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Libavius (or Libau), Andreas

Libavius (or Libau), Andreas

(b. Halle, Saxony, ca. 1560; d. Coburg, 25 July 1616),

chemistry, medicine, logic.

Libavius was the son of a poor linen weaver, Johann Libau, who, in search of work, went from Harz to Halle, where he settled. Libavius attended the Gymnasium in Halle during the rectorship of Johannes Rivius the Younger. In 1578 he entered the University of Wittenberg and in 1579 moved to the University of Jena, where in 1581 he received the Ph.D. and the title of poet laureate. In the same year he became a teacher at Ilmenau. In 1586 he was appointed “Stadt- und Raths-Schulen Rector” in Coburg.

At the beginning of 1588 Libavius enrolled in the University of Basel, where he received the M.D. after presenting a thesis entitled Theses de summo et generali in medmdo scopo. The Medical Faculty at Basel was still strongly influenced by Thomas Erastus, who had died not long before (1583). He was an opponent of Paracelsus, whose position Libavius represented to the end of his life. Libavius’ bond with the University of Basel was strong, however; among his friends were the professors Johannes Stupanus, Felix Platter, Gaspard Bauhin, and Jacob Zwinger.

In 1588 Libavius became professor of history and poetry at the University of Jena. Three years later he moved to Rothenburg, where he became municipal physician. From 1592 he was also inspector of schools. Endless quarrels with the rector of the town school, Elias Ehinger, led Libavius to return to Coburg on 21 February 1607; there he was named rector of the newly founded Gymnasium Casimirianum Academicum. From its very beginning the school was regarded as a university by its founder, Duke John Casimir of Coburg; but because it represented orthodox Lutheranism, it failed to receive the necessary imperial charter from Rudolf II. At the opening Libavius delivered the oration Declamatio de discendi modis.

There is little information about Libavius’ private life, although it is known that he had two sons, Michael and Andreas; the latter was a physician who practiced for a time with Martin Ruhland the Younger in Prague and later was a physician in Moravia, and then a teacher in Leszno, Poland. Libavius also had two daughters. One of them, Susanna, was the wife of the physician Pancratius Gallus; the second, whose name is not known, was the wife of Philip Walther Seidenbecker, professor at the Gymnasium in Coburg.

Some light is thrown on Libavius’ life by his correspondence (not yet published) with Leonhard Dolde, a medical doctor in Nuremberg (142 letters from 1600-1611 are extant), and the published letters to Sigismund Schnitzer of Bamberg. As can be seen from these letters, although Libavius traveled very little, he maintained contacts with many scientists and read a great deal. He paid little attention to medical practice.

Libavius’ activities were many-sided, and his teaching is noteworthy. There are several printed works in various fields—disputations and exhibit-day lectures—which on the title page bear the note “Sub praeside A. Libavii.” Between 1599 and 1601 Libavius published four volumes of Singularium, probably his lectures in natural science. Both the Singularium and his Schulordnung have considerable interest for the history of education.

An orthodox Lutheran, Libavius opposed the Catholics, especially the Jesuits (for instance, in Gretserus triumphatus [1604]). Toward the end of his life he also became an opponent of Calvinism, He wrote his theological treatises under the anagram Basilius de Varna. As a poet he wrote Poemata epica (1602). As a philosopher and logician he was known as the author of Quaestionum physicarum (1591), Dialectica (1593), Exercitiorum logicorum liber (1595), Dialogus logicus (1595), and Tetraemerum (1596). From the contents of his books it appears that he was a follower of Aristotle and opposed Petrus Ramus and—especially—his two British disciples, William Temple, of Cambridge, and James Martin, of Oxford. His correspondence with Dolde shows that Libavius was also interested in medicine, pharmacology, botany, mineralogy, zoology, and, above all, chemistry.

A man of exceptional industry and perhaps overweening self-confidence, Libavius underestimated others; consequently he fell easily into conflicts and lost friends. His voluminous works brought him recognition but also often attracted criticism. Joseph Duchesne (Quercetanus), in Ad veritatem hermeticae medicinae (1605), wrote of him: “Andreas Libavius Hallensis Sax. medicus, doctor celeberrimus rerumque naturalium perscrutator fidissimus et diligentissimus, verae Chymiae defensor acerrimus, cuius doctissima scripta …,” In spite of this Libavius quarreled with Quercetanus a few years later. He wasted the greater part of his life on fruitless polemics, which earned him many enemies.

In 1591 Georgius an und von Wald (Amwald), a physician in Augsburg, wrote an account of the “universal medicine” he had discovered, Kurzer Bericht … wie das Panacea am Waldiana … anzuwenden sei. The book is an interesting example of the printed advertising of the time; half of it consists of testimonial letters from princes, counts, doctors, and other eminent men, while Rudolf II’s imperial imprimatur emphasized its significance. Libavius, however, claimed that Amwald’s drug contained not gold but mercury and presented harsh criticism of Amwald, his panacea, and his book in four publications: Neoparacelsica (1594), Tractatus duo physici (1595), Gegenbericht von der Panacea Amwaldina (1596), and Panacea Amwaldina victa (1596). The import of these works was that Amwald’s medicine was quackery and his methods of healing worthless. At the same time Libavius took the opportunity to criticize the works and activities of the Paracelsian physicians Johann Graman of Erfurt, to whom he also devoted a separate critique, Antigramania (1595), and Joseph Michelius of Lucca. It is possible that these works all followed from Libavius’ ire at not being invited to the court of Rudolf II, a well-known Maecenas of alchemy.

In 1600 Libavius issued Variarum controversarium libri duo, which was, as it were, a summing up of all the previous polemics. In 1607 he stated his opposition to Nicolas Guibert, a French physician who denied the possibility of the transmutation of metals, in a treatise in which he declared that the transmutation of base metals into gold was possible and that the secret of the philosophers’ stone was known to many alchemists.

Libavius was also involved in the conflict between, on one side, the French Calvinist-Paracelsists Joseph Duchesne and Israel Harvet—whom he supported—and, on the other, the Galenist Catholic professor of medicine of the University of Paris, Jean Riolan. To an aggressive pamphlet by Riolan Libavius replied with the 926-page Alchymia triumphans (1607), demonstrating point by point the ignorance of his adversary.

Petrus Palmarius also became involved in the polemic and was answered by Libavius in Syntagma arcanorum (1613). This whole polemic, which took on an international character, was a battle of Paracelststs, anti-Paracelsists, Galenists, and Hermetics; in a word, everyone against everyone. Each accused the other of using ineffectual medicines, of not understanding the meaning of the words used by Paracelsus, Galen, or even the mythical Hermes. Entering the fray, the Medical Faculty of the University of Paris formally condemned Paracelsian chemical remedies.

Until 1607 Libavius was on good terms with Oswald Crollius, Théodore Turquet de Mayerne, Johannes Hartmann, Bernard Penotus, and Quercetanus, who were Calvinist-Hermetics. He visited Hartmann in Marburg and corresponded with Turquet de Mayerne and Quercetanus; the latter made him a present of his new publication Pharmacopea (1607). Some time in the period from 1608 to 1610 his friendship with these men turned to hatred, but the cause is difficult to state. One might suppose that it was caused either by Libavius’ increasing religious orthodoxy or by professional disappointment. Libavius had maintained friendly contacts with Landgrave Maurice of Hesse, corresponded with him, and dedicated the Commentationum metallicorum libri to him. He therefore counted on obtaining a position at the court of Maurice, known for his liking for alchemy, at the University of Marburg, or at the Collegium Adelphicum Mauricianum in Kassel. But when a “chair of chymiatry” was founded in 1609, Hartmann was named professor.

Libavius gave vent to his bitterness in a letter to Leonard Dolde of 21 December 1609, in which he wrote that the Marburg school (the chair held by Hartmann) is a “pugnarum mare,” a sea of impostures. He manifested his open enmity to the Hermetics in Syntagmatis arcanorum chymicorum (1613) and Examen philosophiae novae (1615). Of his former friend Hartmann he wrote: “Your philosophy is nothing but pure dung, sown with nonsense, impostures, the obscurest puzzles and allegories.”

Libavius’ last polemic is contained in two pamphlets against the Rosicrucians: Analysis confessionis Fraternitatis de Rosae Cruce (1615) and Wohlmeinendes Bedencken von der Fama und Confessio der Brüderschaft des Rosen Creuzes (1616). He hated things to be unclear and unintelligible and was greatly irritated by the anonymous fellowship of the Rosicrucians, which was much discussed throughout Europe at this time.

Libavius’ main value to the history of science resides in his extraordinarily voluminous alchemical works, which represent a compendium of the chemical knowledge of his times. His first work was Rerum chemicarum epistolica forma … liber (two volumes in 1595 and the third in 1599), chemical lectures in the form of letters addressed to well-known physicians, including J. Stupanus, F. Platter, M. Ruland, and J. Camerarius. These lectures contain a definition of chemistry—“Chimia est a mineralium elaboratio”—a clarification of several obscure alchemical terms and phrases, a critique of Paracelsus, notes and considerations on the philosophers’ stone, and chemical processes and preparations.

Libavius’ chief work was Alchemia. which, together with the separately published Commentationum metallicorum libri (1597), appeared in a shortened form in German as Alchymistische Practic (1603) and in Latin as Praxis alchymiae (1604)—and, significantly enlarged, as Alchymia (1606). This last edition, with commentary, is considered the greatest and most beautiful (because of the numerous illustrations) of all books on chemistry in the seventeenth century. It is a folio edition with more than 200 designs and pictures of various sorts of chemical glassware, vessels, apparatuses, and furnaces, as well as architectural plans for the building of a chemical laboratory, “domus chymici.”

In one sense, the Alchemia was completed by Syntagma selectorum (1611), Syntagma arcanorum tomus secundus (1613), and Appendix phihsophiae navae (1615). These works, however, are devoted mainly to polemics. Although the Alchymia and its “continuation” comprise more than 2,000 folio pages, Libavius did not consider this to be everything that could be written on the subject and explained himself by saying: “Uni homini impossibile est chymiam condere et absolvere.”

The Alchymia is unusually clear and highly systematic. The same cannot be said of the commentaries and supplements, especially if we consider Libavius’ deliberations on the philosophers’ stone, its contents, and the transmutation of metals. Libavius scrupulously cites the more than 200 authors whose works he used. He divided alchemy into two parts: “encheria” and “chymia.” Encheria was the knowledge of chemical procedure and included furnaces, ovens, and vessels. Chymia meant the knowledge of how to prepare substances. Independent of these are two further divisions of alchemy: “ars probandi,” the analysis of minerals, metals, and mineral waters, and “theoretical alchemy,” knowledge concerning the philosophers’ stone. Ars probandi (also ars probatoria), or assaying, was divided into “scevasia” and “ergastia.” Scevasia was a kind of encheria: the technique of preparing crucibles, fluxes, and acids, the use of balances and weights, and the knowledge of alchemical symbols (Libavius gave examples of alchemical ciphers). Ergastia (or doecimasia) included assaying techniques. Libavius devoted a great deal of space to the analysis of mineral waters, “judicio aquarum mineralium.”

In all practical recipes Libavius’ style is extremely clear, in marked contrast to the bombastic verbosity of Paracelsus. It becomes obscure in the sections and fragments dealing with the philosophers’ stone or transmutation of metals, in which he stated that these secrets were possessed by, to name a few, Pico della Mirandola, Giambattista della Porta, Edward Kelley, Alexander Seton, and Michael Seindivogius (Sendivogius).

Libavius tried to penetrate and understand works on the philosophers’ stone, and commented broadly in his own way. He declared, for example, that the mysterious alchemical substance called “azoth” was really what he obtained and called “liquor [or spiritus] sublimati” (stannic chloride). The name “spiritus fumans Libavii” did not appear until the eighteenth century. Another secret alchemical substance, “lac virginis” (maiden’s milk), was, according to Libavius, the product of the reaction of a solution of litharge in vinegar and salt brine or a solution of alum (lead chloride or sulfate).

This sort of interpretation caused Libavius to be criticized by many alchemists: J. Tancke, P. Palmarius, H, Scheunemann, and H. Khunrath declared that Libavius knew nothing of alchemy. It must be admitted that he indeed did not understand the chief ideas of the Hermetics, such as that of the existence in the air of an invisible life-giving substance. Nevertheless, Libavius can be ranked as a first-rate chemist on the basis of those parts of his book which can be considered truly chemical.

Alchemy, according to Libavius, was also—apart from the previous definitions of it—the art of extracting perfect magistracies and pure essences valuable in medicine. The term magisterium (magistracy) has various meanings. Sometimes it is a chemical species extracted from a given mixture, while at others it means the procedure, mystery, or secret of the nature or composition of substances.

Libavius was an exponent of the iatrochemical trend in medicine, and consequently the application of chemicals is stressed in his writings. The first part of Syntagmatis, for instance, is entitled “Alchymia pharmaceutica” and contains recipes for such substances as “tabulae perlatae,” “elixir catharicum,” and “balsamus sulphuris.” He thought that drugs could be prepared in two ways: pharmaceutically, by gently infusing or cooking, and alchemically, by ennobling substances through the nature of fire.

Libavius had in his home (at both Rothenburg and Coburg) a chemical laboratory in which, either alone or with assistants, he carried on chemical experiments. It is difficult, however, to determine which of the compounds of which he wrote he obtained himself and which he merely tested from formulas he had been given.

He gave many recipes or remedies popular at that time, including “thurpethum minerale,” the basic sulfate of mercury; “hepar sulphuris,” potassium sulfide or polysulfide; “aurum potabile,” potable gold (perhaps a colloidal gold solution); some antimony preparations which had purgative, emetic, or sudorific effects; and “sal prunellae mineralis,” the contemporary fever remedy. Libavius’ “butyra” (butters) were substances with the consistency of butter: butyrum antimonii (SbCl3), butyrum arsenici (K3AsO4).

Libavius repeated Cesalpino’s view that lead increases its weight while being calcined,this being caused by condensation of the smoke. He believed that iron turns into copper if immersed in vitriol water, although this was denied by Ercker, from whom Libavius had taken a great deal. Libavius also described the methods of distilling mineral acids and alcohol and gave a recipe for obtaining “quinta essentia Saturni” (acetone) by dry distillation of “saccharum Saturni” (lead acetate). Refluxing spirit of wine with oil of vitriol he obtained “oleum dulce” (ether).

Libavius can be regarded as one of the founders of chemical analysis, even though he took almost all his information from the books of Agricola, Ercker, and M, Fachs. He paid special attention to the analysis of mineral waters, investigating those in the environs of Rothenburg (Singularium, 1601) and Coburg (Tractatus inedicus physicus … und Historia Casimirianischen Sawer Brunnen, 1610).

He gave quantitative methods of determining gold and silver in alloys and the analytical reactions of iron in water with an infusion of bile, a darkening of the blue of copper vitriol solution with the addition of “spiritus urinae” (ammonia). He was aware that water can yield a volatile acid (carbon dioxide). He also knew that a solution of lead, silver, or copper salts darkens when it comes in contact with sulfur vapors (H2S) and that a solution of nitrate of mercury in nitric acid dyes the skin red (Millon’s reaction).

Although Libavius had no pupils of his own, his books were used by many adepts of chemistry throughout most of the seventeenth century.


I. Original Works. Libavius’ most important books are cited in the text with shortened titles.

Libavius gives a list of his treatises in Syntagmatis arcanorum chymicorum tomus secundus (Frankfurt, 1613), pp. ix, x, where he writes that he would like to publish his correspondence with his friends in 3 vols. From this collection of Libavius’ letters, those addressed to Sigismund Schnitzer were edited by Johann Hornung as Cista medica (Nuremberg, 1626).

A large collection of Libavius’ letters to Wald, J. Camerarius the Younger, and especially to L. Dolde is in the Universitätsbibliothek, Erlangen, MS 1284. Letters addressed to Landgrave Maurice of Hesse are in Marbachsche und Landesbibliothek in Kassel, MS fol. 19, and in Universitätsbibltothek, Basel, e.g., “Jacob Zwingers Korrespondenz.”

The fullest—but not complete—bibliography of Libavius’ works is in E. Pietsch, A. Kotowski, and F. Rex, Die Alchemie des Andreas Libavius (Weinheim, 1964). It erroneously states, however, that Syntagmatis selectorum … tomus primus (no. 42) appeared in 1615, instead of 1611. An additional imperfection of this bibliography is that it does not give the sizes of Libavius’ books. From 1606 almost all were printed in folio, while the earlier ones were in quarto or octavo. Folio books were rather rare in those times, so the fact that Libavius’ works were printed in folio indicates how well his books sold.

The Pietsch-Kotowski-Rex Die Alchemie des Andreas Libavius is a very good trans. of theAlchemia (1597) into modern German. A kind of supplement is formed by the “Bildteil,” 197 designs of chemical vessels, ovens, and instruments taken from the Commentatorium alchymiae (1606). The editorial commentary on the whole is good.

II. Secondary Literature. See the following, listed chronologically; G. Ludwig, Ehre des Hoch-Fürstlichen Casimiriani Academici in Coburg, I (Coburg, 1725), 72, 77, 84, 139-159; II (Coburg, 1729), 244-256; J. F. Gmelin, Geschichte der Chemie, I (Göttmgen, 1797), 345-351; H. Kopp, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Chemie, III (Brunswick, 1875), 145-150; J. Ferguson, Bibliotheca chemica, II (Glasgow, 1906), 31-34; J. Ottmann, “Erinncrung an Libavius in Rothenburg ob der Tauber,” in Verhandlungen Gesellschaft der Naturforscher, 65 (1894), 79-84; C. Beck, Festschrift zur Feier des dreihundertjährigen Bestehens des Gymnasium Casimirianum in Coburg 1605-1905 (Coburg, n.d.), pp. 76-88; A. Schnizlein, “Andreas Libavius, der Stadt Rothenburg Physicus von 1591-1607 und gekrönter Poet,” in Die Linde, Beilage zum fränkischen Anzeiger 22. Juni 1912 (Rothenburg, 1912), pp. 21-24; and “Andreas Libavius and seine Täatigkeit am Gymnasium zu Rothenburg,” in Beilage zum Jahresbericht des Kgl. Progymnasiums Rothenburg ob der Tauber für das Schuljahr 1913/14 (Rothenburg, 1914); E. Darmstaedter, in G. Bugge, Das Buch der grossen Chemiker, I (Weinheim, 1955), 107-124; L. Thorndike, “Libavius and Chemical Controversy,” in his History of Magic and Experimental Science, VI (New York, 1951), 238-253; R. P. Multhauf, “Libavius and Beguin,” in E. Farber, ed., Great Chemists (New York-London, 1961), pp. 65-79; J. R. Partington, History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 244-270; and E. Pietsch and A. Kotowski, Die Alchemie des Andreas Libavius, ein Lehrbuch der Chemie aus dem Jahre 1597 (Weinheim, 1964), plus supp. with illustrations and F. Rex, “Kommentarteil,” pp. 77-136.

Wlodzimierz Hubicki

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