Weird Science

An emblem from Michael Maier’s 1617 book Atalanta fugiens.
An emblem from Michael Maier’s 1617 book Atalanta fugiens.

Seven years ago, I began research on a play about Edward Kelley, one of the most notorious alchemists of Renaissance Europe. Lurid legends abound about his career and pursuit of the philosopher’s stone (angelic conversations, sexual sharing, mysterious red powders found in tombs), and I quickly discovered that the primary literature on Kelley and Renaissance alchemy was a muddle of confusion and outright contradiction. Much of it had been translated from the Latin and published by spiritualists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the tracts were encoded in a seeming welter of startling yet intentionally arcane metaphors and imagery associated with alchemy’s golden age: kings, queens, sun, moon, snakes, hermaphrodites.

Puzzling out answers to such mysterious and allusive texts can be highly addictive. And, for a time, the literature created by Renaissance alchemists became a personal labyrinth as I wrestled with recipes for potable gold and the transmutation of metals. One of their favorite mottoes—Liber librum aperit (One book opens another)—became my own, until I realized that I would never finish the play unless I actually closed the books.

Lawrence M. Principe, a professor in the department of the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University, cites the same Latin motto in his new book, The Secrets of Alchemy. Principe has traveled much deeper into the alchemical labyrinth than I ever did, and he has emerged from it with a work that edifies and entertains in equal measure.

Academic research into alchemy’s role in the history of science has become a growth industry in recent decades. Yet many of these scholarly books can prove as inscrutable as the dizzyingly arcane tomes that they’re based on. Principe’s book travels a more straightforward path, clarifying alchemical history and practice while acknowledging the powerful imaginative legacy of this cohort of mysterious robed men tending fires beneath strangely shaped apparatuses in an ever-elusive path to create gold.

“Would you have bought this book if its title were The Secrets of Chemistry?” quips Principe at one point.

Yet chemistry is at the heart of Principe’s effort, and his deft use of the discipline in his historical research is one of the book’s principal strengths. The customary role of science—and of scientific-minded history—in assessing alchemy is strongly paternal and patronizing, aiming to demystify and debunk. The not-so-subtle aim of such narratives is to police an imaginary dividing line between science and pseudoscience. At best, these accounts of the practice acknowledge alchemy as a mere forerunner of modern chemistry, much as Homo habilis is the ancestor of Homo sapiens.

Principe takes a different tack, using a nuanced blend of science and history to painstakingly work out the laboratory practices of alchemists attempting chrysopoeia (transmutation of base metals to gold) and other feats. He not only concludes that the “cryptic texts and emblems” of Renaissance alchemy “encode real chemical processes that their authors carried out,” but also notes that “at least some chrysopoeians had truly remarkable practical skills.”

Finding the science embedded in alchemy supplies a central plank in Principe’s larger argument about a “commonality and continuity between ‘alchemy’ and ‘chemistry.’” (The author employs the more archaic term chymistry throughout much of The Secrets of Alchemy to underscore his approach.) And this more syncretic view produces another salutary service by clarifying the intellectual position of the alchemists. Principe rescues them from their depiction as obscure “magicians” conjuring gold and from their portrayal as fools and cheats by contemporaries including playwright Ben Jonson and artist Pieter Bruegel. In Principe’s view, alchemists were philosophers and scientists, working strongly within the natural philosophy of their era.

One can only start to know alchemy centuries after its golden age through the books its practitioners left behind. Fortunately for his readers, Principe is a keen explicator of the strange textual residue conjured up by what is likely almost two thousand years of alchemical activity. Papyri that articulate a desire to master natural elements and manipulate them artificially to gain wealth, health, or immortality date back to the late first or early second century AD—and started to coalesce into “alchemy” in the Greek and Egyptian provinces of a Roman Empire on the cusp of Christian takeover. Principe succinctly traces alchemy’s intersection with the intellectual ferment and divine secrecy of the early Christian movement known as Gnosticism, and he tracks its subsequent transmission to the Muslim world. (Arab acolytes also gave the field its current name by taking the Greek term chemia and appending the definite article al to it.)

The encounter with Arab culture bequeathed to later alchemical researchers many key texts, concepts, and theories (including the so-called mercury-sulfur theory that metals were composed of varying degrees of these two substances) that survived through the Renaissance. The legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus, who lent his name to the description of alchemy as the “Hermetic” art, also originates from alchemy’s sojourn in the Arab world.

After Principe traces alchemy through to the cusp of its flowering as a major cultural force in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he engages in some cultural speculation of his own, flashing forward to its demise as a practical art and its transformation into a compelling metaphor of spiritual and psychological transformation. Debate about why alchemy suddenly died out in the early eighteenth century continues to this day, but it appears that a number of powerful forces—including the desire of chemists to pursue practical and marketable applications, chemists’ heightened interest in winning public approval, and the intellectual gravity of the Enlightenment itself—came into confluence to end alchemical experimentation by the 1740s or so.

Enlightenment skepticism was perhaps the most crucial factor. One of Principe’s key observations about alchemy’s history is its continuing entanglement with religion—be it Gnosticism, the Shiite branch of Islam, the medieval Catholic Church, or the murkier spiritualism of the late Renaissance. (In the fourteenth century, Franciscan friar John of Rupescissa even argued that alchemy could be used to stave off the Antichrist’s prophesied despoliation of the church’s material wealth.)

“Every chapter in this book has touched on the alchemy-religion dynamic to one extent or another,” writes Principe. “These interrelationships are crucial—not only for gaining a fuller understanding of chymistry in particular but also for their ability to illustrate larger points of profound importance about early modern outlooks and worldviews more generally.”

This proves especially true in Principe’s treatment of alchemy’s seventeenth-century golden age. In recounting how practitioners strove to weave their art into the larger fabric of Renaissance culture, Principe supplies a smart, passionate, and compelling portrait that draws on a wide range of sources—chief among them Michael Maier’s 1617 series of ornate engravings, mottoes, and sheet music published as Atalanta fugiens.

“[Maier’s] purpose . . . is not simply to entertain readers,” writes Principe, “but rather to ennoble a practice generally considered dirty and laborious by making it attractive to humanist contemporaries.”

Yet alchemy’s entanglement with Renaissance culture is one of the practice’s least secretive features. Where The Secrets of Alchemy delivers most engagingly on the promise of its title is in Principe’s close readings of certain early-modern texts to glean insights into the nature of the actual work that alchemists performed. How did the strange emblems and codes that circulated among the discipline’s initiates—e.g., “Take our Fiery Dragon that hides the Magical Steel in its belly, four parts, of our Magnet, nine parts, mix them together with torrid Vulcan”—translate into experimental practice?

Principe’s attempts to replicate alchemy in a modern laboratory yield strange, wondrous, and yet thoroughly explicable phenomena. For example, when he seeks to re-create a recipe for “sulfur of antimony” published in 1604 under the name of “Basil Valentine,” Principe employs both scientific rigor and supple historical reconstructions to explain the actual material impurities that created the source recipe’s desired result of a “yellow transparent glass.”

In the book’s most startling disclosure, Principe replicates a formula for “Philosophical Mercury”—and in the process yields something that must have convinced the alchemists of the Renaissance that they were on the right track. Taking his key from a notebook of a seventeenth-century alchemist (and Harvard College graduate) named George Starkey, Principe created a mixture of stibnite (the “Fiery Dragon” above) and iron (the “Magical Steel”), which he then mixed with gold. After much trial and error, the author was surprised one morning to find that the grayish mixture he had concocted had blossomed into “a glittering and fully formed tree”—in essence, a crystallized and visually impressive growth of gold and mercury—within his vessel.

“For the historian,” he observes, “the reality of this Philosophical Tree indicates unambiguously that at least some of the imagery of chrysopoeia, bizarre as it might seem, stems from the literal appearance of reacting chemicals.”

Alchemy’s enduring appeal to the modern imagination is not lessened by this gee-whiz demonstration of the science behind its images. But Principe’s efforts may also provide a clue to why even great scientific minds such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle simply couldn’t quit alchemy. There was something fascinating happening in the obscure devices, instructions, and concoctions bequeathed to us from the alchemical world—and that something is no less fascinating for the revelation that it didn’t exactly reflect what the alchemists thought was going on.

Richard Byrne is a playwright and editor. His play about Renaissance alchemy, Burn Your Bookes, has been produced in Prague and Washington, DC.