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But notwithstanding for peril that may befall,
If I dare not here plainely the know unbind,
Yet in my writing I will not be so mysticall,
But that by study the true Knowledge you may find.
How that each thing is multiplied in its kind,
And how the likeness of Bodies metalline be transmutable,
I will declare, that if you feel me in your mind,
My writing you shall find true, and no fained Fable.
Eirenaeus Philalethes [George Starkey],
Ripley Reviv’d: or, an exposition upon
Sir George Ripley’s Hermetico-Poetical
Works (London, 1678), p. 5.
George Starkey (1628-1665), was an American alchemist who was taken up by the circle of Samuel Hartlib (d. 1662) on his arrival in England in 1650. A keen supporter of the theories of Jean Baptist Van Helmont, Starkey proceeded to make a name for himself publishing helmontian-inspired works but he really only became a publishing success under an assumed name: ‘Eirenaeus Philalethes’ (literally ‘a peaceful lover of truth’). Starkey constructed an imaginary biography for Eirenaeus Philalethes and, ironically, his works under this name achieved wider success than those under his own. As Newman (2004) relates, Sir Isaac Newton ‘numbered Philalethes among his favourite authors’ and Ripley Reviv’d was one of Newton’s favourite works by Starkey. The publishing success of the fictitious ‘Eirenaeus Philalethes’ is clearly apparent in Worth’s copy of his Ripley Reviv’d (London, 1678) where the bookseller exhorts the reader not only to pass on as many copies of the text as possible but also to ‘send any of this Author’s Pieces, either mentioned or not mentioned in the Catalogue’ to his shop.
Writing under this nom de plume Starkey published a host of works, among them a number of commentaries on the works of George Ripley, a fifteenth-century English alchemist. As Newman (1994) has demonstrated, Starkey was eager to identify himself with Ripley, seeking to promote his own alchemical theory under the authoritative framework of his earlier namesake.
George Ripley (d.c.1490) was a figure of fascination for early modern English alchemists. An Augustinian canon of Bridlington Priory in Yorkshire he was said to have travelled to Italy and Louvain in the search for alchemical lore, dedicating his findings to Edward IV. Ripley himself had sought to revive the study of alchemical following earlier prohibitions under Henry IV and, as Gross (2004) suggests, his style of alchemy, influenced as it was by the works of Ramon Lull, emphasised the importance of sexual union as a metaphor for alchemical experiments. That he was successful in his attempts to revive alchemical study may be seen in the survival rate of his writings, with over 200 manuscripts still extant. His most famous work, which Starkey quotes here, was from ‘The Compound of Alchymy’, which was first printed in 1591. His real rise to fame came in the mid seventeenth century which witnessed a continental edition of his works at Kassel in 1649, rapidly followed by Elias Ashmole’s encomium of him in his 1652 compilatory volume of English alchemical texts, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652), which Worth collected. As Michael Hunter (2004) suggests, Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum was ‘the most important of all English alchemical publications’.
Ashmole tells us in his preface that European editions were a spur to writing his own work since he thought it a ‘great blemish’ that English readers ‘refuse to reade so Famous Authors in our Naturall language, whilst Strangers are necessitated, to Reade them in Ours, to understand them in their Own, Yet think the dignity of the Subject, much more deserving, then their Paines.’ Clearly Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum was envisaged by the author as an English companion volume to Lazarus Zetzner’s famous multi-volume Theatrum chemicum of 1602 (Worth had the later Strassburg 1659-1661 six volume octavo edition). Ashmole’s nationalistic impulse was evident: ‘our Nation hath produced such Famous and eminently learned Men, as have equall’d (if not surpast) the greatest Schollers of other Nations, and happy were we if now we could but partake of those Legacies they left, and which Envy and Ignorance has defrauded us of: (Howsoever the small remainder which is left, we have good reason to prize)’. True, there was a tension between the need for secrecy and the desire to publish but Ashmole reconciled this by appealing to antiquarian fervour. This did not blind him to the difficulties in ‘Collecting All (or as many as I could meete with) of our own English Hermetique Philosophers, and to make them publique’, so locating manuscripts, and more particularly selecting them in terms of precedence, presented challenges. Ashmole opted for a poetical format and did his best to be true to the text, retaining ‘the old Words and the manner of their Spelling’ but providing the enquiring reader with a glossary for more difficult words.
The importance Ashmole attached to Ripley is clearly seen in the plethora of works either by this fifteenth-century writer or ascribed to him in the sixteenth century which are included in Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum: ‘The Compound of Alchymie’, which Ripley had written for Edward IV; his ‘Vision’; ‘Verses belonging to an emblematicall Scrowle’ believed to have been by Ripley; ‘The Mistery of alchymists’; ‘The Preface prefixt to Sir Geo: Ripley’s Medulla’ (written in 1476 and dedicated to George Neville, Archbishop of York); and, finally, ‘A shorte worke That beareth the Name of the aforesaid Author, Sir G. Ripley’. By the sevententh century what belonged to Ripley and what was attributed to him was a fraught question and one which has only recently been clarified by Jennifer Rampling’s (2010) catalogue of his works. These works were not the only ones connected with Ripley in Worth’s collection since the anonymous 1614 alchemical compilatory volume: Opuscula quaedam chemica. Georgii Riplei Angli Medulla philosophiae chemicae… (Frankfurt, 1614) included Ripley’s ‘Medulla’ among other texts.
Ashmole, Elias (1652), Theatrum chemicum Britannicum· Containing severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language. Faithfully collected into one volume, with annotations thereon, by Elias Ashmole, Esq. Qui est Mercuriophilus Anglicus (London).
Duveen, Denis I. (1949), Bibliotheca Alchemica et Chemica. An alchemical catalogue of printed books on alchemy, chemistry and cognate subjects in the library of Denis I. Duveen (London), p. 440.
Gross, Anthony (2004), ‘Ripley, George (d.c. 1490), alchemist and Augustinian canon’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Hunter, Michael (2004), ‘Ashmole, Elias (1617-1692), astrologer and antiquary’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Mendelsohn, J. A. (1992), ‘Alchemy and Politics in England 1649-1665’, Past and Present no. 135, pp 30-78.
Newman, William R. (1994), Gehennical Fire. The Lives of George Starkey, and American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Harvard University Press).
Newman, William R. (2004), ‘Starkey [formerly Stirk], George [pseud. Eirenaeus Philalethes] (1628-1665), alchemist, medical practitioner, and writer’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Rampling, Jennifer (2010), ‘The Catalogue of the Ripley Corpus: Alchemical Writings Attributed to George Ripley (d. ca. 1490), Ambix, Volume 57, Number 2, July 2010 , pp. 125-201.
[Starkey, George] Eirenaeus Philalethes] (1679), Ripley Reviv’d: or, an exposition upon Sir George Ripley’s Hermetico-Poetical Works. Containing the plainest and most excellent Discoveries of the most hidden Secrets of the Ancient Philosophers, that were ever yet Published. (London).by