Palissy, Bernard

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(b. La Capelle Biron, France, ca. 1510; d. Paris, France, ca. (1590)

natural history, hydrology.

Palissy was first trained in the manufacture and decoration of stained glass windows. As his profession became less in demand, however, he took up land surveying in order to support his wife and children (of whom there were at least six). Some time around 1539 he became interested in enameled pottery and, after sixteen years of tireless experimentation (during which, by his own account, he burned his furniture and floorboards to fuel his kiln), perfected a technique for making a “rustic” enameled earthenware that brought him fame and a modest fortune. Some of his works are preserved in the Louvre and the Cluny Museum in Paris and in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London. These extant pieces are molded and decorated with modeling or applied ornaments, often in patterns derived from contemporary engravings; Palissy probably never used the potter’s wheel, and no identifying mark of his is known. The governor of Saintes, where Palissy settled, was the constable Anne, Duc de Montmorency, who had a keen interest in the fine arts and became Palissy’s patron.

Palissy converted to Protestantism in about 1546. He was one of the first Huguenots in Saintes, and was much persecuted for his religion. He was imprisoned in Bordeaux around 1559 and, had it not been for Anne de Montmorency, who took his case directly to the queen mother, Catherine de Médicis, he would almost certainly have been executed. The queen mother appointed him inventeur des rustiques figulines du roy, and commissioned him to decorate the new Tuileries palace. Palissy thus became established in Paris, where in 1575 he began to give public lectures on natural history. Despite his lack of formal education Palissy’s lectures, according to Désiré Leroux, attracted the most learned men in the capital.

Palissy wrote two major books, Recepte véritable, published in 1563, and Discours admirables, published in 1580. (A small pamphlet describing the building of a grotto for Anne de Montmorency was also published in 1563.) The form of the two works is similar; each is a dialogue, between “Demande” and “Réponse” in the Recepte, and between “Théorique” and “Pratique” in the Discours. “Réponse” and “Pratique” give voice to Palissy’s own ideas and concepts.

In Recepte véritable, Palissy discussed a wide variety of topics, including agriculture (for which he proposed better methods for farming and for the use of fertilizers), geology (in which he touched upon the origin of salts, springs, precious stones, and rock formations), mines, and forestry. He also suggested plans for an ideal garden, to be decorated with his earthenware and with biblical quotations, and discussed the founding and persecution of the Protestant church at Saintes. As part of this ecclesiastic history he included plans for a spiral fortress, which he claimed would be invincible and which would presumably offer a refuge for Protestants in time of war.

The second book, Discours admirables, probably incorporates Palissy’s Paris lectures. It, like the earlier work, deals with an impressive array of subjects: agriculture, alchemy, botany, ceramics, embalming, engineering, geology, hydrology, medicine, metallurgy, meteorology, mineralogy, paleontology, philosophy, physics, toxicology, and zoology. The book is divided into several chapters, the first and longest of which is concerned with water. The others take up metals and their nature and generation; drugs; ice; different types of salts and their nature, effects, and methods of generation; characteristics of common and precious stones; clay and marl; and the potter’s art.

Palissy’s views on hydrology and paleontology, as expressed in the Discours, are of particular interest. He was one of the few men of his century to have a correct notion of the origin of rivers and streams, and he stated it forcefully, denying categorically that rivers can have any source other than rainfall. An early advocate of the infiltration theory, he refuted, with great skill and logic, the old theories that streams came from seawater or from air that had condensed into water. He also wrote on the principles of artesian wells, the recharging of wells from nearby rivers, and forestation for the prevention of soil erosion, and presented plans for constructing “fountains” for domestic water supply.

Palissy discussed fossils extensively. Like Xenophanes of Colophon, he believed them to be remnants of animals and plants. He firmly rejected the idea that they were detritus of the biblical flood, suggesting that inland fossils are found on site as the result of the congelation of a lake. He recognized the relation between these fossils and living species and, in some cases, extinct ones. He was one of the first to hold a reasonably correct view of the process of petrification. (Duhem in Études sur Léonard de Vinci has pointed out that all these ideas may well be derived from Cardano’s De subtilitate, with which Palissy was familiar, and hence from the thought of Leonardo da Vinci.)

Palissy held other advanced views. From experimentation he concluded that all minerals with geometric crystal forms must have crystallized in water; his classification of salts was nearly correct; and he suggested the concept of superposition for the development of sedimentary rocks. In his writings on medicine he demonstrated that potable gold was neither potable nor beneficial, and he showed that mithridate, a remedy composed of some 300 ingredients, was useless and probably harmful. He presented observations in support of his scientific ideas, and scathingly denounced established authorities if their findings did not agree with his own data. While there is some question concerning his originality—La Rocque discussed his dependence on thirty-one other writers on earth sciences whose works were available in the sixteenth century, and Thornidke charged him with plagiarizing Jacques Besson’s L’art et la science de trouver les eaux of 1567—there is little doubt that Palissy was probably one of the first men in France to teach natural sciences from facts, specimens, and demonstrations rather than hypotheses.

Although he was well known as a potter, Palissy’s scientific work was not widely recognized in his lifetime. In 1588, soon after religious warfare once more broke out in France, Palissy was again imprisoned. He was taken to the Conciergerie, then transferred to the Bastille, where he died.


I. Original Works. Palissy’s works are Recepte véritable par laquelle tous les hommes de la France pourront apprendre à multiplier et augmenter leurs trémors (La Rochelle, 1563); Architecture et ordonnance de la grotte rustique de Monseigneur le duc de Montmorency (La Rochelle, 1563; repr. Paris, 1919); and Discourse admirables de la nature des eaux et fontaines (Paris, 1581), translated by Aurèle La Rocuque as The Admirable Discourses of Bernard Palissy (Urbana, Ill., 1957).

Collected eds. of Palissy’s works include those of B. Faujas de Saint-Fond and N. Gobet (Paris, 1777), which contains incorrectly attributed works and a dedication to Benjamin Franklin; and of Anatole France (Paris, 1880).

II. Secondary Literature. See C. L. Brightwell, Palissy the Potter; or the Huguenot, Artist and Martyr (New York, 1835); H. Morley, Palissy the Potter, 2, vols. (London, 1852); E. Dupuy, Bernard Palissy, l’homme, l’artiste, le savant, l’écrivain (Paris, 1894); Désiré Leroux, La vie de Bernard Palissy (Paris, 1927); Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, V (New York, 1941), 441, 465, 596–599; H. R. Thompson, “The Geographical and Geological Observation of Bernard Palissy, the Potter,” in Annals of Science, 10 , no. 2 (1954), 149–165; and A. K. Biswas, History of Hydrology (Amsterdam, 1970), 149–155.

Margaret R. Biswas

Asit K. Biswas

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Bernard Palissy

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