Early Science & Alchemy

Liar, Liar, Lead on Fire

Anke Timmermann reviews Tara Nummedal’s Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire.

By Anke Timmermann | October 28, 2008
Tyrocinium chymicum

Detail of the title page engraving of Tyrocinium chymicum, by Jean Béguin, 1669.

Science History Institute/Douglas A. Lockard

Tara Nummedal. Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 256 pp. $37.50.

The story told at the outset of Tara Nummedal’s Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire is almost too fantastic to be true: more than 400 years ago, in an idyllic, affluent part of Germany, Duke Julius and Duchess Hedwig added an alchemist, one Philipp Sömmering, to their extensive staff. Hired as a skilled craftsman, he would not only transform base metals into gold but also use his expertise to make the duke’s mines more profitable. However, Sömmering had barely turned 35 when his engagement came to a dramatic conclusion: accused of theft, adultery, murder, sorcery, and other spectacular crimes, the alchemist and his helpers were sentenced to death, tortured, and quartered alive, and their bodies were displayed for all the public to see—a common punishment for early modern frauds and liars.

What was it like to be an alchemist in the German countries at the turn of the 17th century? How did one become an alchemist in the first place? How should we imagine life in a world where the transmutation of metals was possible, and an employment contract was as binding a legal document as it is now? Under what circumstances did some alchemists end up hanging from the gallows while their peers moved successfully from one royal benefactor to the next? What exactly was the difference between a merely unsuccessful alchemist and a fraudulent one, or between an alchemist and a smelter? Alchemy and Authority does for the history of alchemy what the literature on quacks has done for the history of medicine: it approaches the blurry boundaries that define an individual’s success or downfall in a profession and in society. By asking, reconsidering, and answering the questions posed here, Nummedal speaks to historians of alchemy and science as well as to anyone intrigued by history and the mechanisms of economic systems, power, and authority.

For the casual reader, it is much in Nummedal’s favor that her style is refreshingly concise and engaging. She is one of only a few academic authors who manage to confine and consistently pursue their argument in the short space of a couple hundred pages and yet manage to write beautiful, effortless prose. Nummedal’s summary of the history of alchemy in the West, which functions as a backdrop for her study, is one of the most engaging this reviewer has ever read. Altogether, Nummedal weaves a net of biographies, early modern literature on both honorable and fraudulent alchemists, and her own acute historical analysis, which will entrap even a casual reader.

Particularly noteworthy for chemically inclined readers of Alchemy and Authority, however, is its recurrent focus on chemical practices and their contexts. A rather useful list of early modern weights and measures and an immaculate index—including as many as 15 subcategories under the entry on mining—make the volume suitable for reference after an initial read. Yet the most enticing feature of Nummedal’s work is her use of source materials like the reading list on alchemy that Sömmering provided for his short-term student and soon-to-be executioner Duke Julius, a rare opportunity for modern readers to sit on the school bench beside an early modern layman. A little further on, the account of a bishop who tried to save the Catholic church by buying the alchemical secret from an alchemist provides us with an insight into the interactions between alchemy and religion and between commerce and power. In the case of contracts between alchemists and princes, the archaic prose and unique terms alone will lead the reader deeper into the mentality of alchemists and their customers than many a publication in the past has done. Where else would one find a combination of artisanal skill, economic arrangements, and divine goodwill, all wrapped into one legal document?

Another topic that has occupied historians, art historians, and archaeologists alike concerns the spaces in which alchemy was performed: the alchemical laboratories. Nummedal tackles this question with the help of inventory records and manuscript notes that document the conversion of existing spaces (like Duke Friedrich I’s summer house) into alchemical laboratories. The picture painted by the information in these documents is remarkably different from the well-known Dutch paintings of early modern alchemical laboratories: whereas such artwork shows the embellished, and sometimes cynical, social perception of alchemy, the more austere floor plans, engravings, and lists that Nummedal draws from place the alchemist back at the furnace, aided by his assistants and closely observed by his patron. As Nummedal emphasizes, alchemists were not only skilled craftsmen; they were above all entrepreneurs who required social skills, a recognizable and appealing persona, trustworthiness, and a competitive spirit in order to survive in their environment.

This brings us back to the original point of Alchemy and Authority: the powerful image of alchemists dangling from the gallows. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was slander that brought about Sömmering’s downfall. As any reader of Alchemy and Authority will notice, the correspondence between Duke Julius’s sister and his wife rivals any modern gossip magazine’s contents. The juicy details have been collected for all to savor in Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire.