Depicting the Medieval Alchemical Cosmos

George Ripley’s Wheel of Inferior Astronomy

In: Early Science and Medicine
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  • 1 University of Cambridge

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Alchemical images take many forms, from descriptive illustrations of apparatus to complex allegorical schemes that link practical operations to larger cosmological structures. I argue that George Ripley’s famous Compound of Alchemy (1471) was intended to be read in light of a circular figure appended to the work: the Wheel. In the concentric circles of his “lower Astronomy,” Ripley provided a terrestrial analogue for the planetary spheres: encoding his alchemical ingredients as planets that orbited the earthly elements at the core of the work. The figure alludes to a variety of late medieval alchemical doctrines. Yet the complexity of Ripley’s scheme sometimes frustrated later readers, whose struggles to decode and transcribe the figure left their mark in print and manuscript.

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    Nicholas H. Clulee, “Astronomia inferior: Legacies of Johannes Trithemius and John Dee,” in Secrets of Nature, ed. Newman and Grafton, 173-233; Jole Shackelford, “Paracelsianism and Patronage in Denmark,” in Patronage and Institutions: Science, Technology and Medicine at the European Court, 1500–1750, ed. Bruce Moran (Woodbridge, 1991), 88-109, at 95-105.

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  • 5

    Barbara Obrist, “Visualization in Medieval Alchemy,” Hyle. International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry,9 (2003), 131-70; online (unpaginated) at (Accessed 20 April 2012). On the problems associated with classification of medieval diagrams, see John North, “Diagram and Thought in Medieval Science,” in Villard’s Legacy: Studies in Medieval Technology, Science, and Art in Memory of Jean Gimpel, ed. Therese Zenner (Ashgate, 2004), 265-87; Christoph Lüthy and Alexis Smets, “Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery,” Early Science and Medicine, 14 (2009), 398-439, at 420-24.

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  • 8

    Obrist, “Visualization.” An important exception is analysed in Obrist, “Cosmology and Alchemy in an Illustrated 13th Century Alchemical Tract: Constantine of Pisa, ‘The Book of the Secrets of Alchemy,’” Micrologus, 1 (1993), 115-60. Earlier Greek alchemical works sometimes included both verbal and non-verbal figures, although these were less frequent in Arabic works; cf. Obrist, “Visualization.”

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  • 11

    On Ripley, see Jennifer M. Rampling, “Establishing the Canon: George Ripley and His Alchemical Sources,” Ambix, 55 (2008), 189-208; eadem, “The Catalogue of the Ripley Corpus: Alchemical Writings Attributed to George Ripley (d. ca. 1490),” Ambix, 57 (2010), 125-201 (henceforth CRC); Lawrence M. Principe, “Ripley, George,” in Alchimie. Lexikon einer hermetischen Wissenschaft, ed. Claus Priesner and Karin Figala (Munich, 1998), 305-6.

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  • 23

    “Calcination” 17-18, “Solution” 11-13, “Congelation” 29, “Cibation” 5, “Fermentation” 15, and “Exaltation” 8-9.

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    “Congelation” 24, “Admonition” 4. TCB, 167; 190.

  • 63

    British Library MS Harley 3528, 101v-103r (inc. “Omnia corpora que et summo opifice”; expl. “Item vocant mundum medium. Deo gracias”).

  • 66

    MS Harley 3528, 103r.

  • 79

    On Walton, see Charles Webster, “Alchemical and Paracelsian Medicine,” in Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Charles Webster (Cambridge, 1979), 301-34; Rampling, “The Alchemy of George Ripley,” ch. 6.

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  • 80

    Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1426, Pt. 5, 9.

  • 86

    Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1479, 29r.

  • 88

    MS Ashmole 1445, Pt. 1, 30v–31r. A note to the four ‘sphere’ verses on 30v—which vary considerably from the usual versions—mentions that “This 4. speres be after another bocke.”

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    Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1485, Pt. 3, 46r.

  • 91

    Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1486, Pt. 3, 72v.

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    British Library MS Sloane 1744, 76v; Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 133, 14v (dated 1606).

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    Ashmole, “Prologomena,” in TCB, B3v. On Ashmole’s antiquarian project in relation to alchemy, see Lauren Kassell, “Reading for the Philosophers’ Stone,” in Books and the Sciences in History, ed. Marina Frasca-Spada and Nick Jardine (Cambridge, 2000), 132-50; Bruce Janacek, “A Virtuoso’s History: Antiquarianism and the Transmission of Knowledge in the Alchemical Studies of Elias Ashmole,” Journal for the History of Ideas, 69 (2008), 395-417.

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