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. This book thus provides an account of how chymistry became overtly natural-philosophical, was absorbed into the university, and became an important locus for battles over skepticism and credulity. My larger thesis is that this institutionalization of chymical knowledge coincided with the development of novel cultures of experimentation and communication, and this synthesis facilitated a chymical revolution which had significant continuities with eighteenth-century chemistry and the Chemical Revolution.

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.

The Sensual Philosophy: Chymistry

The Sensual Philosophy traces the development of alchemy and chymistry over the longue durée as explicitly sensual ways of knowing nature. I have given several presentations related to this project where I have argued that chymistry was defined largely by its ability to detect and make manifest insensible substances – to separate or produce previously indiscernible principles or elements, the foundations of nature, from gross matter, and present them in a form available to the human sensorium. I argue that this ability to make manifest the insensible has its origins in medieval alchemy and eventually became the primary weapon in the chymists’ arsenal that was used to defend their territory and attack other natural philosophical traditions – namely Aristotelianism and eventually the mechanical philosophy and physics – well into the eighteenth century.

Bringing Chemistry into Shape

In this project I further develop my thesis about the institutionalization of knowledge and trace the development of chymistry and chymical medicine from approximately 1640 through 1740 at German universities. I focus primarily on the generally neglected chymical tradition established at the University in Jena which culminated in the work of phlogiston-theorist Georg Ernst Stahl (1659-1734), who argued that it was his primarily his forebear at Jena, Werner Rolfinck, who “brought chymistry into shape.”

Rolfinck was among the first Germans to accept Harvey’s understanding of the circulation physiology, which he taught in 1632, going so far as to compare Harvey to Christopher Columbus(1656 Dissertationes anatomicae), and he was also responsible for demonstrating the location of cataracts in the lens of the eye. His public dissections achieved such renown in Germany that his name became synonymous with the practice (and even vivisection!), and so according to stories certain criminals who were to be executed begged not to be “Rolfincked,” or “Gerolfinckt zu werden.”

Regardless, over the course of his career, he oversaw 104 dissertations, and he had a major influence on the development of chymistry and chymical medicine in Jena and beyond. He published Chymia in artis formam redacta in 1661, wherein the sixth book was devoted to so-called “Chymical non-entities”: alchemical transmutation, the synthesis of potable gold, and a large variety of other substances and processes that Rolfinck believed were imaginary.

In short, I argue that the German tradition of learned chymistry is much more important to the development of modern chemistry than anglo-centric histories of science have implied. By transforming chymistry into an art, German chymists like Rolfinck and Sennert allowed for its absorption into the university, and what was to become a more intimate relationship with natural philosophy. I have argued elsewhere that this led Sennert to a position of increased skepticism, and this was doubly true for Rolfinck. Chymistry was moved to a foundation of reason and experience (or experiments); and was subjected to natural sciences and an understanding of causation derived from natural laws.