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Recalled into stalk and leaves: the many methods and meanings of early modern palingenesis

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Seventeenth-century physicians and alchemists describe a broad range of methods by which they regenerated plants and animals from their incinerated or boiled remains by processes known as ‘palingenesis’. Amazed witnesses describe a multitude of plant species grown in glass vials and fields in locations ranging from Cracow to Rome to Dorset. This paper examines accounts of what they saw, the processes by which they resurrected specimens, references to others who participated in their experiments, and reflections on the implications of these marvellous phenomena. Their reports largely cite predecessors’ accounts and explain that while they were unable to replicate observations by the methods described, they achieved analogous results through using different techniques or materials. The many reports throughout the seventeenth century reveal patterns in the ways that proponents of palingenesis used the very variability between their observations to strengthen the credibility of their findings. While Robert Boyle was unable to achieve the regeneration of plants in his laboratory, this did not lead him to dismiss the process as impossible. Instead, he considers palingenesis among examples of ‘unsucceeding experiments’ that serve to shed light on challenges posed by experimentation, especially on (once) living beings. While witnesses’ accounts leave us to speculate about what they actually saw, the variations between their reports together with Boyle’s reflections on problems of variability in experiments provide fertile ground in which to explore why lack of replicability did not entail impossibility.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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