Scholar examines alchemy mystery from 16th-century England

John_Dee_AshmoleanIt involves a printer, the far-reaching power of a monarch, possible censorship, three English alchemists dedicated to uncovering the secret of transmutation and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Earlier this summer, Dr. Teresa Burns, University of Wisconsin-Platteville Department of Humanities professor, presented a paper at the Western Michigan University International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo that helps to unravel a 16th-century mystery.

Burns’ topic, which examined the link between the 1591 publication and suppression of the first English printing of George Ripley’s “Compound of Alchemy” and what may have ended a planned long-distance partnership between John Dee and Edward Kelley just a few weeks after it began, was sponsored by Societas Alchimica, a society affiliated with UW-Platteville and led by Burns and colleague Dr. Nancy Turner as vice president and president respectively.

“Professor Burns’ paper presented a useful new theory about the possible actions and thoughts of Queen Elizabeth’s administration on the issue of alchemy,” said Turner, UW-Platteville professor who specializes in the history of science during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. “And since Dee and Kelley were among the most famous alchemists in Europe at that time, Terri’s new theory concerning the impact of their careers on other alchemists and the society around them is quite exciting.”

It all began in the 15th century with Ripley, who devoted his life to the study of alchemy, or the converting of one element to another – particularly gold. In 1471, Ripley wrote his best-known work, “The Compound of Alchemy,” and claimed within a decade that he had at long last found the secret to transmutation.

Continuing Ripley’s work many years later, far into the 16th century, Dee, a respected astrologer, alchemist, philosopher and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, met and began to collaborate with Kelley, whom Burns described as either a very talented alchemist or an incredible con man, and perhaps both.

Kelley, who served Dee for several years as a scryer with a self-professed ability to communicate with angels, claimed in 1586 that he, like Ripley, had discovered the secret to transmutation. Reports even followed that others had witnessed Kelley changing lead into gold.

After the 1588 Spanish Armada, Dee parted company with Kelley in Prague and returned to London. But prior to his departure, they seemed to have planned a future project, Burns said.

About that same time, the London tradesman Thomas Orwin printed the first edition of Ripley’s “Compound of Alchemy” – 120 years after it was written. What motivated Orwin to print the text, while he usually focused on sermons and political works, remains unanswered, but Burns said she feels Dee and Kelley were likely involved, especially since both appeared to have contributed introductory material.

Dr. Teresa Burns, photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-PlattevilleWhat happened next, she added, was even more curious. Dee and Kelley came under scrutiny for their reputed espionage and alchemical activities, but on top of that, Kelley, who had recently been knighted in the Holy Roman Empire, provoked a major diplomatic incident in 1591 after killing a court official in a duel. Shortly thereafter, in what Burns believes are related events, Orwin not only had his press seized by The Stationers’ Company, a printers guild formed in the 14th century that regulated copyrights and content, but his printing of Ripley’s text also looks to have been intentionally suppressed, and possibly by royal decree.

“The seizure of Orwin’s press and the publication’s possible suppression may be a direct result of Kelley’s sudden change of fortune and how it affected others in the same alchemical circle,” said Burns. “Whatever long-term collaboration Dee and Kelley may have planned likely ended with this work in 1591.”

Kelley, as plagued with drama in death as he was in life, is said to have perished in 1595 after trying to escape a castle, but Burns said court documents list him very much alive as late as 1598. Dee, who seemed to have no further dealings or contact with Kelley, spent his last years quietly with family, passing away in 1608.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Platteville

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