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The Experimental Fire

Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700

In medieval and early modern Europe, the practice of alchemy promised extraordinary physical transformations. Who would not be amazed to see base metals turned into silver and gold, hard iron into soft water, and deadly poison into elixirs that could heal the human body? To defend such claims, alchemists turned to the past, scouring ancient books for evidence of a lost alchemical heritage and seeking to translate their secret language and obscure imagery into replicable, practical effects.

Tracing the development of alchemy in England over four hundred years, from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the end of the seventeenth, Jennifer M. Rampling illuminates the role of alchemical reading and experimental practice in the broader context of national and scientific history. Using new manuscript sources, she shows how practitioners like George Ripley, John Dee, and Edward Kelley, as well as many previously unknown alchemists, devised new practical approaches to alchemy while seeking the support of English monarchs. By reconstructing their alchemical ideas, practices, and disputes, Rampling reveals how English alchemy was continually reinvented over the space of four centuries, resulting in changes to the science itself. In so doing, The Experimental Fire bridges the intellectual history of chemistry and the wider worlds of early modern patronage, medicine, and science.

416 pages | 19 halftones, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Synthesis

History: British and Irish History, History of Ideas, History of Technology

History of Science

Medieval Studies

Reviews

"The Experimental Fire reads like an insider's history of English alchemy, exposing its inner workings and demystifying its encrypted canon with adeptness and hard-earned authority. Jennifer M. Rampling meets the frustrating material of alchemical history with all the scholarly agility and suspicion requisite to the task. This book steers straight into the hazards of alchemical literature, with its bricolage texts full of borrowed works uncited or cited badly, recorded in manuscripts annotated by many anonymous hands. Rampling is the first to handle these hazardous materials so comprehensively and confidently. She reports on her many archival discoveries and assembles them into a coherent narrative of influence and innovation in English alchemy over four centuries. Her forerunner in this strange country was Dorothea Waley Singer, whose preliminary census of alchemical manuscripts in British libraries laid the groundwork for English alchemical history and has awaited a proper follow-up since 1931. With Experimental Fire, Rampling delivers one."

Los Angeles Review of Books

"Rich and vast. . . . The Experimental Fire challenges us to grapple with a more expansive idea of history, one that includes the lineage, development, and comprehension of false knowledge. Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it’s not real, that it can’t be studied, argued over, or taught. Indeed, alchemy, Rampling argues, is nothing but the invention and reinvention of one type of knowledge. And what is literature, or history, or science, if not a variation of the same?"

Chicago Review of Books

"A new and fascinating angle on how alchemy began to transform science into a modern enterprise. . . . Beautifully and clearly written."

Forbidden Histories

“In The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700, Jennifer M. Rampling presents the largely uncharted history of English alchemy from its medieval roots until the end of the seventeenth century with an astounding eye for detail.”

Annals of Science

"Rampling's extensive survey of English alchemy is a masterclass in history of science research and serves as a model for anyone who wishes to undertake such a project. Although it meets the highest standards of academic research, she writes with a light touch and an accomplished literary style making a complex and technical topic accessible to the not necessarily specialist reader. . . . Anybody with some basic knowledge of the history of alchemy, and an interest in developing that knowledge, could and should read her book. For those with a serious interest in the topic The Experimental Fire is an obligatory read and must already be considered a standard work in the genre."

Renaissance Mathematicus

"Captivating. . . . Whether your interest is in early modern European history, the history of science, or old occult practices, this is a book well worth giving consideration as your next reading selection."

Well-read Naturalist

"As Rampling analyzes how the English alchemical practitioners filled gaps in information found in their books and resolved discrepancies between texts and experience, she identifies networks of readers and traces a subtle evolution in how works on alchemy were read. She notes parallels in these reading practices with developments in other forms of knowledge, such as Reformation-era theology. This book is well organized, offers readable and engaging prose, and has been carefully edited. The bibliography and index are comprehensive. . . . Highly recommended."

Choice

"This book has so many novel elements that it is difficult to know where to begin. Rampling presents one amazing archival discovery after another like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat. Forging vivid and compelling narratives with her materials, while remaining keenly aware of the living history behind the documents, she has been able to sketch the outlines of what has previously been entirely unknown to the history of alchemy. This is a fully achieved piece of research that is destined to become the key work in the field."

Stephen Clucas, Birkbeck, University of London

"Rampling offers a masterful survey of alchemy in England, from its status as the largest scientific genre circa 1400 through the patronage of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Building on the legacy of George Ripley, English alchemists developed expert skills in textual interpretation and experimental practice—focused on both medicine and transmutation—in order to portray themselves as philosophers rather than artisans. Rampling writes with admirable lucidity about cryptic manuscripts, colorful figures, and complicated archival evidence."

Ann M. Blair, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Harvard University

"This is an extraordinary and important piece of scholarship. Rampling carries the reader from the first origins of alchemy in Medieval England, through the Reformation, and down to the end of the seventeenth century—a remarkable temporal sweep. There has not previously been a study of the alchemical tradition that so thoroughly follows a coherently framed national context for so long a period. Rampling presents the material in a remarkably clear and concise fashion that does justice to its complexity yet still guides the reader."

Lawrence M. Principe, author of The Transmutations of Chymistry: Wilhelm Homberg and the Académie Royale des Sciences

Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Abbreviations
Conventions
Acknowledgments

Introduction: What Is Mercury?

Part I: The Medieval Origins of English Alchemy

1. Philosophers and Kings
2. Medicine and Transmutation
3. Opinion and Experience

Part II: The Golden Age of English Alchemy

4. Dissolution and Reformation
5. Nature and Magic
6. Time and Money

Part III: The Legacy of Medieval Alchemy in Early Modern England

7. Recovery and Revision
8. Home and Abroad
9. Antiquity and Experiment
 
Bibliography
Index

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