- Anna Zieglerin And The Lion’s Blood: Alchemy And End Times In Reformation Germany by Tara Nummedal
Alchemy is one of those subjects about which many educated people are convinced they understand much more than they actually do. In its heyday, practitioners were viewed with guarded admiration by some, derision by others, and [End Page 336] general incomprehensibility by most. Today one would be hard put to find many people inside or outside the academy who would accord the early modern “science” any modicum of respect. It was, we tell ourselves, bad science at best, treacherous fraud at worst. There is little to be gleaned from its early modern history other than still another example of human delusion, gullibility, and greed.
Tara Nummedal’s new microhistory demonstrates with scholarly acumen and stylistic élan just how wrong all of those assumptions are. In a dazzling work of cultural imagination, she eschews all the “turning lead into gold” nonsense and quickly gets to the conceptual heart of who alchemists were, what they actually believed, and what roles they played in early modern society. Building on deep archival work and sophisticated argumentation, she fashions a truly engaging and revealing microhistory focused on the tragic story of one sixteenth-century practitioner, Anna Zieglerin. As those of us who have attempted can testify, it’s not easy to incorporate important historiographical questions within such a format, but Nummedal has succeeded brilliantly. As she promises in the introduction, the story of Anna Zieglerin yields many keen observations about patronage in the science, the early modern body, women and gender, the Protestant Reformation, natural philosophy, and the often-forgotten human ingredient of imagination or fantasy. Each of these is seamlessly interwoven into a captivating account of the reality of alchemy, boldly attempting to rescue the art from the condescension of posterity.
The story’s protagonist, Anna Zieglerin, remains a mesmerizing presence throughout the book. A self-styled alchemist, courtier, and prophet (aspiring even to be a Protestant Virgin Mary), the young woman from an obscure background led an eventful, albeit brief, life. The bulk of Nummedal’s story takes place in the Wolfenbüttel court of Duke Heinrich Julius and Duchess Hedwig of Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Here, Anna, together with her jester husband Heinrich Schombach (aka Cross-eyed Heinz) and their alchemist friend Philip Sömmering, attempts to convince the duke and his more skeptical consort of their abilities to bring him great riches and, just as importantly, spiritual salvation in preparation for the imminent Last Days. The mixture of alchemical thought (especially influenced by Paracelsus) and Lutheran theology is key to understanding the powerful appeal of Anna’s claims, and Nummedal is especially adept at conveying this alien thinking to a modern audience. Zieglerin’s most extravagant promise is the development of a powerful golden oil that she calls “the Lion’s Blood”—a substance capable of generating plant, mineral, and perhaps even human life. Thanks to Nummedal’s [End Page 337] remarkable work of historical reconstruction, we can follow the full arc of Anna’s career at Wolfenbüttel, from the initial promises of spectacular success to the court intrigues that culminate in her arrest and torture for poisoning and sorcery.
There are so many things that I admire about this book that I will have to limit myself to a few highlights. In the first chapter, “The Shadow of Gotha,” Nummedal’s account of Anna’s prehistory in the Saxon court at Gotha provides the perfect entrée into the dynamics of court politics during the first decades of the Reformation. Here Zieglerin and her friends become fatefully associated with the spiritual advisor to Duke Friedrich II, Wilhelm von Grumbach, whose precipitous rise and fall anticipates the experience of Anna and her colleagues a few years later. Based on the revelations of a teenaged “angel seer” named Hänschen (who in turn is informed by figures he calls his “Little Men,” 13...