Faith, Medical Alchemy, and Natural Philosophy: Johann Moriaen, Reformed Intelligencer, and the Hartlib Circle (review)
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.2 (2000) 359-360



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Book Review

Faith, Medical Alchemy, and Natural Philosophy: Johann Moriaen, Reformed Intelligencer, and the Hartlib Circle


John T. Young. Faith, Medical Alchemy, and Natural Philosophy: Johann Moriaen, Reformed Intelligencer, and the Hartlib Circle. The History of Medicine in Context. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1998. xv + 278 pp. $49.95.

In 1933 the collected papers of Samuel Hartlib came to light; in 1995 they became available on CD-ROM. This archive, held at Sheffield University and just beginning to be tapped by early modern historians, is a true treasure trove. Hartlib, an émigré to England from Elbing, maintained an astonishing Europe-wide correspondence from 1620 to 1662, seeking intelligence, inventors and their inventions, recipes for useful knowledge, and every manner of curiosity, all in the name of a new comprehensive Reformation in human and spiritual affairs. Johann Moriaen (ca. 1591-ca. 1668) was one of Hartlib's most prolific correspondents and intelligencers in the great plan of reform. He acted as Hartlib's agent for collecting contributions to support Amos Comenius, for the conversion of the Jews, for the printing in Amsterdam of censored works, for discovering and evaluating alchemical processes, for obtaining materials, and for enlisting inventors in all manner of schemes that he believed would simultaneously contribute to the common good and produce a profit.

In this compelling account of the mild-mannered Moriaen's life, John T. Young chronicles his trajectory from undercover minister of the German Reformed Church in intransigently Catholic Cologne (1619 to 1627), to collector of charities for exiles from the Palatinate (1627-33), to merchant and entrepreneur in the northern Netherlands (1638-68), where he became Hartlib's agent. This physical trajectory corresponded to a religious and intellectual progression unceasingly directed toward a great Reformation. Moriaen moved from self-sacrificing commitment to the Reformed Church to withdrawal from any single confessional allegiance, and thence to an enthusiasm for irenical schemes--especially that design promised by Pansophy, which Hartlib and his correspondents believed would bring about a Christian union in a way that the shuttle diplomacy of John Dury could never do. Amos Comenius was the great pansophic hope of the Hartlib circle until he proved unable to actually publish any part of his scheme. Moriaen became frustrated with pansophical projects and turned instead to the practices of natural philosophy, believing that "the gate of things" would provide [End Page 359] a common cosmopolitan ground from which all confessions could gain new insight into the principles of divine harmony. He made microscopes and produced medicines (by which profit and service to the common good could be combined), but he saw especial promise in mathematics and alchemy: mathematics providing a model of method and certainty, and alchemy giving entrance into the most sublime secrets of natural and divine things. Alchemy, like Pansophy, was regarded as giving understanding of the natural world and, at the same time, as enabling human beings to regain dominion over the fabric of Creation. Alchemy "cured" matter and the human soul of their postlapsarian corruption.

This book transports us to a world in which a desperate search went on--a search for certainty and for access to the Divine Plan (and sometimes, just evidence of any sort of plan), amidst an expectation that at any moment the Day of Judgment would arrive. The inhabitants of this world coped with an explosion of new information that destabilized and disoriented scholars still accustomed to the notion that learning was a finite quantity. And even as Moriaen lost faith in numerous projectors and inventions, he maintained his belief that in the end a common unity underlying his fracturing universe would be found. Moriaen, like his fellow travelers, felt a sincere responsibility to the common good: they strove for impartiality and argued for freedom of conscience, and they never stopped searching for a common ground that could bring peace and insight into God's plan. At various times, Moriaen believed that Pansophy, alchemy, natural philosophy...


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