Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652)

Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum — compiled and edited by antiquary extraordinaire Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) — is perhaps the seminal volume of English alchemical literature. Most significantly, it brings together a number of hermetic works previously only available in privately held manuscripts, including, as the subtitle has it, “severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language”. Among these famous English philosophers were John Gower, George Ripley, Thomas Norton, and Geoffrey Chaucer — whose alchemically themed “Tale of the Canans Yeoman” is excerpted from The Canterbury Tales.

By collecting these hard-to-find texts between covers, Ashmole first of all wanted to give a greater number of English readers a glimpse into the “Profound and Misterious” learning of the alchemists — who were not all, it should be said, completely benighted pseudoscientists. Some of them accidentally made discoveries about interactions between chemical compounds in their quest to transmute base metals into precious ones. And many, like Chaucer (whose alchemist ended up with lead poisoning), were more interested in transmutation as a metaphor for the elevation of the human soul than in striking it rich by means of hocus pocus.

It was also Ashmole’s intention, in publishing Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, to repair some of the damage done by the Dissolution of Monasteries during the 1530s — when many books were destroyed simply because they contained red letters or a mathematical diagram. These things alone were then considered “sufficient”, as Ashmole writes in his preface, “to intitle the Booke to be Popish or Diabolicall”.

Even at the time it was published — the year after Charles II had been dethroned by Cromwell — Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum was not only arcane but antique. Ashmole anticipated mockery and skepticism on the part of many of his contemporaries, saying he did not

expect that all my Readers should come with an Engagement, to believe what I here write, or that there was ever any such thing in rerum natura as what we call A Philosophers Stone, nor will I perswade them to it, (though I must tell them I have not the vanity to publish these Sacred and Serious Mysteries and Arcana, as Romances)

As for Ashmole’s own belief or disbelief in alchemy? He said only: “I must professe I know enough to hold my Tongue, but not enough to Speake.”

With all their talk of Elixirs of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone and magic mirrors, the texts of Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum remain fascinating. But it’s the illustrations that really steal the show. The circular diagram “conveying all the secrets of” George Ripley’s “The Compound of Alchimie”, the images of monks and dragons, butterflies and dogs, ibises and angels — all of these testify to the rich imagery of the late medieval and early modern eras even as they point to the hunger for transformative knowledge that would lead (following many twists and turns) to the discoveries of such thinkers as Isaac Newton and the experimental methods of modern science. (In fact, a typed note inserted in the scanned copy above tells us that Newton's copy of Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, bought in 1669 for £1.80 and subsequently covered with annotations, was one of his "favorite books".)

You can page through Ashmole’s book above — and browse some of its most memorable images below. For more illustrations from the history of the alchemical tradition see our dedicated post here.

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