- Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture
In Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture, Stanton J. Linden has collected together sixteen essays exploring the varied and reciprocal exchanges between alchemical thought and the wider culture of the Renaissance. He takes the fortieth anniversary, in 2004, of Frances Yates's groundbreaking Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as an appropriate "point of departure" for his collection, which he sees —rightly —as exemplifying the strides we have made in our collective understanding of the alchemical and hermetic traditions.
The essays are strikingly interdisciplinary, and have been divided into five main sections. The first presents biographies of three English alchemists — [End Page 1346] Thomas Charnock, Edward Kelly, and Arthur Dee —and certainly there is much to be gained from examinations of relative unknowns such as Charnock and Dee (son of the infamous John Dee). At sixty-five pages, however, Michael Wilding's biography of Kelly is beyond exhaustive, and seems unbalanced when sandwiched between Lyndy Abraham's succinct biography of Arthur Dee and Jonathan Hughes's similarly restrained treatment of Thomas Charnock.
The second section of essays focuses on the material culture of Renaissance alchemy, from Vladimír Karpenko's fascinating discussion of medals and coins produced as part of alchemical demonstrations and Thomas Willard's cogent discussion of alchemical publishing and its links with the collections of libraries and Kunstkammern, to examinations of uniquely English manuscripts by R. Ian McCallum and George R. Keiser. The third group of essays, conversely, tackles a more philosophical dimension of alchemy in its examination of the important ties between alchemical discourse and theology in this period. Michael T. Walton explores connections between the hexaemeric literature and chemical or alchemical notions of Creation, while Peter J. Forshaw and Urszula Szulakowska focus on the unique fusion of spirituality and alchemy in the writings of such notables as Heinrich Khunrath and Robert Fludd, respectively.
The fourth section examines the role of alchemy in the thought of particular English authors: Yaakov Mascetti and Alan Rudrum discuss, respectively, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, while the collection's editor, Stanton J. Linden, focuses his attention on Thomas Browne. Finally, the fifth grouping of essays charts a series of "new directions," including Penny Bayer's analysis of female practitioners of alchemy, Laurinda S. Dixon's excellent reading of Hieronymus Bosch's The Cure of Folly, and an interesting review of representations of hermetism in the postmodern fiction of the twentieth century from György E. Szönyi.
Overall, the collection seems to have something for everyone: the sheer range and variety of its materials offer a fascinating array of ideas to anyone with an interest in early modern alchemy. Its interdisciplinary nature is no accident: for Linden, it is crucial to redressing what he sees as an "imbalance," namely, that historians have thus far "controlled the agenda" of scholarly work on alchemy and hermeticism (x). This intimation of bias on the part of the editor, himself a professor emeritus of English, might give some pause to historians, though the essays that follow his introduction are by no means lacking in cogent historical analyses.
That this collection is strongly anglocentric, however, is inescapable. Of the five sections into which the essays are divided, two are devoted exclusively to English thinkers and writers, and attention to English culture in particular pervades many of the other essays as well. In itself, this is not necessarily problematic, especially as some individual essays —such as Forshaw's discussion of Heinrich Khunrath, Bayer's female practitioners, and Dixon's study of Hieronymus Bosch —do an admirable job of stretching these cultural limits by focusing on important Continental milieus. Nonetheless, this obvious focus on English culture makes it difficult to connect the collection as a whole with the innovative and growing [End Page 1347] literature on alchemy in such disparate contexts as Spain, colonial America, and Eastern Europe. Thus, while...