Robert Fludd MD. FRCP. (1574-1673)

Robert Fludd. Line engraving by T. de Bry, 1645, after Matthäus Merianafter
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

A respected physician, Censor four times of the Royal College of Physicians, Robert Fludd was also an anatomist, a friend of William Harvey whose experiments he witnessed, and well-respected by both James I, and by Charles I who awarded him the income from Crown land in Suffolk. All this was perhaps nothing unusual among those who stood well in the senior world of that hierarchical society, a society to which he belonged by birth and by his own medical reputation, and his father’s reputation as an honest and well-rewarded public servant of the redoubtable Queen Elizabeth I.

It was less usual that he was also a distinguished and well known neo-platonist, hermetic philosopher and alchemist, who summed up in himself and in his numerous and large-scale publications the pre-scientific synthesis of cosmic harmony; that is, the intimate and harmonic relationship of the sentient platonic universe with the sentient human being. This was the world before the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’, which divides the observing ego from its observed subject, a definitive change in perception which has revolutionised human culture since the mid-17th century.

Fludd’s philosophy is epitomised in his magnificent if uncompleted Utriusque Cosmi … Historia 1617-1626 (‘The History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm’), and in his Medicina Catholica 1629-1631 (‘Universal Medicine’) whose lavish, graphic and cogent illustrations illuminate for us the rich world-picture of the Renaissance multi-layered mind, of the prescientific magus, which perceived by metaphor and symbol rather than by our logic. It is not surprising that his illustrations are increasingly used in works on Renaissance literature, philosophy, art and culture. His images speak louder than words. And they are some of the finest and most detailed illustrations, published during that period.

Caught between the old world of symbol and metaphor and the new world of rigorous investigation and scientific experiment (which he also exercised in practical demonstrations of anatomy), Fludd provides for us a passage back to an integrated and sentient universe. Though few of us could support the analogical base on which his system is founded, his symbolism may still speak validly to us today. It is no bad thing to understand the past from within. Our forebears deserve respect, understanding, and even empathy. In history, as in anthropology (of which history is a part) it is possible to maintain participant / observer status. History then ceases to be entirely an account of the past.

Further reading: Godwin J. Robert Fludd: hermetic philosopher and surveyor of two worlds. London: Thomas & Hudson, 1979.

Robin Price – British Society for the History of Medicine

Posted in medical history.

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