Anthony Grafton and William R. Newman, eds. Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe; & Pierre Jean Fabre. L'alchimiste chretien: traduction anonyme inedite du XVIIIe siecle avec le fac-simile de l'edition latine originale.
Boston: The MIT Press, 2001. 520 pp. $50. ISBN: 0-262-14075-6.
Pierre Jean Fabre. L'alchimiste chretien: traduction anonyme inedite du XVIII (e) siecle avec le fac-simile de l'edition latine originale.
Ed. Frank Greiner. Paris: Societe d'Etude de l'Histoire de l'Alchimie, 2001. Pbk. cxx + 345 pp. index, tbls. bibl. 50.12 [euro]. ISBN: 88-7252-203-X.
Historians have seriously studied the occult sciences since the 1960s when Frances A. Yates, D. P. Walker, and other specialists established their importance in Renaissance thought and culture and provoked countless others to examine enterprises once considered marginal, indeed antithetical,
to the development of modern philosophy and science. The books under review exemplify the considerable progress made in understanding two of the occult sciences, astrology and alchemy, as coherent sets of beliefs and rational guides to dealing with the practical problems early modern Europeans faced.
Newman and Grafton have edited a collection of eight essays by both established and emerging scholars, including their own erudite and engaging introduction to the place of astrology and alchemy in premodern Europe. They have organized the book around the effort to understand whether astrology and alchemy had a "privileged and integral relationship that distinguished them from other fields" (15). In a brief historical survey of the relationship, they show that Renaissance Neoplatonists, notably Marsilio Ficino and Agrippa yon Nettesheim, provided a basis for the integration of astrology and alchemy, distinct disciplines in the Middle Ages. They conclude, however, that the relationship is "problematic" for the two disciplines diverge as often as they intersect, as the volume's remaining essays testify.
Modern scholarship has established the use made of astrology and alchemy by several heroes of modern science, including Isaac Newton. Darrell Rutkin's study of Johann Kepler's dedication to his Astronomia nova of 1609 shows that Kepler used astrological motifs prior to Galileo's use of them in his Sidereus nuncius of 1610 and that Galileo may have borrowed from Kepler. Significantly, both scientific giants associated their astronomical discoveries with their patrons' astrological horoscopes, testifying to the close association of the two disciplines. The editors contend that early modern astrology was not "a fatty blockage of the intellectual arteries" (5) but a practical intellectual tool and several essays strongly support this conclusion. Two are devoted to the prominent astrologer and physician Girolamo Cardano. Germana Ernst examines Cardano's discovery of Ptolemy's Quadripartitum and his efforts to restore the purity of astrology through a return to its Ptolemaic foundations. She makes a strong case that Cardano's astrology was one tool in his broader intellectual and personal quest "to rationalize what was disorderly and unpredictable" (62).
Astrology was closely related to another predictive art, medicine, and Anthony Grafton and Nancy Siraisi explore this relationship in Cardano's practice and writings. They conclude that the prolific writer's view of medical astrology was "complex and puzzling" (110) and that he made only limited use of it. By contrast, as Lauren Kassell demonstrates, the English astrologer and magus Simon Forman fused astrology, practical alchemy, Hermetic magic, and medicine into an amalgam that fostered his success as a physician and purveyor of occult remedies in Elizabethan London. Two such contrasting intellectual profiles suggest that generalizations about the relationship of medicine and astrology, and medicine and alchemy, bear reexamination.
The ideas of the Elizabethan mathematician and magus John Dee, the author of the abstruse and influential Monas hieroglyphica, represent a point of convergence between alchemy and astrology. As Nicholas Clulee shows, Dee's influence was grounded in his development of Johannes Trithemius' concept of alchemy as a terrestrial astrology or astronomia inferior and his transmission of that concept to others. His analysis of a text attributed to Philipp a Gabella and published with the Rosicrucian manifestos of 1615 both demonstrates Dee's influence and challenges Frances Yates' claim that the Englishman had inspired the Rosicrucian movement. He argues that there is little evidence that Dee was connected with Gabella or the inspiration of a Rosicrucian "mentality" and that Gabella showed little interest in the central Rosicrucian themes.
The Rosicrucian movement is also the subject of Didier Kahn's exemplary study of the posting of Rosicrucian placards in Paris in 1623. Kahn identifies the origins of the broadsheets in an adolescent prank that took place in the highly charged context of growing anti-Paracelsianism. The result was an intense popular reaction in Paris that some, like Gabriel Naude, feared would lead to religious riots. As Kahn ably shows, the Rosicrucian hoax caused repercussions until the end of the eighteenth century and led to myths, including the belief that Mersenne and Descartes were Rosicrucians, that only now are being discredited through modern scholarship.
The final essay, by Lawrence Principe and William Newman, is a critical analysis of the historiography of alchemy from the eighteenth century to the present that every student of Renaissance occult traditions should read. The authors show how nineteenth-century occultism has shaped modern interpretations of alchemy, including twentieth-century psychological and anthropological views. The result has been a "spiritualizing" of alchemy that has radically separated it from chemistry and an uncritical adoption of interpretations that are fundamentally ahistorical and inappropriate.
Principe and Newman distinguish between nineteenth-century esotericism and the close relationship between alchemy and religious and spiritual literature that developed in early modern Europe. They argue that the relationship between religion and alchemy was complex. Authors of religious and devotional literature such as St. Francis de Sales, as well as secular writers and poets, made use of alchemical terms and imagery and even found that their study of alchemy enhanced their understanding of the Christian faith. Others used religious truth as an aid in their alchemical practice. They stress, however, the rhetorical and didactic uses of alchemy and caution against an interpretation that sees it as a quest for spiritual elevation through esoteric illumination.
Principe and Newman cite Pierre Jean Fabre's Alchymista christianus of 1632 as an example of the use of alchemy to explain Christian mysteries. A facsimile of the original has now been published together with L'alchimiste chretien, an anonymous eighteenth-century translation of the original Latin text, edited by Frank Greiner. In addition to his copious notes, Greiner has provided an extensive introduction that situates the author and the work in its intellectual and historical contexts and outlines Fabre's main themes.
Fabre (ca. 1588-1658) was a physician, a Paracelsian, and the author of a treatise on the plague and several works of alchemy, spagyric medicine, and Hermetic philosophy. According to Greiner, he probably conceived of the Alchyrnista in the early 1620s, a period of religious and intellectual turmoil characterized by renewed attacks on French Calvinists and by the fierce intellectual debates that Kahn so ably analyzes in his essay on the Rosicrucian hoax. The Alchymista became a means through which Fabre both defended alchemy and used it to explain and support orthodox Catholic doctrine. Influenced by Raymond Sebond's Theologia naturalis, Fabre argues that alchemy enables one to understand the laws of nature and, through them, their creator. Moreover, alchemy is an aid to an understanding of the mysteries of the Christian faith and a guide to self-knowledge.
For example, Fabre's comparison of the seven alchemical operations of calcination, distillation, dissolution, putrefaction, sublimation, coagulation, and fixation to the Catholic Church's seven sacraments exemplifies his use of alchemical processes and language to illustrate the mysteries of each sacrament while adhering strictly to orthodox teaching. In his discussion of the Eucharist, alchemy becomes an additional weapon in the Counter Reformation struggle against Calvinist doctrine. Yet Fabre dearly views alchemy as a practical art; it is a key to good health and riches as well as spiritual knowledge--a natural philosophy rather than an esoteric art.
While Secrets of Nature does not definitively answer the question it poses about the relationships of astrology and alchemy, it does make clear their complexity. One has only to consider the works of the physicians Cardano, Forman, and Fabre to appreciate the many interests embraced by early modern astrologers and alchemists. Fabre's text will enable a much larger audience to appreciate the ordinariness of many astrologers and alchemists as they sought, like their modern counterparts, to understand themselves and their society using the intellectual tools of their age. Both books will be a welcome addition to the libraries of serious students of early modern Europe an intellectual and cultural history.
California State University, Bakersfield
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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