The Devil’s Doctor

Philip Ball. The Devil’s Doctor. Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. 436 pp., 34 ills.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. $27.00.

“The story captures the emotional truth of the narrative” (p. 102). With this remark Philip Ball summarizes the value of the legends surrounding Martin Luther’s initiation into holy orders. In many ways the same could also be said for the rest of his study of Paracelsus. Ball, a science writer whose interests span the history of chemistry, contemporary theatre, and much more besides, is not an expert on his subject matter, but instead seeks to provide valuable emotional truths to a popular audience. Thus the contemporary scholar may take exception to several of his broad generalizations and normative claims. Despite this, he is still carful to avoid the pitfalls of earlier Paracelsian biographers in trying to firmly place Paracelsus on the continuum of magic into science.

While it is true that scholars looking for a focused discussion of Paracelsus will be disappointed, those interested in a general account of his life and works, as well as the atmosphere in which he lived, will find themselves far more satisfied. Ball begins his discussion by recounting the numerous associations between Paracelsus and the Faust legend before going on to his early life and apprenticeship among the mines near his native Einsiedeln. This is followed by his experiences as a medical student and an account of his travels throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Much of the middle of the book is taken up by context setting discussions of renaissance occultism and the personalities involved in the protestant reformation, and not on Paracelsus himself. After this context setting section, Ball describes Paracelsus’ fluctuating fortunes from Basle to the end of his life, stopping briefly before his death to describe his latter writings. He concludes with Paracelsus’ influence on subsequent thinkers.

Despite the generalities of the text, Bell is not entirely uncritical of his subject matter. He seeks to weigh in on murky topics such as the question of Paracelsus’ relationship with his student Johannes Oporinus (1507-1568) (p. 197-199), and tries to dispel illusions like the commonly held belief that Paracelsus gave the metal zinc its name (p. 37). Ball is also unafraid to use the psychology of Carl Jung to try to elucidate element of Paracelsus’ psyche. While this may offend some scholarly interests, it is much in keeping with his efforts toward an emotionally true narrative.

Some may accuse Ball’s use of quotations of being undisciplined, and in this they would probably be correct. In his discussion of mumia, the healing powers latent in organisms and preserved in mummy wrappings, he presents references to several of Paracelsus’ works (p. 265). While he indicates separate sources in his presentation, he does not indicate separate contexts. What begins as a discussion of the healing power of mumia is concluded with a reference from Paracelsus’ De Natura Rerum, in which its role in enabling a person killed by violence to be resurrecting from their own mumia is actually discussed. If used more carefully, this could have added to his argument, but without any indication of its proper context, it will leave some paracelsian enthusiasts unsatisfied.

While having avoided many anachronisms in regards to the role of science and magic, Ball nevertheless continues in the tradition of semi-scholarly writings that take up the difficult task of presenting Paracelsus to the wider public. It is tempting to think, given his dedication to the vernacular and disregard of scholastic institutions, that these accounts of Paracelsus’ life naturally lend themselves to this kind of treatment. However, it could also be said that such a study only deepens the puzzles surrounding a figure as paradoxical and demanding as Paracelsus. Despite this, Bell’s work is true to it’s own goals, if not to those of the scholarly community, and presents itself as a very readable introduction to its subject matter.

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