Frontispiece to Jan Baptista van Helmont’s The Origin of Medicine (1648), showing the younger Van Helmont partially obscured by the elder — Source: Wellcome Library, London
Largely forgotten today in the shadow of his more famous father, the 17th-century Flemish alchemist Francis van Helmont influenced and was friends with the likes of Locke, Boyle, and Leibniz. While imprisoned by the Inquisition, in between torture sessions, he wrote his Alphabet of Nature on the idea of a universal “natural” language.
By Je Wilson / 06.01.2016
In the frontispiece to his father’s book, The Origin of Medicine, published in 1648, there’s an engraving of a young Francis van Helmont. Tucked into a bizarre overlapping portrait, he peeks out at the reader from behind his famous father’s head, his right eye entirely obscured by the elder Van Helmont’s left ear.
As for Francis’ own intellectual training, he was indebted to his father. He never attended a regular school; instead, Jan home-schooled the boy, spoon-feeding him alchemical, scientific, and mystical ideas along with his pabulum. (Francis’ baby food actually included a “Tree of Life” herbal supplement distilled from the cedars of Lebanon.)6 Jan, a follower of the physician Paracelsus, instilled in his son a reverence for the ancient occult Hermetic beliefs, along with those of the Renaissance Neo-Platonists; this meant that Francis grew up believing in the idea of one true antique theology inherent to all religions, whose divine teachings needed to be recovered. He also learned that man was a complete microcosm of the macrocosmic world, and that the only true knowledge came through divinely inspired intuition. At the same time, since such things co-existed, Francis was taught to respect an empirical scientific method, meaning that his education blended an objective approach to chemistry and medicine with a heavy larding of mysticism.
Such schooling, directed at a boy who displayed a natural bent toward rebellion, would turn Francis into a freethinking misfit, always searching for answers regardless of danger or ridicule. In keeping with his early Lebanese cedar dosing, he became a health-conscious vegetarian and teetotaler at a time when such behavior was considered oddball to the point of insanity. (He did, in fact, live to the age of eighty-four when the average life expectancy was decades younger.) In the autobiographical preface to his father’s work, Francis describes how his relatives looked down on him for his strange ways and thought he would “at length become mad”:
[F]or the preservation of my health, and increasing of my strength, I lived soberly for many Years together, I also abstained from fleshes, like as also from Fishes, Wine, and Ale or Beer; and that so far, that I incurred the contempt and disdain of my kindred, who upbraided me as I conjecture, from a good zeal: What unwonted thing doth he again begin?7
His unwonted leanings persisted all his life. A Christian kabbalist, Francis published translations of kabbalistic writings—the most comprehensive collection of the time. His interest in the Jewish kabbalah, which had acquired its enclave of Christian adherents during the Renaissance, stemmed from his desire to find a common ancient (ancient Christian, of course) source for all religions. It was an unorthodox pursuit, but he was, in general, devoted to unconventional and often liberal ideas: he translated a book advocating the reform of prisons, published writings that promoted religious tolerance, briefly became a Quaker, and established a short-lived work commune in Germany. Meanwhile, he kept busy as a political, economic, and medical advisor to princes, princesses, and other nobility — finding time between his doctoring and diplomacy to devise a mechanical cure for scoliosis, design a new kind of spinning wheel and a more efficient wheelbarrow, learn carpentry and weaving, and invent running shoes with springs. He also figured out how to temporarily preserve the corpse of his good friend Anne Conway (he pickled her in wine inside a lead coffin with a glass window) until her husband could return home from abroad and gaze at her features one last time.8
One of Francis’ more fascinating areas of study is a peculiar book he wrote on the subject of Hebrew. He formed his ideas about the language while being held and tortured by the Inquisition for a year and a half. In 1661, before he had published anything at all, the Catholic Church arrested and charged him with “judaizing” or of being a Jew, a catch-all charge in the seventeenth century that, in Francis’ case, appeared to mean “you have liberal ideas”.9They were right about that — though, ironically, he would far rather have converted the Jews to Christianity than become a Jew himself — and he had every reason to expect he might be burnt at the stake. Regardless, he took his imprisonment in stride, and between trips to the torture chamber he conceived his theory of language.10 Usually referred to as the Alphabet of Nature, the small book outlines Francis’ concept of Hebrew and his scheme for teaching deaf-mutes to speak it. The frontispiece to the book shows Francis sitting at a table in his cell in Rome; facing a mirror, he is scientifically measuring his lips with a pair of calipers.
Frontispiece to Francis van Helmont’s Alphabeti vere Naturalis Hebraici (1667) — Source: Wellcome Library, London
The theory he propounds is that the ancient and therefore uncorrupted Hebrew characters are actually diagrams illustrating how the lips and tongue should be positioned when uttering the sounds they make. A series of woodcuts in the book show cross-sections of heads in profile with the speech organs exposed to reveal how they are shaped exactly like Hebrew letters. This resemblance — a kind of pronunciation guide — means that people who are deaf can easily learn to sound out Hebrew because the tools for speaking it are innate, rooted in the very bones and muscles of our bodies; our organs for speech match this wholly (and of course holy) “natural” language. Francis van Helmont, a whimsical proto Noam Chomsky, believed not that we are born with a mental template or apparatus for learning grammar but that we are born with the shape of the Hebrew characters literally written (or at least easily writable) in our mouths and throats.
One of 36 instructional woodcuts featured in Francis van Helmont’s Alphabeti vere Naturalis Hebraici (1667) — Source: Wellcome Library, London
Though his theory was eccentric, Francis’ preoccupation with the idea of a natural language formed part of a long historical debate, still active in the seventeenth century, over whether language was natural or artificial. Since antiquity, two schools of thought had grown up around the question, with some believing that language was made of random symbols — a view Aristotle held — and some thinking words and letters accurately represented nature, an idea Plato was drawn to but which he ultimately found impractical and unlikely.11Despite Plato’s misgivings, Neo-Platonists and alchemists of later centuries embraced the idea of a purely natural language that had an innate connection to reality, as did Jewish and Christian kabbalists. For Francis van Helmont and those who thought like him, the abstract signs of language, especially the divine language of Hebrew, were firmly concrete. Words, letters, and symbols carried an innate power that not only corresponded intrinsically to the things they represented but could also reveal the invisible spiritual truths and secret symmetries of the universe.12
Taken to its limit, however, this faith in intuition and the innateness of knowledge could become dangerously democratic at a time when hierarchies were strictly enforced. Martin Luther, after all, founded Protestantism on such egalitarian bedrock: that any reader of the bible had direct access to God. Even though Christian kabbalists thought their pursuits wholly in keeping with religiosity — “there is no department of knowledge that gives us more certainty of Christ’s divinity than magic and cabala” wrote Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in 1486 — the Church begged to differ.14 Although tolerant to some extent, it considered the occult problematic, and to believe too strongly in the power of words could lead to trouble. For the Church, the idea that words could conjure, or that they held the means to some deep well of unsanctioned knowledge, undermined ecclesiastical authority. And if God wasn’t officially involved, then the supernatural force at work must be demonic.
Had they known about it, his jailors would have considered Francis’ incipient work on language heretical. But long before it was published, they were already trying to condemn him for his unconventional behavior. Being tolerant and ecumenical at a time when Christian sects were killing each other on a daily basis, Francis was not popular with either Catholics or Protestants, and was in fact almost killed by a mob of Lutherans for trying to encourage compromise.15 His own description of himself in the preface to his father’s work might give an idea of what people didn’t like. Here, he says, is what is being said about him:
[H]e is no where seen except in the company of most unconstant, strange, and uncouth persons, of whatsoever profession and employment; he will also incur a misfortune, for he knows not how to dissemble, he spareth none, neither great nor small, when he discerns that which is unjust […].16
Others were right to think he’d get in trouble. His interest in justice, reform, and plain-speaking did not endear him to the Catholic Church. Shortly before he was arrested, he made himself unpopular by working for a German prince, who had asked him for advice on how to boost a region still economically depressed from the Thirty Years’ War. Francis suggested farming and skilled work for peasants and the “sons of citizens” alike.17 The result was a collection of workshops, whose students included gentlemen, and at which everyone learned how to weave, cook, cobble, and work the anvil, and where even the Prince himself was invited to eat, work with his hands, and walk rather than ride. Hebrew was taught to all. The Inquisition fumed at the idea of such socialist class-leveling: the nobility and the upper classes were being degraded. In its report, it was especially disgusted with Francis’ suggestion that the Prince raise pigs (in “filthy pig pens”) on palace grounds.18 Francis was eventually released from the dungeons of Rome, but only because he had powerful friends who pleaded on his behalf, including that pig-tolerating Prince himself.
Like many books on the idea of a universal language, the Alphabet of Naturewas a utopian work. Francis believed that discord would end if everyone could speak the same divinely inspired language and no longer disagree over the meaning of the scriptures. In the 1600s, the idea of a universal language appealed to many who thought there was room for improvement in the world’s ability to communicate.19 Many were invented, though none of those seventeenth-century languages became as successful as Esperanto, developed in 1887. One of the few to gain a following was that created by John Wilkins, who published his scheme in 1668, only a year after the Alphabet of Nature. In Wilkins’ “philosophical language”, every word contained its own definition, a dizzyingly rational design whose preposterousness appealed to Jorge Luis Borges: “children could learn this language without knowing it was artificial; later in school, they would discover that it was also a universal key and a secret encyclopedia”.20
Illustration from John Wilkins’ An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language(1668), showing formations of the larynx during the pronunciation of different letters — Source: Wellcome Library, London
To Francis van Helmont, though, ancient Hebrew already was the ideal universal language, the key that unlocked us and whose codes we held within; he would have considered the invention of a new and secular one counterproductive. St. Jerome might have called Hebrew the “language of hissing and broken-winded words” in contrast to the elegance of Latin, but for Francis ancient Hebrew was the bodily-inscribed answer to perfect knowledge and harmony.21
1. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, 13. Cambridge University Press, 1910. 249–250