chapter  2
ALCHEMY
ByMARK S. MORRISSON
Pages 12

For many, the word “alchemy” conjures up visions of deluded fanatics wasting their lives, health, and fortunes on a futile quest to manufacture gold from other metals, the so-called “puffers” of early modern art and literature whose bellows fed the flames of their furnaces and their unrealizable ambitions. Historians of chemistry have often supported this understanding, looking at alchemy as a dead-end pseudoscience that was left behind by the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this interpretation, alchemy is portrayed as the last vestige of medieval thought, swept aside by the mechanical philosophy of Boyle and others. Yet in recent years, the notion of a “Scientific Revolution” has itself come under criticism. Many historians “now reject even the notion that there was any single coherent cultural entity called ‘science’ in the seventeenth century to undergo revolutionary change. There was, rather, a diverse array of cultural practices aimed at understanding, explaining, and controlling the natural world, each with different characteristics and each experiencing different modes of change” (Shapin 1996: 3). Moreover, “Literary and rhetorical forms contributed to the development of science as a modern discipline so that early modern ‘literature’ and ‘science’ cannot always be sharply distinguished” (Cummins and Burchell 2007: 2). Alchemy is one of the “diverse array of cultural practices” of medieval and

early modern thought that has gone through a significant recent re-evaluation. Historians of science have shown that important figures in seventeenth-century science – such as Boyle and Newton, who had been the heroes of earlier accounts of the Scientific Revolution – had significant investments in alchemical practice and theory. For example, Newton studied alchemy for decades, transcribing alchemical treatises, reading widely in the field, and conducting laboratory work in alchemy in his hand-built brick furnaces (Dobbs 1991: 1). Alchemy played an important role in the development of what eventually became modern chemistry, and it should be seen as a key contributor to the science of Boyle and others (Newman 1994, 2004, 2006; Newman and Principe 1998, 2002). “The historiographic mistake … is the belief (or presumption) that there existed before the eighteenth century a clear and widely held distinction between alchemy and

chemistry (or alchemists and chemists)” (Newman and Principe 1998: 32-33). Yet, while the term “Scientific Revolution” might be problematic, “few areas reveal the great divide that separates us from the mainstream medieval and Renaissance view of nature so effectively as the theory of matter and its operations” (Newman 2006: 4). Alchemy offered “the experimental means to debunk scholastic theories of perfect mixture and to demonstrate the retrievability of material ingredients” (Newman 2006: 3). Instead of supporting the hylomorphism of medieval scholastic matter theory – “the interaction of immaterial forms that imparted qualities to an otherwise undifferentiated prime matter” (Newman 2006: 13) – alchemists such as the thirteenth-century writer Geber actually invoked a corpuscular theory of matter akin to the later work of Descartes, Gassendi, and Boyle (Newman 2006: 13). In other words, medieval alchemy and scholasticism were not always in step with each other, and some alchemical work helped pave the way for later theories of matter that would replace scholastic interpretations. Newman’s and Principe’s work on Boyle and on the American alchemist George Starkey has documented the many theoretical and laboratory contributions of alchemy to what eventually became the understanding of matter in modern chemistry. In addition, as I will show, alchemy and alchemical tropes became important to science again in a much later period – and played a significant role in the emerging science and culture of what eventually became the domain of nuclear physics. Alchemy has had a long and rich history in literature, and many alchemical

manuscripts were written as poetry and often heavily illustrated. For example, the alchemical text translated centuries later by A.E. Waite as The Book of Lambspring: A Noble Ancient Philosopher, Concerning the Philosophical Stone was written in Latin verse by Nicholas Barnaud Delphinas at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and circulated in manuscript form before beginning its publication history as an emblem book, De Lapide PhilosophicoTriga Chemicum in Prague in 1599. Its haunting visual illustrations and poetry were then published by Lucas Jennis in Frankfurt in his Musaeum Hermeticum in 1625 (McLean 1986), again in 1678 in an expanded Latin collection, and finally in 1893 in Waite’s translation in The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged, an important publication of the late nineteenth-century revival of interest in Hermeticism. Both The Book of Lambspring and The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged remain in print today. Scientific documents of the early modern period commonly took the form of illustrated treatises, often in verse. Cummins and Burchell emphasize the rhetorical and literary dimensions of early modern science, noting that “Even Galileo, who was a great scientific and mathematical innovator, used dramatic dialogues to convey his ideas” (2007: 2). In addition to the practicing alchemists who adopted literary forms, literary

figures of the early modern period – such as Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne – often invoked alchemical practices or tropes in their work. Anne Sutherland (2007) has tracked the alchemical references in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (1611),

suggesting that alchemy, with its hints of the new empirical sciences as well as medieval thought, contributes to the scientific contexts of the overall theme of regeneration in the play. Similarly, Katherine Eggert argues that Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy The Alchemist, which depicts an increasingly popular image of the alchemist as charlatan and trickster preying upon the gullible, is in fact more complex than a simple voice of the scientific modernity to come:

The Alchemist’s ambivalent treatment of alchemy and of other branches of the natural sciences establishes Jonson not simply as an advance man for the Scientific Revolution but rather as a writer profoundly engaged with scientific practice as it existed in his time, which was a long period of both transition and overlap between old and new.