What is alchemy? Who were the alchemists, what did they believe and do and dream, and what did they accomplish?
Lawrence M. Principe
's new book explores these questions and some possible answers to them in a wonderfully written and argued introduction to the history of western alchemy. The Secrets of Alchemy
(University of Chicago Press, 2012) traces the genealogy of alchemical practices from their early Greco-Egyptian foundations through early modern chymistry, pausing along the way to reflect on the reinterpretation and refashioning of alchemy from the eighteenth century to the present. Principe's pages reveal histories of alchemy that are wonderfully rich and diverse, and we meet them in laboratories, recipes, images, dramatic plays, and poems. In the course of our conversation, we talked about aspects of the craft of the alchemist as well as that of the historian, including Principe's fascinating attempts to recreate alchemical recipes and practices in his own laboratory. Enjoy!