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 is the subject of this book review.
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.
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
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.
 Jennifer M. Rampling, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy 1300–1700, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2020.