- The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire
Johann Joachim Becher (1635–82) has long been recognized as an important figure. Historians of chemistry have pointed to his Physica subterranea for its influence on Georg Ernst Stahl and the development of phlogiston chemistry, while economic historians have noted his concern with commerce and the economic problems of Central Europe. Professor Smith has linked the two and pictures Becher as a man interested no less in theoria than in praxis. In this sense he is reminiscent of his younger contemporary, Johann Rudolph Glauber (1604–70), who similarly sought to use the Chemical Philosophy to avoid a recurrence of the economic problems that affected Germany in the period of the Thirty Years’ War.
Becher was a polymath who published on subjects as diverse as chemistry, politics, commerce, a universal language, education, medicine, moral philosophy, and religion. Like many ambitious figures of his time he was constantly seeking patronage, and because of this we follow him from one court to another. We find that he converted to Roman Catholicism for practical reasons, and that he took his medical degree primarily as a means of establishing himself as a court physician. Although he gave a public disputation on epilepsy, it is evident of his real interests that his inaugural address upon admittance to the Medical Faculty at Mainz was on the reality of the philosopher’s stone.
Smith devotes much space to Becher’s practical projects. Of special interest is his attempt to establish a South American colony for Count Friedrich Casimir of Hanau through the purchase of land in Surinam from the Dutch West India Company. Similarly, Smith discusses the continuing interest of the Hapsburgs in alchemical transmutation, which was thought to be practical and attainable. But far more promising was the Art and Workhouse Becher established outside of Vienna, where he hoped to shelter and train vagrants in useful arts and trades such as the manufacture of porcelain, the weaving of silk and wool, the preparation of chemical products (including medicines), the manufacture of glass, and many other practical processes. Those employed were to receive certificates and to be able to establish themselves independently when they left. The program is reminiscent of Théophraste Renaudot’s Bureau d’Adresse in Paris in the 1630s.
A study of Becher has long been needed and there is no doubt that this book is an important contribution. Smith has used a large number of manuscript sources in European libraries, and she has presented us with a far better picture of this significant figure than we have had in the past. But while this is an important book, the historian of medicine will find very little of medical history here. The historian of chemistry is better served with the author’s discussion of alchemy at the Hapsburg Court, but she has little to say of the influence of Becher on Stahl and the origins of phlogiston chemistry. Yet we cannot fault the book because of this since it was not her intent. It is to be hoped, however, that as Professor Smith continues to mine the manuscript sources and to read the works [End Page 130] of Becher, she will eventually turn in more detail to the technical aspects of his work.