restricted access Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (review)
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Reviewed by
Bruce T. Moran. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. New Histories of Science, Technology and Medicine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. 210.

In keeping with calls in recent years for less monolithic and less whiggish presentations of the history of alchemy and chemistry, Bruce Moran’s Distilling Knowledge successfully downplays the triumphalist grand narrative of the Scientific Revolution as a “victory of reason over nonsense.” Moran chooses instead to present a story of practitioners seeking to define the parameters of their subject, with the convergences and divergences of scientific thought part of a larger “strung-along and flowing sort of reality” (p. 65). He provides a representative cluster of narratives illustrating the trials and tribulations of alchemists and chemists from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment.

Those familiar with Moran’s The Alchemical World of the German Court and his work on the first professor of chemical medicine, Johannes Hartmann, in Chemical Pharmacy Enters the University, both dating from 1991, will recognize the same acute observations and original perspectives, even though this is a book intended for a broader readership. While Moran’s earlier publications and his recent, excellent Andreas Libavius and the Transformation of Alchemy (2007) are primarily aimed at his peers, Distilling Knowledge caters more to teachers introducing students to the various themes of alchemical transmutation, chemical medicine, and related technologies. The target readership seems to be students of the history of science. Some passages are evidently written with a young student in mind and have a distinctive, almost avuncular tone; others, however, seem to assume a certain amount of prior knowledge of the subject, and the bibliography includes some extremely worthwhile, but also more than a little advanced, literature for a reader who has suddenly been transmuted from anglophone neophyte into polyglot adept. I would not go so far as to state that the six chapters of Distilling Knowledge introduce the novice to alchemy per se; rather we have an engaging survey of European alchemists and early chemists, in which we briefly encounter a lively crowd of physicians, philosophers, and artisans, including, I am pleased to say, some women practitioners, along with their works and publications—it is refreshing to see the Opus mulierum being taken as more than a metaphor.

In fewer than two hundred pages of text, with the occasional illustration, Moran covers a lot of ground. Given that his specialist publications focus on the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, I do not think it would be too unfair to say that it is when he covers this period that he writes with the most conviction and that his prose comes most to life. (As this is my own [End Page 123] period, however, I confess to a certain amount of bias. I personally found the later chapters lacked the sparkle of the earlier material.) I particularly appreciated the consideration of the relationship between action and knowing, the equanimity displayed toward antithetical models of matter, such as vitalist and mechanist, and the importance placed on the creation of “an intellectual space that admits of new possibilities in which interpretations of experience, failed as well as successful attempts to make things, and even the impact of emotions converge in the messy act of conceiving knowledge” (pp. 6–7).

Less thrilling, admittedly, for historians of magic and esotericism, is the statement that, come the Enlightenment, “alchemy was sent to live with its metaphysically batty great aunts” and that “the part of the family tree linked to esotericism and mystical excess then sadly defined the whole activity; and the subject itself, earlier characterized by empirical expertise and utilitarian promise, fell into categories labeled occult, magic, or superstition” (p. 10). I wonder whether all the Paracelsians discussed in Chapter 3 would have seen eye to eye with this claim. Careful to avoid generalizations in relation to alchemy, Moran’s definition of magic is somewhat nebulous, and I doubt Brian Copenhaver would agree that “what people read about when they sat down with a copy of the Pimander was magic” (p. 68). Moran is influenced, perhaps, by his hero Libavius, who generally loathed magic and strove manfully to categorize his beloved...