Meredith Ray

Andrew W. Mellon Regional Fellow in the Humanities

20082009 Forum on Change

Meredith Ray

Assistant Professor, Italian, University of Delaware

The Alchemy of Gender: Women's Voices, Female Bodies, and Alchemical Discourse in Early Modern Italian Texts

The problem of change was intrinsic to early modern ideas about alchemy. Alchemical transmutation aimed not only to turn one substance into another but in doing so, to reveal—through change—the interconnectedness of all things. This transformative process was conceptualized using the language and imagery of gender: the central metaphor of the “great work” was that of the chemical wedding, in which male and female elements were sealed together in a womblike vessel. Alchemy’s gendered language and imagery filtered into popular discourse via vernacular literary works, “libri di segreti,” and medical manuals. Many such texts were aimed at a female public, which was itself undergoing a kind of transformation as it adapted to the emergence of the bourgeois household and changing roles for women. This project examines the concept of change as it relates both to the construction of alchemical practice and to its use as a didactic tool for readers in sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy.