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Christian Herbal Medicine: Paracelsus - The Rebel
During the 400 years or so between Saint Hildegard von Bingen and the man who would come to be known as Paracelsus, monastic medicine underwent some drastic changes. At varying times, the Church became concerned that priests, monks and nuns were devoting too much time to medicine and not enough to their religious duties. This led to edicts and rules prohibiting those in religious vocations from practicing medicine. Such edicts were never universally followed though, especially in England where the Benedictines continued to be the leading force in medicine until the violent take over of their institutions by the Anglican government. These restrictions were also lifted or openly ignored during epidemics and wars. The influence of the Benedictines continued to be the major force in medical education, but this led to the rise of a professional class of doctors, surgeons and apothecaries. This, in turn, placed the study of medicine mostly in the realm of the children of wealth and position... as is still the case today. This professional class of medical men (women being almost entirely excluded from universities and the professional practice of medicine) formed guilds. They controlled who could practice medicine through their influence on laws... as is also still the case today. This also led to medicine in several countries being dominated by certain wealthy and powerful families, who created barriers to entry for both the common people in their own countries and to foreigners.
Into this environment, would arise a brilliant independent thinker - a rebel. Paracelsus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was as idiosyncratic and bold as his name would imply. He would question and challenge everything that came before and make new discoveries that turned the establishment on its head. As would be expected, his discoveries and unwillingness to bow to authority by denying his beliefs would make him a villain among the establishment. He would be denounced, maligned, threatened, fired and even run out of entire countries. A small group of followers would ensure that his works were published, mostly after his death. Myths surrounding the man, outright fallacies and numerous false works written by others would be attributed to him. But eventually, truth would win out and medicine would be forever changed.
The story of Paracelsus, however, starts in an idyllic environment of peace and harmony with nature that was closely connected to the legacy of Saint Hildegard. Anna Stoddart tells us in the beautifully written, Life of Paracelsus, published in 1911:
THE valley of Einsiedeln stretches from the two Mythen mountains on the south to Etzel on the north. Up to the end of the eighth century this high valley was uninhabited. Its streams and brooks found their way through forests to the Lake of Zurich. These forests knew the wolf's howl and the vulture's scream, but the voice of man was unheard beyond their fringe, where a few hovels here and there might be found. The whole district was a wilderness and was feared by the dwellers near the lake. The great snow-mountains which pass through the valley of Glarus, through Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden, bounded it on the south; it pushed its way northwards to the meadows by the lake; it reached Altmatt on the west, and on the east it skirted the upper lake and the march.
This wilderness belonged to the Dukes of Alemannia, and was ecclesiastically within the diocese of the Bishops of Constance; but although the nobles of Alemannia may have sometimes hunted on its outskirts, it was shunned generally as the Dark Forest and a region of sinister reputation. Such it was before the time of Meinrad, who was born towards the end of the eighth century. His family belonged to a branch out of the stem from which sprang the ancestors of the Imperial House of Germany, and his father was a Count of Zollern. He lived near Rottenburg, in the valley of the Neckar, and there Meinrad, or Meginrat, spent his childhood. The boy was serious-minded, and his father saw in this quality a monition that he was suited for the Church rather than for the world. He took him to a famous monastic school upon the Island of Reichenau, probably influenced in his choice by the fact that a relation of his own, called Erlebald, was one of its instructors. Much country round the lakes of Zurich and Constance was already christianised, some of it by the devoted Irish missionaries Columban and Gallus, and the latter's memory is enshrined in the name of St. Gallen. For Ireland was a base of missionary enterprise in those days, and with the Cross it sent forth the light of education. Germany and France looked to Ireland for schooling, because its learning, its music, its arts of design and manufacture were in advance of the crude Anglian and Alemannic civilisations.
... He spent his youth and early manhood at Reichenau and took deacon's and priest's orders when he was twenty-five years old. In 822, Erlebald was made abbot of the monastery, and shortly afterwards Meinrad entered the order of St. Benedict and submitted himself wholly to its rigorous Rule. His learning fitted him for scholarly rather than for physical labour, and he copied the whole of the Scriptures as well as several books of devotion. He taught in the school, and after some time was sent to Bollingen on the upper Lake of Zurich, where Reichenau had a dependent house and school, established to meet the Emperor Char- lemagne's desire for a wider distribution of educational facilities in that neighbourhood.
Meinrad performed his duties obediently and diligently, but his heart was in the devotional, not in the secular vocation of monasticism. Across the narrow lake he could see the wooded wilderness when after a night of prayer he watched the sun rise on its mountains. Their dark recesses drew him with irresistible magnetism. Yonder was solitude, and he yearned for solitude with God. Had not St. Benedict in his Rule enjoined " the battle of the soul in the desert, where only God is present, and other help there is none to maintain the soul's warfare against temptation "?
He could not walk by the lake's shore without experiencing an agony of longing as he gazed. At last he decided to cross the lake and explore the ground. Some of his pupils accompanied him, and they climbed till they reached the slopes of the High Etzel. Here the boys stopped to fish in the Sihl, but Meinrad pushed upwards into the forest, and found a spot on the lower slope fit for a hermitage. As teacher and pupils fared back to the southern shore, they came upon a little village, now called Altendorf, where a kindly woman promised to provide for his maintenance those things that were necessary to existence, and to carry them to a point on the forest's edge from which at stated times he could fetch them.
Meinrad returned to Bollingen with his boys and then sought Abbot Erlebald to lay before him his heart's desire. Erlebald talked the whole matter out with him and became aware that solitude was God's will for him and must be obeyed. Meinrad received his permission and made his preparation for the change, giving to the monastery of Reichenau nearly all the copies which he transcribed there. He retained the Rule of St. Benedict, his Mass-book, and a few sacred writings. He left for the Etzel some time in 829, and there, just where now the chapel stands, he built a little hut and began the hermit life.
Unfortunately, the solitude he had sought was disturbed. There was a great mental rest-lessness in those difficult days of transition, and the spectacle of a man who knew his own mind and set himself to win a closer communion with God than even the monastery could afford appealed to many wistful men and women. They climbed the rough hill that led to his hermitage to seek counsel, comfort, and intercession. Others followed out of curiosity, and the object of his renunciation seemed to be thwarted. He bore the intrusion bravely for seven years. Doubtless in winter, when the High Etzel is mantled with snow, he could re-cover, but during the greater part of the year pilgrims flocked to seek his blessing. His hermitage was too near the world, and he decided to push further into the heart of the dark forest to escape its contact. About four miles he travelled towards the pyramidal Mythens, which stand sentinel on the south, and there he found a plain thickly wooded but level and walled on the east by the prolonged semi-circular heights of the Freiherrenberg. He halted just below them, and with the help of some woodcutters he rebuilt his hermitage. In the neighbourhood the Alp rustled through the fir-trees, a streamlet whose pure water ministered to his daily needs.
Round the shores of Lake Zurich many religious houses had been established. Over one of these, a convent, the Abbess Hildegard, a king's daughter and a holy woman, presided. Moved to admiration and compassion for a renunciation which lacked even the objective aids to devotion, she sent Meinrad a Madonna and Child carved in wood, and it is supposed aided him to build a little sanctuary in which to place this treasure. Another abbess, Heilwiga of Schannis, gave him an altar, candle- sticks, incense, and wax, perhaps too the priestly equipment for his daily services. " Our Lady of Einsiedeln " was installed, no more to leave the spot in which her honour dwells. For the Madonna and Child of the Holy Chapel in the monastery -church of Einsiedeln, at whose shrine more than a hundred thousand pilgrims yearly pray, kneeling while they listen to the Salve Regina sung every afternoon the most touching intercessory laud surely ever heard, with its wail as of the wind amongst the fir-branches, its cry for deliverance as of lonely souls in conflict is the wooden statue sent thither by the Abbess Hildegard nearly eleven hundred years ago.
Here Meinrad had peace from the world, although now and again distressed souls sought his help, and from time to time one of the brothers from Reichenau would come to visit him. From the evil within and the powers of darkness he suffered fierce assault, but overcame in the might of the Cross, and we are told that God sent him visible messengers of consolation once in the form of Jesus, the little Jesus. His hour of recreation was passed in the forest, walking to and fro, and a pair of young ravens whom he fed from his hand with crumbs of his scanty meals attached themselves to him, as long centuries before two ravens had attached themselves to St. Benedict.
For hard work he had his axe, and he cleared a space round the chapel and cell. When this was done he began to clear the plain in front of them and so to reclaim the wilderness. For twenty-five years St. Meinrad dwelt in his hermitage or Einsiedelei. In his later years pilgrims, many of them nobles, sought him out in their times of affliction and contrition, and the way to the Einsiedelei became a well-trodden path. He would receive their confessions, restore and console them, celebrate Mass for them and send them away renewed and re-solved But the fame of these visits reached the ears of evil men, and they reasoned that in his solitude he must have much wealth accumulated, gifts of gold and silver vessels for his sanctuary, which could be converted into wealth. A German and a Rhaetian resolved to kill him. Father Odilo Ringholz tells the story of their crime. Meinrad, while celebrating his early Mass, was made aware of approaching death and of special divine preparation. He spent the whole day in prayer. At evening his murderers came. He received them with friendly greeting and shared his bread and water with them. When it grew dark, they fell upon him with clubs and beat him to death. But as he died they saw lighted tapers round his body and a perfume as of incense came from it. In terror they fled, not daring to enter the sanctuary. The ravens, who had watched their crime, rose from their perch screaming with rage and pursued them all the way to Zurich, so that they were unable to find refuge and were thrown into prison. Their brutal sacrilege was dis- covered and the Archduke Adalbert condemned them to be burnt to death.
When the news reached Reichenau, Abbot Walter and some of the monks went up to the hermitage and carried Meinrad's heart to his hut-chapel on the Etzel and his body to Reichenau, there to be buried with every sacred rite. This was in January 861.
... For nearly half a century there is nothing to record. The chapel and hermitage fell almost into ruins, for the occasional pilgrimages did not avail to keep them in repair. But early in the tenth century, a dignitary of Strassburg Cathedral came with some followers, drawn by the two-fold cord of St. Meinrad's memory and the longing for solitude. Benedict, better known as Benno, set to work to repair the build- ing and to add cells to the hermitage, one for each, for they practised the hermit life, not that of an established order. When the building was done, they followed Meinrad's example and felled trees in front of and around their settlement. The wide meadow now called the Bruel is due to their toil, as is a large stretch of arable land west of the Alp and still called Bennau. But in 927, Benno, against his will, was made Bishop of Metz and had to leave his little flock in the Dark Forest. He found the city of Metz given over to wickedness and admonished its citizens from the pulpit. His reward was their hatred, and when King Henry who had appointed him, was absent, they hired two knaves to lie in wait for him and put out his eyes. The ruffians added blows to this crime, and Benno sought release from the Synod and went back to Einsiedeln. He was very gladly welcomed and cared for and lived eleven peaceful, devout years till his death in 940. Six years before he died there came to join him another Canon of Strassburg, like himself a man of noble birth and possessing a large for- tune. He brought with him a number of followers, and Benno made him abbot.
This Eberhard proposed to devote his money to the building of a church and monastery on the site of St. Meinrad's hermitage, to reorganise the hermit into the monastic life and to adopt the Rule of St. Benedict. To all this Benno gladly consented, but it was not till after his death that the buildings were begun. Amongst Eberhard's relatives were the wealthy Duke Hermann of Suabia and his wife the Duchess Reginlinde. The Duke bestowed large sums on these buildings, and his name is coupled with that of Eberhard as founder of the Church at Einsiedeln. He gave the ground on which it was built as well as the neighbouring land as far as the Etzel to the monastery, and secured from Emperor Otto I. a decree granting to the monks liberty to elect their abbot without interference. This decree admitted the abbot to the rank of Prince- Abbot.
It was towards the end of 947 that the buildings were finished. The church stood round and over St. Meinrad's little chapel which was preserved in its original form with its altar and Madonna. Church and chapel were ready for consecration. They were within the diocese of Constance to which Einsiedeln belonged till the beginning of the eighteenth century and the Bishop of Constance was asked to perform the solemn rite. The Bishop of Augsburg was invited to be present and brought with him some relics of St. Maurice as a gift.
Bishop Conrad of Constance was a man of deeply devotional nature and habit and rose about midnight on the eve of the consecration to pray in the new church. As he entered, the most wonderful singing met his ear. Some of the Benedictine monks were in the church and with him they went to the door of the little chapel, from which the sound proceeded. Looking in with reverent astonishment, they found the chapel lighted up and a great choir of angels conducting its consecration with chant and prayer and ceremony according to the ritual of the Church. They listened till the celestial function was ended and then returned to the monastery with hearts uplifted and amazed. The Bishop felt that in the human ceremony of the following day the chapel had no share, for God had consecrated it.
When Eberhard and the assembled monks were told, they were astonished and troubled, and feared that Conrad and their brothers had seen a mocking vision, or were carried away by a fantasy. They entreated the Bishop to begin and complete the ceremony as it had been arranged. He yielded very reluctantly and the consecration began at the chapel. Scarcely had the first words been spoken when a voice from above said three times in reverberating tones: " Stop, brother, the chapel is already consecrated by God."
Afterwards, when Bishop Conrad was in Rome, he related all that he had seen and heard to Pope Leo VIII. and received from him a Bull forbidding any attempt in future to reconsecrate the chapel.
This incident roused the whole neighbourhood, and pilgrimages began to a spot so honoured by Heaven. These have continued in increasing numbers during the nine centuries and a half which have elapsed. To-day there is no diminution in their number, no relapse in their devotions. In the thirteenth century, the monastery was permitted to use a seal and chose the Madonna and Child for its impression, while the abbot's shield includes the two faithful ravens of St. Meinhard flying at full speed as after his assassins.
I have spent a good deal of time and space quoting from this book, to share with my readers the history of a place. The reason is that I believe this unique environment shaped the child, influencing a great deal the man he would become. From this place of deep religious devotion and miracles, Paracelsus developed a deep faith in God and a willingness to live a life without comfort in sacrifice to his beliefs. From this place of incredible natural beauty, Paracelsus developed an awe and a consuming interest in exploring the natural world. From his father's position as doctor at this location, he would develop his passion for medicine. His father would instruct him on the uses of the indigenous herbs, which would shape his attitudes regarding the apothecary. Due its proximity to a mining area, he would be instructed in chemistry... or as it was practiced then, alchemy. Perhaps he also came to expect, or at least accept, that as he become known for his accomplishments, he would face danger and persecution just as did Saint Meinhard. It would not surprise me in the least, if the ravens kept watch over Paracelsus as well.
Through the centuries between the narrative we have read and the time of Paracelsus, much more happened at Einsiedeln. The centuries brought ups and downs, much more tragedy and persecution. But, eventually, stability came to the region. The Benedictines built a school and a hospital for both the pilgrims who flocked to Einsiedeln and the town that grew up around the monastery. Dean Albrecht von Bonstettin says in his Chronicle of 1494, "This house of God and church shall be a hospital of refuge for the Princes, Counts, land-owners and their children, as it is written in the chronicles and has been in custom for a long time."
As the town grew and the nature of medical practice evolved, eventually they would need a professional doctor. To this role was called Wilhelm von Hohenhein, the father of Paracelsus. Archbishop Netzhammer in his book, also entitled "Life of Paracelsus " tells us: "Wilhelm von Hohenheim was no bath and barber doctor, but a celebrated physician, trained in the best schools, who had acquired at Tubingen his degree of Licentiate of Medicine, as a chronicle of Villach tells us."
Although from a noble family, Wilhelm was by all accounts a humble man of modest means. He was a devoted doctor and "a man of the kindest temperament.". He was also a devoted father, giving constant care and attention to his only son. We are told, again by Mrs. Stoddart:
He was a difficult child to rear. Small, fragile, with a tendency to rickets, he required constant attention. This he received from his father, who watched him with anxious tenderness. Dr. von Hohenheim had discovered for himself the healing and strengthening value of open air, and when he was old enough Theophrastus was his constant companion and learned from him the names and uses of herbs for healing for lotions, for potions, for poisons, for antidotes. This was his first reading of a page of God's book of nature. No fuller or more attractive page could be read than in the country round his own home. Father Martin Gander has catalogued the flora of Einsiedeln, of mountains, forest, meadow, lake, swamp, and road- side, and in his little book, published by Messrs. Benziger, we can discover what the little boy discovered in his earliest perusal of it,
... On the meadows, banks, and in the woods, by the Sihl streams and in the Sihl valley, where swamps abound, spring, summer, autumn, and winter bring countless plants to bloom and fruition. In the meadows, primulas, gentians, daisies, salvia, ranunculus, orchises, camomile, colchicum, borage, angelica, fennel, kummel, poppies, and martagon lilies succeed each other. In the woods, pirolas of five varieties, woodroof, belladonna, datura, violets, and wild berries are plentiful. On the banks and road- sides are campanulas, foxgloves, chicory, centaurea, many different veronicas, geums, mint, thyme, vervain, smilax, lychnis, St. John's wort, potentillas, ribes, and witch-herb. On the swamps are the mealy primrose in great patches of lavender and purple, sundews, myosotis, pinguiculas, mallows, equisetums, selaginella, a rare orchis relic of an older world; and on the moors and mountain slopes erica, azalia, alpenrose, saxifrage, grass of Parnassus, dianthus, wild plum and wild berries abound. These are but a few of the plants in Father Gander's list, which includes a large number of other medicinal herbs and some to which magical powers were ascribed.
Theophrastus must have learnt them all by his father's side, when the doctor made his professional rounds on foot. They were long rounds, sometimes leading him over the Etzel to the villages on the shores of Lake Zurich, sometimes taking him southward to Einsiedeln and its outlying farms, on other days needing briefer trudging to the hamlets and farms within a mile or two of the Sihl bridge. When early summer brought the pilgrims, his attendance would be divided between the Etzel and Einsiedeln.
These days would lead to many questions from the child and many answers from his father. A sad surmise haunts one, as one seeks to reconstruct his childhood, that the mother was no longer there, but had passed away while he was still young. He was so entirely in his father's care, and he suffered much from lack of suitable nourishment. But that he was brought up in a religious home is proved by his strong conviction of the profound importance of religion in after-years. For Paracelsus there were only two subjects of paramount interest in life: God in Heaven to be worshipped and trusted, God in nature. and in man to be passionately sought after. As a child he would accept all that he was taught, in youth and manhood he thought for himself, but never once lost sight of the great eternal truths. To him, as we shall see, Jesus Christ was the divine teacher and example, whose dicta required positive obedience, not casuistic interpretation to vanishing point. We may accept from his own later reminiscences that his father was his first instructor in Latin, botany, alchemy, herbal medicine, surgery, and religious history.
In 1502 Dr. Wilhelm von Hohenheim became the town physician of Villach, and the young Paracelsus began his formal education. This was a mining area, and schooling included a great deal of instruction in chemistry and metallurgy, then much intertwined with alchemy. Thus, from an early age, his education was not only of medicinal herbs and their uses, and of the diagnosis and treatment of disease and injury but of metals and minerals, chemicals - and the scientific study of nature, seeking proof through experimentation. Dr. von Hohenheim was also proficient in chemistry and held a dual role as a teacher at the school. He is said to have had a laboratory in their home and to have been interested in experimentation. Certainly, he would have encouraged his son's study. School followed school in his academic career, the young man excelling to the point of adopting the name "Paracelsus" implying that he was more learned than the ancient physician, Celsus, who was recognized as being the most advanced of his time.
Youth often carries with it a measure of arrogance or a feeling that one can accomplish far more than nature would dictate. Experience teaches us humility. The assumption of a classical title was common among university students, yet, for a small-framed youth who was anything but robust in his physical nature to have taken for himself such a grand title would likely have invited as much ridicule and physical abuse in the 1500s as it would today were his intellect not impressive enough to justify it. It seems that throughout his education, as would continue throughout his life, Paracelsus subjected everything he was taught to the scrutiny of logic and scientific experimentation. He questioned everything taught as fact, every tradition, every doctrine and every dogma.
The education of Paracelsus included and accepted much of the occultism of alchemy. During this era, the spiritual and physical worlds were not viewed as separately as they would be following the development of modern science. During his life and for centuries after, Paracelsus would be either denounced by his critics or celebrated by proponents of the occult as a sorcerer, satanist, occultist or a Protestant (whatever suited the circumstance), yet none of this was true. Yes, he studied alchemy... but so did anyone who studied science. Mrs. Stoddart tells us:
Paracelsus had read some manuscript by the Abbot Trithemius, perhaps a copy in his father's collection, and it decided him to go to Wiirzburg and seek enrolment amongst his pupils. Trithemius was called after his birthplace, Treitenheim, near Trier. His own name was Johannes Heidenberg. Even as a young Bene-dictine monk he was celebrated for his learning, and was made Abbot of Sponheim when he was only twenty -one years old. From Sponheim he was transferred in 1506 to the monastery of St. Jacob close to Wiirzburg, where he died in December 1516. He had a great renown, and more especially for occult research, believing that the hidden things of nature were in the keeping of spiritual forces. Students came to him, and if they proved themselves worthy were admitted to his study where his grim experiments were made. He was learned in all the knowledge of his day, influenced too by the Renascence, a lover of art and poetry as well as a historian and a physician, an al- chemist with a nostrum of his own for all diseases, the receipt for which is quoted by Dr. Franz Hartmann.
So Paracelsus travelled the long road to Wiirzburg, probably in just such conditions as Erasmus describes in his letter about the journey from Basel to Louvain. He had grown stronger, but always remained small and slight, carrying his great gifts in a frail vessel. He took a lodging at Wurzburg,
Trithemius was accounted dangerous by the ignorant many. He had penetrated to some of nature's hidden things, amongst them to magnetism and telepathy. In mystical experiments he had found himself able to read the thoughts of others at a distance. He used a cryptic language and a secret chronology by which he interpreted the prophetic and mystical portions of the Bible and of cabalistic writings. Above all study he insisted on that of the Holy Scriptures, for which he had a deep devotion and which he required his pupils to examine with exact and reverent care. In this he influenced Paracelsus for life, for Bible study was one of the preoccupations of his later years, and in his writings we have constant witness not only to his mastery of its language, but of its' deepest spiritual significance.
That he studied occultism with the abbot and was aware of its mysterious powers is also sure, for later he sought to systematise them anew. But he shrank from its more dangerous experiments because he believed them to be opposed to the divine will, and above all he abhorred the necromancy practised by less scrupulous men, being convinced that it opened an outlet for the forces of evil. He abjured all personal profit from the exercise of beneficent magic, and believed that only the good of others could authorise it, and particularly the healing of others under the direction of God.
... Alchemy is to make neither gold nor silver: its use is to make the supreme essences and to direct them against diseases." This was the outcome of Hohenheim's researches in Schwatz.
Paracelsus would develop into an extremely accomplished doctor. He would work to heal poor miners, soldiers, noblemen and kings. He would teach and be barred from teaching. He would live as a transient, fleeing persecution. He would be a hero to some in his time, but a villain to most. Above all else though, in his professional life, he would be an effective doctor. In his personal life, he would be a devout Christian.
The critics of Paracelsus held against him two main sources of contention. The first two are so seemingly innocent in our era as to hardly be thought worthy of mention, but in the time of Paracelsus they were matters of extreme scandal.
Having learned the medicinal use of native herbs from his father, Paracelsus preferred to use native plants and to make his own medicines from them. This was heresy to a medical establishment that still relied on Dioscorides and Galen. The apothecaries of the ancient Greeks and Romans were the accepted medicines of the era. Native Germanic herbs were not yet accepted. This made Paracelsus not only a rebel among his peers, but a true threat to the apothecarists whose living was based on the accepted formulas of the time.
Next, was the use of language. Paracelsus was barred from teaching in the universities because he dared lecture in German. While German was the native tongue of his students, only Latin was allowed. Latin was the language of the educated. To teach medicine in the vernacular was to make the arts and sciences available to the common man. This threatened the guilds and professionals of the time, as well as their teachers.
These two breeches of the acceptable standards of the time were not unique to Catholic central Europe. A bit more than a century later, the same charges would be brought against Nicholas Culpepper in Protestant England. A few centuries ago, speaking German or English would be the end of a career. It is not so very different today, our medical associations and the laws they sponsor bar modern doctors from using unapproved drugs, and teaching anything that disagrees with the faculty may cause a professor to fail to achieve or lose his tenure. The recent controversy over prescribing of generic therapeutics for COVID-19 proves the first point, and the suicide of my old friend, UNC-Wilmington professor, Mike Adams proves the other.... he was hounded to death, his reputation constantly attacked and stripped of his tenure, because he was a conservative Christian in the Marxist University of North Carolina system.
In truth, the main reasons Paracelsus was hated by his peers were that he dared question their authority and he threatened their livelihood. He proved them wrong by curing diseases that they could not cure, using medicines about which they were entirely ignorant and unwilling to learn. For this reason, they accused him of insanity, drunkenness, sorcery and heresy. To this day... especially in this day, many ignore the man's own words, seeking to use his legacy to advance their own causes. After his death, many false works were attributed to Paracelsus that claimed to be occult in nature. In the era following the Reformation, many would claim that he was a Protestant, persecuted for his beliefs. Many parties would seek to carry a forgery of his banner. Yet, while his ideas and teaching were controversial and challenging to all authority, Paracelsus died as a faithful Catholic, reconciled to the Church.
The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
Celebrated physician and reformer of therapeutics, b. at the Sihlbrücke, near Einsiedeln, in the Canton of Schwyz, 10 Nov., 1493; d. at Salzburg, 24 Sept., 1541. He is known also as Theophrastus von Hohenheim, Eremita (of Einsiedeln ), and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. It is now established that the family originally came from Würtemberg, where the noble family of Bombastus was in possession of the ancestral castle of Hohenheim near Stuttgart until 1409, Paracelsus is the Latin form in common use among the German scholars of the time. Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, physician to the monastery of Einseideln and father of Theophrastus, changed the family residence to Villach in Carinthia (c. 1502), where at the time of his death (8 Sept., 1534), he was city physician.
Paracelsus mentions the following as his earliest teachers, his father, Eberhard Paumgartner, Bishop of Lavant, Matthæus Schacht, Bishop of Freising. He was initiated into the mysteries of alchemy by Joannes Trithemius (1462-1516), Abbot of Sponheim, and a prolonged interval spent in the laboratories of Sigmund Fugger at Schwaz made him familiar with metallurgy. All his life restless and eager for travel, he attended the most important universities of Germany, France, and Italy, and, in 1526, went to Strasburg, where, already a doctor, he joined the guild of surgeons. The same year he was appointed, probably through the influence of Joannes Œcolampadius, the theologian, and Joannes Frobenius, the publisher, to the office of city physician of Basle, with which was connected the privilege of lecturing at the university.
His teaching, as well as his opposition to the prevailing Galeno-Arabic system, the burning of Avicenna's writings in a public square, the polemical tone of his discourses, which, contrary to all custom, were delivered in German, his dissensions with the faculty, attacks on the greed of apothecaries, and to a certain extent, also, his success as a practitioner--All drew upon him the hatred of those in authority. In February he fled from Basle to Colmar. A typical vagrant, his subsequent life was spent in continual wandering, surrounded by a troop of adventurers, with the reputation of a charlatan, but all the while observing all things with remarkable zeal, and busied with the composition of his numerous works. In 1529 we find him at Nuremberg, soon afterwards at Beritzhausen and Amberg, in 1531 at St. Gall, later at Innsbruck, in 1534 at Sterzing and Meran, in 1535 at Bad Pfäffers, Augsburg, 1537 at Vienna, Presburg, and Villach, and finally at Salzburg, where he died a natural death and, in accordance with his wish, was buried in the cemetery of St. Sebastian. The present tomb in the porch of St. Sebastian's Church, was erected by some unknown person in 1752. According to recent research the portrait on the monument is that of the father of Paracelsus. Paracelsus did not join the ranks of the Reformers, evincing, rather, an aversion to any form of religion. The clause in his will, however, giving directions for a requiem Mass would indicate that before his death he regarded himself as a member of the Church.
Paracelsus is a phenomenon in the history of medicine, a genius tardily recognized, who in his impetuosity sought to overturn the old order of things, thereby rousing bitter antagonists. He sought to substitute something better for what seemed to him antiquated and erroneous in therapeutics, thus falling into the mistake of other violent reformers, who, during the process of rebuilding, underestimate the work of their contemporaries. He was not in touch with the humanist movement or with the study of anatomy then zealously pursued, the most prominent factors in reorganization; leaving out of consideration his great services to special departments, he stands alone and misunderstood. His influence was felt specially in Wittenberg, but only in a few schools of Germany, while he was entirely discounted throughout Italy.
He sought the cause of pathological changes, not in the cardinal humours, blood, phlegm, yellow and black gall (humoral pathology), but in the entities, which he divided into ens astrorum (cosmic influences differing with climate and country), ens veneni (toxic matter originating in the food), the cause of contagious diseases, ens naturale et spirituale (defective physical or mental constitution), and ens deale (an affliction sent by Providence). The diseases known as tartaric, especially gout and lithiasas, are caused by the deposit of determinate toxins (tartar), are discovered chiefly by the urine test, and are cured by means of alkalies. Like the followers of Hippocrates he prescribes the observation of nature and dietetic directions, but attaches too great a value to experience (empiricism). In nature all substances have two kinds of influences, helpful ( essentia ) and harmful ( venena ), which are separated by means of alchemy. It requires experience to recognize essences as such and to employ them at the proper moment. His aim was to discover a specific remedy ( arcanum ) for every disease.
It was precisely here, however, that he fell into error, since not infrequently he drew a conclusion as to the availability of certain remedies from purely external signs, e.g., when he taught that the pricking of thistles cures internal inflammation. This untrustworthy "doctrine of signatures" was at a later date developed farther by Rademacher, and to a certain extent also by Hahnemann. Although the theories of Paracelsus as contrasted with the Galeno-Arabic system indicate no advance, inasmuch as they ignore entirely the study of anatomy, still his reputation as a reformer of therapeutics is justified in that he broke new paths in the science. He may be taken as the founder of modern materia medica, and pioneer of scientific chemistry, since before his time medical science received no assistance from alchemy. To Paracelsus is due the use of mercury for syphilis as well as a number of other metallic remedies, probably a result of his studies in Schwaz, and partly his acquaintance with the quicksilver works in Idria. He was the first to point out the value of mineral waters, especially the Pfäffer water, even attempting to produce it by artificial means. He recognized the tincture of gallnut as a reagent for the iron properties of mineral water. He showed a particular preference for native herbs, from which he obtained "essences" and "tinctures", the use of which was to replace the curious composite medicines so popular at the time. Regarding him from an ethical standpoint, his noble ideals of the medical profession, his love for the poor, and his piety deserve to be exalted. The perusal of his writings disproves the accusation of drunkenness which had so often been made against him by his enemies.
For the most part Paracelsus dictated his works, in many cases bequeathing the manuscript to friends with the request to have it printed. His name, being well known, was often misappropriated, so that later it became necessary to draw a fixed line between authentic and unauthentic writings. The former are characterized by a simple, direct, intelligible style. Cf. Schubert-Sudhoff, "Paracelsusforschungen" (Frankfort on the Main, 1887-89); Sudhoff, "Bibliographia Paracelsica" (Berlin, 1894); Idem, "Versuch einer Kritik der Echtheit der Paracelsischen Schriften" (Berlin, 1894-99). The best of the collective editions, which, however, includes some unauthentic works, is that of Huser (Basle, 1589-91, 10 vols.; Frankfort, 1603, 3 vols.; Strasburg, 1616). A detailed list of the authentic and unauthentic writings is to be found in Albr. von Haller, "Bibliotheca medicinæ practicæ", II (Basle, 1777), 2-12. Among his most important writings may be mentioned: "Opus Paramirum" I, II, re-edited by Dr. Franz Strunz (Jena, 1904), which contains the system of Paracelsus; "Drei Bücher von den Franzosen" (syphilis and venereal diseases); "Grosse Wundarznei, über das Bad Pfäffers, über die Pest in Sterzing".
The legacy and legends of Paracelsus continue to influence many. This is especially true among those who whose interest lies in alchemy or the occult. That is unfortunate. It is my hope that including the story of the man in a Christian context may help to correct this error. A man's life must be viewed in its entirety and not all who wander are lost. We celebrate the births of children and we celebrate the lives of great men, but how one dies is often the most important things in terms of salvation and eternity.
This article is an excerpt from Christian Medicine, History and Practice by Judson Carroll. To learn more about this book, please visit: Southern Appalachian Herbs: Christian Herbal Medicine, History and Practice - a new book by Judson Carroll
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Judson is a Certified Master Herbalist from the blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, who began his herbal apprenticeship at age 15. He is the author of 7 books on Herbal Medicine and Gardening and he hosts the Southern Appalachian Herbs Podcast. His weekly articles on herbal medicine are available through his Substack at judsoncarroll.com
Judson is a convert to Catholicism, who is orthodox in doctrine and very traditional… but still struggling to learn Latin, and the only guy in his parish with a southern accent! He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org