Today is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Elias Ashmole. Perhaps best known today for giving his name (and the founding collection of antiquities and “curiosities”) to the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, this 17th-century antiquarian had a wide range of interests, including astrology and alchemy.
Ashmole’s first appearance in print was due to his interest astrology.1 In 1647, two of his translations appeared in William Lilly’s The Worlds Catastrophe.
While providing translations of the prophecies of Merlin and John Tritemius might not have been an overtly political act, surely Ashmole (a staunch royalist) must have felt a twinge of apprehension at contributing to Lilly’s parliamentarian-leaning publication. Ashmole’s royalist leanings came through even more clearly at the time of the Restoration, when he published a celebratory poem, Sol in ascendente, or, The glorious appearance of Charles the Second, upon the horizon of London, in her horoscopicall sign, Gemini.
However, despite the fact that they were on opposite sides of the conflict, Lilly and Ashmole remained friends through the Interregnum and Restoration; they participated in the Society for Astrologers together, from 1649-58, and Ashmole’s life-long interest in astrology matched Lilly’s. Indeed, they were such good friends that it was Ashmole at Lilly’s deathbed in 1681.2
An interest in astrology often went hand in hand with an interest in alchemy, and that was certainly true for Ashmole. His interest in alchemy peaked in the years around 1650. His first alchemical work was Fasciculus chemicus: or Chymical collections in 1650, a translation of Arthur Dee’s work, which Ashmole published under the pseudonym James Hasolle.3 Dee was the son of the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee, and wrote this alchemical tract while serving as the chief physician to Tsar Michael Romanov’s court.4 Ashmole’s translation came out about a year before Dee’s death, but Dee is not mentioned by name anywhere in the volume. He is simply referred to as one of the “choicest and most famous authors.”
The volume also possess a lovely frontispiece, showing symbols of the alchemical trade:
Two years later, Ashmole published Theatrum chemicum britannicum, a collection of English alchemical poems, meant to supplement the Latin (i.e. European-focused) Theatrum chemicum, which was first published in 1602. Ashmole also likely wished to highlight the English contributions to the field of alchemy, and this volume has become an important source for the history of English alchemy, including text that had previously only appeared in manuscript.5
In the preface, Ashmole invokes a litany of the wisdom of England, including the opening four lines of the Prologue of the Franklin’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer himself makes an appearance at the end of the book:
Along with a number of other lovely engravings by Robert Vaughan:
We are not, of course, the first to commemorate a centenary anniversary of Elias Ashmole. On his first, in 1717, Memoirs of the life of that learned antiquary, Elias Ashmole, Esq ; drawn up by himself by way of diary. With an appendix of original letters. was published by Charles Burman.
In the preface, Burman notes that the book was printed from a copy of Ashmole’s own papers, made by Robert Plot. Plot was a student and protégé of Ashmole himself, and the first curator of the Ashmolean Museum; clearly, Burman was hoping to establish both legitimacy and authority by invoking Plot’s name. The “original letters” at the end of the book include correspondence with notables such as Thomas Barlow, John Evelyn, and Joshua Barnes. The diary entries are full of references to astrology and alchemy, from texts that he read or was given, to discussions and gatherings of like-minded people.
Sounds like a pretty good way to celebrate a milestone birthday.
- Michael Hunter, ‘Ashmole, Elias (1617–1692)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006.
- Patrick Curry, ‘Lilly, William (1602–1681)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Eat your heart out, Tom Marvolo Riddle.
- John H. Appleby, ‘Dee, Arthur (1579–1651)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.
- Hunter, Ashmole DNB article.