From the day job with apologies

[A rare academic post. A chapter opening from the book I am currently writing, using an obscure seventeenth-century text that has been driving me cray zee for the last several years. Hopeful I may finally be done with it!]

Historians of early modern English medicine are familiar with the anonymous pamphlet Philiatros (1615). Its author presents himself as an elderly physician, surveying the field he will soon leave. He enthusiastically recommends the alchemical approach of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim—the notorious Swiss maverick and medical revolutionary known as Paracelsus (1493-1541). At the same time, the Philiatros author speaks respectfully of Galen (d. 200), the Roman imperial physician and anatomist who was the standard medical authority of the early modern period. 

Our avuncular doctor attempts to reconcile the two through a folksy metaphor of carpentry. “Galen in the beginning of the day,” he writes, “hewes off the rough, and Paracelsus in the after-noone, endeuoureth to plaine it. And is Wit and Art in us dead,” he goes on, “that wee can adde nothing”?

I beleeue otherwise. Not onely because in our owne Practise wee often finde a neerer way to the wood; but also, for that Daniel foretelleth how many in the last times running too and fro, should thereby multiply Science. And haue we not dayly a taste of that trueth in all kinde of knowledge, by how much the more Nauigation increaseth.


Alarm bells go off in this passage (for the student of the seventeenth century). The Philiatros author is offering an interpretation of the Old Testament prophecy of Daniel: “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (12:4). This, he claims, meant that a great expansion of knowledge, including medicine, was destined to happen in early modern Europe. Further, our author correlates the fulfillment of the prophecy with the period’s great ocean-going voyages of exploration and discovery. Later in the seventeenth century, that reading of Daniel, with that codicil, would become ubiquitous. But based on a source that, in 1615, was not yet well known: The Two Books of the Advancement of Learning (1605) by the fallen politician and megalomaniac philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). 

In what would become the most famous passage of the Advancement, Bacon interpreted Daniel 12:4, in connection with “navigation, and discoveries,” very much along the lines repeated (a decade later) in the Philiatros. He claimed this as scriptural warrant for his vision of a great “instauration” of knowledge in the seventeenth century. Bacon’s passionate exegesis, seemingly his own innovation, is traditionally understood as a significant prompt for the founding of the Royal Society and the emergence of modern scientific discourse in England. However, that would not be until decades after Bacon’s death. In its original edition, the Advancement—in which the 40-year-old natural philosopher magnificently announced his life’s mission and gift for the world—flopped. (“His latest book,” said King James, “is like the peace of God: It passeth understanding.”) The Philiatros author, nonetheless, has evidently bought it, read it, and grasped it.

Later in his pamphlet, he does cite Bacon. But not in or re: the passage we have just quoted. Instead he immediately adds:

And howsoever (respecting bare necessitie) it may be very right, which Doctor Timothie Bright hath learnedly concluded in a little Tract, namely, that God in his providence hath given to every nation, domestic simples sufficient for their own griefes.


The “little tract” is Bright’s Treatise on English Medicine (1580).Possibly, the Philiatros author is working from its second edition, also published in 1615. However, he also cites Bright’s learned, Latin, and by this time almost totally obscure Animadversiones (1583) on the German physician Scribonius. So this is somebody who knows Bright’s work well, and has known it for many years. He effectively summarizes the main point of Bright’s 1580 treatise: People need just those medicines that derive from the soil where they themselves thrive. But the Philiatros author is also remembering that Bright drives this point home, in TEM, through a long rant (which we will examine below) against the very historical and technological development and activity that so excited Bacon: “Navigation.”

In Characterie, Bright will describe his notation as “mere,” that is (in the Latinate sense), pure, English. And yet he also will claim that it can work across languages, as a universal communications platform. That is to say, Bright reaches the global via the local. His primary methodology for doing so, moreover, is reductive: cooking the English vocabulary down to the 536 characterie terms. These are not only supposed to constitute the essential set of the English language, but the essential set of something beyond and below the level of all languages—something that we perhaps can call information. 

In TEM, Bright argues quite passionately that a universal pharmacology can be reached, and can only be reached, by alchemical reduction of local simples to their healing “vertues.” Accordingly, he is very aggravated by the pointless and counterproductive business (as he sees it) of rounding the globe for exotic medicines. Yes, all pharmacy must be local, but precisely because it is only through the gatherings of the local field that the set of essential medicines can be reached. And those operate universally, at a level below and beyond all fields. 

So, in this chapter, I want to ask where Bright even got the idea of reducing his own language to an essential set of universal, informational terms. And the answer I want to give is: from iatrochemistry.

Works and Weeks

I have wanted for a long time to understand Paracelsus better. Finally getting the opportunity in developing a paper on Bacon, Timothy Bright (1551-1615) and the anonymous iatrochemical tract Philiatros (1615) for the upcoming Scientiae conference. Anyway, having read some of Pagel and Debus, high-water mark for me has up to this point been Charles Webster’s Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time (Yale 2008). I found this book fantastically informative, if somewhat plodding and shapeless. But now, in the course of a more systematic review of the literature, I have finally come upon Andrew Weeks’s Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation (Albany 1997) and it is absolutely brilliant! So clear, so thesis-driven, so beautifully written and illuminating! Looking back at Webster, I find that he cites Weeks, once, dismissively, yet not substantively, and then calls him “Geoffrey Weeks” in the index! WTF, mensch?

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