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The ‘New Historiography’ and the Limits of Alchemy

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To cite this article: (2008) The ‘ New Historiography ’ and the Limits of Alchemy, Annals of Science, 65:1, 127-156, DOI: 10.1080/00033790701245497


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Vol. 65, No. 1,

January 2008, 127 156

Essay Review

, Vol. 65, No. 1, January 2008, 127 156 Essay Review The ‘New Historiography’ and the

The ‘New Historiography’ and the Limits of Alchemy

WILLIAM R. NEWMAN and LAWRENCE M. PRINCIPE, editors. George Starkey, Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks and Correspondence. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004. xxxvi 352 pp. $80.00. ISBN 0-226-57701-5.

WILLIAM R.NEWMAN, PrometheanAmbitions.AlchemyandtheQuesttoPerfectNature. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004. xv 333 pp. $30.00. ISBN 0-226-57712-0.

LAUREN KASSELL, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London. Simon Forman:

Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. xviii 281 pp. £58.00. ISBN 0-19-927905-5.


BRIAN VICKERS, School of Advanced Study, London University, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU, UK


On 26 January 1652, George Starkey, the American alchemist, writing from his lodgings in St. James’s to Robert Boyle at his house in Stalbridge, Dorsetshire, announced his belief that he had discovered the alkahest (‘a solvent described by Van Helmont’, as the editors gloss the term in Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks, ‘supposedly able to divide all substances into their component ingredients and then reduce these further into their primordial water’):

the second repetition of the devouring water has, with God’s blessing, made me

Ah, would that labor and diligence

could thoroughly investigate everything in its first and final causes! Then at least that hateful adage would not always set down an obstacle: ‘Hear the other side’. (78)

Although Starkey’s learned editors have not identified the source of this saying, ‘audi partem alteram’, it is in fact the Heliastic Oath, which all 6000 Athenian citizens chosen to serve in the annual pool of jurors had to swear. At the opening of his famous speech On the Crown, Demosthenes reminded Athenians that ‘beyond all your other obligations, you have specifically sworn to listen to both sides equally’. 1

whole, and will make me a

1 Demosthenes, On the Crown, 2; in Demosthenes, Speeches 18 and 19, tr. Harvey Yunis (Austin, TX, 2005), 32. See also Yunis’s excellent edition of the Greek text, Demosthenes. On the Crown (Cambridge, 2001), 107.

Annals of Science ISSN 0003-3790 print/ISSN 1464-505X online # 2008 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/00033790701245497

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Essay Review

Why Starkey should have termed it ‘a hateful adage’ is not clear; but it is, I suggest, a motto peculiarly appropriate for historians of alchemy. Professors William R. Newman (Indiana University) and Lawrence M. Principe (Johns Hopkins University) have established themselves over the last two decades as among the leading authorities on early modern alchemy in the English-speaking world, and form part of what Principe has called ‘the New Historiography of Alchemy’. 2 Separately, they have published several important books and articles, and together they wrote Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago, 2002), to which this edition of Starkey’s notes and letters ‘should be considered a companion’ (xiv). The material they have brought together here, some of it previously unknown, comes from the Royal Society, the British Library, Oxford and Cambridge University Libraries, the Hartlib Papers, and East Sussex Record Office (Lewes). Each of the sixteen documents is prefaced by a concise note giving its biographical and alchemical context; texts are meticulously transcribed, those in Latin accompanied by lucid English translations on the page, expanding Starkey’s idiosyncratic alchemical symbols (which are separately listed). The whole is rounded off by a useful glossary and an index (but no bibliography). It is hard to conceive that this material could have been better presented. But the framework with which they interpret Starkey’s laboratory notes is much less satisfactory, for it attends to only ‘one side’ of alchemy. As in their earlier publications, the authors wish to present alchemy as the forerunner of modern industrial and pharmaceutical chemistry, and to downplay its links with both spiritual and occult traditions. Newman and Principe dismiss ‘those who see alchemy in monolithic terms as an inherently spiritual discipline whose chief goal lay in perfecting the adept himself’. They describe this viewpoint as ‘anachronistic’, devolving ‘not from alchemy as it was practiced in Starkey’s time but from the Victorian occult revival’ (x). However, one of the basic alchemical operations, the use of heat to release ‘spirit’ from ‘matter’, has long been seen as analogous to the relationship between soul and body. The oldest surviving alchemical text is the Phusika Kai Mystika, a metallurgical recipe book dating from c.200 bc to ad 100, which combines practical and mystical goals. According to a modern scholar, the processes it describes were intended to produce io¯sis, ‘the release of the golden, fiery nature hidden within base metal (initially copper)’, using such ‘metal-transforming experiments as a rite for a new Hellenistic redemption cult for the soul, in the dualist tradition of earlier Orphic-Pythagorean rituals’. 3 Another early text, produced by Zosimos of Panopolis in the fourth century ad, synthesized alchemical texts with Hermeticism and Gnosticism, and, according to Robert Halleux, ‘was the first to establish a homology between the transformation of metals and that of the human operator. Carnal man, prey to the daimons of destiny, works the timely tinctures’ of metals so that his spirit ‘can be reunited with the divine’. 4 Later commentators, such as Olympiodorus the Neoplatonist, amplified these religio-philosophical elements,

2 See his essay, ‘Reflections on Newton’s Alchemy in the Light of the New Historiography of Alchemy’, in Newton and Newtonianism. New Studies, edited by James E. Force and Sarah Hutton (Dordrecht,

Netherlands, 2004), 205 19.

3 C. Anne Wilson, ‘Philosophers, Io¯ sis and Water of Life’, Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and

Literary Society, Literary and Historical Section, 19 (1984), 101 219, ‘Summary’, 200.

Robert Halleux, ‘Alchemy’ in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford, 1996), 52 53.


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and in the Arabic Middle Ages a huge amount of religious doctrine, of the most varied kind, became attached to alchemical texts. 5 In 1979, Robert Halleux compiled a basic bibliography of alchemy and religion, which could now be greatly expanded. 6 Indeed, the editors themselves have identified several instances of the ‘religious, spiritual, or esoteric’ dimension of alchemy. In 1991, Newman defined an ‘initiatic style’ in the Summa Perfectionis, derived from a ninth-century Islamic sect, the Brethren of Purity. 7 In 1998, Principe drew attention to the influx of occult ideas in the later fifteenth century, as writers such as Trithemius and Agrippa von Nettesheim ‘linked some chemical notions with the cabala, Hermetic and neoplatonic mysticism, and natural magic’. This synthesis of alchemy with what we would call the occult sciences was intensified by Paracelsus, who, as Principe put it:

devised a world-system populated with a vast number of supernatural beings and elemental spirits and where natural and sympathetic magic played a central role in an organic cosmos. The material tria prima of Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt was linked in a web of correspondences that included the Triune Godhead and the threefold nature of man: spirit, soul, and body. 8

In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century alchemy, these new religious strands co-existed with others, extending from simple metaphors to grandiose metaphysical schemes, making it otiose to deny this spiritual dimension. 9 Indeed, Principe himself has presented new evidence that Boyle*perhaps influenced by John Dee’s notorious experiences with Edward Kelley*expressed the hope that ‘the acquisition of the Philosopher’s Stone would facilitate communication with angels and rational spirits’. 10 Principe’s pioneering discussion of this element in Boyle’s alchemy*he promises a fuller study of the ‘supernatural school’ is based on two unpublished documents recently discovered by Michael Hunter, the great renovator of Boyle Studies. 11 Principe describes it as ‘a remarkable discovery’, and his discussion valuably

5 See, e.g., A.J. Festugie`re, La Re´ve´lation d’Herme`s Trismegiste 1: L’Astrologie et les sciences occultes, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1950), ch. 7, ‘L’Herme´tisme et l’alchimie’ (217 82); Manfred Ullmann, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaft im Islam (Leiden, 1972 Handbuch der Orientalistik), 145 270, Paul Kraus, Jabir ibn Hayyan. Contribution a` l’histoire des ide´es scientifiques en Islam. Jabir et la science gre`cque (Cairo, 1942; Paris, 1986), 187 303.

Robert Halleux, Les Textes Alchimiques (Turnhout, 1979; ‘Typologie des sources de moyen age

occidental’, fasc. 32), 37 38.


7 William R. Newman, The ‘Summa Perfectionis’ of the Pseudo-Geber (Leiden, 1991), 90 98.

8 Lawrence M. Principe, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest: Including Boyle’s ‘‘Lost’’ Dialogue on the Transmutation of Metals (Princeton, NJ, 1998), 189.

9 For critical comments on Newman having ignored the ‘religious and mystical’ element in alchemy, see Scott Mandelbrote’s review of Gehennical Fire in The British Journal for the History of Science, 30 (1997), 109 11, and for a sustained critique of Newman and Principe’s ‘devaluation of religious sentiments’ see Hereward Tilton, The Quest for the Phoenix: Spiritual Alchemy and Rosicrucianism in the Work of Count Michael Maier (1569 1622) (Berlin, 2003). I do not favour Tilton’s use of Jungian concepts, but he does bring out the unquestionably mystical dimension of Maier’s work. See also Urszula Szulakowska, The Alchemy of Light: Geometry and Optics in Late Renaissance Alchemical Illustrations (Leiden, Netherlands, 2000), which discusses astrological and religious influences on the work of John Dee, Heinrich Khunrath, Robert Fludd, and Maier.

10 See Principe, Aspiring Adept (note 8), 187. Principe refers to Deborah Harkness, Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge, 1999), a study which accepts Dee’s belief that Kelley really brought him into contact with angelic powers. For the contrary view, that Dee was the victim of a cruel hoax, see, e.g., Wayne Shumaker, Renaissance Curiosa (Binghamton, NY, 1982), 15 52.

11 Principe, Aspiring Adept (note 8), 197n.; Michael Hunter, ‘Alchemy, Magic and Monarchism in the Thought of Robert Boyle’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 23 (1990), 387 410 at 396 98 for Boyle’s Dialogue on Spirits (which Principe reprints in an appendix to The Aspiring Adept [note 8], 310 16) and Robert Boyle by Himself and His Friends (London, 1994).

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places ‘Boyle’s notion of supernatural alchemical activity’ in its historical context. 12 However, that sympathetic account, written in 1998, sits oddly with the dismissal of spiritual alchemy as deriving from Victorian occultism that Principe and Newman published in 2004. As Antonio Clericuzio has observed, the two historians ‘pay little

such as cosmology and religion, that do not fit

their picture of alchemy as proto-chemistry’. Further, from the recent Newman Principe perspective, ‘revelation and divine illumination is another obstacle to be removed in order to fully modernize Starkey and alchemy’. 13 The ‘New Historiography’ of alchemy, in addition to downplaying the spiritual dimension, has also tried to distance itself from any contact with the occult. In Promethean Ambitions, William Newman seems particularly anxious to ‘avoid the easy and modern habit of grouping such topics as magic and alchemy under a single, seemingly unproblematic rubric, such as ‘‘the occult sciences’’ or ‘‘the occult’’’*although few scholars would describe the occult sciences as unproblematic (44). Newman also attacks ‘The hackneyed modern view that automatically equates alchemy with witchcraft, necromancy, and a potpourri of other practices and theories loosely labeled ‘‘the occult’’’, repeating the claim that such a connection ‘has little historical validity before the nineteenth century’ (54). Whether or not that view is ‘hackneyed’, it is certainly not exclusively modern, for we have just seen Principe’s acknowledgement that, from the late fifteenth century onwards, alchemy absorbed neo-Platonist, Hermetical, and cabbalistic beliefs. Indeed, many of the authors that Newman himself discusses turn out to have bracketed alchemy, in its claim to be able to transform natural substances, with magic, witchcraft, and other demonic arts. Albertus Magnus did so in the late 1240s, as did several ecclesiastic writers between the tenth and the sixteenth centuries, most notoriously the Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger in their witch-hunting manual, the Malleus maleficarum (1487) (Promethean Ambitions, 44 47, 54 62). Other writers who, as Newman shows, linked alchemy pejoratively with the occult include the inquisitor general of Aragon, Nicholas Eymerich, in his 1376 Directorium inquisitorum, Alonso Tostado, the bishop of Avila, another leading figure in the persecution of witches, Thomas Erastus, a vehement critic of Paracelsus, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benedetto Varchi (91, 97 98, 108 111, 121 23, 135). To equate alchemy with the destructive powers attributed to the occult is certainly not justified, but both good and bad associations took place long before the nineteenth century. It is the duty of historians to recreate past beliefs and practices in a sympathetic manner, but they must also preserve the detachment necessary to describe them accurately. It may be that alchemy’s spiritual and occult associations are embarras- sing to modern historians, especially those with a background in the natural sciences, but there is no point denying them. Alchemy had such an enormous impact between the Middle Ages and the early eighteenth century that it needs no other justification or apology. Scholars should investigate every aspect of it, from surviving manuscripts and books, as Newman and Principe have done so well, but without trying to airbrush out of the record elements that seem to us less attractive. Two other

attention to a variety of themes

12 Principe, Aspiring Adept (note 8), 188 201,

310 17.

See Clericuzio’s review of Alchemy Tried in the Fire in Annals of Science 62 (2005), 406 408, at 407.

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unpleasant traditional attributes of alchemy which they seek to play down are its openness to fraud and the financial risks its practitioners took in pursuit of their ‘Quests’. For the first, in their introduction to Starkey’s Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks and Correspondence, Newman and Principe attack what they feel to be false conceptions of ‘the noble art’, starting with the image of it as ‘a chimerical and single-minded obsession with the transmutation of lead into gold. This idea’, they write, ‘derives from a long tradition of portraying alchemy as the embodiment of folly or fraud, a view that attained its modern form in the opening years of the eighteenth century’ (ix). Whatever this ‘modern form’ might be, both negative attributes go back to the Middle Ages, and their own introduction concentrates on the activities of what they prefer to call ‘chrysopoeians, that is, makers of gold’ (xv ff.). In 1652, Starkey himself alleged that Thomas, the alchemist brother of the poet Henry Vaughan, had ‘cheated various greedy people laboring under the sacred thirst for gold of more than two thousand pounds, to whom he communicated his secrets for money under an oath of silence, and now, his fraud having been detected, he stinks hugely’ (60). Starkey, admirably enough, consistently disclaimed any mercen- ary motives in his alchemical studies, preferring a life devoted to ‘a studious search of Natures mysteryes’, but alchemy’s promise of being able to convert base metals into gold was a massive temptation to the credulous (20). The relationship between (in Francis Bacon’s phrase) ‘imposture’ and ‘credulity’ were graphically described in many works ante-dating the Enlightenment, most memorably in Chaucer’s Canon Yeoman’s Tale (c.1387) and in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1612). Indeed, Professor Principe has described elsewhere, not without embarrassment, the disastrous episode in 1677 1678 in which Robert Boyle was royally fleeced by the alchemical confidence trickster Georges Pierre. 14 The other risk inherent in alchemical pursuits was bankruptcy and ruin, brought about by the expense of purchasing materials, building a furnace, and employing operatives. In Promethean Ambitions, Newman cites Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, which include accounts of two artists, Cosimo Rosselli and Parmigianino, whose ‘infatuation with alchemy’ led to financial ruin. ‘‘‘Like all of those who attend to it’’, Vasari says, Cosimo was reduced to poverty’, while Parmigianino ‘‘‘consumed himself*bit by bit*with his furnaces’’’. Newman comments that Vasari ‘view[ed] alchemy in a very jaundiced light’, as if such financial catastrophes, and the obsessive behaviour patterns which created them, could be accepted as normal, and Vasari’s views dismissed as some personal prejudice (124). In their joint-authored Alchemy Tried in the Fire, Newman and Principe refer several times to George Starkey’s ‘financial problems’ or ‘financial hardship’, which are sympathetic euphemisms. The fact is that Starkey financed his alchemical activity from his wife’s dowry, together with contributions from Boyle and others in the Hartlib circle until August 1653, when he went bankrupt and was confined to the debtor’s prison for several months. Eschewing any moral judgement, the co-authors remark: ‘most importantly, while

14 See Principe, Aspiring Adept (note 8), 115 34, especially 128, where he argues that ‘to dismiss’ this episode, in which Pierre duped Boyle out of an enormous sum of money, would be ‘not only too facile but somewhat besides the point, and smacks too much of the dismissive spirit that once rejected all of alchemical thought as unworthy of investigation’. But equally, to record it must establish the vulnerability of alchemy to these accusations. Trying to draw a veil over Boyle’s gullibility, Principe prefers to take it as proving his ‘great eagerness to acquire alchemical knowledge’ (133). But it was precisely such eagerness that could be exploited by unscrupulous alchemists.

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Starkey’s bankruptcy and confinement to debtor’s prison may reflect badly on the quality of his financial sense, it cannot say anything about his chymical or intellectual acuity’ (225, my italics). This comment seems to want to deflect attention from the main issue, Starkey’s fruitless consumption of all his resources (we are not told what happened to Starkey’s wife and family), to the subsidiary one, Starkey’s abilities as a chymist*which are not in question. But the annals of alchemy are littered with stories of bankruptcy, and we must surely accept this as one of the risks inherent in the alchemical ‘quest’, as Newman and Principe often describe it, for the Philosopher’s Stone, or for the Elixir that will cure all illnesses. Another risk to the practising alchemist which they candidly concede, without attempted extenua- tion, is that of mercury poisoning, which can induce the ‘paranoia and mental instability’, as they put it, that may have affected not only Starkey but also Newton, when he tried to carry out Starkey’s process for the Philosophical Mercury. 15 Unlike astrology, or mathematics, alchemy involved the acquisition of complex laboratory equipment, including ever more efficient furnaces, expensive substances, and life- threatening processes. Some alchemists had greater financial resources, but no one was proof against risk and loss. In the eyes of his editors, Starkey’s alchemy ‘was an experimental science’ (x). It is true that the notebooks and letters contain many accounts of his practical work, but they also include a remarkable amount of material copied out from the huge alchemical literature stretching back to Greco-Roman Egypt: the ‘Green Tablet’ of Hermes Trismegistus, various medieval authors (Bernardus Trevisanus, Basil Valentine, the Augustinian canon George Ripley), and recent writers, especially J. B. Van Helmont. Several sections of Starkey’s notebooks consist of ‘Collections out of many Authors’, including one labelled ‘some undigested notes from Van Helmont’ (130, 330). In another, he attempts to synthesize ‘the whole current of Authors’ (228). Starkey was not alone in this dependence on previous alchemical authors, but his example does show that alchemy was inalienably a textual as well as an experimental science. Indeed, as the editors show, many of Starkey’s own practical trials were derived from books, such as Alexander von Suchten’s Of the Secrets of Antinomy (English translation 1670). But Starkey’s work, it seems to me, is distinguished by a sustained and self-aware attempt to understand his authors. One of the major difficulties in studying alchemy, as I have observed elsewhere, is its cumulative nature, the fact that alchemists copied and recopied ancient texts, created bewildering variations in terminology, and used allegorical or deliberately obscure accounts of substances and processes. 16 It is important to recognize that alchemy, in this respect like astrology and magic, was a textually cumulative discipline. No text was ever thrown away, since none was ever superseded. Potentially, any work produced in Hellenistic Egypt, Medieval Islam, or Renaissance Europe, could divulge the arcanum arcanorum. All the alchemical texts ever known, it seems, were collected into multi-volume editions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, those vast tomes which are so prominent in paintings of

15 Lawrence M. Newman and William R. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago, 2002), 225; Principe, Aspiring Adept (note 8), 178 79.

16 Brian Vickers, ‘The Discrepancy between res and verba in Greek Alchemy’, in Alchemy Revisited, edited by Z.R.W.M. von Martels (Leiden, Netherlands, 1990), 21 33; German translation als ‘Alchemie als verbale Kunst: die Anfa¨ nge’, in Chemie und Geisteswissenschaften, edited by Ju¨ rgen Mittelstrass and Gu¨ nther Stock (Berlin: Akademie, 1992), 17 34.

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alchemists from this period by Breughel, Teniers, and others. 17 By the time that the vast collections of miscellaneous tracts appeared in the seventeenth century, such as Theatrum chemicum (comprising three volumes in 1602, five by 1622), the literature was a mass of puzzles. Alchemy could only metamorphose into chemistry when some practitioners ceased to rely on this textual morass and formulated new, independent theories of substances and processes to be investigated by laboratory practice. Their practical operations had undoubtedly benefited from the technological developments made since the Arabic Middle Ages, but alchemy is, and always was, an art which depends in large part on the interpretation of texts. Thanks to the editors’ meticulous transcripts and translations, we can follow Starkey in this unavoidable process of trying to interpret the texts on which he relied for his laboratory praxis. At one point, he tries to grasp ‘the meaning of these two Philosophers’, Paracelsus and Van Helmont, ‘the sense of this paragraph’ from Bernard of Trier, what another writer means or ‘seems to imply’ or how to resolve a ‘seeming contradiction’ in an author (28, 45, 149, 230). Starkey even knew how to sidestep his authors’ rhetoric: of one utterance by von Suchten, he wrote: ‘This I believe is said hyperbolically and signifies no more than that it is accomplished quickly’ (214 15). Since, as Starkey put it, ‘the wise Philosophers with all their might have sought & found, & left the record of their search in writing, withall so veyling the maine secret that only an immediate hand of god must direct an Artist who by study shal seeke to atteyne the same’, it follows that much of the early modern alchemist’s work was hermeneutical, a search to discover an author’s intended meaning (238). Starkey consciously attempts an ‘Explanation of Van Helmont’, judging that the ‘interpretation’ he comes up with ‘is extremely probable’, but certainty was impossible to achieve (149). A most revealing document in this connection is the hitherto unpublished preface that Starkey wrote for the projected publication of his commentary on the fifteenth- century alchemist George Ripley’s treatise, The Compound of Alchemy. Starkey’s tract had been published without his permission in Chymical, Medicinal, and Chyrurgical Addresses: Made to Samuel Hartlib, Esquire (1655), and Starkey angrily wrote a preface denouncing the plagiarism. In it, he also set out the rationale for his alchemical hermeneutics, his sustained attempt to understand a text by paraphrasing it in his own words:

I did make many essayes upon this little peice, which is a Course with me usuall in whatever I am desirous to understande, Endeavouring to summ up what is

to reduce it to a narrower

compasse in wordes of mine owne, this Systeme then to compare with my Authour, & by meditation to examine seriously if so be that my Gloss doe not corrupt the text, & if so, then to alter such of my wordes, or Phrases, as shall be found thus peccant, thus will an Author’s meaninge (by God’s helpe, & study) soone be attained. (312)

Starkey described at some length his hermeneutic technique of making ‘systematic- call essayes’ on earlier alchemists, ‘cutting of theire Amplifications, yett delivering their full sense (according as I understande them) in my owne, but as few wordes as I

more largely delivered, & in other wordes,

17 For some illustrations showing vast tomes propped up on the alchemist’s work-bench, see Vickers, ‘Alchemie als verbale Kunst’ (note 16), 31 34.

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can, then after amplifying this systeme according to my owne Idea of the Subject’. Whether or not this dual process of condensation and expansion managed to catch ‘the Sense of the Authour’ when applied to much-copied and philologically corrupt texts, it does prove that, however committed it may have been to laboratory practice, Starkey’s alchemy depended first and last on the interpretation of texts, and must have been subject to some of the infirmities involved. While feeling that the editors have not done justice to the complex traditions that came together in early modern alchemy, I have nothing but praise for their edition and

commentary, which illuminates every stage of George Starkey’s activities. However, in recreating individual contexts, it is inevitable that the continuity of the whole may not receive as much attention. Reading through these notebooks twice in sequence, I was struck by the number of times Starkey recorded great discoveries, experimental breakthroughs as we might call them. In April or May 1651, he wrote to Boyle, announcing: ‘I have already made a wonderful spirit that acts sine repassione*that is, ‘without being acted upon’ (19). In normal chemical processes, as the editors explain, once ‘acid has dissolved a certain amount of metal, it is no longer corrosive, having been [weakened] by its activity in dissolving’. But, according to Van Helmont’s

’ (xix). As they note, the search for this

description of it, ‘the alkahest is different

‘marvellous solvent’ was ‘a chymical cause ce´le`bre almost as widespread as the search

for the philosophers’

Clearly, it would have had great power in determining

the constituents of bodies and matter theory’*had it been discovered (xxi). These notebooks record Starkey’s repeated attempts to isolate it: ‘I have found*

tho not the Alkahest’, he wrote in the same letter to Boyle, ‘for at present the search of it lyes Subtus Scamnum [‘under the bench’]*yet one of the great Arcanum’, which ‘God by the fire hath taught me’, one which will vanquish the whole retinue of diseases (27, 28). He added, ‘I do not here annexe the processe (Honourable Sir) of it for I am now about it & have not perfected it being hindred by the unfortunate breaking of a


’ (29). The laboratory accident interrrupting operations at a crucial point is a

frequent theme in early modern alchemy. A month later, Starkey wrote to Johann

Moriaen, a German alchemist in close contact with Glauber, claiming that

Once I saw and even possessed the chrysopoeic and argyropoeic stones 18 ; I was an ocular witness of the former and an actual possessor of the latter. It had been given to me by a certain young friend, still living, who had each of the two Elixirs, whose name I am determined (being constrained by a vow) to hide forever. He gave me a few ounces, and when I tried to multiply them, I lost the greater part in the process. (35)

The mysterious anonymous donor is another recurrent feature in alchemical texts. Writing to Frederick Clodius, the Holsatian alchemist in 1653/4, Starkey recalls Van Helmont’s claim that he had once received ‘a particle of the aurific Elixir’ (that is, half a grain of the Philosopher’s Stone) from a wandering man whom he knew for only an evening. Similarly, Starkey met a Belgian alchemist in London to whom Van Helmont had given ‘a little portion’ (portiunculam) of the Stone, and who supposedly knew many other secrets, including that of the alkahest (91). On 18 August 1656, Starkey himself wrote in his diary: ‘Today by the gift of God, an anonymous friend

18 Respectively, those supposedly able to produce gold and silver from base metals.

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revealed to me the full practical knowledge of the grand Elixir under the sacrament of silence’ (306). Scholars studying alchemy need to recognize the recurring features in these narratives, which help us to see alchemy as not only a record of experiments but as a way of life, an experience in itself, full of hopes and disappointments. To Boyle, Starkey confessed that ‘I always cry cras [‘tomorrow’] like a little crow, but I hope finally that my ‘‘tomorrow’’ will be changed into today’; and, again to Boyle, ‘but why should I recount my hopes to you?’ (54, 58). Practitioners needed occasional assurances that the sought-after goal, whether the Philosopher’s Stone or the alkahest, did exist, that it was possible to see or even hold it, if only as a ‘once in a lifetime’ event. Practitioners also needed to feel close to discovering these great arcana, or even to have achieved that goal themselves. Starkey seems to have felt this need several times. In about December 1651, he noted to himself: ‘God commu- nicated to me the whole secret of volatilizing alkalies’ (43). On 26 January 1652, he wrote exultantly to Boyle to announce that

God, pitying a searcher’s labors, studies, vigils, and anxieties, finally opened to me the gates of nature and gave me not only the understanding but also the possession of that immortal liquor Ignis aqua, and now finally I sing a hymn to my God, since only He is worthy. Therefore, now ask and I shall answer you.

Nor does it hide from me, for I have seen with my own eyes


Starkey uses the language of religious witnessing*‘I know (because I have seen) that what I say is true’ (71). And his utterance (‘now ask and I shall answer you’) takes on a biblical form: compare Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you’ (Matt. 7:7). The term Ignis aqua comes from one of Van Helmont’s frequent dreams. The dream vision was another recurring feature in alchemical narratives, and Starkey also used it to describe how he was visited by one Eugenius, a ‘good spirit’ who revealed the secret of how to prepare ‘the true alkahest’ (69 72). After this excited, almost incoherent letter to Boyle, it is surprising to find, in Starkey’s Bristol notebook, four years later (20 March 1656), the laconic entry: ‘God revealed to me the whole secret of the liquor alkahest’. A further two years later (20 September 1658), Starkey wrote in his current notebook:

From the year 1647 up to this very year and day, I have exerted myself in the search for the liquor alkahest with many studies, vigils, labors, and costs. Today for the first time it has been granted and conceded to my unworthy self by the highest Father of Lights, the best and greatest God, to attain complete knowledge of it and to see its final end. (329)

But in another autobiographical note, Starkey gave a different date to this great event: ‘About the end of the year 1654 the whole secret was revealed to me by divine grace. From that time up to this year 1660 I was impeded by various obstructions from bringing the work to complete perfection’ (332; translation). What was it that Starkey found in 1652, 1654, 1656, and 1658? 19 Whatever it was, a notebook from 1657 1658 records his continuing state of uncertainty, as he listed

19 In their earlier study, Newman and Principe suggested that Starkey may have ‘decided that his first preparation was not the correct one’ (Alchemy Tried in the Fire [note 15], 104n., 128, 200). However, Starkey nowhere hints at this possibility.

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‘Some Questions of Great Importance to be Resolved by the Fire Concerning the Liquor Alkahest’: (1) ‘In what form should it appear?’; (2) ‘Whether it is a liquid absolutely distillable in the form of liquid, or rather a liquid impregnated with an immortal salt?’ (323). These and the following questions seem to exist at the level of wondering, ‘how would I know it, if I saw it?’. Citing texts from Paracelsus and Van Helmont brings Starkey no immediate clarification (the utterance of Eugenius, he recorded earlier, ‘was more obscure than Paracelsus himself’), and Starkey honestly records that ‘the question as yet remains entangled with many knots’ (325). The editors say of a late notebook that it helps us ‘to gauge the long-term progress of Starkey’s quest’ for the alkahest, but there can have been no ‘progress’ if he claimed to have discovered it four times over (328). The presence of these recurring events suggests that the early modern alchemist’s life, like his day-to-day operations, are to be seen not as a forerunner of industrial or pharmaceutical chemistry (although Starkey did produce medicines and cosmetics) but as the narrative of quests for revelation, to be achieved after enormous labour and dedication*of which Starkey regularly complains *only by the grace of God. To concentrate on the technological aspects of alchemy is not to ‘hear the other side’, with its spiritual dimension, and its inbuilt patterns of hope, failure, and eventual success. The rise and fall of alchemy has such inherent historical significance that its study does not need to be validated by its having anticipated modern chemistry (a proto-Whiggish approach), but simply in itself, as a complex practice having several ‘other sides’, textual and practical, material and spiritual.


Alchemy was only one of the pursuits of Simon Forman (1552 1611), who made his name as an astrologer and physician, attracting up to a thousand patients a year. According to Lauren Kassell, in her remarkably detailed study, ‘Forman lived with and through his papers, constantly shifting passages, copying and recopying, never completing’ (12). He left behind a vast assemblage of notes, running to ‘15,000 written pages’, of which his notes on alchemy ‘constitute about a quarter’ (2, 171). A typical instance of the eagerness with which Forman started new projects and abandoned old ones took place in August 1606, when he was copying the ‘Emerald

Tablet’ ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, with Hortulanus’ commentary (Newton was still engaged in this exercise in the 1680s). 20 Forman broke off his copying to

write a treatise on the Philosopher’s Stone, but he failed to complete either task. As Kassell comments, ‘Whatever Forman’s intentions, he did not produce a coherent account of the philosopher’s stone, nor of the relation between alchemy, magic, and medicine. But he devoted several reams of paper and dozens of quills and bottles of ink to the study of alchemy and magic’, interspersing notes on the ‘astrological significance’ of this material. Forman was the archetypal occultist, fusing all his pursuits together, resisting any modern attempt to cordon off alchemy from the other disciplines. To her credit, Kassell recognizes that ‘alchemy was both a textual and a

practical tradition’,

and her recreation of Forman’s note-taking places him at the

20 Newton’s commentary on the ‘Emerald Tablet’ was translated by Betty Jo Dobbs in The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (Cambridge, 1991), 276 77, and reprinted in Stanton J. Linden’s useful anthology, The Alchemy Reader. From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton (Cambridge, 2003), 246 47.

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opposite pole from George Starkey, that meticulous scholar always aware of the need to interpret alchemical texts (173). Forman seems to have copied out whatever he could lay his hands on: as Kassell puts it, his transcriptions of alchemical texts were ‘informed more by happenstance than deliberation’, and sometimes he did not know what he was copying (179). Her revealing discussion of Forman’s work on the use of antimony, which he called ‘cako’, shows that in 1598 he copied out a short treatise, not knowing the identity of its author (173 89). 21 Kassell identifies it as the ‘Second treatise on antimony’ by the Paracelsian Alexander von Suchten, ‘printed in German in 1570, Latin in 1575, and promptly translated into English and circulated in manuscript’ (176). In his first transcription, Forman changed the plain style of the original by adding introductions and conclusions in ‘the florid language typical of medieval alchemical texts’, giving no indication of its authorship (179). But when he copied it again, a year or so later, in an alchemical commonplace book called ‘Principles of philosofi’, Forman claimed authorship, signing it with his own name (180 81). This act of plagiarism is now revealed, four centuries later, thanks to Lauren Kassell. Not content with a single appropriation, Forman copied out von Suchten’s text again in a treatise ‘of appoticarie drugs’, a commonplace book which Kassell dates c.1607, and ‘transformed it’ again, unfortunately becoming quite confused in the process, equating crude ore of antimony with the regulus, and making other errors (183 84). Kassell’s discussion, illustrated with many high-quality reproductions of Forman’s manuscripts (our thanks are due to an enlightened publisher) brings to life an alchemist, relying solely on written sources, seated at his desk and copying out indiscriminately ‘texts reputedly ancient and modern, English and Arabic, transmutational, medical, and spiritual’ (179). 22 Kassell also describes Forman as a book-collector, on the strength of a manuscript note reminding himself to look up some references in Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia (35, 51 52). However, as Mordechai Feingold has objected, ‘every piece of evidence we have suggests that Forman copied and owned manuscripts, not printed books’. The significance of ‘Forman’s immersion in the culture of scribal publication’, as Feingold points out, is that ‘manuscipts were the preferred source for Renaissance practi- tioners of alchemy and astrology, especially of those lacking formal education’. 23 Although Forman, copyist and plagiarist, indifferent to the meanings of his texts, stands at the opposite pole from the scrupulous George Starkey, he shared with him several features of the alchemical tradition. Forman also used the language of religious witnessing and divine revelation, piously declaring in his second treatise ‘Of Cako’ that

21 Kassell notes that ‘A treatise on cachelah’ circulated among Dee’s circle in the 1580s, and suggests that the word ‘cako’ derives from ‘the Hebrew ‘‘Kochav’’ meaning star, perhaps indicating the star regulus of antimony’ (179), or quicksilver, which is produced when metalline antimony is further refined with other metals.

22 For further details of Forman’s eclectic reading, see chapter three, ‘How to Write Like a Magus’ (54 74), 57, 68 (‘he drew heavily on Latin astrological texts, often denigrating their authors while flaunting his own learning’), 163, 174, 186 (on ‘Forman’s doctrinal and practical eclecticism’), 188, and the Bibliography of ‘Simon Forman’s Principal Manuscripts’ (233 40).

23 Mordechai Feingold, ‘A Conjurer and a Quack? The Lives of John Dee and Simon Forman’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 68 (2005), 545 59, at 545. The truth of this observation can be confirmed from Steven W. May’s recent and magisterial Elizabethan Poetry. A Bibliography and First-line Index of English Verse, 1559 1603, 3 vols (London, 2004). See my review in Times Literary Supplement, 10 February 2006, 7.

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I cam to the knowledge therof

proved the experience ther of at my owne coste and charges secretly. For yt was

with my owne handes and eyes. I sawe and

the will of god yt should be soe. For in all my practizes and workings I never came to any knowledge, but only by the will of god and by my owne industry & coste. (181)

Like Starkey, Helmont, and many others, Forman recorded dreams involving alchemy. At one point, he collected in his commonplace book twenty-one ‘dremes and visions that I have sene totching the philosophers stone’ (59). In September 1595, ‘he ‘‘drempt of 3 black cats, and of my philosophical powder which I was distiling’’. In October 1595, he dreamt that a man wrote some words about the philosophers’ stone on Forman’s coat and gave him two kinds of white powder’ (173). Forman also gave his version of the alchemist’s recurrent narrative of having almost gained knowledge of the great arcanum, what might be called ‘the moment of near success’. In March 1596, he recorded a dream in which ‘a friend gave him some of the philosophers’ stone in liquid form. Forman cupped it in his hand, but before he could find a glass to hold it, it ran through his fingers’ (ibid.). So near, and yet so far. Forman was equally eclectic in his medical practice. A self-taught astrologer and exponent of Paracelsian chemical remedies, he was in constant conflict with the London College of Physicians, loyal adherents to Galenic humoural medicine, as Kassell describes in great detail (73 99). But although Forman believed he could cure the plague by his skill in astrology alone, in fact, as Kassell shows, he pragmatically ‘combined Galenic and Paracelsian definitions of disease’ (109 14, 116). He was not above resorting to school medicine, using ‘a conventional, surgical method, for treating plague sores by lancing them, and combining bloodletting with purges (153, 155). 24 ‘Forman’s writings on the plague’, Kassell judges, ‘like most of his treatises, are incoherent, eclectic’, and were constantly rewritten, until he could list ‘thousands of rules for judging the astrological causes of a disease’ (102, 113 14). The dominance of astrology in Forman’s work as a physician for whom ‘astrology was not an adjunct of medicine; medicine was an adjunct of astrology’, is revealed by the several thousand casebooks that survive covering the period 1596 1601, which Kassell analyses in psychological, sociological, and astrological terms (90). One major link between Forman’s main preoccupations was the written tradition, even stronger in astrology than in alchemy, indeed a fundamental characteristic of the occult sciences, with their reverence for written authority. ‘Astrology was by definition a written art’, Kassell writes, lacking a practical dimension*although she oddly refers to Forman making ‘an astrological experiment’, and the surviving casebooks record the quantities of horoscopes that Forman wrote (132). Where conventional physicians inspected a patient’s urine, Forman contemptuously rejected such indices, assured that he could discern ‘the cause of a disease’ simply by casting an astrological figure (140). In this process, he first ‘charted the stars and then mapped the disease onto the patient’s body’, a classic instance of a priori practices, far removed from empirical observation (141). Like other astrological physicians, the majority of Forman’s patients were women (130), and he believed that, rather than examining a female patient, ‘the astrologer

should consult the

stars to see if a woman was a virgin, then whether she was

24 For further details of Forman’s use of Galenic medicine, see Barbara H. Traister, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman (Chicago, 2001).

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pregnant’ (162). Kassell’s account of Forman’s treatment of women is studiously unjudgemental. Since she is not writing a biography, she is able to ignore the scandal of Forman’s many sexual relationships with his female patients, documented by A. L. Rowse and Michael MacDonald 25 , but she is too kind to his misogyny and monocausality. His notebooks contain stock denunciations of the sins of women

as the cause of all evils, including plague. Throughout his writings, as Kassell shows, ‘Forman framed the diseases of women according to notions of their sexual activity and moral accountability’ (160 62). Forman even recommended physicians to ignore anything said by female patients, since women’s words were not to be trusted. He systematically disregarded his patients’ own accounts of their illnesses, preferring to cast their horoscopes. Kassell speaks of these consultations as initiating ‘a new dynamic between the astrologer-physician and his patient’, based on trust (159). However, it seems to me that Forman simply imposed his own scheme on to their situation, for whatever his patients’ complaint, ‘only the stars revealed the truth’ (161). All human ailments were supposedly determined by the ‘horary figures’ which Forman constructed out of the time of day at which the consultation took place, the positions of the zodiacal signs and the five known planets (132 33). No doubt, this single explanatory system can provide thousands of possible correlations, internally generated and self-sustaining, but as a mode of diagnosing and treating illness, it is hard to know whom one would have preferred to consult in Elizabethan London, Simon Forman or a graduate of the College of Physicians. It is fortunate that in many cases, the body cures itself. Although a scholarly work, the fruit of sustained dedication to its topic, Kassell’s study is not without faults. The degree of involvement with the material relics of Forman’s career needed to re-create his preoccupations in such detail often prevents her from objectively evaluating his words and deeds. For instance, Kassell devotes several pages (38 45) to Forman’s sole publication, a pamphlet called The Groundes of Longitude (1591), which she introduces with the dry comment that ‘It does not contain information about how to calculate longitude’ (38). The tract is ‘self- aggrandizing’ but evasive about the ‘secret’ that Forman claims to know, and it attracted criticism from several knowledgeable contemporaries, including Thomas Hood, the first Mathematical Lecturer of the City of London. Modern historians of Tudor mathematics have dismissed it as ‘negligible’ and ‘vacuous’, but Kassell avoids an evaluation, preferring to take Hood’s attack as revealing an ‘animosity’ between Hood and ‘an impoverished, quasi-itinerant astrologer [which] is evidence both of the lack of structure in the mathematical community in Elizabethan London and [of] the possible rifts within it’ (44). But to postulate the existence of such a ‘community’ (with perhaps a dozen members) and to see Forman as belonging to it, is to beg several historiographical questions. Kassell solemnly records Forman’s promise that

if his method for calculating longitude*whatever it was*‘was duly rewarded

would ‘‘perhaps make declaration of the principles of another science, as much


25 See A.L. Rowse, Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age (London, 1974), and Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1981). Mordechai Feingold has singled out the ‘sexual context’ of Forman’s dreams as providing invaluable insights into his ‘fixation on power relations’ and his exploitation of women: ‘It is impossible to evaluate Forman’s career without considering his incessant preying on women, for his lucrative practice depended on the support of the numerous women he seduced*literally and figuratively’ (‘A Conjurer and a Quack?’ [note 23], 550).

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desired as this’’’, commenting that Forman ‘was probably describing the secret of the philosophers’ stone. This had been known to the ancients, then lost; but the secret of longitude had never before been known to any man’ (44 45; my italics). To forfeit the historian’s necessary detachment from your subject is to risk sharing their credulity. It is good to get inside Forman’s world, provided that you can get out again.


Lauren Kassell’s study confines itself to the output of one man. In Promethean Ambitions. Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, William R. Newman ranges over a huge period of time, from the beginnings of alchemy in Hellenistic Egypt to Bacon, Descartes, and Boyle. His goal is equally ambitious, to situate alchemy as a key player in the debate over the relative status of art and nature in this period. As Newman argues, alchemy’s claim to be able to effect transmutation, if accepted, would have placed its art above nature, and destroyed both ancient and modern conceptions of its inferiority. The book displays, once again, Newman’s wide knowledge of medieval and early modern alchemy, together with much of the relevant secondary literature. However, its treatment of several fundamental issues is unsatisfying. To begin with, Newman does not give adequate attention to the terms used in this debate. He acknowledges a debt to the exemplary essay by A. J. Close, but his own discussion of the concepts involved is perfunctory. 26 The term ‘nature’*a notor- iously polysemous word, which Vladimir Nabokov said should only ever be used within inverted commas*has a long history, as several learned studies have shown, but Newman writes as if it meant the same thing in texts covering a thousand years. 27 Although Newman cites the obligatory passages in Aristotle, he seems not to have noticed some important contextual issues. In Physics (book two, chapter one), Aristotle stated that ‘Of things that exist, some exist by nature, some from other causes’, namely human activity in producing artefacts. 28 The characteristic of natural things*humans, animals, plants*is that ‘each of them has within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness (in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration). On the other hand, a bed and a coat and anything else of that sort, qua receiving these designations*i.e. in so far as they are products of art*have no innate impulse to change’. So, Aristotle reasons that ‘nature is a principle or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not accidentally’ (192b9 23). This is the key distinction for Aristotle, which sets ‘artificial products’ apart from things in nature: ‘None of them has in itself the principle of its own production’ (192b29 30). And he concludes his discussion of this concept of nature with a transition to a second, complementary notion: ‘This then is one account of nature,

26 A.J. Close, ‘Commonplace Theories of Art and Nature in Classical Antiquity and in the Renaissance’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 30 (1969), 467 86.

27 See, e.g., Andre´ Pellicier, Natura: Etude se´mantique et histoire du mot latin (Paris, 1966); James A. Weisheipl, ‘The Concept of Nature’, in W.E. Carroll (ed), Nature and Motion in the Middle Ages (Washington, DC, 1985), 1 23.

28 All quotations from Aristotle are from Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation, 2 vols (Princeton, NJ, 1984).

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namely that it is the primary underlying matter of things which have in themselves a principle of motion or change’. Another account is that nature is the shape or form which is specified in the definition of the thing (193a28 31). Here, Aristotle adds a

distinction between potentiality and actuality: ‘what is potentially flesh or bone has not yet its own nature, and does not exist by nature, until it receives the form

specified in the definition

settle the issue of primacy (which constituent part is dominant, which subordinate), always a key process in his philosophy:

The form indeed is nature rather than the matter; for a thing is more properly said to be what it is when it exists in actuality than when it exists potentially. Again man is born from man but not bed from bed. (193b7 10)

William Newman’s exposition of this passage shows that he has not grasped the two distinct categories which Aristotle defined (Promethean Ambitions, 16). He quotes the point that ‘man is born from man but not bed from bed’ as if it belonged to Aristotle’s first category, ‘nature’ as the innate principle of movement (or change), rather than the second, where it is form, rather than matter, that determines ‘nature’. Also, Newman fails to realize that Aristotle is not talking about ‘nature’ in general, but about individual natures. It is a commonplace among Aristotelian scholars that

when Aristotle talks about nature, he is not talking about a single universal force, which pervades all natural objects and directs their development and

When he is writing as a

scientist or as a philosopher of science he means by nature the nature of this or

that thing. We say that a natural object, like a tree or a horse, has a nature: it is

’ (193a36 b2). This new distinction enables Aristotle to

behaviour towards goals it has appointed for

that nature which

in Phys. II Aristotle is trying to get at. 29

This oversight is due to Newman using the terms ‘nature’ and ‘art’ without a proper discussion of their connotations, and as if they referred to the same unchanging concepts throughout the period he covers. Aristotle distinguished five usages of the word ‘nature’ (Metaphysics, 5.4, 1014b16 1015a31); Renaissance Aristotelians distinguished between six and ten meanings; A. J. Close made do with seven. 30 In this context, Aristotle is using the term in Close’s sense ‘d) the essential form of physical things, giving them life and specific identity’. 31 It is a category-error to cite this passage as if it referred to phusis in any of the other senses; similarly with techne¯, for which Newman cites only one definition from Aristotle, ‘a ‘‘reasoned state of capacity to make’’ (Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a8), the ability to produce in a methodical and clever way’ (Promethean Ambitions, 14 15). This is too imprecise. As Charlton pointed out, in Aristotle ‘art, like nature, is always the art of something definite, the art of making a table or restoring men to health or the like, and is, in fact, the form which the artist has in mind, or intends, for the material, the pieces of wood or the patient’s body’. 32 For Aristotle, techne¯ implied that the craftsman knows

29 Aristotle’s Physics Books I and II., translated with Introduction and Notes by W. Charlton (Oxford, 1970), xvi xvii. See also 51, 88.

30 Dennis Des Chene, Physiologia. Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought (Ithaca, NY, 1996), 212, 227. See the full discussion of ‘Nature and Counternature’, 212 25; Close, ‘Commonplace Theories’ (note 27), 469 80.


Ibid., 467.

32 Charlton, Aristotle’s Physics (note 30), 90

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the principles by which one can effect change in an object: ‘All art is concerned


capable of either being or not being, and whose origin is in the maker and not in the

’ (EN 6.4, 1140b1 23; also MM 1.34, 1197a3ff.). 33 The key question

for alchemy is, in what sense does the alchemist bring something ‘into being’

according to ‘the form which the artist

For Aristotle, as for the vast majority of philosophers and theologians up to the seventeenth century who discussed this topic, the human artificer could imitate nature

but was unable to create anything having the autonomous powers of growth or movement. However, it is possible that alchemists claimed such powers for their art during the period when alchemy flourished in Islamic countries. At all events, in the eleventh century Avicenna delivered what Newman judges to be ‘the most influential attack on alchemy ever made’, starting from the Aristotelian position that ‘Art is weaker than nature and does not overtake it, however much it labors. Therefore, let the artificers of alchemy know that the species of metals cannot be transmuted. (Quare sciant artifices alkimie species metallorum transmutari non posse.)’ Although alchemists can make similar things, Avicenna concedes, having the superficial qualities of gold or silver, ‘alien qualities’ will still dominate. Using the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident, Avicenna denies the possibility of transmutation:

I do not believe that it is possible to take away the specific differences by some technique because it is not due to such [accidents] that one complexion is converted into another, since these sensible things are not those by which species are transmuted; rather they are accidents and properties. For the differences of the metals are not known, and since the difference is not known, how will it be possible to know whether it is removed or not, or how it could be removed? (37)

In a parallel attack on astrology, as Newman reports, Avicenna returned to his condemnation of alchemy ‘in more explicitly religious terms, distinguishing what God has made by natural powers from what man can accomplish by artificial means’ (38). Christian writers agreed that the alchemists’ claims, if true, would usurp God’s powers. Over the next 600 years, Avicenna’s endorsement of the Aristotelian dichotomy setting art below nature influenced countless rejections of alchemy’s claim to be able to transmute metals, many of which cited the Latin words ‘Sciant artifices’ as if they were the opening words of a Papal decree. Newman diligently collects denials of alchemical transmutation by a remarkable range of thinkers, leading figures in philosophy and theology whose works were frequently copied, often supplied with commentaries longer than the original texts, and forming a staple part of the university curriculum over the next 500 years. They include Averroes, Albert the Great, Aquinas, Ibn Khaldun, together with Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and Aristotelians of all schools. Having documented this massive consensus among philosophers and theologians, Newman extends it to take in artists and craftsmen

thing made

contriving and considering how something may come into being which is

intends for the material’?

33 Cf. also Met. 9.3, 1047a35ff.; EN 2.4, 1105b22ff.; Pol. 4.1, 1288b10 21. On the connotations of ars by the thirteenth century, see Michael R. McVaugh, ‘Medical Certitude at Montpellier’, Osiris, 2nd ser., 6 (1990), 62 84 at 71, and He´le`ne Merle, ‘Ars’, Bulletin de Philosophie Me´die´vale, 28 (1986), 95 133.

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such as Leonardo da Vinci, Biringuccio, and Palissy, all of whom vigorously denied alchemy’s power to effect transmutation. At this stage in his survey, however, Newman becomes visibly dissatisfied with alchemy’s critics, and tries to subvert their arguments by ascribing to them ulterior motives. Leonardo states, categorically enough, that

Nature is concerned with the production of elementary things. But man from these elementary things produces an infinite number of compounds; although he is unable to create any element except another life like himself*that is, in his children. Old alchemists will be my witnesses, who have never either by chance or by experiment succeeded in creating the smallest element which can be created by nature

Newman attempts to relativize*and hence discount*Leonardo’s objections as those of a painter worried that alchemy might be challenging his own art’s status as the supreme imitator of nature and, moreover, appealing to the same patrons (118 25). But there is no evidence that Leonardo held the purely personal, self- centred attitudes that Newman ascribes to him. Similarly, when Biringuccio sarcastically suggests that, if alchemists really could make gold, there would be no point in studying anything else, Newman attempts to deflect the criticism by taking this as serious evidence for ‘the competition between alchemy and the other arts’,

which, he claims, was rife in the Renaissance (129). As for Palissy, Newman acknowledges that he ‘debunks [alchemy] at considerable length’ (145 63, 196), but once again alleges ulterior motives, describing Palissy’s diatribe as the utterance of an ‘artist in competition with a rival discipline’ (147). Newman will not accept that these critics of alchemy were expressing in their own terms the widely shared disapproval of the art; each is said to act out of narrow self-interest. Newman even tries to turn the tables on Palissy, arguing that he actually tried to appropriate ‘the alchemists’ own goals’ by following out an obsession with ‘the theme of flesh becoming stone’ (145, 153). Newman takes Palissy’s interest in fossils and petrifaction*he was a pioneer in ceramic techniques*as proving ‘his full debt to Geber’s theory of transmutation’ (161 62). This attempt to expose Palissy as a covert alchemist seems to me to lack any substance, and I was dismayed to find that Newman tries to turn to alchemy’s advantage the joke that Palissy made on his deathbed, giving a friend ‘‘‘a stone that he

called his ‘philosophers’ stone’ of time had converted into stone

(160). Unwilling to read this as ‘a sardonic

thrust at the summum bonum of the alchemists’, Newman seriously suggests that the petrifacted skull represents ‘the transmutational summum bonum of nature’, and that ‘Palissy was substituting one artistic goal for another’, leaving behind ‘an alchemical memento mori’ (162). Such special pleading diminishes the reader’s trust in an author. As for the Aristotelian position regarding the superiority of nature, and the inferiority of all the arts, including alchemy, earlier Newman accused Averroes and Avicenna of having

adopted the unbending axiom that man and nature cannot produce the same effects. The problematic nature of this claim would become ever more apparent in the following centuries as the proponents of alchemy forced their detractors to consider the empirical consequences of their overconfident assertion. (43)


[namely] a skull (teste de mort), which the passage ’’’

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But this is the scenario for a confrontation that never took place. Newman cites no evidence that the critics of alchemy were ever ‘forced’ to reconsider their belief that nature was stronger than art. None of them felt the need to respond to alchemy’s apologists, who brought no new and compelling arguments to bear. For the most part, these two discourses, for and against alchemy, existed on two separate planes, addressed to two different audiences, one very much larger than the other. Newman

talks up the apologists’ utterances as if they seriously challenged the deep-rooted and almost universal belief in the superiority of nature to art. According to Newman, the alchemical apologists successfully challenged the Aristotelian-Avicennan ‘stark distinction’ (17, 112), or ‘hard distinction between the artificial and the natural’ (93), those philosophers’ ‘hard-line assertion that natural and artificial products are fundamentally and essentially distinct’ (96 97, my italics). Although Newman attempts to disvalue the Aristotelian-Avicennan position, he cites no evidence that any such challenge took place. Newman gradually slips into the role of a defender of alchemy, wielding a hammer against its critics. Outspoken opponents of alchemy, such as Nicholas Eymerich or Thomas Erastus, are demonized. 35 On one page, Erastus is said to represent ‘the culmination of the tradition’ deriving from Avicenna which ‘began by limiting the transmutation of species to God’, but two pages later he is found guilty of having ‘advocated a startling rift between the worlds of the artificial and the natural’ (111, 113; my italics). Despite his many scholarly qualities, William Newman emerges as an apologist for alchemy, not just its historian. Like many partisan observers, he tends to privilege his subject, exempt it from critical evaluation, while disparaging its detractors. He discusses some of the alchemists’ counter-claims, but piecemeal, without evaluating their arguments and without attempting to reconstruct the social and economic factors which put alchemy on the defensive. Rather, he dramatizes the alchemists’ self-justifications and applauds their campaign. Newman attaches considerable significance to a little-known thirteenth-century alchemical treatise, The Book of Hermes. 36 The author of this treatise denied the inferiority of art to nature, asserting

that ‘human works are variously the same as natural

lightning and the fire thrown forth by a stone is the same fire’. Newman comments approvingly that his author’s objection ‘cuts to the very quick of any hard distinction between the artificial and the natural based on Aristotelian categories. Who could deny that the fire started by striking two flints was the same as the fire started by lightning in a blazing forest?’ According to Newman, ‘to admit that the fire produced

was the same

nature’, but a huge gulf separates those two activities (64). The Hermetic writer’s rather feeble argument fails to address the issues central to Avicenna’s neo- Platonizing system, the principle that substantial forms cannot be transformed by human intervention.

For the fire of natural

meant that man could transmute elements in the same way as

35 Newman ascribes to Eymerich ‘a visceral antipathy to alchemy’ (94), although Newman shows that he merely echoed Aristotle and Aquinas; he is at once ‘extremely conservative’ and ‘intransigent’.

36 According to Newman, this treatise had ‘never been printed, or for that matter analyzed’ until he produced a ‘partial working edition’ in his doctoral dissertation (Harvard, MA, 1968). Indeed, it was ‘[un]known to the three Scholastic authors of the mid-thirteenth century most concerned with alchemy, Vincent of Beauvais, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon’; William R. Newman, ‘Technology and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages’, Isis, 80 (1989), 423 45 at 430. However, it is quite well known to modern historians of alchemy.

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William Newman exudes energy and verve, but his history of medieval alchemy is one-sided, an affair of heroes and villains. It is instructive to compare Newman’s heavily polarized account of medieval alchemy with the more sober scholarly studies of Barbara Obrist (who was trained as an art historian before turning to the medieval sciences). She has produced a valuable edition of Constantine of Pisa’s Liber secretorum alchimie and an outstanding study of alchemical imagery. 37 She has also published a series of substantial essays on art and nature in medieval alchemy, its use of analogy and its place in medieval society. 38 By contrast with Newman, Obrist’s work has no parti pris for or against her subject, and is aware of alchemy’s wider economic and social contexts. Her starting point is alchemy’s status in the twelfth century as an ars, occupying an intermediary place between scientia, the ‘knowledge of causes’ or of certain truth drawn deductively from established principles, and operatio, the craftsman’s manual labour, based on experientia (1996, 219 20; 1986, 40 42). Alchemy’s domain was the imitation of precious metals, precious stones, the

preparation of pharmaceutical products, and the distillation of alcohol or ‘eau-de- vie’. The history of alchemy over the next two centuries, in her reading, might be summarized as ‘artisanal practice in search of a theory’, especially one to justify its claim to be able to effect transmutation. Where Newman’s history is text-based, Obrist’s recognizes that the rise of alchemy was linked to the general economic upswing in the thirteenth century, and suffered from later recessions (1996, 223 24, 281; 1986, 40 41, 48 49). She never forgets that the alchemists’ claims to produce artificial gold were constantly being tested, and exposed as illusory (1996, 226; 1993, 52). One particularly damaging failure was that described by Albert the Great in his Mineralogy (c.1260), where, having outlined a number of theories which would support the possibility of transmutation, he recorded that his considerable experience with alchemists had convinced him that although they can produce a yellow-coloured metal, it does not survive testing by fire, as he discovered himself (1996, 267 69). The failure of Albert’s experiments discredited alchemical theory, which in any case suffered under the problematic relationship in the medieval sciences between theory and practice (1996, 285). The fact that the artisanal practice of alchemy used a great number of varied techniques exposed the arbitrary relation between alchemical operations and the theories supposed to explain them. ‘Thus alchemy presented an exemplary instance of the more general problem in medieval science, the gulf between rational demonstration and the results of experience’ (1993, 52 53). These all too public failures, and some deliberate deceptions, resulted in the widely shared view of alchemists as charlatans and frauds (1996, 216; 1993, 54). Another socio-economic context which proved unfavourable to alchemy was the monetary crisis of the thirteenth century, in which some rulers desperately hired alchemists in the hope of them making artificial gold to fill their empty coffers (1986, 49 53, 56 58). Both the

rulers’ expectation,

and its failure, served to discredit alchemy further. Several

37 Constantine of Pisa: The Book of the Secrets of Alchemy (Leiden, Netherlands, 1990); Les de´buts de l’imagerie alchimique (14e 15e sie`cles) (Paris, 1982).

38 Barbara Obrist,‘Art et nature dans l’alchimie me´die´vale’, Revue d’Histoire des Sciences, 49 (1996), 215 86; ‘Les rapports d’analogie entre philosophie et alchimie me´die´vale’, in Alchimie et Philosophie a` la Reniassance, edited by J.-C. Margolin and S. Matton (Paris, 1993), 44 64; ‘Die Alchemie in der mittelalterlichen Gesellschaft’, in Die Alchemie in der europa¨ ischen Kultur- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte, edited by Christoph Meinel (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1986), 33 59; ‘Vers une histoire de l’alchimie me´die´vale’, Micrologus, 3 (1995), 3 43. I refer to these essays by their publication date, thus ‘1996, 220’. All translations are mine.

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monastic orders between 1270 and 1300 prohibited it, and in 1317 Pope John XXII issued his famous decree denouncing alchemy as a counterfeiting art (1986, 51 53). In Obrist’s view, alchemy’s negative public image was a major reason why it failed to achieve the status of a scientia, and never established itself as a university discipline (1986, 45 46; 1993, 54; 1995, 42 43). In terms of its self-presentation, the other major obstacle was the universal agreement, stretching back to the Greeks, of the inferiority of art to nature (1996, 221). Apologists for alchemy tried to overcome this obstacle but never succeeded, resulting in what Obrist described as ‘l’e´chec d’alchimie’ (1993, 54; 1996, 258 59), its ‘blocage e´piste´mologique’ (1993, 55), and a ‘Stillstand der Theorie’ (1986, 52). Unlike medicine, an ars which gained acceptance as a scientia, alchemy failed to achieve respectability. Viewed as a whole, medieval alchemy presents itself as an art which incessantly attempted to establish its place in relation to nature without ever achieving a lasting success, never managing to set up a solid relationship with natural philosophy (of which it was, in principle, a subaltern and practical branch, on the same level as agriculture and medicine). However, despite what appears as a permanent defeat in the historian’s long view, alchemy persisted in its effort to build up its theoretical bases (1996, 225). Drawing on a wide knowledge of medieval philosophy, and a historian’s proper detachment towards the art and its apologists, Obrist has shown how alchemists desperately searched for plausible arguments to support the possibility of transmuta- tion. As she puts it:

the authors of alchemical texts used all possible arguments which would provide a theoretical foundation for their activity, in the first instance at the level of matter and its natural transformations. In a veritable merry-go-round, they adopt theories, eventually modifying them, but suddenly rejecting them again. (1995, 34)

Diverse philosophical schools were brought into the frame: Pre-Socratic cosmologies, Arabic neo-Platonism, Stoic theories of spiritus, elements from Galenic medicine (1993, 43, 53, 63; 1996, 251). Late-thirteenth-century alchemical texts are characterized by ‘a proliferation of models attempting to account for transmutation’. But, ‘rather than submitting the problematical general theories to a real critique they simply superimpose others on them’ (1993, 55). Not only the theories, but also the materials to be used, were multiplied. One direction alchemical theory took in these attempts at legitimization was to introduce analogies between the mineral and the animal realms, with metals conceived of being ‘generated’ or ‘maturing’ both naturally and artificially (1993, 47 52). However, analogy often collapsed into identity, as noted elsewhere in the occult sciences. 39 Another strategy adopted by alchemists was to invoke ‘occult causes’, invisible and unknowable, or to claim that their texts were intentionally obscure and could not be understood by laymen (1993, 54; 1995, 38 40). Another way out of the impasse between theory and practice was to give a religious dimension to alchemy, as in the Margarita pretiosa novella (1330/40) by the physician Petrus

39 See Brian Vickers, ‘Analogy Versus Identity: The Rejection of Occult Symbolism, 1580 1680’, in Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, edited by Brian Vickers (Cambridge, 1984, 2005), 95 163.

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Bonus of Ferrara and the works ascribed to Arnald of Villanova (1993, 56 58), a religious reinterpretation which continued down to the Trinitarian treatises of the early fifteenth century (1995, 35 36). Where William Newman presents the alchemists’ attempts to discover a theory legitimizing transmutation as a series of successful challenges which ‘cut to the quick’ of the dominant paradigm of art’s inferiority to nature, Barbara Obrist gives a more dispassionate analysis of the proliferation of transmutational theories in the thirteenth century. Where Newman was content to pick out a few of the alchemists’ utterances for his polarized history of conflicting theoretical camps, Obrist’s more searching analysis shows how alchemists reached these positions, and at what philosophical cost. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle’s principle that changes effected by a techne¯ are due to the intention of the artificer, regarded art and nature as mutually exclusive categories (1996, 227 28). Another Aristotelian principle, according to which the celestial sphere is formed of an incorruptible substance, ether, while everything below the moon is subject to change and decay, resulted in a conceptual distinction between an upper and a lower nature. Alchemy’s field of action was restricted to the level of an inferior nature, that of mutable bodies, but alchemists tried to turn that restriction to their own advantage by arguing that their art could work on matter which was not fully formed, whether materia propinqua or inchoatio formae (1996, 236 49). Alchemy re-inscribed itself as the ‘servant’ of this lower nature, claiming the power of stimulating it to accelerate natural processes, or to complete them. Alchemists believed that they could do this by ‘applying just the right proportion of heat’, as Albertus Magnus advised, the ‘moderate heating used by the alchemical art’, as a pseudo-Avicennan treatise put it in the early 13th century (1996, 250 51). But what is ‘just the right proportion of heat’? These treatises soon go into detail: as Obrist says, ‘the ease with which authors of alchemical texts move from the philosophical level to directions for operation is always rather disconcerting’ (1996, 247). Alchemists looking for a theoretical justification for their claim to effect transmutation seem often happier returning to the level of operatio. At the philosophical level, however, the concepts of ‘art’ and ‘nature’ were having to support an ever greater weight of significance. The concept of the alchemical art as the instrument of nature placed alchemy in a passive role (1996, 239 41). In their counter-attack, claiming that their art could prepare matter to receive form, alchemists were giving themselves an active role (1996, 241 42, 246 47). But then, if alchemy assumes the role of a stimulating agens, it must necessarily act on a patiens:

which in this case is nature, now at one and the same time both a material and passive principle and a formal and active principle. From this viewpoint nature is not only the object of the transformations brought about by art, but also the instrument. The elementary active principles which are at first the instruments of nature, seen as an organizing intelligence acting towards a goal, become equally the instruments of human art. (1996, 252)

As Obrist puts it, ‘from the moment that the human artisan substitutes himself for a natural agent in the manipulation of natural virtues, these become the instruments of art, and, by extension, nature itself becomes ‘‘the instrument of art’’’, a formula ‘which represents an inversion of the long tradition by which art is the instrument of nature’ (1996, 252 53). On Obrist’s dispassionate analysis of this development, documented with exemplary clarity, alchemical theory had reached a state of conceptual muddle,

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with art being simultaneously ‘outside’ and ‘within’ nature, ‘at once its agent and its instrument’. For the practising alchemist seeking a theoretical justification for his continuing efforts to discover the Philosopher’s Stone, or the Elixir, such considera- tions were of small account. But for modern historians of alchemy, they should give cause for concern, and not be used, without evaluation, to construct a triumphalist narrative. The ‘rhetorical subtlety’ of these texts, as Obrist describes them, allowed some alchemists to place their art on an equal footing with nature, but on tenuous grounds. Others held that alchemy was superior to nature, able to transform it, a claim which, for some authors, could be made by simply changing a manuscript reading in the text they were using from imitare to mutare (1996, 254 55). The co- existence in the thirteenth century of so many diverse theories of matter provided alchemists with a large fund of what seemed to them legitimizing arguments. Yet, Obrist concludes, ‘no theory of the transmutation of metals, however easily assembled, managed to acquire the status of an authority and to establish itself in a lasting form’ (1996, 258). Meanwhile, the alchemists’ continuing failure to effect transmutation, and their increasing association in the public eye with fraud and deceit, meant that the art never achieved intellectual respectability. Newman’s treatment of disputed issues in medieval alchemy is more selective and far more dramatic than Obrist’s, making eye-catching claims for alchemy’s status within medieval thought which cannot hold up under scrutiny. A striking instance of this tendency is his treatment of the philosophical-theological tradition, in the Middle Ages and after, which discussed alchemy in connection with witches and demons. According to Newman, Albertus Magnus represents ‘a Scholastic tradition of using alchemy to determine the powers of demons’ (44). For Albert, apparently, ‘the claim of alchemy to transmute species represents the ultimate assertion of human power in the natural world. Alchemy is the benchmark against which other arts*even the arts possessed by demons*must be measured’ (45). Many readers will be surprised at these statements. Newman bases them on a section in Albert’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter of Lombard, discussing the question ‘whether demons can introduce substantial forms in transmuted bodes’. Albert replies in the negative: since ‘art does not transmute a substantial form into [another substantial] form’, therefore ‘demons cannot [transmute them], because they work only by means of art’ (46). Then, in typical scholastic fashion, Albert considers the other side of the case, arguing ‘it seems that if the power of art worked in the transmutations of bodies, as in alchemy, that demons would be able to do this much more powerfully’ (47). 40 This utterance is what linguists call a ‘counterfactual’, introduced by the word ‘if’, and casting the verb into the conditional. Newman, however, removes all doubts or conditions, declaring that Albert

takes it as a given that alchemy can indeed transmute species and works outward from that point. If man can actually transmute species, it follows that demons, who are much more powerful than man, can also do so. The implicit assumption behind this use of alchemy is absolutely clear. In terms of its claims, alchemy is the summum bonum of the human arts. As the apex of human artistry, alchemy serves as the high-water mark against which demonic power must be measured.

40 The Latin text reads: ‘ergo videtur, quod si potestas artis operetur super corporum transmutationes, ut alchimiae, quod daemones hoc multo magis vacere praevaleant’ (47 note).

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This use of alchemy as the symbol of man’s ability to alter the natural world would have far-reaching consequences. (47; my italics)

But Albert’s formulation in no way permits this degree of certainty, even though Newman insistently repeats his point (49, 51 53, 54 55, 61, 63, 101, 118, etc.). It seems to me a major distortion of Scholasticism to argue that medieval theologians like Albertus Magnus or Aquinas saw alchemy as ‘the paragon of human artifice’,

‘the touchstone by which all arts

relationship to nature’ or ‘the apex of human endeavours in the realm of artisanship’ (49, 51, 52 53, 63). I would argue that medieval theologians considering whether demons could change their shapes legitimately looked to alchemy for an analogy, since it claimed to be able to transmute metals. However, this ‘shape-changing’ analogy says nothing about the status of alchemy among the other artes, a question which could only be settled by a comparative analysis of the medieval arts system, from the trivium and quadrivium to the practical arts, a discussion which Newman does not undertake. It is not my impression that alchemy enjoyed such a supreme status in the medieval philosophical world. 41 I am not persuaded by Newman’s claims that, in the thirteenth century, ‘the field [of alchemy] was gradually appropriated by Scholastic authors’ or that ‘most scholastics thought that art could perfect nature by applying agents to patients’ (43, 116). Newman ascribes to ‘the great theologians’ of the thirteenth century the belief that ‘alchemy’s claim of effecting the rapid transmutation of bodies made it unique among the arts’ (112). But since Albertus Magnus and Aquinas had both denied those claims, alchemy’s ‘uniqueness’ in their eyes may have been of a rather different kind. Newman argues that ‘although alchemy was not an official subject of the medieval university’, nevertheless some texts in this period are organized along Scholastic lines, with arguments contra followed by arguments pro (45 47, etc.). But it would be surprising

if alchemical texts did not show some influence of Scholasticism, just as those did in poetics. By frequent repetition of the terms ‘Geberian’ and ‘Scholastic’, Newman gives the impression that the tradition of ‘Geberian alchemy’ formed a coherent strand in Scholasticism, resisting ‘Thomistic opponents of alchemy’. Only towards the end of his book does he concede that this ‘was by no means the exclusive

Scholastic view’, and that ‘It is not the case

that Scholasticism in general followed

the example of Geber’ (278). 42 This concession comes as a surprise after the very definite terms used previously. William Newman gets so carried away by his energy and self-conviction that the reader who wishes to form a balanced judgement needs to preserve a certain sceptical detachment. This is nowhere more necessary than when reading the especially ambitious chapter in Promethean Ambitions devoted to ‘Artificial Life and the Homunculus’ which discusses the varied traditions describing how a ‘little man’ could be made by artificial means (164 237). This tradition already existed in Arabic

are measured’, ‘the apex of the arts in its

41 Two recent wide-ranging handbooks have each only a single mention of alchemy: see The Cambridge History of Later Medie val Philosophy, edited by N. Kretzmann, A. Kenny and J. Pinborg (Cambridge, 1982), 506*one reference only in a volume of 1,000 pages; and none at all in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy, edited by A.S. McGrade (Cambridge, 2003). 42 Elsewhere, Newman has written that ‘alchemical writers, unlike those in the mainstream of the Scholastic tradition, were willing to argue that human art, even if it learned by imitating natural processes, could successfully reproduce natural products or even surpass them’: Newman ‘Technology and Alchemical Debate’ (note 37) (my italics).

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alchemy, as Paul Kraus showed, and achieved a limited currency in the Latin Middle Ages. 43 One account appeared in an obscure treatise published in 1508 by the theologian, Alonso Tostado, describing an experiment purportedly carried out by Arnald of Villanova (d. 1311), to whom many alchemical works were spuriously ascribed (89 90). Alonso claims that the alchemist

preserved male semen in an artificially constructed vessel for some days,

Finally, after some days, many

transmutations having occurred, a human body was formed out of it, but not perfectly organized. For Arnald did not wait further, breaking that vessel with the already-formed semen, lest he seem to tempt God, [and] wondering

whether God might infuse a rational soul into that conceived [homunculus]. (192 93)

together with certain transmutative drugs

Newman does not comment on the solecism ‘already-formed semen’. Whatever the

reception of this anecdote, some connection of alchemy with the possibility of creating life artificially must have been made before Paracelsus, for Newman quotes (in a different chapter) Biringuccio’s denunciation in 1540 of the alchemists’ apparent

generate and form a man or

any other animal with flesh, bones, and sinews, and to animate him with a spirit and every other attribute that he requires’ (130). Paracelsus’ name enters the story with a treatise called Die 9 Bu¨ cher de natura rerum, published by Samuel Appiarius in his Metamorphosis (Basel, 1572), with a Preface subscribed ‘Villach 1537’. 44 Newman records that Karl Sudhoff, the great Paracelsus editor, rejected it as spurious, but that some recent scholars see it as perhaps a disciple’s work, partly based on Paracelsian ideas (199). The treatise describes various marvels, including women having intercourse with animals and producing monstrous offspring (202); a process by which menstrual blood, sealed in a flask and heated in ‘a horse’s womb’*the venter equinus, ‘a technical term in alchemy for decaying dung used as a heat source, to mean any low source of incubating heat’ (215)*will produce the basilisk, an artificial monster able to kill with a glance, since it has been made of a woman’s ‘poisonous excrescence’ (202); and

claims that they can, ‘even outside a woman’s body

what Newman describes as a ‘quaint experiment’ by which a snake is cut in pieces and allowed to putrefy in ‘a horse’s womb’. The pieces, we are assured, ‘will all turn to little worms like frog spawn’, and ‘one snake becomes a hundred snakes’, each as big as the first (206). As the experienced scholar knows, such recipes are found in books of alchemy and magic stretching back to Hellenistic Egypt, and are far removed from those aspects of Paracelsus’ work which once attracted respect

from such scholars

as Walter Pagel and Charles Webster. 45 The author of this

43 Jabir ibn Hayyan, 119 34, discussing the Arabic texts and their putative Greek sources.

44 See K. Sudhoff (ed.), Paracelsus, Sa¨ mtliche Werke. I. Abteilung. Medizinische, naturwissenschaftliche und philosophische Schriften, 14 vols (Munich-Berlin, 1922 1933).

45 See, e.g., Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance (Basel, 1958); Charles Webster, From Paracelsus to Newton. Magic and the Making of Modern Science (Cambridge, 1982). Yet the rehabilitation of Paracelsus as a precursor of the Scientific Revolution was achieved at the cost of denying the fundamental ambiguities in his work, his many debts to medieval sources, and the incoherence of his writing. For a valuable corrective, see Andrew Weeks, Paracelsus. Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation (Albany, NY, 1997), who shows the extent to which Paracelsus’ ideas concerning medicine (also alchemy, astrology, and what he called ‘anatomy’) derive from his religious world view. Practising ‘a text-centred historicism’ (xii), Weeks reconstructs the doctrinal and socio-political upheavals through which Paracelsus lived, and chronicles his intellectual career in terms

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pseudo-Paracelsian treatise gives what Newman describes as ‘a lengthy description of the homunculus and its mode of generation’:

We must now by no means forget the generation of homunculi. For there is something to it, although it has been kept in great secrecy and kept hidden up to now, and there was not a little doubt and question among the old philosophers whether it even be possible to nature and art that a man can be born outside the female body and [without] a natural mother. I give this answer*that it is by no means opposed to the spagyric art and to nature, but that it is indeed possible. But how this should happen and proceed*its process is thus*that the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a cucurbit for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb, or at least so long that it comes to life and moves itself, and stirs, which is easily observed. After this time, it will look somewhat like a man, but transparent, without a body. If, after this, it be fed wisely with the arcanum of human blood and be nourished for up to forty weeks, and be kept in the even heat of the horse’s womb, a living child grows therefrom, with all its members like another child, which is born of a woman, but much smaller. 46 (203 204)

As for the strange claim that, after 40 days, the semen ‘will look somewhat like a man,


essence of

Because of its freedom from the gross materiality of

without a body’, Newman claims that the homunculus represents ‘the distilled

the female, the homunculus is translucent and practically bodiless’ (204). But this is to misunderstand the antithesis in the German text between a creature supposedly made in a test tube, and a child born in the normal course of nature, from a woman’s

of a ‘transferral of his religious speculations to nature and medicine’ (105), drawing especially on

eschatology (73 75), logos mysticism (112, 178 79), the Pauline concept of love (140, 176), Mariology

(79 83, 88 89), Trinitarian

ideas (80 85, 118, 146 47, 149 51), and above

all the divine image (111 28).

46 The full German text reads as follows:

Nun ist aber auch die generation der homunculi in keinen weg zu vergessen. dan etwas ist daran, wiewol solches bisher in grosser heimlikeit und gar verborgen ist gehalten worden und nit ein kleiner zweifel und frag under etlichen der alten philosophis gewesen, ob auch der natur und kunst mo¨glich sei, das ein mensch ausserthalben weiblichs leibs und einer natu¨ rlichen muter mo¨ge geboren werden? darauf gib ich die antwort das es der kunst spagirica und der natur in keinem weg zuwider, sonder gar wol mo¨glich sei. wie aber solches zugang und geschehen mo¨ge, ist nun sein process also, nemlich das der sperma eines mans in verschlossnen cucurbiten per se mit der ho¨ chsten putrefaction, ventre equino, putreficirt werde auf 40 tag oder so lang bis er lebendig werde und sich beweg und rege, welchs leichtlich zu sehen ist. nach solcher zeit wird es etlicher massen einem menschen gleich sehen, doch durchsichtig on ein corpus. so er nun nach disem reglich mit dem arcano sanguinis humani gar weislich gespeiset und erneret wird bis auf 40 wochen und in steter gleicher werme ventris equini erhalten, wird ein recht lebendig menschlich kint daraus mit allen glitmassen wie ein ander kint, das von einem weib geboren wird, doch vil kleiner. dasselbig wir ein homunculum nennen und sol hernach nit anders als ein anders kind mit grossem fleiss und sorg auferzogen werden, bis es zu seinen tagen und verstant kompt. das ist nun der aller ho¨ chsten und gro¨ ssesten heimlikeiten eine, die got den to¨ tlichen und su¨ ndigen menschen hat wissen lassen. dan es ist ein mirakel und magnale dei und ein geheimnis uber alle geheimnus, sol auch bilich ein geheimnus bleiben bis zu den aler lesten zeiten, da dan nichts verborgen wird bleiben sonder alles offenbaret werden.

Sudhoff, Paracelsus (note 45), 11.316 17. Newman does not quote the two concluding sentences, occluding the religious context in which this author places the homunculus, a miracle or magnale Dei, whose secret will only be revealed on the Day of Judgement.

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womb. At all events, Newman reassures his readers that ‘the reasoning here is straightforward’. Readers may wonder why Newman devotes so much serious discussion to pseudo-Paracelsus’ do-it-yourself recipe for making a homunculus, especially when he knows that a genuine Paracelsian tract exists on this topic, De homunculis (c.1529 1532). In it, however, the real Paracelsus demonstrated a totally different attitude

towards this creature. In an indignant diatribe, Paracelsus denounced men who are unable to control their sexuality, for their lust will produce semen which, should it fall

‘on a Digestif*that is, a warm, moist subject that can act as an incubator

produce a monster or homunculus when it is ‘‘digested’’’ (217 18). In this authentic tract, Paracelsus singled out sodomy for a separate attack, warning that anal intercourse can produce ‘intestinal homunculi’, and that those who swallow semen can even generate homunculi in their throat (218). Paracelsus’ remedy was that young men should either get married or be castrated, practising a self-imposed chastity, so that they do not become, as Newman solemnly puts it, ‘the involuntary begetter of homunculi’ (219 20). This is indeed an extreme remedy, but Newman has an extreme explanation for it, applying his ‘ulterior motives’ tactic in the most sensational manner. In 1990, a team of Austrian forensic specialists opened Paracelsus’ grave and subjected the bones contained in it to ‘intensive metric and chemical analysis’ (196). They found that the skeleton’s pelvis*if indeed they were examining Paracelsus’ pelvis*was ‘extraordi- narily wide’, from which they concluded that ‘Paracelsus was either a genetic male afflicted with pseudo-hermaphroditism or a genetic female suffering from androgen- ital syndrome’ (197). 47 Although Newman disavows any intention to ‘develop an elaborate psychosexual theory in order to explain Paracelsus’ behaviour’ (199; my


italics), he feels no compunction in using it to explain Paracelsus’ writings. He argues

surfaces in his own discussion of the

homunculus. To ignore the evidence of his own probable sexual disorder would therefore be a matter of scholarly negligence’ (199). This transparent self-serving claim to scholarly probity may be discounted. Newman has thus constructed the following argument:

that ‘an extreme ambivalence to sexuality

1. Pseudo-Paracelsus described the alchemical homunculus favourably.

2. The real Paracelsus denounced homunculi as the product of unnatural lust.

3. The examination of what purports to be Paracelsus’ skeleton suggests that he was a hermaphrodite.

47 Paracelsus’ bones have been disturbed more than once. As Walther Auwe recorded, in a note not cited


by Newman, ‘U ber den Scha¨del des Paracelsus von Hohenheim’, Die Pharmazie 5 (1950), 614 15, they were removed from the graveyard of the St. Sebastianskirche, Salzburg, in the mid-eighteenth century, and placed in the church vestry, in a marble pyramid monument, behind locked doors. Interested visitors, however, especially doctors, could see them, and in 1819, the Hofrath Osiander was given permission to handle the skull and the bones. Examining them, he was struck by the delicacy of the bone structure and exclaimed that, ‘were he not convinced that these bones had not been exchanged for those of another skeleton, he would consider both the skull and the bones to be those of a woman’ (my translation). Osiander made further measurements of male and female skulls, strengthening his diagnosis, and felt it to be confirmed when he read accounts of Paracelsus’ life, according to which, when three years old, a pig bit off his genitals. So, Awe commented, just as animals castrated early in life develop feminine features, and castrati develop a woman’s oval face and more delicate neck, it is not surprising that Paracelsus’ bone structure should have become female. And, according to a French historian of medicine, Paracelsus’ castration would account for his misogyny. At this point, the sceptical reader may enquire, are we sure that these are Paracelsus’ bones?

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alchemical homunculi.

This is the most remarkable instance of Newman’s tactic of devaluing critics of alchemy by accusing them of having ulterior motives, or some personal animus against the art. But this is also the most feeble instance, based on the collocation of a spurious with a genuine tract by Paracelsus, as if they represented two psychological sides of the same writer, and relying on the questionable results of a forensic examination 450 years after the subject’s death in order to diagnose him as (perhaps) ‘suffering from a massive sexual dysfunction’ which would account for his ‘ambivalent sexuality’ (221). (Even accepting this deduction, Paracelsus’ attitude to

what was regarded as ‘unnatural’ sexuality by the standards of his and every other age until our own, was not ‘ambivalent’ but a clear-cut denunciation; and I know of no evidence that being a hermaphrodite would necessarily affect one’s attitude to sex.) But the most glaring hole in this argument is that, in the texts so diligently cited by Newman, Paracelsus never referred to the alchemical homunculus. The De natura rerum, ‘whether genuine or not’, as Newman finally describes it, did so, but Paracelsus did not (222). When the reader realizes that this is the case, they may well feel that Professor Newman has been wasting their time. It may have been legitimate to discuss pseudo-Paracelsus, but the man himself should have been left in peace, bones and all. Newman chose to discuss the homunculus presumably because it represented the alchemists’ most grandiose ‘quest’, as he calls it, greater than those for the Philosopher’s Stone, or the Elixir Vitae, namely to acquire a God-like ability to create life. To round out his treatment of this matter, Newman surveys reactions to the pseudo-Paracelsian and other alchemical writings that claimed this ability. Unfortunately for the credibility of its proponents, a distinguished group of early modern scholars rejected their claims, including the Jesuits Martinus del Rio and Athanasius Kircher, the Minim friar Marin Mersenne, the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, and the aristocratic Margaret Cavendish (222 26). All were quite sure that such claims far exceeded the limits of alchemy and that, in Cavendish’s words,

are very fine and profitable, yet they are nothing in

comparison to Natures works

‘though the Arts of Men

’ (225). Newman also cites Francis Bacon’s

insistence 48 that, in the experiments he described for heating substances in close containers, he did not ‘aim at the making of Paracelsus’ pygmies, or any such prodigious follies’ (264). However, Newman fails to note a number of important rejections of the pseudo-Paracelsian homunculus. Although he gives considerable space to Daniel Sennert, ‘the famous medical professor of Wittenberg’, citing his use of alchemical ideas, Newman does not record that Sennert was a vociferous critic of Paracelsus for espousing magic and vitalism, and for misusing analogy. 49 In particular, Sennert criticized the claim to be able to create a homunculus: Paraclesus

48 Sylv a Syl varum , i.99, in Works, edited by J. Spedding et al., 14 vols (London, 1857 74), 2.382 83. See similar comments in Historia Densi et Rari, Works, 5.368 69. Once again, Newman hopes that his ulterior motives tactic will discredit alchemy’s critics, claiming that Bacon was ‘back-peddling’ here, drawing back from an ‘overly close association with the chymists’, and ‘nervously extracting himself fromthe possible imputation of making a homunculus’ (263 64). But the experiments Bacon describes on wood and water are quite different, designed to see whether simple bodies can be turned into compound bodies by heating.


See Promethean Ambitions, 102 103, 250 55, 273 75, 281 82, 289, 300.

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‘wrote not only absurd but wicked things, showing how a little man may be made by Chymistry without a Father or Mother, and saith it is not a great secret’. 50 Another equally forthright rebuttal that Newman does not cite was made in 1599 by the English Aristotelian, John Case:

Let the Paracelsians be silent and no longer impudently boast that they can produce natural things directly by their art without any natural thing having been made use of! Certainly, the wondrous oracles*or rather the sophisms of their art*brag that without any doubt they can impart animating and vital motions and powers into metals, stones, and all inanimate objects! Thus (how one trembles to say it) they brag that they can procreate a man merely by the chemical art without the mating of male and female! 51

For Case, the homunculus was ‘a prime example of the illegitimate application of art and a misuse of it against nature’. Charles Schmitt described the homunculus as ‘one of the most vulnerable of the Paracelsian doctrines’, a ‘bizarre teaching’ which, until that point, had been silently passed over by ‘those interpreters of Paracelsianism who emphasize the fruitful and progressive aspects of the tradition vis-a`-vis modern thought’ (212 13). Now, however, William Newman cites it alongside references to

‘bioethics’, ‘organotherapy’, ‘the current debate about employing cloned fetal tissue for medical purposes’, ‘in vitro fertilization’, ‘bioengineering’, ‘human cloning’, and

187 90, 193 94, 236 37, 302 304). Many readers will reject

such glib parallels. 52 Newman’s diligent survey did throw up a few defendants of the ‘pseudo- Paracelsian’ homunculus, but they are hardly convincing. ‘In 1672 Johann Hannemann, a medical professor at Kiel, claimed that a worthy theologian had been an ocular witness of a homunculus produced by chymistry. Other acquaintances of Hannemann’s had also seen and handled such homunculi’ (227; my italics). Second- or third-hand reports carry little conviction, on any scale of evidence. In 1660, the Leipzig writer Johann Praetorius published Anthropodemus plutonicus: Das ist eine neue Weltbeschreibung von allerley wunderbahren Menschen, which includes ‘a long section on ‘‘chymical people’’, that is to say homunculi, in the company of ‘‘dragon children’’, ‘‘air people’’, mandrakes, giants, and dwarves, to name but a few members of this teratological fraternity’ (229). No one could place such a witness in the same scale as Mersenne, Kircher, or John Case. Impressive though William Newman’s achievements are as a historian, as an apologist for alchemy he cuts a different picture. He tends to treat all alchemists’ pronouncements with respect and a suspension of disbelief, while convicting their critics of vested interests, professional rivalry, or, in the case of Paracelsus, a sexual

‘ectogenesis’ (1 7, 10,

50 Sennert, De chymicorum cum Aristotelicis et Galenicis consensu ac dissensu (1619), trans. Nicholas Culpeper and Abdial Cole as Chymistry Made Easie and Useful: Or, the Agreement and Disagreement of the Chymists and Galenists (London, 1662), 18. See also Vickers, ‘Analogy versus Identity’ (note 40), 126 49 on Paracelsus’ habitual collapse of analogy into identity and vigorous objections by Thomas Erastus, Francis Bacon, Daniel Sennert and J.B. van Helmont.

51 Translated by C.B. Schmitt, in his John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England (Kingston, Canada, 1983), 212.

52 Reviewing Promethean Ambitions in Metascience 14 (2005), 289 92, Alisha Rankin judged ‘Newman’s attempts to tie his presentation of the art nature debate into current concerns about cloning’ as ‘unnecessary. Although it may aid the modern reader in conceptualising some of the issues that Newman discusses, the thread that ties Mediaeval and early modern philosophy to modern biomedical ethics is so thin that the comparison adds little to the book’ (291 92).

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dysfunction that rendered him an unreliable commentator. If alchemy was, as Newman claims, at the centre of the debate between art and nature, the over- whelming verdict went against it. Alchemists were reluctant to concede the limits of their art, but to many others they were all too visible.

Acknowledgements I should like to thank Barbara Obrist and Antonio Clericuzio for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay. They are not responsible for any errors it contains.

Note added in proof

In my evaluation of William Newman’s thesis I referred only briefly to his treatment of Francis Bacon (p. 27, note 48). Its deficiencies are clearly exposed in a recent and important essay by Sophie Weeks, ‘Francis Bacon and the Art Nature Distinction’. 53 Dr Weeks criticizes Newman for focussing on ‘Bacon’s concept of art, ignoring his profound reflections on the concept of nature’, which in turn depends on his theory of matter (p. 122). For Bacon, as for other Renaissance philosophers (Bruno and Telesio), matter was not inert but appetitive, a source of both concord and discord. Bacon envisaged the beginning of things as a union between Chaos and Cupid, or Love. In itself, matter has

a certain inclination and appetite to dissolve the world and fall back into the ancient chaos; but that the overswaying concord of things (which is represented by Cupid or Love) restrains its ill will and effort in that direction and reduces it to order (p. 128).

As Bacon developed his theory of natural philosophy, a discipline dedicated ‘to ‘‘the effecting of all things possible’’ and in particular the production of ‘‘new works’’ (nova opera)’ (p. 121), he conceived ‘a radical transformation of the concept of nature itself’, giving the terms ‘art’ and ‘nature’ a new role. ‘In Bacon’s programme, art refers to the shifting of the current system out of its habitual course in order to actualise hidden facets of nature’ (pp. 132 3). Newman’s assimilation of Bacon to his theory of alchemy as the real source and focus of the ‘art nature debate’ has seriously misinterpreted him. Newman’s ‘attempt to include Bacon with [Geberian alchemists] under the notional construct of ‘‘the perfective arts’’ 54 does him a disservice’ (p. 120). Newman claims that Bacon shared alchemy’s claim to perfect nature by citing a passage where, supposedly, Bacon ‘explicitly equates ‘‘forces and bonds’’ with ‘‘help and perfection’’’. 55 But Weeks shows that in this passage Bacon described the mechanical arts as ‘bonds of nature’

is forced by art to do what would not have been done

in arguing that ‘nature

without it’ (p. 132, note 104). Newman also erred in aligning Bacon’s natural philosophy with the alchemists’ imitationes naturae, such as artificial rainbows and artificial gold. Weeks shows that, for Bacon, ‘knowledge of forms is proven only by systematically producing true nova’ (p. 134, note 116). These ‘new works’ come about

53 Ambix, vol. 54, no. 2, July 2007, pp. 117 45.

54 Promethean Ambitions, pp. 291 2.

55 Ibid., p. 258.

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through ‘associating and dissociating natural bodies’, compositio and mistio. New- man described this notion as ‘a commonplace among the medieval scholastics’, not observing that Bacon gave the traditional terms a new connotation: ‘compositio refers to the operator’s actual uniting of bodies, and mistio to the outcome of that union where a new form obtains: the former is a work of art, and the latter is the work of

nature’ (p. 137). The role of art is to discover ‘new ways of binding nature, restricting

its inherent power, and thereby causing it to transform itself

vision far exceeded that of the alchemists. Sophie Weeks rightly rebuked William Newman for not having paid attention to Bacon’s philosophical fables, De Sapientia Veterum, as a key text for his philosophy. One fable which both overlooked is that of Atalanta, a famously fast runner, whom Hippomenes challenged to a race. If he won, she would marry him; if he lost, he would be killed. Soon outstripped, Hippomenes resorted to a trick, rolling the first of three golden balls in her path. She stopped to pick up each of them, so losing the race. In Bacon’s interpretation (as translated by Peter Shaw in 1733),

This Fable seems to contain a noble Allegory of the Contest betwixt Art and Nature. For Art, here denoted by Atalanta, is much swifter, or more expeditious, in its Operations than Nature, when all Obstacles and Impedi-

Yet this Prerogative and

singular Efficacy of Art, is stopt and retarded, to the infinite detriment of human Life, by certain golden Apples: for there is no one Science, or Art, that constantly holds on its true and proper Course to the End; but they are all continually stopping short, forsaking the track, and turning aside to Profit and Convenience; exactly like Atalanta. Whence, ’tis no wonder that Art gets not the Victory over Nature; nor, according to the Condition of the Contest, brings her under Subjection: but, on the contrary, remains subject to her, as a Wife to a Husband.

Shaw added a brief commentary to this fable, which may serve as a caution to historians who elevate the terms ‘Art’ and ‘Nature’ into mutually exclusive categories:

The Author, in all his physical Works, proceeds upon this Foundation; that it is possible, and practicable, for Art to obtain the Victory over Nature; that is, for human Industry and Power to procure, by the means of proper Knowledge, such things as are necessary to render Life as happy and commodious as its mortal State will allow: For instance, that it is possible to lengthen the present Period of human Life; bring the Winds more under Command, and every way extend and enlarge the Dominion, or Empire, of Man over the Works of Nature. And let no one fearfully apprehend, that there is danger in thus endeavouring to take the Reins of Government out of Nature’s hands, and putting them into the weak hands of Men: for the Distinction betwixt Men and Nature is imaginary, and only made to help the Understanding; Man himself being necessarily subject to the Laws of Nature: tho’ within the Compass of these Laws he has a very extensive Power, that will always be commensurate to Knowledge. 56

’ (p. 138). Bacon’s

ments are removed; and sooner arrives at its End

56 Peter Shaw, The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon. Methodized, and made English (London, 1733), vol 1, pp. 564 5.




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