Zurich Paracelsus Project

Work in Progress

The Works of Paracelsus

                  for Abbot Russinger by Paracelsus To illustrate Paracelsus's life of endless writing, the picture to the left shows one of the few preserved autograph documents: The "Consilium" he gave to abbot Johann Jakob Russinger of Pfäfers in 1535 (Stiftsarchiv St. Gallen).

His complete works sum up to about thirty large volumes, not included the probably numerous lost writings. Nevertheless, during his lifetime there were only a few tracts going into print: some astrological prognostications, a description of the spa of Pfäfers, a couple of books on syphilis and as most voluminous work his "Große Wundarznei" (Great Surgery). The rest was banned from the printing press, certainly due to the fact that Paracelsus was an inconvenient writer whose reforms and criticism were not estimated. Only twenty years after his death, in the 1560s, there was an awakening of interest in Paracelsus's teachings. There were countless editions of tracts and collections of them, which culminated in the great edition of the collected medical and philosophical works by Johannes Huser in the years from 1589 to 1591.

To give a rough overview of the complete works with their complexness, the following subdivisions are suggesting themselves:

1. Natural Philosophy, Alchemy and Pharmaceutics
In some of these writings Paracelsus describes plants, minerals, sulfuric acid, mercury, turpentine and other things. He comments on the transformation of metalls and gives in "De modo pharmacandi" a theory of administration. The "Nine Books of Archidoxes" present an early writing on medical alchemy and base on the medieval concepts of alchemy.

2. Description of Diseases
There a numerous writings describing various diseases and their treatment, among them tracts on syphilis, the plague, jaundice, smallpox and epilepsy. The tartaric diseases, as they were defined by Paracelsus, concern metabolic disorders effected by harmful sedimentations in the body, e.g. gout or bladder calculus. A specific illness is those of the miners, provoked by the inhalation of toxic vapors from the mines or by melting ores. Not least is Paracelsus's description of "invisible diseases", by which he meant mental illnesses.

3. Theory of Medicine
Above all famous were Paracelsus's writings on the theory of medicine, in which he programmatically delineated his vision of a new medicine. In his early "Volumen medicinae paramirum" he sketched the five entia or causes of medicine. The ens astrale is the influence of the stars, the ens veneni is the action of obvious or hidden poisons and the ens naturale is a natural cause leading to sickness. When the disease is brought forth by evil spirits, then the interaction is called ens spirituale, and when the cause can be traced back only to God himself, then it is ens dei. In the book "Paragranum" (1530) Paracelsus describes the four pillars of medicine: natural philosophy as the science of the things dwelling in nature, astronomy as the science of the interplay between cosmos and man, alchemy as the science of the purification and transformation of matter and especially of drugs, and finally the virtue or the ethics of the physician. In the "Opus paramirum" (1531) Paracelsus goes on to outline his vast vision for a new medicine, presenting a theory of the pathogenic action of the three primary substances sulphur, mercury and salt, in addition a theory of the primordial matrix as generalization of the maternal womb, and finally a theory of the above mentioned tartaric diseases. Among the theoretical writings there are also a treatise on urine, a commentary on the aphorisms of Hippocrats and other things.

4. Surgery
A major part of the medical writings comprises the writings on surgery, so among others the "Berthonea" or "Chirurgia minor", the book "Von allen offnen Schäden" (On all open defects) and the "Große Wundarznei" (Great Surgery, 1536). Surgery in medieval and early modern times consisted above all in the treatment of wounds, abscesses, fistulas, rashes and other skin diseases rather than in the application of surgical operations.

5. Description of Spas
It was customary for physicians to give descriptions of spas and their salutary effects. Paracelsus's description of the famous Pfäfers spa was even printed in his lifetime (1535). Corresponding tracts are "Von den natürlichen Bädern" (Of Natural Spas) and "Von den natürlichen Wassern" (Of natural waters).

6. Divination and Prophecy
These writings consist of prophecies which were derived from the appearances of comets, solar eclipses, exceptional rainbows and other heavenly constellations. The astronomical casting of annual prognostications in the form of calendars meant a significant contribution to many a physician's income. Following this tradition, Paracelsus wrote some ten prognostications printed in his lifetime. He also wrote commentaries to two well known series of prophetic emblematic images, the "Nürnberger Figuren" and the "Vaticinia pontificum".

7. Natural Magic
Not insignificant are the magical writings which are presupposing an invisible, magical side of nature with ghosts, nature spirits and demons, in fact a world not contradicting with Biblical issues. For the Renaissance mind, natural magic was nothing but a seemingly logic extrapolation of natural philosophy to invisible realms. Whereas Paracelsus's "Philosophia magna" and the possibly spurious "Occulta philosophia" describe various single topics of the magic world view, the "Astronomia magna" or "Philosophia sagax" (Philosophy of the Wise, 1537/38) tries to give a vast synthesis of natural philosophy, magic and theology. If this immense work would have been completed by Paracelsus and published earlier, it could have performed a considerable impact on the prescientific views of the 16th century.

8. Theology
Essentially, Paracelsus's theological writings are commentaries to the Bible, so to the Book of Daniel, to the prophet Isaiah and to the Ten Commandments. The commentaries to the Psalms and to the Gospel of St. Matthew even belong to the most voluminous of the complete works. Paracelsus dealt with current issues of the church reformation as baptism, penitence, matrimony and Christian ethics with all its social impact. Further writings treat of the "Vita Beata", the beatific life to be attained already on earth in anticipation of eternal life, then of the Virgin Mary and of the Eucharist. As to the healings, miracles and exorcisms described in the Gospels, Paracelsus tried to imbed them in his world view, which based on natural philosophy and magic.

9. The Carinthian Writings
The so called "Carinthian Writings" (1537/38) are late writings, wherein Paracelsus once again summarizes the key points of his teachings and where he defends his peculiar character and his way of thinking. He wrote his "Book of Tartaric Diseases", the "Septem Defensiones" (Seven Defensions) and the "Labyrinthum medicorum errantium" (Labyrinth of Erring Physicians). The officials of Carinthia, the former residence of his father and the place of his latter boyhood, promised him to publish these writings immediately, but they finally reneged.

10. The Basle Lectures
In his short time in Basle 1527/28 as a lecturer of medicine, Paracelsus released a literal intellectual firework and presented a whole series of lectures covering several topics. There are several lecutre notes done by students. They give, mostly written in Latin, a vivid impression how Paracelsus had thought and taught.

11. Spurious Writings
There are several writings which were intentionally falsely attributed to Paracelsus, mostly written at the end of the 16th century. They treat transmutational alchemy and magic with titles like "Libellus de tinctura physicorum", "Thesaurus thesaurorum alchemistarum", "Coelum philsophorum", "Manuale de lapide philosophico", "Ratio extrahendi ex omnibus metallis mercurium", "Archidoxis magica", "Liber principiorum". Although these tracts are certainly spurious, in the reception they were considered to be authentic works and thus formed the erroneous picture of Paracelsus as a goldmaker and magician.