When your given name is Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim you might be forgiven for favouring a shorter, snappier soubriquet. Von Hohenheim adopted the moniker Paracelsus, which is certainly a great deal shorter and which means ‘greater than Celsus’, (Celsus was a Roman physician of the first century about whom we know nothing, although eight books of his De Medicina remain).
He was German-Swiss, born at the end of 1493 (the date varies in the biographies), in Einsiedeln, where his father, Wilhelm, was a medical doctor. A small, delicate boy, Philippus frequently accompanied his father on his professional duties and received the basis of a solid humanist education from him.
|Dr Wilhelm von Hohenheim|
In 1502, the family moved to Villach, Carinthia, when Dr von Hohenheim was appointed town physician, and young Philippus began his education in the Bergschule there, before moving to Benedictine school at St Paul’s monastery, Lavanttal, and at about the age of sixteen he began attending the university in Basle.
|Einsiendeln (as in 1577)|
This was the time when he began to call himself Paracelsus, following the current fashion among students to Latinise their names, and indicates that even as a teenager, Paracelsus felt that his knowledge outstripped that of the Roman physician. This may well be the case, as medical training at the time involved a strict adherence to the works of the ancients, particularly Galen, Hippocrates, Avicenna and Celsus, and it is easy to imagine the young man’s impatience with the dusty, tired and dull lectures of the pedants and scholiasts of the old universities.
|Paracelsus - Chirurgische - 1618 edition|
Paracelsus studied with the mining engineers and chemists in the local mines and travelled to Würzburg to visit the occultist Abbot Trithemius, also travelling widely across Europe, attending the universities in the major cities he visited. He went first to Vienna, Cologne and Paris, then to Montpellier, where he studied the works of the Moorish doctors, before travelling to Bologna, Padua and Ferrara, where he received his doctorate.
He also made a visit to England, probably to Oxford, and maybe to the tin mines of Cornwall and the lead mines of Cumberland, but left when he heard that there was war raging in the Netherlands, where he enrolled as an army surgeon. From there, he moved on to Denmark and Sweden, where the army doctor also made visits to the mines, to become better acquainted with the miners’ practices and their diseases, metallurgy and mineralogy.
|Paracelsus - Of the Transmutation of Metals - 1657 edition|
He spent many more years as an itinerant physician, all the while visiting new countries and extending his intellectual horizons. He wrote later,
“The universities do not teach all things so a doctor must seek out old wives, gipsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.”
As his learning grew, so did his reputation and he became widely known as being able to cure those cases of which that the doctorculi had despaired. This, of course, caused outrage, jealousy and shenanigans, and he had to flee many towns in fear of his life. He returned to Basel, where he settled and began to teach his new syllabus, in direct opposition to the established medical school, and he began to attract a great audience, not only from students, but including barber-surgeons, bath-men and apothecaries.
|Example of Paracelsus' handwriting|
Paracelsus taught chemistry, pharmacology and herbalism, he refused to wear the flamboyant robes and rings associated with doctors, preferring instead a plain, dark-grey, damask gown and black cap;
“A doctor should be full of experience, not hung about with red coats and spangles.”
He made his own medicines in his laboratory and refused to charge the high prices demanded by the establishment, finding their ineffective pills and potions to be worthless. On the feast of St John, the students of Basel would build a bonfire in front of their university and on it Paracelsus symbolically burned the works of Galen and Avicenna, a deliberate challenge to the authority of the ancients. He ignored the usual university summer break and continued to teach, in the German language, and his lecture-hall was always filled to overflowing.
|Paracelsus - Of the Supreme Mysteries of Nature - 1656 edition|
He took his more advanced students with him on his house calls to the sick, teaching them diagnoses through observation, he supplemented his lectures with practical demonstrations and led expeditions into the countryside to collect herbs. He took the poorer students into his own household, and fed and clothed them, teaching them all he could, and in return they acted as his secretaries, becoming his assistants when they had sufficient knowledge and experience.
|Anti-Paracelsus propaganda picture|
As may be well imagined, none of this went down well with the faculties and the authorities. Rumours and accusations began to circulate – he taught in German, it was said, because he knew no Latin. He did not have a degree at all, they whispered. He had not paid the requisite fees that were necessary in Basel to practice medicine. He was a quack, a sorcerer, an alchemist, they said; he was a drunk, a heretic and a glutton. He was arrogant, egotistical and bombastic (although his name was Bombastus, this is not the origin of the meaning of the word bombast as high-spoken, empty language. The word is a corruption of the French bombace, meaning cotton wadding, which in turn is a corruption of the Latin Bombyx and the Greek βόμβυξ – ‘silk’, ‘silkworm’, and simply means overly-padded-out).
But mud, when flung, tends to stick.
Tomorrow, what happened next.