Posted by: whipplelib | March 3, 2017

Fluddean Philosophy and the Weapon-Salve

This post is on an exciting acquisition for the Whipple: the Philosophia Moysaica of Robert Fludd, philosopher, physician and writer on the occult. Bound with a pamphlet on the ‘weapon-salve’ treatment of wounds, this was the last work of an intriguing author, and this copy’s provenance is linked to the discipline of HPS.

Philosophia Moysaica

vellum-bindingBound in contemporary vellum, this volume is the first edition of the first part of Fludd’s Philosophia Moysaica, the final synthesis of his own ‘Fluddean’ philosophy, an approach steeped in alchemical, Neoplatonist, Hermetic and Paracelsian thought.[1] For Fludd, the cosmos, and man’s place in it, was explained by the mystical linking of the physical world with the spiritual, the relationships between the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Born in 1574, Fludd gained his Master’s degree at Oxford in 1598 and then spent 6 years as a student travelling in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. During this time he developed his interest in the alchemical approach to nature and was likely exposed to Hermeticism and Paracelsianism. When he returned to England in 1604, Fludd gained his MD, moved to London and set up what was to become a very successful practice as a physician.[2] After several failed attempts, he was finally made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in September 1609 and became a respected member, counting William Harvey among his friends.[3]

Although a successful physician in London, Fludd’s works did not gain great popularity in England, and were typically published abroad. His earlier books had been published by Frankfurt and Oppenheimer printer Theodor De Bry, and then by his successors Johann Theodor De Bry and William Fitzer. Not only did Fludd avoid having to pay printers in London, but De Bry published them for free and paid him a generous fee. Philosophia Moysaica was published posthumously in Gouda by the printer Petrus Rammazenius in 1638; Fludd had died the previous year. It was not until 1659 that a translation appeared in England as The Mosaicall Philosophy: Grounded upon the Essential Truth or Eternal Sapience.[4]

title-pageFludd may have worked on the illustrations himself and was likely the draughtsman for his earlier Utriusque cosmi … historia, his first philosophical account of the macrocosm and microcosm.[5] The title-page of Philosophia Moysaica is engraved with geometric motifs of concentric circles, triangles, pyramids, hemispheres and blazing suns typical of Fludd’s imagery. The interplay of dark and light reflects the tradition of ‘Mosaic’ philosophy, and the 3 primary elements of darkness, light and the waters or Spirit of God.[6]

Fludd also included experimental demonstrations to support his philosophy, including the use of the Weather-Glass. This barometer-thermometer was used to show the effects of light-dark or heat-cold on the natural world. A glass bulb with a long, tube-like neck, this was a microcosmic symbol of the universe.[7]

The ‘Weapon-Salve’

weapon-salveBound in this volume is another work of Fludd’s: Responsum ad Hoplocrisma-spongum M. Fosteri presbiteri. This was also published at Gouda in 1638 and an errata leaf at the end of the volume shows they were intentionally kept together. Several other copies have been found with the same 2 works.

This pamphlet was the only work Fludd produced originally in English and came in response to criticisms levelled at him by a little-known English clergyman, William Foster. Fludd was no stranger to criticism. Evidence for his influence in Europe comes in the form of the unfavourable attention of significant figures such as Kepler, Mersenne and Gassendi, and Fludd defended himself in print.[8]

Foster’s complaint was directed at Fludd’s defence (in the Anatomiae amphitheatrum, published 1623) of the ‘weapon-salve’. This method was believed to heal a wound by applying a salve to the weapon that had inflicted it. It consisted of treating the wound by cleaning it daily (with urine) and wrapping it with a clean linen cloth, while the weapon was dipped in a mixture of the patient’s own blood, moss grown on a human skull, and human flesh from the body of a hanged man. It relied on a magnetic or sympathetic relationship between the weapon and the wound:

“The cure is done by the magnetique attractive power of this Salve, caused by the Starres, which by the mediation of the ayre, is carried and adjoyned to the Wound, that so the Spirituall operation thereof may bee effected.”[9]

William Foster went so far as to nail a copy of the title-page of his own work, Hoplocrisma-spongus, or, A Sponge to Wipe Away the Weapon-Salve, to Fludd’s door in 1631. He suggested that Fludd’s defence of the salve was enough to suspect him of witchcraft. In his own pamphlet, Fludd argues that the cure is not superstitious or magical, but natural, and suggests that these matters should be left to learned physicians (like himself).[10]

Provenance: Walter Pagel and the history of science and medicine

This volume is not only fascinating for its author and contents. It was purchased through the sale of books once in the library of Walter Pagel, celebrated physician and historian of science and medicine. Pagel (1898-1983) studied texts for their philosophical, metaphysical and religious background, and regarded the historical context of medical ideas and practices as significant, rather than judging works according to contemporary criteria. He was one of the founders of the Cambridge History of Science Lectures Committee, formed in 1936, with Pagel as secretary and Joseph Needham as Chairman. The Committee arranged for courses of lectures on the history of science and, along with the Cambridge Philosophical Society, was involved in negotiating Robert Stewart Whipple’s donation to the University. It is from these beginnings that the Department of HPS grew.

pagel-labelAfter Pagel’s death, the bulk of his library was sold at Sotheby’s, but he had left a selection of rare and valuable books on philosophy, chemical, alchemical and medical history, to his son, the astronomer Bernard Pagel. This volume came from Bernard Pagel’s collection.[11]


[1] Debus (1966), 105, 124; Debus (1967), 50

[2] Debus (1967), 50

[3] Debus (1966), 105-106; Pagel (1967), 113-114; DNB

[4] Debus (1966), 126; DNB

[5] DNB

[6] Debus (1966), 107-108; Debus (1967), 51

[7] Huffman (1988), 121; Golinski (2007), 112-114

[8] Debus (1966), 105; DNB

[9] Debus (1966), 121

[10] Debus (1966), 121-122

[11] Gaskell Rare Books, Catalogue 41 (2009), Introduction; Catalogue 42 (2010), no.58


Debus, A.G., The English Paracelsians (New York : Franklin Watts, 1966)

Debus, A.G., (1967), ‘Renaissance Chemistry and the Work of Robert Fludd’ Ambix, 14:1, pp.42-59

DNB: Maclean, I., ‘Fludd, Robert (bap. 1574, d. 1637)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 2 March 2017]

Golinski, J., British weather and the climate of enlightenment (Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Huffman, W.H., Robert Fludd and the end of the Renaissance (London : Routledge, 1988)

Pagel, W., William Harvey’s biological ideas : selected aspects and historical background (New York : Hafner Pub. Co., 1967)

Roger Gaskell Rare Books, Books from the library of Walter Pagel, Catalogue 41 (2009), Part I: 1483-1600; Catalogue 42 (2010), Part II: books printed after 1600

Library Assistant


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