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The Alchemical Heyday
When was alchemy at its peak in England and Scotland? Ask somebody that question today, and the answer is likely to be "the Middle Ages" or perhaps "the Tudor period." The term "alchemy," after all, conjures up the image of damp monastic walls harbouring a sage in a long robe, with unkempt hair and a preoccupied look, who stares intently at mysterious crucibles and bubbling retorts. He is a seeker after the mad goal of making gold, half-scientist and half-mystic, immortalized (and frequently lampooned) by artists and writers throughout the early-modern period, from Pieter Bruegel the Elder to Ben Jonson. If the imaginary alchemist bears a resemblance to any historical personage, it might be to John Dee, the Elizabethan magus, with his scholar's cap, wizened features and long white beard, a subject of continuing fascination from his own time to ours.
Measured in terms of the printed word, however, the high point of alchemy in Great Britain was actually in the last half of the seventeenth century. The vast majority of printed alchemical works in English, perhaps as many as two-thirds of them, appeared between 1650 and 1700. Manuscript sources of alchemy are more difficult to date or count up effectively, as we cannot always be certain when they were written or copied. Nevertheless, the biggest collection by far of alchemical manuscripts ever held in English hands was assembled by Elias Ashmole, a fervent alchemical adept, between 1648 and 1692. At his death, he left 620 volumes of manuscript materials to Oxford University, including hundreds of alchemical works. The contents of his collection stretch back to the Middle Ages, but Ashmole's fervent collecting belongs to the same period as the majority of printed books. Our imagined alchemist, then, should really be wearing a cravat, long coat and breeches. His surroundings should be a panelled room or even the garden of a college at Oxford or Cambridge. Bewigged and clean-shaven, he should look more like Isaac Newton than John Dee. As this chapter will show, however, late seventeenth-century alchemists came in a variety of disguises, and they did not all share the same attitudes. To understand alchemy, therefore, it is not enough to bring a "typical" figure back to life: we have to imagine the lives, complex and vibrant, of the members of a diverse intellectual community, before asking what exactly made their work occult.
The Community of Alchemists
Although chrysopoeia or spagyria, the alchemical art of making gold from base metals, was heating up throughout Great Britain in the second half of the seventeenth century, the great wen of London was its principal furnace. There, crowded into the tiny alleys of Little Britain, a neighbourhood behind St Paul's Cathedral that stretched down to Fleet Street, lived the booksellers—William Cooper, Matthew Smelt, Andrew Sowle, Thomas Salusbury and others—from whose shops alchemical treatises could be purchased. Nobody could hope for success in the alchemical art without reading many of them. London was a magnet for anyone who wanted to make money out of the occult sciences, no matter where they were born. The astrologer-alchemist-magician John Heydon, a West Countryman by birth, settled in the capital, first as a lawyer, then as an "Astromagus," as he termed himself. London also drew the celebrated George Starkey, who was born in Bermuda, educated at Harvard College and became famous in England under his pseudonym of "Eirenaeus Philalethes." Both writers spent time in the English capital's notorious prisons. Others were drawn to London for more philanthropic reasons. From Charing Cross, where Parliament pulled down the Eleanor cross, the medieval monument that gave it its name, in 1647 and replaced it with a fish shop, the German immigrant Samuel Hartlib managed his "Office of Address," an international web of communication for those interested in scientific knowledge, including alchemy. Hartlib promoted the careers of Starkey and many other alchemical adepts, including a fellow German, Frederick Clodius, who eventually married Hartlib's daughter. A later Dutch immigrant, the mysterious W. Yworth, William Yarworth or Willem Ijvaert, set up a "New Spagyrical Academy" in the London suburb of Shadwell, near the bustling Thames dockyards.
Oxford and Cambridge were more genteel hotbeds of alchemy. The university towns provided a protective environment for the secretive experiments of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, but they also sheltered many lesser figures with Hermetic passions—men like Ezekiel Foxcroft, a Fellow of King's College who lovingly translated a Rosicrucian work, The Hermetic Romance, in 1690. Flashes of evidence provide glimpses of how chrysopeia fired the imaginations of adepts in other provincial English towns. A wonderful story spread in 1651 of how a stranger named Mervin had made gold from lead at the shop of a Bath goldsmith. Why he chose to do this in Bath is anybody's guess. George Starkey moved for a time to Bristol, "to asist [sic] the work of Refining there and to pr[actise] physick." Apparently, the work of refining at Bristol preceded his arrival, but nothing more is known about the local alchemists whom he assisted. Meanwhile, Starkey's former roommate at Harvard College, the clergyman and alchemist John Allin, migrated to the tiny, declining port of Rye in Sussex, where he served as vicar from 1654 to 1662. There, Allin found himself among a little group of adepts, including the amateur astrologer Samuel Jeake, who received from the generous minister the gift of a book describing "the true use of the Elixir Magnus." Reverend Allin apparently introduced Starkey to some of his Rye friends, with whom the great alchemist shared secrets concerning the great process. At nearby Dover a few years later, the former mayor John Matson corresponded enthusiastically with Robert Boyle, sending him alchemical recipes and complaining that his experiments could proceed no further without "The Comeing of a lampe furnace from paris."
No matter how isolated their home towns may have seemed, these provincial enthusiasts read alchemical publications just as avidly as did their metropolitan counterparts. John Beale, one of Hartlib's correspondents, kept up with the latest alchemical debates while residing in rural Herefordshire. John Webster, a former Anglican clergyman who became a radical sectarian and an ardent alchemist, collected together a remarkable library of books, including over a hundred volumes on occult philosophy, at his home in Clitheroe, Lancashire. Webster was the editor of a beautifully produced English translation of The Last Will and Testament of Basil Valentine, which appeared in 1670. Decades later, John Yardley, a glover turned silversmith of Worcester, claimed to have developed his own spagyric process out of reading "all the Chymical authors I could procure." Presumably, he procured them in Worcester.
Wales may have been poorer than England, but it was certainly not backward in generating alchemists. Bassett Jones of Glamorganshire studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, became a medical doctor and in 1648 published a book on the Philosopher's Stone. According to his friend Samuel Hartlib, copies became so scarce due to high demand that within a few years not even Jones himself could find one. Another graduate of Jesus College was Thomas Vaughan, the Welsh-speaking rector of Llansanffraid, a remote parish in rural Brecon. He was twin brother of the poet Henry Vaughan, known as "the Silurist" or South Welshman. John Heydon mocked Thomas Vaughan for his "Welch Philosophie," but did not hesitate to plagiarize him. A royalist, Vaughan withdrew to London during the Civil War period, where he wrote a series of important magical-alchemical works in English under the pen name "Eugenius Philalethes." This brought him to the attention of the Hartlib circle. More interested in alchemical philosophy than in ministering to his parish, he declined to return to his duties in Brecon after the Restoration.
The kingdom of Scotland was no less noted for producing devotees of the art. Thomas Vaughan's later alchemical experiments depended on the financial support of Sir Robert Moray, Charles II's deputy lieutenant for Scotland. According to his friend John Aubrey, Moray was "a good Chymist and assisted his Majestie in his Chymicall operations." In the 1650s, Moray wrote frequently to his Scottish friend the earl of Kincardine on alchemical matters, and confided in him the occult meaning of his "mason mark," a pentacle or five-pointed star. Scotland was also the reputed homeland of the mythic Alexander Seton, thought in the early seventeenth century to be identical with "Elias Artista," the wandering "Cosmopolite" who possessed the secret of the Stone. With its many medical schools and university courses in "Chymistry," Scotland harboured a number of active alchemical communities. One of Samuel Hartlib's alchemical correspondents in the late 1640s was William Hamilton, who had taught at the University of Glasgow before moving to London. The high regard in which the Hermetic art was held among medical practitioners in Scotland can be judged from the earl of Cromarty's gift of his grandfather's collection of alchemical manuscripts (including a "Ripley Scroll," a set of beautifully illustrated verses supposedly written by George Ripley, medieval canon of Bridlington) to the Edinburgh College of Physicians in 1707. The earl bragged that his grandsire was "a great student in natural philosophy, even to a considerable advancement in the Hermeticke schoole," which must have impressed the learned doctors of Edinburgh.
Physicians were prominent among alchemical adepts everywhere in Britain. They included men of considerable influence and renown, like Dr Edmund Dickinson, physician in ordinary to Charles II; Dr Albert Otto Faber of Lübeck, the king's personal physician; and John Twysden, brother of an eminent Parliamentarian. Works of alchemy were advertised and sold by medical booksellers like Dorman Newman. So popular was alchemy among doctors that William Salmon, MD, did not feel it necessary to apologize for devoting the vast majority of pages in a general treatise on medicine to the pursuit of making gold. His readers may have included the anonymous doctor living near London who left a manuscript, dating from the late 1680s, that intersperses various accounts of medical treatments with recipes for finding the Philosopher's Stone. Alchemy, which held out the promise of an elixir of life and a cure for all diseases, offered obvious benefits to physicians, especially those who were forward enough to espouse the controversial "iatrochemistry" of the German doctor Paracelsus, based on medicines made from metals.
In 1665, an attempt was made to obtain a royal patent for a Society of Chymical Physicians, in opposition to the existing College of Physicians, which was accused of resisting the new medicines. Thirty-five chemical adepts signed a petition in favour of the Society, including Marchamont Needham, a prominent Parliamentary publicist and physician. The project failed, probably due to resistance from outraged members of the College of Physicians. In spite of this setback, the opinions of sceptical observers regarding chemical remedies tended to be cautious rather than hostile. The theologian Meric Casaubon, who despised ritual magic and was suspicious of the philosophical claims of alchemy, nonetheless praised its contributions to medicine, confessing that, while a student at Oxford, he had been cured of a near-fatal disease by "some Chymical composition" given to him by an unconventional doctor. If there was a "new medical regime" in the late seventeenth century, one that united medical practice with scientific theory and experiment, then alchemy was without doubt a factor in its rise.
It was not only doctors who developed a taste for alchemy. Lawyers like Elias Ashmole and clergymen like Thomas Vaughan and John Beale made equally eager adepts. Men of lesser social status occasionally pop up as assistants in alchemical laboratories. Yworth, for example, was aided by John Baker, a periwig-maker who had a shop in the Strand. The most noted alchemists, however, tended to be men of the learned professions or skilled craftsmen. These occupations were closed to women, and there were no women among the prominent alchemical writers of this period. Women could read alchemical works, of course, and in one copy of Ashmole's Way to Bliss appears the commanding inscription, "Mary Marston Her Book Steal not this." Women could also practise alchemy. Hartlib claimed that the mother of his friend Thomas Henshaw was a "great chymist." He further referred to one "Mistress Ogleby," who owned manuscripts by George Ripley, as "a rare chymical gentlewoman." Thomas Vaughan's wife assisted him in his chemical operations.
Leaving aside the occasional female adept, the alchemists were, by and large, men of the professional "middling sort," living in towns rather than the countryside. They might call themselves "gentlemen," and many were related to gentry families. They were literate and used to the idea of protecting the "secrets" of their professions from outsiders. They needed money to buy equipment and supply their experiments, but few of them could be called wealthy. In a culture that was dominated by the landowning classes, it is noteworthy that relatively few serious adepts were substantial landowners or peers. There were exceptions, of course, especially in Scotland where spagyric knowledge seems to have been handed down in aristocratic families like those of Balcarres or Cromarty. Several "chymical gentlemen" in England set up furnaces on their estates, among them Sir Cheney Culpeper of Kent, one of Hartlib's correspondents. Robert Boyle was the wealthy son of the fabulously rich earl of Cork (together with his many brothers and sisters, Boyle can still be seen praying in effigy on his parents' magnificent funeral monument in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin). Another aristocratic seeker of the Stone was Henry Carey, earl of Dover, who entered into "secret transactions" with George Starkey in 1654. Goodwin Wharton, son of the puritan Lord Wharton, wasted a fortune in the early 1680s funding an alchemist named Broune. His partner in this venture was the former republican and compulsive conspirator Major John Wildman. After Broune's laboratory burned down, Wharton and Wildman turned to other ventures, including communicating with angels and finding fairy treasure. Most alchemists, however, were from humbler origins than Wharton and lacked his financial means. If they sought gold, it was in part as a means to social mobility.
Elias Ashmole may not have been typical in his dazzling success at climbing the social ladder, but he was a model of advancement to other alchemists. The son of a saddler of Lichfield, he used his mother's gentry relatives to promote his status. He became a lawyer, amassing property and prestige through carefully planned marriage alliances. By attaching himself to the royalist cause early in the Civil War, Ashmole gained a lucrative position with the excise. Litigious and grasping, he fought his in-laws for control of family estates, and compelled Hester, the widow of John Tradescant the younger, to recognize his right to her husband's collection of curiosities, which later formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum. After the Restoration, Ashmole's loyalty to the Stuarts was rewarded with the comptrollership of the excise, along with the post of Windsor Herald, which involved the validation of family titles and coats of arms. Ashmole grew rich from the fruits of two quite different offices: the excise, which looked forward to the bureaucratic state; and the heraldship, redolent of a hierarchical, aristocratic past. The combination of dynamism and conservatism that drove Ashmole's career was not unusual among professional men in the late seventeenth century. Another self-made man, Samuel Pepys, praised Ashmole as "a very ingenious Gentleman" after their first meeting in 1660, when the two of them sang together in the study of William Lilly, the astrologer. Ashmole later assured Pepys "that frogs and other insects do often fall from the skye ready-formed," a wonderful piece of biological misinformation that was widely believed at the time.
We cannot be certain whether a greater number of individuals who thought like Elias Ashmole existed in Britain between 1650 and 1688 than in earlier or later periods. We do know, however, that more material on alchemy was published in those decades than previously or afterwards—a statement that applies not just to Britain, but to Europe as a whole. Equally important, these books and pamphlets appeared in vernacular languages, not in Latin, which made them available to a wider reading public. In his old age, Arthur Dee, son of the famous magus John Dee, was shocked by this. He complained to Elias Ashmole, who translated one of his own alchemical works from Latin into English, that since scholars already derided alchemy, "how then can tht any way be aduanced by the vulgar [multitude]"? It may not have been advanced socially by "middling" men, but its appeal had certainly broadened. What explains this success?
The first and most important cause may have been the breakdown of the Anglican Church during the Civil War and Interregnum period from 1642 to 1660. As a result, a pool of underground religious ideas was carried to the surface that would previously have been condemned as heterodox or blasphemous. Alchemical writing was frequently accompanied by religious speculation, which might have led to prosecution in an earlier period. A second, connected cause was the loosening of censorship. At the start of the Civil War, Parliament deprived episcopal authorities of their powers to inspect and license works of the press. The privilege of licensing books was now to be shared between the Company of Stationers and various appointed officials. Political and religious divisions among the licensers, however, rendered censorship largely ineffective.
Excerpted from SOLOMON'S SECRET ARTS by Paul KlÃ?ber Monod. Copyright © 2013 by Paul KlÃ?ber Monod. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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List of Illustrations.................... viii
Introduction: What Was the Occult?.................... 1
Part One: Aurora, 1650–1688....................
Chapter One: The Alchemical Heyday.................... 23
Chapter Two: The Silver Age of the Astrologers.................... 53
Chapter Three: The Occult Contested.................... 82
Part Two: Eclipse, 1688–1760....................
Chapter Four: A Fading Flame.................... 119
Chapter Five: The Newtonian Magi.................... 157
Chapter Six: The Occult on the Margins.................... 189
Part Three: Glad Day, 1760–1815....................
Chapter Seven: The Occult Revival.................... 227
Chapter Eight: An Occult Enlightenment?.................... 263
Chapter Nine: Prophets and Revolutions.................... 300
Manuscript Sources.................... 347