- Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire
Tara Nummedal's Alchemy and Authority provides a reassessment of early modern alchemy and the figure of the alchemist. Her work joins a growing body of scholarship that has labored to extract alchemy from a problematic, Jungian-inspired historiography. Many histories of alchemy have portrayed it as a spiritual, occult activity. Alchemical transmutation was more about perfecting the human soul than about chemical reactions. Recently, historians of science such as Bruce Moran, William Newman, Lawrence Principe, and Pamela Smith have helped to relocate early modern alchemy back into concrete political contexts and laboratory practices. Although Nummedal draws consistently on these scholars' works, her Alchemy and Authority offers a new and welcome view of the practice of alchemy in late sixteenth-century Germany. She provides a social history of alchemy, its practitioners, its patrons, and its spaces. Rather than concentrate on the erudite alchemical tomes, she relies on contracts, building designs, supply orders, and court records to reconstruct the daily practice of alchemists and their sometimes horrific demise.
Nummedal's book opens by establishing how a person became an alchemist. Unlike other areas of natural knowledge that could rely on specific institutional support for their authority, alchemy fell between the institutional cracks. It was neither a university discipline nor subject to guild control and protection. Alchemists consequently employed a variety of approaches to acquiring knowledge. Philip Sömmering encouraged Duke Julius of Braunschweig to learn alchemy from a trusted set of books. Others argued that only through divine inspiration could [End Page 1343] alchemists receive true alchemical knowledge. Still others constructed their al-chemical authority on an assemblage of craft skills gained from apothecaries, woodcarvers, goldsmiths, and mining. The alchemists' training in these diverse crafts gave them a technical expertise that became increasingly important during the sixteenth century.
Nummedal argues convincingly that as mining revenues declined in the sixteenth century, princes increasingly turned to alchemists in the hope that they would be able to improve the profitability of their mining ventures. In this context, alchemical practice was shaped by a set of economic goals and understood not as a spiritual activity, but as a pragmatic solution to an economic crisis. Consequently, princes insisted that alchemists sign contracts that stipulated precisely what the alchemists were expected to produce, the quantity and quality of the material, and how long they had to deliver the product. One of the more interesting aspects of Nummedal's study is her argument about the importance of these contracts. Not only were they key moments in defining alchemy, primarily as an entrepreneurial practice, but they also contributed to the attacks on alchemy. By defining so rigorously the alchemical products and assigning responsibility, the contracts all but guaranteed that the alchemists would fail.
When alchemists failed to fulfill their contract, princes regularly brought charges against them. Princes prosecuted alchemists for breach of contract and, at times, executed the alchemists in gruesome and public ways. Alchemy itself was not on trial: princes continued to believe in the possibility of alchemical transmutation. This belief was reinforced by the trials themselves and by a growing body of alchemical literature that discussed the possibility of fraud. As long as the failure to transmute lead into gold was attributable to individual alchemists, either because they lacked the necessary skills or had deliberately tricked their patrons, alchemy continued to thrive.
Authority stands at the center of Nummedal's book. Alchemists struggled to carve out a space for themselves in the face of humanist critiques that labeled them cheats and swindlers. Alchemists also vied for the authority to claim true alchemical knowledge and to identify deceitful alchemical practices. Princes retained the authority to assess alchemical products and to prosecute fraudulent alchemists. One of Nummedal's accomplishments is to show how, at least with respect to alchemy, princes recognized the value of natural knowledge for the political economy of state building and consequently appropriated the authority to evaluate claims about the natural world...