Paracelsus, Healer of the German Reformation

Jole Shackelford reviews Philip Ball’s The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science.

Philip Ball. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2006. viii + 436 pp. $27.

The Protestant Reformation, the formation of early modern science, and the social and economic changes that marked the rise of capitalism and the nation-state provide an attractive landscape in which to place the story of Paracelsus (1493–1541). It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Philip Ball constructs his story of this contradictory, ebullient, provocative, and at times incoherent German physician and lay preacher around brief histories of medicine, astrology, magic, mining, banking, astronomy, and religion. He brings this story to life by populating Paracelsus’s world with biographical sketches of Martin Luther, Agrippa von Nettesheim, Doctor Faustus, and other salient personalities from the period. Yet however lively and richly detailed, The Devil’s Doctor ultimately relies too heavily on hearsay and psychological interpretation to recreate the atmosphere and capture “the emotional truth of the narrative” (p. 102) of Paracelsus’s life and times.

Ball perceptively portrays Paracelsus as a social and religious conservative who was appalled by the Renaissance surrender of the medieval social contract to the Machiavellian forces of a money economy and who reacted with alarm to changes that created misery and distrust among Christians. It might well be the almost-reactionary sentiment of Paracelsus’s religious writings that made him a cogent influence among proponents of the Second Reformation at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries.

The Devil’s Doctor accurately depicts Paracelsus as a man driven by religious passions, engaged in biblical exegesis as a key component of his alchemy, philosophy, and medicine. This emphasis squares well with recent and current research on Paracelsus’s religious writings, many of which were not published until the 20th century and are only now being studied closely by historians. Yet despite devoting a chapter to Paracelsus’s published prognostications, Ball concluded that they were unexceptional and typical of the period. At one point Ball writes that Paracelsus’s Christianity followed in the pantheist tradition of the medieval philosophers Ibn Gabirol and David of Dinant, a position that is hardly compatible with Ball’s later claim that Paracelsus’s beliefs introduced a kind of religious autonomy for natural philosophy that would later characterize 17th-century science. The intriguing prospect that Paracelsus could have been both a pantheist and a protodeist is left unexplored, and we are no better informed about Paracelsus’s religious outlook.

What sets Ball’s story apart from earlier popular biographies is the breadth of his background material. Paracelsus provides not so much the object of the narrative, but a convenient frame for sketching 16th-century Europe at an important and confusing cultural transition. Indeed, Ball announces that Paracelsus is perhaps a better figure than traditional heroes of the early Scientific Revolution for understanding the foundations of modern science; that he will better reveal “the true temperature of the intellectual ferment during the era of Luther and the Counter-Reformation” (p. 4) than Copernicus or Vesalius, because this ferment was more magical and religious than scientific. But Ball’s conception of the history of science is biased toward history of ideas, and the dichotomy he draws between science and magic has more affinity with the historiography of preceding generations than with that of today. His view of late medieval medicine is a caricature, serving the flourish of the storyteller better than the careful analysis of the historian. Consequently, Ball fails to contextualize medicine in the perceptions of its practitioners or the expectations of its consumers.

In sum The Devil’s Doctor is novelistic in its approach, making for lively, richly detailed reading and also for dubious historical analysis. One must not expect from the book a specialist’s suspicion of the speculative, anecdotal, and secondhand information with which many of Ball’s sources abound. At points he interjects a measured skepticism about the received legend to give a sense of credibility to his critical handling of the material, but for the most part the tapestry of Paracelsus’s fantastic travels to Sweden, North Africa, Russia, and Turkey (self-reported but uncorroborated) is presented intact from earlier biographies, with minor doubts expressed about travel in arctic Lapland or up the Nile River. As historical fiction or folklore, Paracelsus’s passage through the Turkish siege of Rhodes to join the Knights of St. John and his meeting with the notorious alchemist Salomon Trismosin in Constantinople are necessary to the telling, but to propagate such unsupported “facts” as his appointment as royal physician to Christian II of Denmark without cautionary skepticism is of dubious usefulness. Would it hurt to remind the reader that this same Paracelsus thought Stockholm was in Denmark? One must not be misled by Ball’s scholarly tone, use of footnotes, and ample bibliography and mistake this book for a cutting-edge historical assessment of Paracelsus’s life and work; there are just too many holes and too much speculation and facile dependence on older secondary literature.