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Alchemy as 'practical exegesis' in early-modern England

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Alchemy had many goals, from the transmutation of metals to the creation of the ‘vegetable stone’: a powerful medicinal elixir capable of healing bodies, restoring youth, and prolonging life. In the late fifteenth century, English practitioners began to describe a mysterious substance, ‘sericon’, used in the manufacture of the vegetable stone. Yet the nature of sericon was not fixed. Both its identity and the alchemical practice it represented underwent radical reinterpretation between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the original process was eclipsed by new methods and materials, notably those popularised by George Starkey (1628–1665). The rise and fall of ‘sericonian’ alchemy provides a case study for examining one challenge facing modern scholars: the difficulty of isolating and charting changes in alchemical ideas, practices and nomenclature without succumbing to anachronism. I shall argue that early modern practitioners faced similar interpretative difficulties when decoding their authorities, which they tried to solve by refashioning their medieval sources in light of both textual exegesis and practical experience.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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