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Issue 498, 5 May 2004
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Revealing the hopes and fears of Yorkshire's alchemists

Page from an alchemy pamphletThree centuries ago alchemy was commonly practised by the educated townsfolk of Yorkshire. The pamphlets they bought reveal fears of a changing world and attempts to transform common elements into valuable substances. Urszula Szulakowska aims to find out what they believed and what they got up to in their laboratories.

The Brotherton library holds more than 300 alchemy books and pamphlets from 17th century Yorkshire. Dr Szulakowska of fine art – who is researching a book based on the documents – believes that though many of their practices and beliefs appear strange, there is much that is familiar to us today.

Alchemy in popular belief is the practice of turning base metals, such as lead, into gold, but in reality it was a far wider set of practices said Dr Szulakowska. She defines it as the art of turning ‘prime matter’, which can be material or spiritual, into higher forms. The documents reflect those concerns, with chemical, medical, spiritual and political themes evident.

Dr Szulakowska said: “The books and pamphlets are from a particularly rich period of elaborate alchemical illustration around the time of the Protestant reformation. They have a lot of religious iconography and reflect a surge in visionary experiences at the time. It was the beginning of religion without the need for a church and a more personal form of spirituality.”

“This period was an apocalyptic one, very much like now,” said Dr Szulakowska (pictured).

“There was a heightened fear of Islam and widespread belief that the end of the world was near – reports of stars falling or of two or three suns in the sky were commonplace.

“It reflects the changing economic circumstances of the time, with the rise of capitalism and nation states, and people’s insecurities being manifested in alchemical discourse, witchcraft and personalised spirituality.”

Yorkshire was a very important area for alchemical beliefs in England, with the Rotterdam-Hull sea route providing a conduit between German producers of the literature and consumers among the townspeople and gentry of the north and north east.

Her research aims to find out exactly who bought alchemical pamphlets, how they were used and what they mean in the context of the increased religious and social turmoil of the time. Scholars of English literature, medicine and chemistry have studied Renaissance alchemy, but Dr Szulakowska will be a pioneer among art historians in Britain in attempting to make sense of the visual imagery used.

For the literate and educated people who bought the pamhlets they gave guidance on scientific and medical matters which they practised in their homes and workshops.

There are instructions for transforming substances, and often primitive computers in the form of tables and diagrams that could be used to divine the base matters needed to gain higher substances.

Examples include treating poisonous substances such as arsenic and antimony in an effort to remove their toxicity. By kneading, heating, cooling and treating with acids and alkalis it was believed that these poisonous substances could be turned into powerful medicines.

While much of the guidance given by the pamphlets is laughable by the standards of modern chemistry many of the things alchemists attempted foreshadowed real scientific advances.

Also evident is the way scientific and spiritual beliefs were combined in alchemy. Glass making achieved new levels of expertise during this period and it became possible to grind high resolution lenses. At the same time there was a belief that light could play a part in the transformation of things so, for example, it was thought that using a lens to shine light from stars or the sun would bring that heavenly body’s qualities to bear on a substance.

Dr Szulakowska said: “There was a belief that the universe was a single whole, of which humans were a part. This meant that you could draw virtues from the heavens and use them to create medicines and other substances.”

With Mars missions today attempting to bring scientific benefits from the heavens to Earth perhaps the beliefs of the alchemists seem less strange than they first look.

 

Page owner: pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk | Updated: 10/5/04
 
 
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