Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Devil's Doctor

I have recently read The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic by Philip Ball and thought I should post my thoughts here. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I'm not sure how much popular appeal it has.

Ball is a successful science writer with half a dozen titles to his name. As a converted journalist, he is good at explaining and writing. His skill, like all good science writers, is to make his readers feel more knowledgeable than they actually are. They finish his books with the proud flush of someone who has run an intellectual marathon, but who really did no more than run around the block.

His latest book, The Devil’s Doctor, proved that he could do history as well. I think this is an excellent first attempt – well written, informative, thoughtful and historically aware. It would have been so easy to get wrong. In his television show The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski claims that Paracelsus was an important figure in the rise of science. He wasn’t. He was an inebriated lunatic with a weird philosophy that even his followers couldn’t understand. His alchemical system may have led to one of the great dead ends of science, but in every other way his work was pointless drivel. There’s nothing anachronistic about saying this – it’s what many people thought in the sixteenth century.

Ball is not quite that negative but he knows the idea of Paracelsus as transitional figure between the Middle Ages and Modernity won’t wash. So instead, he simply describes the man and his times in their own terms. This is what a good historian should do. I’ve read a good few scholarly works on sixteenth century esotericism and still learnt something from this enjoyable book. That said, I was vaguely troubled by it and fear that Ball may have made a mistake launching himself as a writer of serious history. The problem is that the book is a scholarly study backed up with lots of documentation and full of long quotations from the primary sources. It should have been published by a university press and packaged as a monograph. For the popular history market, it is simply too hard and assumes too much background knowledge.

Unfortunately, Ball also makes a few slips that mark him out as an amateur. These sorts of mistakes we all make, but we do it in private and have a tutor to correct us. Ball makes his in public. The worst infelicity is his use of other popular history books, including the wildly tendentious and inaccurate William Manchester and Daniel Boorstin, as authorities. Ball needs to develop a historian’s nose for a dodgy source like Manchester or Boorstin as well as check his quotations in the original. This means that he will probably miss out on the academic market as well.

That said, I hope Ball perseveres. His next project sounds extremely interesting and I am concerned that it doesn’t look like being published when originally planned. Let’s hope he sends this one to OUP and they pick up an author who can write scholarly history well. In the meantime, I expect readers of this blog are exactly the sort of intelligent laypeople who would most enjoy The Devil's Doctor.

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