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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.3 (2000) 575-599

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The Work of Alchemy

Peggy A. Knapp
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

How Alchemy Works

The discourse of alchemy is sturdy. It is certifiably old, having been practiced at the beginning of the Common Era, and claimed to be as old as human history--Adam is the author, says Ben Jonson's Epicure Mammon, of the treatise in his possession. 1 Alchemical treatises share a few basic ideas: that alchemy speeds up processes already at work in Nature, that gold represents the perfect balance between the elements of earth, water, air, and fire toward which Nature is heading, and that alchemy could hurry the lower metals toward gold through "projections" involving mercury, sulfur, and furnaces. 2 Although never fully included among the medieval and early modern academic sciences and at many times prohibited, alchemy nonetheless attracted intelligent and learned practitioners and patrons for centuries. Because its terms were never fully stabilized and clarified, it could not exactly progress, but it could incorporate new elements and shift its emphases over time. Paracelsus (1493-1541), for example, emphasized mining as a practical venture and made his brand of alchemy a force for empiricism, while the influence of John Dee (1527-1608) linked the practical effects of alchemy with the spiritual realm. Opinion differs in the contemporary scientific community about the role alchemy played in bringing modern empirical science into being. Some see alchemy as an effect of the other-worldly medieval mind-set, and others argue that it broke with the Middle Ages by encouraging laboratory experimentation. William Newman takes a middle course: medieval alchemists "developed a clearly articulated philosophy of technology" in which human art is appreciated and the prestige of learning made to serve practical ends enhanced. 3 It is not primarily, however, the work of the alchemical laboratories which interests me here, [End Page 575] but the social and cultural work of a discourse encapsulating expansive hopes for the natural and human worlds. 4

The aim of the whole alchemical project was the discovery of the philosopher's stone, the transforming agent that would transmute baser metals to gold and (in some systems) produce an elixir to cure all disease. The stone was seen as a scientific/technological artifact and a pious penetration of God's secrets, and these two faces of alchemical work coexisted through its long history with varying emphases on one or the other. An unlimited supply of gold would release the social world from poverty, and the elixir would eradicate illness. Alchemy therefore offered a utopian promise: that knowledge, some blend of technological expertise and spiritual insight, would enhance human happiness. Two of the great English comic writers, maybe the two greatest, wrote directly about alchemy. For both Geoffrey Chaucer's audience and Ben Jonson's, I will claim, alchemy was a practice familiar enough to signify a range of personal and social desires and yet sufficiently mystified to dazzle. Alchemy is both the subject and the overarching metaphor of The Canon's Yeoman's Tale and The Alchemist. In both, the tenor of that metaphor gestures toward a capitalism yet to come. Alchemy is also Karl Marx's insistent metaphor for capitalist exchange in Capital: the circulation of capital is "the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy, the bones of saints cannot withstand it." 5 The exploration of these three metaphoric logics is one subject of this essay; its other subject is the contrast between Chaucer's late medieval vantage point and the early modern perspective of Jonson. The creation of this metaphor, in each case is needed to display a "structure of feeling" (in Raymond Williams's term) not readily reducible to an institution that can be named but "a particular quality of social experience and relationship . . . which gives the sense of a generation or of a period." 6 The late fourteenth century exhibits a different structure of feeling from that of the early seventeenth...


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