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Dreams of an alchemist, 1658
A husband and wife reunited
I turned back to look upon my wife, and she appeared to me in green silk down to the ground, and much taller…
Having moved house a few months ago, most of my own collection of too-many-books has lain hidden in boxes, but I’ve recently started burrowing through these, making some discoveries of forgotten tomes. For example, slipped almost invisible between other books was a thin 16-page pamphlet entitled A Notebook by Thomas Vaughan, ‘Alchemical Treatise Series 3’. I really have no idea what specifically prompted me to buy this; it was perhaps 30 years ago, as I had studied the 17th century metaphysical poetry of Thomas’s twin brother Henry at university back then, as well as having a nebulous interest in esoterica. And of course… I’d never read it.
This 1983 pamphlet from the Alchemical Press in Washington State turns out to be a reprint from The Works of Thomas Vaughan,1 a 1919 edition by the prolific Anglo-American occultist A.E. Waite (he’s perhaps best known for co-creating a well-known Tarot deck, though I was amused to learn that he also spent a decade working for the manufacturer of the malted bedtime drink Horlicks). And the notebook in question is a selection of an alchemical work (held in the British Library), Aqua Vitae, Non Vitis (roughly, ‘The Spirit of Life, not of the Vine’). The alchemical stuff is hard to follow for a modern reader and typically has a lot of arcane terminology (e.g. ‘eagle’ or ‘aquila’ meant sal ammoniac) – but Waite notes in his introduction that interspersed among it are “private Memoranda concerning Vaughan’s wife and himself which are the important parts of the document”, and those in fact are what his selection focuses on. They are rather charming and poignant, as you can see shortly.
Thomas Vaughan (1621–1695), whose cool alchemist handle was ‘Eugenius Philalethes’, was a Welshman who was born near Brecon and was later rector of the same parish. He studied at Oxford from 1638 and became a supporter of the Royalist cause (Oxford being Charles I’s capital) during the English Civil War, apparently even taking part in the Battle of Rowton Heath near Chester in 1645 (which the Royalists lost). He gradually became more interested in alchemy (which was a heady brew of experimental science and occult mysticism), and set up his lab in London; he also got involved with some sulphurous squabbles with rival alchemists and philosophers (perhaps a story for another time). When the Great Plague hit London in 1665, he fled back to Oxfordshire, where he died while experimenting with mercury. So it goes.
Thomas married Rebecca in London in September 1651 – this was during Cromwell’s rule, in a period which genealogists call the ‘Commonwealth gap’ when the parish record system introduced by Henry VIII was suspended, so family records from this era are hard to find. One of the main experts on Vaughan, Donald Dixon,2 asserted in a 1998 essay (‘The alchemystical wife’)3 that she was the daughter of Dr Timothy Archer, rector of Meppershall on the border of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire; certainly we know that she died in London in April 1658 and was then buried 50 miles away at Meppershall nine days later. Thomas’s writings reveal that Rebecca was an active contributor to his work, as marks various places in the text of Aqua Vitae, Non Vitis with ‘T R V’, and he calls one of his mixtures ‘Aqua Rebecca’. As so often with women in past eras, we can only see glimpses of them in the margins – but it seems clear she was a notable example of a female English alchemist.4 In his 1650 work Magia Adamica, Vaughan himself noted:
For my part I think women are fitter for it than men, for in such things they are more neat and patient…
The extracts of Thomas Vaughan’s notebook that follow were written within a year of her death, and memories of her fill his dreams and thoughts.
On Friday the 18th of July, I myself sickened at Wapping, and that night I dreamed I was pursued by a stone horse, as my dear wife dreamed before she sickened, and I was grievously troubled all night with a suffocation at the heart, which continued all next day most violently, and still it remains, but with some little remission…
My most dear wife sickened on Friday in the evening, being the 16th of April, and died the Saturday following in the evening, being the 17th. And was buried on the 26th of the same month, being a Monday in the afternoon, at Mappersall in Bedfordshire, 1658. We were married in the year 1651, by a minister whose name I have forgotten, on the 28th of September. God of his infinite and sure mercies in Christ Jesus, bring us together again in Heaven, whither she is gone before me…
On the same day my dear wife sickened, being a Friday, and at the same time of the day, namely in the evening, my gracious God did put into my heart the secret of extracting the oil of Halcali [alkali], which I had once accidentally found at the Pinner of Wakefield in the days of my most dear wife. [This probably refers to the Pindar of Wakefield, a London inn in our old friend the parish of St Pancras.] But it was again taken from me by a most wonderful judgement of God, for I could never remember how I did it, but made a hundred attempts in vain. And now my glorious God (Whose name be praised for ever) has brought it again into my mind, and on the same day my dear wife sickened; and on the Saturday following, which was the day she died on, I extracted it by the former practice: so that on the same day, which proved the most sorrowful to me, whatever can be, God was pleased to confer upon me the greatest joy I can ever have in this world after her death. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away…
To the end we might live well and exercise our charity, which was wanting in neither of us, to our power, I employed myself all her life time in the acquisition of some natural secrets, to which I had been disposed from my youth up; and what I now write, and know of them practically, I attained to in her days, not before in very truth, nor after, but during the time we lived together at the Pinner of Wakefield… I found them not by my own wit or labour, but by God’s blessing and the encouragement I received from a most loving, obedient wife, whom I beseech God to reward in Heaven for all the happiness and content she afforded me…
The dream I wrote on the foregoing page is not to be neglected, for my dear wife, a few nights before, appeared to me in my sleep and foretold me the death of my dear father; and since it is really come to pass, for he is dead and gone to my merciful God, as I have been informed by letters come to my hand from the country…
When my dear wife and I lived at the Pinner of Wakefield I remember I melted down equal parts of Talc and the Eagle with Brimstone, repeating the fusion twice. And after that, going to draw Spirit of Salt with Oil of Glass, I chanced (as I think) to mingle some Bay-Salt, or that of Colla Maris, with the former composition and I had an oil with which I did miracles. But assaying to make more of it I never could effect it, having forgotten the composition…
Left at Mrs Highgate’s [probably someone the Vaughans lodged with]:
One flat trunk of my dear wife’s, with her maiden name upon it.
Another cabinet trunk of my dear wife’s in which is her small rock and Bible, and her maiden Bible I have by me.
One great wooden box of my dear wife’s in which is all her best apparel, and in that is her great Bible with her practice of piety and her other books of Devotion.
Another wooden box with pillows in it and a sweet basket of my dear wife’s.
One large trunk of my dear wife’s with my name upon it, in which are the silver spoons. And in the drawers are two small boxes, one with a lock of my dear wife’s hair, made up with her own hands, and another with several small locks in it.
One pair of grate irons with brass knobs and a single pair with brass knobs, a fire shovel, tongs and bellows; my dear wife’s little chair, a round table, joint stool and close stool, with a great glass full of eye-water, made at the Pinner of Wakefield, by my dear wife and my sister Vaughan [his brother Henry’s wife Catherine], who are both now with God.
April 8th. Die ♀ [i.e. Friday]
I went that night to bed after earnest prayers and tears and towards the daybreak, or just upon it, I had this following dream: I thought that I was again newly married to my dear wife and brought her along with me to shew her to some of my friends, which I did in these words. Here is a wife, which I have not chosen of myself, but my father did choose her for me [this was not true of our temporal marriage, nor of our natural parents, and therefore it signifies some greater mercy], and asked me if I would not marry her, for she was a beautiful wife. He had no sooner shewed her to me, but I was extremely in love with her and I married her presently. When I had thus said, I thought, we were both left alone, and calling her to me, I took her into my arms and she presently embraced me and kissed me; nor had I in all this vision any sinful desire, but such a love to her as I had to her very soul in my prayers, to which this dream was an answer. Hereupon I awaked presently with exceeding great inward joy.
April the 9th. Die ♄ [Saturday]
I went to bed after prayers and hearty tears and had this dream towards daybreak. I dreamed I was in some obscure, large house, where there was a tumultuous, raging people, amongst whom I knew not any but my brother H. My dear wife was there with me, but having conceived some discomfort at their disorder, I quitted the place, and went out, leaving my dear wife behind me. As I went out I considered with myself, and called to mind some small, at least seeming, unkindnesses I had used towards my dear wife in her lifetime, and the remembrance of them being odious to me I wondered with myself that I should leave her behind me and neglect her company, having now the opportunity to converse with her after death.
These were my thoughts, whereupon I turned in, and taking her along with me, there followed us a certain person, with whom I had in former times revelled away many years in drinking. I had in my hand a very long cane, and at last we came to a churchyard, and it was the brightest daylight that ever I beheld: when we were about the middle of the churchyard, I struck upon the ground with my cane at the full length and it gave a most shrill, reverberating echo. I turned back to look upon my wife, and she appeared to me in green silk down to the ground, and much taller, and slenderer than she was in her lifetime, but in her face there was so much glory, and beauty, that no Angel in Heaven can have more. She told me the noise of the cane had frighted her a little, but saying so she smiled upon me and looked most divinely. Upon this I looked up to Heaven, and having quite forgot my first apprehension, which was true, namely that she appeared thus to me after her death, I was much troubled in mind lest I should die before her, and this I feared upon a spiritual account, lest after my death she might be tempted to do amiss, and to live otherwise than she did at present. While I was thus troubled, the cane that was in my hand suddenly broke, and when it was broken, it appeared no more like a cane, but was a brittle, weak reed. This did put me in mind of her death again, and so did put me out of my fear, and the doubts I conceived, if I died before her. When the reed was broken, she came close to me, and I gave her the longer half of the reed, and the furthest end and the shortest I kept for myself; but looking on the broken end of it, and finding it ragged, and something rough, she gave me a knife to polish it, which I did. Then we passed both out of the churchyard, and turning to the gentleman that followed me I asked him if he would go along with us, but he utterly refused; and the truth is, he still follows the world too much. Then I turned to my dear wife to go along with her, and having so done I awaked.
By this dream, and the shortest part of the reed left in my hand, I guess I shall not live so long after her, as I have lived with her. [They lived together for less than seven years, and apart thereafter for less than eight.]
His translation of the full text of Aqua Vitae: Non Vitis was published by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in 2001.
Published in The Seventeenth Century, 13:1.