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The Secrets of Alchemy (Synthesis) Hardcover – November 1, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0226682952 ISBN-10: 0226682951 Edition: First Edition
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Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

A work that edifies and entertains in equal measure. Principe's book clarifies alchemical history and practice while acknowledging the powerful imaginative legacy of this cohort of mysterious robed men tending fires beneath strangely shaped apparatuses in an ever-elusive path to create gold. Principe supplies a smart, passionate, and compelling portrait that draws on a wide range of sources. —Richard Byrne


“The Secrets of Alchemy comes closer than any other single work to explaining the grounds—rational and empirical, as well as religious and wishful—for alchemy’s longevity. Lawrence Principe’s delightful writing style brings to life a depth of learning matched by few in the field. This expertise, coupled with the author’s determination to strip his topic of anachronism, sets The Secrets of Alchemy apart from the usual introductory tome. After comments on alchemy’s lingering popular appeal (think Harry Potter and Fullmetal Alchemist), Principe engages with the misconceptions that have long dogged his subject, particularly its association with magic, mysticism and quackery. A key premise of the book is that these are often modern associations. To understand how alchemy ‘worked’ for its practitioners, we must meet them on their own terms.”


"This ele­gant, readable book, packed with information and reve­lation, covers the history of alchemy from its shadowy origins in Hellenistic Egypt to its scholarly recovery in the 20th century. Lawrence M. Principe traces the contours of a mil­lennial tradition and shows exactly why Newton and many other brilliantly gifted scientists found so much promise in it. . . . Again and again, Principe melds rich his­torical erudition with deft chemical manip­ulation. The results are always convincing and sometimes—as when one recipe yields a golden object in the form of a tree—breathtaking.”

(Anthony Grafton Science)

"A historian of science and practicing chemist, Lawrence M. Principe provides a dazzling account of how scholarly opinion on the relationship between alchemy and chemistry has transformed in the last four decades. In the process he brings chemical knowledge and historical detective work to a subject that has too readily been dismissed as fraudulent nonsense."
(New Scientist)

“A work that edifies and entertains. . . . Chemistry is at the heart of Lawrence Principe’s effort, and his deft use of the discipline in his historical research is one of the book’s principal strengths. . . . Principe’s attempts to replicate alchemy in a modern laboratory yield strange, wondrous, and yet thoroughly explicable phenomena.”


“The absence of a modern history of alchemy that is at both scholarly and accessible has been perplexing and frustrating. But at last this gap is filled, and by one of the experts best qualified to do so. Lawrence M. Principe’s survey is not just reliable and engaging but an essential corrective to the many depictions that romanticize, misdirect, or muddy our view of what alchemy was about. Principe’s erudite demystification will enable alchemy to take its proper place as an important stage in the evolution of technology, science, and our understanding of the world.”

(Philip Ball, author of Shapes: Natures Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts)

“Lawrence Principe has produced a work that is eminently readable and that sacrifices none of its critical edge or erudition.  . . . It’s precisely the fact that alchemy is such an elusive target, and such a mélange of the practical and the ridiculous, the physical and the metaphysical, that makes Principe’s book so engaging. The Secrets of Alchemy is one of those rare books that, in the best possible sense, asks many more questions than it can answer, with each answered question suggesting a host of other lines of thought.”

(Los Angeles Review of Books)

 “The book’s greatest accomplishment is its depiction of the values and assumptions that formed the alchemical worldview, and how they preceded, coexisted with, and led to a structured scientific methodology. In the sections most entertaining for general readers, Principe recreates various alchemical recipes. As a clear elucidation of a fascinating but, by its nature, obscure topic, this book will appeal to those interested in the history of science.”

(Library Journal)

“Making sense out of alchemy is nearly as consuming and difficult a project as making gold with it.  Lawrence M. Principe has the requisite clarity of mind and purity of heart, as well as a willingness to risk getting burned (literally!).  The Secrets of Alchemy is an eminently lucid treatment of a tenebrous subject, at once learned and reader-friendly, and enormously winning.”
(John Crowley, author of Little, Big)

“With his characteristic erudition, wit, and lucid prose, Lawrence M. Principe synthesizes the explosion of new scholarship in the history of alchemy and makes it available to a wider public. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the historical ideas, practices, and personalities at the heart of this centuries-old tradition, as well as the cultural forces that have shaped how we understand alchemy today.”
(Tara Nummedal, Brown University)

“This is a terrific book, absolutely essential for anyone interested in a historical understanding of alchemical theory and practice. Lawrence Principe masterly clears up the jumble of (mis)information that has surrounded a subject that many think they understand—when in fact they do not—and he escorts the reader back into original texts, revealing their content and purposes. There is no other book on alchemy like this.”

(Bruce Moran, author of Andreas Libavius and the Transformation of Alchemy)

"Lawrence M. Principe has long been at the vanguard of scholars who seek to show that, alchemists were really early chemists, not blindly struggling to turn substances into gold but operating, like scientists today, within an intellectual framework that guided their practical work. In The Secrets of Alchemy, an elegantly written summary of two decades of his own research, Mr. Principe describes this framework."
(Wall Street Journal)

"Principe's own alchemical experiments (which he undertakes following instructions from alchemical text -- albeit at times cloaked in 'allegorical' detail he must first unravel) do provide clear substantiation of the forward-thinking functionality occurring in the historical alchemy workshop. While Principe himself never quite turns lead into gold, he nonetheless demonstrates beyond a doubt just how grounded and rigorous the practice of alchemy remains when held up against the scientific method. . . .This is a first-rate guide to the discipline while also usefully serving as a necessary reminder of the benefits brought on by a broad-encompassing and unflinching open approach towards discovery in any historical subject."    

“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 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.”
(New Books Network)

For any self-respecting chemist or for anyone who is interested in the origins of chemistry, The Secrets of Alchemy is a must read.”

(Chemistry World)

"A deeply gratifying book that brilliantly unveils the hidden wonders of that most shadowy and misunderstood art."
(Times Literary Supplement)

"Principe . . . combines linguistic expertise, historical subtlety, and laboratory experience to a degree that makes him one of the finest and most trustworthy exponents of the subject. . . . A triumph and by far the best available history of alchemy."

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Product Details

  • Series: Synthesis
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (November 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226682951
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226682952
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #856,969 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Randy VonSmith on March 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
First, I'm a chemist by training and have always had a deep interest in the history of science. There was never a clean line between Alchemy and Chemistry; more a blend in time. This book explores what the alchemist were looking for and how they often found it (not just Pb > Au, but improvements in metallurgy, manufacturing, and medicine; the things that science still use to make money by changing inexpensive starting material into valuable products) . It explores the world view at the time and how this effected the science (yes, alchemist, the good ones, were scientist) and how they observed nature and proposed models for how the world worked. Very well written and very enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed how the author went to the laboratory (an often overlooked endever in other "alchemy" books) and reproduced some of the early experiments and they worked; and then went on to explain why they worked and how the actual chemistry accounted for the observed results!!! My only regret was that there were not more examples of these experiments, but even the few that are presented are worth the price of the book. If you enjoy the history of science this would be a great addition to your library.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Marcello Malpighi on June 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Back in the '80s I was dabbling in alchemy, trying to decipher the allegoric drawings in Balise Valentin's 12 keys and other alchemy books like Fulcanelli's. I came to the conclusion that it was the same story repeated over and over: cold vs warm, male vs female, dead vs reborn. Later, as I was collecting ancient science books, I obtained a "book of secrets" from the 1500's from the alchemist Pedemontani; aka JJ Wecker. My joke was that the gold making wasn't working out, so these scientists had to make a living by publishing - very successfully - do-it-yourself books. The Secrets of Alchemy put these two disparate worlds together, and it all make sense! The author obviously loves his subject, respects it and has the depth of understanding I will likely never have. His re-creations of experiments was my favorite part of the book. Once stripped of the modern thinking (my copper sulfate was 99.9% pure, I never thought that I should play with impurities), and replaced in the context of the time (the inter-connectivity of all things), alchemy becomes a solid and reasonable pursuit of practical knowledge. The emphasis is on "practical", which now explains these "books of secrets". A great read, an even better read the second time around if you prepare your mind to think like a 1500's scientist. I do hope there will be a sequel, more keys, more historical context, more religious interferences, more insights in the every day lives of these undervalued scientists.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By rommert van den bos on September 8, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book brought me joy and lots of pleasure and insight. After a few pages I remembered why I decided to become a chemist (or ‘chymyst’?) about sixty years ago. I appreciate the reverence for our ancestor chymysts and the respect paid to them by the author. This book sheds new light on a profession that has for long times be considered as only fraudulous, magical, in search only of an impossible ‘Stone’. As a student in Amsterdam one of my textbooks on the History of Science was a text by Dijksterhuis (‘De mechanisering van het wereldbeeld’: The mechanization of our world view) and I remember the negative tone in which alchemy was treated.
Secondly I highly respect the author for the ease in using foreign and even dead languages; I am sure that a lot more of old texts after being deciphered and translated will bring more information about this field of science but this will demand not only knowledge of chemistry but also ability in reading these difficult languages.
Thirdly, it was great fun to see the author’s efforts to understand, translate and apply the old recipes and seeing the outcome of his own experiments. I could almost feel his thrill after seeing suddenly the ‘new and unexpected’ in his experiments.
In my view this wonderful book is a must for all present day chemistry students and definitely a great gift to the community of chemists worldwide!
Dr. Rommert van den Bos, den Haag, Netherlands
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By L. Schmidt on August 25, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book has everyone one needs to uncover the TRUE alchemical history from ancient times through modern era. The author has done more than the base level of research and is extremely knowledgeable beyond the confines of simply the chemistry or the history. Oftentimes, authors of alchemy texts tend to focus only on one or the other or only on the mystical aspects. Dr. Principe bridges across all disciplines to provide a synthetic work that is going to become the final authority on the subject. Excellently written with just enough commentary to keep the casual reader entertained and enough meat to satisfy scientific or historical rigorous readers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Chemistry One on May 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
This scholarly text is entertainingly written and can be comfortbly read in two or three days. There are copious notes and literature references.
The author covers alchemy in ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman times ,Medieval Europe and up to
fairly modern times. I learned a new word "chrysopoeia" meaning production of gold from base metals.
One of the enduring aims of alchemists. Another dream was the "philosopher's stone" which could transmute metals -some claimed in a catalytic process. A third quest was the "alkahest" or universal solvent. Unanswered was the question "what do you keep it in for storage ?"
Fascinating are the connections between religion and alchemy. Metals were assumed to have a "spirit"
which could be liberated. Paracelsus, the inventor of iatrochemistry , taught that metals were
composed of mercury, sulfur and salt. He pioneered the use of mercury compounds in medicine.
The book is enhanced by many illustrations, including color plates of old masters' concepts of
alchemists at work.
Throughout the author emphasizes that even though the modern tendency is to ridicule alchemists as charlatans, they were in many cases excellent experimentalists- even though they tended to be secretive about their methods and use deliberately obscure and confusing modes of expression.
The author has decoded some of these descriptions and actually repeated the work in a modern laboratory.
A highly recommended book in my opinion.
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