During the time of Paracelsus for example, people classified phenomena into one of three categories: natural, unnatural, and supernatural. Natural phenomena were things that happened normally in nature, that occurred most of the time-rocks fell down rather than up, people could not see in total darkness, the sun rose in the east every morning, and so on. Supernatural phenomena occurred when God intervened directly through a miracle; for example, when a person rose from the dead or was miraculously healed. The curious category was the unnatural or one could say maybe ‘preternatural’. We would all agree today that a table levitating off the ground is unnatural. So also is an unpropelled rock flying through the air. But during the time of Paracelsus many people would have said that it is equally "unnatural" for a rock to fly through the air even if a slingshot was used to fling it, for, after all, flying through the air is not what rocks normally or naturally do, no matter how they get there. The category of the unnatural, thus, encompassed a great many things we moderns would not group together.
And since, Debus, in Chemical Philosophy; Man and Nature in the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 101-130, and Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (1982) point out the fundamental influence of John of Rupescissa's works as containing the seeds of the Paracelsian revolution. It is by focussing on Rupescissa that we will discover the 'early Paracelsus'. (Even the Paracelsian vision of the future had a distinctly radical Joachite flavor.)
Their assault heralded the overthrow of the Aristotelian-Galenic hegemony, the same system of thought that had provided the basis for Rupescissa's theories and to which he had been unfailingly faithful. Perhaps we should see John of Rupescissa as an unwitting agent of intellectual reform, whose alchemy and prophecy were applied to purposes far beyond what he had imagined, and whose quintessence ultimately undermined the most basic assumptions of the late medieval world that he knew. The history of John of Rupescissa and of the quintessence - like all histories - is thus one of change, the very coming into being and passing away that Rupescissa had tried so fervently to suppress.
Like John of Rupescissa, Paracelsus’ ideas were a mixture of pseudo-science and theology, largely derived from the starry-eyed neo-Platonists of 2nd-century Alexandria. He believed that all matter is permeated by spirit, and subject to astral influences. The universe is full of secret signs and symbols that connect everything with everything else. Humans have invisible bodies, which interact with stars, herbs and occult forces. God made the world in man’s image, so man is a microcosm, or little world, containing everything in created nature. One of Paracelsus’s later critics tartly rejoined that, if this is so, man should be able to fly, live in the sea, lay eggs and bear apples. But Paracelsians easily evaded such common-sense objections by disappearing into a fog of metaphor and “higher” truth.
Thus Paracelsus inherited from Arabic alchemy the idea that everything is composed of sulphur and mercury, and he added a third ingredient, salt, which was not ordinary salt but a mystical entity, accounting for the hardness or softness of things. Being composed of the same basic elements, things could, given the correct mumbo-jumbo, be turned into other things — hence the alchemical belief that base metals can become gold. More original was Paracelsus’s discovery of four previously unsuspected species of hominids, whom he dubbed nymphs, sylphs, gnomes and salamanders. Like science-fiction aliens, these lived on the earth among humans and were indistinguishable from them, except that they lacked souls, which made them eager to marry human spouses whose souls they could share.
He announced, in one of his medical works, that he had discovered the secret of life, enabling him not only to raise the dead but also to create a miniature human being from scratch. To do this, he explained, you had to take some human semen and allow it to putrefy, packing it in horse manure for 40 days. After this you fed it with human blood and a “true and living” infant would emerge. Masturbation was wrong, he taught, because it allowed semen to get into the hands of the evil spirits who were always wandering around at night, and they used it to produce “curious monsters of horrible shapes”. On the other hand, for the male not to expel his seed was dangerous, because it would decay internally and cause “lumps”. So the best course for the unmarried man with no proper use for his seed was to be castrated. His own chaste life and eunuchoid sexual characteristics led many to suppose that he had followed this advice himself.
His adventures in the real world were just as strange as his ideas, and far more interesting. Born in 1493, the son of a poor Swiss schoolmaster, he grew up in a mining district in southern Austria where he acquired his knowledge of metallurgy. His baptismal name was Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, and his adoption of the snappier pseudonym Paracelsus (signifying his superiority to the Roman medical authority, Celsus) was an early sign of his talent for self-promotion. At the age of 14, he became a wandering student, visiting the German universities, including Wittenberg, where Luther was professor of theology, then the universities of Italy. In Spain he became a military surgeon and crossed with the Spanish army into North Africa. During the next few years he journeyed through Lithuania, Poland, Hungary and Transylvania, did a tour of the British Isles, went to Denmark, where Christian II made him a royal physician, and, at the invitation of the tsar, travelled by sleigh to Moscow where he was captured by Tartars who took him to the Crimea and taught him about their religion of shamanism. Back in Austria, he headed south, landed at Alexandria, sailed up the Nile to Cairo, then journeyed overland to Greece via the holy land, arriving in Rhodes in time to offer his medical services to the Knights Hospitallers, who were being besieged by Suleiman.
In an age when most people did not travel more than 15 miles from their birthplace this was an almost superhuman itinerary, and it made him a legend. His enemies declared he was in league with the devil. Wherever he went he was remembered for his miraculous cures — lepers were cleansed, the paralytic walked — as well as for his frenzied denunciations of conventional medicine, and his heroic drunkenness. His place in the history of culture, Ball concludes, was won by sheer force of personality, not by anything valid or original in his ideas. It was a triumph of public relations. At the same time, his journeys had the practical aim of collecting popular remedies. A good doctor, he insisted, should consult barbers, bath-keepers, old women, gypsies, wayfarers and peasants. His informants were not always reliable. He learnt, for example, and passed it on as a fact, that a man can live indefinitely without food, provided his feet are planted in the earth. But folk medicine, rather than his own erudite theories, probably accounted for his fame as a healer. Even in the 19th century, pilgrims from all over Austria still visited his tomb, hoping his fabled powers would restore them to health.
Quite apart from a thorough investigation of Paracelsus, Ball’s book charts the social and cultural ferment in which he lived, supplying brief histories of astrology, merchant banking, humanism, the Protestant reformation, syphilis, and a dozen other topics, and introducing an enormous cast of savants, quacks, sorcerers, prophets and illuminati. A brilliant final chapter traces the furious debates over Paracelsus’s posthumous reputation, with rational materialism gradually winning out over magic. Ball himself seems torn over his subject’s scientific standing, proclaiming both that he was “wildly wrong” and simply “did not do science”, and that he had “a profound impact on the development of the science of chemistry”. However, some degree of self-contradiction is entirely fitting in a book on Paracelsus, and this prodigiously learned volume can only reinforce Ball’s reputation as one of our most versatile and gripping science writers.
For the sake of clarity, I shall refer to the Aristotelian substance of the heavens as the "fifth element" and Rupescissa's medicine as the "quintessence," the way Paracelsus did, although I do not mean to draw too sharp a distinction between the two.
According to Rupescissa, quintessence preserved the body and conferred incorruptibility by adding any needed "quality" to balance the body. The idea of qualities draws upon both Aristotelian natural philosophy and the medieval medical theory of "complexion" and its relation to physical and mental health. Complexio referred to the balance of the qualities (hot, wet, cold, and dry), which resulted from the mixture of the elements (fire, water, air, and earth) in the body. The architect of complexionary medicine was the late antique physician Galen (c.130-200 C.E.), agreat synthesizer of Greek medical and physical theory who became the foremost medical authority of the Middle Ages.
The Galenic theory of complexion shaped both medieval conceptions of health and prescriptions of therapy. According to complexionary theory, most illness occurred due to an imbalance in the elemental qualities of the body: for instance, if a sick person suffered from a preponderance of coldness, he or she needed an infusion of qualitative heat in order to restore complexionary balance. Medieval therapeutics held that all corporeal things, including species of plants and animals, had their own particular complexions and could thus be used as medicines to correct imbalances.
and animal substances could furthennore be categorized by "grades" or
"degrees" that identified the relative potency of a quality within
that substance. (Per-Gunnar Ottosson, Scholastic Medicine and Philosophy: A
Study of Commentaries on Galen's Tegni, Naples, 1984, p.135.)
If a patient's complexion was mildly cold, he or she might be given a medicine made from a substance that was hot in the first degree; if the complexion was extremely cold, he or she might receive a medicine hot in the fourth degree, the highest concentration of the quality. A physician detennined which quality was out of balance and to what degree, and then prescribed a substance of the opposite quality in the corresponding degree.
In Rupescissa's De quinta essentia, medicinal substances, including flowers, roots, leaves, minerals, meats, eggs, and blood, are labeled according to their qualities and degrees in order to guide the treatment of a particular complaint:
Therefore, when you wish to know whether one thing is hot or wet or cold or dry: seek it in the tables of hot things and if you find it there, extract it or note it; then seek the same thing in the tables of wet things, and if you find it there, extract it. And that is how you find the complexion and grade of something.
For example, should you seek quicksilver in the tables of hot things, and you find its heat in the fourth grade, and you seek the same thing in the tables of wet things, and you find it in the fourth grade, it is the highest degree of heat and humidity.
According to traditional Galenic medicine, the qualities of the body were in constant flux. A sustained equilibrium - an "equal" complexion, as it was called was desirable, but physicians thought it to be virtually unattainable. Therefore, the physician's duty was to ease continually the qualities of the body toward an elusive perfect balance. To complicate matters, each person was thought to have an innate, individual complexion that originated at the time of conception. Complexion was therefore relative: there was no single proportion that assured health for everyone; each person had his or her own particular healthy balance. This diversity was not only present among individuals, but also among groups. Women were generally colder and wetter than men, and the elderly were generally colder and dryer than the young. The physician had therefore to determine what sort of therapy was appropriate for an individual according to his or her sex, age, and unique constitution.
Closely related to the theory of complexion was that of the humors, the four bodily fluids - blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy) – that were thought to make up an organism. Like all parts of the body, the humors were complexionate but dominated by a particular quality. As a result, the humors were the vehicles of the four qualities and the primary determinants of the body's overall complexion.
Although the balance of qualities, rather than humors, was the chiefconcern of complexionary medicine, medical writers often spoke in terms of the surplus of a particular humor, which needed to be purged in order to restore balance. The dominance of a humor could make a patient vulnerable to particular aft1ictions; for instance, Rupescissa noted that excessive melancholy humor in the body put one at risk for illness caused by demonic forces. Similar discussions of the relationship between demons and humoral imbalance appear in Avicenna's Liher Canonis and Albert the Great's Super Matthaeum. See Joseph Ziegler, Medicine and Religion c. 1300: The Case of Arnau of Vilanova, Oxford, 1998, 174.)
Galenic medicine provided a theoretical foundation for Rupescissa's claim that quintessence could prolong human life. Galen suggested in his De sanitate tuenda that aging took place due to the loss of vital heat and moisture from the body over a lifetime; this resulted in a natural drying out of the body. The "drying-out" theory was dependent on Aristotle's assertion in De longitudine et brevitate vitae (which was itself based on an older Hippocratic assertion) that the body became increasingly cold and dry over time. Because excessive coldness and dryness led to aging, a body that was warm and moist in perpetuity could ostensibly enjoy youth and health in perpetuity. The Aristotelian-Galenic theory of aging thus appears to provide a logical basis for Rupescissa's alchemy, since the quintessence balanced the complexion and compensated for dwindling heat and moisture. (Nancy Siraisi, "Avicenna and the Teaching of Practical Medicine," in Medicine and the Italian Universities, ed. Nancy Siraisi, 2001, 63-78.)
But Aristotle and Galen framed their biological ideas in such a way that they actually undermined prolongevity. Aristotle drew a sharp contrast between the realms of heaven and earth: according to his theory, earth is made from the four elements and thus subject to constant generation and corruption; the heavens are made from the fifth element and thus immortal and immutable. Like all terrestrial things, Aristotle argued, humans must inevitably pass away through drying and death. Galen accepted Aristotle's separation of celestial immortality and terrestrial mortality. He wrote that the drying out of the body was inescapable: it could be slowed down but not stopped.
Such ideas about the inevitability of drying and aging also appear in Avicenna's influential Canon of Medicine, one of the core textbooks of scholastic medicine in the Middle Ages. Although the opinions of Aristotle and Galen appeared to contradict prolongevity, Rupescissa nevertheless used them in support of his quintessence. He was to interpret these ideas in such a way that his conclusions flew in the face of scholastic naturalism. De quinto essentia relies upon Galenic medicine, but it eschews the traditional view of the body as composed of constantly fluctuating qualities that strove for - but never attained - perpetual balance. The quintessence promoted stasis in the body: it slowed or stopped the natural processes of aging, including the bodily cycles of generation and corruption and the movements of the four humors. Similarly, according to Rupescissa's analysis, the Aristotelian fifth element (and its drastic separation from the world of the terrestrial) no longer undermined the search for pro longevity, but actually furnished it with its theoretical basis.
The quintessence, as Rupescissa understood it, worked to correct qualitative imbalances because "when it is necessary, [the quintessence] sometimes pours in a wet quality, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and sometimes dry," and because "it makes natural humidity abound, and it manages to inflame the weak natural flame."
The quintessence maintained the body's equilibrium of qualities and enhanced its natural humidity and warmth. This counteracted disease and the natural aging process, which drained the body's supply of moisture and heat. The quintessence could preserve the body precisely because it was not composed of any of the terrestrial four elements. Instead, it was a "fifth element" that was "incorruptible like the heavens," and thus able to do for the body what the fifth element did for the heavens. According to Rupescissa, quintessence allowed a piece of the immortal celestial sphere to enter the mortal terrestrial sphere and confer its perfection onto humans. This medicine bypassed Aristotelian-Galenic assumptions of the necessity of generation and corruption on earth; instead, it imputed to humans a bit of the perfection and immortality of the superlunary world.
According to Rupescissa' s recipe, quintessence was actually alcohol created from multiple distillations of wine that removed all traces of the four earthly elements. Because of the multiple distillations, Rupescissa contended, the quintessence was more powerful than ordinary aqua ardens (burning water) or aqua vitae (water of life), alcohol-based medicines of which medieval physicians had been aware since the thirteenth century. Rupescissa appears to be the first thinker to identify alcohol with the Aristotelian fifth element, an equation that proved influential, judging from the body of distillation and quintessence literature that emerged over the next two centuries and practiced by Paracelsus.
Rupescissa also noted that quintessence could be distilled not from wine only, but from all organic and inorganic substances (including plants, minerals, and animal products) in such a way that their natural healing effects were concentrated: that it extracts from all fruit, branch, root, flower, herb, meat, seed, and any species of things and from any medicinal thing, all virtues and properties and natures and effects, which the God of glory, author of nature, created in these . . . . and it will be a hundred times better because of the quintessence than it would be without it. (For interesting overview of medieval drug-making practices, see Faye Marie Getz, "Preparations of Medicines," in Healing and Society in England: A Middle English Translation of the Pharmaceutical Writings of Gilbertus Anglicus, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, xxxviii-xli.)
Rupescissa explained that distillation extracted the active principle of a substance, thus concentrating its medicinal properties. This process resulted in a wide variety of quintessence-based drugs suited to different illnesses. Quintessence was thus a unique medicine that could cure any illness, but it was also the result of a chemical process that increased the potency of many medicinal materials. Rupescissa may have been inspired to use organic products as alchemical bases by reading Jiibirian texts, which he may have encountered either directly or through the conduit of other works.
Organic elixirs made from distilled and separated elements also appear in the writings of Roger Bacon and those attributed to Amald of Vilanova. (Pseudo-)Arnald even mentions a "quintessence" in his Epistola ad regem neapolitanum and his Quaestiones accidentales, although for him it is the substance of the philosopher's stone. Identification of the quintessence as a vital principle to be extracted through distillation appears to be an idea original to Rupescissa.
Rupescissa's elixir theory differed from the Galenic manipulation of simple qualities, since it acted by means of an active principle that greatly multiplied qualitative effects. It also differed from that of other alchemical authors, who often proposed a single elixir to cure all illness. For instance, the Pseudo-Lullian Testamentum, a text to which Rupescissa's works are often compared, argues that there is no need for a diagnosis because its universal "stone" cures any disease. In contrast, De quinta essentia makes clear that the practitioner must determine the nature of the illness in order to choose which quintessence to use.
As early as the twelfth century, Latin intellectuals like Paracelsus later, considered alchemy and medicine to be generally connected, although, unlike medicine, alchemy was never taught within the university. The two disciplines resembled each other in structure: authors divided both into speculative and operative sub-fields, and both were ancillary to other fields of theoretical knowledge, such as natural philosophy and astronomy. Moreover, the alchemical balance of sulfur and mercury in metals, which determined the type of metal, was analogous to the complexionary balance of qualities in the human body, which determined health. The transmutatory and medical elixirs furthermore catalyzed balance and perfection in a parallel manner, drawing another link between the two fields.
Alchemy and medicine also shared recipes and procedures. Alchemical processes, such as distillation and calcination, filtered into medicine, as did alchemical materials, such as minerals and metals. The travel of ideas in the reverse direction was also common: organic materials - even human body parts and fluids, such as hair, blood, and urine - had long been used as bases for alchemical elixirs.
This cross-pollination between medicine and alchemy is also evident in the frequent biological analogies that appear in alchemical texts, such as the invocation of embryology to explain metal formation (more on this in chapter three). Medical motifs occur frequently in the alchemical writings of Albert the Great, Constantine of Pisa, and Petrus Bonus, among others. Arnold of Vilanova, in particular, has beenviewed by scholars as a central figure in the integration of medicine and alchemy due to his fame as a physician and the large number of alchemical texts attributed to him some of which touch upon alcohol and potable gold. (See Danielle Jacquart, "Medical Scholasticism," in Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, ed. Mirko D. Grmek, Harvard University Press, 1998.)
was another important component of medicine during this time period:
because the motions of the superlunary sphere were thought to affect all terrestrial things, including the human body, physicians were obliged to learn the rules of celestial influence. Astrology supposedly determined advantageous times for bleedings and other treatments, and it predicted what were called critical days, the days upon which a patient's status was likely to improve or deteriorate dramatically. (Jacquart,1998, pp. 233-235, notes that the implementation of astrology by physicians was variable: some used it extensively, some not at all.)
Although astrology was sufficiently legitimate to be included within the curricula of the major universities by the fourteenth century, it continued to be a controversial topic. Some prominent thinkers doubted its efficacy in the hands of physicians: Arnold of Vilanova's treatise on medical astrology, De iudiciis astronomie, judged most astrology to be too complicated for ordinary physicians with little training in the rigors of astronomical calculation. His dismissal does not, however, point to any skepticism on his part about astrological influence: he still advises physicians to be aware of the moon's zodiacal phase when performing treatments. Interest in astrology appears to have heightened dramatically in Arnold's place of residence, the Crown of Aragon, within just a few decades of his De iudiciis astronomie. Michael McVaugh speculates that the plague may be the reason for the change: the devastation of the epidemic impelled physicians to experiment with new technologies that they hoped might better counter the disease. Indeed, in 1348 the medical faculty of the University of Paris attributed to the planetary conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 1345 a pestilentia that mutated the atmosphere, resulting in the epidemic, as well as a host of other negative phenomena. (Roger French, "Astrology in Medical Practice," in Practical Medicinefrom Salerno to the Black Death, 30-59.)
Historians of science such as Anthony Grafton and William R. Newman debunked assumptions that alchemy and astrology made up a coherent body of natural theory and practice in the medieval and early modem periods. They show that astrological Decknamen (what scholars have called the symbolic code-names for materials and processes used in alchemical texts) were but one type of code-name among many with no particular importance. (William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton, "Introduction," to Secrets of Nature, 15-18.)
They also point out that alchemists had little interest in astrological tables and calculations: Constantine of Pisa and Michael Scot, for instance, made few recommendations to their readers to observe astrological times except in the most general way.
Like Paracelsus later, Rupescissa does not suggest that one look for the quintessence in the superlunary bodies of the heavens but in the sublunary products of plants, metals, and animals. He says that quintessence is in everything: it is all around us here on earth, even in our own bodies. With this, Rupescissa introduces into the equation a hylozoistic interpretation of the natural world, in which all things - even those that we now consider to be inanimate - have some sort of vital or animating force within them.
Rupescissa may have drawn from the Stoic idea of the pneuma, an animating principle in all things, and the Neo-Platonic theory that an ethereal substance existed between matter and non-matter; it is possible that this conjunction of ideas allowed Rupescissa to equate the vital force of terrestrial products with the ethereal quintessence.
Frank Sherwood Taylor has identified early astrological texts that similarly conflate the pneuma with both a fifth element in all things and an ethereal conduit for celestial influence. He views this development as a crucial link between the Greek concept of subtle matter and the alchemical practice of distilling alcohol from material bodies. The equation is not quite so simple for Rupescissa because the quintessence, which must be purified through multiple distillations, is not identical tothe inherently pure fifth element. How then did Rupescissa explain the r elationship between the distilled quintessence and the fifth element? Certainly he thought that the quintessence acted in the body as the fifth element did in the heavens, as a source of preservation and an intermediary between the celestial bodies and the four elements. But how could something from the celestial sphere suddenly be distilled from terrestrial plants and minerals?
explain this reasoning, it is useful to turn to contemporary ideas about
natural magic. The border between medieval medicine and natural magic is
notoriously difficult to determine: many seemingly magical practices might also be classified as early forms of medical technology. (Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1990,8-13.)
Scholastic intellectuals in medieval Europe tended to consider magic to be a branch of natural philosophy, one that dealt with occulta, or hidden powers, within products of the natural world. Mentions of occulta and subtilia in Rupescissa's work likely reflect corpuscular thinking in the vein of Pseudo-Geber and Pseudo-Lull, although Rupescissa tends to use little spatial language in his alchemy. But occulta also suggests belief in the occult powers of substances, powers that did not result from the "manifest" properties derived from their complexions. (See Christoph Luthy, John E. Murdoch, and William R. Newman, eds., Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories, 2001). These occulta could be manipulated through alchemy in order to bring about extraordinary medical cures.
Rupescissa's alchemy was also predicated upon another concept of natural magic, that of sympathy. For instance, a medical treatment using liver-shaped leaves to cure illness in the liver relies upon a "sympathy," or symbolic likeness, between the cause and the effect. Sympathetic occulta are at the center of De retardatione accidentium senectutis, an influential prolongevity text attributed variously to Roger Bacon, Arnald of Vilanova, and Raymond Lull; it is actually the work of an anonymous thirteenth-century author attached to the papal Court. (Agostino Paravicini-Bagliani has recently shown that Bacon merely used the text as a source for his own ideas. See Paravicini-Bagliani, The Pope's Body, trans. David S. Peterson, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 201-204.)
The text prescribes, among other remedies, ''viper's flesh" and the "bone of stag's heart," both thought to prolong human life because of the long lifespans of the animals from which they derived. A number of cures that appear in late medieval medical tracts use the same logic: for instance, physician Bernard of Gordon's (c.1258-1318) Lilium medicine recommends cuckoo's brain to cure amnesia, since cuckoos were thought to have perfect memories. For the distinctions between "rational," "empirical," and "occult" medicines, see Luke Demaitre, "The Care and Extension of Old Age in Medieval Medicine," in Aging and the Aged in Medieval Europe, ed. Michael M. Sheehan, 1990, 18-19.)
Rupescissa links the quintessence to the Aristotelian fifth element of the heavens; because of this connection, the quintessence can do for human bodies what the fifth element does in the celestial sphere. The sympathetic relationship between the quintessence and the fifth element justifies the medicine's function.
Rupescissa's sympathetic occulta work by regular and automatic processes but, again, they are not merely "natural" because they bring about human health by means outside of the normal range of nature. This enriches the "perfected nature" rationale by making clear how Rupescissa envisioned celestial powers to derive from ordinary terrestrial products. It is unlikely that Rupescissa viewed himself as writing a work of natural magic, and yet we see that "philosophy" in the fourteenth century included an amalgam of technologies that we would now classify variously as medical, natural philosophical, or magical. Although Rupescissa does not use these categories, the tenns are nonetheless important to help distinguish the different strains of thought that interact within his alchemical theory and practice.
The symbolic connection between the metal and the sun allows Rupescissa to offer a theory of astrological influence to explain the effects of quintessence and gold upon the human body. According to the standard Aristotelian cosmological view, the movements of the celestial bodies cause generation and corruption on earth by prompting changes in the terrestrial elements and their primary qualities. Rupescissa compares the influence of the quintessence and gold on the human body to the effects of the celestial fifth element and the sun on the terrestrial world. According to this analysis, the quintessence is a mediary that provides stability to bodies and facilitates "astrological" influence from the "sun." Recourse to astrology thus provides a theoretical basis for the efficacy of quintessence, as well as for its combination with gold.
The parallels that Rupescissa drew between gold and the sun were quite traditional. Gold played a part in antique and medieval conceptions of the human as a microcosm, a miniature reproduction of the world that contained all of its elements. According to this model, just as the sun delivered its vital force to the universe, the mineral sun - gold - delivered vital heat to the human body. Gold had not only a symbolic connection to the sun but also a more direct one: Rupescissa theorized that the heat of the sun led to the generation of gold in the earth's interior. During the process of generation, he writes, the sun transfers its properties, including its color and incorruptibility, to the metal. As a result, gold is able to withstand great heat without being corrupted.
Mineralogical theory held that gold was an "equal" body (a metal comprised of perfectly-balanced constituent elements); alchemists and physicians consequently suggested that a medicine made from gold might create in the human body a likewise perfectly-balanced complexion. (Bagliani, "Rajeunir au moyen age," Revue medicale de la Suisse Romande 106 ;1986, 17; "Black Death and Golden Remedies," 39; A similar direct relationship between gold and the sun appears in the Tractatus of "Solemn is Medicus."Black Death," 33-34.)
The genealogy nom the celestial sun to the human body is built upon a sort of contagious perfection: the sun transfers its properties to the metal through generation; the resulting metal conveys those properties to the human body by manipulating qualitative balance. Medicinal gold also indicates an important convergence of Rupescissa's transmutatory and medical alchemy. De quinta essentia praises the "gold of God" as a superlative base for quintessence and, as the passage above indicates, this gold is synthesized by means of a philosopher's stone.94 Alchemical gold serves as a bridge between Rupescissa's Liber /ucis and De quinta essentia, since the recipes in the former are required to achieve the cures of the latter. Rupescissa's interest in potable gold as a medicinal substance also points to the context of his writings in the crisis of the Black Death, during which potable gold became a topic of great medical interest. Katharine Park has argued that the high mortality associated with the plague led to a radical reorganization of the medical profession. Due to conventional medicine's inefficacy against the plague, she concludes, a number of patients lost faith in university-trained physicians and instead turned to other modes of treatment. New medical fields emerged to meet demand, and competition between different varieties of practitioners intensified. This theory has been contested by Nancy Siraisi and Faye Marie Getz, who emphasize continuity and note that patients never lost any long-term faith in the medical profession. See, Nancy G. Siraisi, "The Physician's Task: Medical Reputations in Humanist Collective Biographies," in The Rational Arts of Living, ed. A.C. Crombie and Nancy G. Siraisi, 1987,108-109; Medicine, 42-43; Faye Marie Getz, "Black Death and Silver Lining: Meaning, Continuity and Revolutionary Change in Histories of Medieval Plague," Journal of the History of Biology 24 ,1991, 265-289. Siraisi notes that some prominent and articulate critics of medicine, such as Petrarch and the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani, emerged during this period, but they were not representative of the general public or even of Italian humanists.
In any case, during the plague years, a number of healing professionals became involved in alchemy and its search for a universal medicine, a single substance that could cure any illness, including plague. Recipes for plague healing elixirs varied, but they were often produced by alchemical methods, and potable gold was thought to be especially effective. Rupescissa's writings on quintessence and gold thus fit into a continuing discussion of potable gold, elixir, and ''theriac'' (another supposedly universal medicine) in the writings of contemporary physicians, including Thomas of Bologna, "Solemnis Medicus," and Bernard of Treves.98 Rupescissa attacks the theories on gold of a certain "Bernar[d]us magnus" in De quinta essentia; the position in question seems to match that of Bemard of Treves, suggesting that Rupescissa was fully involved in this debate within the Pestschriften.
Rupescissa's alchemy involves a sophisticated mix of institutional and extrainstitutional bodies of naturalist knowledge - natural philosophy, medicine, astrology, and natural magic. I have attempted to show how this blend of approaches led him to interpret Aristotelian cosmology and Galenic complexionary medicine in a strikingly new manner. Nevertheless, Rupescissa's ideas on the quintessence are closely related to the alchemical theories of several of his predecessors, each of whom applied naturalist thinking to eschatological problems.
was not the only apocalypticist cum naturalist to be caught up in Franciscan
politics and apocalyptic hermeneutics: works ascribed to Roger Bacon
(1214-1292), Arnald of Vilanova (c. 1240-1311), and Raymond Llull (c.1232-1316)
also combined the study of nature and eschatology in some form. There are
clearly significant differences between, for instance, the medical treatises of
Arnald of Vilanova and the ars combinatoria manuals of Raymond Llull. They are,
however, alike in one important respect: their application of naturalist
inquiry and intervention to evangelical or eschatological purposes. Rupescissa
relied upon the models of these thinkers to formulate his idea of the
quintessence, but in his work we find a, systematic coupling of elixir
alchemy and Joachite apocalypticism, and Rupescissa points to alchemy as
the solution to a crisis that is wholly apocalyptic.