a history of alchemy

TLSPopper_372168hNicholas Popper at The Times Literary Supplement:

Alchemy’s significance has altered radically in the three centuries since this heyday, Principe argues, after professionalizing Enlightenment scholars rejected the suitability of Decknamen, pseudonyms and dreams of transmutation to a properly rigorous, public science. Denied knowledge of their physical references, Victorian occultists and Jungian psychologists mythologized the arcana of alchemical texts as autonomous allegories, as symbols for occult forces or a psychological manifestation of the collective unconscious. Meanwhile, historians of science dismissed its practitioners as gullible fools. Many recognized that the quest for the Stone involved work at the forge, but alchemists were still frequently portrayed as credulous dupes who begged God’s favour as they wishfully tossed arbitrary heaps of plants and metals into their fires.

For Principe, such flawed interpretations stem from projecting post-Enlightenment meanings of alchemy onto the earlier period and assuming that earlier alchemists’ spiritual declarations wholly governed their coded recipes. Scholars now equipped with revelatory chemical expertise, he insists, will recognize that these reflected a context in which all knowledge was described as a divine gift – a claim strengthened by his lucid deciphering of esoteric images and fascinating replications of experiments purporting to transmute silver into gold, revivify dead bodies, and grow trees of gold.

more here.