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Alchemy explored at highest level of church in medieval Tartu

Emblem on the alchemy manuscript.
Emblem on the alchemy manuscript. Source: emanuscript

While up to now it had been assumed that alchemy was not practiced by the Estonian clergy after the Reformation, a manuscript has come to light in Switzerland that appears to prove otherwise. By the early 1550s at the latest, under the guidance of Marsow, the highest Lutheran official in Tartu, it was possible to explore what was for the time, cutting-edge alchemy.

According to Kristi Viiding, senior researcher at the Under and Tuglas Literature Center in Tallinn, what makes this discovery remarkable is the fact that superintendent Marsow was based in Tartu. "After the Reformation, there were alchemists, doctors and lawyers moving around Tallinn, trying to get hired in the city. However, there is no reliable information about Tartu," Viiding explained.

Hermann Marsow, from Riga, had studied theology in Wittenberg with Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. He arrived in Estonia and Livonia to preach, first in Tartu in 1524, then from 1525 in Tallinn at St Olaf's Church, before returning again to Tartu after that, in 1529. Marsow was also one of the founders of the first evangelical church order in Tallinn.

Dedication to Marsow. Source: emanuscript

Marsow's interest in alchemy becomes particularly intriguing in the context of his education and faith. Notably, Luther, a reformist, was quite alchemically inclined in his teaching. When, in the second half of the 16th century, alchemy was practiced in some German courts, it was mainly by Calvinists. In Viiding's view, this gives reason to suspect that an important religious figure at that time in Tartu was not in fact a Calvinist in Lutheran skin. However, there is no data to confirm this.

A 16th-century manuscript indicating Marsow's interest in alchemy came to the attention of researchers after being discovered the Central Library of Zurich in Switzerland. The manuscript is an alchemical treatise written in both German and Latin, consisting of 15 short rhymed poems, with a colored emblem accompanying each poem and an explanation.

According to Viiding, the manuscript's preface makes it possible to attribute the texts to Johannes Lambspring, the great European alchemist of the 15th and 16th centuries, whose texts also influenced the hermetic approach to alchemy, which later reached the Academia Gustaviana in the 17th century.

Emblem from the manuscript. Source: emanuscript

The manuscript is linked to Marsow via a dedication written in Latin on the title page. It reads: "On November 1, in the year 1553 of our Lord and Savior Christ, through our friendship, I was made a partaker of the secret of this hidden philosophy by the venerable and pious lord, Superintendent of the Church of Tartu, Hermann Marsow, the supreme patron of alchemy, who died in pious memory in 1556."

According to Viiding, the dedication does not allow us to say anything specific about the Marsow network. However, it does prove that alchemical ideas were favored at the highest level of the church here. The discovery also confirms the spread of the tools necessary for alchemical practices to post-Reformation Tartu, as well as the practice of alchemy at least 80 years before the first local academy was established.

An eternal tour, not gold

However, Marsow, who practiced in Tartu's old St Mary's Church, is not known to have been attracted by an interest in turning metals into gold or discovering a philosopher's stone, practices which are often associated with alchemy. Marsow was more interested in the spiritual side of the field, in other words in alchemical theology. References to the practical nuances of alchemy, however, can be found in Tallinn in the 1540s, where a doctor from the Prussian territories had a major deal with the local town council.

"Alchemical theology exploited the prevailing notion of the micro- and macrocosm in European thought, exploring how everything that happens at the level of what might be called man, animal, plant or nature is reflected back at a higher theological level. How the holy trinity corresponds to the three elements - earth, water and air - and how this correspondence gives rise to an eternal cycle: from the Father, or earth, through the air, or Holy Spirit, comes water, or the Son, who enters the world, a process of splashing takes place, until, with the return and reunion of the Son, the process of renewal begins anew," explained Viiding. The lead researcher added that there were in fact many such theological interpretations.

Emblem from the manuscript. Source: emanuscript

The manuscript that has come to light contains colorful emblems illustrate the poems describing the alchemic process. There are no practical tips or test tubes involved. Instead, it depicts flowers, fish, birds and other animals that are all involved in one way or another.

According to Viiding, the prevalence of alchemical-spiritual practices reflects the general mood of the period. "The Reformation was a crisis. All people had to cope with it somehow and try to explain things to themselves in order to understand them. Not that this is a crisis book now, but I think it's very easy during such troubled times to identify these theories or disciplines in which you can find some sort of all-encompassing explanation," said the researcher.

What will become of the information in the manuscript remains unclear. According to Viiding, mapping Marsow's possible network will require new textual evidence as well as specialists, who are interested in exploring the subject. "The unfortunate thing is that the discovery falls somewhere between two investigative fields. For scholars of medieval history, it is a bit late and they are no longer particularly interested. For scholars of the early Middle Ages it is too early. The theologians should actually deal with this element when they are writing theological histories and histories of the Estonian church, for example, because it certainly needs a theological interpretation," Viiding added.

The reference to Marsow was found during in a text uncovered in the course of the recently completed joint project "Literary Representations of Early Modern Crisis in Central and North Eastern Europe" (2021-2023), which was conducted by the Estonian Academy of Sciences' Under and Tuglas Literature Center and the Czech Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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