus avoiding the excessive prices the pharmacists might charge for their goods.
Paracelsus had earlier observed and denounced how pharmacists were conspiring with doctors to cheat people with exorbitant medicine prices. (12). In addition, he deplored the employment of unqualified people and children in the stores and pharmacies, and demanded that apothecaries be required to pass an exam before they could exercise their profession. All this, of course, put the pharmacists and the medical collective radically against him (13). The medical school responded to these demands of Paracelsus calling him a liar and an imbecile (14). Unfortunately, such opposition, as we saw in the chapter dedicated to his medical practice, was instrumental in his expulsion from Basel, which gave him little time to implement all his proposed measures to correct medical and pharmaceutical abuses.
He did not, however, lose heart in his attempt to impart justice in this field, even though it meant another important conflict with the pharmacists and medicine merchants. It was in Nuremberg, between 1529 and 1530, a year after fleeing from Basel, where he published first a short treaty gathering his ideas about the cure of syphilis, and, later, an extensive work entitled Essay on the French illness (refering to syphilis), with the subheading On Impostors, in which he criticized especially merchants but also the ecclesiastic hierarchy who supported them, because they took advantage of the syphilitic patients to whom they promised cure with a treatment made from liquor or oil extracted from guaiac wood (15). Syphilis is an infectious sexually transmitted disease that in those times had become a real pandemic. The high price that could be asked for the guaiac wood opened a profitable market which many great merchants like the Fuggers exploited. This family had obtained a monopoly on the sale of this wood, which they imported from South America. The company of the Fuggers had become the most powerful company in the world (16). In a short treatise entitled About the guaiac wood, Paracelsus asserted that this was a remedy of bad healers and, as an alternative, he presented medical breakthroughs for healing syphilis. These assertions put him radically against the Fugger merchants and also against their medical and pharmaceutical allies (17).
Their reaction did not wait. To start, they prohibited Paracelsus from producing any more publications in Nuremberg. He had already prepared the continuation of the Essay on the French illness, but the municipal censor, who was also influenced by the outraged representatives of the city´s medical school, denied its publication. The support he had received was useless (18). The printing of his planned eight books on French illnesses was prohibited by decree. The decree was based on the opinion of the dean of the medical school of Leipzig, which was an interested party in the guaiac bussiness and was a friend of the Foggers (19). To no avail were also the letters that Paracelsus sent to the municipal counsel of Nuremberg asking them permission to publish his books on syphilis for the good of the people and the truth, and, before prohibiting the books, allow him to discuss them with experts on the subject. He did not receive any answer. Finally, defying the censors, he published one of the prohibited books, upon which he had to flee from Nuremberg to avoid being arrested (20). Paracelsus wanted to clarify that the liquor of guaiac was not recommended to treat this illness, as was neither the commonly mistaken use of mercury. He wanted to teach how to avoid the ¨mercurialism¨ and show its healing use, avoiding the toxic effect of the metal through careful dosage and the use of less toxic mercury preparations (21). Once more, the opposition of powerful people was greater than his courage, and it finally silenced him and prohibited the publication of his treatises, disqualifying him completely from expressing opinions concerning commercial interests of powerful companies and pharmacists.
…to be continued
1. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus. An introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, Basilea (Suiza), Karger, 1982:40.
2. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor. Paracelsus and the world of Renaissance magic and science, Nueva York, F.S.G., 2006:127-128.
3. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:128.
4. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:40-41; BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:104.
5. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:134
6. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:134; PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:17.
7. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:17.
8. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:40-41.
9. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:134.
10. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:40; BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:63-64.
11. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:131.
12. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:206.
13. HARTMANN, F., The life of Paracelsus, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., s.f.:6; BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:206.
14. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:206.
15. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:24; BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:230.
16. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:228.
17. MROSEK, Sabine, “La vida de Paracelso” in Paracelsus. Health & Healing, núm. 3, 2004:4.
18. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:231-232.
19. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:24.
20. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:232-233.
21. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:24.