Tracking the alchemical gospel through Medieval and Early Modern England

This is going to be yet another of those book reviews where I start by explaining how much the history of science has changed since I first became engaged in it, in my youth. Back in the not so good old days, the so-called occult sciences we not really considered part of the history of science by the mainstream of the discipline. In fact, they were often viewed as somehow dirty and degrading. When it first began to be suggested that Isaac Newton was an alchemist, Rupert Hall, then a leading historian of science, insisted that Newton’s activities had actually been chemistry, motivated by his work as boss of the Royal Mint and definitely not alchemy. I of course, not knowing better, stuck to the mainstream and avoided the occult sciences. Something, I now regard as rather strange given my very active advocacy for the history of astrology if one wishes to understand the history of astronomy.

As far as the history of alchemy is concerned, my eyes were opened by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs’ The Foundations of Newtons Alchemy, or the Hunting of the Green Lyon (CUP; 1976), which I read with growing amazement and enthusiasm, sometime in the early 1980s. My memory tells me that the book caused a minor sensation in the history of science world, revealing as it did, for the first time with academic rigour, the extent of Newton’s involvement with this distinctly non-scientific discipline. The effect was even greater when Richard Westfall, Newton’s greatest biographer, gave more than tacit support to Dobbs’ views on Newton’s alchemical activities. Alchemy was now a serious subject for historians of science to pursue.

Over the succeeding decades the history of alchemy became an accepted part of the history of science with excellent publications from first class historians such as Bruce Moran, Tara Nummedal, Pamala H. Smith, as well as William R. R. Newman and Lawrence Principe both together and separately. For somebody new to the discipline I can recommend Lawrence Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy (University of Chicago Press, 2013), as an excellent general introduction. William Newman’s newest book is Newton the Alchemist: Science, Enigma, and the Quest for Nature’s Secret Fire (Princeton University Press, 2018). One of the stars of the new generation of historians of alchemy is Jennifer M. Rampling, whose latest book, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy 1300–1700[1] is the subject of this book review.

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Rampling’s book delivers exactly what the title promises. She takes her reader along the winding path that the study and practice of alchemy took in England from its early establishment during the reign of Edward III (1312–1377) up to end of the seventeenth century, when those stalwart founders of modern science, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were practicing alchemists.

Before she takes the reader through four hundred years of English alchemy history, Rampling prefaces the journey with a discussion of the multiple meanings, conflicting and oft contradictory meanings, shifting meanings and evolving meanings of various central alchemical terms, most notably mercury and the stone, as in the philosophers stone. Her careful analysis demonstrates the problems involved in trying to understand alchemical writings, not only for the modern reader or historian but also for the alchemical practitioners throughout history. This chapter also serves as an introduction to the central aspect of the book, what the author calls, ‘practical exegesis’. This is the process by which the practicing alchemists reads, interprets and attempts to convert into practice, the authoritative texts that allude and hint rather than instruct openly and clearly. Throughout her narrative Rampling shows how each generation of English alchemists made great efforts to produce a consistent, at least internally rational reading of the texts and authorities that they are working with.

Rampling distinguishes two main types of practicing alchemists. On the one hand we have the philosophical alchemist, who presents long complex interpretations of the authoritative texts to demonstrate his mastery of the secrets that they contain. Such alchemists oft preferred to avoid the term alchemist referring to themselves as philosophers, or natural philosophers, who rise above the mundane production of gold, although willing, when suitably induced, to do just that. On the other hand, there are the purely practical alchemists, who head straight for the laboratory with a recipe in hand and have little time for the high-flown philosophical speculations of their colleagues. Rampling deals predominantly with those of a philosophical cast.

Readers of this blog will know that I place a lot of emphasis in the history of science on a contextual narrative i.e., under which circumstances did the science in question take place, what were the external forces driving the science and how were the practitioners embedded in their cultural milieu. In this sense Rampling’s in exemplary. Her alchemists do not speculate in thin air devoid of any contact to society in general but are firmly embedded in the cultures of their times.

Rampling’s alchemists are real people, where the sources make this possible and unfortunately the sources are often meagre, she describes their life circumstances, their professions, their non-alchemical activities and their alchemical motivations. Financing was always important for alchemists and Rampling gives in depth analysis of the texts they wrote to attract wealthy, aristocratic and particularly royal sponsors for their alchemical endeavours. How these are formulated is particularly revealing, because for much of the period under discussion alchemy, or at least multiplication i.e., the alchemical production of gold or silver bullion was forbidden by law. On the other had the Crown was perpetually destitute and more than a bit interested in alchemists’ claims to able to covert base metals into gold and silver.

The English alchemy that Rampling traces down the centuries has its roots in the alchemical texts attributed to the Majorcan mathematician, philosopher and logician Ramon Llull (c. 1232–c. 1315). Attributed is here the correct term because none of texts were actually written by the Spanish polymath, which illustrates the common practice of attributing alchemical texts to eminent authors to increase their status. However, the medieval English alchemists believed the fake attribution and worked on understanding and interpreting the pseudo-Lllullian texts.

Having laid the foundations Rampling moves on to George Ripley (c. 1415–1490), who takes up a central position in the book. Ripley is the most important English medieval alchemist and Rampling takes the reader carefully through his main writings, explaining how he interpreted and balanced out the obscurities and contradictions he found in reading the pseudo-Llullian and other writings that informed his practice.

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Have laid the basics, Rampling takes us down the years to 1700, showing how successive generations reworked the pseudo-Llullian and Ripleyian texts, creating new contributions to the alchemical canon, often reassigning known texts to new authors to give them more authority.  We learn how Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the loss of large quantities of manuscripts relevant to the study of alchemy making life difficult for the historian. However, Rampling shows how to reconstruct the alchemy of the period using literary archaeology on those texts that are still available.

Moving into the Elizabethan period we meet two new phenomena in the world of alchemy.  The English alchemist produced English translations of Latin texts making them available to a wider audience and at the same time creating a truly English school of alchemy. At the same time the English alchemists had to cope with foreign alchemists coming to their island and competing for the limited sources of sponsorship needed to set up alchemical laboratories and purchase the necessary starting materials.

Although it deals primarily with English alchemy, throughout the book the reader learns quite a lot about the continental developments, as there was, during the whole period, active exchange between the island and the mainland. Ripley is, for example, said to have travelled and studied on the continent the supposed source of much of his alchemical wisdom. The Elizabethan continental alchemists refreshed the English tradition with new continental developments in the discipline.

This exchange reached a high point in the life and work of Edward Kelley (1555–1597/8), who, better known as the scryer who mediated John Dee’s conversations with angels, was in his later life an acclaimed alchemist on the European mainland. Kelley originally travelled to Prague with Dee to try and find favour with the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, who was the biggest supporter and sponsor of the occult sciences in the whole of Europe. Dee failed to find favour on the continent and returned disappointed to England whereas Kelley remained and established himself as a leading alchemical authority. Rampling takes us skilfully through the twists and turns, and ups and downs of Kelley’s late career and yet another reworking of the pseudo-Llullian-Ripleyian canon, which found favour amongst continental practitioners

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As is now well known to Newton scholars, alchemy didn’t disappear with the advent of the so-called scientific revolution but was still strong in England in the seventeenth century, with Newton, Boyle and Locke all practitioners. Here Rampling takes us through the work of figures such as Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), who created large collections of alchemical manuscripts and books in the final phase of English alchemy.

Rampling’s extensive survey of English alchemy is a masterclass in history of science research and serves as a model for anyone who wishes to undertake such a project. Although it meets the highest standards of academic research, she writes with a light touch and an accomplished literary style making a complex and technical topic accessible to the not necessarily specialist reader. The book is illustrated with grey in grey prints and, hallelujah, it has very extensive, high informative footnotes (not endnotes!). There is a wide-ranging bibliography of both primary and secondary sources and a comprehensive index.

The Experimental Fire is probably not recommended as an introductory text for somebody completely new to the history of alchemy, they should perhaps read Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy before attempting to tackle Rampling’s more advanced text. However, anybody with some basic knowledge of the history of alchemy, and an interest in developing that knowledge, could and should read her book. For those with a serious interest in the topic The Experimental Fire is an obligatory read and must already be considered a standard work in the genre.

[1] Jennifer M. Rampling, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy 1300–1700, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2020.

9 Comments

Filed under History of Alchemy, History of science

9 responses to “Tracking the alchemical gospel through Medieval and Early Modern England

  1. Did alchemy gradually shade into chemistry, or is there a natural place to draw a dividing line?

    Related: astrology never went away, although nowadays it’s not regarded as a science. Alchemy is a different story, yes?

    • Back in the spaced-out days of the 70s and 80s I was well read up on all the work of C.G. Jung, including his studies of alchemical lore. Most of the time I was able to understand it all as metaphorical images of psychological dynamics and that was all I needed to get out it. But I occasionally encountered individuals who looked askance at Jung’s approach and took alchemy much more literally as a guide to their explorations in the properties of real material substances.

    • The transition from alchemy to chemistry was gradual, although there is a point somewhere in the 18th century where chemist divorced themselves from alchemy, claiming falsely that the two had nothing to do with each other.

      There had always been a strong element of what we now call industrial chemistry and practical chemistry in alchemy. Alchemy had its origins in the art of producing false gem stones, a purely practical aspect of chemistry. Alchemists were also responsible for manufacturing gunpowder and colour pigments amongst other chemical products. Alchemists also produced essences and oils by distillation. In fact the art of chemical extraction through alcoholic distillation was so popular for a time that alchemy was known as the art of distillation.

      Virtually all of the techniques and methods used in early chemistry were developed by alchemists.

      What is considered the first chair for chemistry at a European university, at the University of Marburg (1609), was in fact a chair for Paracelsian medical alchemy. This is part of a gradual transition from alchemy to chemistry that begins in the late 16th century and goes through into the early 18th century. Historians of alchemy such as Principe use the term chymistry to distinguish this transitional phase.

      Although not so prominent as the modern astrologers there are still practicing alchemists or at least people who regard themselves as such.

    • Yes, they kind of shaded into each other but as Thony says a deliberate break was made. The point is that alchemy kept going, revived and encouraged a number of chemical operations such as distillation and the production of mineral acids which fed directly into the growth of chemistry, not to mention the wide variety of laboratory equipment that would have had to have been invented from scratch had alchemy never existed.

      There are modern alchemists, I consider them to be nutters although it is hard to deal with someone who genuinely believes he has seen transmutation happen in front of them.

      • Simple question: Why aren’t they rich? Why have you never read in the newspaper “psychic wins lottery”? If someone really knows how to make a lot of money on the stock market, they don’t need the pay for going on television at 5 in the morning to give punters some tips.

      • I can’t seem to reply to Phillip’s post, but basically the answer is that the people involved are not specifically attempting transmutation for that purpose. They have a mindset and philosophy which is not about getting rich that way, although I would expect there are criminal parasites who prey on them and indeed I would argue many of the most famous modern alchemists are basically parasites even if not legally criminals. It all then shades over into the modern woooo which abounds; links and re-phrasings have been made between easter and western philosophy, alchemy, religions etc etc, heck 400 years ago they were christianising Kabala and tying it to alchemy in some way or another and plenty of modern folk are trying the same thing.

  2. @ Jon Awbrey there was an attempt starting in the 19th century, in which Jung played a leading role, to present alchemy as a purely spiritual discipline, which regarded all of the stuff about transmuting lead to gold as purely allegorical. This was based on the fact that alchemical texts do contain instructions on spiritual purity arguing that only a spiritually pure master can achieve transmutation. This interpretation is largely rejected by the modern alchemy historians.

    • All the books of my Jung Jahre are packed away in the darkest corner of my basement but it’s my sense Jung was concerned with the conscious attitudes of alchemical practitioners only as clues to the dynamics of the collective unconscious, whatever that is. At any rate, that’s the rationale behind most psychological interpretations of cultural curiosities.

  3. You write about the occult sciences not being seen as part of the mainstream history of science, but I have always found that a bit odd. For instance, SHAc was founded before WW2 and several books written, admittedly by chemists not historians, about the history of chemistry and alchemy. Therefore even before I started getting into alchemy I had always thought of it as related to chemistry and a proper useful subhect of historical study in it’s own right, even if rather slanted towards how alchemy led to chemistry rather than purely within the context of it’s times.
    I guess it depends on which books on the history of science you happen to have read first. Newman and Principe sometimes read like they are on a vendetta against the early historians of science who binned alchemy, yet I never got that impression reading UK authors, I think it was more of an american thing.

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