News | January 28, 2015

Penn Libraries Acquires Collection of 18th-Century Occult and Alchemical Manuscripts


PHILADELPHIA, PA—The University of Pennsylvania’s long tradition of collecting and study in the history of science recently gained potential for many new chapters of unprecedented research following the Penn Libraries’ acquisition of over fifty manuscripts from Ralph George Algernon Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland. The manuscripts were collected by General Charles Rainsford (1728-1809), an 18th century gentleman scientist, and cover subjects such as alchemy, astrology, Cabbala and Tarot.

“This acquisition represents a rare chance to obtain items that have not been fully studied in the past and will undoubtedly shed much more light on the subject of the Occult Enlightenment and what we think of as Enlightenment science,” said Mitch Fraas, Curator of Early Modern Manuscripts at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, about the collection.

A portion of the collection is comprised of texts copied or acquired by Rainsford from the Jesuit College at Naples at its dissolution in the late 18th century. Other particularly notable items include an illustrated book on summoning demons, an astrological horoscope of King George III, a manual by Rainsford - written during his time as Governor of Gibraltar - on judicial astrology, and several alchemical notebooks used by Rainsford for commonplacing, or note-taking, on useful information and discoveries. The manuscripts are written in Latin, Italian, German, French and English, and include documents claiming to have been translated from Arabic and Hebrew as well as Rainsford’s own translations into English.

The collection, which was acquired with the generous assistance of the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, complements the intersection of several of Penn’s most important strengths: the history of science and chemistry, the historical transmission of manuscripts and manuscript culture, and the history of spiritualism and the occult. The Penn Libraries is home to numerous materials on the chemical sciences, including early modern manuscript alchemical and occult science guides as well as work by Rainsford’s contemporaries. Many of these items are contained in the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection and the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection. Scores of materials on investigations into 19th century spirituality and Cabbala are also held at the Libraries, offering significant benefit as texts complementary to the Rainsford documents.

In addition to the physical collections of the Kislak Center, the Penn Libraries’ leadership in manuscript research, including the study of the dispersal and ownership of early text, is uniquely positioned to facilitate meaningful research by Penn scholars and international research fellows. Providing access to the collection will help ensure the knowledge in these texts is studied and made available, which is crucial as many of the Rainsford volumes are unlikely to be extant elsewhere in any form.

The Rainsford manuscripts represent an impressive opportunity for scholars at the University and beyond to dive in and pursue their own enlightenment journey.

About the Penn Libraries
The Penn Libraries serve the world-class faculty and students of Penn’s 12 schools. The Libraries’ collections comprise more than 7 million volumes, over 100,000 journals, some 2 million digitized images, and extraordinary rare and unique materials that document the intellectual and cultural experience of ancient and modern civilizations. Through our collaborative relationships, we supplement Penn’s great local collections with physical access to the Center for Research Libraries (approximately 5 million items), the combined holdings of the Ivies (more than 70 million volumes), and exclusive electronic access to some 2 million public domain titles in the HathiTrust. Today, the Libraries play an instrumental role in developing new technologies for information discovery and dissemination and are noted for groundbreaking work in digital library design.  To learn more about the Penn Libraries, visit

About the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
The Kislak Center is a vibrant space that brings together people, technology and unique content.  Located on the top floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, it was redesigned in 2013 to allow several different groups to interact with objects of study simultaneously, increasing the use of primary resources in the University’s curriculum and access to the Libraries’ resources for the larger scholarly community.  Today the Kislak Center encompasses the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Furness Memorial Shakespeare Library, the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. To learn more about the Kislak Center, visit

Image: A selection of manuscripts from the Rainsford Collection, each labeled by their Alnwick Castle library numbers.