as above, so below: the big messy subject of alchemy

One of the (many) subjects I’m researching for the book is Renaissance alchemy. Both John Dee and Edward Kelley practiced it and the latter made his name in Bohemia when he successfully “transmuted” gold. As such I need to have some idea of what they were really doing.

Getting my head around this topic remains a chore. I had to wade through a ton of books that looked promising only to discover they were about something completely different (nineteenth century and later “new age” fads using alchemical transmutation as a metaphor for self improvement) or only tangentially related (medicinal alchemy – fascinating! – but no). Facsimiles and translations of historic primary sources exist (the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Image Collection has high-res scans) but the language and imagery are so laden with symbolism that they are almost impenetrable to non-academics.

Finally I located what may be the only “beginner’s” guide to good old-fashioned gold transmuting-type alchemy, Lawrence Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy. It covers the history of alchemy (transmutation and otherwise) from ancient times to the twentieth century and clearly explains the rationale behind beliefs that seem ridiculous to modern minds.

To hilariously simplify: early modern alchemists assumed that all metals were compounded from salt, sulfur, and mercury. Starting from this incorrect assumption it followed logically that altering the proportions or qualities of one or more of these could turn one metal into another.

They weren’t just guessing or making stuff up randomly either. Practitioners were methodical in their experiments and recorded recipes and outcomes. Of course nobody really turned lead into gold but their results were dramatic enough to suggest it was possible.

Principe followed a few historic recipes himself and came up with results similar to what was described, provided he used period-accurate supplies (raw ore instead of purified modern chemicals). William Newman’s Chymistry of Isaac Newton project performed some of Newton’s experiments and includes both videos of their experiments and a modern explanation of what’s really going on.

What I need for my story are:

1) a process (or slight of hand) that produces convincing fake gold, and

2) a process that results in enough pure gold for Kelley to think he’s actually transmuted gold

And my chemistry-illiterate self needs to write these in a way that is both engaging and believable without getting bogged down in detail that will bore the reader.

Oh yeah. This will be fun.

Selected sources:

Harkness, Deborah. The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. Yale University Press, 2007.

Newman, William R., editor. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton (http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/newton/). Retrieved April 7, 2015.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

For the psychological angle: Jung, Carl. Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton University Press, 1977.

For the history of medicine angle: Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

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Allison Thurman

Allison Thurman has always made stuff: out of fabric, metal, beads, even exaggerated fencing moves. Of late she makes stories out of weird history, with fragments of pop culture, unsolved mysteries, and science fiction mixed in for texture.

She lives in a galaxy far, far away (well, the DC metro area) with too many books and swords.

5 thoughts on “as above, so below: the big messy subject of alchemy”

  1. It’s interesting how easily people forget that the correct period mindset is as essential to comprehension as the “facts”.

    An off-the-wall suggestion: have you seen the BBC series “Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives”? The episode titled “The Philosophers” is all about how alchemy is part of the history of modern science and includes a demonstration of transmuting gold with a clear explanation of how it works. The entire series is very much about the importance of viewing historical everyday life through period eyes instead of modern ones so might be worth your seeking out.

    1. My apologies for not approving this sooner! Still ironing out some kinks in the notification system it seems…

      I have seen “Medieval Lives”, though not recently. Perhaps time for a re-watching as I forgot he addressed alchemy in any way. Funny what my mind filters out when I don’t have an immediate need for it!

      1. No worries … figuring out a new blog’s quirks takes time … and you’re busy writing! 🙂

        Re the mind filter and memory: I suspect the only reason the demo has stuck in my memory is because they transmuted the lid from a tin of tuna (Jones and the expert had had it for lunch). It’s always that kind of irreverent detail that sticks in my memory. (I shall remember Manius Aquillius to my dying day thanks to my high school history teacher’s gawdawful joke about “the first Molten Golden”)

    1. I think that was the first one I found. IIRC the first few chapters have some useful info re: symbolism but the rest seems to be mostly about the spiritual path of alchemy. It’s interesting on it’s own but not really about the nuts/bolts of “how they did that”, and had more of a modern flavor as well.

      I did happen across this today through my Twitter feed: http://alchemicaldiagrams.blogspot.com/2015/05/20-books-to-get-started-in-alchemical.html – What it says on the tin. I’ve read Principe and Nummedal also looks promising.

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