A true Great Medical, Religious and Social Reformer of the XVI Century
In defense of miners and women
Inspite of it all, Paracelsus did not lose heart and continued condemning all the injustices he saw wherever he went, with disregard for any consequences he could face. When he went through the Inn valley, by the Tirolese miner districts of Hall and Schwaz, between 1533 and 1534, he was able to observe first hand the very harsh working conditions the mine workers endured. In those Tirolese mines he realized how terribly hard and dangerous was the work of the miners, the filth in which they worked and lived, the unhealthy air they breathed and the constant danger of contracting illnesses and suffering accidents, especially by the collapse of the mine galleries. All that, with very long working days, low salaries and high prices of food which were offered by the same companies exploiting the mines. Because of this, in these Tirolese mines there were strikes and riots aproximately in the same period in which the German peasants revolted.(1)
When Paracelsus visited the mines he tried to help the miner families who most needed his help, especially the ones who had contracted diseases typical of miners, caused mainly by the pollution of the air they were breathing and by the toxicity of the extracted metals –particularly mercury. With the experience he acquired as a doctor in this tirolese district, he started to work on his first manual of occupational health which he titled, on miners´ diseases and other mining illnesses. It was the first recognized and systematized treatise in medical literature on illnesses related to work (2). This was his great collaboration for the improvement of life and work conditions of this professional collective so penalized in the 16th century.
Other social collectives who were especially repressed at that time became the object of attention of Paracelsus. Another thing occupying his medical attention and studies were women, very denigrated at the time, and the poor in general. Paracelsus was also the first to write about diseases typical of women. He did so in the 4th book, the Opus Paramirum. He never considered women inferior as did almost everyone at that time. According to him, each sex has its weaknesses and its virtues; thus, women could be superior to men in some aspects (3). Because of this, some have considered Paracelsus as an early champion for women´s rights. He trusted women, and those who considered Paracelsus a misogynist, claiming he never married nor maintained sexual relations in his entire life and also defended chastity, are mistaken. He himself declared, as we have seen earlier, that chastity is one of the qualities every good doctor should observe. He said, ”Chastity endows a man with a pure heart and power to study divine things. God himself, who bids us do this, gave man chastity. But he who is unable to be his own master, does better not live alone” (4). This defense of chastity was also criticized by many, and some even stated that he was a eunuch who had been castrated by a soldier as a youth (5). Nevertheless, he payed no attention to such nonsense legends circulating against him and in particular about his chastity (6) and preferred to concentrate on his work as a doctor and defending the weak and poor.
Attention to the poor and critical analysis of the new capitalist economic system
He assisted the poor, wether they were farmers, miners or of any other profession, every opportunity he had and with the little he had. Throughout the regions he toured, like the Swiss Appenzell, he dedicated time to asist the poor communities (7). He even assisted some of his needy students with food and clothing when he was a professor in Basel (8). There are many testimonies of his charitable work, encouraged by a great sense of social justice. His biographer Pagel states that he was passionately moved by the misery of the poor and slaves (9). He never wanted to charge the poor anything for his medical services even if this angered many professional doctors (10). He preferred to give alms to the needy than to charge them any fees (11). Even in his death bed he remembered the needy and wanted to make all his will to all those, whom he literally called ¨poor, miserable, needy people, and those who have neither money nor provision¨, with the exception of his books, medical equipment and medicines –which he gave to a doctor called Andree Wendl in Salzburg. He also asked to be buried in the house of alms of Saint Sebastian and that a penny be given to each one of the poor who gathered in front of the church while the first, seventh and thirteen psalms were sung around his grave (12). As we have mentioned earlier, today we can also read in his funerary tombstone that Paracelsus was ¨one who honored himself by having distributed all his possessions among the poor¨.
In fact, he could not leave too much in his Will. The only property he may have obtained throughout his life was a modest estate his father left him before he died in 1538 (13). It is not even clear that he had this property until his death. In any case, he did not enjoy it nor obtained any benefit from it. His disciple Oporinus explained that Paracelsus was never worried about obtaining riches (14). Le us remember the phrase he spoke in relation to money and happiness: ¨Happiness is better than riches, and happy is he who wanders about, possessing nothing that requires his care¨ (15). Evidently, he was refering to himself, who somewhat lived always as a poor. It was in Salzburg, in 1524, in the midst of the peasant social struggle, actually a struggle between rich and poor, that he wanted to express clearly his position on mundane riches in the sense that they do not lead to any good and is preferable to seek inner peace: ¨Blessed and more than blessed is the man to whom God gives the grace of poverty; become poor, as poor as a beggar, then the Pope will desert you, and the Emperor will desert you, but then you will have peace, and your folly will be great wisdom in the eyes of God¨(16).
Thus, for Paracelsus it was useless to attack openly the powers and main institutions of society even if they were corrupt and injust. On the contrary, he believed that progress and social reforms could begin to be achieved by accepting and recognizing the authority of the state and the church, and by recognizing private property, including that of the land (17), although he was very critical of such institutions. He believed that the first step to reform such institutions was to accept them. He defended a type of ¨communism¨ or Christian community life according to the medieval model in which individuals and families formed the units of society and respected their social position and, therefore, their social hierarchical organization (18). At least, in such a situation, humble people were allowed to fish and hunt in the communal lands and the peasants were not charged with taxes to the point of starvation. In this so-called golden epic of medieval times, people acknowledged they had a role to play in the community, each one according to his abilities, in such a way that society emerged from the cooperation between the lords and the peasants. Paracelsus said: ¨To us, on earth, God has given gifts and virtues, which each may and should use in the service of others, not for himself¨ (19). He outlined all these ideas in his work De Ordine Doni (On the order of talents), in which he drew a happy arcadia in which the poor were not subjugated and the rich did not take advangtage of the poor; in which the regions with bad crops received help from regions who had obtained good crops; where the role of the authorities was essential to maintain the social order (20).
Regrettably though, the new economic and social order being imposed in the dawn of that new historical era of the Renaissance, which would be known with the name of commercial capitalism, did not have anything to do with the happy arcadia of Paracelsus. He did not like that emerging capitalism nor the miserly merchants and bankers who, sheltering themselves in that system, took advantatge of the poor to enrich themselves. Hence, his very strict position against the abuses of the proprietors of lands and mines with the peasants and mine workers, and against the shady deals among doctors, pharmacists and merchants to swindle people. Those who received his more direct and fiery social criticism were the ones who did business trying to abuse humble people –whether proprietors, pharmacists, doctors, bankers or merchants- and not so much the lords and princes. He used to say that lending money and charging interest destroyed the community, caused inflation and was the work of the devil. Within the same criticism he included business people who were getting rich from lies, deception, exploitation, or from unfair jobs (21). Thus, he proposed to function economically without money. He saw that the money caused worry and crime and stated that wherever money was the main purpose, there was envy, hatred, pride and arrogance (22). Paracelsus demonstrated all these social and economic ideas in his own life, even if this meant to live in harsh economic scarcity and severe social instability.
Life and death in povery
Paracelsus refused to acquire the stable and comfortable social and economic position that he, as the good doctor and alchemist he was, had close at hand. There are some, like his disciple Franz of Meissen, who even asserted that, Paracelsus produced gold utilizing his alchemist knowledge when he needed money (23). Nevertheless, he voluntarily accepted a life without any comfort or luxury and without any economic stability, rather living always like a poor or homeless and frequently, suffering hunger. In fact, as we have already mentioned earlier, his origins were already humble and he felt proud of it. He said on one occasion: ¨I praise God for having made me suffer poverty and hunger in my youth¨ (24).
Only during short periods of time, like the time when he worked as a professor in Basel in 1527 or when in 1537 lived in Bratislava, he could enjoy a comfortable economic and social stability. In Bratislava he could rely on the support and recognition of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, who granted him two hearings, awarded him with a gold chain for his medical services and even made an offer to him to be part of the medical team of the court (25). Before his arrival in this city, he was guest of honor at a dinner ceremony (26). However, the honours ended soon. A series of altercations with the Austrian treasury permanently divided Paracelsus again from the powerful leaders, and he returned to his condition of humble and poor doctor besides being persecuted. All this happened due to his courage to demand the one hundred florins offered by the king, which he never received, for the printing of a book on tartaric illnesses. The authorities of the Austrian treasury responded saying that Paracelsus was no better than an insolent acrobat (27).
He would die three years later, 1541 in Salzburg, without any official recognition and as a poor doctor. Some believe that his death could have been related to a violent attack of betrayal by a mercenary of some doctors hostile to him. Due to the attack he fractured his cranium and died days later (28). In any case, he died poor in a guesthouse, under the shade of the city castle which the peasants had besieged for 16 years under his presence and with the support of his claims. Thus, Paracelsus spent the last days of his life, thinking about the peasants and, as we had mentioned earlier, in fact, thinking of ways to help the poor as he had always done. That is why he wanted to be buried, and it was done so, in the cemetery for the poor; even though the prince archbishop Ernest of Wittelsbach, who had appreciated him so much, rewarded him with a solemn funeral and persuaded the church to allow his body to be burried in ¨sacred land¨ (29).
1. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor. Paracelsus and the world of Renaissance magic and science, Nueva York, F.S.G., 2006:318-319.
2. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus. An introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, Basilea (Swiss), Karger, 1982:25-26.
3. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:270-271.
4. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:270.
5. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:353.
6. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:26-27.
7. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:297.
8. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:196.
9. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:17.
10. HARTMANN, F., The life of Paracelsus, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., s.f.:17.
11. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:22.
12. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:29; BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:338-339.
13. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:327.
14. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:22.
15. HARTMANN, F., The life of Paracelsus…:19.
16. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:301-302.
17. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:43.
18. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:43.
19. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:125.
20. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:125.
21. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:126.
22. MROSEK, Sabine, “La vida de Paracelso” in Paracelsus. Health & Healing, núm. 2, 2003:4.
23. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:138.
24. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:26.
25. BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:327.
26. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:27.
27. PAGEL, Walter, Paracelsus…:27; BALL, Philip, The Devil’s Doctor…:327.
28. HARTMANN, F., The life of Paracelsus…:8.
29. RIVIÈRE, Patrick, Paracelso. Médico-alquimista, Barcelona, De Vecchi, 2000:42.