Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupescissa in the Late Middle Ages (review)
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Reviewed by
Leah DeVun. Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupescissa in the Late Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xiii + 255 pp. Ill. $50.00, 29.50 (978-0-231-14538-1).

This work on John of Rupescissa (d. ca. 1366), a well-known adherent of the Franciscan spiritual movement, has achieved a long overdue task: bringing together two separate eras of research: that on prophecy, which pertains to political and religious studies, and that on the history of alchemy. The endeavor was an arduous one, but the author, who proves to be a remarkably skilled historian, never yielding to stereotypes and always critically questioning both source material and secondary literature, gives a nuanced presentation of the individual Rupescissa, his achievements, and his historical significance as a prophet and as an alchemist in the mid-fourteenth-century papal town of Avignon, where he spent long years of imprisonment. Also, the historian's skills are doubled by those of the writer.

Evaluating the interactions between medieval prophecy and alchemy is particularly difficult in that a project of this type involves a continuous reexamining of the levels of signification of a highly metaphorical language: political, religious, and apocalyptic topoi designate alchemical operations; in reverse, expressions usually applied to transmutations are used to signify spiritual and corporeal purifications of the human being.1 The author devotes a particularly interesting chapter (chap. 6) to this complex subject after having carefully explored the historical background of both the prophetical and alchemical traditions that converged in Rupescissa's writings (chaps. 2-4). Chapter 5 pays particular attention to Arnaldus of Villanova and to Ramon Llull.

The originality of Rupescissa was to attribute a role to products of alchemical transformation in apocalyptic times, namely to help avert disaster while simultaneously purifying the human body and soul. Moreover, alchemy was to provide riches to the elect so as to enable them to effectively combat Antichrist and his adherents. Just how they used their material riches, however, remains unclear; in all probability they served to hire allies. It should however be pointed out that, unlike what the author states in her introduction, Rupescissa did not invent the quintessence, that is, distillation products, which were at that time still predominantly used for medical purposes. Rather, relying on a by then well-established distilling practice, the fourteenth-century Franciscan's originality resides in the fact that he attempted to integrate this empirically produced substance into the Aristotelian cosmological frame, thereby altering it insofar as incorruptibility was no longer confined to the heavenly sphere: distillation products proved that there existed a substance in the sublunary world that was different from the four corruptible elements. Observations of this kind were liable to undermine the prevailing Aristotelian cosmological model, and this may well have been the reason why this particular theoretical aspect of Rupescissa's writings did not have, unlike his [End Page 135] prophetical and alchemical writings, much of an afterlife. The author does not however explore in any detail this theological and philosophical problem.

Given the quality of DeVun's analysis of Rupescissa's work and life and the knowledge she acquired in the eras of medieval prophecy and alchemy, one can only hope that she will pursue studies of this type. One may in particular hope that she considers extending them to the early-fifteenth-century alchemico-political-prophetical Book of the Holy Trinity, which very obviously belongs to the same spiritual movement that John of Rupescissa did.

Barbara Obrist
CNRS/Université Paris Diderot


1. See also B. Obrist, "Alchimie et allégorie scripturaire au Moyen Âge," in Allégorie des poètes, allégorie des philosophes: études sur la poétique et l'herméneutique de l'allégorie: de l'Antiquité à la Réforme, ed. G. Dahan and R. Goulet (Paris: Vrin, 2005), 245-65.