Many fields define themselves by specialties. Doctors are not just doctors—they are podiatrists or pediatricians or surgeons. Restaurant workers are baristas or pastry chefs or sommeliers. Writers are novelists or poets or “content providers.” So it is for academics, as well. When I’m wearing that hat, I define myself as an early modernist.
But even within narrow academic confines, we find ways to shrink our focus (for better and for worse). I trained in early modern English literature with an interest in the history of early modern science and medicine. Recently, because of a novel I’ve written, I’ve become a little obsessed with alchemy, as well.
By definition, such a narrow focus means few people are interested in (understatement) what makes my clock tick. So imagine my surprise when, on a long car trip last month, my teenage daughter turned to me, looked up from the book she was reading, and said, “Hey, Mom, this is cool. This is the sort of thing you like.”
And she was absolutely right. She was pointing to a picture of Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist from Germany who spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, that elusive substance capable of turning lead into gold. Brand was a soldier with the valuable talent of marrying well—he burned through (pun intended) two wives’ handsome fortunes in his alchemical pursuits.
While Brand never did find/create/uncover the Philosopher’s Stone (that we know of…), he certainly hit the mother lode by successfully isolating phosphorous. To do so, he, ummm…well….let this video show you first:
Brand collected around 60 buckets of human urine, waited for it to ferment to the point of turning black, and then boiled it down into a syrup. That syrup was distilled and cooked over very high heat. He then took the cooked substance—minus the salts that had formed alongside—and submerged it in water. (Excellent descriptions of the process can be found here and here.) The substance he’d discovered–phosphorous–was chemiluminescent, emitting a soft light that at the time must have seemed magical indeed.
Brand, like most other alchemists, kept his discoveries to himself, but he was able to sell his secret later (and recoup at least some of his wife’s money). Other folks, including Robert Boyle, later discovered the process independent of Brand. (They were tipped off, most likely, that the phosphorous had been made from urine. Boyle made the process more effective by also using the salt that Brand threw away.)
And because I’m deficient in gravitas, I couldn’t resist adding this video. If you can’t get enough of pee puns (or if you love to see Anderson Cooper giggle):
There’s so much here, I don’t even know where to begin. I won’t be able to write a coherent sort of essay right now about the Ripley Scrolls, as I’m just now wrapping my head around their magnificence.
There are 23 copies of the Ripley Scrolls, which get their name from the 15th-century alchemist George Ripley, as snippets of his verses are included on some of the scrolls. Most are thought to have been copied in the 16th and 17th centuries from a now-lost original.
The scrolls depict–in what to modern eyes are bizarre and obscure symbols–the process of making the Philosopher’s Stone, the substance thought to impart eternal life and to contain the power to turn base metals into gold.
I’m particularly interested in the “pelican flask,” the apparatus the alchemist is holding in the first panel. The pelican was a vessel that allowed the distillation of substances in the alchemical process to occur in a closed system. The shape of the vessel was reminiscent of the fable of the pelican, which was thought to pierce its own breast in order to feed her young from her own blood (and which, in Christian symbolism, represented Christ’s blood sacrifice). The resemblance can be seen here:
The pelican the alchemist is holding is cut away to reveal the changes the substances are undergoing–but despite the seeming transparency of the cut-away pelican, the changes are cloaked in the arcane system of symbols and riddles that marks the pursuit of alchemy (as you can see below).
Here’s a great video made by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University:
My next step is to get a better digital copy of this manuscript (as an aside–the digital availability of archival material is the best thing to happen since the Big Bang). I want to check out what’s going on in the pelican, especially with that weird toad. I’m thinking this more descriptive video from Adam McLean, who has been writing about alchemy for decades, may also be helpful:
Next post: toads, green lions, and menstruating dragons…
The other day my 10-year-old daughter came home incensed: a friend had told her of a congressman’s assertion that evolution and the Big Bang Theory were lies sent by Satan to deceive Americans. She and her friend were spittin’ mad and spent their lunch hour talking about his stupidity (yeah, my daughter has some cool friends).
I was plenty shocked, so I decided to look this up. I was floored. The congressman in question, Rep. Paul Broun, proclaimed to a group of sportsmen at a church in Hartwell, Georgia, “God’s Word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” (August Chronicle)
Pretty bad, but it gets worse: Rep. Broun is a medical doctor, somebody who, presumably, studied some science at some point.
Even worse?: Rep. Broun sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Shortly after this episode (and an extended discussion with my daughter about faith and science, God and creation—about what early modern natural philosophers would have called “the book of God” and “the book of Nature”), I saw this article about the BBC’s documentary, Isaac Newton: The Last Magician. The film details a perceived oddity of Newton’s career: an obsession with alchemy that lasted until his death. It may come as a surprise to some that a towering figure in the story of modern science was obsessed with a field we associate with magical thinking, pseudo-science, and occult study.
The juxtaposition of these two events—my daughter asking me about Broun and reading about Newton’s research interests—made me think about the asynchrony of science. I mean, it doesn’t all happen in a straight line, does it? We posit, hypothesize, doubt, prove, doubt again, and then prove again. But while we’re doubting and proving, we’re holding different sets of assumption in our head, provisionally balancing outcomes and worldviews.
Newton could write the magisterial Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and analyze the refraction and diffraction of light in the Opticks, all while influenced by Rosicrucians in his search for the Philosopher’s Stone.
Broun is trained in biology and chemistry. He’s made his living based on science determined by modern scientific practices. Yet he can still assert that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang Theory are lies sent by the Devil.
But the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I became with lumping Newton and Broun together in this asynchrony.
First, of course, there is the possibility that Broun only made those statements in order to secure the evangelical Christian vote, that it was a calculated misrepresentation of his actual beliefs.
But there’s something deeper, too. Newton’s alchemy relied on principles very similar to those that would eventually yield the modern field of chemistry. Exciting new finds in the natural world seemed to buttress the kinds of ancient claims made by the alchemists. As Natalie Angier notes in her excellent article on Newton in The New York Times:
There were plenty of theoretical and empirical reasons at the time to take the principles of alchemy seriously, to believe that compounds could be broken down into their basic constituents and those constituents then reconfigured into other, more desirable substances.
Miners were pulling up from the ground twisted bundles of copper and silver that were shaped like the stalks of a plant, suggesting that veins of metals and minerals were proliferating underground with almost florid zeal.
The principles of alchemy that Newton relied on were not so very different from modern scientists’ shared assumptions. Again, Algier:
The conceptual underpinning to the era’s alchemical fixation was the idea of matter as hierarchical and particulate — that tiny, indivisible and semipermanent particles come together to form ever more complex and increasingly porous substances, a notion not so different from the reality revealed by 20th-century molecular biology and quantum physics.
With the right solvents and the perfect reactions, the researchers thought, it should be possible to reduce a substance to its core constituents — its corpuscles, as Newton called them — and then prompt the corpuscles to adopt new configurations and programs. Newton and his peers believed it was possible to prompt metals to grow, or “vegetate,” in a flask. After all, many chemical reactions were known to leave lovely dendritic residues in their wake. Dissolve a pinch of silver and mercury in a solution of nitric acid, drop in a lump of metal amalgam, and soon a spidery, glittering “Tree of Diana” will form on the glass. Or add iron to hydrochloric acid and boil the solution to dryness. Then prepare a powdery silicate mix of sand and potassium carbonate. Put the two together, and you will have a silica garden, in which the ruddy ferric chloride rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom. rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom.
The principles and assumptions underpinning Broun’s scientific background (his medical school education, for example), however, are markedly different from the evangelic Christian tenets he proclaims. Whereas modern scientific assertions require prediction based on observation, Broun relies on literal interpretation of an ancient text.
I guess a lot of this is just me thinking out loud (which is what blogs are supposed to be, right?). What do you all think?
Happy Hallowe’en! During this time of unwitting mimicry of ancient ceremony and conjuration of forgotten powers, it seems only appropriate to venture into the world of Renaissance magic for this month’s “Peckie” (short for “Peckerhead,” of course).
Adopting an alias. Speaking with angels. Wife-swapping. If October’s “Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month” nominee Edward Kelley were alive today, he’d have his own show on TLC.
Edward Kelley is most famous for his partnership with John Dee, the great Renaissance magus and scholar. Dee served as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth, counted among his acquaintances Renaissance power mongers Frances Walsingham and William Cecil, and served as tutor to the poet Sir Philip Sidney.
In 1582, Kelley introduced himself to Dee. Dee had been increasingly obsessed with occult communication—specifically “angelic conversations” enabled by a scryer, one who could interpret the messages of a crystal ball. Kelley found Dee and gave him the happy news that his scryer-hunting days were over: Edward Kelley himself was just the man Dee was looking for.
Scrying was not, however, Kelley’s first career, nor was “Edward Kelley” his first name. Though Kelley proclaimed to have matriculated at Oxford, seventeenth-century historian of Oxford Anthony á Wood could find no student of that name during that time in any of the colleges of the university. He did, however, find a young man–same age, from the same place in Ireland–going by the name “Edward Talbot.” “Talbot” left Oxford abruptly–given that he was pilloried and had his ears clipped in Lancaster after that, as punishment for forgery, chances are he did not leave Oxford willingly.
Kelley managed to convince Dee of his ability to speak with the angels. He described to Dee the process by which he received these angelic communications: He would see the celestial beings in crystal ball, and they would indicate letters on a tablet in their own language, a tongue Dee and Kelley called “Enochian.” English translations of the Enochian communications would unfurl from the angels’ mouths in paper ribbons. Dee seems to have been sincerely thrilled and amazed with Kelley’s astonishing ability to communicate with the angels.
Shortly after Kelley and Dee began working together, Kelley met and married the widow Jane Cooper, and, to his credit, seems to have treated her well, even arranging for her to have a Latin tutor.
In 1583, Dee, Kelley, and their families moved from England to Europe, trying to win the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia, himself highly interested in magic and alchemy. Having failed to secure his sponsorship, they traveled a bit before connecting with another patron, Vilem Rožmberk. They settled in the Bohemian town of Třeboň and began building a reputation for themselves.
Kelley was very, very good at building a reputation—in this particular iteration, it was as an alchemist, a much more lucrative trade than scrying. It was so much more lucrative, in fact, that Kelley began trying to get out of his partnership with John Dee. But how to do it?
Here’s where the movie of Edward Kelley’s life gets an “R” rating: scholars think that in order to convince Dee to sever their partnership, Kelley reported that an angel named Madimi ordered them to share everything they had—including Dee’s wife of nine years, Jane (Jane was 23 when she married the 51-year-old John Dee) and Kelley’s wife, conveniently also named Jane.
Dee wasn’t happy about the angel Madimi’s command, but on May 22, 1587, what Dee termed “the cross-matching” occurred. Nine months later, Jane Dee gave birth to a son, Theodorus Trebonius Dee.
After the “cross-matching,” Kelley left Dee in Třeboň. Dee went back to his home in Mortlake to find his library decimated and his collections ravaged. He died in poverty, forced to sell off various of his prized possessions.
Unlike Dee, Kelley went on to find fame, riches, and the patronage of Rožmberg; Emperor Rudolf II even had him knighted. Eventually, however, Kelley got caught in his web of deception. Rudolf had him imprisoned on a false charge of murder, hoping to keep him from leaving Bohemia with his “secret” for turning base metals into gold. Kelley died in prison in 1597.
Edward Kelley is considered the progenitor of the con-man-alchemist trope, the magician who fleeces his followers, as in Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist. I imagine that in Disney movies and such he’d be the wheedling dealer in tricks, the man who betrays the good guy but really has a heart of gold.
Though something tells me if Edward Kelley had a heart of gold, he’d hock it.