Visualising the Signs and Wonders of Nature: The Mergence of Empiricism and Speculation in the Miscellanea of the early Academia naturae curiosorum (2016)

Diesen Vortrag hielt ich auf der Konferenz

“Taxonomy, translatability, and Intelligibility of Scientific Images“

17-18 June, 2016; Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge. Organized by the AHRC-funded project: Making Visible: the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society:

Hier mein Redemanuskript und die dazugehörige PPT-Präsentation (Link) am Ende.


Heinz Schott

Visualising the Signs and Wonders of Nature: The Mergence of Empiricism and Speculation in the Miscellanea of the early Academia naturae curiosorum:[1]

The Academia Naturae Curiosorum was founded by four medical doctors in the Free Imperial City of Schweinfurt in 1652. They inaugurated a collective research program, as Philipp Sachs von Lewenheimb (1627-1672), then town physician of Breslau (Wrocław) in Lower Silesia put it in his letter of application in 1658. He wrote to the president of the Academy Lorenz Bausch (1605-1665), that the manifold treasures “out of the sacred treasury of Nature” should be lifted. But the scholars “should not only view the beautiful visage of Nature until its surface, rather they should explore most curiously Nature’s innermost viscera”.[2] After the death of Lorenz Bausch in 1665 Sachs von Lewenheimb followed him as president of the Academy and initiated the first volume of the Miscellanea curiosa, a scientific annual collecting so-called observations (observationes) of the academic correspondents. I focus my paper on the very beginning of the Miscellanea Curiosa, namely volume 1 and 2, which appeared 1670 respectively 1671under the guidance of Sachs who died already in 1672. And I highlight just random samples I noticed looking through the volumes. So, I can only give a very fragmentary insight of what should be investigated systematically in detail. I will display my topic in five short chapters.

  1. The Academia Naturae Curiosorum and the Royal Society: a preliminary remark

When we look at the correspondence between Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society and Sachs von Lewenheimb, the member respectively president of the Academia Naturae Curiosorum about 1670, we notice a noble mutual appreciation of the rather different academic associations and their work. In a letter to Oldenburg (12. January 1665) Sachs praised the Royal Society’s “chief men in England in order to seek out truth by proper experiments, in your praiseworthy English way. […] so their love of inquiring after truth led the illustrious Bacon and Digby, with ingenious Harvey, Boyle, Charleton, Highmore, Glisson and Willis throw much new light upon medicine.”[3] And rather modestly he admits the “weaker structure” of his own Academy, “so our College dispersed over the provinces of broad Germany is of less strength than the Illustrious Society with its permanent seat in London […] cherished by royal grants […] quite furnished with everything necessary performing experiments […] We Germans know only narrower limits, magnates with slenderer purses […]. Our College is scattered hither and yon; its members are medical men exhausted by the cares of practice who find few spare hours for natural experiments”.[4]

Oldenburg replied in his letter (30 May 1665), that the Royal Society was about “to reconstruct philosophy, not as it pertains to medicine alone, but as it concerns all that pertains to the usefulness and convenience of human life […] penetrating into her [Nature’s] very sanctuary, to this end it is busy with nothing so much as building up a store and treasury of observations and experiments.”[5] Then, Oldenburg stressed the necessity of bringing together all findings “by a combination of resources equal to the enterprise” and he claimed regarding the Academia Naturae Curiosorum “ to impart to us from thence whatever your land brings forth that is worthy of note in the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdom”.[6] In another letter (14 March 1667) to Sachs inquiring new results of research in Germany again Oldenburg stressed: “it is our purpose […] to promote the cause of philosophy by the association of minds.”[7]

When Sachs sent the first volume of the Miscellanea curiosa to the Royal Society in 1670, Oldenburg “earnestly congratulated” him and “Philosophy herself” (2 February 1671). The Fellows of the Royal Society would believe, he wrote, “that nothing can better increase the stock of true philosophy than if the learned and skilful of all nations continue to unite their ingenuity and investigations […] and bring safely into the philosophical granary their rich harvest of observations and experiments properly and honestly performed.”[8] Sachs admired the work of the Royal Society taking it as an antitype of his own academy. He excused the imperfection of the Miscellanea, when he wrote to Oldenburg (20. March 1671) “that certain matters may be found in our first year which merit censure no less than the negligence of the printer in making so many errors. But we shall be more cautious and vigilant in future years lest our bark strike upon the same rocks.”[9] He even suggested “to scatter some things out of the Transactions of the English here and there among our Miscellanies, so that (the English tongue being pretty unknown among Germans) those learned and curious papers may the more rapidly penetrate to the remote corners of Germany.”[10]

The quoted correspondence shows an open-minded dialogue. The common goal was clear: the “association of minds” to promote natural science (“philosophy”). One tried to learn from each other ignoring national features or frontiers. It would be interesting to explore the impact of the Rosicrucian idea of a scientific enlightenment and general reformation on the eve of the Thirty Years‘ War. In view of the cruelties and social destructions the desire for a humanisation of the world was obvious. So, the idea of an “association of minds” (Oldenburg) overcoming adverse ideologies in the light of Nature became rather attractive for intellectuals of all kind and especially for natural philosophers in academic circles. I may just mention the well-known “Invisible College” as a precursor group of the Royal Society. But I suppose that this idea of a scientific brotherhood was ubiquitous in Europe stimulating the foundation of scientific academies and their cooperation.

  1. Early modern natural philosophy: The leading idea of the Academy’s work

In the second half of the 17th century natural philosophy with its diverse aspects was still a vivid concept combining the microcosm-macrocosm-model, natural magic, the doctrine of signatures, alchemical procedures, hermetical ideas etc. Before the first volume of the Miscellanea was edited in 1670, the members of the Academy were requested to publish monographs dealing with one individual substance or biological entity, e. g. with a plant, mineral, or an animal especially looking for its more or less hidden therapeutic value. As an example I show you the frontispiece of Johann Michael Fehr’s Anchora sacra, vel scorzonera [i. e. black salsify] published in 1666. (Fig. 1) Fehr was the follower of Lorenz Bausch not only as President of the Academia curiosorum holding office from 1666 to 1686 but also as town physician of Schweinfurt.  The image displays the early modern perspective of a hierarchical order, a fundamental trinity: God – Nature – Man. When we look at the opened Book or Bible of Nature, the Holy Scripture for the early modern natural philosophers or naturalists, we notice that trinity: the divine fiery cloud on the top of the right page illuminating with its beams the human eye (it is a left eye and therefore not the eye of God).  So man is able to study the natural things in the Book of Nature, in this case the Scorzonera. The medical symbolism is obvious: The erudite doctor with the rod of Asclepius, a sort of personification of the healing God himself, pointing at the way of life symbolised also by the healing snakes whereas the way of death is symbolized by poison snakes on the soil. The emblematic meaning is ambiguous: Scorzonera as a remedy against snake poison? Snakes as incarnation of divine or evil powers? The wheel in the centre as a sort of holy anchor (Anchora sacra) encompassing the saving light of Nature?

Another important feature of natural philosophy was the imagery of Nature as a female figure like an Alma Mater producing natural things and working secretly as a cosmic magician in God’s service. The challenge for naturalists or natural philosophers was to follow Her footsteps and to find out her secrets. So the frontispiece of the first volume of the Miscellanea is significant. (Fig. 2) We see a stylised Pantheon. The light comes from above through the opaion also called “eye”. Apart from the imperial eagle in the middle of the dome all figures are women. Two of them personify Goddesses: Physis (resembling Isis) and Hygeia (the healing Goddess). The three realms of nature (mineral, animal, and vegetable) kneel before the altar. The message was clear: The academy members should “investigate the secrets of Mother Nature [Omniparentis Naturae Arcana]” to promote God’s glory and the salvation of mankind as it was stated in the Academy’s admission document for new members some years later.[11]

In summary, we can realize that religious respectively mythological thinking was closely linked with scientific investigation constituting an intellectual bias. The specific Weltanschauung shaped the objectives of natural philosophy according to the contemporary concepts. This will be demonstrated in the following two chapters regarding the imagery of the signature doctrine and natural magic.

  1. The impact of the doctrine of signatures: Nature as a designer

The doctrine of signatures was an important element of the early modern natural magic. Natural things with similar qualities would correspond sympathetically and could be used therapeutically: e. g. the mineral hematite (Blutstein) was supposed to stop bleeding, to heal blood diseases, and to strengthen the vital power because of its red (blood-like) powder colour. In 1665, in the year of his death, Lorenz Bausch published his monograph on the Hematite (Blutstein) describing on 164 pages the physiological and therapeutic effects systematically compiling all known medical and pharmaceutical sources of all times whatsoever.

In the first volume of the Miscellanea there are a lot of references to the doctrine of signatures. So, in the 48th observation Sachs von Lewenheimb deals with monstrous anthropomorphic roots (rapa monstrosa anthropomorphica).  The image represents a “root of pagans”, which was found 1628 in a garden. (Fig. 3) Such a marvellous or monstrous finding was very common then going back to the anthropomorphic view of mandrake (Mandragora) traditionally thought of holding magic powers since antiquity. Sachs referred to numerous early modern authors who dealt with this topic, among them Oswald Croll, Giambattista Della Porta, and Athanasius Kircher. He argues as a natural philosopher highlighting Nature as the creative power per se: “Never is Nature otiose (idle) [Nunquam Otiosa Natura], always she tends to perfection, even often with a rude and often with a hardly imitable paintbrush, sometimes with a skilful chisle and potter’s wheel trying to imitate the figure of man, the most perfect creature, or at least to depict other natural things.”[12] (By the way: The mission statement of the Academia ist until today “Never Otiose” (nunquam otiosus) implicating: The natural philosophers should imitate the never otiose Nature.) Sachs concludes that from the signatures produced by nature the “hermetic physicians” (Physici Hermetici) were able to deduce the “powers of the herbs” (vires herbarum).[13]

Now, I would like to show you very briefly a small series of images illustrating the impact of the doctrine of signatures at the very beginning of the Miscellanea. Observation 111 in the first volume presents a Crucifuxus ex radice crambes enatus (crucifix sprouted from a sea-kale [crambe] root).[14] (Fig. 4) The author Georg Sebastian Jung (1642/43-1682), court physician in Vienna, called this root a “Stupendum Naturae miraculum” (a stupendous miracle of Nature). In his elaborate comment Sachs von Lewenheimb highlighted another example of a crucifix-like root.[15] (Fig. 5) This root of a lily was fixed on a cross and exhibited in Donsa (Deinze), a town in Belgium (Crucifixum Donsae). It was superimposed by a silver crucifix and played a role in religious life. Insofar, also ethnographic data were of interest. In his comment, Sachs also referred to otherwise reported examples. Another observation written by Georg Sebastian Jung described the image of the Madonna (IMAGO B. MARIAE VIRGINIS CUM FILIO IN MINERA FERRI EXPRESSA) within a piece of iron ore found in 1619 in Innerberg, an old mining town in Styria (Austria).[16] (Fig. 6) According to Jung, also Athanasius Kircher, the famous contemporary, would have mentioned analogue effigies of Maria.

Besides such numinous figures there are a series if anthropomorphic ones. So, the Polish botanist and medical doctor Martin (Marcin) Bernhardi de Bernitz (1625-1682)[17] showed in his observation orchids with “anthropophoric” blossoms: male and female.[18] (Fig. 7a/b) Orchids were paradigmatic for the traditional doctrine of signatures relating generally to the testicle-like root tubers indicating virility. So, Bernhardi studied the singular species of these, as he called them, Satyrs (SATYRIORUM SPECIES SINGULARES) (Fig. 8a/b) The form of the root tubers were significant for virility, as you may perceive when you look at the SATYRION CASTRATUM SEU EUNUCHUM.  Another example gives the town physician Georg Seger (1629-1698) in his observation of an anthropomorphic mushroom (Fungus Anthropomorphos), which grew in the woods of Altdorf in 1661.[19] (Fig. 9) Another cluster of observations focused on monstrosities, a still quite popular topic then. I show just one example: The monstrous pulmonary moss (MUSCUS PULMONARIS MONSTROSUS) in another observation of Bernhardi.[20] (Fig. 10) He was fascinated by the disguised face (Facies larvata). The author tells us that he found this marvelous joke of Nature (Mirum Naturae lusum) by chance on an oak tree walking through a wood in 1657.

Obviously, the epistemic value of those images was not a comprehensive collection of similar natural objects which had to be registered, sketched, classified, and compared with each other. In fact, the images showed singular and peculiar natural objects, chance finds, demonstrating signs and wonders of the arcane, occult, creative Nature.

  1. Natural Magic and medical magic: The transfer of vital powers

The concept of Magia naturalis or natural magic was during the outgoing 17th century still a leading one for physicians and natural philosophers (called Naturforscher in German or curiosi in Latin). Especially in herbal medicine and drug production scholars tried to find out most subtle and effective substances operating magically in the distance. Such an idea was due to alchemical and astrological speculations in the early modern period and specific for natural philosophers and alchemists like Paracelsus and Johan Baptist van Helmont in the 16th and 17th centuries. Natural magic means a so-called white magic: A magic without demons and devil pact gained only by a thorough study of Nature’s marvellous works. This approach was very essential for medical practice as the controversial debate on the so-called weapon salve (Waffensalbe) shows lasting about 150 years from the first half of the 16th up to the second half of the 17th centuries. This salve was put on the bloody weapon (and not on the wound) and was supposed to heal the wound magically by subtle effluvia going back to the wound and healing the injured even when he was many miles away. One out of many ingredients of the weapon salve and the most essential one was the “moss” or usnea (lichen) of a human skull, the so-called usnea cranii humani.  This magic approach was still popular when the first volumes of the Miscellanea appeared as can be demonstrated by the following example.

The above mentioned Martin (Marcin) Bernhardi de Bernitz (1625-1682) sent a very interesting Observatio to Sachs von Lewenheimb which was published in the second volume of the Miscellanea in 1671: Ruta muraria et mucus crustaceus in cranio humano (i.e. wall-rue [German: Mauerraute] and crustaceous moss on a human skull).[21] (Fig. 11) Here you see the skull presumably found in 1652, the same year when the Academy was constituted. We can distinguish the wall-rue on the side of the calvarium from the crustaceous moss on the top of it. It is remarkable that the author does not describe the skull or the plants on it as such. The skull is just a reminder of the huge amount of traditional literature dealing with the alleged therapeutic effect of specific plants growing on human skulls.

So, the author refers to the well-known authorities like Athanasius Kircher, Pliny, Aristotle, Theophrastus without any historical periodisation and at the same time he highlights less prominent colleagues of his century like Kaspar Pantzer (1588-1656) from Königsberg[22] or Johann Chemnitius (1610-1651) from Brunswig reporting similar findings of overgrown human skulls.[23] Bernhardi enumerates all reported virtues and applications of the usnea cranii humani. It is supposed to be effective against epilepsy and other diseases of the head, nosebleed (here he refers even to Hildanus, Paracelsus and other authorities). But he is mainly interested in the preparation of an amulet using Usneae microcosmi, seu Musci cranii humani (here you may notice the confusion of lichen and moss). He recommends the preparation of amulets effective against all haemorrhagic disorders including those of the uterus, haemorrhoids and wounds. Moreover, several recipes for respective drugs, pills, and powders from well-known sources are quoted. Of course, Bernhardi mentions the legendary weapon salve (Unguentum Armarium) described and recommended by many others among them Oswald Croll (1560-1609), Rudolph Goclenius the Younger (1572-1621), and Johan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1644). And remarkably, the most important ingredient of this magnetically acting salve was the moss of the skull of a hanged man. The respective observation ends up in describing a practical method he was told by a friend, how one can get the moss within a short time by oiling the skull with olive oil and putting it in a remote and sylvan place.


  1. Conclusion

The confusion (or mergence, Verschmelzung) of empiricism and speculation in scientific procedures is not at all specific for the early modern situation. It is a general trait of research processes in the history of science. But in the early modern period when the reading in the Bible of Nature became more and more sophisticated we can see most clearly how perception and description in natural philosophy (Naturforschung) was coined ideologically by the concept of Nature as a female, creative, and secretly working power. Therefore. the scholars were interested in all sorts of hidden messages from Nature and were ambitious to study Her marvellous or monstrous signatures. And to objectify these: What could be more impressive and persuasive than a drawing illustrating the written report? So, we can find in the early volumes of the Miscellanea some of those illustrations. But this was not a novel attitude. It followed the illustrations of Della Porta (1535-1615) and the remarkable reception of his work. I should mention here: Della Porta had founded in Naples already in 1560 – about 100 years before the Academia curiosorum – the Academia Secretorum Naturae which was suspended by papal order in 1578 due to the inquisition.

It is essential to notice that those illustrations did not represent a well-defined object of scientific investigation per se, which had to be analyzed and described individually in detail. Rather, it was an exemplary natural thing which only made sense within the complete context of the respective observatio. The verification of the object was not achieved by a precise copy and sophisticated description, but by a comparative reconsideration of all available data one could get from past and present reports. The intention was lastly to collect and arrange natural things as it happened in the cabinets of wonder (Wunderkammern; or natural history collections). Perhaps, one can say: The Miscellanea resembled a cabinet of wonder on a large scale collecting the ongoing observations and accumulating them in a treasury: that is: the common narrative of the academics.

Finally, let us look at the general situation of the German Academy. In contrast to the Royal Society the Academia Curiosorum had no central working group discussing jointly scientific problems and experiencing the outcome of practical trials by means of laboratory facilities. But nevertheless, it also tried to constitute a scientific community bringing together the disperse members in a virtual communication by correspondences and primarily by their journal. The observations displayed in the Miscellanea did not only consist of searching and watching natural things as meaningful marvels of Nature. They included also corresponding historical narrations and documentations and also personal accounts of individual experimentations. In that perspective all collected observations should enlighten the secrets of Nature by assembling and composing the findings. One may characterize this approach with two modern terms: networking and big data revolution. And there is another interesting aspect: A sort of global drive transcending national borders and other obstacles like unsafe transportation – regarding not only persons but also letters and papers. The epistemic idea of the early Academia Curiosorum was not to foster scientific progress reducing the complexity of Nature and forcing Her into an experimental machinery, but much more to generate scientific enlightenment observing, experiencing, and describing natural things by oneself, near friends and colleagues, and – at least equally important − historical testimonies. Therefore, I think, the early modern interaction of European Academies might be quite stimulating for us today – in a situation, whre historical reflexion is widely neglected in the discourse of natural sciences and biomedicine.



Fig. 1: Johann Michael Fehr: Anchora sacra; vel scorzonera; Ad normam et formam […] Jena, 1666: frontispiece

Fig. 2-11: Miscellanea curiosa medico-physica Academiae Naturae Curiosorum sive Ephemeridum medico-physicarum germanicarum curiosarum; vols. 1 and 2. Leipzig 1670 and 1671. Free download see :



Appendix seu Addenda Curiosa Omissorum Ad Annum Primum Miscellaneorum […]. Leipzig 1671.

Hall, A. Rupert & Marie Boas Hall (eds.): The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg. Vol 7, 1670-1671. Madison, Milwaukee, and London 1970.

Miscellanea curiosa = Miscellanea curiosa medico-physica Academiae Naturae Curiosorum sive Ephemeridum medico-physicarum germanicarum curiosarum. Vol. 1: Leipzig 1670; vol. 2: Leipzig 1671.

Schott, Heinz: Medizin, Naturphilosophie und Magie. Johann Laurentius Bausch aus medizinhistorischer Sicht. In: Die Gründung der Leopoldina – Academia Naturae Curiosorum – im historischen Kontext. Johann Laurentius Bausch zum 400. Geburtstag. Ed. by Richard Toellner, Uwe Müller, Benno Parthier, and Wieland Berg. Acta Historica Leopoldina 49 (2008): pp. S. 191-214.

[1]     Conference: “Epistemic Images in Early Modern Europe: taxonomy, translatability and legibility” (tentative title) 17-18 June, 2016; Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities,University of Cambridge. Organized by the AHRC-funded project: Making Visible: the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society:

[2]    Quotation cf. Schott, 2008, p. 192.

[3]    Quotation cf. Hall and Hall (eds.), 1966, vol. II, p.235.

[4]    Quot. ibid.

[5]    Quot. ibid., p. 401.

[6]    Quot. ibid.

[7]    Quot. cf. Hall and Hall (eds.), 1966, vol. III, p. 365.

[8]    Quot. cf. Hall and Hall (eds.), 1970, vol. VII, p. 434.

[9]    Quot. ibid,  p. 528.

[10]   Quot. Ibid.

[11]   Cf. Schott, 2008, p. 214.

[12]   Ibid., p. 139. “Nunquam Otiosa Natura semper ad perfectionem tendens, etiam saepè rudi, saepè vix imitabili pnicillo, inderdum etiam artificioso scalpro & plastico torno, Hominis, perfectissimae creaturae, figuram imitari, aut ad minimum alias res naturales effingere conatur.”

[13]   Ibid., p. 144.

[14] Miscellanea curiosa, vol. 1 (1570), pp. 261-262.

[15] Appendix seu Addenda Curiosa Omissorum Ad Annum Primum Miscellaneorum […] (1671), pp. 24-29.

[16] Miscellana curiosa, vol. 1 (1670), pp. 264-265.

[17] (19.05.2016)

[18] Miscellanea Curiosa, Observatio 91: vol. 1 (1670), pp. 73-79.

[19] Miscellanea Curiosa, Observatio 55: vol. 2 (1871), pp. 112-113.

[20] Miscellanea Curiosa, Observatio 55: vol. 2 (16719, pp. 89-91.

[21] Observatio 53: Miscellanea curiosa, vol. 2 (1671), pp. 96-106.

[22]|n%202011205077 (20.05.2016)

[23]   (20.05.2016)


Link to the respctive PPT-Presentation

Cambridge 2016 Miscellanea PPT