Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541): Essential Theoretical Writings edited, introduced, translated by Andrew Weeks (Aries Book Series: Brill) The daunting writings of Paracelsus—the second largest 16th-century body of writings in German after Luther's—contributed to medicine, natural science, alchemy, philosophy, theology, and esoteric tradition. This volume provides a critical edition of essential writings from the authoritative 1589 Huser Paracelsus alongside new English translations and commentary on the sources and context of the full corpus. The Essential Theoretical Writings incorporate topics ranging from metaphyics, cosmology, faith, religious conflict, magic, gender, and education, to the processes of nature, disease and medication, female and male sufferings, and cures of body and soul. Properly contextualized, these treatises yield rich extracts of Renaissance and Reformation culture, soundings of 16th-century life, and keys to an influential but poorly understood early modern intellectual tradition. This work will supersede all other translations into English and lays an admirable foundation for future balanced and depth studies of Paracelsus.
Andrew Weeks is Professor of German at Illinois State University, with a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois, has published intellectual biographies of Jacob Boehme, Paracelsus, Valentin Weigel, a history of German mysticism, and translations of Weigel's writings. He is well qualified to help in the reform of this pivotal figure standing between tradition and the innovations of science.
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), was one of the most original and prolific authors of sixteenth-century Europe. Commonly remembered as an itinerate physimedical innovator, philosopher of nature, and alchemist, he was also a lay theologian, theorist of the supernatural, and rebel against institutions and traditions. In the course of the 1520s, he challenged academic and urban authorities in Switzerland and South Germany by demanding medical reforms. Rebuffed by his opponents, he continued wandering for the remainder of his life, disseminating as an author, polemicist, and physician his understanding of medicine and nature. He died an obscure death in Salzburg, but before the end of the century his influence had spread, resulting in posthumous partisan controversies between advocates and detractors.
Paracelsus wrote prolifically on medicine, philosophy, theology, and a variety of related topics. The modern fourteen-volume Sudhoff edition, based on the Huser edition of 1589, comprises those writings which were not understood as mainly theological: the medical, philosophical, or alchemical writings. The Goldammer edition of theological and social-ethical writings, which is only about half complete, can be expected to surpass the Sudhoff edition in size. The scholarly reception of these works has always faced serious obstacles due to intrinsic ambiguities and unresolved editorial issues, with the result that among the influential authors of his century Paracelsus is perhaps the most difficult to interpret and integrate into an overall understanding of his time. Of all the editions, only Goldammer's provides first-rate scholarly commentary and notes. The Sudhoff edition is bewildering in its riches, confronting readers with numerous textual variants and fragments without clarifying their relation to the more finished versions. Despite Sudhoff’s splendid achievements, errors such as his misidentification of writings as seminal as of "around 1520-1 though later rescinded, cast a long shadow in Paracelsus studies.
The few English translations from his work are inadequate and outmoded. Arthur Edward Waite worked from early Latin translations of the original German to produce a potpourri of inauthentic and authentic works. Henry Sigerist, a medical historian and student of Sudhoff, oversaw and assisted in translating Four Treatises from the German (Seven Defensiones, On the Miner's Sickness, The Diseases that Deprive Man of His Reason, and The Book of Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders). Though each item is skillfully rendered, the four are no more than a colorful fistful from the puzzle of the entire corpus. The most readily available translations are florilegia or assortments of excerpts. An influential collection appeared in the Princeton Bollingen Series in 1951. A translation of the Jungian Jolande Jacobi's Paracelsus. Lebendiges Erbe, it consists of memorable passages arranged with almost no attention to their sources. A more attentive and substantial anthology of selections was recently translated by Goodrick-Clarke.
It is not surprising that Paracelsus has been studied in excerpts in English. More remarkable is the fact that his German-language reception rests to a considerable extent on decontextualized passages. Rarely are his writings studied as organic literary wholes in relation to their specific historical or literary contexts. Since even the most intelligent and influential studies of Paracelsus in English have been reticent in citing directly from his writings, the primary and secondary literature are disparate reservoirs of information with too few connecting channels. Scholarship takes the form of isolated monologues.
Notwithstanding the obstacles, Paracelsus has proven to be of enduring interest to scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation and to historians of science, medicine, and literature. Scholarly access to the thinker is the primary purpose of this volume. There is no better introduction than the writings composed between 1529 and 1532. Many if not all the themes of his earlier and later production are recapitulated or anticipated in these works of mid career. With their exalted tone, trademark Para-titles, and relentless laying of foundations and projecting of exhaustive surveys, these treatises represent themselves as the zenith of his authorial production. They have come down to us in versions that are largely completed, though often unrefined. This places them in a special category for an author who wrote under unpropitious circumstances and left behind many fragments and incomplete drafts. Das Buch Paragranum and the writings of 1531 which are associated with the Paramirum title, including his treatise on the "Invisible Diseases," are relatively comprehensible when read on their own. We can therefore adapt his term in regarding these writings as a microcosm of the Paracelsian universe. As such, they can tell us a great deal about the material and intellectual culture of his era.
To translate and provide commentary for the large corpus of Paracelsus might require more than the career of an individual scholar. But if contextualized in their time, tradition, and corpus, the writings of the years 1530-31 can offer an essential access both to his work as a whole, and through it, to the source of a major current of early modern thought which is too often subordinated to abstractions or reduced to a few overworked quotations and concepts. The edited and unedited writings are fraught with uncertainties of dating and authenticity and burdened with preconceptions. By translating the writings of this key period, it should be possible to provide future scholarship with coordinates for orientation: laterally with regard to the concurrent developments of Paracelsus' life and times, retrospectively with regard to his previous writings, prospectively with regard to those that follow, and thematically with regard to the entirety of his writings, including the many that cannot be dated with certainty.
In context, Paracelsus' work reveals unnoticed patterns of allusion and affinity. He was responding to current issues in his discussions of mining, metallurgy, medical herbs, syphilis, medical education, and the reform of apothecaries, as well as in his Bible commentaries and doctrinal writings on the Eucharist and the Trinity. He reacted, albeit idiosyncratically, to the prestige of astronomy and anatomy. The dual impact of theological and humanistic controversies is ingrained in the complexities of his writings in the form of extended complex allusions.
The translation and commentary should bring the interrelations of these contexts to light. Paracelsus' absorption of influences was neither systematic nor accidental. The writings translated here must be approached as products of a many-facetted dispute. The years and locations of his most intense authorial activity coincided with challenges in medicine and the study of nature, even as it fell within an epoch bounded by the Peasant Wars of the mid 1520s and the death of Zwingli in October 1531. During this period, Paracelsus witnessed a violent religious-social revolt in Salzburg, the consolidation of doctrinal-political independence in the Southwest in a rift catalyzed by the Eucharistic controversy, the bitter disputes between the Humanism of Erasmus and the theology of Luther's Wittenberg and between the magisterial reformers in the cities and Anabaptist radicals in the countryside, and the brutal repression of radicals. As the climactic two-year interval drew to a close, even nature seemed to converge in the world crisis. When Halley's Comet appeared in August 1531, Paracelsus addressed it in his Uslegung des Cometen, a pamphlet printed at once by the Zwinglian reformer Leo Jud in Zurich. After Zwingli fell in battle at Kappel in October, 1531, and Paracelsus' host and patient Christian Studer succumbed to illness in the last month of that year, the two-year cycle of long anticipated, mysteriously entitled "paramiran" writings came to a close commentary. On the left are the versions from the 1589 Huser edition and on the right my translations. The footnotes under the German original provide cross-references to the entire corpus. Those beneath the translation are based on the external sources and interspersed with commentary. The notes refer to their sources not only for verification but also to allow interested readers to delve further in the scholarly literature. In confronting selections of scholarship with the original text, the intention is to stimulate critical dialogue of a kind that can render isolated scholarly monologues obsolete.
The components are conceived as a set of concentric circles that focus and expand upon one another around the core of the original German Paracelsus text. The translation inevitably interprets the original which in turn anchors the translation. There are obscure and ambiguous passages in Paracelsus that cannot properly be finessed with an indecisive or murky rendering. Where the original demands an interpretive leap, the juxtaposition maintains the reader's option to return to the contested terms of the source. By following a few simple guidelines readers with even a modest command of German can approach the original with assistance from the translation. The distinct facing sets of footnotes should provide contextualizing circles essential for any interpretation. Since far less is encapsulated in the brief notes than can be learned from the rich reference sources of the Grimms, Zedler (a later encyclopedic work which drew heavily on Paracelsian
The intentions of this volume are to allow Paracelsus to speak in his own terms while facilitating our understanding of what he was speaking of and how his terms might have been understood by his intended audience. The German original is juxtaposed with a translation and contextualizing notes. The notes and commentary should orient readers in the entire corpus while rendering its material and intellectual contexts as intelligible as possible. These purposes are served by a facing-page translation with its two distinct sets of footnotes and sources), Ruland, Das Lexikon des Mittelalters, Das Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, or Das Reallexikon fur Antike und Christentum, the abbreviated reference source citations will point the way. The reader should have options of concentrating solely on the English or going beyond it in pursuit of a particular term, concept, or idea.
This exhaustive treatment differs from certain current ideals of translation. For all practical purposes, any translation glosses over its original with the brushstrokes and hues of the translator's own language. Any translation, Week’s not excepted, alters the original by recreating it in the spirit of the translator's culture. Instead of celebrating this creative role of translation, the procedures adopted here aspire to the ancillary craft of restoration. Restoration may be anachronistic in its use of modern technology to x-ray or chemically analyze its objects and in its subservience to modern prejudices regarding the value and attainability of authenticity. But in its methods and objectives, restoration surely departs from translation. Instead of undertaking to recreate the original by virtue of the talent or genius of the translator, restoration attempts to bring to light qualities and details hidden beneath the obscuring layers and obfuscations wrought by the passage of time.
Certain essential features of the writings of Paracelsus have been obscured by the normalizing tendency of translation and an excerpt-based reception. The loss of context within treatises obfuscates one of the most important facets of his argumentation: his use of extended allusions. These can span entire works, sometimes mutating when a biblical metaphor is taken literally or a literal meaning is redirected to a novel purpose. Biblical allusions become intertwined with medical and philosophical references. For example, the biblical-theological tension between Old Testament law and the Evangelical theme of rebirth accompanies and informs the contrast between the older, rules-based medicine of the regimina sanitatis and the new regenerative medical alchemy espoused by Paracelsus. Throughout these works, a scriptural-medical keynote is incorporated in recurrent, literal and metaphorical, references to "seed." These references tap a broad register of biblical citations. Among them, the grain of wheat which must die and rot in the ground to bring forth fruit (Jn 12:24) sounds a recurrent alchemical and theological chord.
Far from arbitrary or decorative, the extended allusion responds to the historical disruption of religious and philosophical authority by insinuating the patterns of thought expressed by the concepts of macrocosm and microcosm. In Paracelsus' treatise On the Matrix, the extended association of human reproduction with God's creation of the world combines gynecology and cosmogony into a single pattern. The mysteriously designated "Invisible Diseases" are contextualized by the relevant biblical antitheses of darkness and light, blindness and seeing, the healing and revealing miracles of Jesus and the Apostles, the non-biblical sight-restoring wonders of the medicinal herbs eufragia (eyebright) and celandine, as well as by the mutual elucidation of spiritual or psychosomatic pathologies and concurrent theological disputes. Frequent allusions to celestial manna and terrestrial mumia, embodying the powers of heaven in earth and life in death, reveal the convergence of higher and nether realms in earthly nature. The powers of God and Lucifer are immanent, respectively, in the virtues enhanced by alchemy and the poison of alchemical excess that rises above its proper degree (H 1:113). The complex interplay of allusions is indispensable to an understanding of Paracelsus' writings.
Complementary to the foregrounding of literary structures is the restoration of a second context, that of the sources of the Paracelsian materia medica. Contrary to the lingering misconception that his medical findings derive from new experience or travels, the material sources documented here indicate that most of his healing herbs and stones were traditional remedies found for the most part in Pliny, Dioscorides, and medieval medicine. The Lexikon des Mittelalters to which several of the best Paracelsus scholars have contributed is helpful in documenting his sources, as are the concordance of Pliny's Historia Naturalis and Aufmesser's etymological study of Dioscorides' De Materia Medica. The influence of Pliny and Dioscorides was so strong throughout the Middle Ages and after that it would hardly be noteworthy to find it in Paracelsus as well, if not for his vociferous rejection of them and their tradition.
This contradiction between the rejection of tradition and its perpetuation can be, if not resolved, at least comprehended by contextualizing his work within the force fields of rival theological and philosophical positions competing in his era and milieu. Historical context tells us more about his work than do assumptions based on his elusive journeys of learning. Nothing in the writings reproduced here indicates that a non-traditional, travel-based acquisition of fresh information was a significant source for his new medicine. In Paragranum, a new validation is instead sought for traditional remedies: "Try it out and it will be true". Just as the early Reformation was assaulting tradition in order to renew its ultimate source, Paracelsus' relation to tradition was both oppositional and dependent. His work should be interpreted less with reference to his exaggerated claims of originality than to the revealing commonplaces of his period. Between Scripture, folk knowledge, and Humanistic learning, medicine faced alternatives that engaged men as different as Otto Brunfels and Agrippa von Nettesheim. Medical alchemy and a semi-spiritualized distillation of herbs preceded Paracelsus.
During the first decade of the Reformation, Erasmus and Luther both expected the spirit of the age to elicit advances in all faculties including medicine. In a contentious age, eager for signs and wonders, the summoning to Basel of an itinerant controversialist and physician, who had shortly before sought and acquired citizenship in Strasbourg, catalyzed the currents which are cited in my right-hand commentary into a new theory of nature and medicine.
Openness to the peculiarities of Paracelsus has guided my approach to translation. Weeks has tried to clarify his formulations without normalizing their content to the extent that this is possible. Paracelsus exposition can be repetitive, his formulations vague and inconsistent. However, the common practices of pruning from his work or citing out of context ignore the most basic requirements of scholarship. The reader who lacks patience can make use of the summaries and skim.
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