Exploring the true historical facts of alchemy.
I am continually asked by people who have recently discovered alchemy to give them some advice on how to get started. Regrettably, I do not really have the spare time to give people more than a cursory account of how they should proceed, so I have decided to place some information onto some web pages.
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The historical facts about alchemy can only truly be established by exact scholarly methods. This means one has to look at the original documents, the printed books and manuscripts that remain in libraries and specialist collections of alchemical material.
Most of the popular writers on alchemy in the 20th and 21st centuries do not base their books on exact scholarly methods, so to a great extent their books are worthless, and merely repeat and copy from similar books. These writers do not do primary research and often have some agenda in writing their books. So, if one is interested in getting to the truth about historical alchemy, one must discount most of these writers as valid sources. There are a few popular books which have some scholarly integrity, though they are often out of date. Here one thinks immediately of John Read's Prelude to Chemistry, E.J. Holmyard Alchemy, and even (with some small reservations) the recent Andrea de Pascalis Alchemy: the Golden Art.
In order to investigate alchemy as a historical phenenomenon, there is no substitute for looking at the source material. Unless we sensitively read the original texts we will not be able to develop in ourselves a true sense of what the alchemists were trying to communicate in their writings, nor get a clear picture of what they were really doing. We can get help from the growing number of academic books and articles in scholarly journals, in which scholars research the original texts and tease out the historical detail.
One of the most important abilities one must try and develop, is to be able to place a piece of alchemical writing in its proper historical and cultural context. It is folly to push our own modern ideas and concerns onto writings from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Instead we have to be come very aware of the cultural context in which these alchemical documents were created. Unless we have a sense of how these alchemists saw their world, we cannot hope to read the meaning they were trying to communicate through their writings. I have created a study course on how to read alchemical texts
There is a mass of material on this web site, see the Bibliography and Alchemical Texts sections. One also needs to start collecting a small library of modern scholarly books on alchemy, and trying to get access to many of the wonderfully researched articles available in Journals.
The task of understanding and building a picture of historical alchemy is lengthy, and will take many years. It is, of course, never complete, as there are always new facts and documents being uncovered or researched and examined by the skilled minds of scholars.