Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fasciculus Chemicus

Frontispiece to Elias Ashmole's publication of  Arthur Dee's alchemical anthology Fasciculus Chemicus (1651). 

Arthur Dee was none-too-pleased when the inquisitive antiquarian Elias Ashmole published his alchemical writings under a pseudonym. only a day after Charles I execution, 31st January 1649. Piqued, he wrote to Ashmole

I am sorry you or any man should take pains to translate any book of that art into English. for the art is vilified so much by scholars that do daily deride it, in regard they are ignorant of the principles. How then can it be in any way advanced by the vulgar? but to satisfy your question, you may be resolved that he who wrote Euclid's Preface was my father. the 'Fasciculus' I confess, was my labour and work'.

Arthur Dee (1579-1651) was the eldest son of the Elizabethan magus, John Dee. When aged 8 he accompanied his father on his peregrinations through Europe. At Prague they were guests of Rudolph I, the great alchemy-loving, Holy Roman Emperor whose court attracted many talents. After enduring fourteen years as Court physician to the first Romanov Czar at Moscow, Arthur Dee  became court physician to Charles I. Sometime after his 14 years in Moscow. Arthur  Dee retired to Norwich, where he befriended Thomas  Browne.

The decade of the 1650's saw the greatest publication of esoteric literature England has ever witnessed. This was due not only to a liberalisation of printing-press licenses during the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-1659) but also to the social and psychological uncertainties which the newly-established Republic engendered. Arthur Dee however was not to witness this surge of interest in esoterica for he died in September 1651. Upon his death he bequeathed several manuscripts and books of an alchemical nature to Browne. A manuscript edition of Dee's anthology is listed as once in Browne's library.

An allusion to the name Ashmole can be seen in the tree and mole in the bottom left corner of the frontispiece which depicts Sol et Luna along with their cheeky off-spring, the trickster figure and emblem of alchemy, Mercurius. The respective left and right side columns  are left - an inventory of the arts and sciences ruled by the goddess Minerva ruler of learning, and right - the instruments of  Mars, god and ruler of strife, conflict and war.

In many ways the publication of Fasciculus Chemicus tested the waters for Elias Ashmole and prepared for the reception, readership and a profitable book-sale of his collection of British alchemical authors, ranging from medieval to contemporary, in the compendium  Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum (1652).

A facsimile edition of Dee's book can be found here

Throughout the 1650's decade many notable first publications on Paracelsus, the Cabala, Hermetic philosophy, alchemy, the Rosicrucians and Hermes Trismegistus were printed. Its worth noting that seven years after Arthur Dee's Fasciculus Chemicus  appeared, his one-time Norwich associate,  Sir Thomas Browne, published in 1658 the very peak year of books printed of an esoteric subject-matter, his alchemical diptych, the discourses, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus. 

Finally, it's a curious coincidence worth noting that according to Wikipedia John Dee (b.1527) and his son Arthur, shared the same birthday, July 13th. Thus John Dee was 52 years old when his first-born child Arthur was born !

Adam Maclean's scholarly web-site devoted to the study of alchemy lists the following manuscripts of interest -

573. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1790.
160 folios. Paper. 17th Century.

I. f 1-19v  Spiritual actions of John Dee in Prague 1586.
II. f 22-33  Original papers relating to Dr. Dee's Actions with spirits.
III. f 34-65  Ashmole's observations and collections concerning Dee's magical or spiritual transactions, and collections concerning Dr. Dee, his son Arthur Dee and his associate Sir Edward Kelly. IV. f 68-77  Some of Ashmole's correspondence relating to Dr Dee and his family.
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