Brown Bag Lecture: Chymicall Collections: The Materiality of Speculation in 17th-Century Alchemical Texts

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, March 19, 2018
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture by Megan Piorko, Allington Fellow at the Science History Institute.

In 17th-century Europe the practice of curating specific alchemical texts in order to create a comprehensive body of work increased rapidly owing to the technology of the printing press and the belief that these types of tract were most successful when used in tandem. Evidence of readership practices, scribal and print culture, and prefatory publication material all point to the active speculation of alchemical texts in a new and intentional manner during this century. The most widely collected and well known of this genre, Theatrum Chemicum, was printed in three editions from the years 1602 to 1661.

This talk will examine material evidence of the speculative nature of this phenomenon. Chymicall collections at the Othmer Library and beyond show fascinating examples of readers working through hermetically disguised alchemical concepts through doodling, drawing diagrams, annotating, cross referencing, and otherwise altering the pages of the texts. However, readers were not the only editors of these tracts. Authors, printers, and publishers also had agency in the way their alchemical collections were used. In the case of these texts what is lacking was sometimes as intentional as what was printed.  

More broadly, chymicall collections reflect cultural and intellectual issues brought on by the advent of print in the 17th century. The anxiety surrounding vernacularization, or vulgarization, of alchemical texts is illustrated by the relationship between English translator Elias Ashmole and the author of the Latin Fasciculus Chemicus, Arthur Dee. Ashmole directly addresses the controversy of making hermetically guarded secrets accessible in Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, an English response to the continental Theatrum Chemicum.

About the Speaker

Megan Piorko is the Allington Fellow at the Science History Institute. She is a doctoral candidate in the history department at Georgia State University. She studies the intersection of the history of science and history of the book under the advisement of Nick Wilding. She is particularly interested in doodles as marginalia, materiality of texts, and how (al)chemical knowledge was made, collected, and shared. 

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.