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  • Alchimie et Paracelsisme en France (1567-1625)
  • William Newman
Didier Kahn . Alchimie et Paracelsisme en France (1567-1625). Cahiers d'Humanisme et Renaissance 80. Geneva: Librairie Droz S. A., 2007. x + 806 pp. index. tbls. bibl. $108. ISBN: 978-2-600-00688-0.

Didier Kahn's magisterial study of Paracelsianism and alchemy at the turning point of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reflects the rigorous scholarly standards emerging as the historiography of "chymistry" takes on new life. After being marginalized for generations in mainstream studies of the Scientific Revolution, alchemy is now being taken very seriously by historians of early modern science. Kahn brings a philological expertise and mastery of detail to the subject that distinguish his work from many earlier attempts, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, to describe the influence of and reaction to that bugbear of the early modern medical establishment, Paracelsus. The result is a tour de force, and yet this is only the first member of a projected three-volume set —Kahn's second book will deal with alchemical circles and patrons in France, and his third with science, religion, and literature.

The chronological termini of Kahn's study are highly significant. 1567 marks the beginning of French reaction against Paracelsus and his followers. In that year, Jacques Grévin, a prominent member of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, linked Loys de Launay, an advocate of the medical uses of antimony, to the work of Paracelsus. Ironically, Launay was actually a follower of the Dioscorides commentator Pietro Mattioli, and not a Paracelsian at all. Yet Grévin's attack had consequences that would not be forgotten. The French medical establishment's attack on Paracelsus begins in earnest in 1578, when Claude Rousselet, Dean of the Paris Faculty of Medicine and a friend of Grévin's, attacks the Norman physician and genuine Paracelsian Roch Le Baillif as an empiric. Despite the assurances of Hugh Trevor-Roper and Allen Debus that Roch Le Baillif was defeated and banished at the hands of the medical faculty, Kahn manages to show convincingly that it was the Norman Paracelsian who actually took the day. In reality, although Le Baillif was indeed temporarily forbidden to practice, the trial never came to a proper judgment, and the unorthodox practitioner fled Paris to escape the plague, not the persecution of the Faculty of Medicine.

The action against Roch Le Baillif was followed by the Faculty of Medicine's bitter attempts to censure the prominent medical chymist Joseph Du Chesne and his friend Théodore Turquet de Mayerne, beginning in 1603. Both men were Protestants and physicians to Henry IV, lending a partisan edge to the fray. The conflict eventually involved intellectuals and physicians across Europe, such as the irascible defender of chrysopoeia Andreas Libavius, who was himself a dyed-in-the-wool opponent of Paracelsus, but a supporter of chymical medicine. Kahn's treatment of this material adds many new details to the discussion of Du Chesne and Mayerne, for example that Du Chesne had a relationship with one Mlle. De Martinville of Geneva, whom he regarded as his alchemical "daughter" (despite the fact that other Genevois suspected her of being his mistress!).

As Kahn shows, Paracelsian and alchemical matters hardly came to be less tame in the first decades of the seventeenth century. In a brilliant chapter devoted [End Page 1345] to the Rosicrucian scare of 1623-24 in Paris, Kahn details the actions of the teenaged Étienne Chaume, who seems to have originated the affair. Chaume and his friends placarded Paris with advertisements of the mysterious brothers "R. C.," who promised invisibility and remarkable powers to their eligible followers. With all of Paris in an uproar, the authorities began searching for the culprits behind the hoax, and Chaume was forced to flee for his safety. This chapter, available in English translation in William Newman and Anthony Grafton, eds., Secrets of Nature (2001), represents the high point of recent scholarship devoted to the Rosicrucian movement, which has moved firmly away from the anglocentric thesis of Frances Yates, who saw John Dee as a prime mover behind the Rose Cross.

1624 also saw the notorious episode...


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