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The Secrets of Alchemy

3.95 of 5 stars 3.95  ·  rating details  ·  76 ratings  ·  18 reviews
Alchemy, the “Noble Art,” conjures up scenes of mysterious, dimly lit laboratories populated with bearded old men stirring cauldrons. Though the history of alchemy is intricately linked to the history of chemistry, alchemy has nonetheless often been dismissed as the realm of myth and magic, or fraud and pseudoscience. And while its themes and ideas persist in some expected ...more
Hardcover, 281 pages
Published November 1st 2012 by University of Chicago Press
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Like most modern people, I've thought of alchemy as something more magic than science, but Principe manages to walk us back to a time when science, philosophy, religion (and some slight of hand) were intertwined. Using the term "chymistry" to over-ride our our internal definitions of chemistry and alchemy, he presents an interesting history of the history of alchemy and the infancy of chemistry.
I freely admit that I went looking for books on alchemy after watching Fullmetal Alchemist :)

This is a very interesting, well written, and informative look at the history of alchemy. I had a vague idea that alchemy was a form of magic, with some haphazard chemistry thrown in (aka potions), but this book shows that alchemy was more rational, systematic, and socially productive than I ever would have guessed. The author recreates historical laboratory techniques and tests alchemical recipes, expla
Heather Rose
I’ve been whining about “where were all these books on alchemy last year when I was doing the primary research for The Mystic Marriage? In this case, the answer is “not published yet”. There does seem to be a nebulous “interest in alchemy” front passing through, which I can only hope will be positive for the reception of my novel. This is exactly the sort of readable but solidly historical general history of the field that I was searching for. (The best I could find last year was a bit too inves ...more
Alan Lenton
The first thing to note about this book is that the title is somewhat misleading. It would be more accurate to call it a history of alchemy. I was nearly put off buying it because of its title, but in retrospect I'm glad I wasn't, because it's a very interesting book.

What the author sets out to do is to restore an understanding alchemy of within its historical and cultural framework. I think he succeeds in this aim. There is in Western society a tendency to think of alchemy as being something va
Joseph F.
What I thought was a book on the history of an occult subject, turned out to be to my surprise, was a book on the history of science! Chemistry specifically. And it was a great surprise.
Turns out, alchemist were not pitiful tinkerers wasting time on an impossible goal.
They were serious scientist for their time; at least how science at the time was understood.
Before atomic theory, there was no reason why you could not to base metals into gold.
Also, to my surprise, all that talk of alchemists conc
I feel like I'm repeating myself when I say my biggest complaint about a book is that I wanted more of it, but I can't help it; I really wanted more of this book. It's a slim little tome (Amazon says 296 pages, but I think the main text barely topped 200) - in this small space the author fits in both a history of alchemy and several practical experiments he conducted following the ancient instructions. This is rather fascinating, not to mention pretty educational, and as alluded to above, my onl ...more
Curtis Runstedler
Essential and very comprehensive! I was particularly drawn to the medieval Arabic and Latin sections, but it's an exhaustive and concise study. While it seems to be aimed at both a general audience, it's still very intellectual, featuring some fascinating insights on the allegorical function of alchemy. The study and its practices are so well explained. It would be interesting to hear more about alchemy in a literary context rather than just scientific treatises (still endlessly fascinating thou ...more
Apr 25, 2013 Spotsalots added it
Shelves: history, science
This book provides a remarkably clear and readable history of alchemy from ancient to modern times. That's not to say that everything about alchemy is or can be clarified, but the author does an impressive job of conveying what scholars have learned (he points out that many recent books repeat errors that had long ago been cleared up by scholars writing in other languages) and places alchemical practices within their historical context(s). Rather dazzlingly, he even manages to unravel some of th ...more
Principe's summary and evaluation of hermetic alchemy as understood by occult practitioners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is at best myopic. He conveniently overlooks in this section natural poetical metonymy of language (though he appears to love the term Decknamen), the overt mythological and theological references in dozens of pre-nineteenth-century alchemical plates, paintings, and treatises, and Blake's, Scot's and others' treatments of alchemy years before the occult ...more
Ben Mcfarland
Is it a paradox to say that a book titled The Secrets of Alchemy is open and brisk? Treatments of alchemy to this point have been either rationalist dismissals of the practice and all it represented, or dense historical works that get as lost in the details as the alchemists themselves did. In this book, Lawrence M. Principe lays out a targeted and clear (at least, as much as is possible!) history of the subject. He actually tried to carry out the described experiments, and when he encountered f ...more
Mo Tipton
Apr 26, 2013 Mo Tipton rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: scientific history nerds
Shelves: historicizing
Less than two chapters into this book, I realized how much of what I thought I knew about alchemy boiled down to nothing more than misconceptions and the pre-modern equivalent of urban legends. Principe organizes the book into sections based on chronological periods: Greco-Egyptian (third to ninth century BCE), Arabic (eighth to fifteenth centuries), High Middle Ages (twelfth to fifteenth centuries), and early modern period (sixteenth to eighteenth).

What I did't know was that the majority of ass
Tikitu De
Feb 12, 2013 Tikitu De is currently reading it
Textual history is freaking complicated... From pg 31: "The exact origin of the /[Emerald] Tablet/ remains obscure. Most evidence indicates that it was written centuries after the bulk of the philosophical or technical /Hermetica/, and that it is an original Arabic composition dating from the eighth century. No Greek precursor or any earlier Greek citations of it have been located despite exhaustive searches. It first appeared appended to a work which itself has complex and obscure origins, the ...more
Michael Aaron
This book lives up to its name - you will learn how to create the Philosopher's Stone. The downside is, it will also tell you how the mythology surrounding the fabled object came to be, and why it never worked as advertised.

Not a fun or easy read - the author's style is quite dry, almost deliberately avoiding any sign of awe and wonder, no doubt to lend gravitas to a subject that has seen more than its fair share of fantasy and hyperbole over the years. In fact, so great are the lengths the aut
Very good high level review of the many eras of alchemy. Of course I'm biased because I though Prof. Principe was a great Organic Chemistry I and II professor back at Hopkins. I found it very interesting in how Dr. Principe relayed the results of performing the alchemical experiments in his own lab. He brought the reader through "disinformation" and hidden meaning of the original alchemists and explained how images in contemporary texts could be actual reagents.

Dr. Principe took the mostly chron
Bob Finch
Enlightening history of chemistry from a perspective rarely taken.
I've been researching the history of alchemy for a novel I'm writing and this is the first and only concise history I've found on this overwhelming topic. If you're interested in the history of medieval and early modern alchemy (as opposed to modern/spiritual interpretations) START HERE!
One of the best "history of science" books I've ever read. It's well written, carefully researched, and really helped me understand this science from the perspective of those who practiced it.
Academic book - interesting but perhaps too scholarly for casual reading - dry in spots.
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