Friday, August 17, 2012

London 2012: A Research Trip in an Olympic Year

By Jason Underhill (Ph.D. student)

The Olympic Stadium
 They all said I was crazy embarking on a research trip to London during the Olympics. “It will be impossible to get around!” they cried. “You’ll never get any research done during the Olympics” others warned. I am happy to report that the naysayers were absolutely wrong.* I went to London this summer looking for alchemical recipes and returned with enough material for my dissertation, a 100 level history course, and a 300 level chemistry course.

The British Library
I love the British Library. I think it’s one of my favourite buildings in the world. It’s one of the few places where, just by entering, you stand upon the steps of tomorrow. A place in which something innovative is always being developed that will take the world by surprise. Contained within the holdings of the library, however, are manuscripts that allow you to sink into the past and discover all the plans and schemes that have led to the dreams of all mankind.

Letter from William Medley to Lord Burleigh, process for transmuting iron into copper (1572)
The staff at the library were exceptional even during a time when the library was overrun with a combination of tourists, scholars, and literary fanatics visiting the “Writing Britain” exhibit. I was able to finish my research in only two days and obtain copies of the five recipes I needed, plus a few letters that I'd missed last year.

The first of these recipes was one that detailed the process by which Edward Kelley (John Dee’s skryer) coated copper with silver in such a way that it would convince all those watching that it had been transmuted. The second is the process that William Medley used to supposedly transmute iron into copper, copperas and alum. This recipe would form the foundation of the Society of the New Art which attracted many prominent Elizabethan nobles including secretary of state Thomas Smith, Lord High Treasurer William Cecil, the queen’s favourite Robert Dudley, the poet Edward Dyer, the Countess of Pembroke Mary Sidney Herbert and her husband and brother. The final recipes were by Raymond Lully and detailed ways in which to manipulate lead, antimony, silver, mercury and other metals to become potent medical treatments for various diseases.

These will be used for my dissertation, as part of a potential publication--and my joint project with the Chemistry Department this term: to test alchemical recipes in theory, which may lead to practical tests of these recipes in the future.

That, of course, was not the end of my work. Knowing that I would be teaching History 110 this fall I visited the British Museum to take advantage of their Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Chinese and Roman exhibits.
At the British Museum
I look forward to using images like these in my teaching when we examine ancient art and architecture. Of course, my experiences at the London 2012 Olympics will also be used to lecture on the Ancient Greek games. In all, this turned out to be one of my most promising and productive summers yet despite all of the doom and gloom forecasts for London 2012!

* The editor, having spent the summer in London, agrees with Jason. The centre of London was very quiet--and reading rooms at various libraries, nearly empty.