An ABC of Shady Figures on the Medical Marketplace: ‘A’ for ‘Alchemist’ and ‘C’ for ‘Chymist’

This charlatan is depicted as impressing the audience with his snake-handling.

This Italian mountebank is depicted as impressing the audience with his snake-handling.

As part of a description of the Medical Polity (1638) of his day, Ludwig von Hörnigk (1600–67) included a lengthy chapter on all sorts of shady figures that competed with university-educated physicians. Though the alphebetical ordering of the German is lost in translation, these included: ‘old hags, cut-purses, crystal gazers, village priests, hermits, bankrupters, jugglers, piss prophets, Jews, calf physicians, vagabonds, market criers, messengers, furnace enthusiasts, pseudo-Paracelsians, quacks, rat poisoners, speakers of blessings, conjurors of the devil, fiends, forest gnomes, gypsies, etc.’ (Hörnigk, Politia medica, title page.) Sounds random?

What all of these figures had in common is a link to bodily health, however tenuous, that led them to offer their services to whoever cared to pay for them. According to Hörnigk, they presented a formidable danger to the health and not least the purse of any unsuspecting patient. And if the money was spent on quackery or stolen by cut-purses, how would Hörnigk himself be able to still find affluent clients for his Galenic medicine? That was also his particular squalm with Jewish physicians whom he, corresponding to a common anti-Semitic stereotype, accused of buying cheap potions and selling them on at an inflated price. In fact, Hörnigk had earlier already devoted an entire book of some two-hundred pages to the ‘Juden-Artzt’.

To veterinaries and even rat poisoners it seemed a small step to move from treating animals (or killing rats) to treating human patients. Hörnigk begged to differ. Even executioners, he vociferated, felt they had a stake on the medical profession for straightening the dislocated limbs of tortured prisoners. Quoting from the apothecary regulations of various cities, Hörnigk therefore called on the powers that be to enforce order on the medical marketplace. He also appealed to the common-sense of nobles and commoners alike, though it seems that he was less confident on this count.

So far Hörnigk might come across as a bit of a killjoy. And yet some of his polemical tirades are downright hilarious. Take, for instance, his description of the antics of piss prophets: to rip off the crowd,

they use all sorts of strange gestures, hold the vessel with the urine against a mirror, measure it with dividers, walk up and down, back and forth, here and there in the room, shake and rattle, guide and swivel the piss (pardon my French) within the glass, pour some drops of it to the ground, weigh the glass in their hand, smell the urine—yes, they even taste it (which muscatel [sweet wine] they surely deserve)—hold the vessel against a burning light or the sun in broad daylight, distil or sieve the urine, and whatever other unnecessary monkey plays, fooleries and juggleries these cheats [Leutbeschisser, an intentional pun: literally, ‘poopers-on-people’] might use to arouse marvel, attract a crowd and grab lots of money. (Hörnigk, Politia medica, 177.)

Hörnigk was not the only one to take issue with such piss prophets—his English contemporary, the physician Brian Thomas, had only just published his Pisse-Prophet (1637), in which he exposed the self-perpetuating mechanisms of an entire industry.

Anyway, the point—yes, there is one!—I will eventually be making here has to do with the performativity of those antics and especially with other forms they could take. They come up in Hörnigk’s descriptions of speakers of blessings, for instance: ‘A whole book could be written of the manifold blessings, unknown signs and other such superstitious means.’ (Politia medica, 190.) Things get even more explicit when it comes to conjurors of the devil, though Hörnigk seemed hard-pressed to find more recent examples than Mani (3rd c. CE), the founder of the Manicheans, and an account of Hilarion’s life (4th c. CE) related by Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate Bible.

‘Many,’ Hörnigk wrote, ‘take the brains of a black cat, the head of a black raven, skeleton bones, nails from coffins, black hens, snakes and other suchlike nefarious things, promising to help the patients through them.’  So, has anyone thought of witchraft yet? That’s right, witches are up next in Hörnigk’s list: ‘Fiends, witches and sorceresses who, through the help of the devil and in his name, dig up roots and herbs at certain times and using certain ceremonies; they counsel patients to either ingest or wear these.’ (Politia medica, 191.) As learned observers—such as Athanasius Kircher’s former assistant, the Jesuit Gaspar Schott—often noted, common folks were readily impressed by the unintelligible mumblings, strange symbols and frightening props that allowed charlatans and mountebanks to generate an atmosphere of magic and sorcery (Ioco-seriorum naturae et artis, 26–27).

Having moved from Jewish physicians to piss prophets and thence to devil conjurors and witches, some readers might be beginning to wonder what all of this has to do with chymistry. Well, ‘furnace enthusiasts’ and ‘pseudo-Paracelsians’ also figured in Hörnigk’s list and, unsurprisingly, they hardly fared better.

Furnace enthusiasts [Ofenschwärmer] that constantly flutter [schwermen—another German pun that links erratic movement to sectarian/pathological enthusiasm] about distillation apparati and furnaces, praising their great extracts, quintessences, balms and even goldmaking … [often appear] at seasonal fairs, as well as the bedsides of noblemen and the baptisms of children, etc. For this reason, one has to keep an eye on their fraudulent doings, as they commonly sell this for that, and shit for salve. … Therefore, let everyone be wary and try such mercurial, Tartarean and vitriolic spirits [alluding to 1John 4: 1] that they might not seduce him to the waters of Tartarus [lead him to hell/cause his death]. (Politia medica, 187–88.)

Beyond the buzzing market squares, especially the pseudo-Paracelsians—’who carry the name of Paracelsus and yet have not studied the Hermetic or spagyric medicine from the basics’—seemed to cater for a more distinguished audience: ‘There is almost no place of distinction not frequented by that kind of people, offering secrets for tons of money, and even calling themselves doctors of either medicine [inner and outer, punning on doctor utriusque iuris: doctor of civil and ecclesiastical law]’ (Politia medica, 188–89).

And now, finally, what is the point of this long post? Well, I’d like to suggest that your average early-modern chymist would not so much have been a scientist using weird, coded language (as the new historiography of alchemy would have it) nor—much less, actually—a morally and spiritually superior being (as Victorian occultists and Paulo Coelho would have us believe). Rather, the average chymist would have been scrambling to make a living on the busy medical marketplace, attempting to sell his nostrums and arcana while competing against a whole lot of other shady figures, some of which we’ve just encountered. The secretive, high-flying language of chymistry should be read not only as code for actual laboratory practice but also as a marketing strategy, one that worked within an economy in which secrecy—or simply the appearance of secrecy—was translatable into financial gain.

Sources and further reading

For the new historiography of alchemy, see the pioneering work of Lawrence M. Principe and William R. Newman:

  • Newman, Gehennical Fire: The Lives of Georg Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).
  • Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
  • Principe and Newman, ‘Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy’, Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, eds. William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 385-431.

The work of other scholars has also inspired some of the ideas outlined here due to their down-to-earth analysis of early-modern purveyors of secrets and medical practitioners:

  • Lauren Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London. Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
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