Reading Alchemically

The pages of books and manuscripts often reveal evidence for readers’ intense engagement with the theory and practice of alchemy. Whether annotating the margins, attempting to decipher obscure terms and symbols, or transplanting passages into commonplace books, alchemical readers treated their books as valuable sources of information. By reading one book alongside another, they sought to translate written instructions into working practices.

Similar techniques were applied to images, which could also be interpreted in light of distinct philosophical and practical traditions. Several Ripley Scrolls are annotated, offering clues to how they were “read” by their early modern owners.

Pseudo-Ramon Llull (14th century), De alchimia opuscula quae sequuntur: apertorium. Item. Magica naturalis. Item. De secretis naturæ, seu de quinta essentia liber unus. Iam non mutilus, ut in prioribus editionibus, 1546 (Nuremberg: Johannes Petreius)

Science History Institute, Philadelphia

The margins of this copy of the pseudo-Lullian Book of the Secrets of Nature are packed with dense annotations. Many of these notes expand the contents of the text, as an unknown reader seeks to identify the various materials discussed in the work—such as the alphabet of metals, extrapolated from the text, added to the left-hand margin. The reader also examined another manuscript copy of the work, using it to correct the printed text.

John French (1616–57), ed., A Chymical Dictionary, in A New Light of Alchymy, Taken out of the Fountain of Nature and Manual Experience, to which is Added a Treatise of Sulphur, 1674 (London: Printed by A. Clark, for Thomas Williams at the Golden Ball in Hosier-Lane)

This chemical dictionary was written to help readers navigate the writings of the Swiss medical reformer Paracelsus. Paracelsus’s novel approach to chemical medicine was distinguished by new and obscure terminology. In this copy, the dictionary helpfully accompanies an English translation of the pseudo-Paracelsian On the Nature of Things. In practice, such dictionaries could not always be relied upon, as the meaning of alchemical terms frequently changed in light of new practical observations and textual readings.

Girolamo Cardano (1501-76), De rervm varietate libri XVII , 1558 (Lyon: Stephanum Michaelem)

Rare Books Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

The De rerum varietate (On the Variety of Things) was written by the Italian polymath Girolamo Cardano as a supplement to his influential De subtilitate (On Subtlety). The German reader of this copy has added a list of symbols and their meanings to the flyleaf, including the standard metals and salts, as well as apparatus like the bain-marie, or water-bath (“B.M.”).

English Commonplace Book, ca. 1660-89, England, library of the Earls of Macclesfield (North Library)

Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Alchemical material from a variety of sources, including printed books, could be compiled into manuscript recipe collections and commonplace books. Some of the contents of this 17th-century English compendium, dealing with the philosophers’ stone (“Lapis Philosophorum”), may have been extracted from Gerard Malynes, Consuetudo, vel Lex mercatoria, or Ancient Law-Merchant (1629). The seven steps to transmutation (“Gradus ad transmutationem sunt septem”) begin with a sequence of alchemical procedures, including calcination, dissolution, and sublimation.