Alchemy and the Medieval Worldview
By Colleen K. Michaels
Alchemy combined aspects of chemistry, physics, astrology, art, semiotics, metallurgy, medicine, mysticism, and religion. The two principal goals of many alchemists were creating a philosopher's stone (which was believed to enable transmutation of common metals into gold) and finding the formula for the elixir of life (which would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely).
Although alchemy has been largely discredited today, it played an important role in the evolution of scientific thought. The practice of alchemy combined studies of metallurgy, chemical processes, and medicine and disease by blending laboratory experimentation with mysticism, religion, and philosophy. Countless alchemists worked diligently to expand human knowledge and understanding of our world, a goal that is worthy of respect. They attempted to investigate and understand the world around them, but without knowledge of the scientific method and without any of the basic scientific tools that we now take for granted. Rather than microscopes and thermometers, controlled conditions, and repeatable, verifiable experiments, they relied on rules of thumb, observations with the naked eye, traditions, mysticism, and philosophy.
Origins of Alchemy
The word Alchemy has its roots in the Greek word chemeia, which meant “smelting metals.” During the Middle Ages, the philosophy spread to the Islamic world, where it acquired the Arabic definite article al, thus producing al-kimiya. The modern English words alchemy and chemistry are both derived from these common roots.
The Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, developed a theory of four elements of matter that was incorporated into alchemical thought. His theory was based on a creation myth about matter emerging from chaos and becoming the basic elements of fire, air, water, and earth. The gods blended these together in an infinite variation of proportions to produce all manner of life. A pair of four primary qualities distinguished one element from another: fluid (moist), dry, hot, and cold. For example, hot and dry together equaled fire, hot and fluid equaled air, cold and fluid equaled water, and cold and dry equaled earth. In each of the elements, one quality was dominant – for fire, heat; for air, fluid; for water, cold; and for earth, dryness.
By the process of “transmutation,” one element could be transformed into another through the quality they had in common; i.e., fire could become air because both possessed heat. Two elements could merge to form a third by deleting one quality from each. Hot and fluid qualities removed from water and fire would produce earth.
A change to matter made by changes in quality was believed to be a purification process. The changes were brought about through processes such as burning, dissolving, evaporating, and crystallizing. For alchemists, it was not a substantial leap to conclude that changing proportions of elements in a given substance could result in transmutation of one substance into another. Thus came about one of alchemy’s most famous goals: to change a base metal into gold.
Aristotelian and Hermetic philosophy prevailed throughout Europe for more than one thousand years. Medieval alchemists based their work on these philosophical theories at least as much as on their own observations and experiments. Scientific knowledge, as it currently is understood, remained severely limited. For example, by 1600, alchemists had identified just seven metals — gold, silver, iron, copper, tin, lead, and mercury. All of these metals shared the common properties of luster and malleability; with the exception of liquid mercury, they also could be hammered, shaped, and cast. Given such similarities, and the underpinnings of Aristotelian thought, it is not surprising that medieval alchemists believed that the metals were composed of the same essential ingredients, but in different proportions and degrees of purity.
Alchemy During the Medieval Period
During the early medieval period, alchemy was widely regarded as an important scientific enterprise, but by the late medieval period, skeptics began to question its efficacy and legitimacy. In many ways, the course of alchemy’s evolution and, eventually, its abandonment, is a reflection of the evolution of human reason from early medieval times to the Renaissance. Appreciating how alchemy shaped the worldview of medieval Europeans, especially the more educated classes, is an important aspect of understanding medieval culture and society.
Medieval European alchemists interpreted reality as a single whole. The material world and symbolic, or philosophical, world were one and the same in alchemy. As a result, alchemical symbols and processes often had two meanings – one that referred to its effect on material things and the other on spirituality.
Like the substances they studied, alchemists tended to share a range of characteristics. Many were members of the Catholic clergy. Few people outside the clergy had sufficient literacy to study alchemical texts and, moreover, the Catholic Church sanctioned alchemical investigations as a method of exploring and developing theology. An important tenet of alchemy was that man's soul had been divided after the fall of Adam, but by purifying the two parts of man's soul, man could be reunited with God. Medieval alchemists still pursued the goal of finding the philosophers' stone, as a substance capable both of transmuting base metals into gold) and of purifying the soul. They believed in the Aristotelian-defined four elements and four qualities. They shared the tendency to keep their work secret from the uninitiated, although their motives for secrecy were not always the same. Finally, medieval alchemists were practitioners as well as philosophers. They actively experimented with chemicals, observed and recorded their results, and formed and tested theories about how the universe operated, all of which laid the groundwork for the scientific method as we know it today.
In addition to the Catholic Church, powerful political, social, and economic institutions were concerned with alchemy. The potential of an unlimited supply of gold being provided by the philosopher’s stone warranted such attention. Alchemists also occasionally discovered new materials, or new applications for them, that proved to be immensely important. For instance, Johann Friedrich Böttger, an alchemist in the court of a German prince, analyzed a “white earth” that duplicated the ingredients for imported Chinese porcelain, and brought about the beginning of the Dresden china industry.
European monarchs also had purely personal motives in their support of alchemy. In 1600, King Henry IV of France employed numerous alchemists charged with the task of finding ways to resurrect plants from their ashes, in the belief this would lead to ways to extend the monarch’s life. Henry went so far as to order his diplomats to seek out the cryptic methods of alchemists in other countries.
Arabic and European alchemists made important contributions to alchemical thought. One of the most famous Islamic alchemists was Al Jabir ibn Hayyan (722-815). He created a number of pieces of laboratory equipment that became standard in any alchemical laboratory; derivations of some continue to be used today. Jabir also was a forerunner in developing methodological experiments and careful laboratory record keeping. But like many alchemists, he relied heavily on allegorical and symbolic interpretations of his work.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nicholas Flamel (1330-1417) was not a religious scholar. He devoted his alchemical career to the pursuit of the philosopher's stone (which he was rumored to have found). Typical of many alchemists, he was secretive even with recordings in his own journal; although he described many experimental processes and reactions, he did not list specific formulas that he developed.
Paracelsus (1493-1541) pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. For adherents to many current wellness movements, some of Paracelsus’s ideas may sound familiar, particularly his theory that sickness and health were related to harmony both within the body and within nature. His medicinal ingredients were derived from plant extracts and from mineral compounds such as antinomy, arsenic, and mercury. He also promoted the use of direct observations and experiments to learn about the human body’s workings, rather than simply relying on inductive reasoning. In 1526, he named the element zinc.
Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) is much better known for his astronomical observations, but he also studied astrology and had an alchemical lab built to his specifications. His interests in astrology at least partially guided his study of the stars and planets. Tycho designed and built new astronomical instruments, calibrated them, and instituted nightly observations, all of which helped revolutionize astronomy. Tycho, however, did not accept the emerging theory of heliocentricism, which placed the sun at the center of our planetary system, rather than Earth. Instead, he merged Aristotelian theory with his findings to create a system that combined the best of both worlds. He kept the Earth in the center of the universe, with the Moon and Sun revolving around it. The stars were fixed in place and centered on the Earth, while Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn revolved about the Sun. This approach was popular during the seventeenth century among scientists who no longer believed the Earth to be the center of all things, but could not quite accept it was not the center of most things.
The work of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) exhibited strong influences from the Hermetic tradition, although he also adhered to a mechanical philosophy that explained natural phenomena by motions of matter particles. For instance, he theorized the physical reality of light as a stream of tiny corpuscles, which could be diverted from its course by the presence of denser or rarer media. Similarly, tiny bits of paper being attracted to a piece of glass rubbed with cloth resulted from a mechanical process consisting of ethereal effluvium that streamed from the glass and pulled the bits of paper back with it. The attractions and repulsions of Newton's speculations flowed from the occult sympathies and antipathies of Hermetic philosophy, but as he conceived them, attractions were quantitatively defined, thus placing them in harmony with mechanical philosophy as well.
As Tycho and Newton’s careers demonstrate, by the seventeenth century, alchemy was being replaced by modern chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Although the fundamental tenets of alchemy proved to be untenable, alchemical practitioners created a legacy that was crucial to the modern sciences. Metal working, gun powder production, dye making, ceramics, glass making and the alcohol industry all benefitted from the work of alchemists, as did early medical and pharmaceutical research. The modern scientific method also has its origins in alchemical research.
For Further Reading
http://www.ambix.org/ Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
http://www.marginalia.co.uk/shared/med_alchemy.php Medieval Alchemy: A Selected Bibliography
http://www.alchemywebsite.com/index.htm The Alchemy Website
http://www.alchemylab.com/history_of_alchemy.htm History of Alchemy
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/harrypottersworld/exhibition.html Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine
http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/science/chemistry/alchemy/equipment.htm The Alchemist’s Equipment
http://www.kean.edu/~bregal/HIST4236.htm#power%20point The History of Alchemy and the Origins of Modern Science
Visit Colleen at http://www.colleenkmichaels.com/. Colleen K. Michaels is a writer living in the Mid-Atlantic region. With more than a decade of professional experience as an historian and writer, Colleen melds legends and romance with history and mythology to create contemporary fantasies with a special twist.