An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge: The ‘Christian Philosophy’ of Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579-1644), 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge

The ‘Christian Philosophy’ of Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579-1644), 1st Edition

By Georgiana D. Hedesan


244 pages

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Hardback: 9781472469168
pub: 2016-05-06
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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.


"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.

Table of Contents

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.

About the Author

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.

About the Series

Universal Reform: Studies in Intellectual History, 1550-1700

The fission of the western Church in the Reformation era released great quantities of energy, not all of which was contained by the confessional churches. Alongside the well-studied process of confessionalisation and the persistence of variety within popular religion, the post-Reformation period witnessed a series of poorly understood attempts by a wide variety of intellectuals to extend the reforming impulse from the spheres of church and theology to many different areas of life and thought. Within these ambitious reforming projects, impulses originating in the Reformation mixed inextricably with projects emerging from the late-Renaissance and with the ongoing transformations of communications, education, art, literature, science, medicine, and philosophy. Although specialised literatures exist to study these individual developments, they do not comfortably accommodate studies of how these components were sometimes brought together in the service of wider reforms. By providing a natural home for fresh research uncomfortably accommodated within Renaissance studies, Reformation studies, and the histories of science, medicine, philosophy, and education, this new series will pursue a more synoptic understanding of individuals, movements, and networks pursuing further and more general reform by bringing together studies rooted in all of these sub-disciplinary historiographies but constrained by none of them.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / Modern / 17th Century
SCIENCE / History