This section is reserved for comments about the alchemical authors of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, which includes: 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 as well as several anonymous authors. While these notes are certainly not comprehensive they serve as a brief overview of some of the authors and their writings. Readers should consult the Bibliography for more details.
Continued from the front page: Of course Ashmole was no stranger to collecting as the museum which bears his name certainly exemplifies. His own collecting activities included personal finds as well as the acquisition of other large collections. Such collections included books, manuscripts, art, minerals, scientific equipment, numismatics, and the varia one finds among cabinets of curiosity. Indeed Ashmole’s collection is an early and archetypal example of such wunderkammern, especially as it includes much of the important Tradescant collection which came down to him. As regards the acquisition of manuscripts, one particular story is of note and involves one of the authors of the TCB; Doctor John Dee. Ashmole recounts the story of Mr. & Mrs. Wale who brought him several books and manuscripts in Dee’s own hand. The texts were discovered in the false bottom of a large chest and Thomas Wale, a warden of the Tower of London sought to put them in the hands of the famous antiquarian in exchange for a copy of Ashmole’s History of the Royal Order of the Garter, and as Tobias Churton says; “This was one of Ashmole’s better deals.”
One author Ashmole knew personally was William Backhouse, an English Rosicrucian who named the former as his son. Elias in turn called Backhouse his Father and some have suggested this is shown in the beautifully engraved plate by Robert Vaughan, where the Adept passes the book of secrets to the Son of Art [more about Vaughan in the section on Alchemical Art]. It is interesting to note that William Backhouse’s piece in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum; The Magistery, was subscribed in initials only. Perhaps Backhouse wished to be humble since his was the only contemporary inclusion.
Thomas Charnock plays an intriguing role in the history of English alchemists as his own account in his Breviary of Naturall Philosophy can attest. According to his testimony he was given the secret of the opus by a blind adept and he proceeded to execute the work in a special room where he kept his athanor. Unfortunately he was twice faced with his art being spoiled, once by a lazy assistant who failed to keep the regulated heat on the vessel and again later when he was conscripted into war. On the latter occasion Charnock angrily destroyed his work in progress with an axe. His secret alcove where the work was conducted was later discovered and details of its contents, including allegorical images he painted on the walls, were described in antiquarian correspondence. Very interesting details about Charnock may be found in the articles about him in Ambix [see the Bibliography]. In addition to his Breviary, other alchemical fragments of Charnock’s from manuscripts are compiled together in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.
Chaucer is sufficiently known that we can pass over him by simply mentioning that the theme of the Chanon Yeoman’s Tale is of course alchemical. A portrait of Chaucer completes the penultimate verses of his tale.
John Dee & Edward Kelley
John Dee was also a collector of manuscripts and was also involved in several alchemical transmutations throughout Europe with his less popular comrade Edward Kelley. As the story goes Dee and Kelley came into possession of a manuscript and a vial of red powder from an inn keeper who indicated that the provenance was that of the grave at Glastonbury Abbey. With this powder they were apparently able to effect the transmutation of base metals into gold during demonstrations for princes and emperors. Although the pair tried to make more of the powder, the unknown substance dwindled away before they could discover its secret. This did nothing to diminish Kelley’s alchemical writing as the pieces by him in the TCB demonstrate.
Like his friend Chaucer, the poet John Gower‘s reputation precedes him and his inclusion in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is certainly no mistake. Gower is the author of Mirroir de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis, while his 176 line poem in the TCB is Concerning the Philosophers Stone.
Another famous English poet, John Lydgate, wrote an astonishing 145,000 lines during his life at the monastery of Bury St. Edmund’s. His contribution to the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is the second epistle of Aristotle; Secreta Secretorum.
Thomas Norton has secured himself a place with his work entitled; Ordinal of Alchimie, for which the plates in the TCB were meant to illustrate. Michael Maier’s Latin translation of Norton’s Ordinal developed a well received reputation due to its appearance in his 1618 edition of Tripus Aureus. Without criticizing Maier’s translation ability, Ashmole did nonetheless thought that it was a shame that the first printed edition of the Ordinal to appear was not in its native language of English, hence its inclusion in the TCB.
George Ripley the Chanon of Bridlington
George Ripley‘s presence in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum is augmented by the number of his texts which appear therein. The proliferation of his works secured his name as an authority in alchemical literature. Ashmole selected several texts from Ripley’s pen; the Compound of Alchime, his Vision, his Preface to the Medulla and other Verses. Ripley has been attributed to several hand painted alchemical manuscripts known as ‘Ripley’s Scrowles‘ which depict the production of the philosophers stone. The rhymed verses scribed on these scrolls are provided in the text of the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum. Although Ripley has several chapters in the TCB, I will mention in passing his Compound of Alchemie or Twelve Gates by delineating their subject which are the several stages of the alchemical opus. To wit: calcination, solution, separation, conjunction, putrefaction, congelation, cibation, sublimation, fermentation, exaltation, multiplication and projection. Professor Emeritus Stanton Linden wrote an interesting article about the relationship between the Compound and the so-called Ripley Scrolls [see the Bibliography].
**[To Be Continued]**