A brief history of alchemy – part three

Page from alchemic treatise of Ramon LlullA page from alchemy treatise of Raymond Lully via Wikipedia

People behind alchemy from antiquity to 14th century

There have been many prominent alchemists across the world and throughout ages. I don’t doubt the life of every single one of them could be a basis of a fat, big novel. I know at least several hundred books have been written about the most famous of them. I don’t intend to write an essay as long as a book so I will present just several of alchemists from different countries and the description of their lives and deed will be rather short.

Alchemy always seemed related closely to religion; maybe because of that the common people rather feared its practitioners as adepts of secret arts and partakers of dangerous knowledge. The term “occult” often heard with the connection to alchemy is a classic example of that lack of understanding. Whereas the correct definition is: hidden from the eye of the understanding, secret, concealed, unknown (from the Latin word occultus  meaning clandestine, hidden, secret) plenty of people would add “satanistic” or “devilish” or at least “unchristian” to it. Christian authorities have generally regarded occultism as heretical whenever they met this term. It should be observed, however, that those who were object of these fears didn’t always resent them, at times even encouraging such misunderstandings to increase their own sense of power and perhaps also their security. Offending a magician can be, after all, a risky business, better to be avoided.

The art of alchemy went downhill during Roman times, along with a general decay of Greek learning. After A.D. 100 virtually nothing new was added, and there was a rising tendency to turn to ever-more mystical interpretations of the earlier writers.The first important worker in Greek-Egyptian khemeia that we know by name was Bolos of Mendes (c.200 B.C.), a town in the Nile delta. In his writings, he used the name Democritus so that he is referred to as “Bolos-Democritus” or sometimes as the “pseudo-Democritus”.
Bolos devoted himself to what became one of the great problems of khemeia, the changing of one metal into another and, particularly, the changing of lead or iron into gold (transmutation). Bolos, in his writings, apparently gave the details of techniques of making gold, but this may not actually have represented fakery. It is possible to alloy copper with the metal zinc, for instance, to form brass, which has the yellow color of gold. It is quite likely that the preparation of gold-colored metal would be the equivalent, to some of the ancient workers, of forming gold itself.

Finally I found out how come the Roman emperor Diocletian was so set against alchemy. The reason was prosaic – he believed in one aspect of it.Many chemists throughout the centuries have striven to find the technique for producing gold. Some, however, undoubtedly found it much easier and far more profitable merely to pretend to find the technique and to trade on the power and reputation this gave them. This sort of fakery continued right on into modern times. Diocletian perhaps thought that there is no smoke without fire and he feared that the adepts of alchemy might successfully produce cheap gold and swamp the markets with it, destroying the already shaky economy of the declining Empire. All alchemical scriptures were destroyed to make it impossible.

The other problem was that, with the later rising tide of Christianity, such “pagan knowledge” was frowned upon to say the least of it. For example the Alexandrian Museum and Library were badly damaged as a result of Christian riots after A.D. 400. The art of alchemy being a discipline for few and with its close relationship to the ancient Egyptian religion, was simply undefendable and had to virtually go underground. Or elsewhere.

 From a book written by Edward Chalmers Werner, a late member of the Chinese Government’s Historiological Bureau in Peking comes this quotation from old Chinese records: “Chang Tao-Ling, the first Taoist pope, was born in A.D. 35 in the reign of the Emperor Kuang Wu Ti of the Hari dynasty. His birthplace is variously given as T’ien-mu Shan, Lin-an-Hsien in Chekiang, Feng-yang Fu in Anhui, and even in the “Eye of Heaven Mountain.” He devoted himself wholly to study and meditation, declining all offers to enter the service of the state. He preferred to take up his abode in the mountains of Western China where he persevered in the study of alchemy and in cultivating the virtues of purity and mental abstraction. From the hands of the alchemist Lao Tzu, he received supernaturally a mystical treatise, by following the instructions in which he was successful in his match for the Elixir of Life.”

In the seventh century, however, the Arabs came on the scene. When their conquering armies took over vast areas of western Asia and northern Africa they also invaded Egypt (A.D. 641) and after quick victories occupied the land; over the next years they inflicted the same fate on all Persia. That’s why the preservation and extension of Greek-Egyptian alchemy were for five centuries (until A.D. 1100) in the hands of the Arabs.Traces of this period remain in the number of chemical terms that are derived from Arabic: alembic, alkali, alcohol, carboy, naphtha, zircon, and others.


The best of Arabic alchemy came at the start of the period of their domination. Thus, the most capable and renowned of the Muslim alchemists was Jabir ibn-Hayyan or Abou Moussah Djfar-Al Sell (c.760-c.815), who was known to Europeans, centuries later, as “Geber”He lived at the time when the Arabic empire (under Haroun-al-Raschid of Arabian Nights fame) was at the height of its glory. His writings were numerous and his style was relatively straightforward compared to other alchemists but still…from his style of writing we derive the word “gibberish”. Many of the books bearing his name may have been written by later alchemists and attributed to him and it seems only three remain to posterity: The Sum of the Perfect Magistery, The Investigation of Perfection, and his Testament. He described ammonium chloride and showed how to prepare white lead. He distilled vinegar to obtain strong acetic acid, which had been the strongest acid known to the ancients. He was the first to mention such important compounds as corrosive sublimate, red oxide of mercury and nitrate of silver.

Al Rhases

About the same time, Al Rhases, another Arabian alchemist, became famous for his practical displays in the art of transmutation of base metals into gold. Al Rhazes wrote a number of treatises, the most important of which became known as Liber Secretorum Bubacaris, in the western world, and was regarded as a foundation work for centuries. Rhases started the process of disconnecting the science and empiricism from archaic formulas and numerology, in an attempt to study physical processes outside the confines of divine will.Although Rhases still incorporated many of the overall concepts and the archaic and esoteric language of earlier alchemists, he studied substances and compounds in isolation and divined their natures, rather than trying to fit them into elegant theories and sweeping generalizations.
This included trying to fit the substances into groups and classifications according to their properties. In his book, Sirr al-asrar book, he listed the ingredients as follows.

  1. Earthly Substances:
  2. The Spirits: Mercury, sulphur, arsenic sulphate, ammonia
  3. The Bodies: Gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin
  4. The Stones: Iron pyrites, iron oxide, zinc oxide, malachite, turquoise, arsenic oxide, lead sulphate, gypsum, glass
  5. The Vitriols: Black, alum, green, red, yellow, white
  6. Borax
  7. The Salts
  8. Vegetable Substances:
    • Rarely used and believed to be the domain of physicians
  9. Animal Substances: Hair, brain, bile, blood, milk, urine, eggs, horn, shell

In addition, Razes pointed out that many other substances could be derived from these basics, including lead oxide, verdigris, caustic soda, copper oxide, cinnabar (mercury (II) sulphide), and zinc oxide.
Razes was meticulous in his documentation, and listed the apparatus that he used for his research. Again, most of these, such as crucibles, alembics and a range of distillation equipment as well as various furnaces and smelting equipment. Certainly, His ‘Book of Secrets’ bears a remarkable resemblance to a modern laboratory manual in the way it lays out and collates the datIn the tenth century the Arabs enjoyed the reputation of having the most learned scientists of his age – another great alchemist of that century, Avicenna, whose real name was Ebu Cinna can be another proof of their domination. Born at Bokara in 980 A.D., he was, however, the last of the Egyptian alchemical philosophers of note.

During the 13th century a lot of changes occurred as the balance of power began to shift from the Islamic world to a Europe emerging from the Dark Ages and displaying the first glimmerings of the Renaissance. Great minds, such as Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste, were heavily influenced by Classical texts obtained from Byzantium as the Crusades enveloped the Eastern Mediterranean, but an increasing amount of material traveled from Andalusia. Spain was then the most developed country, a real melting pot of new and old theories. Europeans learned that the Arabs possessed books of great learning which had been translated from the Greek originals – the works of Aristotle, for instance – as well as their own productions, such as the works of Avicenna. They decided to put that knowledge to good use.

Of the thirteenth-century literature, a work called Tesero was attributed to Alphonso, the King of Castile, in 1272. William de Loris wrote Le Roman de Rose in 1282, assisted by Jean de Meung, who also wrote The Remonstrance of Nature to the Wandering Alchemist and The Reply of the Alchemist to Nature. Peter d’Apona, born near Padua in 1250, wrote several books on Hermetic sciences and was accused by the Inquisition of possessing seven spirits (each enclosed in a crystal vessel) who taught him the seven liberal arts and sciences. He died upon the rack.
Among other famous names appearing about this period is that of Arnold de Villeneuve or Villanova, whose most famous work is found in theTheatrum Chemicum. He studied medicine in Paris but was also a theologian and an alchemist. Like his friend, Peter d’Apona, he was accused of obtaining his knowledge from the devil and was charged by many different people with magical practices. Although he did not himself fall into the hands of the Inquisition, his books were condemned to be burnt in Tarragona by that body on account of their heretical content. Villanova’s crime was that he maintained that works of faith and charity are more acceptable in the eyes of God than the Sacrificial Mass of the Church!

The authority of Albertus Magnus (1234-1314) is undoubtedly to be respected, since he renounced all material advantages to devote the greater part of a long life to the study of alchemical philosophy in the seclusion of a cloister. When Albertus died, his fame descended to his “sainted pupil” Aquinas, who in his Thesaurus Alchimae, speaks openly of the successes of Albertus and himself in the art of transmutation.

Raymond Lully (or Ramon Lull) is one of the medieval alchemists about whose life there is so much conflicting evidence that it is practically certain that his name was used as a cover by at least one other adept either at the same or a later period. The enormous output of writings attributed to Lully (they total about 486 treatises on a variety of subjects ranging from grammar and rhetoric to medicine and theology) also seems to suggest that his name became a popular pseudonym. Lully was born in Majorca about the year 1235, and after a somewhat dissolute youth, he was induced, apparently by the tragic termination of an unsuccessful love affair, to turn his thoughts to religion. He became imbued with a burning desire to spread the Hermetic teachings among the followers of Mohammed, and to this end devoted years to the study of Mohammedan writings, the better to refute the Moslem teachings. He traveled widely, not only in Europe, but in Asia and Africa, where his religious zeal nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion. Lully is said to have become acquainted with Arnold de Villanova and the Universal Science somewhat late in life, when his study of alchemy and the discovery of the Philosophers’ Stone increased his former fame as a zealous Christian.

According to one story, his reputation eventually reached John Cremer, Abbot of Westminster at the time. After working at alchemy for thirty years, Cremer had still failed to achieve his aim, the Philosopher’s Stone. Cremer therefore sought out Lully in Italy, and having gained his confidence, persuaded him to come to England, where he introduced him to King Edward II. Lully, being a great champion of Christendom, agreed to transmute base metals into gold on the condition that Edward carry on the Crusades with the money. He was given a room in the Tower of London for his work, and it is estimated that he transmuted 50,000 pounds worth of gold. After a time, however, Edward became avaricious, and to compel Lully to carry on the work of transmutation, made him prisoner. However, with Cremer’s aid, Lully was able to escape from the Tower and return to the Continent. Records state that he lived to be one hundred and fifty years of age and was eventually killed by the Saracens in Asia. At that age he is reputed to have been able to run and jump like a young man.

In England, the first known alchemist was Roger Bacon, who was a scholar of outstanding attainment. Born in Somersetshire in 1214, he made extraordinary progress even in his boyhood studies, and on reaching the required age joined the Franciscan Order. After graduating Oxford, he moved to Paris where he studied medicine and mathematics. On his return to England, he applied himself to the study of philosophy and languages with such success that he wrote grammars of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew tongues.

Although Bacon has been described as a physician rather than an alchemist, we are indebted to him for many scientific discoveries. He was almost the only astronomer of his time, and in this capacity rectified the Julian calendar which, although submitted to Pope Clement IV in 1267, was not put into practice until a later papacy. He was responsible also for the physical analysis of convex glasses and lenses, the invention of spectacles and achromatic lenses, and for the theory of the telescope. As a student of chemistry, he called attention to the chemical role played by air in combustion, and having carefully studied the properties of saltpeter, taught its purification by dissolution in water and by crystallization.

Indeed, from his letters we learn that Bacon anticipated most of the achievements of modern science. He maintained that vessels might be constructed that would be capable of navigation without manual rowers, and which under the direction of a single man, could travel through the water at a speed hitherto undreamed of. He also predicted that it would be possible to construct cars that could be set in motion with amazing speeds (“independently of horses and other animals”) and also flying machines that would beat the air with artificial wings.

It is scarcely surprising that in the atmosphere of superstition and ignorance that reigned in Europe during the Middle Ages, Bacon’s achievements were attributed to his communication with devils. His fame spread through western Europe not as a savant but as a great magician. His great services to humanity were met with censure, not gratitude, and to the Church his teachings seemed particularly pernicious. The Church took her place as one of his foremost adversaries, and even the friars of his own order refused his writings a place in their library. His persecutions culminated in 1279 in imprisonment and a forced repentance of his labors in the cause of art and science.

Among his many writings, there are two or three works on alchemy, from which it is quite evident that not only did he study and practice the science but that he obtained his final objective, the Philosopher’s Stone. Doubtless during his lifetime, his persecutions led him to conceal carefully his practice of the Hermetic art and to consider the revelation of such matters unfit for the uninitiated. “Truth,” he wrote, “ought not to be shown to every ribald person, for then it would become most vile that which, in the hand of a philosopher, is the most precious of all things.”

During the fourteenth century, the science of alchemy fell into grave disrepute, for the alchemists’ claim to transmute metals offered great possibilities to any rogue with sufficient plausibility and lack of scruple to exploit the credulity or greed of his fellowmen. In fact, there proved to be no lack either of charlatans or victims. Rich merchants and others greedy for quick gain were induced to entrust to the alleged alchemists gold, silver, and precious stones in the hope of getting them multiplied, and Acts of Parliament were passed in England and Pope’s Bulls issued over Christendom to forbid the practice of alchemy on pain of death. (Although Pope John XXII is said to have practiced the art himself and to have enriched the Vatican treasury by this means.) Before long, even the most earnest alchemists were disbelieved. For example, there lived about this time the two Isaacs Hollandus (a father and son), who were Dutch adepts and wrote De Triplici Ordinari Exiliris et Lapidis Theoria and Mineralia Opera Sue de Lapide Philosophico. The details of their operations on metals are the most explicit that had ever been given, yet, because of their very lucidity, their work was widely discounted. It seemed to simple to be true. Yet the simplicity, not any occult gibberish, was the key to the future. In the next part I will try to present the achievements of modern alchemists and their meaning for science.



Enhanced by Zemanta
This entry was posted in miscellaneous essays. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A brief history of alchemy – part three

  1. Tracy says:

    Another fascinating essay, anachronist! I've just started reading The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd, which is about John Dee. Will you be featuring him at all in the next essay?

  2. Anachronist says:

    Yes I will and thank you very much, Tracy! I was afraid it would be too long and boring… but still I wanted to feature as many alchemists as I could, that's why I divided the part about them into two.

  3. It really is fascinating how many alchemists there are and what they did. So much scientific discoveries at such a time really was amazing.

  4. I see you offered a plausible reason for Diocletian persecuting alchemists.If Bacon found the Philosopher's Stone, did he use it?

  5. Anachronist says:

    It is fascinating indeed, Melissa. That's why I write my essays ;)The Red Witch – I didn't offer anything, I just found such an explanation and quoted it here. I am not sure it was up to Bacon to use or not to use the Philosopher's Stone. He was persecuted and had to go undercover with his alchemical studies. I hope he used it, though.

  6. Alchemy is intriguing, I must say. It's amazing the time periods of which it was used and how there are lulls during certain periods. I always find the religious backlash toward alchemy to be interesting…probably because I don't fully understand why people were always so upset. I know it had to do with some kind of science vs religion, but I suppose because I live the the century I do I can see the background for both. Excellent essay, B!

  7. Anachronist says:

    Thank you Jen! Why religious people were so set against alchemy…I suppose mainly because they were afraid and didn't understant it. They wielded a lot of power and alchemy seemed an alternative source of power.

  8. Blodeuedd says:

    I soul have you write the essay I am putting of doing 😉 Interesting and educational as always

  9. Anachronist says:

    Do you want to hire me, my lady Blodeuedd? It can be done, no problem ;). All you need is just a little gold you've made with your Philospher's Stone…and a dash of Elixir of Eternal Youth…cheapo ;p

Comments are closed.