Stanton J. Linden, ed. _The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to
Isaac Newton_. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
xxvii + 260 pp. Illustrations, glossary, bibliography, index. $65.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-5217-9234-7; $24.00 (paper), ISBN 0-5217-9662-8.

Reviewed for H-Albion by Sachiko Kusukawa, Trinity
College, Cambridge.

This is a collection of English translations (previously translated
elsewhere) of primary sources relating to alchemy. The collection is
divided into three parts (ancient; Islamic and medieval; Renaissance and
seventeenth century), each part comprising nine authors. The first part
includes excerpts from the works of Hermes Trismegistus (_The Emerald
Tablet_), Plato, Aristotle, Pseudo-Democritus, the anonymous _Dialogue of
Cleopatra and the philosophers_, anonymous recipes, Zosimos of Panopolis,
Stephanos of Alexandria, and an anonymous poem; the second part has
selections from Khalid ibn Yazid, Jabir ibn Hayyan, Avicenna, Albertus
Magnus, Roger Bacon, Nicolas Flamel, Bernard Earl of Trevisan, and George
Ripley; the last part contains translations of Paracelsus, Francis
Anthony, Michael Sendivogius, Robert Fludd, Gabriel Plattes, John French,
George Starkey, Elias Ashmole, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Each
translation is prefaced with a brief biography and description of the
excerpts, with a judiciously concise bibliography (a full bibliography is
appended at the end of the volume). Although this kind of anthology would
never please the purist or the specialist (notable omissions include the
writings of Raymond Lull, Arnald of Villanova, and Marsilio Ficino), it is
nevertheless helpful to have in one volume so many standard authorities on
alchemy and their _loci classici_. It should be noted that this is a
text-based "Reader," so there is little about the actual alchemical
instruments or laboratory layouts, or on archaeological material.

_The Reader_ begins with a useful introduction, pointing out the recent
historiographic rehabilitation of alchemy as a significant part of
cultural history of pre-modern Europe. It includes an explanation of the
symbols, basic principles (to do with the relationship between art and
nature), and alchemical processes (there is further glossary at the end of
the book). As the author points out, "much alchemical writing is highly
visual" (p. 23), and to this end, fourteen alchemical figures are gathered
together at the front of the book. A study of figure 14 alongside the
excerpt from Flamel's _Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures_ is
rewarding, and justifies the editor's comment that it is "an excellent
example of the combining of visual and verbal mediums" (p. 123). Yet an
opportunity is missed with figures 1 and 12 from the _Musaeum hermeticum_
(not translated in _The Reader_) where the text accompanying the image
would have made an excellent introduction to the relationship between
God's creation, nature, and art--without translation, these figures are
not terribly useful in a non-Latinate classroom. Moreover, three of the
figures are from Michael Maier's works, whose texts are not included in
the volume. Alchemical images are notoriously difficult to comprehend, and
given the care with which the texts are annotated, the figures could have
been provided with some explanatory annotation or a summary translation of
the text accompanying the figures.

Throughout the volume, there are recurring themes, such as the
relationship between art and nature, divine and human creation, alchemical
principles and processes, and the ever-elusive philosopher's stone--these
suggest some common preoccupations in alchemy. The third part, in
particular, demonstrates the enduring importance of Hermes Trismegistus,
whose _Emerald Tablet_ is the first translation in this volume. On the
other hand, the selection as a whole succeeds in showing the variety of
styles and the heterogeneity of alchemical writing. Some, such as
Sendivogius's _A Dialogue Between Mercury, the Alchmyist and Nature_ and
Gabriel Plattes on how to detect a "cheat" make for compelling reading on
their own. Others, such as Zosimos's lessons and Flamel's _Exposition of
the Hieroglyphic Figures_, may turn out to be more challenging in the

This book can be used in university courses profitably, alongside Lyndy
Abraham's _A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery_, as the back cover
suggests. I would myself favor Gareth Roberts's _The Mirror of Alchemy:
Alchemical Ideals and Images in Manuscripts and Books, from Antiquity to
the Seventeenth Century_ (1994) and, more generally, Sophie Page's _Magic
in Medieval Manuscripts_ (2004), to counter-balance the text with images.
If one is looking for more texts, continental and Latin sources are
translated by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart in his _The Occult in Early Modern
Europe: A Documentary History_ (London: Macmillan, 1999). Although the
selected texts in this _Alchemy Reader_ deserve to be studied in a course
on alchemy _sui generis_, the selections in the third part could well
serve as an excellent background for a literature course on Johnson's _The
Alchemist_, and almost half of the selections (i.e. Hermes, Plato,
Aristotle, pseudo-Geber, Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon,
Paracelsus, Starkey, Boyle, and Newton) could be used as material for a
history of science course which has a focus on matter theory. This is a
useful addition to the bookshelves of students and teachers interested in

Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the
redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational
purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web
location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities &
Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews
editorial staff at