Special Collections and University Archives has recently acquired a copy of La Chymie Charitable et Facile en Faveur des Dames (Free and Easy Chemistry for Ladies), a treatise by French chemist and alchemist Marie Meurdrac (c. 1610-1680).
Meurdrac’s La Chymie is a notable work in the history of early modern science and is especially noteworthy as a contribution by a woman in the field. The text was first published in 1656 in Paris and subsequently published in five more French editions and translated into German and Italian. SCUA’s copy is one of the third edition printed in 1687, which is the first edition to contain an illustrated frontispiece depicting a Classically-robed woman theatrically pulling back a curtain to reveal books and vessels associated with chemical experimentation.
Classification of La Chymie’s genre has been actively debated and negotiated by twentieth-century scholars. The text addresses (1) principles and operations, vessels, lutes, furnaces, characteristics and weights, (2) medical herbs and medicines made from such plants, (3) animals, (4) metals, (5) making compound medicines, and (6) methods of preserving and increasing beauty for women. It primarily describes the language, equipment, recipes, and processes of alchemy, including a fold-out plate depicting a reference table of alchemical symbols (pictured below). These processes are also related to early modern chemistry, and recent interrogations of the boundaries of historical disciplines has allowed scholars to consider the work as an amalgamation of early modern genres including recipe or “receipt” books, medical cookery, alchemy, chemistry, and medicine (Feinstein, 2009).
Meurdrac might also be considered a proto-Feminist. She writes the work for a female audience and is consciously aware of prohibitive cost and limited access to equipment and supplies described in her procedures. She also describes her charitable aim in writing for the poor, which may be seen as a conventional claim that helps her justify publishing such a work. Additionally, she directly addresses gender disparity in academic pursuits saying that, “were women provided with the same education as men, they would equal them in knowledge.” She adds that there are women in her time who have equaled men in prose, poetry, language, philosophy, and government. (Feinstein, 2009, p. 225).
Sources: Feinstein, S. (2009). La Chymie for women: Engaging chemistry’s bodies. Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 4, 223-224.