Weapon Salve in the Renaissance
The weapon salve claimed to be a cure for the healing of wounds at a distance. On the basis of sympathetic or magnetic powers, the salve supposedly could heal a wound in a clean and painless manner. Attributed to the Swiss physician Paracelsus, this cure was widely discussed in medical and theological circles throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Several disputes over the weapon salve in the early seventeenth century made the alleged cure widely known and widely discussed. The disputes did not revolve around the efficacy of the cure but rather concerned the question of whether the nature of the cure was natural or demonic. As such, these disputes had an impact on the ideas of natural philosophy of the time.
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
The weapon salve, attributed to the Swiss physician Paracelsus since the sixteenth century, heals a wound at a distance (Libavius 1597). Instead of applying the salve to a wound directly, the salve was to be applied to the weapon that caused the wound (Camenietzki 2001). The wound then will be cured through the sympathetic or magnetic power of the salve (Clark 1997; Stolzenberg 1998). The recipe for the weapon salve differed throughout the seventeenth century, but almost always contained usnea (moss growing on or inside of a human skull) and mumia (remnants of human blood and flesh) (Waddell 2003; 2016).
Innovative and Original Aspects
The weapon salve was the subject of a heated controversy in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century (Müller-Jahncke 1993; Thorndike 1958). It was not the effect of the cure that was disputed, but rather the questions of why and how the cure worked. The Jesuit priest Jean Roberti and the Calvinist physician Rudolph Goclenius each wrote several treatises about the weapon salve between 1608 and 1621 (Kircher 1618; Pumfrey 1987). In the first publication Tractatus Novus (1608, with a 2nd edition in Goclenius 1613), Goclenius defended the weapon salve as a natural cure. Based on a Neoplatonic worldview in which sympathetic and antipathetic powers and the relationship between micro- and macrocosm were active, Goclenius explained how magnetic powers could travel by celestial spirit and cure the wound at a distance (see also Debus 1964; Gilbert 1600). For the Jesuit Roberti, this was an unacceptable heresy, and he judged the weapon salve to be demonic and used the subject to write an attack on Protestant heresies in general. The Catholic physician Jan Baptiste van Helmont was involved at the very end of this discussion by publishing his De magnetica vulnerum curatione (1621) in which he opposed the natural philosophy as discussed by Goclenius, arguing that what Goclenius calls sympathy should be explained as magnetism. However, his attack on Roberti was much fiercer. He discussed how magnetism cannot be seen as diabolical but instead is a natural phenomenon. He extended his argument to include an explanation for the efficacy of relics along the same lines. This embroiled him in a lifelong struggle with the ecclesiastical authorities of the diocese of Brussels-Mechelen. He was only posthumously absolved in 1646, 2 years after his death (Pagel 1983).
Impact and Legacy
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the weapon salve remained a topic of discussion (Charleton 1650). A collection of all texts and treatises on the topic was published as Theatrum sympatheticum by Sylvester Rattray (1662). In England the weapon salve was discussed in a publication by Sir Kenelm Digby (1658), and only 3 years later, the Royal Society devoted its attention to the topic in one of its meetings (Hedrick 2008).
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