Arnau de Villanova

views updated

Arnau de Villanova

c. 1235-1311

Spanish Alchemist and Physician

Although Arnau de Villanova (sometimes referred to as Arnold of Villanova or Arnaldus Villanovanus) is remembered primarily as an al-chemist, he was also an influential figure in the development of modern medicine. Not only was he one of the first to systematically use alcohol in treating certain diseases, but he also distinguished himself by relying more on observation than on a slavish obedience to the writings of Galen (c. 130-c. 200) and other ancient masters.

Born near Valencia, Arnau was of Catalan descent. During his time, much of Spain remained under Muslim control, though the Christians' Reconquista (reconquest) was gaining strength. Indeed, one of the key battles of the Reconquista had taken place in Arnau's hometown, where in 1094 El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, c. 1043-1099) had become the first Christian leader to gain a significant victory over Arab forces.

Educated by Dominican monks, Arnau went on to study medicine at Naples. He then went on to a highly successful medical practice, with kings, popes, and other dignitaries among his patients, and traveled widely throughout Spain, France, Italy, and North Africa. As a result of this exposure, he became fluent in a number of languages, including Arabic, Greek, and Latin—in other words, three of the four languages (other than Hebrew) in which virtually all Western scientific information was written.

Arnau wrote a number of works on alchemy, of which the most famous was The Treasure of Treasures, Rosary of the Philosophers. After successfully treating King Peter III of Aragon in 1285, he was awarded a chair at the University of Montpellier, in a part of southern France then under the control of Aragon. There he distinguished himself not only for his reliance on observation and his use of alcohol for treatments, but also for his dietetic prescriptions.

He also received a castle in Tarragona from Peter, and went on to become a favorite of Peter's son, James II. But while on a mission for James in 1299, Arnau was arrested on orders of the Holy Office, the authorities directing the Inquisition. The charge was heresy, and its basis was certain writings in which he had discussed the Antichrist. He spent more than a year in prison, but the intervention of Pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV (the Fair) of France gained his release in 1301.

Arnau lived another decade, during which time he met the alchemist Ramon Llull (c. 1235-1316) in Naples. He died on a voyage from Sicily to Avignon, the city to which the papacy had recently been moved. Arnau, who had been on his way to treat Pope Clement V, was buried in Genoa.