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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

An Alchemical Reading List

Recently I have been asked to devise a reading list on alchemy for a dear chum. As it's been some time since I read anything on alchemy (other ventures beckoned), I wasn't entirely sure where to begin. So, in my experience, you begin at the beginning.

During my BA I was exceptionally fortunate to have studied the relationships between alchemy and early modern culture at Birkbeck, under the tutelage of the renowned Dr Stephen Clucas (reader in Early Modern Intellectual History), and Dr Peter Forshaw (Honorary Research Fellow).

Frankly, what they don't know between them about early modern science, magic, alchemy, astrology, Ficino, Boyle, the early modern occult, and Cabala could probably be written on an A4 sheet! I'm constantly amazed, looking back at the reading list, that I got through it at all.

It was their sheer enthuisism, knowledge and dedication that in part convinced me to take the MA in Renaissance Studies.  The Early Modern period is a fascinating period in the explosion of intellectual knowledge in mainland Europe, both through the study of newly translated classical texts, and contemporary research.

The following reading list is the one devised by Dr Clucas for his Magic, Science and Religion in the Renaissance course, which can be taken at Birkbeck.  Now.  It's not going to be easy, but you don't have to reading them in the timescales in which we did during the course.  I have deliberately left them in their unit order, as this structure offers the reader the most accessible order of knowledge, but naturally if specific areas are not of interest - leave them out.  However, a true Renaissance student is interested in the broadest range of knowledge, and takes an inter-disciplinary approach to research.

Of course you would gain much more insight by taking the course for yourselves, and details of the courses available and Stephen's pages, are available here:

As for my dear chum, I hope you don't think I've copped out, but this is the perfect list if you really want to get a thorough background. x 

Magic, Science and Religion in the Renaissance 
This module investigates the relations between some of the major intellectual currents in Early Modern Europe, the complex interplay between its various kinds of magic, science and religion. The course calls into question conventional forms of historiography that contrast a benighted illicit magic to either a pious religiosity or enlightened science and helps the student develop a familiarity with the theories and practices of those engaged in what has been called ―the Other Side of the Scientific Revolution. 

The course considers the boundaries of acceptable knowledge and the particular communicability of its forms in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. Discussing the works of significant early modern thinkers (including Agrippa, Bacon, Browne, Copernicus, Dee, Della Porta, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Paracelsus, and Reuchlin), it will look at the interaction between magical, religious, and humanist discourse, the relations between "occult" and "scientific" forms of knowledge and natural and supernatural forms of experience and agency. By the end of the course the student will have considered such "occult" subjects as astrology, alchemy, cabala, natural and ceremonial magic, as well as works traditionally associated with the Scientific Revolution (such as Copernicus‘s De revolutionibus and Kepler‘s De Harmonia Mundi) in the context of contemporary religious belief.

Historiographical Debates: The Occult and the Scientific
Key Texts: Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Renaissance Magic and Science‘, pp. 144–56 and extracts from Brian Vickers, Occult and Scientific Mentalities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 198, Introduction‘, pp. 1–54.
Background Reading: Brian Copenhaver, Natural magic, Hermetism and Occultism in early modern science‘, in David C. Lindberg and Robert Westman (eds) Reappraisals of the Scientific revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 261–30

Magic and Religion I: Magic as Sacrament
Key Texts: Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book 1, Chapter 2, pp.5-6; Book 3, Chapters 1-9; Pseudo-Pelagius‘s De arte crucifixi, and Pseudo-Solomon, Liber virtutis and Ars Almadel Salomonis, Albertus Magnus, Speculum Astronomiae, cap. XI (Zambelli ed., pp. 241–51.
42Background Reading: Frank Klaasen,  ̳English Manuscripts of Magic, 1300–1500: A Preliminary Survey‘, in Claire Fanger (ed.) Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of mediaeval Ritual Magic (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998), pp. 3–31; Charles Burnett,  ̳Talismans: Magic as Science? Necromancy among the Seven Liberal Arts‘, in Magic and Divination in the Middle Ages: Texts and techniques in the Islamic and Christan Worlds (Aldershot: Ashgate-Variorum, 1996), item 1.

Magic and Religion II: Magic as Impiety 
Key Texts: Extracts from Johann Weyer‘s De praestigiis daemonum and Martin del Rio, Inquistiones magicae.
Background Reading: D. P. Walker,  ̳Ficino‘s magic in the sixteenth century II: Condemnations‘, in Spiritual and Demonic Magic: from Ficino to Campanella (London: Warburg Institute, 1958, repr. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2000), pp. 145–85, Charles Zika,  ̳Reuchlin‘s De verbo mirifico and the magic debate of the late fifteenth century‘, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 39 (1976), 105– 138.

Learned Renaissance Magic I: Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Extracts from Giovanni Pico della Mirandola‘s 900 Theses, trans. Steven A. Farmer, Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 Theses (1486) (Tempe, Arizona: MRTS, 1998) and De dignitate hominis (On the Dignity of Man).
Background Reading: Steven A. Farmer, Syncretism in the West: Pico’s 900 Theses (1486) (Tempe, Arizona: MRTS, 1998),  ̳Pico and the Syncretic Origins of Renaissance Magic: Further problems in the Yates Thesis‘, pp. 115-132; Brian Copenhaver,  ̳Number, Shape and meaning in Pico‘s Christian Cabala‘ in Anthony Grafton and Nancy Sirasi (eds.), Natural particulars: nature and the disciplines in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999), pp. 25–76; Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition,  ̳Pico della Mirandola and Cabalist magic‘, pp. 84–116.

Learned Renaissance Magic II: Marsilio Ficino 
Key texts: Marsilio Ficino, De vita libris tres, Bk III: De vita coelitus comparanda.
Background Reading: Introduction to Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark, trans. Marsilio Ficino. Three books on life (Tempe, Arizona: MRTS, 1998), pp. 45–70; D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, pp. 3–54; Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, pp. 62–116.

Mediaeval „Magic‟ to Renaissance „Science‟: Radiation Theory
Key Text: Translated extracts from Al-Kindi, De radiis siue theorica magica [handout]; Robert Grosseteste‘s De lineis angulis et figures, trans. in Edward Grant, A Sourcebook in Mediaeval Science (Cambridge Mass., 1974), pp. 385–88; John Dee, Propaedeumata aphoristica (London, 1568).
Background reading: Nicholas Clulee, John Dee’s Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion ,(London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 39–73; Stephen Clucas,  ̳Corpuscular Matter Theory in the Northumberland Circle‘, in Christoph L├╝thy, John E. Murdoch and William R. Newman (eds.), Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 181–207.

Science and Humanism I: the Copernican “Revolution” 
Key Text: Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus, Preface and Book I.
Background Reading: Robert S. Westman,  ̳Proof, poetics and patronage: Copernicus‘s preface to De revolutionibus‘ in Westman and Lindberg, Reappraisals, pp. 167–205; Hans Blumenberg, The genesis of the Copernican world, chapters 4–6, pp. 200–255.

Science and Humanism II: Renaissance Natural History
Key texts: Extracts from Albertus Magnus‘s Liber secretorum, Giovanni Battista della Porta‘s Magiae Naturalis, Conrad Gesner, Historia Animalium (1580), Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646) and The Garden of Cyrus.
Background reading: William B. Ashworth,  ̳Natural History and the Emblematic Worldview‘ in Lindberg and Westman, Reappraisals, pp. 303–332, Barbara Shapiro,  ̳History and natural history in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England: an essay on the relationship between humanism and science‘, in English Scientific Virtuosi in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Papers read at a Clark Library Seminar, 5 February 1977 by Barbara Shapiro and Robert G. Frank, Jr. (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, 1979), pp. 1–55.

Experiment in the Renaissance I: Experiment and Experience
Key Texts: Extracts from Francis Bacon, Sylva sylvarum, William Gilbert, De magnete, Giovanni-Battista della Porta, Magiae Naturalis, sive de miraculis rerum naturalium libri IIII (1558), trans. Natural Magick ... in twenty bookes (London, 1658), and experimental MSS by Thomas Harriot and Walter Warner.
Background Reading: Nicholas Clulee, John Dee’s Natural Philosophy, pp. 171–4; Peter Dear,  ̳Narratives, Anecdotes and Experiments, in Peter Dear (ed.) The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), pp. 135–63, and idem,  ̳Jesuit Mathematical Science and the Reconstitution of Experience in the early seventeenth century‘, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 2 (1987), pp. 133–75

Experiment in the Renaissance II: Alchemy – Symbolic Discourse and Laboratory Practice
Key Texts: Eirenaeus Philalethes, An Exposition upon sir George Ripley’s Vision; Extracts from Lambsprinck, De Lapide Philosophico, George Ripley‘s Compound of Alchemy, and Elias Ashmole‘s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.
Background reading: Lawrence Principe and William R. Newman,  ̳Some problems with the Historiography of Alchemy‘, in William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton (eds.) Secrets of nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2001), 385–431, and  ̳Alchemy vs Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake‘, Early Science and Medicine, 3 (1998), 32–65. Stephen Clucas,  ̳Thomas Harriot and the field of knowledge in the English Renaissance‘, in Robert Fox (ed.) Thomas Harriot: An Elizabethan Man of Science (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 93–126 (120–26).


  1. What an informative reading list ! I think i had the pleasure of hearing the tutors you name delivering papers at Birbeck in 2006. Only one crucial recommendation to make as primary material, skip Browne's Pseudodoxia it's very long. An utterly phantasmagorical insight into the alchemical imagination in operation can be gained by reading Browne's 'The Garden of Cyrus' (1658) it really is the finest English literary portrait of a Hermetic philosopher's stream-of-consciousness imagination

  2. Thanks for the additional text - that's very useful :0)

  3. I'm jealous of the opportunity to study with Clucas and Forshaw. Great scholars, and nice guys--they were kind enough to party with me after the philly alchemy conference years back.

  4. I have to say, trying to keep up with Stephen is sometimes like wading through treacle whilst he's sprinting through quicksilver :0) I'm amazed I got through the reading at all!