Book Review: Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry (Timmermann)—Review by Melissa Ridley Elmes

Book Review: Anke Timmermann, Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013. 374 pp., 5 ill. $171.00 cloth. ISBN 9789004254848.

Anke Timmerman’s is a long overdue and highly valuable book for scholars of late medieval and early modern history of science, scholars of alchemical texts and traditions, and those interested in the ways in which alchemical texts might be considered alongside other genres for a broader understanding of medieval and early modern English text traditions. Building on Robert Schuler’s bibliographic work on the later verse alchemical texts[1] and Didier Kahn’s wide-ranging study of medieval and early modern European alchemical poetry,[2] Timmermann identifies 21 alchemical poems in Middle English as a corpus that originated in the mid-fifteenth century and follows the development and transmutation of this corpus through its manuscript tradition. The result is six case studies that detail ways in which this particular group of texts can be read for the creation, transmission, and evolution of alchemical knowledge in the late-medieval English laboratory and scriptorium, as witnesses for the development of different genres and note-taking techniques, and thus as a heretofore –unconsidered part of the history of Middle English verse, technical vocabulary, and Gebrauchsliteratur.[3] This work, alone, would render the book indispensable to scholars interested in the development of the English alchemical texts tradition. But Timmermann also includes critical editions of each of the 21 texts of the corpus, presented together with diplomatic editions of ancillary works and alongside a comprehensive bibliography of extant manuscript witnesses, rendering her book not simply a history of the development of Middle English alchemical poetry, but an essential reference volume of the key texts featured in the study. Finally, the focus not on individual alchemists—the usual means of approaching alchemical studies—but on a corpus of texts constitutes an important intervention in English alchemical studies by providing a means of considering these texts beyond their inception, appropriation, and use by individuals solely as alchemical works, into larger field questions of genre, language, and manuscript studies.

After an introduction that sets forth how she defined the corpus of texts at the heart of this book—poems that were recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone “circulated and received in connection with each other, and in various permutations throughout the early modern period” (2) — and her methodology (case studies focused on the lives of the texts, rather than on their users), Timmermann breaks into six chapters based on case studies with well-defined parameters. The first study opens with a brief treatment of the history of alchemical poetry in late-medieval England and its continued significance as a repository of the changes in technical language that occurred as texts related to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone were translated into and penned in Middle English. This chapter introduces the corpus texts and their variants—“Verses Upon the Elixir” (c. 1480-1500) and the roughly contemporary “Boast of Mercury”; “Mystery of Alchemists”; “Exposition” and “Wind and Water”; the sixteenth-century “Liber Patris Sapientiae”; the fifteenth-century poems and their variants associated with Richard Carpenter (“Spain”; “Titan Magnesia”; “Alumen de Hispania”; “God Angel”; “Sun” and “Father Phoebus”); the late fifteenth-century Ripley Scroll texts “On the Ground,” “In the sea,” and “I Shall You Tell”; the sixteenth-century version of “Short Work”; “Trinity” (c. late 15th or early 16th c.); “Terra Terrae Philosophicae” (from the second half of the 16th c.) and two commentaries on “Verses Upon the Elixir (“Lead” and “Thomas Hend”) dating to the early sixteenth-century. Through the discussion of these texts, Timmermann sets forth her reasons for why poetry was the medium best suited to translating “the language of alchemical concepts and thought into a living language referencing system” (22) and how the corpus identified contributes to our understanding of how “scientific, alchemical and literary poems all participated in the development of the Middle English language of expression” (22). In this way, chapter one provides an overview of the project and explains the reasons for Timmerman’s methodology.

In the second chapter Timmermann explains why she places “Verses Upon the Elixir” at the center of the corpus—“not because of its relative age or prominence, but because its creation as a consolidation of the ancient and recent traditions of alchemical writing is essential to the corpus’ very creation” (64). She uses this foundation to explain why grouping the various texts associated with the “Verses” together constitutes “an expression of originality” (69) on the part of scribes, so that “each corpus manuscript extant today may be considered a collection of fragments of the body of alchemical literature: an individual’s intelligent selection of texts, of passages to process and instructions to put into practice” (73). This chapter thus sets forth the theoretical underpinnings of the study, explaining why Timmermann has made the choice to view these texts as a corpus worth studying together.

Chapter three explores the relationship of authorship to the corpus of alchemical texts. Timmermann notes the tendency of some writers to reference earlier or better-known works in an effort to confer a sense of ancient wisdom upon the alchemical texts; in general, however, “the act of authorial attribution for late medieval natural philosophical writings, particularly pragmatic alchemical writings, and even more so for alchemical poetry, was not a natural part of manuscript composition, and not necessarily expected by audiences, either” (94). Because the purpose and placement of attributes was not a fixed entity in the medieval period, and because alchemical texts were subject to revision with each new experiment, it is more often in the later published versions that authors and attributions appear, and these are often erroneous or spurious in nature. However, as Timmermann shows in this chapter, attempts to trace the attributions of “Verses Upon the Elixir” can shed light on “motivations and implementations of attribution in Middle English alchemical poetry” (96). Covering both the English and the translation traditions, this chapter serves as an exemplar for ways of examining the question of authorship and attribution in an anonymous Middle English text.

Chapter four is a focused and comprehensive discussion of the late-fifteenth century Ripley Scrolls, in which Timmermann first presents an introduction to the Scrolls and their dissemination, and then shows how these scrolls— by no means a straightforward set of texts to work with, despite their attribution to an individual— can serve as a microcosm of the bigger question of the attribution and function of alchemical texts. Chapter five explores the pedagogical, instructional nature of the alchemical texts, focusing on a sixteenth century manuscript of the texts (TCC MS R.14.56), arguing that since the manuscript has a specific institutional context that has remained fixed for 400 years, it can be read not simply as a recipe book for alchemical texts but also, through its use, reuse, and annotations including glosses, marginal notes, and commentaries made by its users within that specific institutional context, as a means of communication between its readers from one generation to the next. Finally, chapter six examines the notebooks of an anonymous sixteenth-century physician. Known as the Sloane notebooks, as an examination of a single individual’s practice of organizing, reading, and thinking about the alchemical verses at the heart of the monograph these fifteenth-century manuscripts—BL MSS Sloane 1041, 1042, 1043, 1060, 1061, 1062, 1063, 1082, 1092, 1093, 1095, 1096, 1097, 1098, 1099, 1105, 1113, 1114, 1127, 1136, 1146, 1147, 1148, 1149, 1150, 1151, 1152, 1153, 1158, 1169, 1170, 1171, 1181, and 1186—provide the complement to chapter five’s examination of a single alchemical manuscript used and revised by multiple readers.

Timmermann concludes her volume with suggestions for future corpus-based scholarship in the field of Middle English alchemical literature. One avenue suggested is an investigation through the materiality of alchemical manuscripts of individuals and practices at the lower ends of the social-strata involved in alchemy. She also suggests an analysis of the use of a broader range of alchemical texts, including works focused more on metallurgy or the philosophical aspects of the practice, and the analysis of more alchemical texts, ranging “from brief elliptic recipes to lengthy theoretical treatises” in order to “capture the breadth of alchemical activity in the Renaissance” (203-204). Other desiderata include a reader-driven history of libraries and collections of alchemical works, “the study of pre-Paracelsian contacts between medicine and alchemy in their manuscript context, and thus in their literary cultural contexts” (204), study of alchemical language and expressions, and the contextualization of Middle English alchemical texts within the world of Middle English literature more generally. While the field of alchemical studies already owes a great debt to Timmermann for this book, it is to be sincerely hoped that Timmermann, herself, possessed as she is with the knowledge, the passion, and the clarity of expression evinced in this monograph, plans to execute many of these projects. Verse and Transmutation signals clearly the beginning of an important career in the recovery, examination, and analysis of late-medieval and early modern alchemical texts.

Melissa Ridley Elmes

Melissa Ridley Elmes is a doctoral candidate in English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Her dissertation looks at feasts and feasting in medieval British texts, and she argues that medieval literary feasts serve as sites of testing, violence, and rupture both for the community and the individual within the community in a narrative. She also researches and writes on Arthuriana, Chaucer, monstrosity, magic and alchemy, and women’s literate practices.


[1] Robert M. Schuler, English Magical and Scientific Poems to 1700: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1979); Robert M. Schuler, ed., Alchemical Poetry 1575–1700: From Previously Unpublished Manuscripts (New York: Routledge, 1995).
[2] Didier Kahn, “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis Part I—Preliminary Survey,” Ambix, 57 (2010), 249–274; “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis Part II—Synthesis,” Ambix, 58 (2011), 62–77.
[3] Practical, instructional writing.


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