Beguin, Jean

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Beguin, Jean

(b. Lorraine, France, ca 1550; d. Paris, France, ca 1620)


Little is known of Beguin’s family and early life, but he seems to have received a good classical education. When he arrived in Paris, possibly from Sedan, the influence of the royal physician, Jean Ribit, and of Turquet de Mayerne enabled him to obtain permission to set up a laboratory and give public lectures on the preparation of the new chemical medicaments of Quercetanus and others. His clear and lucid exposition and demonstration of chemical techniques won him large audiences. He complained that his unveiling of the mysteries of iatrochemistry so angered other “spagyrists” that they twice broke into his laboratory, plundering drugs and valuable manuscripts.

Beguin’s first publication was an edition of Michael Sendivogius’ Novum lumen chymicum with a preface (1608). The signature to the dedication shows that he was then almoner to Henry IV. Jeremias Barth, a Silesian who had studied medicine at Sedan, became Beguin’s pupil at some time and encouraged him to publish a “little book,” so that he would not have to dictate his lectures to his pupils. As a result, Beguin published the Tyrocinium chymicum (1610), a slim volume of seventy pages. The book was immediately pirated at Cologne, and Beguin published a revised edition with a long defense of chemical remedies (1612).

According to information in various editions of the Tyrocinium, Beguin had visited the mines of Hungary and Slovenia in 1604, and visited the Hungarian mines again in 1642. In a letter to Barth in 1613, he said he had earned 700 crowns by his skill, and could hardly earn more by teaching. The preface to the 1615 French edition says he was about to depart for Germany in search of the repose he had once found there, but yielded to the wishes of his friends and remained in France. In the same edition he acknowledged the authority and censorship of the Paris Faculty of Medicine, which may be the reason for his omission of a Paracelsian quotation.

For Beguin, chemistry was the art of separating and recombining natural mixed bodies to produce agreeable and safe medicines. The book opened with a Paracelsian quotation, followed by an exposition of the tria prima in a short theoretical section. The three elements were spiritual rather than corporeal, since they were impregnated by seeds emanating from the celestial bodies. Most of the work is concerned with chemical operations rather than with theory, and Beguin emphasized that the most effective therapy combined Galenic and Paracelsian remedies. The “quintessences” brought into prominence by the Archidoxes of Paracelsus occupy only a short third book. Beguin is credited with the first mention of acetone, which he called “the burning spirit of Saturn.” Long sections on techniques and processes in Beguin parallel Libavius’ Alchymia (1597), and both may have depended on a common source. Beguin cited Hermes Trismegistus, Lull, and the Turba philosophorum as authorities, and was a firm believer in transmutation.

Tyrocinium chymicum was immensely popular through the seventeenth century, and had swollen to nearly 500 pages in some later editions. It was translated into the major European languages and issued in many editions; it set the pattern for the notable series of French chemical textbooks in the later part of the century and was not really superseded until the appearance of Nicolas Lémery’s Cours de chymie (1675).


I.Original Works. Beguin’s writings include the dedication and preface to an edition of Michael Sendivogius’ Novum lumen chymicum (Paris, 1608); Tyrocinium chymicum (Paris, 1610; rev. ed., 1612, the editio princeps); and Les élémens de chymie (Paris, 1615), English trans. by Richard Russell (London, 1669).

II. Secondary Literature. Beguin and Tyrocinium chymicum are comprehensively discussed in T.S. Patterson, “Jean Beguin and His Tyrocinium chymicum,” in Annals of Science, 2 (1937), 243–298; the editions are conveniently listed in J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, III (London, 1962), 2-3, Various aspects are discussed in A. Kent and O. Hannaway, “Some New Considerations on Beguin and Libavius,” in Annals of Science, 16 (1960), 241-250; Hélène Metzger, Les doctrines chimiques en France, du début du XVIII e siècle à la fin du XVIII e siècle (Paris, 1923), pp. 36-44; R. P. Multhauf. “Libavius and Beguin,” in E. Farber, ed., Great Chemists (New York London, 1961). pp. 65-74; John Read, Humour and Humanism in Chemistry (London, 1947), pp. 81-88; and Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, VIII (New York, 1958), 106-113.

P.M. Rattansi