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Becher, Johann Joachim


(b. Speyer, Germany, 6 May 1635; d. London, England, October 1682)

chemistry, economics, reform, noble court, commerce. For the original article on Becher see DSB, vol. 1.

Research in the history of science since the original DSB article has highlighted the importance of the patronage of the noble court in legitimating and shaping the investigation of nature in early modern Europe. Becher spent his life in the search for such patrons for his chemical and commercial projects. The demands of his patrons that he produce tangible and valuable products as a result of his investigation of nature, as well as the potential for reform that he saw in the new philosophy, shaped the emergence of science in the early modern period.

Johann Joachim Becher has been a familiar name in the history of chemistry since the Prussian physician and chemist Georg Ernst Stahl edited and republished Becher’s major chemical work of 1669, the Physica subterranea, and took up Becher’s idea of three earths that gave all metals and minerals their characteristics. In Stahl’s hands, one of Becher’s three earths, the terra pinguis, became the basis for Stahl’s phlogiston theory. Becher himself, as Allen G. Debus makes clear in his splendid DSB article, had cobbled together various preexisting (al)chemical concepts in support of his thoroughgoing vitalistic theory of nature. In his alchemy and chemistry, Becher was less concerned with matter theory than with the kind of investigation that chemistry represented. It was a new philosophy that combined textual and manual work, and he believed its practice would help to bring about a new world of productive knowledge. The vitalism of Becher’s matter theory was reflected in his view that (al)chemical investigation could be directed to discovering the productive capacities of nature. Moreover, Becher employed his vitalist ideas in his practical and product-oriented chemical and commercial schemes that he promulgated throughout Europe from the 1650s until his death in 1682.

Projects of Reform. Becher’s importance in the history of science thus lies not in his theories, but instead in his use of the investigation of nature and natural knowledge— what in the early twenty-first century would be called science—as a central part of his efforts to reform his society. His reform involved the territorial states of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation in which he lived, and thus he drew the investigation of nature into the realm of the central state. Although he was not the first to link natural knowledge and territorial wealth, his writings formed a massive project of reform that linked commercial and (al)chemical ideas and projects in a novel way that would be mined by others following in his footsteps.

Reform pervaded Becher’s works, and nature had a new meaning in it. In the sixteenth century, nature and the knowledge of nature had been a source of millenarian hopes, as expressed, above all, in the (al)chemical work of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus. But in the seventeenth century, these millenarian hopes were transmuted into material ambitions, expressed in the commercial projects of such individuals as Johann Rudolf Glauber, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Becher, who all employed the language and concepts of millenarian reformers, but turned their attention to reform in the material and temporal sphere. Becher’s polymathic strivings—he published works on alchemy, medicine, chemistry, commerce, politics, universal language, perpetual motion, pedagogy, ethics, moral philosophy, and inventions; as well as carrying out practical projects such as establishing a house of manufacture, colonial trade companies, and many other schemes—can be viewed as part of the same effort at reform of the material realm by employing the power of natural knowledge and the vital generative properties of nature.

These vital principles were the basis of commercial productivity as well, an idea that comes across particularly well in Becher’s 1669 colony project, when, in the service of Friedrich Casimir, Count of Hanau, Becher negotiated title to a colony in what is now French Guiana from the Dutch West India Company. The Dutch desired settlers to hold their New World possessions and thus were eager for the German colonists and their trade (the Dutch also profited from the transportation of commodities on Dutch ships and transshipment through Dutch ports). Although Becher’s colony project eventually failed, his discussion of the uses to which the colony could be put tells much about the knowledge of nature in such a project. In a pamphlet published to defend his part in this scheme, he waxed enthusiastic about the promise of sugar cultivation in the colony. As every courtier like Becher knew, sugar was an important exotic delicacy at court, firmly associated with the riches—commercial and natural—of the New World.

Speaking as a natural philosopher and medical doctor, Becher could pronounce sugar a powerful medicament, one in which the spirit of generation and growth emanating directly from the heavens was particularly concentrated. The air of the tropics and the New World hung heavy with this universal spirit, it rained down on the land, and sugar plants drew up this essence, resulting in a plant that contained “the noblest and sweetest juice of the earth, digested and cooked through by the heat of the sunbeams, and thus a noble balsamic substance, most closely related to the human blood (1676, folio 10v.) Sugar was a powerful product of nature, but it also had a place in a new economic cycle: Becher explained that sugar was an agricultural product that was not difficult to turn into cash, unlike the traditional agricultural goods of the German territories. This cash would go directly into the colonial ruler’s treasury as ordinary income, making no extraordinary tax burden on the ruler’s subjects.

echer emphasized the traditional agricultural advantages of the colony and sugar growth. He praised the West Indian land, which he claimed needed neither fertilization nor the ploBw, and he praised the system of slavery, which he said made the land inexpensive to work. Germans, he believed, would have the agricultural skills to cultivate this natural product of the land that produced commercial wealth. Sugar would thus bring monetary wealth into a territory, but within a traditional noble framework. It gave the prince more land and additional titles. Sugar cultivation depended on traditional landed power structures and on agricultural methods and skills, and it provided a source of income that mimicked the established ordinary income that flowed from a prince’s hereditary lands. In Becher’s pronouncements, sugar was a self-regenerating product of nature, one of the noblest, but one that also multiplied the artificial wealth of money.

Commerce, productive knowledge, and natural philosophy were intertwined for Becher, and an essential component of his commercial projects was the knowledge of nature, suitably controlled by the new philosopher. This comes across particularly in twin alchemical and commercial reports he presented to Emperor Leopold I in 1674, “Wie die Commercien … verschaffen seye,” and “Gutachten über Herrn Daniels Marsaly Process zur Tinctur.” In these reports, Becher’s conception of generation and material productivity contained above in all his alchemical writings informed both the chemical and commercial projects put forward. As becomes clear in these reports, commerce and alchemy are both movable wealth that did not depend entirely upon the traditional land and landed wealth of the nobility. Becher attempted to draw the prince and the realm of government into the world of money wealth and commercial transaction, for he believed that the realm of the prince and his court could no longer subsist only on the land and the natural fruits of that land, but also had to participate in the world of the manufactured object and movable wealth. The proper activity of government and the prince was to be the creation of artificial wealth through the arts and inventions of manufacture and the movements of commerce.

Princes and city councils alike eagerly heeded Becher’s proposed projects because they promised production of valuable knowledge, goods, and wealth through the study of nature. The view of nature as a source of wealth for commercial powers or would-be commercial powers, and the view that the arbiters of this natural knowledge were new philosophers of nature—of whom Francis Bacon had written—increasingly informed colonial powers and princely territorial governments throughout the seventeenth century and into the future. The projects of men such as Becher represent the beginnings of an increasingly close relationship between science and the state that would give unprecedented importance to the study and knowledge of nature.

Experimental Philosophy. Becher’s writings also show a reassertion of a social and epistemic divide based on theory and practice, and the development of a new identity for the experimental philosopher of nature. In the sixteenth century, an exchange between vernacular and elite ways of knowing occurred, as humanists visited workshops, artisans published treatises on their working methods, and artists claimed their manual labor constituted practice of the liberal arts. Up through the middle of the sixteenth century, scholars and other individuals engaged in mind work (as opposed to manual work) exhibited openness to manual practice and to the handworkers who carried out such practice. This can be seen in humanist interest in workshop techniques, for example, and the collection of vernacular information and practices on the part of naturalists and others.

By the late seventeenth century, while many of the observational and empiricist practices of artisans had been incorporated into the new method of what Bacon had pronounced the “New, Active Science,” there was a greater gap than ever between the new experimental philosophers of the institutionalized academies such as the Royal Society and artisan-practitioners. Becher began his career at the courts of the Holy Roman Empire as a projector and purveyor of choice secrets for perpetual motion and alchemical transmutation, moved on to become an intermediary between his princely patrons and tradespeople,

practitioners, and mechanicals of all kinds. Around 1674, he began to articulate a new role for himself as a man of theory, a Naturkündiger, who could marshal, organize, and extract useful knowledge from the crowds of practitioners offering practical, productive schemes to the princes and city councils of Europe.

Alchemical Laboratory Plan. It has been seen that Becher spoke as a natural philosopher about the colony project. His hierarchical organization of the production of natural knowledge can be seen with clarity in his manufactory project. Becher’s plan for an alchemical laboratory, at the heart of his house of manufacture on which he reported to Emperor Leopold I in his 1676 “Referat, oder gründliche Beschreibung was in dem Kunst- undt Werckhauss … gethan und operirt wirdt” provides an extraordinarily clear example of the way in which this distancing was envisioned in the production of natural knowledge and commercially valuable goods.

The aim of Becher’s alchemical laboratory was the ennoblement of base natural materials by art into noble and useful objects, not just gold, but medicines and curiosities that mirrored the trade goods that were produced in the rest of the manufactory. As in his model polity, Becher’s entire laboratory was overseen and regulated by the territorial prince. The prince’s representative in the laboratory was a Naturkündiger, or “natural philosopher,” called by Becher the Consilarius Laboratorii, the highest member of the laboratory, holding direct responsibility to the prince. These advisors were men of theory and practice who could transform a vernacular and sometimes oral recipe into a scholarly document to be tested in the laboratory. They were to collect recipes and techniques, scorning none no matter how mechanic the artist who proffered them, with the aim of ordering all into the written form of a consilium. The Consilarius was to bind all recipe sellers with a contract to hold these mechanics in the laboratory as long as possible in order to transform their tacit procedures into written recipes. Although the counselors were to collect and test all recipes gained orally and in writing, their stance was to be distant, maintaining an attitude at all times of proper skepticism toward the wild claims and loose living of hawkers of recipes.

The second class of worker in the laboratory was the Dispensator Laboratorii, who received instructions from the counselors for undertaking processes, based on the written consilia. Once the dispensators were given the process, they were not to “tinker with it or add anything to it, but should perform it as it is written down and annotated in the consilium” (1682/1974, p. 99). The real task of this second class of worker, as his title suggests, was to divide each process into its proper operations and delegate it to the different types of laborers beneath him. He was to report on the trials performed and write a report, which included quantitative information on the materials used and the outcome achieved.

Below the dispensator were three more groups of workers, each charged with one part of the physical and chemical techniques used in testing the recipes. These laborers were to be kept in ignorance of each other’s part in the trials, and even of each other’s existence. Indeed, they should be “rough, strong people who should understand nothing else” (1682/1974, p. 101) and who would ideally be unable to read and write. In any case, they were not to be allowed writing implements or paper. The laborers were not allowed to talk, eat, or drink together, and the materials they produced in the laboratory were to be taken quickly from them so they could not keep samples.

Organized in this manner, Becher believed that the laboratory would function philosophically. The elusive tacit knowledge by which nature was manipulated and known—the expertise of artisans—would be brought under the control of the natural philosopher, and the products of the laboratory would go to fill the coffers of the territorial ruler.

Becher’s life was one of ceaseless activity in the search for (mostly) princely patronage that would lead to realization of his goals for reform. That Becher’s claims to the knowledge of nature were at the heart of both his search for patronage and his plans for reform says much about the power and promise discerned in natural knowledge in the seventeenth century. Moreover, Becher’s projects demonstrate the new type of authority asserted by the self-proclaimed new philosopher of nature and the novel hierarchy of knowledge-production that he was to oversee in the service of his prince.



Nachlass. Mss. var. 1 (1), Mss. var. 1 (2), Mss. var. 1 (3), and Mss. var. 2. Rostock University Library. These four (not three) folio volumes are essential in reconstructing Becher’s pre-1678 years, and attest particularly to his interest in mechanical schemes. Mss. var. 2 was not known to Herbert Hassinger.

Gründlicher Bericht von Beschaffenheit und Eigenschafft/Cultivirung und Bewohnung … dess in America … Strich Landes.… Frankfurt, 1669. Here Becher laid out and defended his colony project.

“Doctor Johann Joachim Bechers … Rath Gutachten über Herrn Daniels Marsaly Process zur Tincture.” 11 May 1674, Hs. 11472, Handschriften-Abteilung, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

“Doctor Johann Joachim Bechers Römischer Kayserl. Mayt. Commercien Raths Referat Wie die Commercien, auch gemeiner Handel und Wandel, gegenwärtig in Ihro Kayl. Mayt. Erblanden, verschaffen seye.” 11 May 1674, Hs. 12467, Handschriften-Abteilung, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

“Referat, oder gründliche Beschreibung was in dem Kunst- undt Werckhauss sambt beyliegenden Schmeltz- undt Gla ß hütten, gethan und operirt wirdt, auch wie selbige angeordnet sey.” 19 March 1676, Hs. 8046, Handschriften-Abteilung, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

Chymischer Glücks-Hafen/Oder Grosse Chymische Concordantz und Collection. Frankfurt, Germany: Georg Schiele, 1682. Facsimile reprint, Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1974.


Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy. 2 vols. New York: Science History Publications, 1977.

Frühsorge, Gotthardt, and Gerhard F. Strasser, eds. JohannJoachim Becher (1635–1682). Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1993.

Smith, Pamela H. The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Teich, Mikulas. “Interdisciplinarity in J. J. Becher’s Thought.” History of European Ideas9 (1988): 145–160.

Pamela H. Smith

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Becher, Johann Joachim

Becher, Johann Joachim

(b. Speyer, Germany, 6 May 1635; d. London, England, October 1682)

chemistry, economics.

Becher’s father, Joachim, was a Protestant pastor who died when the boy was only eight years old. His mother, Anna Margaretha Gauss, came from a prominent Speyer family; her father also was a Protestant minister. Left with four sons at the death of her husband, she married a man who squandered the family’s remaining resources. Young Becher was thus forced at an early age to help support his mother and his brothers, all of whom were younger than he. He was for the most part self-educated; in his later years he recalled only one teacher who had helped him, De bus (Konrektor of the Speyer Retscher-Gymnasium from 1644).

At the age of thirteen Becher began his Wanderjahren. Residing first in Sweden, he then traveled through Holland, Germany, and Italy. His earliest dated work (1654) deals with alchemy, but his farflung interests also included medicine, theology, politics, economics, and even the formulation of a universal language. By 1657 Becher had settled at Mainz, where he was converted to Roman Catholicism. His first published book, Naturkündigung der Metallen, appeared in 1661, and he was soon well established as an iatrochemist. He received the M. D. from the University of Mainz on 16 November 1661, and married Maria Veronika, the daughter of the influential jurist and imperial councillor Ludwig von Hörnigk, on 13 June 1662. In the same year Becher published his Parnassus medicinalis illustratis, and in 1663 he was appointed professor of medicine at Mainz and physician to the elector.

Nevertheless, the next year Becher left for Munich, where he was named Hofmedicus und Mathematicus to Ferdinand Maria, elector of Bavaria; in 1666 he accepted the post of imperial commercial counsellor to Emperor Leopold I in Vienna. Always interested in problems of law, politics, and commerce, in 1668 he published his Politischer Discurs, which shows him to have been the leading German mercantilist of the seventeenth century. The years at Munich and Vienna were ones of great activity. In his official position it was Becher’s duty to introduce profitable businesses and new industries. With this in mind, he built and organized an imperial arts and crafts center that included a glassworks and facilities for the manufacture of textiles, as well as a chemistry laboratory. Aware also of the importance of technical education for the advancement of the domestic economy of the state, he proposed important educational reforms, such as the institution of schools that gave practical instruction in civil and military engineering and statics. At the same time, eager to increase trade, Becher organized the Eastern Trading Company and proposed colonial settlements in South America. Neither did he neglect his role as alchemical advisor to the emperor. His important Physica subterranea appeared in 1669, and was followed by supplements in 1671 and 1675. At this time Becher also wrote his chief philological works and treatises on theology and moral philosophy.

Becher’s economic policies included, in 1677, edicts against French imports that proved to be unsuccessful in the southern German cities. This failure resulted in his dismissal, and after a short imprisonment in 1678, he made his way to Holland, where he sold the plans for a machine that would spool silk cocoons to the city of Haarlem. More important, he submitted to the Dutch Assembly a plan for the extraction of gold from sea sand through smelting. This had been proposed as early as 1673, but it had been abandoned then because of the outbreak of the war with France. In 1679 a small-scale test of his process proved successful, but Becher suddenly left for England, without his family, when the process was scheduled to be repeated on a larger scale. In London, in March 1680, he completed the third and final supplement to the Physica subterranea in which he described the gold extraction process. He examined mines in Scotland and Cornwall; and his prefaces give evidence that he completed books at Falmouth and the Isle of Wight (the Laboratorium portabile and the Centrum mundi concatenatum seu magnorum duorum productorum nitri & salis textura &anatomia, both parts of the Tripus Hermeticus fatidicus, 1689, 1690). Shortly before his death he was back in London, where on 22 March 1682 he completed his Chymischer Glückshafen, which gives 1,500 chemical processes, including detailed recipes for making the philosophers’ stone, While in England, Becher unsuccessfully sought membership in the Royal Society. He had for years cited the works of Robert Boyle, and in 1680 he dedicated a short book on clock design to the Society. It was considered to be of little value, however, and he was not elected.

Becher’s views on chemistry have much in common with standard seventeenth-century Paracelsian and Helmontian treatments of the subject. His major work, the Physica subterranea, begins in a fashion reminiscent of most theoretical iatrochemical texts. After stating the need for observations and experiments as a guide to a true understanding of the universe, Becher turned to the Mosaic account of the Creation. Here he argued that the universe gravitated from the initial Chaos into five regions (ranging from the sidereal to the mineral). Then motion was added through the rarefaction that followed the creation of light (heat).

As with all theoretical iatrochemists, the problem of the elements was a basic one for Becher. He had little respect for the four Aristotelian elements as they were commonly taught, and he felt that the efforts of Helmont and Boyle to show the elemental nature of water through the growth of vegetable substances were little better. Becher rejected their affirmation that water could be changed into earth in this fashion, and he explained that the willow tree experiment could best be understood in terms of earth being carried by the water into the substance of the tree. Similarly, he argued that observations show that the philosophical attributes of the Paracelsian triad have little in common with ordinary salt, sulfur, and mercury, so they could not really be “principles.” He felt that on practical grounds—because of their familiarity—their use might be defended. Nevertheless, in the Oedipus chimicus (1664) Becher suggested that sulfur was analogous to earth, and salt to water, while earth and water, in more subtle form, were mercurial in nature.

Becher believed that air, water, and earth were the true elementary principles. The last two, however, form the real basis of all material things, since air is primarily an instrument for mixing. The essential substance of subterranean bodies (metals and stones) is earthy, and there is a need for three types of earth in metals and minerals. One type is needed for substance, another for color and combustibility, and a third, more subtle, for form, odor, and weight. These are, respectively, the terra vitrescible, the terra pinguis, and the terra fluida, earths that have been improperly identified with the Paracelsian principles; salt, sulfur, and mercury.

The concept of terra pinguis as a fatty, oily, and combustible earth occurs in the older alchemical literature and Becher also calls it sulfur φλογιστòς. Here again, he was following an old tradition, since as an adjective meaning “inflammable” φλογιστòς may be found in the works of Sophocles and Aristotle. More recently φλογιστòν had been used in adjectival form by Hapelius (1609), Poppius (1618), and Helmont. In The Sceptical Chymist (1661), a work often referred to by Becher, Boyle cited Sennert’s use of φλογιστòν in 1619.

Although Becher insisted that each combustible body must contain the cause of its combustibility within itself, he had no clearly defined position on the role to be played by this substance in the burning process. Generally he spoke of the rarefaction of the burning substance through the dissolving power of flame, and he gave relatively little attention to any part that air might play in combustion. He was aware that metals grew heavier when calcined, and, like Boyle, he credited this to the addition of ponderable fire particles.

Becher wrote in support of spontaneous generation, and he believed firmly in metallic transmutation. He wrote at length on fermentation, which, in typical alchemical fashion, he considered to be a basic natural process of great value for the chemist. For Becher, fermentation was a rarefaction leading to perfection, and it could not continue in closed vessels without a fresh supply of air. As such, fermentation may be clearly distinguished from putrefaction, in which a mixed body is completely broken down and destroyed.

Becher was a thoroughgoing vitalist who accepted the common belief that metals grow in the earth. Similarly, he compared the flow of subterranean waters in the living earth to the flow of blood in man. He believed in a perpetual circularity in nature, and he felt that earthly reactions may properly be compared to the laboratory manipulations of the chemists. He rejected the widely held hypothesis of an internal fire in the earth and sought another explanation of the origin of mountain streams and hot springs. Arguing that it is known that surface waters fall by gravity toward the center of the earth, he noted that laboratory experience gives us the further information that vapors arise when liquids are transferred from hot containers to cold ones. Becher reasoned, therefore, that hot waters from the surface are rapidly cooled at the center of the earth, where they vaporize and return to the surface. There mountains act as alembics, and condense the waters as mountain springs; in other places, separate vapors from the interior reach higher temperatures through mixing before they erupt as hot springs or medicinal spas.

Becher’s importance for the history of science rests less in major innovations than in his influence on Georg Ernst Stahl. Stahl republished the Physica subterranea in 1703, along with his own lengthy Specimen Beccherianum. In this work and in others he lauded his predecessor while developing the concept of the terra pinguis into the phlogiston theory with the aid of experimental evidence, which was largely lacking in the writings of Becher.


I. Original Works. Becher’s complex bibliography is discussed in considerable detail by Herbert Hassinger, in his Johann Joachim Becher 1635–1682. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Merkantilismus, Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Neuere Geschichte Österreichs, no, 38 (Vienna, 1951), pp. 254–272. J. R. Partington gives bibliographic details of Becher’s more important chemical works in his A History of Chemistry, II(London, 1961), 640–643.

The Physica subterranea appeared first as Actorum laboratorii chymici Monacensis, seu Physicae subterraneae libri duo (Frankfurt, 1669)—Partington states that an earlier ed. appeared in 1667. There is only one volume. The three supplements were published separately in 1671, 1675, and 1680, and are included in the 2nd ed. (Frankfurt, 1681). Becher’s own German translation exists as Chymisches laboratorium Oder Unter-erdische Naturkündingung... (Frankfurt, 1680), which includes the first two supplements and the Oedipus chimicus. Stahl’s Latin edition was published with his Specimen Beccherianum (Leipzig,1703), and a final composite edition (containing original text, supps., and Stahl’s Specimen) was printed at Leipzig in 1738. It should be noted that Becher’s Theoria & experientia de nova temporis dimetiendi ratione, & accurata horlogiorum constructione, ad Societatem Regiam Anglicanum in Collegio Greshamensi (London, 1680) forms part of the third supplement to the Physica subterranea.

Institutiones chimicae prodromae i.e.... Oedipus chimicus obscuriorum termihnorum & principiorum mysteria aperiens et resolvens (Frankfurt, 1664) rapidly became a standard text on elements, principles, and chemical processes. Besides going through numerous separate Latin editions, it was included in J. J. Manget’s Bibliotheca chemica curiosa, I (Geneva. 1702), 306–336. It appeared in German with Becher’s translation of the Physica subterranea, and also as part of Friedrich Roth–Scholtz’s Deutsches theatrum chemicum, II (Nuremberg, 1728), 620 ff.

Among Becher’s many other works on chemistry are Naturkündingung der Metallen, or Metallurgia Becheri (Frankfurt, 1661), which discusses metallurgical problems on the basis of the four elements; Tripus Hermeticus fatidicus, pandens oracula chymica (Frankfurt, 1689), which was completed at Truro, Cornwall, in 1682 and includes an account of Becher’s visit to the Cornish mines in 1680; Psychosophia oder Seelen-Weisheit (Güstrow, 1673), which gives details of Becher’s life; Parnassus medicinalisillustratis. 4 pts. (Ulm, 1662–1663), which contains reworked cuts from the earlier herbal by Mathiolus; Chymischer Glückshafen (Frankfurt, 1682), which contains 1,500 chemical and alchemical processes; and Magnalia naturàe, or the philosophers-Stone Lately Expos’d to Publick Sight and Sale... Published at the Request... Especially of Mr. Boyl. &c. (London, 1680), which describes a transmutation at Vienna by Wenzel Seiler.

Notable among Becher’s other works are Character pronotitia linguarum universali. Invenium steganographicum (Frankfurt, 1661); Politischer Discurs von den eigentlichen Ursachen, des Auf- und Abnehmens der Stādt, Kānder und Republicken (Frankfurt, 1668); and Moral Discurs von den eigentlichen Ursachen des Glücks und Unglücks (Frankfurt, 1669).

The Rostock University Library has three volumes of Becher’s papers. These are briefly described in Hassinger, p. 271.

II. Secondary Literature. Recent research on Becher has emphasized his economic and administrative policies; see F. A. Steinhüser. Johann Joachim Becher and die Einzelwirtschaft (Nuremberg, 1931). Although Hassinger does not ignore Becher’s scientific and medical contributions, there is no question that he considers these to be distinctly less important than his administrative accomplishments. He discusses the secondary literature on this topic in his introduction, pp. 1–9.

Becher’s scientific work has received far less attention. Interest in the phlogiston theory has for the most part centered on the mid-eighteenth century rather than on its origins—see especially the four papers by J. R. Partington and Douglas McKie entitled “Historical Studies on the Phlogiston Theory,” which appeared in Annals of Science, 2 (1937), 361–404; 3 (1938), 1–58, 337–371; 4 (1939), 113–149—and although Partington’s chapter on Becher—A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 637–652—is based on extensive reading in the sources, it is somewhat less than satisfactory because it does not clearly show the close connection of Becher’s views with their alchemical–Paracelsian background. Other accounts, generally with far less detail, are in most histories of chemistry and alchemy. The best of these are those of Hermann Kopp, who points out Becher’s often inconsistent views on the elements: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Chemie, 3 vols. (Brunswick, 1869–1875), III, 201–210; Geschichte der Chemie 4 vols. (Brunswick, 1843–1847; repr. 1966), 1, 178–180; II, 277–278; and Die Alchemie in äterer und neurer Zeit. Ein Beitrag zur Culturgeschichte, 2 vols. (Heidelberg, 1886), I, 65–68.

Allen G. Debus

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Becher, Johann Joachim

Becher, Johann Joachim



Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682) was the most important German mercantilist of the seventeenth century. He was born in Speyer, the son of a Lutheran minister, and was orphaned at an early age. Becher was largely self-taught, developing his versatile talents in Germany, Sweden, Italy, and Holland. Converting to Catholicism, he served the elector of Mainz as mathematicus et medicus from 1660 to 1664, and also served for a short time as professor of medicine at the University of Mainz. There, he laid the foundation for his natural philosophy, occupied himself with philological and pedagogical problems, and tried his hand at invention. Inspired by a trip to Holland, he also began to plan the establishment of factories. In 1664 Becher entered the service of the elector of Bavaria in the same capacity he had had in Mainz. In 1666 he was temporarily an imperial councilor and councilor for commerce at the court of Emperor Leopold I; he later held those positions uninterruptedly from 1670 to 1676. In Munich and in Vienna he became more and more of a political economist, influencing Bavarian and Austrian economic policy directly as well as through his writings.

Becher’s works reveal his versatility. In 1668 he published his major work, Politischer Discurs von den eigentlichen Ursachen des Auff- und Abnehmens der Stadt, Lander und Republicken, which was given the subtitle Commercien-Tractat in the second, greatly enlarged, edition (1673) and which went through many editions until 1759. In his Moral Discurs (1669a), he expounded his ethics, which was greatly influenced by the Stoics; and in his Physica subterranea (1669k), he presented a completely organic, natural philosophy, untouched by the mechanistic explanation of nature that was gaining ground at that time in western Europe.

Becher established silk factories in Munich and Vienna, and in the latter city he founded a company for trade with the Orient and a state-owned “House of Arts and Crafts,” which was planned as a model workshop. He also made plans in Vienna for a company to engage in trade with Holland and planned the establishment of colonies in South America. At his suggestion, Leopold I set up a council of commerce for the unified management of all national economic policy. As with his other institutional creations, it was of brief duration and did not survive him because of inadequate financial support from the state. Moreover, Becher’s projects were often ahead of his time, and his erratic and intense personality gained him many enemies.

In 1677 Becher failed to implement an embargo ordered by the emperor on the importation of French goods, and he was compelled to spend the last years of his life wandering through Holland and England as an inventor and author. As a typical man of the baroque period, Becher included among his many and diverse talents an interest in technical and alchemical experiments. Shortly before his death in 1682, he published a summary of his inventions and a survey of the technical problems of the seventeenth century in his book Närrische Weisheit und weise Narrheit (“Mad Wisdom and Wise Madness”).

As a political theorist, Becher was hardly original, since his doctrine stemmed from that of Justus Lipsius of the Netherlands, the leading representative of Neo-Stoicism. But in the Politischer Discurs he did make a significant start toward a theory of political economy. Also, inspired by the writings of the Dutch Pieter de la Court, he developed an abundance of ideas on economic policy to deal with the special problems facing mercantilism in Germany—a result of territorial fragmentation and the serious population losses during the Thirty Years’ War. It was this depopulation that moved Becher to regard a populous state as a powerful one. But he did not blindly consider population as the decisive factor, for he was aware of the interrelation between population growth and economic opportunity.

Becher’s conception of the state had both medieval and modern elements. He did not abandon the idea that the political estates were an essential correlate of princely authority, but he assigned functions to the state that were of so great a scope that the absolute ruler of the eighteenth century could hardly perform them, even with an enlarged bureaucracy. In his conception of the state, five agencies were to take care of the welfare of the subjects, covering all their material and spiritual needs. In this connection, Becher elaborated his pedagogical plans, which were deeply indebted to Luther’s ideas on vocation and education. Becher felt that education ideally should be civic- and vocationoriented, concentrating especially on the fields of economic and technical training.

If the material welfare of its subjects is only one of the functions of a state, it is nevertheless the principal topic of the Politischer Discurs. The work contains an early conception of the state as an economic community, with the peasants, artisans. and merchants as the economic estates. The principal estate is that of the merchant; for as the distributor, he personifies the market relationships between the estates. In Becher’s study of the factors that disturb the equilibrium of the estates and the growth of population, he developed the remarkable rudiments of a theory of market forms. In this theory he added “polypoly,” i.e., overproduction, to monopoly and “propoly,” which he viewed as artificial restrictions of competition rather than as aspects of the urban economy of the Middle Ages. The major aims of his economic policy were the elimination of all those factors interfering with the market and the promotion of productive forces. This goal was to be achieved by means of state storage, workhouses, factories, trading companies, and commercial banks organized as joint-stock corporations, all under the supervision of a council of commerce. In general, Becher regarded problems of the function of money and of the balance of trade as subordinate to the promotion of the productive forces. He took protective tariffs for granted.

Thus, Becher’s Commercien-Tractat deals with economic problems that traditionally had not been part of economic theory but had been treated within the traditional framework of political science— hence the title Politischer Discurs.

Becher’s work influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, all subsequent German mercantilists, especially Philipp Wilhelm von Hörnigk, his younger brother-in-law, who was his secretary for some years and applied Becher’s ideas, which were intended for all of Germany, to the Hapsburg monarchy in particular (Oesterreich über alles warm es nur will 1684).

Herbert Hassinger

[For the historical context of Becher’s work, seeEconomic thought, article onMercantilist thought.]


(1668) 1759 Politischer Discurs von den eigentlichen Ursachen des Auff- und Abnehmens der Städt, Länder und Republicken. 6th ed., enl. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Gselius.

1669a Moral Discurs von den eigentlichen Ursachen des Glücks und Unglücks. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Zunner.

(1669b) 1738 Physica subterranea. Leipzig: Weidmann.

(1682) 1707 Närrische Weisheit und weise Narrheit. 2d ed. Frankfurt am Main (Germany): Zubrodt.


Hassinger, Herbert 1942 Die erste wiener orientalische Handelskompagnie 1667–1683. Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 35:1–53.

Hassinger, Herbert 195la Johann Joachim Becker, 1635–1682: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Merkantilismus. Vienna (Austria): Holzhausen. → Lists all of Becher’s writings.

Hassinger, Herbert 1951b Johann Joachim Bechers Bedeutung für die Entwicklung der Seidenindustrie in Deutschland. Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 38:209–246.

Hörnigk, Philipp Wilhelm von 1684 Oesterreich über alles wann es nur will Niirnberg (Germany).

Sommer, Louise 1920–1925 Die österreichischen Kameralisten in dogmengeschichtlicher Darstellung. 2 vols. Vienna (Austria): Konegen.

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