Chymical Life in Early Modern Europe

Daniel Sennert (1572-1637) was a professor of medicine at Wittenberg and was one of the first to introduce chymistry* into the German academy. His ideas about medicine, chymistry, and atomism had a large influence within Germany and with later intellectuals such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Joachim Jungius (1587-1657). In my current book project, Chymical Life in Early Modern Europe, I argue that this institutionalization of chymical knowledge coincided with the development of novel cultures of experimentation as well as communication, and this synthesis facilitated a chymical revolution which had significant continuities with eighteenth-century chemistry and the Chemical Revolution.

I am especially interested in Sennert’s letters, which – thanks to several seventeenth-century physicians – were saved from war and rot nearly thirty years after Sennert had succumbed to the plague. The manuscripts letters were taken from Sennert’s birthplace, Wroclaw (Breslau), to Lyon, where they were edited and published.

Sennert’s extant correspondence includes over two hundred letters, the large majority of which were exchanged with his brother in law, Michael Döring, a Breslau municipal physician and erstwhile professor of medicine at Gießen. These letters were not edited by the authors for publication and only surfaced three decades after Sennert and Döring had died and are thus comparatively candid. The epistles chronicle Sennert and Döring’s experimental collaboration in search of a universal medicine (partially to cure their own agonizing gout), their struggle to exert authority over secretive Paracelsians, and the schism that threatened their friendship and work when Döring turned to transmutational alchemy to free his family from poverty. In short, these letters provide a remarkably vivid look into early modern chymistry.

Analysis of this epistolary enterprise helps to historicize modes of scientific discourse in the infancy of the Republic of Letters, the reading practices of chymical physicians, the praxis of municipal physicians, and one of the earliest efforts to teach chymistry at a university. Sennert became renowned as a teacher for his amalgam of chymistry with natural philosophy and medicine, but this union was not without discord, considering that he was formally accused of heresy and carried out much of his work during the economic and political turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War, which, for Sennert, reached a nadir in the Kipper- und Wipperzeit, one of the worst periods of hyperinflation in German history.

One particular desideratum is an analysis of Sennert’s medicine. Close attention to Sennert’s texts on medicine, including early ephemeral works such as dissertations and disputations, allows for a study of the interactions among Sennert’s medicine and his experimental chymistry and atomism. I also give special attention to the controversy over generation and atomism that arose in the final years of Sennert’s life when Johann Freitag (1581-1641) brought charges of heresy against the Wittenberg Professor for his ostensibly blasphemous and heretical teachings.

One of the most interesting episodes from Sennert’s correspondence concerns the feeding of a chicken – more particularly, a hen – with silver and gold. Sennert learned of an experiment in 1619 from an astrological prognosticator in which hens’ bellies had been filled with golden and silver eggs simply by feeding them the metals during astrologically propitious times of the year. While this might sound bizarre, Sennert was especially excited about the experiment and published a description of it in his 1619 De Chymicorum, where he explained that it promised to benefit the development of chymical medicines (e.g, potable gold), explain the vegetation of metals, and further understanding about the relationship between living organisms and metals.