Medieval alchemy: a selected bibliography
This bibliography is intended to help anyone interested in medieval alchemy, laymen, literary scholars and historians of science alike, to identify useful publications and research tools. It is not comprehensive, but provides first steps into different directions.
To begin with, a word of warning or advice: the subject of alchemy has attracted different groups of people of all backgrounds. The main notions of alchemy include:
the esoteric, and
literary or more general symbolic traditions
These categories are not discrete: e.g., many early studies on alchemy see it as a mere predecessor of modern chemistry or dismiss it as a mystical 'pseudo-science'. It is therefore vital to identify one's interest in the subject on one hand, and the approach adopted in a specific book on the other.
Prelude: a few websites related to the history of science/alchemy
Bibliographies and research tools
Selected Primary Sources
Prelude: a few websites related to the history of science/alchemy
Museum 'Der Alchemist' Oberstockstall
Reading about alchemy is only one of many possibilities to learn about the craft, and often not the most accessible or reliable one. But only the ignorant could not be excited about the recent discovery of a sixteenth-century alchemical laboratory in an Austrian church (!). Here you can join in a virtual tour of the adjoining museum.
Manolis Pantos "Presentations I like"
What materials did alchemists work with, and how? Here you will find the answers reconstructed from material evidence: see pictures and chemical analyses of the aforementioned Austrian materials, researched and presented by scholars at UCL.
The Whipple Museum, Cambridge
Based in the department of History and Philosophy of Science, this museum contains a multitude of exhibits covering everything from ancient to modern science. Free entry - invaluable experience.
London Science Museum
Any science museum's big brother - and a very active one, too! Online exhibitions, information about collections and research, etc.
German Museum of Pharmacy
The Pharmacy Museum in Heidelberg, beautifully situated in the famous castle, preserves chemists' shops, drugs, a laboratory, literature and a wealth of materials around medicine and chemical medication. Virtual tour, library, links, and excellent studies of individual exhibits.
Paris histoire de la medicine
This cosy and excellently organised exhibition in the Paris department for history of medicine will offer you a memorable experience away from the crowds. A small section focuses on the manufacture of drugs. The website is a nice hors d'oeuvre for a visit on your next trip to Paris!
The Alchemy Website
This is the largest collection of online information on alchemy, including transcriptions of alchemical works, bibliographies, excerpts of international manuscript catalogues, art and symbolism, and much more; the individual aspects vary in focus and aim, as contributors include scholars, artists and laymen alike.
This ambitious and highly successful ongoing project makes transcriptions of Newton's manuscripts available online; alchemical materials are being worked on at the moment. Texts, biography and more about Sir Isaac.
Virtual Chemistry Library
A collection of links for browsing various aspects of alchemy.
Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 1924-58)
Eighty years after its first publication, this is an early but still the most comprehensive history of what may be termed the 'occult sciences'. 8 volumes, each presenting a period of time (rather than focusing on a specific discipline). A good starting point, although Thorndike's findings about alchemy have since been corrected and supplemented.
E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957; repr. New York: Dover, 1990)
This standard introduction to alchemy is exemplary in its aim and approach, though meanwhile slightly dated and fragmentary. It presents a broad history of alchemy from its ancient origins through to late medieval times.
F. Sherwood Taylor, The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry (London: William Heinemann, 1951)
This book is written in the tradition of the history of alchemy in its own right, and focuses on the contribution of alchemy to scientific progress. Nevertheless it is pleasant to read.
John Read, Through Alchemy to Chemistry: A Procession of Ideas & Personalities (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1957)
Another established history of alchemy, which includes a comprehensive glossary of alchemical terminology.
Alchemie: Lexikon einer Hermetischen Wissenschaft, ed. by Claus Priesner and Karin Figala (Beck: Munich, 1998)
For those readers mastering the German language, this is a very reliable and thorough reference book. It covers historical developments as well as materials and processes, persona and symbolism. Each entry includes an excellent selected bibliography for further reading.
Bernhard Dietrich Haage, Alchemie im Mittelalter (Zurich: Artemis & Winkler, 1996)
Another German publication which combines more recent as well as traditional studies in the field with a conceptual approach: a history of alchemy and (implicitly) a synopsis of historical scholarship.
Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Lyndy Abraham, Marvell and Alchemy (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1990)
Abraham's works are rooted in the literary interpretation of symbols. Unfortunately under referenced and somewhat detached from historical research in this area, these books are of little value beyond esoteric or psychological approaches to alchemical symbolism.
G. Roberts, The Mirror of Alchemy: Alchemical Ideas and Images in Manuscripts and Books, from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century (London, 1994)
This book comprises many reproductions of drawings and pictures created in the context of or inspired by alchemy.
Bibliographies and research tools
Scientific and Medical Writings in Old and Middle English: An Electronic Reference, comp. by Linda Ehrsam Voigts and Patricia Deery Kurtz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000) [on CD-ROM]
This resource is taking manuscript research into a new dimension: it is fully searchable, most importantly for incipits, and will appear in an updated and improved version soon.
The Alchemy Website
See above; in its database of alchemical books and manuscripts in Europe and beyond, this site makes rare printed catalogues of collections available and supplements them through first hand research. An invaluable research tool.
Most printed bibliographies have now been outdated by their electronic counterparts. Nevertheless, the following books may provide an initial insight into alchemy-related publications:
Alan Pritchard, Alchemy: A Bibliography of English Language Writings (London: Routledge, 1980)
Gerard Heym, 'An Introduction to the Bibliography of Alchemy: Part I', Ambix I (1937), 48-60
A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, ed. by Albert E. Hartung (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1998), X: XXV, Works of Science and Information, ed. by George R. Keiser (1998)
Robert M. Schuler, English Magical and Scientific Poems to 1700: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1979)
Selected catalogues for special collections with a focus on alchemical materials include the following:
Edinburgh R. Ian McCallum, Index to the Erskine Manuscripts of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Royal College of Physicians, 1996)
Hamburg Julian Paulus, 'The Collection of Alchemical Books and Manuscripts in Hamburg', Alchemy revisited: Proceedings of the International Conference on the History of Alchemy at the University of Groningen, 17-19 April 1989, ed. by Z. R. W. M. von Martels (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 245-9 (part of series: Collection de Travaux de L'Academie Internationale D'Histoire des Sciences, general editor John D. North, Vol. 33)
Yale Witten, Laurence C., II, and Richard Pachella, Alchemy and the Occult: A Catalogue of Books and Manuscripts from the Collection of Paul and Mary Mellon Given to the Yale University Library: Vol. 3: Manuscripts 1225-1671 (New Haven: Yale University Library, 1977)
Lynn Thorndike and Pearl Kibre, Catalogue of Incipits of Mediaeval Scientific Writings in Latin, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1963)
Resource for Latin language writings.
This catalogue takes on a different format than the aforementioned bibliographies; it refers to authors and occurrences of texts ascribed to them in early printed books. A new edition is being compiled at the moment and due to appear soon.
Selected Primary Sources
Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, comp. by Elias Ashmole (London, 1652)
A, or rather the, collection of English alchemical poetry. The works are presented in diplomatic edition (critical editions of some of these poems have been prepared by myself only recently). Images from Newton's copy of this book can be downloaded from here
Transcriptions (unfortunately unreliable regarding the exact spelling) may be read here
Thomas Norton's Ordinal of Alchemy , ed. by John Reidy (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 1975)
This is an exemplary edition with a brilliant introduction, glossary and text. Useful for those who want to read the text with some guidance as well as linguists (esp. the glossary/concordance) and editors of medieval alchemical texts.
George Ripley, Compound of Alchymy (1591), ed. by Stanton J. Linden (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001)
This is a diplomatic edition based on an early printed version of the text, which may be useful to consult where the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is not readily available.
George Ripley, Opera Omnia Chemica, cum Praefatione a Ludovico Combachio (Kassel, 1649)
Early modern printed collection of (pseudo-)George Ripley's works in Latin.
Alchemical Poetry 1575-1700: From Previously Unpublished Manuscripts , ed. by Robert M. Schuler (New York: Garland, 1995)
Schuler presents an anthology of previously unedited alchemical poems of various origins, some of them medieval translations into English. They are organised according to their form of transmission and supplemented by general introductions for each section, and individual commentaries for each text.
Die Alchemie des Andreas Libavius: Ein Lehrbuch der Chemie aus dem Jahre 1597, ed. by Friedemann Rex (Weinheim: Verlag Chemie, 1964)
Supposedly the first textbook of alchemy, this monograph represents an early modern attempt to structure materials and operations. Contains numerous woodcuts of workshop materials and tools, and also a plan for a 'perfect laboratory'.
Martin Ruland, Lexicon Alchemiae sive Dictionarium Alchemisticum, cum Obscuriorum Verborum, et Rerum Hermeticarum, tum Theophrast Paracelsicarum Phrasium, Planam Explicationem Continens (Frankfurt a.M., 1612)
An early printed dictionary of alchemical terms in Latin, and therefore a witness of alchemy as it was perceived towards the end of its peak of popularity.
Ambix - The Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
The Society publishes scholarly articles and reviews of books on all aspects of the history of alchemy and chemistry.
Journals published by the History of Science Society: Isis features scholarly articles, research notes and commentary on the history of science, medicine, and technology, and their cultural influences, review essays and book reviews on new publications in the field. Osiris deals with important emerging research in the history of science and its cultural influences.
Chymia: Annual Studies in the History of Chemistry
No longer published, but obviously of interest to historians of alchemy.
Literature - other
Michela Pereira, The Alchemical Corpus Attributed to Raymond Lull (Warburg Institute Surveys and Texts, XVIII) (London: Warburg Institute/University of London, 1989)
Michela Pereira a distinguished historian of alchemy, and one of few focusing on the fifteenth century, whose books should serve as models for anyone working in the field: based on original materials, meticulously researched and pioneering in methodology, these make excellent reading! Among her other publications (not all of which have been translated into English) the following may be mentioned:
M Pereira, 'Lullian Alchemy: Aspects and problems of the Corpus of Alchemical Works Attributed to Ramon Lull (XIV-XVIII Centuries)', Catalan Review , IV (1990) ('Hommage to Ramon Lull'), 41-54
This is a concise version of the abovementioned study on The Alchemical Corpus ...
M. Pereira, 'Mater Medicinarum: English Physicians and the Alchemical Elixir in the Fifteenth Century', in Roger French, Jon Arrizabalaga et al., eds., Medicine from the Black Death to the French Disease (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 26-52
Contains extensive notes useful for historians of alchemy and medicine
Joachim Telle is known as expert on Paracelsus and Paracelsianism, and has published excellent studies on a range of subjects over the past few decades. An online bibliography of his extensive (!) German language publications may be found here
Elias Ashmole (1617-1692): His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work , ed. by C.H. Josten, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966)
Ashmole's accomplishments embrace more areas than those now exhibited in the Oxford museums and libraries. This biography, or rather documentary of his life is as fascinating as Pepys' diary.
Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy: Or 'The Hunting of the Greene Lyon' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975)
A study of Newton's interest in alchemy, which, in the light of the flood of books published since, continues to be a notable contribution to Newton scholarship.
Pearl Kibre, Studies in Medieval Science: Alchemy, Astrology, Mathematics and Medicine (London: Hambledon Press, 1984)
This collection of articles spans a wide range of topics.
Lawrence M. Principe and William R. Newman, 'Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy', in Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, ed. by William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 385-431
The two authors of this article have made valuable contributions to the study of early modern alchemy and beyond. While this article proposes a reconsideration of approaches to the subject matter, other publications (not included in this bibliography) will take the interested reader into other relevant areas of scholarship.
Pamela H. Smith, The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994)
This study concentrates on the chemist Johann Joachim Becher. The author is presently researching forms of knowledge in crafts and the communication of artisenal knowledge. Again, checking her past and forthcoming projects will be worthwhile for interested readers.
Marina Frasca-Spada and Nick Jardine, eds, Books and Sciences in History (Cambridge: CUP, 2000)
An excellent collection of articles on books as part of material culture. Includes an article on alchemy/Simon Forman by Lauren Kassell.
The following two publications may represent literature on the linguistics of scientific writings and recipes; further books of much value in the related field of history of medicine originate in the Research Unit for Variation and Change at the University of Helsinki
Irma Taavitsainen and Pivi Pahta, eds. Medical and scientific writing in late medieval English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Peter Grund, 'The Golden Formulas: Genre Conventions of Alchemical Recipes in the Middle English Period', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 4 CIV (2003), 455-475