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When a stone is not a stone: doing alchemy with plants and animals

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The pseudo-Aristotelian Secret of Secrets was a popular source of alchemical knowledge in medieval Europe, with its mysterious reference to ‘a stone that is not a stone’ – a substance which was simultaneously animal, vegetable and mineral. Over the centuries, alchemists picked over this trope as they sought to explain how substances from the different kingdoms of nature were able to interact. For instance, ingredients that were apparently incompatible on philosophical grounds – such as gold, eggshells and spirit of wine – might in practice combine to create interesting effects, and to raise alchemical hopes. This talk will trace some attempts to solve theoretical and practical problems in multi-species alchemy, such as how to induce minerals to ‘grow’ like plants, or how to dissolve gold in vegetable solvents. Above all, how could alchemists persuade patrons to invest in such techniques?

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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