Women Alchemists:
Stories and Reflections on Their Place in History, Psyche, and Science


Marie Meurdrac
Marie Meurdrac published La Chymie charitable et facile, en faveur des Dames in 1666. There seems to be some scholarly confusion regarding whether the author was Marie or her sister, Catherine; however, the 1666 edition identifies the author as “Damoiselle M. M.”

 To this date, there appears to be little that has been found regarding Marie’s biography; however, she lived in France in the 17th century and was an accomplished chemist (Tosi, 2001; Ogilvie & Harvey, 2000).

Publication of her book was not easy for Marie. She did not have a lot of self-confidence regarding her abilities as either a chemist or a teacher. However, her book not only gave detailed instructions for medicines and cosmetic ointments, but Marie exhorts her readers to be sure to do as she does, distribute these remedies free of charge to the poor, a common practice shared by most of the women alchemists discussed in my book.

Marie also offers to teach women in her own laboratory if they are unsure about attempting the work. Tosi (2001) reminds us that in Marie Meurdrac’s day, she still labored under the constraint that a woman could not sell medicine or put herself forward in a public manner. Furthermore, in 1551, an edict had been issued in France that forbade working with a furnace or with metals without the King’s permission. Thus, the fact that Marie had access to a furnace is indicative of an unusual circumstance.
 
The education of women was still suspect in the 17th century. The French debate over women’s education was called “la querelle des femmes” (Tosi, 2000, p. 71). 

 
Marie’s work details the operations that we associate with alchemy. She discusses the relationship between sulphur, mercury, and salt. She also references prior alchemists such as Raymond Lull and Basil Valentine. Her work was in the medicinal tradition of Paracelsus and mainly focused on the use of vegetable materials. The belief was that since the vegetable kingdom was created prior to animals, according to Genesis, and that vegetable matter was not destroyed in the great flood, it was superior to all other matter.

 Whereas Marie was familiar with the work that could be accomplished with metals, she was also suspicious of metal-based cures, believing those remedies to be more aggressive and dangerous (Tosi, 2001).


Marie’s alchemy further illustrates how women tended to approach the art as healers. They may have experimented with gold, silver, and other metals; however, their focus was more in line with the model of Hildegard von Bingen, a well-known healer and probable practitioner of alchemy.


A quote from Marie’s work illustrates rather poignantly her lack of confidence in her right to stand beside her male counterparts.

‘When I began this small treatise, it was for my sole satisfaction, so as not to lose memory of the knowledge that I had acquired by means of long toil, and by divers experiments repeated several times. I cannot conceal that seeing it achieved beyond what I had dared to expect, I was tempted to publish it; but if I had reason to bring it to light, I had even more reason to keep it hidden and not to expose it to general censure. . . . I dwelt irresolute in this combat almost two years. I objected to myself that teaching was not the profession of a woman; that she ought to remain in silence, to listen and to learn, without bearing witness that she knows: that it is above her to give a work to the public, and that such a reputation is not by any means advantageous. . . I prided myself that I am not the first woman to have placed something under the press, that mind has no sex, and if the minds of women were cultivated like those of men, and if we employed as much time and money in their instruction they could become their equal.’ (Tosi, 2000, p. 70 - 72)
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