Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Capitalist posterity has popularized the notion of alchemy as having been the attempt by medieval dopes to transmute base metals such as lead and copper into silver and gold. But the original esoteric study of alchemy involved the idea of spiritual transformation and examined the interrelationships between the natural and supernatural worlds.
One avenue of logic behind alchemy was that since all matter, according to Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, was comprised of fire, air, earth, and water, then it must be possible to create any substance out of these simply by combining them in the right proportions. (This thesis became obsolete in the 18th century.) Alchemy, as a body of secret knowledge, came to be a quest for the secrets of transmuting metals and discovering the Philosopher’s Stone — “the physical vehicle for the ‘divine spark’ necessary to the process of transmutation” (Alchemy 50) — but it also “stimulated all kinds of scientific progress” as the first truly experimental science. “Paradoxically, modern nuclear physics has once again made the transmutation of metals theoretically possible” (12).
It made sense to the medieval mind that the Philosopher’s Stone had to exist, for how else could gold be formed in the bowels of the earth? The classical god of the underworld was also the god of wealth. (Asimov 608).
Famous alchemical protoscientists and natural philosophers involved in the annals of alchemy include the mythical Hermes Trismegistus (c. 2500 b.c.) who speaks as a mentor in a series of dialogues “of uncertain and mysterious origin” (Alchemy 18), called the Corpus Hermeticum. Supposedly, Egypt was called “Khem” at the time because of the blackness of the soil, and the term “alchemy” comes from that name. That it is also called the “Hermetic” art is also because of Hermes Trismegistus.
Later, and actually existing, was the famous Albertus Magnus (Albertus Groot), born in 1193. He became a Dominican in 1222 and taught philosophy and theology. Albertus was said to have control over the weather, throwing a pleasant garden party in the middle of the winter. Thomas Aquinas was one of his Paris students who reportedly received Albertus’ alchemical secrets but killed an android creation of Albertus’ after the master’s death in 1280.
Roger Bacon taught in Paris at the same time as Albertus. He developed a process for refining saltpeter and is credited with having been the first European to create gunpowder. He published extensively on metallurgy and natural sciences, but was imprisoned for the final fifteen years of his life for heresy, dying in 1292. Other scholars of alchemy include George Ripley, Bernard of Treves, Nicholas Flamel, and Arnald de Villanova, a physician who learned through his alchemical experiments methods of counteracting poisons. Later alchemists in the field of medicine include Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus.
Chaucer’s The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale records the actual alchemical formula: with references to “sal ammoniac and brimstone” and “iron for Mars and quicksilver in tune with Mercury.” The problem is that no one knows what all the nonsense means — how to translate it. The word “gibberish,” in fact, comes from Arab alchemist Jabir (or Geber), whose writings were considered nonsensical. Because the origins of alchemy predated Christianity, the medieval Church viewed it with suspicion, “good reason for the alchemists of the Middle Ages to wrap their work in the costume of metallurgy, and thereby hope to avoid being persecuted as heretics” (Alchemy 23). Chaucer’s canon’s yeoman is disgusted with his master, the charlatan canon, and his “tale” is actually an exposé of slimy alchemist cons. But what also comes out is the yeoman’s love and addiction to the protoscience.
Like Chaucer’s character, alchemists did use stills, ovens, water baths, furnaces, and bellows for their operations, which included calcination (the reduction of a solid to a powder using heat), “sublimation” (the heating of a substance until it vaporizes), fusion, crystallization, and distillation (Holmyard 45).
After Jonson’s play, The Alchemist, and a few more decades of interest, alchemy waned with the advent of modern chemistry. Robert Boyle, a so-called “father of chemistry,” published The Sceptical Chymist in 1661 and “struck at the root of all alchemical speculation” by denying the primacy of the four Aristotelian elements (Holmyard 273). Alchemy had died out by the early 1800s.
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Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale. The Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 270-281.
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