1st Edition

An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge The ‘Christian Philosophy’ of Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579-1644)

By Georgiana D. Hedesan Copyright 2016
    264 Pages
    by Routledge

    264 Pages
    by Routledge

    History of science credits the Flemish physician, alchemist and philosopher Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579-1644) for his contributions to the development of chemistry and medicine. Yet, as this book makes clear, focussing on Van Helmont's impact on modern science does not do justice to the complexity of his thought or to his influence on successive generations of intellectuals like Robert Boyle or Gottfried Leibniz.

    Revealing Van Helmont as an original thinker who sought to produce a post-Scholastic synthesis of religion and natural philosophy, Georgiana Hedesan reconstructs his ambitious quest for universal knowledge as it emerges from the text of the Ortus medicinae (1648). Published after Van Helmont's death by his son, the work can best be understood as a compilation of finished and unfinished treatises, the historical product of a life unsettled by religious persecution and personal misfortune. The present book provides a coherent account of Van Helmont's philosophy by analysing its main tenets.

    Divided into two parts, the study opens with a background to Van Helmont's concept of an alchemical Christian philosophy, demonstrating that his outlook was deeply grounded in the tradition of medical alchemy as reformed by Theophrastus von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus (1493-1541). It then reconstitutes Van Helmont's biography, while giving a historical dimension to his intellectual output. The second part reconstructs Van Helmont's Christian philosophy, investigating his views on God, nature and man, as well as his applied philosophy. Hedesan also provides an account of the development of Van Helmont's thought throughout his life. The conclusion sums up Van Helmont's intellectual achievement and highlights avenues of future research.

    Contents: Preface; Part I Van Helmont in Context: The medical alchemical background of Van Helmont’s Christian philosophy; Van Helmont’s life; Van Helmont’s Ortus Medicinae and some of its problems. Part II The Principles of Van Helmont’s ‘Christian Philosophy’: God; Nature; Man; Applied philosophy: alchemy and medicine; General conclusions; Appendix: list of chapter-treatises in Ortus Medicinae; Bibliography; Index.


    Georgiana D. Hedesan is a Wellcome Trust Fellow in Medical History and Humanities at University of Oxford, working on a research project on the quest for universal medicine and radical prolongation of life in seventeenth-century alchemy (2013-2016). Prior to this, she held a short-term Cantemir Junior Fellowship at University of Oxford and a Frances A. Yates fellowship at the Warburg Institute, London. A PhD in History from University of Exeter (2012), she is the author of several articles and reviews in scholarly journals dealing with Paracelsus, Van Helmont and alchemy, including articles published in Medical History and Ambix, as well as chapters in books either published or to be published by University of Chicago Press, Ashgate and Routledge.

    "Hedesan’s account is clear and accurate, substantiated by a wealth of information that is always duly contextualized and historicized."

    - Guido Giglioni, Warburg Institute, University of London.

    "An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge is a very useful reference work on the Helmontian corpus and makes an important contribution to the intellectual history of the early modern period. It will be of interest to historians of alchemy, medicine, and Christian thought, as well as readers with an interest in cultures of knowledge and intellectual reform more generally."

    -Tillmann Taape