Petrus Severinus, a Latinized form of Peder Sørensen, was a Danish contemporary and one-time friend of the astronomer Tycho Brahe. While a university student, Severinus learned of the novel-sounding medical ideas propounded by the Swiss-Austrian physician Paracelsus, editions of whose works were issuing from German and Swiss presses during the 1560s. Severinus and fellow student Johannes Pratensis traveled extensively in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy from 1565 to 1571, perhaps acquiring a taste for Paracelsian and Neoplatonist ideas in Basel or Paris. In the spirit of the French physician Jean Fernel, who sought to harmonize Galen’s medicine with Platonic philosophy and thus give classical medicine a more Christian interpretation, and the Parisian physician Jacques Gohory, who educed commonalities between Paracelsus’ ideas and Neoplatonism, Severinus composed The Ideal of Philosophical Medicine (Basel, 1571) with the ostensible aim of reconciling the medicine of Paracelsus with that of the classical giants Hippocrates and Galen. Severinus’ synthesis, which used the Aristotelian embryological concept of epigenesis as a model for elaborating a basically Neoplatonist emanation theory to explain the origin and development of bodies, produced a general biological theory that Andreas Libavius termed “vital philosophy.” Severinus vitalism, positing the development of bodies from seminal ideas placed in nature by a providential God, provided an attractive explanation for medical writers, poets, and natural philosophers in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Born to bourgeois parents in provincial Jutland in 1540 or 1542, Severinus served as Royal Physician to King Frederik II of Denmark and then his son King Christian IV from 1572 until his death in 1602.
Petrus Severinus was born Peder Sørensen in Ribe, an important regional town and seaport in southern Jutland, astride the main overland trading route between Denmark and the continent. His basic education at Ribe’s Latin school provided him a good grounding in classical letters and eloquence, which enabled him to lecture on Latin poetry at the University of Copenhagen, where he probably attained the bachelor’s degree in 1561. Eager to pursue a medical education, which was not well supported at the university, he went to France in 1562. He returned to Denmark in 1563, when he was granted a canonry to support his study, and he completed a master’s degree in Copenhagen in 1564. There he became friends with another aspiring medical student from Jutland, Johannes Pratensis (Hans Filipsen du Pré), and the two shared a royal stipend to study abroad and matriculated at the University of Padua in 1566. Padua was the leading medical school in Europe at the time, owing in part to the reputation of its anatomists, the recently deceased Andreas Vesalius and Gabriele Falloppio, who was succeeded by William Harvey’s teacher Hieronymus Fabricius in 1565. Severinus’ writings show no evidence of interest in anatomy or surgery, and it is conceivable that he abandoned Padua for Paris, where he pursued Neoplatonic philosophy and chemical medicine advocated by Theophrastus Paracelsus, as evident from his manuscript on philosophical, astronomical, medical, and cabalistic questions, dated Paris, July 1567. He returned to Italy at some point, completing his signature work reconciling Platonist and Aristotelian natural philosophy with Paracelsian conceptions in Florence in November 1570. Severinus published this book, the Ideal of Philosophical Medicine (Idea medicinæ philosophicæ), in Basel, Switzerland, en route home in 1571, where he was appointed Royal Physician to King Frederik II, whose retinue also included the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Severinus served Frederik and his son Christian IV until his death in 1602. Two surviving daughters married government officials, and his son Frederik, an M.D., practiced medicine.
Innovative and Original Aspects
Severinus’ significance in the history of science and medicine rests on his 1571 book, which a generation of scholars used as a guide to the complex and poorly articulated ideas of the German heterodox medical writer Theophrastus Paracelsus. Severinus harmonized Paracelsian medicine with the Neoplatonic metaphysics of Plotinus and the biology of Aristotle and Galen by elaborating on the Stoic concept of seminal reasons, making these metaphysical seeds the foundation of his own theory of the generation of entities in the material world. Basically adapting Platonic idealism and Aristotelian epigenetic embryological theory to explain the generation of all material bodies, Severinus articulated Paracelsus’ philosophical and medical views as what one critic, Andreas Libavius, termed “vital philosophy.”
Impact and Legacy
It was mainly as an expositor of Paracelsian ideas that Severinus was known. Daniel Sennert referred to a “Severinian school” of thought (secta Severiana), Hermann Conring – no lover of Paracelsus – regarded Severinus as “the first among the students of Paracelsus,” and the obscure Paracelsian writer Johan Kozackius called him “a second Paracelsus.” But beyond his capacity as an interpreter of Paracelsus, it was the broad application of his vital philosophy within natural philosophy and medical theory that explains why Severinus and his ideas were widely cited by late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors, ranging from Paracelsian authors Thomas Moffett, Oswald Croll, Johannes Hartmann, and Jan Baptista van Helmont to the non-Paracelsians Daniel Sennert, Pierre Gassendi, Robert Boyle, and John Donne, and explains why his conception continued to have relevance to vitalists into the nineteenth century. Severinus’ seed-concept was employed to explain everything from the appearance of the 1572 supernova by Tycho Brahe to the healing properties and heat of underground mineral waters by Edward Jordan in addition to explaining how diseases arise through physical or metaphysical “transplantation” in the human body. Severinus’ legacy is best represented in the extensive commentaries his book elicited, one by the German medical student and physician Ambrosius Rhodius (1643) and two by the Scottish chemist William Davidson of Aberdeen (1660, 1663).
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