Science Teaching in Early Modern Europe
  International conference

Florence, 5 - 7 June 2003


Chemical Textbooks in the Seventeenth Century

The aim of this paper is to investigate the role and contents of 17th-century chemical textbooks. My focus will be on French textbooks, from Jean Beguin’s Tyrocinium chymicum (1610) to Nicolas Lemery’s Cours de Chymie (first ed. 1675). In order to assess the role of chemical textbooks, one has to evaluate the status of chemistry in the 17th century. Despite Libavius’ effort to make chemistry an independent art, in the first half of the 17th-century, the social and intellectual status of chemistry was generally low. It was not regarded as science, but as practical knowledge - its object being the separation of the pure from the impure. With the exception of Marburg, in the 17th century chemistry was not part of the university curricula, and was taught outside universities, usually in private courses, attended by apothecaries and by medical practitioners.
The low status of chemistry affected early textbooks, notably in Jean Beguin’s Tyrocynium Chymicum, which was mainly aimed at teaching chemical operations to apothecaries. In France chemistry faced strong opposition from the Sorbonne, as attested by the controversy over the use of antimony, and by Guy Patin’s violent attacks. Chemistry gained momentum thanks to the support given to chemical physicians by members of the Court, and notably by Richelieu. Chemistry was taught at the Jardin de Plants from the very beginning (1640), and was also taught privately in Paris, by a number of chemists. Some of these courses, i.e. Etienne de Clave’s and William Davisson’s became very popular in Paris. In the early decades of the 17th century, chemical courses were followed by apothecaries and physicians. Later (approximately since 1640s) a number of natural philosophers and virtuosi became part of the audience. The changing role of chemical teaching, as well as the increasing support obtained by Paracelsianism (and then by Helmontianism), affected most chemical textbooks. Chemistry was no longer described as an art, but as a key to the knowledge of nature. This view was articulated by Nicolas Le Fevre (c. 1615-1669) in his Traicté de la Chymie (1660): “Chymistry is the art and knowledge of nature itself; it is by her means that we examine the Principles, out of which natural bodies do consist and are compounded; and by her are discovered unto us the causes and sources of their generations and corruptions; and of all the changes and alterations to which they are liable.” While the early chemical textbooks were mainly practical in orientation, Le Fevre’s and Nicolas Lemery’s textbooks gave increasing importance to the theoretical part, notably to the theory of principles. Lemery set out to distance chemistry from alchemy and to get rid of the obscure terminology that made chemistry suspicious to contemporary natural philosophers. Lemery’s arguments were evidently intended to legitimate chemistry among natural philosophers, by vindicating its role against persistent opposition and scepticism. The theory of five principles as contained in the first edition of his Cours de Chymie is rather traditional. He distinguishes three active principles and two passive ones. His view changed around 1680. In the 1681 edition (4th edition) of his textbook, Lemery introduced a section entitled “Remarques sur les Principes”, which is likely to be an answer to Boyle’s critical arguments against the spagyrical principles. Lemery, who adopted a full-wedged corpuscular theory of matter, claimed that he employed the term principle as a “working tool,” not in a strict sense, since they could be further divided. As he put it, they are principles for us, not in nature. The success of Lemery’s textbook was impressive: it was translated into Italian, English, Dutch, German, Spanish and Latin, and was reissued many times until 1751. Lemery’s Cours played a substantial role for the advancement of chemistry in the eighteenth century.