Helleborus niger

Among the important plants that Francis Bacon mentions in his experiments in consort touching purging medicines (Sylva Sylvarum, Century I) is the plant of hellebore, considered to be a helpful remedy moving the body to „expell by consent”. Black hellebore is counted among the medicines that have a „loathsome and horrible taste” and by this quality moves the stomach to surcharge and expell. It is interesting to see that Bacon does not consider hellebore to have any occult quality and insists on the fact that purging medicines in general, when better understood, can be properly administered. Thus, the following short presentation on the plant of hel8-Helleborus-Niger-Black-Hellebore-or-Christmas-Rolebore.

The hellebore plant belonging to the helleborus genus has been known ever since antiquity to posses powerful purging qualities. The physicians following Hippocrates used the Helleborus niger, known today as the Christmas Rose and the Veratrum Album-known as the White Hellebore- as diuretic remedies. The Hippocratic physicians, nevertheless, did not acknowledge the pharmaceutical differences between the two plants and used them both for the same purposes, although only black hellebore was later regarded as an efficient cure for obstruction.

Black hellebore has kept its medical importance up until today and it is still listed in some of  the pharmacological manuals. If we look into the pharmacological hand-books of the late sixteen-century, we find out that hellebore was used as a powerful remedy against melancholy and was thought to have the virtue of evacuating molesting humours that would lead to insanity and depression. By the late sixteen century, the difference between the species, their habitat and cultivation methods was already known although the apothecaries still appealed to Pliny and Galen for information regarding the plant. Hellebore was highly esteemed by the „chymick phisicans” too, who would mix it with various other tinctures and oil and alcohol (spirit of wine), a mixture that „could be easily been given to children against the dropsy and all melancholy affections”(du Chesne, 1591) The Alchemists included hellebore in the category of opiate medicines which, according to some of them, proved to be efficient remedies against colics, pleurisy and gout and also able to provoke sleep and appease disease of the respiratory tract and the rheuma. The controversy around opiates is common to sixteen century alchemical debates concerning plants that would have a strong and possibly poisonous impact on the human body. This might be one of the reasons why hidden, occult virtues or qualities have been attributed to it.

Although parts of it, are still used today in homeopathy, the drug made of the hellebore plant is seen to be as highly narcotic.


Bacon, Francis. 1857–74. The Works of Francis Bacon (SEH), 14 vols. edited by James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis and Douglas Denon Heath. London: Longman (repr. 1961–63, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann)

Quercitanus, Josephus. A brief answer of Josephus Quercitanus Armeniacus Doctor pf Physick to the exposition of Jacobus Aubertus Vindonis: Concerning the origins and causes of metals, London, 1591

Prioreschi, Plinio. A History of Medicine, Vol II: Greek medicine, Horatius Press, Omaha,1996

Turner,William. The Name of Herbs in Greek, Latin, English, Dutch and French, London, 1548


P. Melanchthon (1497-1560)

Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Divine Providence and the Foundations of Modern Science

 Peter Harrison’s book The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Oxford University Press, 2007) brought forth a very attractive thesis for the explanation of the origins of early modern philosophy, namely the idea that the interest for the natural philosophy primarily emerged from anthropological preoccupations and not from epistemological concerns. The thesis championed is that, due especially to Protestant influence, the concerns regarding early natural philosophy were determined by the aim to vindicate the dramatic consequences the Fall had upon human capacities. More exactly, the argument goes, ‘The experimental approach [forming this natural philosophy]… was deeply indebted to Augustinian views about the limitations of human knowledge in the wake of the Fall…’ (p. 8). Despite the argument and the examples mainly refer to the English settlement, the thesis is taken to hold for Continental Europe too (pp. 4-5). A very interesting example for this is that of the Reformator Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), shortly presented in the 3rd chapter of Harrison’s book (esp. pp. 97-103). Melanchthon was one of Luther’s closest friends and the author of the first Protestant credal statement, expressed in the Augsburg Confession (1530). He had remarkable skills in Ancient Greek, a language that he taught at the University of Wittenberg, together with other courses on natural philosophy that he taught after he took upon himself the mission of reforming the curricula of the German universities (see Kusukawa, 1995). Melanchthon’s openness to the natural sciences (mathematics, medicine, astronomy, astrology etc) was partly determined by some events (Peasant’s War) occurring in his biography but also by his specific theological understanding of the Fall. Although he had the same opinion with Luther that the Fall destroyed the divine image implanted by God in man at the moment of creation, he nonetheless took a more positive stance with regard to the consequences of this event by postulating that some ‘vestiges’ of the divine light remained in the human soul under the form of principles or notions. He considered that these notions play the role of conditions for the possibility of attaining knowledge (Frank, 1995).

Harrison is aware that these theological justifications for gaining knowledge through sciences coming from Melanchthon ‘is a slightly different perspective from that which will be developed by English Calvinists, for whom the scope of natural philosophy is itself determined by theological anthropology’ (p. 99).

One of the aims of our research on P. Melanchthon is to investigate into the details of this difference. More exactly, we intend to read into Melanchthon’s emphasis upon sciences seen as depositories of God’s providence the theological justification for a whole Protestant programme of natural philosophy. Therefore, we intend to explore a more positive scenario, according to which approaches to early modern philosophy originate in the power of the human mind to decipher God’s providence as instantiated in the sciences. We will thus try to answer to questions of the following type:

-what is the relationship between divine providence, inborn notions and the sciences in Melanchthon’s and also in his fellows’ thought?

-is Melanchthon’s natural philosophy based solely on mathematical knowledge or it also deals with experience-based knowledge? (see the post on ‘universal experience’)

-what examples of Melanchthon-type arguments for the natural philosophy can be found in the early modern English thought, especially given the fact that Melanchthon might have had some influence in the English world? (see Tredwell, 2006)

-what are the features of the method of astrology in Melanchthon’s reply to Pico della Mirandola?

-what is the relationship Melanchthon posits between divine providence and man’s capacity for ruling nature? ( ‘… if someone were to pay attention to them [Astrological indications], he would have a great support for ruling nature’ (P. Melanchthon, The Dignity of Astrology (1535), translated in Kusukawa (1999, pp. 121-2))



Harrison, P., The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Frank, G., Die Theologische Philosophie Philipp Melanchthons (1497-1560), Leipzig: Benno 1995.

Kusukawa, S., The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: the case of Philip Melanchthon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kusukawa, S., (ed.), Philip Melanchthon. Orations on Philosophy and Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Tredwell, K. A., The Melanchthon’s Circle’s English Epicycle, Centaurus 2006, 48 (1), pp. 23-31.