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Webster, John

WEBSTER, JOHN

(b Thornton, Craven, England, 3 February 1610; d. Clitheroe, England, 18 June 1682), chemistry, medicine, education.

Although Webster implied that he studied at Cambridge, there is no record that he was ever a regular student. He also referred to his study of chemistry (ca. 1632) under the Hungarian alchemist John Hunyades, who arrived in London sometime after 1623. As with other Renaissance chemists, Webster’s interest in chemistry was easily coupled with his concern for religion, and he was ordained a minister sometime after July 1632. Two years later he appears in the records as the curate of Kildwick, in Craven.

Paracelsian chemistry had a special appeal for surgeons, and there is a large iatrochemical literature specifically aimed at the military surgeon. As a Puritan, Webster served both as a surgeon and as a chaplain in the Parliamentary army during the Civil War. By 1648 his opposition to the established church had pushed him into the ranks of the nonconformists; and after the Restoration he was forced to support himself as a “practitioner in Physick and Chirurgery.”

It was his concern for house who were preparing for the ministry that led Webster to write the Academiarum examen, in which he attacked the English universities. The traditional emphasis on books and disputations, as well as on the “healthen” authors Aristotle and Galen, seemed to him improper for Christians, who should study the glories of the universe (and thus, the Creator) through observation and personal experience. Webster argued against the use of mathematical abstraction in the study of nature, because for him this seemed to emphasize deductive logic. In contrast, the laboratory observations of the chemists offered the proper inductive approach exemplified in the writings of Helmont and Francis Bacon. The Academiarum examen is deeply indebted to Robert Fludd’ Rosicrucian apology, Tractatus apologeticus (1617); and Webster points to Fludd and Bacon as the two authors most to be relied upon in formulating a new philosophy of nature. The most notable reply to Webster’s call for educational reform was Vindiciae academiarum (1654) of Seth Ward and John Wilkins, in which Webster was taken to task for not having kept abreast of recent changes at the universities that did reflect the new science. He was accused of not having properly understood Bacon and Descartes and also was criticized for his reliance on the chemists. His espousal of Fludd’s texts was especially condemned. The conflict between Webster, Ward, and Wilkins clearly points to the sharp division then existing between the chemical philosophers and the early mechanists.

Webter’s belief that the aim of true natural magic was to uncover the “secret effects” of nature led him to extend warm support to the foundation of the Royal Society of London; and there is no indication that he was ever disappointed with the course taken by its members. He referred with approval to the society’s work in his Metallographia(1671), an interesting compendium of current views on the growth and properties of metals. Here again he indicated his debt to Paracelsus, who made chemistry available to all, and to Helmont, whose work seemed to excel that of all his predecessors. The Metallographia was reviewed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and Daniel George Morhof later praised it as one of the major published works on minerals.

Webster was no less laudatory to the Royal Society in The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, completed in 1673 but not published until 1677, in which he attacked the views of Meric Casaubon and Joseph Glanvill. The latter, a member of the Royal Society, had written at length on wichcraft especially in Philosophical Considerations Touching Witches and Witchcraft (1666). In his reply Webster countered that “supernatural” effects supposedly caused by witchcraft would eventually be found to have natural causes.

Although not a scientist of major stature, Webster is significant, for his work reflects important themes germane to the period of the scientific revolution. His conflict with Ward and Wilkins underscored the dispute between the chemical philosophers and the mechanists, his treatise on witchcraft did much to shed light on the meaning of magic and the supernatural in this period, and his work on metals and minerals clearly was considered important by his contemporaries on the Continent as well as in England.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. There is a bibliography of Webster’s works, including his many sermons, in Bertha Porter’s article in the Dictionary of National Biography. The most important for the historian of science are Academiarum examen, or the Examination of Academies (London, 1654); Metallographia: or An History of Metals (London, 1671); and The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (London, 1677).

Academiarum examen has been reprinted, along with the replies of Ward and Wilkins (Vindiciae academiarum [Oxford, 1654]) and Thomas Hall (Histrio-Mastix. A Whip for Webster [London, 1654]), by Allen G. Debus, in Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century (London–New York, 1970).

Metallographia is reviewed in Philosophical Trancsactions of the Royal Society, 5. no. 66 (12 Dec. 1670), 2034-2036. Daniel George Morhof, Polyhistor, literarius, philosophicus et practicus, 4th ed., II, pt. 2 (Lübeck, 1747), sec. 4. ch. 29, is devoted mainly to Metallographia.

II. Secondary Literature. There is a discussion of Webster’s work, with special reference to the educational problems raised in Academiarum examen, in the introductory essay in Allen G. Debus, Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century, 1–65. See also Debus’ “The Webster-Ward Debate of 1654; The New Philosophy and the problem of Educational Reform,” in L’univers á la Renaissance: Microcosme et macrocosme, Travaux de l’Institut pour l’étude de la renaissance et de l’humanisme, IV (Brussels, 1970), 33–51; and “John Webster and the Educational Deilemma of the Seventeenth Century,” in Actes du XIIeCongrès international d’historie des sciences, IIIB (Paris, 1970), 15–23. An early, but still useful, discussion of the debate is in Richard F. Jones, Ancients and Moderns. A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth-Century England (St. Louis, 1936. 2nd ed., 1961), 101–114.

For references pertinent to education in England and on the Continent, see, Debus, Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century; but for a further understanding of Webster, see also P. M. Rattansi, “Paracelsus and the Puritan Revolution,” in Ambix, 11 (1963), 23–32; C. Webster, ed., Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, 1970), 1–72; and C. Webster, “Science and the Challenge to the Scholastic Curriculum 1640-1660,” in The Changing Curriculum (London, 1971), 21–35.

Allen G. Debus

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John Webster

John Webster

The reputation of the English dramatist John Webster (ca. 1580-ca. 1634) rests on two blank-verse tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. He was a painstaking literary craftsman, much concerned with the philosophy and the psychology of evil.

Nothing definite is known of John Webster's birth or parentage. He has been tentatively identified as the son of a merchant-tailor of London, and it is thought he was born about 1580; but no solid evidence on either of these points exists. From his plays it is clear that Webster was a learned man, but nothing is known of his education.

The earliest definite reference to Webster occurs in the diary of the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe. Henslowe's records reveal that in 1602 Webster collaborated with Anthony Munday, Thomas Middleton, Michael Drayton, and others on a play called Caesar's Fall, which has not survived. Two years later John Marston's play The Malcontent was performed by the King's Men with an Induction written by Webster. The Induction provides a revealing picture of an early Jacobean audience. In 1605 and 1606 Webster worked on two plays with Thomas Dekker. These were Westward Ho! and Northward Ho!, both realistic comedies performed by the Children of Pauls.

None of this early work gives more than the vaguest hint of the dramatic genius that is displayed in Webster's twin tragic masterpieces, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. The first was probably written in 1611 or 1612, the second in 1613 or 1614. Both are powerful tragedies dominated by strong-willed female protagonists, each of whom suffers a violent death for defying the conventions of a corrupt society. The strain of morbidity evident in each play is frequently considered the most distinctive feature of Webster's work.

Webster's later dramatic work was sporadic and undistinguished. The most interesting of his nondramatic writings are found in the second edition of Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters (1615). Although Webster's name does not appear in this collection of Theophrastian sketches, it is generally agreed that he was responsible for a number of those sketches added to the original edition of 1614.

The circumstances of Webster's death are as obscure and uncertain as those of his birth. There is some reason to believe that he was dead before the end of 1634, but no more precise information has been uncovered.

Further Reading

Frank L. Lucas, The Complete Works of John Webster, vol. 1 (1927), contains the fullest treatment of Webster's life. Critical analyses of his two major works are Clifford Leech, John Webster: A Critical Study (1951), and Travis Bogard, The Tragic Satire of John Webster (1955). The introductions to John Russell Brown's editions of The White Devil (1960) and The Duchess of Malfi (1964) also contain valuable critical commentary.

Additional Sources

Bradbrook, M. C. (Muriel Clara), John Webster, citizen and dramatist, New York: Columbia University Press, 1980. □

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Webster, John

John Webster, 1580?–1634, English dramatist, b. London. Although little is known of his life, there is evidence that he worked for Philip Henslowe, collaborating with such playwrights as Dekker and Ford. Webster's literary reputation rests almost entirely on his two great tragedies, The White Devil (c.1608) and The Duchess of Malfi (c.1614). Violent and sensational, both plays treat the theme of revenge and generate a brooding, somber mood. Webster's highly poetic language and profound understanding of human suffering create a true tragic pathos and force.

See his works (ed. by F. L. Lucas, 4 vol., 1927); studies by C. Leech (1951, repr. 1970), R. Berry (1972), R. F. Whitman (1973), L. Bliss (1983), and C. Forker (1986).

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Webster, John

Webster, John (1580–1634) English dramatist whose reputation rests upon his two great tragedies: The White Devil (c.1612), and The Duchess of Malfi (1614). Both plays explore the theme of revenge using macabre language.

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