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Medieval alchemy was an overwhelmingly masculine practice, and its instruction books reflect the exclusivity of its practitioners. This article examines the use of secrecy and masculine discourse in a sixteenth-century Latin alchemical handbook, the Liber aureus, to demonstrate that there exists an erotically charged tension between authors and their readers. Alchemical instruction books like the Liber aureus draw upon this tension in the service of a particular kind of gatekeeping that creates hierarchies of both knowledge and alchemical practitioners. By investigating secrecy and its provocative effects both within and beyond this manuscript, I argue that alchemical instruction books’ secretive encoding of scientific practice simultaneously works to maintain an inherently masculine erotics of knowledge and serves as an intentionally double-edged rhetorical strategy. These methods of occlusion, which frustrate attempts at hermeneutical closure, are meant to educate the initiated and exclude the uninformed, but they also strive to consolidate an idea of “alchemists” as an identifiable masculinist category centered around access to knowledge within a larger spectrum of scientific power and authority.


I am extremely grateful to Matthew Aiello, Christine Chism, Melissa Ridley Elmes, Matthew Fisher, Lowell Gallagher, Misho Ishikawa, Jamie Taylor, and Elly Truitt for their feedback and assistance on multiple drafts of this article. This paper would not have been possible without the support of the Ahmanson Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, and the staff of UCLA Special Collections.


alchemy, masculinity, gender, roger bacon, liber aureus, secrecy