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Approaches to Alchemy (the history of~)

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Katherine Bowers.

As a craft and science with various applications, alchemy formed a ubiquitous part of the Western world from the 12th through the 18th century. The historical investigation of alchemy, by contrast, is a relatively recent development in scholarship, and one with many confused and confusing ancestors. Today, erroneous associations of alchemy with the occult or magic have been replaced by questions about laboratory practices, terminology, concepts and skills that fueled the tradition of alchemy for many centuries: what were alchemical practitioners doing, and what did they think they were doing?

But the history of alchemy comes with its own set of problems: much of the evidence survives in the form of recipes and treatises, in a highly technical yet imprecise language, written by craftsmen for their own purposes. How is it possible to write the history of alchemy from such historical manuscripts?

This talk will provide a brief introduction to alchemy (or rather, the history of), with special focus on my own approaches to its intriguing historiographical conundrums, through the analysis of surviving manuscripts, recipes and images.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Seminars series.

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