In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Paracelsus

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews in the History of Science
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Journals

Renaissance and Reformation Paracelsus
Dane Thor Daniel, Charles Gunnoe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0507


Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus (b. 1493/94–d. 1541), was a prominent 16th-century figure in the history of science, medicine, and esoterica, and also a radical reformer of the early Reformation. Often called the “Luther of Medicine,” the itinerant Swiss-German has often been hailed as an exceptionally influential physician with his alchemical-mystical approach to medicine. Whether in medicine, science, or religion, his contributions were largely iconoclastic, increasingly so after his disastrous Basel (1527) and Nuremberg (1529) experiences, and included not only his medical opposition to Galenic humoral pathology, but also his rejection of Aristotelian-Scholastic cosmological and anthropological teachings, perhaps most notably the Scholastic matter theory based on the combination of earth, water, air, and fire. Paracelsus retained the four elements as spheres but influentially replaced the elements with his alchemical tria prima of salt, sulphur, and mercury. Much of his overall thinking—inspired by alchemists, his unique reading of scripture, Renaissance Neoplatonists and humanists, as well as craftsmen, surgeons, and folklore—was deeply mystical and featured the analogy between microcosm (the human being) and macrocosm (the mortal heavens and earth). Regarding theology, his spiritualist sacramental theology, the veneration of Mary in his early thought, and his idiosyncratic two-creation cosmogony and cosmology had a much deeper impact than is commonly understood, particularly among adherents to the ideas of Jakob Böhme, Valentin Weigel, and the Rosicrucians in the early modern period, and among theosophists and Jungians in the modern era. A radical spiritualist, Paracelsus admonished the “Mauerkirche” (the physical “church in walls”) and its “nefarious” ceremonies, favoring a spiritual church of all true believers instead. His name would be both applauded and maligned in a variety of arenas, including luminaries of the Scientific Revolution, university medical faculties, theological treatises, Romantic literature, esoterica, National Socialism, and modern histories of science and medicine. In the twentieth century, he was embraced as the iconic figure in the early modern history of medicine in central Europe, though Anglophone scholars remained skeptical of his concrete achievement. In this bibliography’s tight space, it is not possible to provide an exhaustive overview, but rather an introduction to Paracelsus via a selection. Given the forum and audience, Anglophone studies and translations are stressed more than would be the case in a German or multilingual bibliography.

General Overviews in the History of Science

Many exceptional general works provide contextualization regarding Paracelsus’s place in the history of science and often contribute significantly to Paracelsus studies. Only a few are highlighted here, ranging from Debus 1978 on the significance of the chemical philosophers (Paracelsians) to Thorndike’s monumental collection on magic and science (Thorndike 1923–1958). That Paracelsus has found a canonical place in the narrative of early modern science—whether or not such changes were truly “revolutionary”—is well documented in Park and Daston 2006. The difficulty of separating science and natural magic in the late medieval/Renaissance period is a pervasive theme in these works and is expertly presented in Webster 1982. There have been numerous quality overviews of alchemy’s role in early modern science, including the place of Paracelsianism therein, and here we highlight Principe 2013, Newman 2004, and Moran 2005.

  • Debus, Allen G. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

    The general overview of early modern science and medicine was groundbreaking in the history of science in its time for its coverage of religio-mystical elements—including astrology and alchemy—rather than a focus on the exact sciences alone. The work covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in terms of their own intellectual context rather than ours, and Debus is well-versed in physics and mathematics as well as Paracelsus and Paracelsians.

  • Moran, Bruce T. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

    Successful scholarly overview of the history of alchemy, with generous coverage of Paracelsus’s signal contribution in the early modern period in the chapter “Paracelsus and the ‘Paracelsians’: Natural Relationships and Separation as Creation.”

  • Müller-Jahncke, Wolf-Dieter. Astrologisch-magische Theorie und Praxis in der Heilkunde der frühen Neuzeit. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1985.

    Important monograph on the influence of what Müller-Jahncke dubs the “astrological-magical” medical movement of the late medieval and early modern period. Finding its roots in Renaissance Neoplatonism, the astrological-magical worldview—including Paracelsus’s iconic role—had broad appeal both in learned and popular circles and helped to undermine scholastic Aristotelian mentalities before this mythical worldview itself collapsed in the wake of the Copernican revolution.

  • Newman William R. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226577135.001.0001

    Leading historian of science William Newman, known for his studies on alchemy’s role in the development of modern chemistry and experiment, provides here a fascinating exploration of the art-nature debate, focusing on the relationship between the natural and artificial from 1200 to 1700. Includes an in-depth analysis of Paracelsus’s homunculus, a topic that clearly belongs in this larger context.

  • Park, Katherine, and Lorraine Daston, eds. The Cambridge History of Science. Vol. 3, Early Modern Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Excellent synthesis of the last generation of scholarship in the history of science, which, thanks to the likes of Pagel, Debus, and Webster, places Paracelsus and followers near the center of the narrative. The chapter on “Alchemy and Chemistry” by William Newman contains a lucid, concise introduction to Paracelsus’s sources and scientific contribution. The collection also treats various Paracelsians in articles by Daniel Garber, Pamela Smith, Harold Cook, and Ann Blair.

  • Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

    Written with exceptional prose, depth, and contextualization, Principe covers the entire range of the history of alchemy from Greco-Eygptian Chemeia to Arabic and Latin alchemy, and from early modern chemical medicine and cosmologies (including Paracelsus and the Paracelsians) to the “wider worlds of ‘chymistry.’” Tackles modern misconceptions about alchemy via its anachronistic association with quacks, magic, and mysticism, by previous generations of historians; focuses instead on alchemy’s longevity and contribution to chemistry.

  • Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. 8 vols. (here vols. 5–6). New York: Macmillan, 1923–1958.

    DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.35115

    Thorndike’s monumental achievement captures the development of magic and science from antiquity to the seventeenth century in groundbreaking ways. The medievalist’s continuist perspective counters Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt’s sharp demarcation between the Middle Ages and the beginning of Early Modernity in the Italian Renaissance. Per Thorndike, magic and science were so inextricably bound that medieval and early modern science is incomprehensible without reference to magic. Paracelsus is well-contextualized, and the indexes and bibliographies are indispensable resources.

  • Webster, Charles. From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    Important work tracing the continued interest in prophecy, spiritual magic, and demonic magic. Webster argues that “non-mechanistic modes of scientific expression remained intellectually challenging to natural philosophers of all degrees of ability into the age supposedly dominated by the mechanical philosophy” (p. 11). He thus questions whether the rise of science corresponds to a total decline of magic, as has often been argued. Historiographically important, although superseded by more recent scholarship.

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