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Alchemy in Early Modern Europe

December 18, 2009

Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire by Tara E. Nummedal. Chicago University Press, 2007. 256 pages.

Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution by Bruce T. Moran. Cambridge University Press, 2005. 199 pages.

There is an embarrassment of riches within the treasury of the historiography of alchemy. Situated inside the broader context of early modern scientific development, the history of alchemy has experienced considerable growth in recent years, as judged by the substantial number of texts on the subject published within the last decade. Two significant recent works, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire by Tara Nummedal and Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution by Bruce Moran provide an up close look at the lives of alchemists within the larger story of scientific progress in early modern Europe.

Alchemy itself is an interesting field due to the massive degree of overlap it has with other disciplines. As much as it contained the budding seeds of modern scientific development, with its inherent penchant for experimentation and observation, there was also the incorporation of the supernatural, which provided its critics ample ammunition to discredit the field. Alchemists are probably most well known for outlandish claims of turning lead into gold; however, they also engaged in medicinal and mechanical pursuits. Both Moran and Nummedal demonstrate that particular kernels of chemical knowledge, such as the concepts of distillation and transmutation, provide a bridge between the world of the alchemist and modern science.

Nummedal, for her part, focuses on a theme significant to early modern scientific development, that of authority. Alchemists in early modern Europe wished to establish legitimacy for their profession in the face of scorn from many writers such as Thomas Erastus, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Francesco Petrarch, who labeled them as charlatans and frauds. However, Nummedal demonstrates that many royal patrons of the alchemists were more influenced by the writings of this collection of individuals themselves, whose claims of transmuting cheap metals into gold and increasing mining production tantalized them.

Thus, the tension between alchemists’ ability to deliver on their promises and their patrons’ images led to a “high-risk, high-reward game,” that could either promise quick riches, or more often, a brutal untimely end. (4) Nummedal’s sources come primarily from court proceedings against the alchemists in the latter category, demonstrating the common fate of these enterprising folk. However, the danger of such documentation, as Nummedal points out, is that the ideological battle over the authority of opinion causes the reliability of such sources to be problematic. To create a nuanced view into the lives of alchemists, Nummedal has also collected an array of contracts and supply orders, to demonstrate how they actually built their workshops and practiced their art.

The alchemist brought a variety of skills which were in demand in early modern Europe. Their skills in mining, metallurgy, and medicine derived prodigious support in some royal circles, provided they could deliver on their promises. Though times were never easy, Nummedal explains that the 16th century was a difficult time for the alchemists, as their art differed from the practitioners of other early modern scientific disciplines; there where no guilds or supporting institutions, only their own entrepreneurial spirit.

The other side of Nummedal’s story involves the critics of the alchemists, such as those like Leonhard Thurneisser who were also trying to establish their own authoritative voice by railing against both real and perceived falsehoods of the alchemists. (68) Unfortunately for the alchemists, there was credence given to the writings of skeptics like Thurneisser as Nummedal points out in the case of Hans Nüschler, who appears to have genuinely wanted to experiment in order to achieve the famed alchemical chrysopoia, or transmutation, but turned to fraud when the desired results were not achieved. (158)

Nummedal stresses that despite the bad press, many alchemists were genuinely interested in experimentation rather than defrauding their clients. Her observations of attempts to legitimize the work of proto-scientific alchemical practitioners, “begins to disappear when one’s focus shifts from texts to practices.” (86) Essentially, this manifested itself in the demands of their royal patrons, who desired the same concrete results from their resident alchemists as they did from their miners, metallurgists, apothecaries, etc.

The rub for the alchemists were the written contracts that came into use with their royal employers. Because they were specific about what the alchemist was to produce, the contracts made their existence far more tenuous, not only because these documents gave fuel to those that wished to discredit them, but also created a situation where the alchemist was doomed to fail. Nummedal uncovers scenarios in which alchemists were faced with the unhappy situation of discovering that their beliefs did not match naturally occurring processes, and paid with their lives for it. As a result, scientific authority resided indirectly with the patrons of alchemy, who evaluated the utility of practical knowledge produced. Thus, the intersection of early modern scientific progress and the alchemists were the courts where an alchemist could live or die by the results of their experimentations.

Problematically, there was no central definition as to what an alchemist actually was. Nummedal notes that a cynical observer “…will find the [the alchemist’s] primary transmutation to be of himself: a goldsmith becomes a goldmaker, an apothecary a chemical physician, a barber a Paracelsian, on who wastes his own patrimony turns into one who spends the gold and goods of others.” (18) As CalTech historian Nicholas Popper noted on Nummedal’s work, “each alchemist constituted their authority and identity by adopting and synthesizing attributes of the scholar, the artisan and the prophet.” [1] Highly publicized fraud cases against alchemists prompted other alchemical practitioners such as Count Michael Maier to argue that alchemy should be a private art outside of the public sphere. However, these contentions themselves play into the struggle over who could claim ownership over various techniques. Thus, accusations of who was a Betrüger, or fraudster, could come from within the ranks of the alchemists themselves. (172)

Nummedal’s primary study is on metallurgical practices, rather than medicinal or mechanical, narrowing the scope of different alchemical practices she explores. However, the effectiveness of Nummedal’s central argument of demonstrating the rise of the authoritative voice as a legitimizing (or de-legitimizing) force is undiminished by her focus. Through the sensationalized and often gruesome trials of early modern alchemists who failed to fulfill their contractual obligations, Nummedal provides a glimpse into the interplay between alchemists, their critics, and royalty, all attempting to assert their authority over how the world should be perceived.

The theme of the struggle for a particular version of scientific reality continues in Bruce Moran’s Distilling Knowledge. Moran’s work occupies a different space than Nummedal’s, in that he eschews the failures of alchemical prospects in favor of instances of successful contribution to the scientific revolution. He argues, “chemistry itself did not so much replace alchemy as subsume it.” (184) To display this evolution, Moran utilizes a large amount of written material from early modern scientific practitioners themselves – bringing together a diversity of work from the 16th century metallurgical writing of Georgius Agricola to the 17th century medical observations of Thomas Willis.

Moran advises that the historiography of alchemy has faced a bit of historical transmutation itself. Moran evokes the treatment of Roger Bacon, an early modern physical scientist, whose internalized alchemical concepts evident in his work are downplayed by his admirers in favor of “striking proof of his scientific discernment.” (23) To help legitimize the early modern scientific process, which now appears somewhat convoluted when infused with alchemical mysticism, 16th century scientist Andreas Libavius, stripped the growing field of early modern chemistry of its alchemical vocabulary. Moran chronicles this development, along with an infusion of Aristotelian rationality, which forced the recognition of underlying alchemical concepts of transmutation within the halls of academia.  Ironically, the influence of alchemy on Libavius’ chemical work was significant and admits, “If chemistry was about the mixtures of the material world, then what is appropriate about chemistry and what should count as chemical knowledge had to be found entirely in the physical stuff of the earth.” (105) Moran contends that by the time of the revered scientist Robert Boyle in the mid 17th century, “chemistry was no longer an intruder at the table of philosophic discussion, but an invited guest.” (144)

Another early modern natural philosopher, Paracelsus, looms large in Moran’s study, embodying an intermediary between the world of the alchemist and scientist. Paracelsus is known for emphasizing observation in natural processes, particularly those having to do with the human body. His springboard for this idea came from earlier concepts of transmutation, which caused controversy 16th century France when scholars Johannes Guinther of Andernach and Peter Severinus of the University of Paris, wrote about the practical application of Parcelsus’ observations. (84) Parcelsus’ work on medical remedies was disseminated widely by Oswald Croll, whose book Royal Chemistry, Moran demonstrates, directly influenced the development of distillation laboratories in the court of the Spanish king, Phillip II. (103)

Moran concludes that early modern chemists were conscious of the portrayal of their work and sought authoritative legitimacy during this crucial transition from alchemy to chemistry. Moran contends, “…the utility that came as a result of collecting chemical procedures and knew that the processes of separation and combination disclosed the letters out of which compounds, or words, of nature were formed.” (188)

As stated earlier, the common theme, not only between Distilling Knowledge and Alchemy and Authority, but also within the historiography of early modern scientific development, is the notion of authoritative voice. Alchemy has been recognized as occupying a central role in this epoch; its contribution to the creation of knowledge networks was essential. The central concept of trust (or distrust) of an individual attempting to propagate a scientific fact is evident in many histories of the Scientific Revolution. One text that relates fairly closely to this concept is A Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin. He argues that despite demonstrable results, the acceptance of scientific discovery in the early modern era was invariably political and dependent on individual trust. This, of course, is why the assertion of authority was indispensable to alchemical practitioners. Shapin states, “…science is a system of knowledge by virtue of it being a system of trusting persons. I have sought to show the ineradicable role of trust in the constitution of empirical forms of scientific knowledge, where resort to trust has seemed most unlikely.” (417)

As with Shapin, Moran described the role of gentlemanly trust networks and forming a consensus (or authority) within the context of early modern historical development. For Moran, the struggle for authoritative voice among alchemists that Nummedal describes is also crucial in the development of epistemology itself. [2]

Moran echoes Shapin in Distilling Knowledge stating, “Objective certainty…follows a willingness to believe in something. The same rule applies regardless of whether one’s willingness to embrace doctrines of religion, the principles of alchemy, or the precepts of the scientific method.” (4) Moran extrapolates Shapin’s argument even further, contending that those who study the history of science are willing to believe in the authority of the triumph of human reason over mysticism. Thus, Moran would have us believe that the historiography of science itself is influenced by a network of trust in academic authority.

Other historians, such as Jole Shackleford also wrote about the more acrimonious side of this exchange by dealing with the common sub-theme of attacks on the adopters of Paracelsus’ work.[3] The relationship that emerges, such as in the case of theologian Thomas Erastus’ critiques of the chemical philosopher Severinus, is a dialog that is religious in nature and Manichean at its core; however, the struggle for authority remains the key theme.  Consequently, the polemics against alchemical experimentation coming from the church had a genuine effect. A common idea in Nummedal’s work is that this tension influenced and motivated those involved in the Parcelsian movement. As is demonstrated in Urszula Szulakowska’s  The Sacrificial Body and the Day of Doom: Alchemy and Apocalyptic Discourse in the Protestant Reformation, this dynamic led alchemists-turned medical-practitioners to internalize alchemical traditions and mix medical, alchemical and Christian images.[4] Lawrence Principe, has also joined the cause of describing the tension between various scientific authorities. Principe contends that despite Boyle’s public skepticism of some alchemical practices, his acceptance of the concepts of distillation and transmutation makes him an excellent example of the continuity from alchemy to chemistry during the early modern period of scientific development.

Inevitably, the question of where the study of alchemy in history is heading looms large over a discussion Nummedal and Moran. These authors appear to be going to an appropriate place that many different types of historiography have been leading for the last several decades – toward a socially oriented study of the field. Principe has contributed to this subject by fleshing out the lives of some individual alchemists in Chymists and Chymistry, Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Chemistry. Other episodes have yet to be explored. For instance, what was the reception and circumstances surrounding the premier of The Alchemist play by Ben Johnson in 1610, which joined the critics of the alchemists in lampooning them? There is also little mention of women in the male dominated field of alchemists. Nummedal has chosen to address this problem in her forthcoming book, The Lion’s Blood: Alchemy, Apocalypse, and Gender in Reformation Europe, in which she explores the life of Anna Zieglerin, one of the few female alchemists that have been documented thus far.[5] Approaching the lives of individual alchemists is a decisive step forward in understanding the roots of the scientific revolution. In these interesting figures we can witness firsthand the vestiges of mysticism falling away to reveal the rationality of the scientific method that is now familiar to us. Despite the terrible end that some alchemists faced when their faith in the supernatural failed to produce results, the stories of failure are just as essential as the stories of success.

[1] Nicholas Popper, Reviewed work(s): Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire by Tara Nummedal. Social History of Medicine, April, 2009: 288-89.

[2] Moran, Reading the Book of Nature, 79.

[3] Jole Shackleford, “Seeds with a Mechanical Purpose,” also in Debus and Walton’s Reading the Book of Nature, 21.

[4] This is Nummedal’s observation in her review of Szulakowska’s The Sacrificial Body and the Day of Doom: Alchemy and Apocalyptic Discourse in the Protestant Reformation in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3, Fall 2007: 998-1000

[5] Nummedal has already written extensively on Zieglerin in the past on a project in 2001-02 called “Anna Zieglerin and the Lion’s Blood: A Female Alchemist’s Career in Reformation Europe,” funded by the Edelstein Center for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem, Israel)

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