Alchemy Under the Hood

By Joe StadolnikMay 12, 2021

Alchemy Under the Hood

The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300–1700 by Jennifer M. Rampling

WHEN THE 16TH-CENTURY alchemist Robert Greene of Welby added books to his collection, he had some signature ways of making them his own. His name appears everywhere in them: inscribed as R. Green and Robertus green de welbe, or even half-translated into Greek as ροβερτωσ χλωρωσ. He sometimes scraped away a former owner’s signature and superimposed his own in its place. He checked his manuscripts against more authoritative copies: where a few lines were missing from the alchemical treatise On the Secrets of Nature, he gave them in the margin. On the Secrets was supposed to be the work of Ramon Llull, the Catalan polymath revered in England as an alchemical luminary, so it was important that Greene’s copy recorded his instructions in full.

The annotations in Greene’s books rehearse some typical tactics from the unwritten playbook of alchemical self-styling. Conveniently forget your close contemporaries in the craft (as when Greene obliterated the name of his contemporary, Giles Du Wes, from his books); promote whatever ancient origins you can for your learning, even if they must be invented. Play up the fidelity of your practice to the alchemical theory of an esteemed predecessor, like Llull. English alchemical tradition predicated itself on Llull’s authority and on his legendary partnership with medieval English kings, but this was pure fabrication, as the historical Llull would have nothing to do with alchemy and never set foot in England. Robert Greene claimed to have studied his “Raymond Lull” and the “misticall writing of the most noble philosophers” dutifully, but still, he only discovered their true meaning through experiment. Proper alchemical procedure is learned first from reading books, and only fully understood and “proved” via experience; so, cast yourself as an incisive reader and savvy practitioner. Tag your books with a little Greek graffiti for an impression of academic credibility and a hermetic mystique.

Writing the history of alchemy requires a combination of scholarly agility and suspicion when handling an overabundance of material designed to obscure that history. Alchemy comes down to us already encrypted by its own conventions: those elisions of proximate sources, misattributions, a fondness for codewords, and attempts to recycle the old as new and pass off the new as old. As a modern scholarly enterprise, pursuing a history of alchemy in one corner of Europe might seem like an exercise in erudition for its own sake. All this to chase down a tradition that, in one essential sense, led nowhere? No alchemist, we can be sure, ever succeeded in producing its promised precious metals, miracle cures, and transformative stones.

One ready answer to the charge that alchemy is mere esoterica would be to recuperate and reposition the practice within a grand history of natural philosophy tending toward empiricism and normal science. Its experimentalists fill in a gap between the medieval scholastic Roger Bacon and Enlightenment mainstays like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton (all of them alchemical believers). But one need not subscribe to any grand history to see that alchemy must figure in any complete history of early modern science, or humanism, or early modern print culture. Alchemy, however, punishes the casually interested with its codewords and cipher alphabets, because its inscrutability to outsiders is the whole point.

The Experimental Fire reads like an insider’s history of English alchemy, exposing its inner workings and demystifying its encrypted canon with adeptness and hard-earned authority. Jennifer M. Rampling meets the frustrating material of alchemical history with all the scholarly agility and suspicion requisite to the task. This book steers straight into the hazards of alchemical literature, with its bricolage texts full of borrowed works uncited or cited badly, recorded in manuscripts annotated by many anonymous hands. Rampling is the first to handle these hazardous materials so comprehensively and confidently. She reports on her many archival discoveries and assembles them into a coherent narrative of influence and innovation in English alchemy over four centuries. Her forerunner in this strange country was Dorothea Waley Singer, whose preliminary census of alchemical manuscripts in British libraries laid the groundwork for English alchemical history and has awaited a proper follow-up since 1931. With Experimental Fire, Rampling delivers one.

Rampling is dexterous with the substance of medieval alchemical doctrine as well as the mechanisms of its mediation, as it was shaped by manuscript culture, early modern reading practices, the patronage economy, and antiquarian taste. Working in the style of pseudo-Lull, English alchemists tried to superperfect base matter into a variety of products: gold, yes, but also marvelous stones of various virtues, universal solvents, and distillates of potent medicinal power. The central figure of The Experimental Fire is George Ripley, England’s greatest homegrown alchemical talent. A national alchemical tradition coalesced around his program, which claims to have improved upon the pseudo-Lullian tradition thanks to Ripley’s interpretative prowess and practical know-how.

Ripley was a consummate “reader-practitioner” of alchemy, to use one of Rampling’s preferred terms. Reading and practice indeed prove hard to disentangle: practice so often entered into the alchemical record only in response to reading, when reports of experimental success or failure were written into the margins of books. Here we come to another tactic from the alchemist’s playbook: own your failures along with the successes. Failures of practice can conveniently inspire new, better interpretations of ancient authorities, or reveal the corruptions marring your working text. Failures allowed English alchemists to intervene in tradition with their own improvements. Rampling calls this process of innovation by reinterpretation informed by experiment “practical exegesis,” and she sets out to see its invisible hand at work in the writings of Ripley and his early modern disciples.

The Experimental Fire is not a wide-ranging survey of alchemy as the global tradition it was, nor is it written with a nonacademic audience in mind like Lawrence Principe’s The Secrets of Alchemy (2012). For background, Rampling briefly describes alchemy’s Hellenic origins, and its long period of development in Arabic and Persian intellectual culture. By 1300, English readers could find, in Latin translation, texts fantasizing about the princely alchemical education of Khālid ibn Yazīd and the elemental philosophy of Avicenna in On the Soul (another misattribution). But The Experimental Fire is much more interested in the more recent history that English alchemy invented for itself, personified first by the immigrant “Raymond Lull” and then by Ripley, the local boy made good. Rampling takes the philosophical underpinnings of Pseudo-Lullian alchemy seriously, even as these prove theoretically unstable and practically unworkable. As a result, she can make out the tracks of alchemical ideas and concepts passing from Pseudo-Lullian source texts, through the works of the Ripleian canon, and into early modern circulation.

George Ripley wrote his alchemical works in the 1470s, and they held their appeal long afterward. In 1683, William Cooper published a recipe he called “The Bosome-Book of Sir George Ripley” in his Collecteana Chemica, attesting to this enduring admiration. Rampling unravels the convoluted history behind this “Bosome-Book,” and I follow its thread here as an illustration of the kind of demystification performed throughout the book. The recipe begins with 30 pounds of “sericon” to be dissolved in vinegar, in order to produce a substance called “our Green lion.” Rampling interprets this for us: “sericon” is an impure, red lead, and the “Green lion” is code for the green gum produced by its reaction to the vinegar. Heat that gum, then heat it some more; observe the “faint water” drawn off in the process and the “frosty vapour” congealing in the neck of the flask in crystals. Place a burning coal near the leftover black residue, and then watch a “fire […] glide through,” as black turns to orange-yellow. (This gliding fire is explicable to us as reoxidation.) Rampling devotes much of the book to decoding alchemy’s terms of art and walks through its procedures step by step. Chemical particulars aside, these walkthroughs make it easier to imagine the small pleasures to be taken in alchemy: a hobbyist’s satisfaction in knowing enough of the jargon to follow along; the glamour of a gliding fire and other curious chemical effects.

Readers apparently prized this popular Ripleian recipe, passing it around in manuscript before Cooper anthologized it in 1683. But Ripley — definitively — did not write this “Bosome Book.” It is one of the many bits of loose alchemical material floating around in early modern books that Rampling can pin down for us. She can conclude that it is not authentically Ripleian because — in a major find — she discovered Ripley’s actual Bosome Book, and this recipe for a gliding fire is not in it. Or rather, she read of a previous rediscovery of the Book, by Samuel Norton in 1573. Norton reported his own major find in a preface addressed to Elizabeth I in his Key of Alchemy:

Although it fortuned mee in manner unloked for, to hitt upon the secret bosome book of Riple, wherby the true grounds are discovered, Of which havinge by profe found so many to be true, and little doubtinge of the accomplishment of the rest; I thought it but a point of dutie to reveall and uppen the Secrets heereof unto your Highnes.

Norton’s Key, like so much alchemical material in English, circulated its secrets only in manuscript and never in print. While Norton stumbled upon the “secret bosome book,” Rampling catches it in her apparently systematic dragnet of uncataloged alchemical manuscripts.

In one manuscript at the British Library, someone has transcribed Norton’s translation of the Bosome Book, labeling it “a copye of a old Booke, which is thowght to be [th]e hand writtyng of Mr gorge rippyle Channon, translated owt of Latten bye samwell norton Esquyer.” There, Rampling finds a “notable worke of Sericon writen per master Ive” preceding Norton’s Ripley translation. Ive instructs the alchemist in how to make that “fire, glyding” through blackened lead, producing “a yellowe Collour, bryght as the bemes of the sonne, which is great wonder to be holde.” This, or a recipe like it, is the real source for the one in Cooper’s “Bosome Book.” The Experimental Fire collates much of its history of alchemy from reading in unread manuscript sources like this “copye of a old Booke” with Ive’s recipe, now shelf-marked as Sloane MS 3667 at the British Library. Shelfmarks from Los Angeles to Leipzig feature prominently in Rampling’s prose unavoidably, because just about every chapter pivots around her careful attention to the manuscripts that her reader-practitioners left behind.

Despite all that she mines from alchemical manuscripts, Rampling nevertheless implies that for her reader-practitioners, the manuscript was only a fallback format, second to the printed book. The absence of English alchemy in print is presumed to have driven this “active culture of sharing and copying alchemical books.” To me, the whole of The Experimental Fire suggests an opposite explanation: that reader-practitioners cultivated this subculture of reading and writing alchemica in manuscript to evade the publicity and impersonality inherent in print. Consider Norton, who appoints himself to write the Key only after stumbling on a precious, “secret” copy of Ripley; or the books of Robert Greene, with the accumulating signatures made by successive owners. The very title of Ripley’s Bosome Book suggests an intimacy between the owner and their book, hugged close. Old manuscripts, as Rampling acknowledges, were valued because they preserved English alchemy to be rediscovered. But newly copied manuscripts, too, had their advantages. Privately produced and circulated, they bespoke the owner’s special access to networks of alchemical knowledge in ways that mass-produced printed copies of the same text could not. Rampling gleans so many of her discoveries from manuscript sources but declines to take up alchemy’s peculiar attachments to the medium as a subject of much analysis or speculation.

Indeed, The Experimental Fire suffers somewhat from Rampling’s general disinclination toward elaborating on its key concepts. Take the concept of “practical exegesis” — what is exegetical about it exactly? Rampling presents Biblical exegesis as a proximate mode of reading “beyond the letter […] a mere step away” from alchemical reading to justify this coinage. But the reinterpretation of alchemical texts as a kind of writing informed by practice bears only a faint resemblance to the programmatic hermeneutics of fourfold scriptural exegesis. This was a divine science which put no stock in personal experience. Other connections might be tried out: Did alchemy and exegesis ever travel together in manuscripts? Do any glossed alchemical texts look like glossed Bibles on the page? As Biblical exegesis fell out of fashion among theologians, did alchemists reform their own reading?

As an overview of so much newly uncovered material, The Experimental Fire also shies away from those inventors of English alchemy who have been covered by other historians already. The Elizabethan alchemist Clement Draper, for example, was a reader of Ripley and avowed experimentalist whose alchemy was governed, in his own words, “by practice and not by fancy.” His prison notebooks record this practice in rich detail. In The Jewel House, Deborah Harkness quotes from Draper’s notebooks to define a mode of alchemical “reading, writing, and experimenting” that mirrors Rampling’s practical exegesis. But rather than engage with Harkness’s illuminating arguments (about Draper’s applied alchemy, or the manuscript format as alchemical technology), Rampling only gives Draper two cursory glances, as someone already illuminated well enough. This habit of non-engagement does justice to no one, most of all Rampling. Her archival findings are deprived of context which would better clarify their significance for broader histories of early modern science, print culture, or humanism.

The Experimental Fire moves briskly from one archival discovery to the next, and so this insider’s history could stand to venture beyond its alchemical archive more often. But getting under the hood of alchemy demands a kind of obsessive dedication in order to understand its encrypted texts and volatile doctrine at this scale. Be obsessed or get nowhere; Rampling could have read that in the unwritten alchemists’ playbook, too. At one point she does a little alchemical self-styling herself. An image of a flask, rubber hose, and dish of indistinct chemical solids on a lab bench is captioned: “The ‘gliding fire’ spreads outward from a hot coal. Photograph by the author.” The photo is in black and white, so the gliding fire, with its “yellow color, bright as sunbeams,” doesn’t really translate. The image is meant to say something else: trust this book, and its author, who practiced under a ventilation hood in borrowed lab space somewhere to know it more truly. Not all histories of alchemy should be written like this one, so immersed as it is in its chemistry and in its copies of copies of ancient books. The Experimental Fire will enable those other histories of other kinds, which will answer the many questions about alchemy Rampling leaves on the table in their time. Like the catalogs of Dorothea Waley Singer, it awaits — and deserves — its proper follow-ups.


Joe Stadolnik is a researcher and editor based in Chicago. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago and at the Institute for Advanced Studies at UCL.

LARB Contributor

Joe Stadolnik is a researcher and editor based in Chicago. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago and at the Institute for Advanced Studies at UCL. He is working on a biography, The Unsettled Life of Duarte Brandão, and an academic monograph about medieval alchemy and genre.


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