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Salomon Trismosin and Clovis Hesteau de Nuysement: The Sexual Politics of Alchemy in Early Modern France Kathleen Perry Long H ISTORIANS OF SCIENCE have long tried to rehabilitate alchemy as a rational pursuit, an early form of chemistry. In this attempt, they have emphasized the process and its various stages and formulas; but they have largely ignored the language which is used to describe this process. The rhetoric of alchemy is relentlessly gendered, particularly from the early sixteenth century on, and describes the stages as a heterosexual union between man and woman. As Allen Debus points out, from the earliest examples of alchemical thought to the publications of Paracelsus,1 the chemical philosopher places himself in a surrogate maternal role: In fact, we do find that the oldest surviving works of metal craftsmen combine an emphasis on the change in the appearance of metals with the acceptance of a vitalistic view of nature—a view that included the belief that metals live and grow within the earth in a fashion analogous to the growth of the human fetus. It was to become basic to alchemical thought that the operator might hasten the natural process of metallic growth in his labora­ tory and thus bring about perfection in far less time than that required by nature.2 Mother Earth, the feminine principle, is a slow and unreliable producer of precious metals. Thus, the male philosopher eliminates the feminine ground, and develops more efficient systems to refine matter. This appropriation of the maternal role is linked to the creation of the homonculus , that is, to the perfection of reproduction by separation from the maternal body. According to Paracelsus, for example, humankind could be rendered immortal and perfect if philosophers could learn to repro­ duce themselves from sperm only, and in a jar.3 But alchemical works published from the mid-sixteenth century on, although some may have been written before Paracelsus’ time, emphasize the conjunction of male and female, the union of spiritual and physical, as necessary for the per­ fection of matter. As was the case with medical treatises on the generation of animals and humans, this evolution away from a virtually asexual ideal of repro­ duction towards a renewed estimation of the importance of the female in Vol. XXXV, No. 2 9 L ’E spr it C réa teu r the reproductive process was based on revision of Aristotelian notions of gender, which condemned the female to the realm of the monstrous,4and designated her merely as the fertile field upon which the male reproduced himself. The emphasis on the maternal role in the alchemical process of spiritual and physical perfecting also recalls late medieval images of Jesus as Mother enumerated and analyzed by Caroline Walker Bynum.5 The florid images of sexuality and maternity, evident in the Rosarium philosophorum, in the Toyson d ’or of Salomon Trismosin, and in Clovis Hesteau de Nuysement’s Visions hermétiques, to name but a few exam­ ples, thus seem to open these treatises to an analysis focused on issues other than the early development of science. These images, often com­ bined with images of monstrosity, offer a window onto social, religious, political, and epistemological issues of the day. From the opening pages of the Rosarium philosophorum, first pub­ lished in Frankfurt in 1550,6the alchemical process is described in terms of the union of male and female.7The two are united in one nature, but maintain a clear difference, which resembles that between matter and form. The matter submits (subit) and the form acts (agit); thus the body seeks out the spirit in order to achieve its own perfection. Although based on neoplatonic or gnostic notions of matter and spirit, as well as Aristotelian assumptions of male superiority, this treatise evokes a more complex theory of gender which asserts the necessity of union, but accompanied by ineluctable difference. The author seems to assign a higher value to the male and to the spiritual, but, as the treatise reveals, this spirit is useless without the female body. The absolute need for bodily expression of spiritual truth grants new value to the corporeal and the female. Thus, the alchemical process is compared to...


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