Fludd’s Life and Work
A Memory Palace
An encounter with the works of Robert Fludd (1574-1637) is like exploring a Renaissance memory palace, perhaps on the scale of the Pitti Palace in Florence or the Escorial in San Lorenzo, and equally labyrinthine and laden with meaning. I imagine two vast symmetrical wings marked with the signs of the Macrocosm and the Microcosm, the latter still unfinished. At the juncture of the two is a library, where grandiose lecterns support the Holy Scriptures and the works of Hermes Trismegistus, with those of Plato within easy reach. The central hall of each wing is hung with heraldic shields celebrating Fludd’s ancestry, and views of the foreign cities he visited. From it many corridors radiate, their walls lined with charts, tables, and diagrams and leading to further clusters of rooms, no two alike. One room may hold a collection of cannons; another, a bubbling alchemical furnace, or a giant mechanical harp. Here a group of students is spattering paper with ink dots, to be interpreted through geomancy; there, they are reading each other’s palms.
At the back of the main building is a third wing, half built and more austere in architecture. Pictures of all the organs and internal details of the human body decorate its walls, as well as portraits of the angels and demons who take an interest in it. No surgery is done here, but corpses are sometimes smuggled in, for concoction of the Weapon Salve. The official faculties are those of Urinomancy and Astrology, with a research institute for studying the pulse in the light of the recent discovery of the circulation of the blood. There is a consulting room, and a Protestant chapel in which prayer is offered when medicine fails.
Outside the palace is a yard for military drill, a large herb garden, and some ingenious waterworks, but nothing affording pleasure for its own sake. Statues of Fludd’s friends and opponents dot the parterres. The former, more numerous, include King James I, King Charles I, the royal physician Sir William Paddy, and one or two archbishops. The second group includes Johannes Kepler, Pierre Gassendi, and two twisted, leering figures labelled “Father Mersenne” and “Parson Foster.” A small pavilion, its door sealed, is marked with Rosicrucian symbols. Other outbuildings house a meteorological station and, surprisingly, a factory for the forging of steel. The whole complex is surrounded by moats and bastions in the shape of a star. Nowhere in it is a single woman to be seen.
Thus, emulating Fludd’s flair for visualization, we may sketch an intellectual world unrivalled in its breadth and ambition; for the era would soon pass in which one man’s mind could encompass so much of human knowledge. This very ambition was one cause of the obscurity into which Fludd fell, almost as soon as he was dead. He was not original enough in any of the disciplines that would make history, such as astronomy, mechanics, philosophy, medicine, or the arts. Another reason was his obsession with a few dominant ideas, such as the pyramids of spirit and matter, the monochord, the weather glass, a theory of winds, geomancy, and an alchemical experiment with wheat. Each of these generated book-length studies in which every circumstance and combination is laboriously explained, with frequent recourse to biblical authority. The reader can usually get the point in a fraction of the time from the illustrations, as Fludd himself admitted when he wrote against Kepler’s prolixity: “What he has expressed in many words and long discussion, I have compressed into a few words and explained by means of hieroglyphic and exceedingly significant figures.” The number of illustrations in Fludd’s works exceeds those in any encyclopaedic literature before Diderot’s. It was these that kept Fludd’s reputation alive and his books in the libraries of bibliophiles, though more out of curiosity than respect.
Historians, at least until recently, have neglected the current of thought to which Fludd made his most permanent contribution: it was the esoteric tradition, and specifically the blend of Christian Hermetism with the occult sciences. Here his amplitude of mind found its true range, which was not the horizontal one, taking in the multiple fields of man’s activities, but the vertical one that starts from the first principles of theology and metaphysics and descends the chain of being to its limit.