Isis 93:113-114 (2002)

The Opuscule written by Denis Zecaire in 1560 is one of the most famous testimonies to Renaissance alchemy. In addition to assessing the medieval alchemical heritage, the work is especially noteworthy because of the firsthand description of the alchemist's life it contains. As a whole, it offers a lively picture of traditional alchemy, which in the following decades would be deeply transformed by the impact of Paracelsian doctrines.Zecaire's work went through several editions, in French, Latin, and German, from 1567 until the very end of the eighteenth century , and the French text has been reprinted twice, in 1977 and 1990. Yet the present edition is the first to give the full text from a manuscript probably written by the author himself . Renan Crouvizier presents a valuable introductory essay that describes the results of his thorough research. Indeed, although an important outcome of Crouvizier's work is the restoration of passages lacking in the earlier editions, the main interest of this book is in the introduction, the careful biographical and sociological assessment of the author, and the overview of the sources and contents of his work.Despite the display of biographical and historical data in the first part of the Opuscule, the author's identity is still unknown. Crouvizier points to some features that might help us to ascertain who “Denis Zecaire” really was. Yet even this well‐equipped scholar must at present surrender before the “effacement social de Zecaire” , leaving us with only a faint hope that new sources may confirm the name “Johannes de Berle” proposed by the eighteenth‐century scholar Nicholas Lenglet‐Dufresnoy—or that a different name, confirming the features so carefully outlined, may emerge from archival records.Analysis of the autobiographical account in the Opuscule leads Crouvizier to affirm that Zecaire and his work are to be included in the “dossier des rapports entre protestantiste et alchimie” , therefore assigning it to the same intellectual milieu where Paracelsus was to find an audience. This conclusion is strengthened by the connection of the Opuscule with another alchemical work linked to French Paracelsianism, the Traité attributed to Bernard Le Trévisan, printed with Zecaire's Opuscule in the 1567 edition.However, the alchemical sources referred to in the second book of the Opuscule are clearly those of a pre‐Paracelsian alchemist, who accepted the traditional theory of “mercurius solus”—that is, the doctrine according to which metals are formed by one substance, mercury or quicksilver, whose fiery aspect manifests itself as “sulphur” in the formation of metals and in the alchemical opus. Only the transmutation of metals is considered; there is no hint of the alchemical distillation of alcohol. While the main source of the Opuscule seems to be Bernard Le Trévisan, the most‐quoted author is Petrus Bonus, and Zecaire clearly considers the doctrines of the Latin “Geber” and pseudo‐Lull—the most important medieval alchemical authors—as mutually consistent.The third part of the work is a suggestive allegory of the alchemical process, ending with instructions for using the “grant roy” or “divine oeuvre”—that is, the alchemical elixir—to transmute base metals, to make pearls and gems, and to heal the human body. Nothing new is developed from pseudo‐Lullian alchemy; but the interest shown by the Paracelsian Gerhard Dorn in Zecaire, whose work he translated into Latin in 1583, confirms that the French author can be placed in the intellectual stream leading from alchemy to “chemical philosophy.”
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DOI 10.1086/343285
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