Curtis Runstedler, ‘Amongst the Hermetick Philosophers’: Alchemical Afterlives in Medieval and Early Modern England

Curtis Runstedler, whose article will be appearing in the forthcoming OGOM Company of Wolves special issue of Gothic Studies, is giving this public talk on alchemy–it looks fascinating and I’m sorry not to be able to attend myself, but do go along if you can.

Curtis Runstedler (Durham University) will be presenting a public lecture titled ‘”Amongst the Hermetick Philosophers”: Alchemical Afterlives in Medieval and Early Modern England’, in which he will examine the alchemical and literary reputation of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower in the early modern period. The lecture will take place in Palace Green Library on Friday, 2 June from 6-8 pm. 

He will also be leading a manuscript session in Palace Green Library Learning Centre from 2:30-4:30 pm, featuring several alchemical manuscripts including Reginald Scott’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, a sixteenth-century MS of Gower’s Confessio amantis, Thomas Tyrwhitt’s eighteenth-century Canterbury Tales, and a facsimile of Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum chemicum Britannicum

This public lecture is part of Durham University’s annual community course, which features presentations to the public from the university’s postgraduate research students. The full course is offered at a charge of 35 pounds per person. You can sign up via the link below:

https://www.dur.ac.uk/imems/events/?eventno=34148

Abstract

The fourteenth-century writers Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower included sections on alchemy in their medieval poetry. Both alchemical sections were widely circulated among medieval and early modern audiences in England. While they were most likely not practising alchemists, however, both writers were seen as alchemical adepts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This session will examine the reception of Chaucer and Gower’s alchemical writing in their own time as well as their development into mythological alchemical authorities in early modern England.

I will notably draw upon Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and Book IV of Gower’s Confessio amantis, as well as Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum chemicum Britannicum, in which the two medieval poets are described as alchemical adepts. I will introduce these texts within the world of fourteenth-century English alchemy, linking their medieval works to the early modern printed book through their exemplary reading of alchemy

After the lecture, we will examine Thomas Tyrwhitt’s eighteenth-century annotations to the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale as well as a sixteenth-century manuscript of the Confessio amantis in the Palace Green Library. I will discuss these annotations in the context of their reception in the early modern period, comparing their original texts and meaning to their early modern alchemical rolesThese examples reveal the connection between Gower and Chaucer’s alchemical role in late medieval manuscripts and the early printed book. Their alchemical afterlives are fuelled by the enduring interest in alchemical practice and its promises as well as the dissemination of alchemy into the vernacular in England.

Curtis Runstedler is a final year Ph.D. candidate in Medieval Literature. His research focusses on morality, exemplary narratives, and alchemy in Middle English poetry. He would be happy to share all the gold when he is successful with the Philosopher’s Stone.

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