A Gathering of Alchemists. Report on the Workshop On the Fringes of Alchemy, 9-10 July 2010
The Department of Medieval Studies hosted a special event this July, a meeting of alchemy scholars aiming to share results and discuss questions in their discipline, in the true spirit of the turba philosophorum. While Plato, Parmenides, or Pythagoras could not make it to the workshop this time, scholars from all over Europe gathered in Budapest for this event, the focus of which was alchemy on the "fringes," both in a geographical, and a disciplinary, sense.
In the first session dealing with the interactions between alchemy and various religious traditions in the Middle Ages, Aksel Haaning (Roskilde) pointed out how alchemy became the key to the spiritual understanding of the Bible, while Graziana Ciola (Pavia) gave a paper on the Franciscan Johannes de Rupescissa showing how his was the first systematic attempt to bring alchemy and prophecy together. Gabriele Ferrario (Cambridge) analyzed in detail the alchemical poem by Ibn Arfa’ Ra, an eleventh-century Arabic author who set out to achieve nothing less than the description of all existing things.
In a session on the connections between alchemy, art, medicine, and material culture we could hear exciting papers from Ana-Maria Gruia (Cluj) on the obscure imagery of medieval stove tiles, or Ilona Fekete (Oxford/Budapest) on the peculiar discipline of "filth pharmacy."
In her paper, Jennifer Rampling (Cambridge) argued that it was John Dee and his odd companion, Edward Kelley, who introduced the works of George Ripley, English alchemist, to Central European readers. John Norris (Prague/Luxembourg) provided a brief survey of "Hungarian vitriol," and ingredient widely praised by contemporary alchemical authors, and Dóra Bobory (Budapest) presented a lesser-known source material, "alchemical petitions" written by Italian experts to the Hofkammer of Austria.
After a session on Scandinavian alchemy, Carl-Michael Edenborg (Stockholm) concluded the workshop with his survey of the reasons for growing criticism against alchemy in the eighteenth century, and drew some interesting conclusions. He argued that alchemy was criticized not so much from the scientific point of view, but because it was believed to purport anti-social ambitions, anti-communicative practices, and the anti-modern view of modernity, and its critics felt that alchemists were a danger to society.
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