Biography Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz

Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz (23 May 1606 – 7 Sept. 1682) was a Spanish mathematician, writer and philosopher, famous for his Catholic faith and his prolific number of published works on subjects such as astronomy and mathematics.

Born to Lorenzo Caramuel and Catalina de Frisia, in Madrid, Spain, Caramuel was to receive early instruction in scientific and math-related matters from his father. Lorenzo was an engineer from Luxembourg, and his interest in astronomy was something he passed on to his son. Caramuel proved an able and intelligent pupil who could construct astronomical tables by the age of 12.

Having been tutored at home during his formative years, he received further education at a local Jesuit school before his move to the University of Alcalá, Madrid.  There he studied philosophy and humanities, his graduating dissertation being “Infinite Logic,” which gained him an M.A. before he moved on, entering the Cistercian Order at the Monasterio de la Espina near Medina de Rioseco, Valladolid.

Swapping monasteries, Caramuel went on to study philosophy at Monasterio de Montederramo, Orense, followed by studies in theology at Santa Maria del Destierro of Salamanca. Caramuel had a real aptitude for languages and is said to have been able to speak 20 fluently, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Chinese.

Caramuel spent time teaching in Cistercian colleges – Alcalá and Santa Maria de Palazuelos – after leaving Salamanca, and he also took time to travel a great deal, including visits to Portugal and Belgium around 1632, staying for a time in Flanders, at the Monastery of Dunes.

Caramuel eventually decided to settle in Leuven, Brabant – today a part of Belgium – and take up work on a doctorate in theology, which he received in Sept. 1638. Continuing to teach in Leuven, he was also made Abbot of Melrose, Scotland, a position which never actually took him to the country.  Remaining in Leuven until 1644, Caramuel would publish a large volume of works in this period, covering theology (“Theologia moralis ad prima atque clarissima principia reducta” – 1643) science, philosophy (“Rationalis et realis philosophia” -1642) and mathematics.

He is said to have “…published works in mathematics and astronomy, corresponded with important scholars, and even experimented with a pendulum by hanging weights from a library roof. Yet what he failed to do, despite his continued efforts, was to obtain a permanent academic or ecclesiastical position,” and a permanent position was desirable both financially and in terms of status.

As a Cistercian, Caramuel was always ready to debate and protect religion as he saw it, including many attacks on the beliefs of the Jesuit community. His refusal to temper his thoughts or actions probably cost him the  position at Leuven University; however, in 1644 he received an appointment as the Abbot of Disibodenberg, Mainz – state capital of the Rhineland-Palatinate region in Germany – and during his time there, whilst supposed to be trying to understand the problems between local Catholics and Protestants (he failed), he would be forced to flee for his life on numerous occasions.

In 1645, Caramuel headed for Prague and, whilst there, was awarded a gold medal by Emperor Ferdinand III for his bravery in defence of the city when it was attacked by Swedish forces at the end of the Thirty Years War. His most important work of the period was the “Theologia moralis fundamentalis, praeterintentionalis, decalogica, sacramentalis, canonica, regularis, civilis, militaris” (1652), but his published pieces and his outspoken nature were doing him no favours. Despite having some protection from the Pope, Alexander VII – once a friend but somewhat estranged due to their differing religious opinions –  Caramuel was eventually forced to leave Rome and told the equivalent of “keep your head down.”

He was made Bishop of Santriano, Italy, in 1657 and he was indeed quiet, publishing nothing until the “Apologema pro Antiquisima et Universalissima Doctrina de Probabilitate” (1663), a full six years after his appointment. In 1673, Caramuel was appointed Bishop of Vigevano, Milan, and continued to write, research, explore and publish on a vast array of subject matter, including:

“The first published discussion of the binary system was given in a comparatively little-known work by a Spanish bishop, Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz, ‘Mathesis biceps’ (Campaniae, 1670) pp. 45-48: Caramuel discussed the representation of numbers in radices 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, and 60 at some length, but gave no examples of arithmetic operations in nondecimal systems (except for the trivial operation of adding unity).”

Caramuel died unexpectedly, aged 76, during evening service. For a man who published over 262 books on subjects as varied as mathematics and theology – a bibliography of his works can be found at Scholasticon – he is surprisingly unknown.