Purity and Danger


Douglas claims that the book is “a late blow struck in the battle which anthropology in the 1940s and 1950s was fighting against racism.” What characterized this “battle,” and was it within or without the field itself? Why this time period?

Are all anthropologists social constructionists, or have we just been reading a lot of those that are?

Juxtaposition between psychological understandings of cultural practice and sociological/cultural ones; can we flesh this out? Is this understanding a ritual from an individual’s perspective, analyzing it as their own personal beliefs and linking these beliefs to their overall cosmologies versus placing the ritual in a cultural context, in which it is instead a method of mass cultural control?

How can we apply Douglas’s insights to medical ritual? How can I apply them to conceptions of pollution around Eureka Springs?
Could use this to analyze the separate spring for ES’s African American citizens.
The water, in the 1890s, began to be marketed as “pure” — could I take this framework and flip it to look at the opposite of pollution? Disease was understood (by some) as a blockage, an anomaly, in the healthy system, and the pure springwater was supposed to cleanse it by breaking down the dirt and flushing it out.
Pathological modernity as a transgression against the body’s natural proclivity to balance and maintain itself. Nature as punisher for transgressions of urbanization/industrialization (clogging up body) and ultimate savior (its waters as cleansing tonics).

Preface to Routledge Classic Edition

Taboos/dirt require “a form of community-wide complicity,” put in place to establish a “local consensus on how the world is organized.” Transgressions need to be understood as avenged by physical nature; “the waters, earth, animal life and vegitation form an armory that will automatically defend the founding principles of society, and human bodies are primed to do the same.” (xi-xii)

Central part of argument — “…rational behavior involves classification, and… the activity of classifying is a human universal.” “Classification is inherent in organization…” (xvii)

Discusses taboo’s connection with risk; both subjective, used by people in power to control behavior. Links work she does with risk analysis and details her foray into applied social theory/anthropology with a policy analyst.

What do we view as risky? What do we view as dirty? All ways of classifying and shaping the world and are subjective and generally culturally specific.


“…dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder.” “Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.” (2)

“…rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience.” (3)

We can use taboo/pollution/dirt as a tool to help us uncover the relations between different parts of society, “as mirroring designs of hierarchy or symmmetry which apply in the larger social system.” (4)

“…society does not exist in a neutral, uncharged vacuum. It is subject to external pressures; that which is not with it, part of it and subject to its laws, is potentially against it.” (5)

“Reflection on dirt involves reflection on the relation of order to disorder, being to non-being, form to formlessness, life to death.” (7)

1: Ritual Uncleanness

Douglas is using very “us versus them” language… “contemporary primitives,” “for us…,” “alien religion…” here. Why? That implies that both “us” and “them” understand dirt homogeneously within our own groups. This generalization is what Said was arguing against in Orientalism. This dates this book, unless I’m misunderstanding something.

Discusses late 19th century theologians’ and anthropologists’ theories about religion; took an evolutionary standpoint, where Protestantism (devoid of “magical” and “ritualistic” beliefs and instead based on community ethics) was the zenith, followed by Catholicism, then Islam, onto more primitive religions where ritual was more pronounced.

Early anthropologists drew a line between magic and religion, which is problematic. But the conclusions they came on the demarcation between the sacred and the profane were helpful:
The sacred is abstract, a religious entity, “merely ideas awakened by the experience of society…” and thus must be “constantly hedged in with prohibitions. The sacred must always be treated as contagious because relations with it are bound to be expressed by rituals of separation and demarcation and by beliefs in the danger of crossing forbidden boundaries.” (26-27)

Frazer: magic >> relgion >> science

“…we shall not expect to understand other people’s ideas of contagion, sacred or secular, until we have confronted our own.” (35)

2: Secular Defilement

“Medical materialism” tarnishing interpretation of ritual practices; Douglas has a problem with people taking practices and putting them into a modern medical context. (Leviticus says don’t eat certain stuff because those people must have had some way of knowing that it was actually bad for them!) Douglas is also far from okay with scholars taking the opposite approach, and condemning these rituals as completely foreign to our own ideas of cleanliness/hygiene. (“Our practices are solidly based on hygiene, theirs are symbolic…”)

“…our ideas of dirt also express symbolic systems and that the difference between pollution behavior in one part of the world and another is only a matter of detail.” (43)

Discussion of entrance of uncomfortableness (and sometimes stimulating) effect of anomaly and ambiguity into the individual classification systems that color our perception/understanding of the world.

Culture — collective classificatory systems/understandings — are more rigid, less easily adapted or changed when confronted with anomaly. Usually dealt with in 5 ways:

  1. “Settling from one or another interpretation…”; monstrous births are baby hippos accidentally born to humans
  2. “…physically controlled…”; twins are murdered at birth
  3. avoidance; steering clear of things that crawl on their bellies (Leviticus)
  4. “…labeled as dangerous…
  5. “…used to… enrich meaning or to call attention to other levels of existence.”

“…if uncleanliness is a matter out of place, we must approach it through order.” (50)

3: The Abominations of Leviticus

Argues that the what seem like arbitrary or perhaps medically materialistic restrictions on animals that are prohibited for eating in Leviticus can be understood in terms of an attempt at placing distance between order and anomaly. Animals on the ground, in the sky, and in the water were supposed to be whole and have certain characteristics. If they don’t fall into these categories, they are unholy and to be avoided.

If this interpretation is correct, “the dietary laws would have been like signs at which every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God. By rules of avoidance, holiness was given a physical expression at every encounter with the animal kingdom at every meal.” (71)

4: Magic and Miracle

To judge “primitive” religions for ritual practice is hypocritical. Evangelicalism, Douglas argues, is suspicious of religious ritual; but if “…ritual is suppressed in one form it crops up in others, more strongly the more intense the social interaction. Without the letters of condolences, telegrams of congratulations…the friendship of a separated friend is not a social reality… Social rituals create a reality which would be nothing without them.” (77)

“The difference between us is not that our behavior is grounded on science and theirs on symbolism. Our behavior also carries symbolic meaning. The real difference is that we do not bring forward from one context to the next the same set of ever more powerful symbols; our experience is fragmented. Our rituals create a lot of little sub words, unrelated. Their rituals create one single, symbolically consistent universe.”(85)
Again with the us-them dichotomy. Who is this “us”? And “them”? This generalizing is really problematic.

Money, cleaning as rituals.

5: Primitive Worlds

Really confused about this chapter. Douglas seems to be arguing for the conception of societies/cultures as “modern” and “primitive,” and that the only reason some anthropologists have been uncomfortable with this construction is due to a feeling of superiority.

“Differentiation in thought patterns goes along with differentiation in social patterns.” (97)

Argues that “modern” societies are less self-centered, seeking objectivity. Uses analogy of the Copernican revolution, in which men cast off their need to see themselves as the center of the universe and relate all natural phenomena to their immediate selves. Also couches the change in terms of cultural differentiation. “Primitives” don’t see the world this way.

“…our own type of culture needs to be distinguished from others which lack this self-awareness and conscious reaching for objectivity.” (98)

“[Primitive]s’ world revolves around the observer who is trying to interpret his experiences. Gradually he separates himself from his environment and perceives his real limitations and powers.” (100)
This seems to imply that we’ve accomplished this — seen our real powers through objectivity. Pfft.

“…their relation to their environment is mediated by demons and ghosts whose behavior is complicated and unpredictable, while we encounter our environment more simply and directly. This latter advantage we owe to our wealth and material progress which has enabled other developments to take place. So, on this reckoning, the primitive is ultimately at a disadvantage both in the economic and spiritual field.” (115)

6: Powers and Dangers

Discusses witchcraft and sorcery; generally exists in portions of the population that exist in ambiguity, in the cracks. Not easily classified and particularly prone to cause social disorder — even if they aren’t. Their mere existence is uncanny and uncomfortable.

7: External Boundaries

Discusses the body as a site of ritual meaning. Stuff that transgresses the boundaries of the body (spit, piss, blood, shit, sweat, etc.) has significance.

“…when rituals express anxiety about the body’s orifices, the sociological counterpart of this anxiety is a care to protect the political and cultural unity of a minority group.” (153)
Definitely see this in medical spas — thinking specifically of Curing the Colonizers.

8: Internal Lines

“…pollution rules can serve to settle uncertain moral issues…” (162) and help to fill in the gaps to sustain social order where morality falls short.

9: The System at War with Itself

Argues that more primitive social structures are more prone to enact distinct and harsh categories and expectations between men and women. (174)


French Paracelsianism on Trial


This was my final project for Dr. Rienk Vermij’s 5523 class — Renaissance and Early Modern Science, Fall 2017. I found out in the final stretch of the semester that Hervé Baudry, a French academic, has made a similar argument to the one I attempt, although he uses Roch le Baillif’s more well-known book, Le Demosterion, to do so, and he does it far more thoroughly. It was a wonderful exercise and introduction to historical research in the early modern period, though, and I’ll definitely be careful to consult more recent scholarship and that written in other languages more thoroughly in the future.


French Paracelsianism on Trial: Roche Le Baillif’s Astrology and the Comet of 1577

Roch Le Baillif, Sieur de la Rivière (1540-1598) was an early promulgator of Paracelsianism in France whose trial and conviction between 1578 and 1580 has received far more attention than the man himself or his work. This is due to his longstanding designation within the scholarship of Paracelsianism as “le premier martyr du Paracelsisme en France,”[1] the first casualty in the epic battle between the University of Paris’s Galenist medical faculty and the rising tide of Paracelsian chemical medicine. Le Baillif is portrayed as a “fanatical”[2] Paracelsian physician intent on blaspheming his way to the very top of the ladder of aristocratic patronage. His defeat in the trial is attributed to his “vulgar” brand of Paracelsianism, inundated as it was with the less sophisticated, astrological aspects of Paracelsus’s beliefs. I will argue that this interpretation is colored by presentist tendencies to privilege the alchemical aspects of Paracelsus’s philosophy, which is understood as a precursor to modern bio- and physio-chemistry.[3] The emphasis Le Baillif places on the astrological components of Paracelsus’s worldview were, when placed in the context of the early phases of Paracelsus’s quickly accelerating absorption into mainstream natural philosophy and medicine, neither vulgar nor contemporaneously unpalatable. Roch Le Baillif’s work on the comet of 1577 proves that Paracelsus’s writings on and understandings of the relationship between the heavens and the earth were just as if not more important to early French proponents of Paracelsus as his alchemical ones — especially during a time of heightened concern about disconcerting and penetrating cosmological questions, exacerbated by an especially active cometary record.

Roch Le Baillif was born in Normandy, and he claimed to have been educated at the University of Caen.[4] He then moved to Brittany, where he began to serve the Huguenot Rohan family. After the death of Henri de Rohan in 1576, Le Baillif served his younger brother, Louis de Rohan. Sometime in 1577, however, some sort of controversy involving a violent squabble with some of the Rohans’ servants sent Le Baillif searching for a new patron and out of Brittany altogether.[5] It is unclear how Le Baillif gained the support of Philippe-Emmanuel, the Duke de Mercoeur, a powerful Catholic aristocrat who would later lead a rebellion against Henri IV as he attempted to take the throne, but it was probably with the help of such an influential patron that Le Baillif secured the title of médecin ordinaire to Henri III after his arrival in Paris.[6] It was not abnormal or a sign of his ineptitude that he would have acquired his appointment in this manner, though it certainly would not have ingratiated him with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, as we shall see. There is a general consensus among historians of Paracelsianism that due to the often vehement opposition many university professors and officials had to the socially and intellectually subversive doctrines of Paracelsus, the patronage system was invaluable in supporting the study, development, and propagation of Paracelsianism.[7]

It was antagonism from the University of Paris that led to Le Baillif’s historical significance for many scholars of Paracelsianism. The Faculty of Medicine, increasingly annoyed or threatened by Le Baillif’s appointment and his practice and dissemination of Paracelsian medicine, was finally moved to forbid him the right of treating patients and teaching within the limits of the capital city. When he ignored their orders, they brought him to trial in front of the Parliament of Paris. In a lengthy and dramatic affair between the years of 1578 and 1580, related in slightly different ways by various historians attempting to bolster their arguments, Le Baillif (it is generally said) was convicted and banished from the city. He then returned to Brittany, where he lived out the rest of his days peacefully and productively, enjoying the patronage of the Rohans once again and publishing more “vulgar” Paracelsian tracts until his death in 1598.

These works, though not generally mentioned in the narratives presented below, deserve a mention. The only extant piece written before his tract on the comet of 1577, to be treated later, is a survey of his home region of Bretagne; Petit traité de l’antiquité et singularité de Bretagne Armorique (1577). After the Brief discours… sur le comette, Le Baillif published his most Paracelsian production, La Demosterion (Rennes: Pierre le Bret, 1578). While it will not be discussed at length, it purports to lay out Paracelsus’s medical philosophy in 300 aphorisms and includes a Latin to French dictionary to aid in interpretation. Following his move to Paris, Le Baillif published several less controversial (in other words, less Paracelsian) books. These included Traicté du remède à la peste (Paris: Abel l’Angelier, 1580), Premier traicté de l’homme et son essentielle anatomie (Paris: Abel l’Angelier, 1580), and his Sommaire défence (Paris: 1579), in which he defends himself against the onslaught of the Faculty of Medicine during his trial. Following his return to the provinces, he published Traicté de la cause de la briefve vie de plusieurs princes et grands (Rennes: Michel Logeroys, 1591) and Conformité de l’ancienne et moderne médecine, d’Hippocrate à Paracelse (Rennes: Michel Logeroys, 1592). His final work is a dialogue between Hippocrates and Paracelsus in which the latter enlightens the former.

This story, omitting the survey of Le Baillif’s work, appears in slight variations in the work of both Hugh Trevor-Roper and Allen G. Debus, who have written accounts of Paracelsianism that treat its sixteenth century manifestations. Debus has understood Paracelsianism in an almost singularly medical context, and the French Paracelsians of his works are those physicians and scholars who fought valiantly against the Galenists in control of the Faculty of Medicine for the integration of Paracelsian iatrochemistry into the medical cannon of the University of Paris. His first work on the topic encompassed more than just France, and its title betrays its conception of what being a Paracelsian meant. Published in 1977, The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries covers the acceleration of publications in France of Paracelsus-inspired texts, including Pierre Hassard’s La grande, vraye et parfaicte chirurgie (1567) and Jacques Gohory’s Compendium (1568), though Debus claims the latter “lacks satisfying depth,” citing as evidence the fact that the author places no special emphasis on Paracelsus’s chemistry, treating “talismans, seals, characters, and amulets” alongside more “modern” alchemical writings.[8]

Almost fifteen years later, in 1991, Debus’s The French Paracelsians: The Chemical Challenge to Medical and Scientific Tradition in Early Modern France continued the tradition of privileging the iatrochemical aspects of Le Baillif’s work, and his interactions with the Faculty are interpreted through this lens as well. Debus describes many of Le Baillif’s more notable publications, drawing particular attention to passages on the Chemical Creation, on the archei responsible for alchemical reactions within the body, and on the primacy of the three principles. Only once does he make reference to the micro- and macrocosm, a concept especially important in Paracelsian astrology. The trial is seen as “a victory for the medical establishment,” and Le Baillif is said to have returned to Brittany where “he continued to write… [but] no longer played a significant role in developing the debate”[9] — the debate being, of course, between Paracelsian proponents of chemical medicine and adherents to strict Galenism. Le Baillif, though one of the first relatively highly regarded French Paracelsians if we take the rank of his patrons into consideration, is relegated to the role of ill-received martyr.

Hugh Trevor-Roper also offers a history of Paracelsianism in France. He opens his discussion of Roch Le Baillif as the second instance of the Faculty fighting back against Paracelsianism, introducing him as “a notorious Paracelsian ‘empiric’… who wrote books of vulgar Paracelsianism.”[10] The trial is covered in a few sentences, the conclusion of which was Le Baillif being “hounded out of Paris,” his only positive contribution to the cause having been the attention his trial brought Paracelsus’s ideas. To his credit, Trevor-Roper does a thorough job placing Le Baillif’s struggles into the context of the complicated relationship between court-patronized heterodox physicians and university-sponsored orthodox ones. He highlights as well the increasingly marked association between Paracelsian medicine and Protestant faith, a doubly unorthodox combination that greatly troubled the Faculty and may have contributed to the ferocity with which Le Baillif was persecuted.

Trevor-Roper wrote another piece, “The Sieur de la Riviere, Paracelsian Physician of Henry IV,” where his primary goal was to prove wrong a long-standing assumption that Roch Le Baillif and D. Ian. Riverius were the same person. Though not addressed in detail in this essay due to the unanimous acceptance of Trevor-Roper’s thesis, some of the subsidiary arguments he employs to prove his point are troubling. Rivierus was a premier medecin to Henri IV and a Paracelsian, and Trevor-Roper feels that he needs to be “rescued” from his association with our Le Baillif, whom he dubs variously “a fanatical Paracelsist,”[11] “a man of limited horizons, both intellectual and local,”[12] and “a monoglot provincial crank,”[13] and whose work he characterizes as “primitive, fundamentalist, even vulgar.”[14] He finds it particularly offensive that Le Baillif would “pique himself, above all, on astrology.”[15] Trevor-Roper does cite convincing evidence that some of Le Baillif’s work was heavily criticized, but here he does not attempt to consider the religious and medical conflict that may have engendered such opposition, preferring to attribute it all to the quack physician’s intellectual inadequacy. This seems a stretch when his patrons were so highly regarded. Nonetheless, Le Baillif is duly juxtaposed with the enlightened, critically-thinking premier medecin Ian. Rivierus, and historians have not made the mistake of conflating the two figures since.

Roch Le Baillif does not come out of any of these narratives looking like anything more than a radical, dogmatic fool whose childish handling of Paracelsus’s sophisticated and overwhelmingly alchemical philosophy rendered him important only insofar as his trial in Paris. An analytical reading of one of his most heavily astrological works, however, will paint a very different picture, if we can refrain from condemning a sixteenth century figure for a well-developed interest and belief in the astrological significance of heavenly bodies.

Absent from any history of Le Baillif is what occured on the tenth of November, 1577. After his initial falling out with the Rohans, Le Baillif was in the process of solidifying his relationship with a new patron, the influential Prince Philipp-Emanuel, Duke de Mercoeur when a comet made its appearance in the evening sky. Immediately, the duke requested the opinion of his physician on the comet’s meaning, demanding a full interpretation posthaste.[16] The result was a small and cheaply printed book titled Brief discours sur la signification veridique du Comette apparu en Occident au signe du Sagittaire, le dixiéme de Nouembre 1577. Le Baillif identifies himself as the author on the title page, proudly displaying his philosophical leanings by including among his titles “Edelphe,” understood by Trevor-Roper to mean “Paracelsian seer.” Le Baillif wasted no time in compiling the twenty-six page work; according to the title page, the book was printed before the end of the year, 1577. It is dedicated to his new patron, the Duke de Mercoeur, a fervent Catholic who evidently did not have the same reservations about Paracelsian doctrine that would so alarm the Faculty of Medicine ten years later.

The contents of the work help solidify Le Baillif’s knowledge of Paracelsian concepts and give some hints as to in what circles he may have picked them up. He begins by giving an account of the Biblical flood and the formation of the three elements through the agency of the seven Nymphs, something he may have garnered from a reading of Jacques Gohory’s Compendium or perhaps from the work of Adam von Bodenstein, Gerhard Dorn, or Pierre Hassard, all three of which he praises in a book he writes a year later, Le Domesterion.[17] Le Baillif then discusses the multifaceted human spirit, which he connects to the stars through the “Enatrim,” what I take to be an alternative spelling of Paracelsus’s “Evastrum,” or astral body. In Paracelsus’s astrology, this Evastrum reflected “a view of [man] as a microcosm faithfully reproducing the greater world outside.”[18] Each planet had a corresponding organ in the human body, and an adept Paracelsian physician was expected to understand the way that this correspondence affected the physiological function of his patient.[19] These ideas, though elaborated upon by Paracelsus, were not new; medical astrology had been taught at universities since the Middle Ages, and the belief that the heavens could and did influence human health, according to historian Allan Chapman, passed “without question” in the sixteenth century.[20] It was neither strange nor a sign of his “vulgar” understanding of Paracelsus that Le Baillif would have included this in a tract attempting to understand a celestial event.

Next, Le Baillif places God into his cosmology. The higher spirit of man is invisible and created in the image of God, and as such, it is infinite, free, and immeasurable. This also reflects Paracelsus’s conception of the complicated nature of man’s spirit; though man and animal, through their astral spirits, are subject to the will of the stars, man also contains a divine spirit that differentiates him from animals and allows him to overcome and even alter the influence of the macrocosm, i.e., the stars.[21] We will come back to this concept later, but suffice it to say that the role assigned to God in Le Baillif’s world is very much in line with Paracelsus’s own understanding. Le Baillif then moves on to the problem at hand. If God, through the divinity of the human spirit, assumes an active role in the relationship between the heavens and Earth, what is his role in the appearance of comets?

He answers succinctly: “God, in order to represent His will before his image [humanity], makes certain signs appear, most often associated with the elements, and principally in his seat which is the firmament.”[22] Comets are sent by God to express His will. This concept had been upheld by not only Paracelsus, but also, during Le Baillif’s time, by a well-developed school of Lutheran natural philosophers centered around Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).[23] Paracelsus published several pamphlets on comets between 1531 and 1534, although, as pamphlets tend to, many have been lost. Nonetheless, enough are extant for historian Didier Kahn to outline Paracelsus’s basic assertions about their cause and meaning. The main purpose of his pamphlets seems to have been to denounce prognosticators who would interpret the comets as anything other than divine portents, comprehensible only through devoted study of the Bible. Any predictions or prognostications based on the contemporaneous astrological tradition or having to do with the weather were, in Paracelsus’s mind, “Pharisian and Sadducean.”[24] Unlike the fixed stars, comets were understood as novel or transformed matter, and as such, they “belong[ed] to the omens of the present time.”[25] Thus, Paracelsus’s reasons for interpreting comets as divine portents were, somewhat ironically, naturalistic. This was not the case for Le Baillif, who employed a different style of argument more reminiscent of his Lutheran contemporaries, as we shall see.

The middle portion of Brief discours is the longest at eighteen pages and consists of paragraph-length examples of various irregular natural phenomena and the associated historical events Le Baillif argues they portended. He gives no fewer than forty instances, some from antiquity and some as late as the 1560s. Many are grand, celestial and terrestrial events — floods, earthquakes, especially violent storms, and eclipses — but some are merely odd occurrences — strange accumulations of and irregularly colored animals (rats and mice, birds, white crows), temple doors breaking inexplicably, water in fountains transforming into oil, and violent battles played out in the sky, to name but a few. The events with which he associates them are rarely positive. They mostly signify epic battles, the death of kings and prophets, dramatic and game-changing betrayals, and invasions, although occasionally God chooses to display his pleasure through the manifestation of some miracle. Some of Le Baillif’s evidence is Biblical; the first rainbow was produced by God as a sign of his everlasting promise never to flood the earth again. The three magi followed a great, bright star, placed in the firmament by the Lord, to the location of Jesus Christ’s birthplace.

Adam Mosely noted similar tactics in his study of cometary historiae. He argues that the genre began to develop more systematically during the 1530s and 1540s among Protestant natural philosophers, who frequently cited “recent or more distant examples” when arguing that comets portended cataclysmic events.[26] Rienk Vermij and C. Scott Dixon’s work on Lutheran understandings of comets provide needed context to this propensity for Protestant scholars to argue for inauspicious comets. The sixteenth century was, both authors argue, “an anxious age.”[27] Aristotelianism was crumbling, a new cosmology had yet to present itself as a viable alternative, and the Church was fractured. In this context, Lutherans attempted to construct order within chaos, and to do so they employed an active God that would enforce it. To this end, they saw comets as divine manifestations of God’s displeasure and demanded that the populace heed the warning, repent, and pray for mercy at the dawn of an impending apocalypse. A common tactic, as Mosely has proven, was to refer to historical comets and the happenings for which they served as warnings. Thus, Le Baillif’s use of past unusual or dramatic events signalling present or future happenings was not out of the ordinary, and it was being done by some of the most prestigious and influential intellectuals of his day.

At the conclusion of his book, Le Baillif gives what be believes to be the meaning of the comet of 1577, and as is the case with his Lutheran contemporaries, the news is not good. Many will die from plague and dysentery; there will be a division between Ecclesiastics; foreigners and plunderers will descend upon the land; popular unrest will mount against the magistrate; temples will be ruined; due to the influence of Venus, women’s diseases will run rampant; “and what is worse, infamous instances of adultery, incest, and sodomy will reign…”[28] Le Baillif’s prognostication is heavily based upon the positions of the planets and stars in relation to the comet; he situates the comet in the third quarter of the sky, its tail extending to the point at which Sagittarius and Mercury join. It is almost sextile in aspect to Jupiter, Mars, and Venus and across from the moon.[29] The precision with which he situates the comet and the meaning he subsequently derives from its position — for instance, the relative position of Venus signalling the onslaught of women’s diseases — speaks to the faith he placed in astrology. This was a faith that Paracelsus, many Protestant scholars, and the populace in general shared.[30], [31]

Concluding his grim forecast, Le Baillif does offer some comfort, reassuring his readers that the effects will not last long due to the comet’s sudden disappearance. He emphasizes over and over again throughout the work, especially following his bleak interpretation of the comet’s meaning, that prayer and repentance are of the utmost importance during this dark time. This is characteristic of Lutheran understandings of comets, as we have seen, and it is also reminiscent of Le Baillif’s intellectual predecessor Paracelsus; though the magus believed that humans were directed by heavenly correspondences, the divine aspect of their souls permitted them, with devotion to God and a strong will, to overcome these influences.[32]

In considering Le Baillif’s possible interactions with Lutheran scholars, especially during a time of religious strife both within and outside of France, his religious beliefs prove necessary to discuss. They have, however, proven elusive to those who have written on him, and for good reason. He served the flagrantly Protestant Huguenot family, the Rohans, at the beginning and end of his career, but his most colorful years saw him as a serviteur of the Duke of Mercoeur, the leader of a radical Catholic uprising. Hugh Trevor-Roper has concluded that he was a Huguenot based upon his early associations and lifelong friends; his printers in Rennes, Julien de Clos and Pierre le Bret, were Protestant, as was his longtime friend Noël du Fail.[33] He was called “a Luther” during his trial in Paris, but this could just as easily have referred to his heterodox medical leanings. That being said, the rhetorical strategies he employs in Brief discours to argue for the divine interpretation of comets, as we have seen, seems to have been very characteristic of Lutheran writings produced before and during his time. Add to this the ambiguity of his early years, which, if not spent at Caen (a provincial university where Protestant teachings may have seeped in),[34] may well have been spent outside of France learning from any number of professional or lay Protestant scholars. It seems likely that he was willing to suppress his religious inclinations in the interest of a lucrative relationship with a Catholic patron, which would provide him with the means to disseminate unorthodox medical and astrological beliefs behind a shield of respectability. Far from “a man of limited horizons,” Le Baillif would appear to be quite politically and intellectually proficient.

Thus, when placed into context, Roch Le Baillif’s astrological beliefs seem to be very much in line with those of the more respected men in fifteenth and sixteenth century astrology, theology, and medicine. His focus on Paracelsian astrology was not a sign of his vulgarity, but rather of the anxieties of the period and his religious and intellectual inheritance. To be sure, slightly later proponents of Paracelsianism would emphasize iatrochemistry and would eventually prove a great innovation in medicine, but that does not detract from what Le Baillif was doing, and it certainly should not define what it meant to be a sophisticated, critical adherent to Paracelsian ideals.

What, then, are we to make of his sound defeat by the Faculty of Medicine in his trial in the late 1570s? Didier Kahn has offered up a novel and drastically different interpretation of the events of the trial through a detailed reading of available sources (including trial and parliamentary records, pamphlets, and even epitaphs). He argues that the trial was not a victory for the Faculty and that Le Baillif was not banished from the city at all, but rather left on his own accord, along with most others who could afford to do so, when plague struck in 1580. Kahn describes how a temporary interdict forbidding Le Baillif to practice or lecture during the examination period of the trial has been misinterpreted for centuries as a formal judgement, in no small part due to the Faculty’s frenzied attempts to keep Paracelsian physicians at bay. This perceived threat, he argues, was indicative of the rising tide of Paracelsianism without and within the university itself.[35]

Not even the most integral part of Roch Le Baillif’s life for historians of French Paracelsianism — his banishment from Paris by the Faculty of Medicine after a laughable attempt at defending himself — holds up to a detailed reading of extant documents. In attempting to write a history of what has long been held to be Paracelsus’s most important contribution to medical science — his iatrochemistry — historians have narrowed the scope of what being a Paracelsian means, and in doing so, they have read and analyzed the work of his disciples injudiciously. In the case of Roch Le Baillif, they have missed a valuable opportunity to gaze into the unique atmosphere that was France in the mid-sixteenth century, to tease apart the complicated process of constructing a post-Aristotelian cosmology, to understand the intersections of religion, patronage, and universities, and to trace the motivations and influence of Huguenot scholarship in France. Although I have done none of these lofty tasks in full, this study hopefully encourages a less anachronistic approach to Paracelsian figures and a broadening of the view of what being a respectable Paracelsian worthy of study looks like.





Le Baillif, Roch. Brief discours sur la signification veridique du comette apparu en occident au signe du sagittaire, le 10. de nouembre 1577. Rennes: Julian du Clos, 1577.

Le Baillif, Roche. Le Demosterion. Rennes: Pierre le Bret, 1578.

Chapman, Allan. “Astrological Medicine.” In Health, medicine and mortality in the sixteenth century, 275-300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Neale Watson Academic Publications, 1977.

Debus, Allen G. The French Paracelsians: the chemical challenge to medical and scientific tradition in early modern France. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Dixon, C. Scott. “Popular Astrology and Lutheran Propaganda.” History 84, No. 275 (July 1999): 403-418.

Hartmann, Franz. The Life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim, Known by the Name of Paracelsus and the Substance of His Teachings. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co. Ltd., 1896.

Jevons, F. R. “Paracelsus’s Two-Way Astrology. II. Man’s Relation to the Stars.” The British Journal for the History of Science 2, no. 2 (1964): 148-155.

Jevons, F. R. “Paracelsus’s Two-Way Astrology. I. What Paracelsus Meant by ‘Stars.’” The British Journal for the History of Science 2, no. 2 (1964): 139-147.

Kahn, Didier. “Paracelsus’ Ideas on the Heavens, Stars and Comets.” In Unifying heaven and earth: essays in the history of early modern cosmology, edited by Miguel Á. Granada, Patrick J. Boner & Dario Tessicini, 59-116. Barcelona: Publicacions i Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona, 2016.

Kahn, Didier. “Un échec de la Faculte de Medecine de Paris: Enjeux et dénouement du procès de Roche Le Baillif.” In Paracelsus und seine internationale Rezeption in der frühen Neuzeit: Beiträge zur Geschichte des Paracelsismus, edited by Ilana Zinguer and Heinz Schott, 146-221. Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill, 1998.

Moran, Bruce. The Alchemical World of the German Court: Occult Philosophy and Chemical Medicine in the Circle of Mortiz of Hessen (1572-1632). Studhoffs Archiv: Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 1991.

Mosely, Adam. “Past portents predict: cometary historiae and catalogues in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Galilaeana: Journal of Galilean Studies III (2013): 1-32.

Pagel, Walter. Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. Basel: S. Karger, 1958.

“Paracelsianism.” In The Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, 915-922. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Philipot, Emmanuel. La vie et l’oeuvre littéraire de Noël du Fail, gentilhomme breton. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1914.

Shakelford, Jole. “Paracelsianism and Patronage in Early Modern Denmark.” In Patronage and Institutions: Science, Technology and Medicine at the European Court, 1500-1750, 85-109. Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1991.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh.“The Paracelsian Movement.” In Renaissance Essays, 149-199. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. “The sieur de la Rivière.” In Renaissance Essays, 200-222. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Vermij, Rienk. “A Science of Signs. Aristotelian Meteorology in Reformation Germany.” Early Science and Medicine 15, no. 6 (2010): 648-674.

Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.



[1] Emmanuel Philipot, La vie et l’oeuvre littéraire de Noël du Fail, gentilhomme breton (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1914), 357.

[2] Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The sieur de la Rivière,” in Renaissance Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 205.

[3] There are notable exceptions to this tendency, particularly in scholarship that seeks to elucidate Paracelsus’s own philosophy, though none of these authors consider Roch le Baillif. See Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel: S. Karger, 1958) and Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).


[4] Trevor-Roper claims, in “The sieur de la Rivière,” 205, that when Madame de Rohan, mother of Le Baillif’s then-patron, asked the professors at the university for confirmation of this claim, they denied he had acquired his doctorate. He cites no source for this claim, and I have been unable to substantiate it.

[5] Trevor-Roper, “The sieur de la Rivière,” 206.

[6] The duke was brother-in-law to the king and thus probably held some sway with the appointment of royal physicians when he so chose. See Trevor-Roper, “The sieur de la Rivière,” 206.

[7] “Paracelsianism,” in The Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, ed. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 919. Although scholarship has touched on the role court patronage played in the dissemination of Paracelsian ideas, no historians have focused on France specifically. In-depth studies have been conducted for Denmark and Hessen-Kassel, however; see Jole Shakelford, “Paracelsianism and Patronage in Early Modern Denmark,” in Patronage and Institutions: Science, Technology and Medicine at the European Court, 1500-1750 (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1991): 85-109, and Bruce Moran, The Alchemical World of the German Court: Occult Philosophy and Chemical Medicine in the Circle of Mortiz of Hessen (1572-1632) (Studhoffs Archiv: Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 1991).

[8] Allen G. Debus, The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, (New York: Neale Watson Academic Publications, 1977), 147.

[9] Allen G. Debus, The French Paracelsians: the chemical challenge to medical and scientific tradition in early modern France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 40. His full description of Roch Le Baillif’s trial and works can be found on pages 37-40.

[10] Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Paracelsian Movement,” in Renaissance Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 168.

[11] Trevor-Roper, “The Paracelsian Movement,” 205.

[12] Ibid., 209.

[13] Ibid., 210.

[14] Trevor-Roper, “The sieur de la Rivière,” 205.

[15] Ibid., 205.

[16] “…je ne puis autrement commencer, que obéissant au commandement que j’ai reçu de vous (Monsieur) rédigé par escripte le discours qu’il vous pleut entendre de moi, sur le Comette apparut, ce que j’ai fait, non prémédité, vous suppliant d’humilité le recevoir: & ne le nombrer avec les choses de contentement, pour être mal limé, mais de ce que deffaut, vous en prendre au peu de temps que me donnaites de ce fair, & à la perte de mes livres, voire même à votre désir si prompt.” Le Baillif, Dedication of Brief discours.

[17] Gohory gives a detailed account of this Paracelsian creation story in his Compendium. See Debus, The Chemical Philosophy, 147. Debus also offers a summary of Le Domesterion in which he discusses Le Baillif’s stated influences. See The Chemical Philosophy, 156.

[18] F. R. Jevons, “Paracelsus’s Two-Way Astrology. I. What Paracelsus Meant by ‘Stars,’” The British Journal for the History of Science 2, no. 2 (1964), 140.

[19] Franz Hartmann, The Life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim, Known by the Name of Paracelsus and the Substance of His Teachings (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co. Ltd., 1896), 217.

[20] Allan Chapman, “Astrological Medicine,” in Health, medicine and mortality in the sixteenth century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 283.

[21] F. R. Jevons, “Paracelsus’s Two-Way Astrology. II. Man’s Relation to the Stars,” The British Journal for the History of Science 2, no. 2 (1964), 148-151.

[22] “[N]otre Dieu pour représenter sa volonté devant son image lui fait apparoir par signes certains, le plus souvent attachez aux Ellements, et principalement en son siège qui est le firmament.” Roch Le Baillif, Brief discours sur la signification veridique du comette apparu en occident au signe du sagittaire, le 10. de nouembre 1577 (Rennes: Julian du Clos, 1577).

[23] C. Scott Dixon, “Popular Astrology and Lutheran Propaganda,” History 84, no. 275 (July 1999): 403-418.

[24] Didier Kahn, “Paracelsus’ Ideas on the Heavens, Stars and Comets,” in Unifying heaven and earth: essays in the history of early modern cosmology, eds. Miguel Á. Granada, Patrick J. Boner & Dario Tessicini, (Barcelona: Publicacions i Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona, 2016), 103-104.

[25] Ibid., 105.

[26] Adam Mosely, “Past portents predict: cometary historiae and catalogues in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Galilaeana: Journal of Galilean Studies III (2013), 3.

[27] C. Scott Dixon, “Popular Astrology and Lutheran Propaganda,” History 84, No. 275 (July 1999), 406. See also Rienk Vermij, “A Science of Signs. Aristotelian Meteorology in Reformation Germany,” Early Science and Medicine 15, no. 6 (2010), 651.

[28] “Et qui pis est, infâmes espèces d’adultère, incests, et Sodomies régner…” Le Baillif, Brief discours.

[29] “Icelui comette est apparu en la fin de la troisième quarte du ciel, face seconde et dernière du Sagittaire joignant Mercure rétrograde du bout de sa chevelure, et la Lune de l’autre coté, mêmes encore regardé des rayons du Soleil: et en presque sextil aspect à Jupiter, Mars, et Venus…” Le Baillif, Brief discours.

[30] Paracelsus’s beliefs concerning astrology are complex and have been a source of contention in scholarship. It is clear, however, that he believed heavenly bodies had influence over human health and behavior. See F. R. Jevons (as cited earlier) and Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel: S. Karger, 1958).

[31] C. Scott Dixon, “Popular Astrology and Lutheran Propaganda,” 406.

[32] F. R. Jevons, “Paracelsus’s Two-Way Astrology. II. Man’s Relation to the Stars,” 154.

[33] Trevor-Roper, “The sieur de la Rivière,” 205.

[34] Some petty provincial universities fell under Protestant control during this period. See Trevor-Roper, “The Paracelsian Movement,” 167.

[35] Didier Kahn,“Un échec de la Faculte de Medecine de Paris: Enjeux et dénouement du procès de Roche Le Baillif,” in Paracelsus und seine internationale Rezeption in der frühen Neuzeit: Beiträge zur Geschichte des Paracelsismus, eds. Ilana Zinguer and Heinz Schott (Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill, 1998), 151-152.