Michela Pereira

title.none: Linden, ed., The Alchemy Reader (Michela Pereira)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.022 04.12.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michela Pereira, Universita di Siena,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Linden, Stanton J., ed. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 260. ISBN: $24.00 0-521-79662-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.22

Linden, Stanton J., ed. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 260. ISBN: $24.00 0-521-79662-8.

Reviewed by:

Michela Pereira
Universita di Siena

The promising enterprise of introducing the "informed general reader" into the fascinating and complex history of alchemy resulted, helas!, in a missed occasion. Lofty assertions of interdisciplinarity produced scanty and uninformed notes. Bibliography is highly idiosincratic--or perhaps limited by both its reduction to English language items alone, and the unexplicable lack of books and papers by outstanding scholars like C. Crisciani, R. Halleux, S. Matton, B. Obrist. Not one of the proceedings of conferences concerning the history of alchemy, held during the last quarter of a century, has been included, although most of them are totally or partially in English. Sure, proceedings of conferences as well as French or Italian books may be out of reach to the English or American "informed general reader." Yet one might expect that an Emeritus Professor of the Washington State University, editing what pretends to be "a solid, wide-ranging introduction to the art" of alchemy, should have read something of the most recent literature concerning the subject he is interested in. If so, he might have discovered some relevant features of, say, ancient alchemy: that, for instance, Hermes' Emerald Table was not a 'brief tract' but a text appended to a long and important Arab treatise attributed to Balinus (Apollonius of Tyana), the Kitab sirr-al-haliqa, probably of Greek origin. He might also have realized that no alchemical texts are witnessed before the Christian Era and that the link between alchemy and Hermeticism, though strong and important since the texts of Islamic alchemists, is of rather late and uncertain origin: Hermes' sayings quoted by the alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis were of a philosophical, not alchemical, content, and the first explicit association of the name of Hermes with alchemy is in a 9th century document. Had the author read at least some of the papers discussed in the 1993 conference on "The crises of alchemy" at Lausanne, he might have become acquainted with developments of themes such as the meaning of the elixir and the relation between art and nature (which was not one of mere imitation): alchemists thought that in order to produce the elixir or philosophers' stone they had to learn from nature, but that producing it they were entering deep into nature's course and renewing it; and finally that, projecting the elixir over imperfect bodies, they were co-operating with God in order to save matter and body, both those of metals and those of human beings ...

The question, with this book, is not one concerning inclusion and exclusion: undoubtedly, the editor of a reader covering so many centuries and such a wide range of texts has to select among them. What the informed (or, most frequently, uninformed) reader would find useful to know, however, is the ratio that brought to inclusion or to exclusion-- least it be only the possibility of modernizing ancient English texts or reprinting existing translations. Why, for instance, not to include in the Medieval section of the book some pages from the Testamentum attributed to Raimond Lull--one of the most authoritative texts in Western alchemical tradition, before and after Paracelsus? Maybe the reason for not including Lull is the same for confusing the so- called Latin Geber (identified not many years ago with a Franciscan friar writing at the end of the 13th century, Paul of Taranto) with his Arab eponym, Jabir-- whose works, by the way, have been recognized as written mostly by authors deriving their knowledge from his teachings, not by himself. The Summa perfectionis magisterii written by the Latin Geber was critically edited by an American scholar, with English introduction and translation, about ten years ago--but there is no trace of it, neither in the 'Jabir' section nor in the bibliography. The highly debated problem of alchemical pseudoepigraphy is not even remembered, were it not for such misleading assertions as the one concerning the Libellus de alchimia attributed to Albert the Great: this, in Linden's words, "is as likely to be authentic as any of the alchemical attributions." What does it mean? That it is considered authentically Albertine? Or just the contrary? The ambiguous wording looks rather like a gesture of compliance with the persisting attitude of ill-informed readers (readers of trash literature on alchemy and occultism in general), who prefer to believe in the traditional attributions of alchemical texts to renowned authors than to question the meaning of pseudoepigraphy. The same ambiguity can be found in the footnotes, moreover generally lacking bibliographical references.

For several centuries after the end of the Middle Ages alchemy has been a matter of occult and initiatic environments; and only after the interest of historians of chemistry had brought it to the attention of academic scholars, serious studies have been produced concerning its history, its language, alchemical imagery and so on. A special place in this revival was played by the Jungian interpretation of alchemy that, although its primary focus was not a historical one, was nonetheless appreciated by a historian of science like Walter Pagel and subsequently became a term of confrontation for any scholar working seriously in the alchemical documentary tradition, were he or she agreeing with Jung or not. More recently, some researchers in the field of history of science are contending the validity of Jungian ideas on alchemy, and stressing the rationality of alchemy; and the focus on the link between alchemy and medicine is deepening our knowledge of anthropological and theological features of the "alchemical philosophy." Linden limits his considerations about historiographic problems and competing interpretations of alchemy to some hints, whose utility for a general reader is doubtful, whilst people who have read something more than Read's or Holmyard's historical accounts (both excellent studies, but largely outdated) are surely better informed than the author of the present reader seems to be.

Years ago, S.J. Linden founded and directed an academic journal on alchemy, its history and its relation to other disciplines, especially literature: Cauda Pavonis. Some of his scholarly studies offered new insights in the alchemical tradition, especially in Renaissance and modern times. One wonders why he has so undervalued the opportunity to vulgarize serious research on such a relevant and little known topic as alchemy. The quest of the alchemists, seen in its historical development, might offer to modern Western readers the opportunity of reflecting over the evolution of their attempt to think the relation between humanity and nature in different terms from those developed by the main trends of philosophy, science, and technology; to trace some of our technological dreams to their origin, showing the deep interrelation between reason and magic in the background of modern science; to throw some light over the long-lasting need for matter and body to be 'saved,' pointing to the anthropological and theological implications of the research for the elixir, that Martin Luther and Paracelsus had well understood.

While regretting that Linden's book is not capable of offering such a deep insight into the Western alchemical tradition, we shall try here to fill at least the most serious gaps in his bibliographical section, listing some fundamental references, with the hope that readers, whose interest will be aroused by the texts presented, will venture on a more rewarding trip into the history of alchemy.


Crosland, M.P. Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1962.

Multhauf R.P. The Origins of Chemistry. London: Oldbourne, 1966.

Goltz D. Studien zur Geschichte der Mineralnamen in Pharmazie, Chemie und Medizin von den Anfangen bis zu Paracelsus. Wiesbaden: Steiner Verlag, 1972.

Halleux R. Le probleme des metaux dans la science antique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1974.

Halleux R. Les textes alchimiques. Turnhout: Brepols, 1979.

Halleux R. "Problemes de lexicographie alchimiste," in La lexicographie du latin medieval et ses rapports avec les recherches actuelles sur la civilisation du Moyen Age. Paris: CNRS, 1981b.

Obrist B. Les debuts de l'imagerie alchimique (xive-xve siecles). Paris: Le Sycomore, 1982.

Meinel C.H. ed. Die Alchemie in der europaischen Kultur-und Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1986.

Rattansi P., and Clericuzio A. Alchemy and Chemistry in the 16th and 17th centuries. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989.

Pereira M. ,The Alchemical Corpus Attributed to Raymond Lull. London: The Warburg Institute, 1989.

von Martels Z.R.W.M ed. Alchemy revisited. Leiden: Brill, 1990.

Newman W.R. ed. The Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber. A Critical Edition, Translation and Study. Leiden: Brill, 1991.

Moran B.T. The Alchemical World of the German Court. Occult Philosophy and Chemical Medicine in the Circle of Moritz of Hessen (1572-1632). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1991.

Margolin J.C., and Matton S. Alchimie et philosophie a la Renaissance. Paris: Vrin, 1993.

Haq S.N. Names, Natures and Things. The Alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan and his Kitab al-Ahjar (Book of Stones). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

Kahn D., and Matton S. ed. Alchimie. Art, histoire et mythes. Paris-Milano: S.E.H.A.-Arche, 1995.

Letrouit J. Chronologie des alchimistes grecs, in Kahn, Matton 1995.

Micrologus. Natura, scienze e società medievali 3 (1995) = Le crisi dell'alchimia. Joly B. ed. "Theorie et pratique dans la constitution des savoirs alchimiques." Revue d'histoire des sciences 49 (1996).

Gabriele M. Alchimia e Iconologia. Udine: Forum, 1997.

Figala K., and Priesner C. Alchemie. Lexikon einer Hermetischer Wissenschaft. München: Verlag C.R. Beck, 1998.

Greiner F. ed. Aspects de la tradition alchimique au XVIe siecle. Paris-Milano: SEHA-Arche, 1998.

Early Science and Medicine 5 (2000) = Alchemy and Hermeticism.

Crisciani C., and Paravicini Bagliani A. Alchimia e medicina nel Medioevo. Firenze: SISMEL, 2003.