Death in Vienna and the City of Salt

By Helen King

Since I’ve been working in Vienna, I’ve become fascinated by the cemeteries: in particular, the Zentralfriedhof, which is so big that there are three tram stops along its perimeter and a special shuttle bus to get around inside, as it takes so long to walk from one end to the other. 

A tomb in the Old Jewish Cemetery, Zentralfriedhof

I’ve only explored a few sections so far, including the Jewish part, where the tombs are sometimes spectacular and often very moving, because the history of this city includes the slaughter of the prominent Jewish community in 1938 when Hitler announced the annexation of Austria – the Anschluss. Outside this very special part, where what is striking is often precisely the blend of familiar, classical architecture with Hebrew inscriptions, I am fascinated by how different the styles of grave are from those in England with which I’m more familiar. 

St Peter's Cemetery, Salzburg

St Peter’s Cemetery, Salzburg

 

I was recently in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, for a couple of days, and was struck by how the graves here were different again: grave markers were metal, not stone, and often very delicate, while the graves themselves were planted with masses of pansies. In 19th-century language of flowers, pansies meant ‘thoughts’, and so were appropriate for ‘remembrance’. Is that what they mean in Salzburg? 

I also discovered that the city contains the grave of someone who, for a medical historian, means even more than Mozart: Paracelsus, who died there at the age of 48. Born Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, this controversial 16th-century figure has been hailed as the father of chemistry (by various chemistry textbooks), as the authentic voice of central European medicine (by Hitler) and as the founder of alternative medicine (by Prince Charles – or at least by his speech-writer). 

Why the controversy? Paracelsus attacked the dominant Galenic tradition in medicine, and the universities which taught it. He is supposed to have said that his shoe-buckles knew more medicine than Galen did. He burned Galen’s books. He said that medicine should be learned not by studying the books of the ‘ancients’, but by travel – one country, one page of the book of Paracelsus' grave monument, Salzburgmedicine. He hung out in bars, talking to ordinary people and finding out what they believed about medicine. He even abandoned the four humors – the constituent fluids of the body that had to stay in balance for health to be maintained – and instead talked about salt, sulfur and mercury. He was aware of the power of minerals to affect the body, having worked in mines himself.

Not all of this monument in Salzburg (which incidentally refers to ‘Salz’, ‘salt’ – it’s a salt-mining area)  is original; Paracelsus’ bones were moved when the church was repaired in 1752. What interested me most were the achievements of Paracelsus that were listed: ‘his art most wondrously healed even the most terrible wounds, leprosy, gout, dropsy, and other seemingly incurable diseases’. Just two years after the bones were moved, Arentius Lambrechts wrote in his treatise on gout: ‘It is inscribed on the Statue erected to the Memory of Paracelsus, that he could cure the Gout, by which, I suppose, is to be understood, he cured the Fit by ordering a good Diet, giving proper Anodynes, &c. But this does not root out the Seeds of the Disease; Nature left to herself would have performed thus much.’ Lambrechts is making Paracelsus sound like he followed the standard treatments but, in another tradition, also referred to in the inscription, Paracelsus was alchemist more than doctor. 

In the past, alchemy was seen as a form of science. Even such an apparently ‘modern’ figure as Isaac Newton also wrote about a million words on his alchemical experiments. When Paracelsus talked about salt, sulfur and mercury, he saw these as three constituent parts of one individual: if you take wood and burn it, the part that burns is the sulfur, the smoke is the mercury, and the ash is the salt, and human beings, too, are composed of three different parts. Because little of his work was known until after his death, and he never wrote a structured book, modern scholars are still trying to work out what Paracelsus meant, and to decide whether he was a madman or a visionary!

  • Bob Mrotek

    In Spanish, pansies are called “pensamientos” which means “thoughts”.

    • Helen King

      Thanks! still not sure this is going to work in Austria, where the word for pansy seems to come out as ‘little stepmothers’!