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IRH Lecture: Lisa Cooper “Fish, Laundry, Cheese, and Gold: Thomas Norton’s the Ordinal of Alchemy and the Apparatus of the Everyday”

October 5, 2020 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Lisa Cooper, Resident Fellow (2020–2021), English, UW–Madison

[Due to COVID-19, this event has been moved to a digital conferencing platform. For more information about participation, contact IRH at info@irh.wisc.edu.]

England’s extensive tradition of premodern alchemical poetry has long been an object of fascination and frustration for would-be alchemists and scholars alike. This talk will consider one important exemplar of that tradition, Thomas Norton’s late fifteenth-century Middle English poem The Ordinal of Alchemy (1477), using it to perform something of a thought experiment with the terms of my larger project on the “poetics of practicality” in medieval England, where—following its twelfth-century arrival via translation from Arabic books—the quest for the Philosophers’ Stone, that elusive substance capable of transmuting base metal to gold, of healing bodily ills, and of extending human life, was as fervently engaged in as anywhere else in Europe. Seekers of the Stone, busying themselves for well over the next five hundred years with alembics, furnaces, and all manner of materials both metallic and otherwise, also produced a vast corpus of translations, compilations, commentaries, and original compositions that testify not only to the intense intellectual (at times pecuniary) desires that motivated them, but also to their belief in what were from their perspective alchemy’s eminently achievable, supremely practical goals. But what on earth can “practical” mean in the context of deliberately obfuscating language, complicated, expensive, and dangerous processes, and an assumed-to-be-certain yet ever-elusive, infinitely receding end? And how, and what, does poetry—a distinctive mode not only of medieval English alchemy, but also of any number of other practical arts—contribute to such a paradoxical practice?

Lisa H. Cooper is professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in the literature and culture of late medieval England. She is the author of Artisans and Narrative Craft in Late Medieval England (Cambridge, 2011) and, with Andrea Denny-Brown of UC-Riverside, the co-editor of Lydgate Matters: Poetry and Material Culture in the Fifteenth Century (Palgrave, 2008) and The Arma Christi in Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture (Ashgate, 2014). Her articles on a wide range of topics have appeared in journals including Speculum, the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern StudiesStudies in the Age of ChaucerNew Medieval Literatures, and Arthuriana. She has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and she is currently an H.I. Romnes Fellow at UW-Madison.