A Sound Dutch Beating for Fraudulent German Alchemy

Writing for the Amsterdam stage, David Lingelbach (b. 1641)—himself the son of a German expatriate and artist—published a play entitled The Converted Alchemist, or: The Betrayed Fraud in 1680. It is but one out of eleven plays he wrote under the banner of Nil Volentibus Arduum (‘Nothing is arduous for the willing’), a literary society active between 1669 and 1687 to spread the ideals of French classicist theatre in the Low Countries and otherwise known primarily for lack of talent. Thirty-four years later (1714), the self-appointed literary heir to Nil Volentibus Arduum, Ysbrand Vincent (d. 1718), published an improved, second edition that added greater poignancy to an intriguing intercultural encounter less explicit in the original printing: it tells the story of a Dutch widower, Govert, ‘naïve and unskilled in alchemy’, and his encounter with Squire Goudschalk (literally, ‘gold jester’), ‘a German, fraud and pretended alchemist of great experience’.[1] And by the same token it provides us with a glimpse of some associations alchemy carried in early eighteenth-century Amsterdam.

De bekeerde alchimist_web

While not exactly on a par with Molière (d. 1673), The Converted Alchemist (1680/1714) is a brief, entertaining comedy that culminates in a sound beating for the fraudulent German alchemist. In the background, a well-stocked alchemical laboratory can be seen. Author’s photograph; courtesy of University of Amsterdam, Special Collections (OTM: O 63-5575).

The storyline of The Converted Alchemist is fairly straightforward: Joanna, Govert’s daughter, is worried that her father would once again squander the wealth of the family in his alchemical pursuits—he had done so before, and only a timely inheritance had lifted them out of poverty. To add insult to injury, Govert is about to marry off his daughter to the German adept against her will. Yet Joanna’s lover, Fredrik, comes up with a plan to expose Goudschalk as a fraud with the help of his former wet nurse and some other servants. As Govert approaches, their conspiratorial meeting is disbanded, and after Goudschalk also enters Fredrik is introduced to him as someone with an interest in alchemy. As they talk about the art, they use a lot of its jargon and Goudschalk boasts about his secret insights and abilities. One boast, in particular, later turns out to backfire and is better rendered in the first edition: ‘I make old women, however worn-out, / Effectively young again through my secrets.’[2]

Only a few lines later, one of the servant comes in, yelling that the alchemical vessels used for a gold-making experiment had shattered. After taking a look at the situation, Goverd returns devastated and laments the one thousand pounds he had invested. Goudschalk talks him into renewing his investment and paying him more for his assistance while making it seem as if he was offended by the money offered. Suddenly another servant comes rushing in, exclaiming that Joanna had been bewitched, and in the ensuing exchange Fredrik accuses Goudschalk of being behind it all as a sorcerer demonstrating his powers. The old wet nurse enters, dressed in Joanna’s clothes, just barely managing to convince Govert that she is indeed his daughter. Goudschalk denies having anything to do with Joanna’s sudden old age even as he is confronted with his earlier boast that he ‘could in an instant make / The young old, and the old young’.[3]

At this stage Fredrik steps forward to undo the spell, and Goudschalk offers him one thousand pounds of alchemical profit to have his future wife restored. Having made Goudschalk promise his assistance, Fredrik proceeds to enact a mock ritual involving a dowsing rod to restore the disguised wet nurse. As the final part of the spell, however, Goudschalk needs to endure one hundred blows which he is understandably loath to accept. As they (including Joanna dressed as a male servant) beat him anyway, Goudschalk breaks away and Fredrik turns towards his companion, Jasper. Threatening to beat him as well, Fredrik forces Jasper to confess the various alchemical frauds and other escapades Goudschalk committed all across Europe. While the German alchemist is thus exposed, Joanna still appears bewitched. At this strategically important moment, Fredrik requests her hand in marriage if he should succeed in breaking the spell. Govert agrees and, unsurprisingly, Joanna gets out of her manservant attire.

Apart from other changes, it struck me that the 1714 edition heightened the association of alchemy with Germany and sorcery.[4] Already Ysbrand Vincent’s foreword to the reader puts this in striking terms: ‘This disease, the stain of which was first transported to this and other regions from Germany’.[5] Alchemy is thus a contagious disease originating in Germany, which to early-modern readers might have recalled the abhorrent French disease (syphilis). Beyond the unflattering introduction of Goudschalk quoted above, he betrays his German origin by occasional slips in his Dutch.[6] Additionally, he finds himself slandered as ‘Faustus, master of devils’, a notorious German sorcerer, and afterwards Fredrik uses a divining rod to beat him.[7] Ultimately, the play breaks the spell Goudschalk’s promise of alchemical gold and youth had cast:

‘Dear sir, there is no sorcery, / It is ultimately but jesting, / Fraud and old hags’ dreams. How could it enter your thoughts / That someone should re-create us, / And repair us as he wanted? / O, these are things as impossible to do / As wringing gold from steel or lead. / And for this reason, I place next to each other / The alchemist and sorcerer.’[8]

Ironically, this exorcism of belief in alchemy had to happen through the mock sorcery staged by Fredrik. Achieving the rejuvenation of Joanna, Fredrik’s performative deconstruction of Goudschalk’s bragging succeeds where the German alchemist had failed. And for theatre enthusiasts in Amsterdam, the take-home message was that belief in the claims of alchemists was as silly and superstitious as believing in sorcery.

[1] De bekeerde alchimist; of bedroogen bedrieger. Kluchtspel. Nooit op deeze wyze in ’t licht gegeeven (Amsterdam, 1714), ‘Vertooners’, f. *4v.

[2] De bekeerde alchimist, of bedroogen bedrieger. Kluchtspel (Amsterdam, 1680), 15.

[3] De bekeerde alchimist (1714), 23.

[4] K. M. Lindhout, ‘Frans-classicisme in De bekeerde alchimist’, Literatuur 7 (1990), 83–90. See also ‘Daar in zal goud zyn, wat men ziet. De alchemistische bronnen voor David Lingelbachs De bekeerde alchimist (1680)’, Spiegel der Letteren 32 (1990), 309–325.

[5] De bekeerde alchimist (1714), f. *3v–4r.

[6] De bekeerde alchimist (1714), 9 and 17.

[7] De bekeerde alchimist (1714), 22; 25 and 32.

[8] De bekeerde alchimist (1714), 34.


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