Curtis Runstedler, Alchemy and Exemplary Poetry in Middle English Literature

Curtis Runstedler, Alchemy and Exemplary Poetry in Middle English Literature (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023) xii + 205 pp. £109.99 Hb. £87.50 eb. ISBN: 9783031266065

In the last thirty years, historians of alchemy have reevaluated the intellectual and methodological dimensions of this long-maligned discipline. While often still a byword for trickery or charlatanism, studies of alchemical practices in the medieval and early modern world have illustrated its various technical achievements, particularly in the production of precision instruments, and its close relationship with the development of experimental chemistry. While most famous for the search for the Philosopher’s stone and the transmutation of metals into gold, alchemical writing also offered a rich source of analogical and poetic models, owing to the multivalent nature of its writings. Curtis Runstedler synthesizes this reappraisal of alchemy’s intellectual role in medieval society with a close analysis of its literary uses and transformations, particularly in the genre of exempla. The exemplum is ubiquitous in medieval literature, offering moral and religious templates for its readership, shrouded in various degrees of poetic abstraction. Runstedler draws together a number of alchemical texts from several major English poets of the period, including Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, as well as anonymous writers, arguing for exemplarity as the reading of these often-obscure passages.

In Chapter 1, Runstedler outlines the multiple rhetorical valences that authors could explore through alchemical material. Not only does it offer a model of the transformation of matter from base forms to gold (just as religion aims to reform a damned soul into a saved one) but, equally, the ambiguous professional reputation of alchemists offered opportunities to warn against deceit and sloth. Runstedler situates his work within recent scholarship in medieval literature, particularly R.F. Yeager’s approach to Gower’s exempla, and J. Allen Mitchell’s conception of the ‘ethics of exemplarity’.

Chapter 2 offers a clear and detailed account of alchemy in Europe, and particularly its reception in England, up to the fifteenth century. The occult and mystical elements which pervade much alchemical writing have deep roots in the disciplines supposed origins in Antiquity, and are further complicated by the tendency of various alchemical authors to borrow the names of prominent scholastics such as Albertus Magnus and Aquinas. Runstedler provides a rich account of alchemy’s role in poetic allegory in the thirteenth century, prior to the works which are his main focus, as well as rejecting claims that the fifteenth century represents a low point in the genre of alchemical allegory. The works studied in this book represent, for Runstedler, a vigorous vernacular tradition which presented alchemy to a wider audience than theretofore, and proliferated with new forms, such as vernacular alchemical dialogues.

The first text Runstedler tackles is John Gower’s alchemical passages in Book IV of his Confessio Amantis. Gower presents a markedly positive view of alchemy in his Middle English epic. Following the work of Clare Fletcher, Runstedler contextualizes Gower’s alchemical material as the ideal form of moral labor, successfully executed by the great alchemists of the past but unattainable to the morally degraded practitioners of late fourteenth-century society. In particular Runstedler makes a compelling analysis of Gower’s framing of the practicing of alchemy as exemplary, rather than the discipline itself containing deeper moral allegories. Alchemy, even though its material ends may have been lost to postlapsarian contemporaries, still acted as an ethical model for overcoming the sin of Sloth which is the subject of Book IV. Runstedler makes a convincing case for reading Gower’s alchemy as an instantiation of the secular-facing tone of what Yeager calls the ‘new exemplum’.

Gower’s great contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer is the focus of Chapter 4. Like Gower, Chaucer deploys alchemy and its disciples for moral instruction in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, one of the last of his Canterbury Tales. At first appearances, Chaucer’s depiction of alchemy is far more negative, with the Yeoman coming to repent his involvement with the swindling canon-alchemist by the end of the tale. However, Runstedler creates a fruitful comparison with Gower, and it becomes clear that both writers shared a view of the alchemy as a once-noble art debased by the moral laxity and ignorance of its modern practitioners. Chaucer’s Yeoman eventually concedes the inaccessibility of alchemical knowledge, and stands as the paradigm of the misapplication of knowledge for unmoral means. Runstedler highlights the innovations in the literary use of alchemy by both Gower and Chaucer in the development of the ‘new exempla’, and identifies a more complex moral tenor in Chaucer’s exemplary treatment.

John Lydgate’s The Churl and the Bird represents a reverse of allegorical dynamic. As opposed to alchemical practices standing for moral or spiritual matters, the narrative of this fifteenth-century tale was reinterpreted by an anonymous commentator as an allegory for alchemical processes. This writer takes an already moralizing tale by Lydgate and adds seven new stanzas to the work, which has the title bird stand for the alchemical principle of Mercury, entrapped by the greedy alchemist represented by the Churl within the figurative alembic of the cage. In this vision of the poem, alchemy is a harsh mistress, and ultimately gives up trying to impart a moral lesson to the unlearned churl; even if his alchemical goals were possible (and even this is somewhat ambiguous), the churl is too stupid to achieve them.

The final works analyzed are also the most understudied; two anonymous dialogues, one between Albertus Magnus and the Queen of the Elves, and another between Morienus and Merlin. In these fifteenth-century vernacular works, Runstedler’s interpretation of alchemical exemplarity become most clear. Morienus’s instructions to the child Merlin on the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone deploys not only the practical work of alchemy, but also its processes and transformations, to extol the virtues of labor and learning guided by Christian faith. A more spiritually ambiguous lesson in alchemy is analyzed in the same chapter, where Albertus prepares the ‘elixir vitiae’ under the supervision of the Queen of the Elves. This alchemy is ‘elvysshe’, at the boundaries of human understanding, yet is still a worthy pursuit. For Runstedler, these fifteenth-century dialogues present a positive view of alchemy for a vernacular audience, instructive not only for practical advice, but also its example of work-ethic.

Runstedler makes a compelling case for reading medieval alchemical poetry as not only exemplary, but representing a vehicle for new registers of secular and vernacular exemplarity developed by Chaucer and Gower. The work makes significant contributions to the study of alchemical dialogues from a literary perspective, and marshals a complex body of secondary scholarship. Alchemy and Exemplary Poetry offers useful insights for scholars in a range of fields, most significantly for those interested in the complex literary valences of knowledge-making and transmission.

Thomas Banbury, University of Cambridge