The Alphabet of Nature: Languages, Science, and Translation in Early Modern Europe

Portraits of Jan Baptista (in the front) and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, by Cornelis de Man, paper, 1648.

“I write this book in my mother tongue, so that those who will read it, will understand that the truth does nowhere appear more naked, than where it is stripped of all its jewelry.” Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), who wrote this sentence in the introduction to his medical works (Dageraad, ofte nieuwe opkomst der geneeskonst, Amsterdam 1659) was adamant to publish medicine and science in his mother tongue, Dutch, to give the clearest possible account of his ideas. However, the same author would soon be disillusioned by the capacities of his own language and decided to publish most of his works in the more common language of science at the time - Latin.

This book project trains its sight on the interface between these two parallel worlds, the one constituted by the mother tongue, the other by the professional language of learning. With the example of the Flemish natural philosopher Jan Baptista van Helmont, his son Franciscus Mercurius (1614-1698), and numerous other early modern Europeans, this book looks at how authors of scientific and medical texts tried to navigate a passage back and forth between their languages. Covering the seventeenth century, this book lays bare the development from the promotion of vernacular languages as appropriate languages for science, to the lack of a common language, and therefore the renewed search for a universal language of science. The seventeenth-century authors searched through languages, metaphors, (mental) images, and even through the morphological forms of the thorax (to name just a few) for a way of expressing their ideas about nature as precisely and accurate as possible.

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