The Ordinall of Alchymy, a beautifully illuminated manuscript volume, was composed by Thomas Norton (c. 1433–1513) in 1477.
Alchemy, concerned with the transformation of base metals into gold, was studied as a serious scientific subject throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The Ordinall was a popular and well-known source book during this period. It was even printed in Frankfurt, a city that was a centre of intense interest in alchemy, in 1618.
Unusually for scientific texts of the time it is written in English, and presented in verse form. Norton’s purpose in writing the book was to set out the precise process of alchemy, just as the Catholic Church used ordinals to detail the religious calendar and orders of service.
What were Ben Jonson’s views on alchemy?
First performed in 1610, Ben Jonson’s play, The Alchemist, portrays an intricate confidence trick in which three rogues assume the identities of an alchemist, his assistant and ward in order to part a host of gullible victims from their wealth.
According to William Drummond of Hawthornden, Jonson had some knowledge of astrology (a 'science' linked to alchemy) and was able to compose horoscopes, although he didn’t believe in them.
Drummond also recorded an anecdote told by Jonson, in which he and a friend tricked a female acquaintance into making an appointment with an old astrologer. She went to the arranged place, at the arranged time, and met with Jonson who was disguised in a long gown and white beard. The outcome of this meeting isn’t documented, but it is evident from this story that Jonson had a sense of mischief and a strong scepticism of alchemy which he was able to transform into theatrical gold with The Alchemist.
Alchemy, language and Jonson’s The Alchemist
The language used by scholars of alchemy in their written work was purposefully confusing and obscure. The reason for this, according to the alchemists, was so that only the worthy might understand the theory and method behind their work. In reality it was a way to deflect criticism, and explain their failure to transmute base metals into gold.
Jonson utilises the same wording as the alchemists to demonstrate that Subtle, a charlatan, can appear to be a master of alchemy simply through his speech. Act 2, Scene 3 is especially rich in the vague language of alchemy:
SUBTLE: Son, be not hasty, I exalt our medicine,
By hanging him in balneo vaporoso;
And giving him solution; then congeal him;
And then dissolve him; then again congeal him;
For look, how oft I iterate the work,
So many times I add unto his virtue.
What do the illustrations tell us about alchemy?
The Ordinall of Alchymy was made during Norton’s lifetime, probably under his supervision. Therefore its representations of alchemy have unprecedented authority.
- (f. 1r) furnace: the furnace was a key piece of alchemical equipment as it was used at various stages of the process to heat the metals being transmuted to carefully specified temperatures. This illustration depicts the alchemist’s assistants firing and preparing the apparatus.
- (f. 6v) master and pupil: this illustration shows Norton kneeling in front of a master, probably George Ripley (d. c. 1490), to receive the secret of alchemy. The secret could only be passed by word of mouth from a master to a pupil deemed worthy of the information – this was another reason given for the vagueness of written manuals such as Norton’s.
- (f. 32v) alchemy masters: this image shows the historical masters of alchemy passing on their knowledge and watching over future generations of alchemists.
- (f. 37v) alchemical laboratory: in this picture the master sits at a table in the background surrounded by the symbols of alchemy: a silver crescent moon, a gold ball and a vessel used in experimentation. In the foreground his assistants distil material ready for transmutation.
- (f. 67v) astrological charts: different stages of the process were, according to Norton, best performed at certain times of the month, or astrological year. Here, four astrological charts are provided, which show fire signs in ascendance and the exact position of the moon. However, these charts have no basis in astrological theory, making Norton either a cunning protector of alchemy’s secrets or a charlatan.