The Ambivalent Alchemist’s Guide to History: Or, Why Gabriel Plattes Matters

“But if you look at the history, modern chemistry only starts coming in to replace alchemy around the same time capitalism really gets going. Strange, eh? What do you make of that?”

Webb nodded agreeably. “Maybe capitalism decided it didn’t need the old magic anymore.” An emphasis whose contempt was not meant to escape Merle’s attention. “Why bother? Had their own magic, doin just fine, thanks, instead of turning lead into gold, they could take poor people’s sweat and turn it into greenbacks, and save that lead for enforcement purposes.”

— Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

I originally planned to call this post “The Ambivalent Alchemist Plattes”, a muted echo of “The Great Alchemist Bragadini.” But since then, I’ve found myself writing more than intended about the larger question of Why History Is Necessary, and specifically on why we historians need to stand our ground on the substance of our discipline rather than merely touting the remunerative skills that studying it also develops. (They’re real, they’re valuable, but they won’t save us.) And I’ve wondered whether it might not be worth recasting my thoughts on the utopian, alchemist, agricultural reformer, and champion of excrement Gabriel Plattes (c.1600-1644) in that broader light. So, to put it bluntly: does Gabriel Plattes matter?

One might as well ask: did he ever matter? Compared to bankable stars of seventeenth-century science such as Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle or Isaac Newton, or even his friend and patron Samuel Hartlib, the Kevin Bacon of 1640s intellectual networks, Plattes was a D-lister on his best days. One of the first things I learned about him as a young researcher, from a note a contemporary scrawled on the flyleaf of one of his books, was that he “died of meer want In the year 1644 at London”.[1] Even to many scholars of early science — to say nothing of university Vice Chancellors or politicians — spending much time studying the ideas of an alchemist (an ambivalent one, fer Chrissakes) who starved to death without a single patent, policy, or major external grant to his name is what my four-year-old daughter would call a “bad choice”.

Yet Plattes is, I think, interesting. In an era increasingly taken with the idea of subduing and transforming nature, he wrote reasonably well-regarded books on the “improvement” of mining and agriculture. He also produced an allegorical utopia, really a thinly disguised policy project tendered to Parliament, The Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria; this proposed that technological improvements divulged elsewhere in Plattes’s oeuvre would allow England to double its population while better supporting the poor.[2] And he wrote about alchemy. Unusually, though, he wrote both for and against it, from the viewpoint of a successful practitioner and from that of a jaded critic, and all “around the same time capitalism really [got] going”. So even if he was a failure — as he certainly was, whether measured by our usual standards or by his own hopes — he was also a curious specimen. Maybe, if the right questions are asked, a revealing one.

In 1655, Hartlib published a volume of Chymical, Medicinal, and Chyrurgical [i.e. surgical] Addresses, including a short work of Plattes’s, the “Caveat for Alchymists”. In part, this was indeed a warning to would-be alchemists not “to undo and begger themselves” searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. In part it was more properly a caveat about alchemists (something the Venetians could have used in 1589). Plattes listed a variety of “cheats” by which the Bragadinis of the world gulled their victims. This was pretty low-rent stuff: concealing gold or silver before the “transmutation” either in a secret powder or liquid, in the crucible, or even (this one courtesy of Chaucer’s “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale”) in the coals themselves.[3] If Bragadini had seemed to command the very elements and have princes at his beck and call, Plattes’s sham-alchemist was a glorified birthday magician.

And yet in the same breath, Plattes insisted that the Philosophers’ Stone was real. He even offered, à la Bragadini, “to shew the Art of the transmutation of Mettals, if I may have a Laboratory, like to that in the City of Venice, where they are sure of secrecy”.[4] His earlier works, especially the Discovery of Subterranneall Treasure (1639) evinced a similar ambivalence: alchemy was real; Plattes could perform it, given material, space and secrecy; yet for most people it was not worth doing.[5] Was this simply an advanced version of Bragadini’s pitch, tweaked for a more self-consciously skeptical audience? Was Plattes separating the art of alchemy from the scam-artists who perverted it simply to pass his own artistry off as the real thing?

Here is where Plattes’s case gets at some of the substantive challenges and, therefore, the benefits of studying periods of history before, say, 1945. Knowing what we know now (that alchemy is bunk) we may be tempted to see the skeptical Plattes — the one who warned people away from alchemy and exposed its practitioners’ tricks — as a modern and sympathetic figure. Plattes the defender of alchemy, by contrast, is apt to seem not only transparently self-interested (another scam-artist) but even self-contradictory (a credulous idiot). Now, people aren’t always consistent, but it is still hard to see how all of these things can be true of the same person, with respect to the same concerns, at the same moment. Yet he wrote what he wrote. So perhaps the problem lies with “what we know now” — with the criteria of plausibility, coherence, and relevance that our present knowledge imposes on our interpretation of the past. Perhaps “what we know now” is not a high peak from which to survey the world but a set of blinders that obscures what’s in front of us.

Let’s look at Plattes again. The Discovery of Subterranneall Treasure does indeed confirm the possibility of transmuting base metals into gold while also arguing against anyone’s actually doing so. Specifically, it argues that “good gold may be extracted out of any Iron… but [only] by a tedious, laborious, and costly way: and when all is done, there will be no gaine, unlesse it be in conceite.” Why is turning iron into gold a bad idea? In a word, inflation.

First, in ancient times a mans worke was not worth above a penny a day, which now is worth two shillings sixe pence a day, as may appeare by ancient records for buildings, and the like: so that there is thirty to one losse in the workmanship.

Secondly, then coales, vessels, & other things necessary for these affaires did cost little, in respect of the charge now.

Thirdly, when the gold was made, it would then have bought thirty or forty times as much, either lands, leases, victuals, or workmanship as now.

So that I conclude, that then the owners of this Art might gaine 30. or 40. for one, and yet now they shall lose extreamly.[6]

Between the increased cost of materials and labor, and the decreasing value of gold, transmutation was simply no longer profitable. An apparently pre-modern belief in the Philosophers’ Stone did not preclude a modern-seeming attention to wage and price fluctuations; these two realities were in fact related in an eminently logical way. Alchemy was subjected to capitalist logic.

Yet if making gold was a waste of money, why bother insisting that transmutation worked? Why not just embrace the modern and ditch alchemy for capitalism as we know it? The short answer is that for Plattes, all productive processes were in some sense transmutations; capitalism, one might say, was a matter of alchemy. A passage from his treatise on agricultural improvement, Discovery of Infinite Treasure (also printed in 1639) makes these connections:

all treasure and riches are nothing but congealed vapours: for what is corne, and fruits, the chiefest of all riches, but the fatnesse of the earth… elevated by the heate of the Sunne, and turned into vapour by the helpe of the Vniversall spirit of the world, then drawne together by the Adamantine vertue of the Seeds, and Plants, and so congealed into the same forme? and what is Silke, Velvet, fine Clothes, &c. but the vapours of Animalls congealed in the superficies of their bodies, where the Animall heate was able to elevate them no further? … [Even] Gold that great Commander, is nothing else but the said fatnesse of the earth, elevated by the said universall spirit, and after depuration congealed into that splendorous Body.[7]

Material wealth, in all its myriad forms, came ultimately from the transmutation of earthly products — first by nature, and then by human labor and art — into commodities. Gold-making was a paradigmatic example of this, but only an example. Humankind depended on the exhalations of the planet not merely for its coin but for its existence.

The planet, moreover, was even then revealing its limitations. As earlier posts have suggested, population growth was a matter of interest in mid-seventeenth-century England. Plattes noted the propensity of people to multiply, and speculated about the relationship between numbers, resources, and technology. In fact, he constructed a sort of stage-history of human development around the interaction between these factors, arguing that population pressure had led to three epoch-making agricultural innovations: the discovery of agriculture, the invention of the plough, and crop rotation. Now pressure was mounting again. The discovery of new — to Plattes and his contemporaries, vacant — land in the Americas would alleviate this temporarily. But since “the finding of new worlds, is not like to be a perpetuall trade”, a technological revolution was once again needed to aid the work of nature in meeting the needs of a growing population.[8] Bringing this revolution about was Plattes’s great purpose.

What would the revolution look like? Plattes addressed his ideas to Parliament on the eve of the Civil War, when revolutions of all sorts — political, religious, scientific, and perhaps even ecological — seemed to be at hand. In this light, it is embarrassing to admit that if any one word sums up Plattes’s revolutionary plan, that word is probably “shit”. He proposed a slew of measures to recapture “the vegetable spirit of the world, by which all things do encrease and multiply” and return it to the ground: tree-planting, enclosure, irrigation.[9] He advised housemaids to gather up soot and rags from their masters’ houses; blood, horn shavings, hair, and leather scraps from butchers, barbers, and tanners; dung from wherever it could be had. Once turned into bricks of fertilizer, this would be their dowry. Householders should build extra privies, the better to store up and transmute their stinking “excrement” into saltpetre that gave off “the sweet smell of money” — and of good citizenship.[10] His was, in J.C. Davis’s phrase, a “full-employment utopia”, from the bottom up.[11] A sort of Malthus on laughing gas, he wrote that “as God is infinite, and men are infinite by propagation, so the fruits of the Earth for their food, and cloathing are infinite, if men will consent to put their helping hands to this commendable Designe.” This “will do more good in the world, then ever the Phylosophers Stone did yet since the world began.”[12] 

What Plattes has to tell us depends, of course, on the questions we think to ask. One can find in him a member of an important scientific network; an early advocate of applied science; a champion of social transformation and economic development; or, taking a cue from Pynchon’s characters, a man navigating alchemical transmutation and commodity production simultaneously, at a moment when a breach between the logic of one and the imperatives of the other was beginning to appear but did not yet seem unbridgeable. One can use Plattes to think about the history of global thinking or population anxiety, or the beginnings of an ecological sensibility, or about the history of the history of technology. What is striking is not so much the absence of any unequivocal “lesson” — how drab that would be! — as the potential “relevance”, for any number of reasons, of any number of questions that his story, even in the sketch offered here, might provoke. That, and the fact that it is the most initially incomprehensible aspects of cases like Plattes’s that are most suggestive once grasped. If nothing else, his weirdness is a reminder that history can take us beyond ourselves and our present, beyond “what we know now”; and that it is precisely when it does so that it is most likely to cast our own ideas and experiences in a new light.


[1] It’s in a British Library copy of Plattes, A Discovery of Subterranneall Treasure (London, 1639), and can be seen on Early English Books Online — for those with access.
[2] Plattes, A Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria (London, 1641).
[3] Hartlib, Chymical, Medicinal, and Chyrurgical Addresses (London, 1655), 51-[86], at 52, 66-81. The “Caveat” is also excerpted in Stanton J. Linden (ed.), The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 199-207.
[4] Hartlib, Chymical… Addresses, [85].
[5] See especially Plattes, Discovery of Subterraneall Treasure, 25, 40-43. I have written about Plattes’s argument in a more academic vein here.
[6] Ibid., 43.
[7] Plattes, A Discovery of Infinite Treasure, Hidden since the Worlds Beginning (London, 1639), sig. C3v-C4r.
[8] Ibid., sig. C3r-C3v.
[9] Gabriel Plattes, The Profitable Intelligencer, Communicating His Knowledge for the Generall Good of the Common-wealth and All Posterity (London, 1644), sig. A3r; Plattes, Discovery of Infinite Treasure, 9-35.
[10] Plattes, Profitable Inteligencer, sig. A3r-A3v.
[11] J.C. Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing, 1516-1700 (Cambridge University Press,), 299-367.
[12] Plattes, Profitable Intelligencer, sig. A2r, A4v.

One thought on “The Ambivalent Alchemist’s Guide to History: Or, Why Gabriel Plattes Matters

  1. Pingback: New publication: Alchemical transmutation and economic value in the seventeenth century | memorious

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