Practical Alchemy in the Renaissance

In 1535, the German printer Christian Egenolff, who had recently set up shop in Frankfurt, published a 45-page booklet titled Kunstbüchlein (Little Book of Skills). This rough little pamphlet, cheaply printed on coarse paper just in time to be offered for sale at the Frankfurt Book Fair that year, would hardly seem a likely candidate to spark a revolution. But, in many ways, it did just that: Not a scientific revolution, but a revolution in how people thought about a science that had long been regarded—for good reason—with suspicion and distrust.

When we think of alchemy, we usually associate the word with an esoteric, quasi-mystical but deluded search for deep secrets; or, alternatively, with fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes. Of course, both were part of the world of Renaissance alchemy—which explains why Pope John XXII issued a papal bull in 1317 condemning the art. But alchemy was just as likely to have had a strictly practical, utilitarian orientation. And that is the course steered by Egenolff’s little booklet

Egenolff created his booklet by combining four previously-published tracts: Rechter Gebrauch d’Alchimei (The Proper Use of Alchemy), a booklet of metallurgical techniques; Artliche Kunst (Pretty Skills), containing recipes for artists’ ink and paint; Von Stahel und Eysen (On Steel and Iron), a manual describing techniques for hardening and tempering steel and iron; and Allerley Mackel und Flecken…aus zubringen (How to Remove Spots and Stains), a booklet on dyeing and cleaning fabrics.

All four of these tracts had been published in 1531-1532 as individual manuals by different German printers. It was Egenolff who got the bright idea of combining them to make a comprehensive all-purpose manual of household and industrial technology.

Egenolff himself had published an edition of Rechter Gebrauch d’Alchimei (The Proper Use of Alchemy). What did he mean by the “proper use” of alchemy? The subtitle of the work tells part of the story, describing the work as “Containing many previously hidden, useful and pleasant arts, not just for the delight of alchemists but also for all skilled workmen.” The vignette of a jeweler’s workshop on the title page is even more telling: Egenolff intended to teach alchemical skills and techniques that might be useful for any “artistic craftsman.”

Egenolff made every effort to demystify alchemy, even including a glossary of alchemical symbols and terms. Driving home the distinction between the “proper use of alchemy” and abuse of the art, Egenolff concluded the work with a doggerel verse, warning,

Eight things follow alchemy:
Smoke, ash, many words, and infidelity,
Deep sighing and toilsome work,
Undue poverty and indigence.
If from all this you want to be free,
Watch out for Alchemy.

By “purifying” alchemy, purging it of its metaphysical elements and its potentially fraudulent tendencies, Egenolff hoped to instruct artisans in alchemy’s legitimate uses.

Egenolff’s little “skills booklet” caught on in popular culture. The work was reprinted, excerpted, and translated into Dutch, English, and Italian, and its technical recipes turned up in countless books of secrets of the day. Aspiring craftsmen learned new trade skills from the work, while ordinary readers learned trade secrets that were formerly mysteries. Technical recipe books like Egenolff’s Kunstbüchlein translated craft secrets into simple rules and procedures, and replaced the artisan’s cunning with the technologist’s know-how.

Cornelis Bega, "The Alchemist" (1663) Getty Museum

Ironically, the demystification of alchemy that followed the outpouring of alchemical recipe booklets also contributed to a widespread debunking of the figure of the alchemist. In the Dutch painter Cornelis Bega’s picture, “The Alchemist”—typical of the genre paintings of the day—the alchemist is portrayed not as a learned sage but as an unkempt fool wasting his time and money chasing after futile pursuits such as the Philosopher’s Stone.

Meanwhile, the practical alchemy of the jeweler’s workshop and the assayer’s laboratory continued to provide employment and wealth to the growing middle class. And printers such as Christian Egenolff, through their humble recipe books teaching the “proper use of alchemy,” contributed to the growing awareness that humanity’s lot could be bettered not by magic or cunning, but simply by knowing “how to.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bruce Moran, Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Harvard, 2005)

William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, 1994)

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