BSR Online Lecture | Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont and his universal language


Sietske Fransen (Hertziana)

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In the years 1661 to 1663, during his 18-month imprisonment in Rome, Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-1698) wrote a tiny book entitled Alphabeti vere naturalis Hebraici brevissima delineation [Short Sketch of the Truly Natural Hebrew Alphabet]. After briefly explaining how Franciscus Mercurius ended up in prison due to the Inquisition, this paper will focus on his Short Sketch. Published in 1667 in Sulzbach, this book promotes an inclusive use of language for those who were not so fortunate to have language in the first place. Franciscus Mercurius namely argues that the Hebrew alphabet can be used to teach deaf and mute children to learn how to speak. His ideas did not come out of the blue. The search for and theories about universal languages went through a peak of interest in the middle of the seventeenth century. What is more, Van Helmont’s father, the famous physician Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), had a whole theory of language himself, which, as I will show, strongly influenced Franciscus Mercurius’ 1667 publication.

Sietske Fransen is a historian of early modern science and medicine, with a special interest in matters of communication, translation, and visual culture across Europe. She holds undergraduate degrees in biology and medieval studies (Utrecht), and an MA and PhD from the Warburg Institute in London. She has been a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science in Berlin, and in the AHRC-funded project “Making Visible” at the University of Cambridge. Since September 2019, she has lead the Max Planck Research Group “Visualizing Science in Media Revolutions” at the Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for History of Art in Rome.