Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Weapon Salve in the Renaissance

  • Sietske FransenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1109-1


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).



Primary Literature

  1. Charleton, Walter. 1650. A ternary of paradoxes. The magnetick cure of wounds. Nativity of tartar in wine. Image of God in Man. London: James Flesher for William Lee.Google Scholar
  2. Digby, Kenelm. 1658. A late discourse made in a Solemne assembly of nobles and learned men at Montpellier in France … touching the cure of wounds by the powder of sympathy. London: Printed for R. Lownes and T. Davies.Google Scholar
  3. Gilbert, William. 1600. De magnete, magneticisque corporis, et de magno magnete tellure; physiologia nova, plurimis & argumentis, & experimentis demonstrate. London: Peter Short of Bread Street.Google Scholar
  4. Goclenius, Rodolphus. 1613. Tractatus novus de magnetica vulnerum curatione, citra ullum et dolorem, et remedii applicationem, et supertitionem, mirandarum et in naturae maiestate abditarum rerum causas patefaciens. Frankfurt: Petrus Musculus and Rupert Pistorius.Google Scholar
  5. van Helmont, Jan Baptiste. 1621. De magnetica vulnerum curatione: Diputatio contra opinionem D. Joan. Roberti, presbyteri de Societate Jesue, Doctoris Theologi, in breve sua anatome sub censurae specie exaratam. Paris: Victor Leroy.Google Scholar
  6. Kircher, Athanasius. 1641. Magnes, sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum. Rome.Google Scholar
  7. Libavius, Andreas. 1597. Tractatus duo physici: prior de imposteria vulnerum per unguentum armarium sanatione Paracelsicis usitata commendataque. Frankfurt: Joannes Saur.Google Scholar
  8. Rattray, Sylvester. 1662. Theatrum sympatheticum. Nuremberg: Joannes Andreas Endter.Google Scholar
  9. Roberti, Johannes. 1618. Goclenius Heautontimorumenos: id est curationis magneticae, et unguenti armarii ruina. Luxembourg.Google Scholar

Secondary Literature

  1. Camenietzki, Carlos Ziller. 2001. Jesuits and alchemy in the early seventeenth century: Father Johannes Roberti and the weapon-salve controversy. Ambix 48: 83–101.  https://doi.org/10.1179/amb.2001.48.2.83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Clark, Stuart. 1997. Thinking with demons: The idea of witchcraft in early modern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Debus, Allen G. 1964. Robert Fludd and the use of Gilbert’s ‘de Magnete’ in the weapon-salve controversy. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 19: 389–417.  https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/xix.4.389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Hedrick, Elizabeth. 2008. Romancing the salve: Sir Kenelm Digby and the powder of sympathy. British Journal for the History of Science 41: 161–185.  https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007087407000386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Müller-Jahncke, Wolf-Dieter. 1993. Magische Medizin bei Paracelsus un den Paracelsisten: Die Waffensalbe. In Resultate und Desiderate der Paracelsus-Forschung, ed. Peter Dilg and Hartmur Rudolph. Sudhoffs Archiv 31, 43–55.Google Scholar
  6. Pagel, Walter. 1982. Joan Baptista van Helmont: Reformer of science and medicine. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Pumfrey, Stephen Philip. 1987. William Gilbert’s magnetical philosophy 1580–1684: The creation and dissolution of a discipline. Ph.D, The Warburg Institute, University of London.Google Scholar
  8. Stolzenberg, Daniel. 1998. The sympathetic cure of wounds: A study of magic, nature and experience in seventeenth-century science. M.A. Thesis. Indiana University.Google Scholar
  9. Thorndike, Lynn. 1958. History of magic and experimental science. Vols. VII and VIII. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Waddell, Mark A. 2003. The perversion of nature: Johannes Baptista van Helmont, the Society of Jesus, and the magnetic cure of wounds. Canadian Journal of History 38: 179–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Waddell, Mark A. 2016. Jesuit science and the end of Nature’s secrets. London: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH)University of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Hiro Hirai
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for the History of Philosophy and ScienceRadboud Universiteit NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands