Why is Paracelsus1 important? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in this 2006 biography by Philip Ball. He didn’t actually discover anything (in any case, not so far as can be deciphered from his often cryptic writing). None of his theories have lasted (most were dismissed under even basic experimentation). Although he was a practical and skeptical man, he never really had a system for his work and it would be stretching the term to labelled it as “science”.
However, he was nevertheless a practical and skeptical man. He saw flaws in the isolated rigidity of medieval universities: how could these men be experts while they stayed locked up with their books and theories – never testing them, never putting them into practice. He wanted to be out there in the world, using his hands and getting back to the fundamentals. During his life time and beyond, comparisons to Martin Luther‘s blunt and furious reforming were commonplace and it is easy to see why.
He was a mysterious and often quirky man with influence far beyond his field, he would be the inspiration for the legend of Dr Faustus and the image of medieval alchemists2. Ball helps place these quirks in context by loading the book with detail on the dense and colourful work of 16th century Europe. There are chapters on chemistry, industry, medicine, religion, education, drugs, mental health, syphilis and more – and Paracelsus has something to say on all of them. But so do others – Erasmus, Agrippa, Luther, Melancthon and many others are described in surprising detail, and it is this detail that makes Paracelsus less of an anomaly.
He remains a special character but one can see how he fits into his surroundings, his views were part of a lively debate on the future of these subjects and the practice of medicine. Yet, he still was at times difficult and isolated. A recurring theme of the book is his talent for starting arguments and getting on the wrong side of the wrong people. Even among his supporters, he never really managed to keep assistants for long. Despite this, many of his views will receive sympathy from the modern reader – his general skepticism, his charitable work for the poor and sick, his relatively enlightened views on women and mental illness. The author succeeds in bringing out this personality and it is easy to build up a mental image of this irascible (but kindhearted) figure.
In this review I have barely mentioned Ball’s writing itself – he has a good way with a phrase and the book really is a joy to read. For those interested in science, magic, the medieval or renaissance world, or simply well written history – I really would highly recommend it. It sheds light on an awkward yet wonderful figure in an awkward yet wonderful age positioned somewhere between science and magic.
1 Full name: Philip Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim – good name!
2 I happened to be reading one of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher at the same time as this (well, not simultaneously – that would be confusing – but sort of alternating between them). I was quite pleased to find a lot of references to Paracelsus and Agrippa that I might not have picked up on otherwise.