Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Jennifer M. Rampling's "The Experimental Fire"

Jennifer M. Rampling is associate professor of history at Princeton University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700, and reported the following:
The test checks out. Page 99 is the last page of chapter two of my book, which summarizes the argument and closes with a bit of foreshadowing of where my story will go. I’ve just spent the chapter outlining a new approach to alchemy in fifteenth-century England, which often appears in the context of patronage. “Sericonian alchemy” is a practice that uses base metals (disguised using the cover name “sericon”) as the prime matter of the alchemical work. It was popularized by George Ripley, an Augustinian canon fallen on hard times who tried to win the favor of an ecclesiastical patron, the Archbishop of York.

Ripley highlighted two advantages of his approach: it’s easily affordable, thanks to its inexpensive ingredients, and it’s multifunctional—sericon is the chief ingredient of the “vegetable stone,” allegedly a powerful medicinal remedy that, when suitably prepared, also transmutes base metals into gold (chrysopoeia). Interest in this profitable substance did not end with Ripley:
Sericonian alchemy would continue to shape English alchemical discourse well into the seventeenth century. By the 1650s, a readerly preference for the transmutational goals of Ripley’s Compound would gradually divert attention from the multipurpose practice outlined in the Medulla, which prized the medicinal vegetable stone above the mineral work. Yet the robustness of Ripley’s alchemy lay not just in its success as a practical rendering of the prestigious pseudo-Lullian corpus, but also in its adaptability to new interpretations based on differing circumstances. By reading “sericon” not only as red lead, but as any one of a variety of leaden compounds—or as a different metal entirely, or even as a nonmetallic ingredient such as tartar—Ripley’s own commentators could substitute new ingredients while still producing interesting chemical outcomes, often with chrysopoeian goals. They could also do so affordably. At once philosophically intelligible, morally unimpeachable, and practically efficacious, Ripley’s vegetable stone would become the constant, yet ever-varying, refrain of English alchemy.
As the spoiler on page 99 reveals, sericonian alchemy became very popular in early modern England—it features in nearly all the alchemical patronage suits addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, for instance. The problem for readers, though, was that “sericon” could be interpreted in many ways. Ripley probably intended a mixture of red lead and copper, but later practitioners substituted other ingredients in their quest for convincing practical results. Throughout the book, I map how this mingling of experimentation and close textual reading gave rise to new kinds of chemistry, while retaining the authority of medieval adepts like Ripley. Sadly, the designated page doesn’t have much to say much about these individual readers, or about the diverse settings in which they worked. And you’ll just have to take it on trust that “pseudo-Lullian” alchemy gets covered in chapter one. Still, if you want a snapshot of my argument, you could do worse than turn to page 99.
Learn more about The Experimental Fire at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue