Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire

Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire

Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire

Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire

Synopsis

What distinguished the true alchemist from the fraud? This question animated the lives and labors of the common men- and occasionally women- who made a living as alchemists in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire. As purveyors of practical techniques, inventions, and cures, these entrepreneurs were prized by princely patrons, who relied upon alchemists to bolster their political fortunes. At the same time, satirists, artists, and other commentators used the figure of the alchemist as a symbol for Europe's social and economic ills.
Drawing on criminal trial records, contracts, laboratory inventories, satires, and vernacular alchemical treatises, Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire situates the everyday alchemists, largely invisible to modern scholars until now, at the center of the development of early modern science and commerce. Reconstructing the workaday world of entrepreneurial alchemists, Tara Nummedal shows how allegations of fraud shaped their practices and prospects. These debates not only reveal enormously diverse understandings of what the "real" alchemy was and who could practice it; they also connect a set of little-known practitioners to the largest questions about commerce, trust, and intellectual authority in early modern Europe.

Excerpt

Philipp Sömmering had much to offer Duke Julius of BraunschweigWolfenbüttel when he arrived at this northern German court in 1571. Like numerous other alchemists circulating among the cities and princely courts of the Holy Roman Empire, Sömmering claimed to know how to transmute base metals into silver and gold. the inventions and cures he had to offer, however, extended far beyond this core alchemical skill. Sömmering's ideas about improving productivity in the local mines certainly impressed Duke Julius, who took a keen interest in the metal and salt mines in his territories. the alchemist's design for a gun barrel that promised to shoot bullets absolutely straight was equally intriguing, as was his potential as a religious adviser. As a former pastor who claimed to be trained by Luther's close friend Melanchthon, the alchemist was well qualified to guide Duke Julius through the implementation of the Reformation in his formerly Catholic territories. Like other typical patrons of alchemy, Duke Julius appreciated the combination of intellectual, religious, medicinal, technical, and economic skills that alchemists had to offer and gladly welcomed Sömmering and his assistants to the Wolfenbüttel court.

When Sömmering arrived in Wolfenbüttel, he negotiated a formal employment contract with his patron. the alchemist vowed to produce one loth (or 14.62 g) of a tincture for transmuting metals within a fixed period of time in exchange for the tidy sum of two thousand thaler. Sömmering promised to return Duke Julius's money should he fail. For his part, the duke gave Sömmering his advance as well as ten ells of English cloth, one . . .

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