Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum

Documenting the Ouroboros Press TCB Project – **Under Construction**

A Treasure House of English Alchemical Poetry

**[NOTE: This site is continually Under Construction as it is a work in progress. Text and images will continue to be added when appropriate. – WJK]**

Welcome! Work is under way at Ouroboros Press in the substantial effort of publishing a corrected edition of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.

Here one will find an introduction to the text, its authors, manuscript sources and its compiler Elias Ashmole. In addition, to the foregoing,  art, book design and typographical elements will also be discussed.

Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum Title-Page

The Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is a collection of English alchemical verse compiled by the seventeenth century antiquarian Elias Ashmole and is comprised of both recognized and anonymous English alchemical authors. Ashmole himself was quite an accomplished individual, a historian, founder of the Royal Society and benefactor to the University of Oxford where the Ashmolean [the first public museum in the British Isles] was formed at his bequeath. Many of the texts in the TCB were unavailable to the public as they were beyond reach within rare manuscripts in private hands. The seventeenth century saw other collections of medieval alchemical texts, perhaps the best known among them was Lazarus Zetzner’s Theatrum Chemicum, from which Ashmole’s TCB may have taken its name. Elias Ashmole’s fame as an antiquarian gave him opportunity to collate these diverse examples of English alchemical verse. In the Prolegomena of his TCB, Ashmole acknowledged the popularity of alchemical literature and noted that much of it was translated from other tongues while at the same time bemoaning the lack of available material by English alchemists. Being the Royalist that he was, Elias Ashmole had great pride in his country and wished to showcase the writing of English alchemists for posterity. But his passion for the ‘Hermetique Sciences’ was by no means subjugated to this, indeed he is self-styled ‘Mercuriophilus Anglicus’ in three of his publications. His coat-of-arms was crowned by the deific Mercurius and flanked by his twin-sign Gemini. These signs may also be seen on the Fairthorne portrait of Ashmole [depicted with more details about Ashmole in the Alchemical Authors section].


Ashmole’s pride in English literature is amplified by the consideration He gave to the project. In deciding which texts should be included in the book he details ancient British examples [including accounts of the Druids and the Bardic Tradition] and explains that poesy is much better than mere verse:

“. . . Poesy has a Life, a Pulse, and such a secret Energy, as leaves in the Minde, a far deeper Impression,

then what runs in the slow and evenlesse Numbers of Prose: whereby it won so much upon the World,

That in Rude Times, and even amongst Barbarous Nations, when other sorts of Learning stood excluded,

there was nothing more in Estimation.”

Armed with the poetic approach Ashmole faced the task of gathering the appropriate English authors of such verse. In this he had much to his advantage in the well known names in the alchemical corpus among who we find; Thomas Norton, George Ripley, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Daston, Pearce the Black Monke, Richard Carpenter, Abraham Andrews, Thomas Charnock, William Bloomefield, Edward Kelley, John Dee, Thomas Robinson, William Backhouse, John Gower, John Lydgate, W. Redman and several anonymous authors. This who’s who of English alchemists supports Ashmole’s thesis that England may be proud of its alchemical literary heritage. Indeed some of these authors are giants even by today’s literary standards and a few are well known enough to warrant historical works around their activities.

While covering the likes of each of these authors would be fascinating, it is beyond the scope of this site to visit all of them in detail. Nonetheless I will mention a few here in order to give context to the material presented in the TCB. To see remarks about the authors visit the section on Alchemical Authors.


Written by Ouroboros Press

May 12, 2011 at 1:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized