- Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite: An Edition and Study of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy
The ease with which we disseminate information in the twenty-first century would astound our forebearers. Digitized books can be ours with the click of a mouse and even the most arcane pieces of scholarship can be viewed online. But generations ago, before the advent of the printing press, manuscripts had to be reproduced by hand in order to be seen by a wider audience. Copyists made choices about what to include and what to add to documents, resulting in different renditions of the originals, and the copies themselves were eventually duplicated by other hands. Peter J. Grund, an assistant professor of English at the University of Kansas, examines the effects of this process on an alchemical treatise by Humfrey Lock, an Elizabethan military engineer working at the court of Russian tsar Ivan IV. Unhappy with his situation and embroiled in disputes with the Muscovy Company and the English ambassador, Thomas Randolph, Lock wrote to Queen Elizabeth and to William Cecil, asking for their help in extricating him from Russia and promising in 1572 a written work on alchemy of potential value to the English crown. Eager to increase England’s supply of gold and silver, the monarch and her minister would have welcomed the secrets of the philosopher’s stone and the promise of turning base metals into precious ones. Nonetheless, “Locke never seems to have presented Cecil” with the essay (10).
Lock’s Treatise, written in English and derived from earlier alchemical texts, survives in seven manuscripts that were widely read and recopied by influential men like Arthur Dee, Thomas Harriot, and Thomas Browne. The Treatise, little of which was original to Lock, incorporated uncited works of Albertus Magnus, Arnold of Villanova, and George Ripley; Grund has identified these sources by using The Alchemy Website and an [End Page 491] electronic reference compiled by Linda Voigts and Patricia Kurtz, Scientific and Medical Writings in Old and Middle English. Like many scholastic models, the Treatise employs instructional dialogue as between a master and his student concerning questions in alchemy. Grund points to inconsistencies in Lock’s alchemy arising from its varied sources, such as the statements in the earlier chapters that mercury is the sole constituent of metals, later contradicted by the inclusion of sulfur as an important complement to mercury.
Grund relies on the Treatise as copied in 1590 by famed astrologer-physician Simon Forman and compares it to the other manuscripts prepared by anonymous scribes for unidentified owners, providing a wealth of information about the widespread belief in alchemy, the evolution of the English language, and the persistence of manuscripts even after the arrival of the printing press. Grund employs the Forman adaptation, now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, in part because its copyist is known and because this is the version that was owned and read by Forman’s disciple Richard Napier, and by Elias Ashmole, manuscript collector extraordinaire. However, Forman did not copy the whole text himself; he had the assistance of three other hands, even sometimes switching to them in midsentence. Lock’s Treatise was further transformed around 1600 into a new abbreviated text called “The Picklock.” Judging by the redactions, Grund concludes that its creator intended this edition for those advanced in the alchemical arts, as introductory materials from the Treatise were not included. Other Treatise-based manuscripts can be found in the Sloane collection at the British Library, the Glasgow University Library, and the Royal Library of Copenhagen.
After explaining his editorial principles and his focus on the Forman copy, Grund devotes the next hundred-plus pages to the edition itself, followed by more than fifty pages of explanatory notes and an extensive glossary. He also includes a chart of alchemical sigils, a sort of occult shorthand known to practitioners. Besides very useful footnotes, Grund provides a bibliography of books and articles germane to his...