Monday, 4 March 2013

The Resentful Rivals of the Persecuted Paracelsus

            The doctors and medical lecturers of Basel had had enough of the troublesome Paracelsus and his threat to their privileged, exclusive, and very lucrative positions and decided to be rid of him. More and more scurrilous rumours were spread. He received an invitation to Zürich and the supportive medical students there gave a feast in his honour – this was evidence, when amplified by his enemies, that he was an habitual drunk and a glutton. 


He returned to Basel to these rumours and when the Basel printer and publisher Johann Frobel died suddenly, this was more grist to the rumour mill, as Paracelsus had treated Frobel one year beforehand. Again, it was ‘proof’ that Paracelsus’s unorthodox treatment had poisoned him (actually, Paracelsus had advised the elderly Frobel not to travel on horseback to a book fair in Frankfurt, but Frobel had gone anyway and had died of a heart attack brought on by the journey). 

Paracelsus - Of the Secrets of Alchymy - 1656 edition

Anonymous letters began to be left at Paracelsus’s home, accusing him of murder and then, one Sunday morning, an anonymous document entitled 
The Shade Of Galen Against Theophrastus, Or Rather Cacophrastus’ 
appeared nailed to the doors of the churches of Basel. It was written in excellent Latin and therefore had to be the work of a learned hand, rather than a libel from some uneducated peasant, and Paracelsus knew it was a product of the university men. He wrote to the Town Council, demanding that they take action against the libellers, and included a copy of the lampoon with his letter. It was a poem, supposedly written by the ancient Greek physician Galen from Hell, and its flavour can be guessed from this short quotation, 
Hast thou read? Thou shalt lose what in cunning of speech thou hast won 
And thy works of deceit will bring thee to poverty's pain. 
What wilt do, thou insane, when within and without thou art known? 
Good counsel it were to hang thyself up by the neck.” 
Things took a turn for the worse when Paracelsus attended a cathedral Canon, Cornelius Lichtenfels, who was suffering from an illness deemed incurable by the doctorculi. Lichtenfels offered one hundred gulden to anyone who could cure him, Paracelsus took up the challenge, and three days later the Canon was healed and well. But he felt that his cure had been done too quickly and dismissed Paracelsus with six guldens and his compliments. Paracelsus was only too pleased to help the poor with his cures for free, but a rich, ungrateful clergyman was something else, and in a volcanic rage, Parcelsus sued him. 


The magistrates thought otherwise, judging Lichtenfels’ promise of payment to be invalid, the six gulden to be sufficient payment for the care Paracelsus had provided and proportionate to the short time that Paracelsus had been resident in Basle. Paracelsus was outraged with the decision and wrote a letter to the magistrates, addressing them as,  
“… grave, pious, strong, foreseeing, wise, gracious, favourable gentlemen,” 
but this sarcasm proved too strong for their delicate constitutions and they ordered that he be arrested and imprisoned. Warned in advance by friends, Paracelsus fled Basel in the clothes he stood up in, and resumed his former life of wandering across Europe, although he attacked what he called the ‘Aristotelian swine’ openly in his writings, 
I tell you the down on my chin knows more than you and all your writers, my shoebuckles are more learned than Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your universities … Serpents are you and I expect poison from you.” 


He went to Colmar, and it was there that he parted company with his secretary, Oporinus; Oporinus had been taken in by Paracelsus and trained by him, and for three years he had served him as secretary. Oporinus was four times married, his last wife an elderly widow whom he married for her money, but he was always in debt and hoped to learn the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone from Paracelsus. Dissatisfied after spending so long in his service and learning nothing that made him rich, they parted and Oporinus went on to write a damning description of his teacher that was eagerly seized upon by his enemies and his contributed much to the latter blackening of his name. 


Oporinus went on to become a printer and publisher, and a professor of Greek, but died deeply in debt; on his deathbed he expressed profound regret that his words had been used so damagingly against his former friend. The blackening of Parcelsus’s name was damaging and successful – even today he is held up as an example of the archetypical devious, deceitful, dangerous mediaeval magician, dabbling in devilry and necromancy, conjuring spirits and issuing prophecies. 

Paracelsus - A New Light of Alchemy - 1674 edition

This is to misunderstand both the man and his times. There was no chemistry during his lifetime, so had no resource to anything other alchemy, but he was instrumental in the later separation of the two. Medicine, too, did not exist as we know it, it was a combination of the scholastic memories of the ancients, taught by rote, without question or comment, and the folk-remedies of the people, country herb-lore and wort cunning. Paracelsus sought a synthesis of what he had available to him, testing, observing, experimenting, questioning and rejecting. He was an astrologer because there was no real astronomy, a metaphysician because there was no physics, a magician because there was no science. 

Tomorrow, I’ll introduce you to some of the changes that he made.

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