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In memoriam: Joachim Telle (1939-2013)

Martin Mulsow and Joachim Telle (right) convened the research workshop on alchemy at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. Barely visible on the far left, there is a laptop screen behind which I was furiously typing away to transcribe relevant passages out of Kriegsmann's works. (Thüringischer Landesanzeiger, 14 September 2012.)

Martin Mulsow and Joachim Telle (right) convened the research workshop on alchemy at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. Barely visible on the far left, there is a laptop screen behind which I was furiously typing away to transcribe relevant passages out of Kriegsmann’s works. (© Thüringischer Landesanzeiger, 14 September 2012.)

On 12 December 2013, the world lost the scholar most knowledgeable about all things pertaining to German alchemy from the late middle ages to the twentieth century: Joachim Telle. While this sad event already took place half a year ago, I learnt about it at a staff meeting a few months ago and have only now been able to read a complete eulogy in the new issue of Ambix, released online this morning. I had the pleasure of meeting Telle in September 2012, at a research workshop on alchemy at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, and remember him as a passionate teacher and true character with rough edges, as very helpful, sociable and lively. As Telle exclusively wrote in German and blazed many trails for my own research, I’d like to introduce my readers to some of his pioneering work and dedicate this post to his memory.

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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).

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The Orthodox Annihilator of the Microcosmic Preludes

'J. Conrad Dippel, doctor of medicine, commonly known as the Christian Democritus.'

Most of Dippel’s writings appeared under the pseudonym ‘Christianus Democritus’, so most readers would have known him by that name.

Even though it sounds frightful, don’t panic: there was no terminator-style attack on this blog (as yet and to my knowledge). But some readers might remember that this blog adopted its name from a 1733 publication entitled Microcosmic Preludes. This work was falsely attributed to Johann Conrad Dippel (1673–1734), whose ‘Real Frankenstein Potential’ is still up for further investigation. Even though that attribution is almost as old as the book itself and many library catalogues still list Dippel as the author, he was in fact furious at this supposition and published a refutation of the entire work in the very same year. Under the menacing title Orthodox Annihilator (1733), this treatise also contained his own, somewhat paranoid conjectures as to who had written the Microcosmic Preludes and how his own name had come to be associated with them.

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Egyptian Astrologers and the Prognostic Marketplace

Sibylla Ptolomaein_web

The gypsy lady astrologer from Alexandria in Egypt, Sibylla Ptolomaein, shows the tools of her trade, including celestial globe and sextant, and its products: a nativity chart (also known as horoscope) and symbols commonly used in astrological calendars. © Stadtverwaltung Altenburg, Stadtarchiv Historische Haus- und Schreibkalender.

As the last quarter of the seventeenth century began, the astrological calendar-printing scene in Germany saw the sudden appearance of not just one but four Egyptian interpreters of the stars. (Actually, one of them claimed to be Persian instead.) Though usually published in large print-runs of several thousands, these almanacs with forecasts on the weather, politics, economy, family matters, good days for blood-letting or hair-cuts for the whole year were literally read to shreds (or put to other uses, some of them related to excrement) and so precious few of them have survived. The trade surrounding them was hugely competitive, hence crafty publishers picked their astrologer carefully. And even with a qualified expert, all things being equal, a little exotic lustre or mysterious scent could make all the difference in attracting the attention of the buying public at a loss to assess the respective merits of various calendars. An extraordinary authorial persona might well do the trick: meet, for instance, ‘Abdiel Bavai, presently astrologer in Alexandria, Egypt,’ or ‘Necho of Cairo in Egypt’. Most intriguingly, there was also a lady astrologer by the foreknowledgeable name of Sibylla Ptolomaein ‘from Alexandria in Egypt.

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An ABC of Shady Figures on the Medical Marketplace: ‘A’ for ‘Alchemist’ and ‘C’ for ‘Chymist’

This charlatan is depicted as impressing the audience with his snake-handling.

This Italian mountebank is depicted as impressing the audience with his snake-handling.

As part of a description of the Medical Polity (1638) of his day, Ludwig von Hörnigk (1600–67) included a lengthy chapter on all sorts of shady figures that competed with university-educated physicians. Though the alphebetical ordering of the German is lost in translation, these included: ‘old hags, cut-purses, crystal gazers, village priests, hermits, bankrupters, jugglers, piss prophets, Jews, calf physicians, vagabonds, market criers, messengers, furnace enthusiasts, pseudo-Paracelsians, quacks, rat poisoners, speakers of blessings, conjurors of the devil, fiends, forest gnomes, gypsies, etc.’ (Hörnigk, Politia medica, title page.) Sounds random?

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Johann Philipp Maul and the Healing Waters of Schwelm

Brunnenhäusschen_Schwelm

Built in 1790, this neat ‘Brunnenhaus’ still marks the spot where the healing waters once flowed in Schwelm. In Maul’s own day, there was only a simple wooden construction.

At the truly exciting conference that was ESSWE4 (University of Gothenburg, June 26-29), I presented a paper on the virtually forgotten Johann Philipp Maul (1662-1727). This Reformed Pietist, physician and pharmacist found his life’s calling at the newly discovered healing spring near Schwelm (Germany). And in the course of three publications ranging between 32 and some 1300 pages, he then pleaded the case for Protestant unification. This noble goal was to be achieved through kabbalistic chymistry which, according to him, was ‘entirely different from today’s experimental or mechanical chymistry’ (Maul, Medicina theologica, 16). Interestingly, Maul’s vision of Protestant unity flowed directly from the Schwelm spring—pardon the pun. Continue reading


Investigating the ‘Real Frankenstein Potential’ of Johann Conrad Dippel, Pt. 1

Dippel_portrait

This is Dippel’s portrait, though most early biographers felt the need to add that it didn’t actually resemble him very much.

A short while ago, I was in touch with a TV company shooting an infotainment series on mysterious manors. They were interested in Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734) as their picks included Castle Frankenstein near Darmstadt, Germany, where he is rumoured to have conducted all sorts of disgusting experiments involving human corpses and mutilated animals. According to Radu Florescu, the author of In Search of Frankenstein (1975; 1996 ed., pp. 76-92; a review may be found here), it was this very castle and the alchemist Dippel who inspired Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein (1818). In spite of the fact that Florescu’s grounds for such a claim resemble conjecture and conspiracy theory rather than what would usually qualify as evidence, the identification took hold and is spread far and wide throughout the internet and elsewhere in popular culture. And by the same token, Dippel has come to appear as the ‘real Frankenstein’ to the Anglophone world at large. But if we consider historical and scholarly sources, how impressive is Dippel’s Real Frankenstein Potential actually?  Continue reading