The Correspondence of Jan Baptist Van Helmont

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge


Jan Baptist and Franciscus Mercurius Van Helmont, engraving from Ortus medicinae (1648). (Source of image: Wellcome Collection, London)

Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579–1644)

Jan Baptist Van Helmont was born on 12 January 1579 in Brussels, into a Catholic family called Berthout of Mechelen [Malines] that came from old Flemish landed gentry. In 1580, his father died, leaving his mother to raise their young family. Jan Baptist enrolled very early at the University of Louvain [Leuven], where he graduated at the age of seventeen. Despite self-professed doubts about the quality of the education he was receiving, he began at medical school and graduated as MD in 1600.

After a period of travel in Europe, Van Helmont returned to his homeland, living at his estate in Vilvoorde between 1609 and c. 1616, when he moved to a townhouse in Brussels. Soon after his arrival in the city, he became embroiled in the fractious weapon-salve controversy, which from 1609 had set the Paracelsians against the Jesuits. The weapon salve was a Paracelsian medicine that supposedly cured at a distance, removing the need for surgical intervention. Van Helmont penned a defence of the cure, which was published as De magnetica vulnerum curatione [On the Magnetic Cure of Wounds] in Paris in 1621. This treatise incurred the ire of Father Jean Roberti (1569–1651) and his fellow Jesuits, who denounced Van Helmont to the Inquisition for heresy. Around a decade of religious persecution ensued, culminating with Van Helmont’s placement under house arrest between 1634 and 1637. Following the vigorous intervention of his family, Van Helmont’s freedom without formal charge was secured. He spent the last years of his life writing his philosophy, and he died of pleurisy on 30 December 1644.

There are three stages to Van Helmont’s writings: his early period (1608–1616), during which he wrote, but never published, an introduction to the medicine of Paracelsus (Eisagoge in artem medicam a Paracelso restitutam, 1607); a middle period (1616–1634), in which he completed two published treatises, De magnetica vulnerum curatione (1621) and Supplementum de Spadanis fontibus (The Supplement to the Spa waters, 1624), as well as several works remaining in manuscript; and his late period (1634–1644), when he published three works: De febrium doctrina audita, or De febribus (1642), Tumulus pestis (1644) and Opuscula medica inaudita (1644).1 Most of his late work remained in manuscript; however, his Latin writings were published in posthumously 1648 as Ortus medicinae, and the Dutch works in 1661 as Dageraed. Both publications were edited by Van Helmont’s son, Franciscus Mercurius Van Helmont (1614–1699).

Remarkably little of Van Helmont’s correspondence survives. One letter from Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) to Van Helmont has been preserved, as well as fourteen letters from Van Helmont to Marin Mersenne (1588–1648). The reason for this scarcity was partially explained by Franciscus Mercurius in his introduction to the Ortus medicinae, in which he stated that Van Helmont’s estate was plundered by the Count of Gilinius, who either took or burnt all of his father’s letters.

The only known image of Jan Baptist Van Helmont comes from an engraving in his posthumous work Ortus medicinae (1648). The publication was edited by Van Helmont’s son Franciscus Mercurius, who attached his own image to that of his father.


Partners and Additional Contributors

Cultures of Knowledge would like to thank Dr Georgiana Hedesan for her contribution of the metadata for the letter from Gassendi to Van Helmont, as well as for this introductory text, and EMLO digital fellows Lucy Hennings and Charlotte Marique for their work to prepare the metadata of the letters from Van Helmont to Marin Mersenne.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Gassendi, Pierre, Opera omnia, 6 vols (Lyon: Annisson, 1658). The letter may be found on pp. 19–24 of vol. 6, Epistolae et responsa auctoris, and is available online on Gallica.

Mersenne, Marin, Correspondance du Marin Mersenne, ed. Cornelis de Waard, 17 vols (Paris, 1936–1986). The letters of Van Helmont to Mersenne may be found in vols 2 and 3 of the Correspondance (1945, 1969). The manuscripts are in care of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.


Contents

The letter from Gassendi to Van Helmont dates from 10 July 1629, and is in Latin, with some words in Greek. The subject is whether prelapsarian man (Adam) was carnivorous or vegetarian. Van Helmont claimed that Adam was a microcosm, which meant that he participated in the nature of all things, including animals. As such, prelapsarian man had to be carnivorous. Gassendi took the opposite view, claiming that meat-eating was unsuited to the human body.

The letters from Van Helmont to Mersenne date between June 1630 and July 1631. In them, Van Helmont expressed negative opinions of the Curiosites inouyes of Jacques Gaffarel (1601–1681) and of Robert Fludd (1574–1637), and answered many of Mersenne’s queries on alchemy and medicine. Mersenne tried unsuccessfully to mediate an invitation of Van Helmont to the court of Louis XIII, based on Van Helmont’s claim that he could cure the infertility of the royal couple. The letters are in French and Latin.


Scope of Catalogue

The letters listed in this inventory include the fifteen letters from Van Helmont’s correspondence known to us today, as well as a small number of letters from the correspondences of others in the union catalogue in which he has been tagged as having been mentioned. Research into Van Helmont’s ‘afterlife’ as his life and work is discussed in the correspondence of others will continue and thus the number of letters in which he is mentioned will increase over the coming months. Work is underway also to tag the people mentioned and the topics under discussion in the correspondence with Mersenne and the records of these letters will be enriched accordingly.


Further resources

Bibliography

 

Monographs on Jan Baptist Van Helmont

Hedesan, Georgiana D., An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge: The ‘Christian Philosophy’ of Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579–1644) (London: Routledge, 2016).

Pagel, Walter, Joan Baptista Van Helmont, Reformer of Science and Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

 

Aspects of Jan Baptist Van Helmont’s Writings and Thought
Fransen, Sietske, ‘Jan Baptista van Helmont and his Editors and Translators in the Seventeenth Century’, PhD dissertation, Warburg Institute, 2014.

Giglioni, Guido, Immaginazione e malattia: Saggio su Jan Baptista Van Helmont (Milan: Francoangeli, 2000).

Halleux, Robert, ‘Helmontiana I’ and ‘Helmontiana II’, Academiae analecta (Brussels: Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, 1983 and 1987), pp. 3363 and 1736.

Heinecke, Berthold, Mystik und Wissenschaft bei Johan Baptista Van Helmont (1579–1644), (Bern: Peter Lang, 1995).

Newman, William, ‘The Corpuscular Theory in J. B. Van Helmont and its Medieval Sources‘, Vivarium, 31 (1993), pp. 16191.

 

Reception of Jan Baptist Van Helmont

Anstey, Peter R., ‘John Locke and Helmontian Medicine’. In Charles Wolfe and Ofer Gal, eds, The Body as Object and Instrument of Knowledge: Embodied Empiricism in the Early Modern Science (Springer, Dordrecht, 2010).

Clericuzio, Antonio, ‘From Van Helmont to Boyle. A Study of the Transmission of Helmontian Chemical and Medical Theories in Seventeenth-Century England’, BJHS, 26 (1993), pp. 303–34.

Ducheyne, Steffen, ‘A Preliminary Study of the Appropriation of Van Helmont’s Oeuvre in Britain in Chymistry, Medicine and Natural Philosophy’,  Ambix, 55 (2008), pp. 122–35.

Newman, William and Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: The Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2002).

Porto, Paulo,’“Summus atque felicissimus salium”: The Medical Relevance of the Liquor Alkahest’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 76 (2002), pp. 1–29.

Roos, Anna Marie, The Salt of the Earth: Natural Philosophy, Medicine, and Chymistry in England, 1650–1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

Webster, Charles, The Great Instauration (London: Duckworth, 1975).

 

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Footnotes

1 See Georgiana D. Hedesan, An Alchemical Quest for Universal Knowledge: The ‘Christian Philosophy’ of Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1579–1644) (London: Routledge, 2016), pp. 14–15.