Epistemic Change: Stages of Early Modern Alchemy

Posthumously edited portrait of the chemist Johann Baptist van
Helmont (copperplate engraving by Johann Alexander Boener)
with a long-necked vial – instead of a book – and coats of arms.
The epigram focuses on medicine and the theory of nature.
Frontispiece from: Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst,
Nürnberg/Sulzbach 1683, shelf mark: Wa 2° 98.

This project will result in a monograph on the history of knowledge of early modern alchemy. Whilst the long history of alchemy is investigated in numerous studies, there is still a need to analyse the different stages and dynamics of early modern alchemy. The project will argue that academic ambitions were crucial for changes in early modern alchemy. Certain alchemists noticed that alchemy’s acceptance and recognition was hindered above all by its magical content but also by its technical and empirical practices. They therefore attempted changes which profoundly modified the characteristically close relationship of theory and practice, as well as spirituality and technology.

The alchemical rare books of the Herzog August Library are particularly suitable for research into these changes. The holdings of about 1900 alchemical rare books are representative of early modern alchemy. They were catalogued as their own subject area and were comprehensively analysed in a project of the German Research Foundation (2014-2017), which gave particular consideration to terms, people, writing genres and images. The proposed research project will be based on the cataloguing project. It will systematically analyse about 90 sources by focusing on five aspects: 1) the conceptions which alchemists had of themselves as well as of their fellow alchemists; 2) the practices of authorisation by authors, editors and printers; 3) the changes in writing genres; 4) the use of diagrams for terms and functional processes and 5) the use of alchemical and magical symbols. Aim of the project is thus to structure the history of knowledge of early modern alchemy by the methodological means of social history, conceptual history, discourse analysis and the history of media.

 


Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) – „Eigene Stelle“
Duration: May 2017 – April 2020
Researcher: PD Dr. Ute Frietsch
Phone: +49(0)5331-808-115, Fax -173