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Alchemy

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Alchemy

‘…Alchemy has a two-fold acceptation, respecting the two different things which it pursues: viz. 1.
The secret of making gold from any other metal. 2. An universal medicine for the cure of all diseases;
which is a distinction of the utmost moment, in an inquiry into the origin of alchemy’.

Herman Boerhaave, A new method of chemistry (London, 1727), p. 10.

The distinction made here by the famous early eighteenth-century Leiden physician Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), between the search for the transmutation of metals on the one hand, and the quest for an elixir of life on the other, reflects the changing perception of alchemy in early modern Europe. This was part of a more fundamental change taking place which sought to redefine the complex relationship between ‘alchimia’ and ‘chimia’. Whereas previously ‘chimia medica’ had formed part of an overarching ‘alchimia’, late seventeenth-century writers such as Nicolas Lémery (1645-1715) now persuasively argued that ‘alchimia’ was merely a part of ‘chimia’. Lémery (whose textbook on chymistry was collected by Worth), proved to be an extremely popular writer and by the early 1730s ‘alchimia’ has in some circles been reduced to the study of the transmutation of metals alone. For earlier medieval and sixteenth-century practitioners however, the two were strands of the same intellectual web, and within alchemy itself, as Keith Thomas (1985) reminds us, ‘aurum potabile’ (gold in a liquid form) was considered by some to be a key ingredient in the medicinal elixir which was the goal of sixteenth-century chymical physicians such as Paracelsus.

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Elias Ashmole, Theatrum chemicum Britannicum…
(London, 1652), H2v.

Worth collected a host of books which included both medieval and contemporary treatises on alchemy in its many manifestations. He had treatises by all the leading alchemical writers mentioned by Boerhaave in the latter’s ‘Prologomena, or the History of Chemistry’: Roger Bacon, Ramon Lull, George Ripley, John Hollandus, Geber, Basil Valentine, and Paracelsus. Works by Roger Bacon and George Ripley were printed in his copy of Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652), one of the most important texts in what Keith Thomas (1985) calls the ‘democratization of alchemy’, a process well underway in England in the period 1650-1680. During these decades more books being printed on alchemy than at any time before or since. As Mendelsohn (1992) argues, the fact that the alchemical printing phenomenon extended across the commonwealth and restoration period undermines the long associations between alchemy and political radicalism which earlier historians have suggested existed. But if not inherently politically radical, Ashmole’s collection of treatises from famous English alchemists could be considered to be radical in another sense. As the illustration above makes clear, central to the alchemical pursuit of hidden knowledge was the master-student relationship, yet by publishing such texts of the ‘adepts’, Ashmole and George Starkey (another popularizer of alchemical lore whose books were bought by Worth) redefined the social position of the alchemist.

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Michael Maier, Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum (Frankfurt, 1687), p. 61.

To practitioners of spiritual alchemy such as Michael Maier, whose famous alchemical emblem book the Secretioris naturae secretorum scrutinium chymicum (Frankfurt, 1687) Worth likewise collected, the transmutation of metals was a not a quest for material wealth but was the final indication that the alchemist had spiritually transformed himself: it could only be done when the alchemist had ceased to covet gold. As Mendelsohn (1992) reminds us, this was a doctrine to which George Starkey also agreed: writing to his friend Robert Boyle he emphasised the importance of the spiritual development of the ‘philosopher by fire’: ‘When the Artist doth not seriously implore Gods blessing, how can he expect to be prosperous in his search after these mysteries of Nature?’ However, not all would-be alchemists held such lofty ideals: As Nummedal (2007) relates, Maier had already devoted a treatise to the risk to the profession of the rise of ‘fraudulent’ alchemists – in much the same way that later physicians would decry the rise of the apothecary.

Sources

Boerhaave, Herman (1727), A new method of chemistry (London).

Joly, B. (2007), ‘Quarrels between Etienne-François and Louis Lémery at the Academie Royale des Sciences in the early eighteenth century: mechanism and alchemy’ in Principe, L. M. (ed.) Chymists and chymistry. Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Modern Chemistry (Sagamore Beach), pp 203-214.

Lémery, Nicolas (1698), A course of chymistry (London).

Mendelsohn, J. A. (1992), ‘Alchemy and Politics in England 1649-1665’, Past and Present no. 135, pp 30-78.

Newman, W. R. and Principle, L. M., (1998), ‘Alchemy vs chemistry: the etymological originals of a historiographic mistake’, Early Science and Medicine 3, pp 32-65.

Newman, W. R. and Principle, L. M., (2006), ‘Some problems with the historiography of alchemy’ in W. R. Newman and A. Grafton (eds), Secrets of nature: astrology and alchemy in early modern Europe (Cambridge), pp 381-431.

Nummedal, Tara (2007), ‘On the Utility of Alchemical Fraud’, in Principe, L. M. (ed.) Chymists and chymistry. Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Modern Chemistry (Sagamore Beach), pp 173-180.

Powers, J. C. (1998), ‘“Ars since arte”: Nicholas Lémery and the end of alchemy in eighteenth-century France’, Ambix, 45: 3, pp. 511-37.

Thomas, Keith (1985), Religion and the Decline of Magic (Middlesex).

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Elias Ashmole, Theatrum chemicum Britannicum… (London, 1652), 2F3r.

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