A brief history of alchemy – part four and the last

Three musketeers of alchemy (and one shadowy D’Artagnan)

 I have been busy lately so the last part of my alchemy series, describing in more detail the life and deeds of Nicolas Flamel, dr John Dee, his partner, Edward Kelly and sir Isaac Newton is a bit late – sorry for that. Still better late than never. Why I focused on those three (ok, four, but in the true tradition of the Dumas novel let’s assume there are three of them) ? Because they are very well-known, even today. Not all of them gained the fame of  brilliant alchemists but still each of these names usually rings a bell. Why? I hope my article will allow you to find an answer.

A house owned by
Nicolas Flamel in Paris, now
one of the oldest
 Let’s start with the oldest of these three,the Frenchman Nicolas Flamel. His name was popularized by the Harry Potter novels and other literary work (e.g. Alchemyst by Michael Scott) as well. Little is known about his childhood or private life. He lived in the fourteenth and fifteenth century (officially born September 28,1330, probably at Pontoise, and died in 1418 in Paris) and was a successful French scrivener (so a manuscript copyist and seller). 
His reputation as an alchemist is most likely a later addition. Allegedly he had learned his art while traveling as a pilgrim from a Jewish converso (so a Spanish or Portuguese Jew who officially had conversed to Christianity) on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Nobody knows when he married Perenelle, a widow older than himself and the possessor of a little property. He and his wife were Roman Catholics and later in life they were noted for their wealth and philanthropy. Nobody was sure where that wealth came from. Allegedly Perenelle died first. In 1410 Flamel designed his own tombstone which was carved with arcane alchemical signs and symbols. Some claim that he coded a message there, saying that he,  in fact, kept living because he found the Philosopher’s Stone. The tombstone is preserved and can be viewed at the Musee de Cluny in Paris. Flamel also arranged a religious service to be held for him twelve times a year after his death. Just a pious wish of an elderly man or something more?
The tombstone of Flamel
After the death of Flamel people took an uncommon interest in his property. According to one author, Albert Poisson, towards the middle of the sixteenth century a man who had a well-known name and good credentials, presented himself before the parish board of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie. He said he wished to carry out the vow of a dead friend, a pious alchemist, who, on his deathbed, had given him a sum of money with which to repair Flamel’s house. The board accepted the offer. The unknown man had the cellars ransacked under the pretext of strengthening the foundations; wherever he saw a hieroglyph he found some reason for knocking down the wall at that point. Having found nothing, he disappeared, forgetting to pay the workmen. Not long afterwards, a Capuchin friar and a German baron are said to have discovered in the house some stone vials full of a reddish powder — allegedly the projection powder. By the seventeenth century, the various houses which had belonged to Flamel were despoiled of their ornaments and decorations, and there was nothing of them left but the four bare walls. Apparently some people believed in Flamel’s immortality and wanted to find a way to achieve the same. Or maybe they were looking for his gold?
Nicolas Flamel had bequeathed his papers and library to a nephew named Perrier, who was interested in alchemy and of whom he was very fond. Absolutely nothing is known of Perrier. He no doubt benefited by his uncle’s teachings and spent a sage’s life in the munificent obscurity that Flamel prized so dearly, but had not been able altogether to maintain during the last years of his life. For two centuries the precious heritage was handed down from father to son, without anything being heard of it. Traces of it are found again in the reign of Louis XIII. A descendant of Flamel, named Dubois, who must still have possessed a supply of the projection powder, threw off the wise reserve of his ancestor and used the powder to dazzle his contemporaries. In the presence of the King, he changed leaden balls with it into gold. As a result of this experiment, it is known he had many interviews with Cardinal de Richelieu, who wished to extract his secret. Dubois, who possessed the powder but was unable to understand either Flamel’s manuscripts or the book of Abraham the Jew Flamel had allegedly procured and read, could tell him nothing. He was soon imprisoned at Vincennes. It was found that he had committed certain offences in the past, and this enabled Richelieu to get him condemned to death and confiscate his property for his own benefit. At the same time the proctor of the Chitelet, no doubt by order of Richelieu, seized the houses that Flamel had owned and had them searched from top to bottom. About this time, at the church of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie, robbers made their way in during the night, lifted Flamel’s tombstone and broke open his coffin. It was after this incident that the rumor spread that the coffin had been found empty, and that it had never contained the body of Flamel, who was supposed to be still alive.

Other strange stories started to circulate around. Louis XIV sent an archeologist named Paul Lucas on a mission to the East. He was to study antiquities and bring back any inscriptions or documents that could help forward the modest scientific efforts then being made in France. At Broussa Paul Lucas made the acquaintance of a kind of philosopher, who wore Turkish clothes, spoke almost every known language and, in outward appearance, belonged to the type of man of whom it is said that they ” have no age.” Thanks to his own cultured presence, Lucas came to know him fairly well, and this is what he learned. This philosopher was a member of a group of seven philosophers, who belonged to no particular country and traveled all over the world, having no other aim than the search for wisdom and their own development. Every twenty years they met at a pre-determined place, which happened that year to be Broussa. According to him, human life ought to have an infinitely longer duration than we admit; the average length should be a thousand years. A man could live a thousand years if he had knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone, which, besides being knowledge of the transmutation of metals, was also knowledge of the Elixir of life. The sages possessed it and kept it for themselves. In the West, there were only a few such sages. Nicolas Flamel had been one of them. Paul Lucas was astonished that a Turk, whom he had met by chance at Broussa, should be familiar with the story of Flamel. He was still more astonished when the Turk told him how the book of Abraham the Jew had come into Flamel’s possession, for hitherto no one had known this.

“Abraham the Jew was a member of our group,” the man told him. “He had determined not to lose sight of the descendants of his brothers who had taken refuge in France. He had a desire to see them, and in spite of all we could do to dissuade him he went to Paris. He made the acquaintance there of a rabbi who was seeking the Philosopher’s Stone, and our friend became intimate with the rabbi and was able to explain much to him. But before he left the country the rabbi, by an act of treachery, killed our brother to get possession of his book and papers. The rabbi was arrested, convicted of this and other crimes and burned alive. The persecution of the Jews in France began not long afterwards, and they were expelled from the country. The book of Abraham was sold to Flamel by a Jewish man who did not know its value and was anxious to get rid of it before leaving Paris. Having discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, Flamel was able to remain alive in the physical form he possessed at the time of his discovery. Pernelle’s and his own funerals and the minute care he bestowed on the arrangements for them had been nothing but clever sham.”

If you find the life and legend of Nicolas Flamel too murky and fuzzy – rejoice. Far more concrete information we have about the life and achievements of John Dee, the Englishman. He was born in 1527 in the village of Mortlake which is situated by the Thames outside London. At the tender age of fifteen he entered the esteemed St John’s College Cambridge to start his academic life. Although just a young boy, he had a quick mind and worked hard. As a result in 1546 he was appointed Under Reader of Greek at Trinity College. Then Dee was honoured by being made a Fellow of Trinity and went on to graduate as a Bachelor of Arts.
John Dee

When still at Cambridge University, the serious charge of black sorcery was brought against him. Dee had created a mechanical flying beetle, for the stage production of Aristophane’s; “Pax”; apparently it was so realistic that some people thought it the work of the devil. Fortunately he managed to prove them wrong. Science and Magic were bed fellows back in Elizabethan times, the renaissance men tended to study both, black magic was a taboo subject, so one had to be careful not to over step the mark. Natural magic was okay. the churches view was Natural magic was a force where God worked through the medium of the hidden spirit world, and therefore a force for good. (however do not confuse the term natural, with modern day nature based religions, and shamanism. The term natural magic, was more akin to modern spiritualism).

One year later found John Dee at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He quickly made friends with the map maker, “Gerardus Mercator”. On his return back to Cambridge he had managed to smuggle back new astronomical instruments and two of Mercator’s globes of the world. These items at the time were of great help to English science of navigation which had slipped into second place, next to some of its foreign neighbour’s; “Those who ruled the sea, ruled the world” Empire building was the name of the game then. This was John Dee’s first taste of industrial espionage.

John Dee like many of his contemporaries was fascinated by the subject called, natural magic, and whilst on the continent again, making a good living teaching mathematics, Dee had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of no other then Cornlius Agrippa a celebrated magician of the time, together they investigated the mystery’s of natural magic and the way telepathy worked between the spirit world, and the world of man.
During this time Dee had built up a reputation for himself as an astrologer, so much so, that his talents attracted the interest of the Royal court of Queen Mary. As a result John Dee was played to cast horoscopes for the Queen and her prospective husband king Philip of Spain.

John Dee’s cousin, Blanche Parry  was Maid of Honour to the young princess Elizabeth. Through his cousin Dee perilously formed a link with Elizabeth, and drew her Horoscope as well. Because of his involvement with Elizabeth, John Dee was accused of trying to murder Queen Mary by the heinous crime of black magic; luckily for Dee the only evidence his accusers could put forwards was Mary’s horoscope that he had shown to Mary’s sister Elizabeth. Although being acquitted of the charge he remained in prison until his release in 1555. It was his second brush with death because of unfounded accusations of sorcery.

Elizabeth was crowned Queen in 1558. After the death of her sister, not forgetting her old acquaintance, Elizabeth summoned John Dee to court, where their friendly relationship blossomed. However Elizabeth kept John Dee in the wings, clearly not wishing to be seen by the court openly to having a liaison with a suspected sorcerer. Later Dee was introduced by the Queen to Sir Francis Walsingham, who was the head of Elizabeth’s secret service. After this meeting Dee would often travel to the continent on the Queens business, or more often or not on some errand for the spy master Walsingham. Did John Dee gather secret information for the crown, using his magic for a cover for espionage, no one knows for sure, but it would have been easy for such a gifted mathematician to hide a cipher inside his complex magical symbolism.

John Dee was married twice.His first marriage seems to be a kind of a sham, though. There was no record of it in Dee’s diary, not even the woman’s name. She allegedly died in 1575 just one year after the wedding. The strange thing was, on the day of her death Queen Elizabeth along with her entourage visited Dee’s house. The Queen wished to see her astrologer’s magic glass, that was the talk of the court. Dee wrote in his diary; “The Queen and her courtiers laughed heartily” as John Dee’s, magic glass was more than likely to have been a concave mirror, but there was no word about the Queen being upset about such a tragic event as the death of her host during her visit. Why?

Edward Kelley

In the years that followed Dee married for the second time to Jane Fromond, a lady in waiting at Elizabeth’s court. Here he met Edward Kelly. Kelly seems to have been an adventurer of sorts – he lost his ears at Lancaster on an accusation of producing forged title deeds. He allegedly had clairvoyant visions and Dee, being unable to contact the supernatural world, decided to cooperate with him, despite the fact that most probably he knew much about Edward Kelley’s past. Maybe he  thought; “I know this man is a bit of a rogue, but he has been through the mill, so to speak”. John Dee did however insist that Kelley concentrate on contact with angels and good spirits only, and never to try and make contact with devils, and the like. Once burnt, twice shy.

A relationship that resulted in the creation of a whole new magical system, called today Enochian Magic, was started. Edward Kelley would sit down in front of the crystal and describe what he saw and heard, John Dee would sit nearby and record all the information, sometimes asking questions which Kelley would put to the spirits in the glass. Alegedly the angels went on to instruct them to make large magical charts and through the medium of the mirror or crystal stone, they would place certain strange letters, into column’s or magical graphs. (Dr John Dee diaries and manuscripts are housed in the Sloane and Harleian collection, in the British Museum where you can see them if you are lucky) One spirit in particular came to dominate the scrying, appearing time and time again, she called herself, Madimi. Dee recorded in his diaries that Madimi; “Was a spiritual creature, like a pretty girl of seven or nine years of age, half angel, half elfin”. The spirits started to teach Dee and Kelley their own Angelic language which they called Enochian, moreover they taught them certain calls and invocation’s in Enochian, to be used at the start of a scrying session to open the way to higher levels, Madimi was always there to help popping in and out, (Dee must have been fond of her because named his own daughter after her).

In 1583 Count Adalbert Laski of Poland visited Elizabeth’s court, were he was warmly received; the Queen asked John Dee if he could entertain The Count and show him their experiments, she would pay his expenses. Laski was so impressed that he persuaded Dee and Kelley with their families to return to Poland with him, and carry on their experiments there. John Dee and Edward Kelley caused a great deal of interest in and around the continent with story’s of their Angelic conversations and the future prospect of Kelley’s break through in manufacturing lead into gold. Consequently, they had celebrity status and were guests at the dinners tables of the rich and famous monarchs in other countries. With the invitation to the palace of the King of Czech, things looked rosy for our two hero’s, until May 6th 1586 when a Papal nuncio was given to Emperor Rudolph the second, the document accused John Dee and Edward Kelley of sorcery. Sadly the Emperor had no choice but to expel them from Prague.

Luckily they found a new patron in one Count Wilhelm Rosenberg, who invited them all to come and live in his palace in Trebon. It was about this time when things took an extraordinary turn. Supposedly the little Madimi appeared in the magic glass and after the usual questions and conversation, the spirit said: “Hear what I say God is the unity of all things” then she instructed Dee and Kelley to share all things including their wives. Dee refused at once to follow Madimi instructions, rebuking her for using such unmeet words. When Jane Dee heard of the proposal she flew into a temper. Dee reassured her saying he would have nothing to do with it but the seed of the idea had been firmly planted in all their minds. I wonder why. Did the apparent sexual release of suppressed frustrations of the two couples, which must have been present in the pressure cooker environment they found themselves in for seven years, destroyed the cooperation? Or maybe that event made Dee see his partner in a new light? The result of their wife swapping is not recorded, we even are not sure it happened at all (but Dee wrote about it in his diary so perhaps it did happen) but shortly after that, the angelic messages dried up. It was the end of an era – soon afterwards Kelley’s family left the Dees for good.

In February 1588, Dee made for England and Kelly for Prague, where Rosenberg had persuaded the Emperor to quash the Papal decree. Through the introduction of Rosenberg, Kelly was received and honored by Rudolph as one in possession of the Great Secret of Alchemy. From him he received besides a grant of land and the freedom of the city, a position of state and apparently a title, since he was known from that time forward as Sir Edward Kelly. These honors are evidence that Kelly had undoubtedly demonstrated to the Emperor his knowledge of transmutation, but the powder of projection had now diminished, and to the Emperor’s command to produce it in ample quantities, he failed to accede, being either unable or unwilling to do so. As a result, Kelly was cast into prison at the Castle of Purglitz near Prague where he remained until 1591 when he was restored to favor. He was interned a second time, however, and in 1595, according to chronicles, and while attempting to escape from his prison, fell from a considerable height and was killed at the age of forty.

John Dee for his part returned to England with his family, and sought an audience with Elizabeth. Shortly afterwards Dee was given the wardenship of Christ’s Collage Manchester. Dee returned to Mortlake in 1605 to spend the last days of his life in peace. He died three years latter at the age of 81. It seems a very peaceful ending to such an adventurous life.

guess who? 😉

The last gentleman’s alchemical interests were kept deliberately obscure. After all, Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is perceived even today as a great scientist and not a sorcerer or a mystic, although he would have preferred to be called an alchemist. 

You can find plenty of articles described his achievements in the field of mathematics, physics, chemistry and optics but alchemy? It is barely mentioned like a dirty secret. Such a perception shows just one side of his personage, though, and it is not entirely true. However, before describing Newton’s alchemical work, it is necessary to explain a few things about Newton’s Christian beliefs which are quite different from what most of us were taught in Sunday school. First, Newton believed that church teachings as practiced by Catholics and Anglicans were totally corrupted. Specifically, Newton rejected the concept of the trinity because he did not believe that Jesus or the Holy Ghost were on an equal footing with God. Newton’s God reigned supreme: all-knowing and present everywhere in the universe. Newton found that in nature there was much evidence of “choice” not “chance.” If nature seems to follow physical “laws” consistently, it is because God supervises each and every event taking place in the world. God, according to Newton, did not leave the scene after the creation. These were dangerous beliefs which Newton had to keep private since his job at Cambridge University depended on his public compliance with Anglican doctrines.

Newton’s hostility towards Catholics, especially French Catholics, was not unusual in the 17th century after the English civil war. There were several plots by the French to place a Catholic king upon the English throne. Consequently, relations between England and France went from bad to worse. What is strange is Newton’s belief that before the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, all of the laws of science were known and understood. Natural philosophers like himself were merely “recovering” knowledge from the time of Eden. Newton was the not the first natural philosopher to try to “Christianize” science and, in this way, make it less threatening. He kept it to himself, however; along with another surprising idea. He believed that ancient philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato wrote about gravity and the inverse square law! Newton believed that he had found evidence of the inverse square law in the ancient concept of “the harmony of the spheres,” specifically in the connection between tension and pitch in a stringed instrument. Newton spent years scouring ancient texts looking for more evidence of gravity buried in arcane symbolism.

The more cryptic the symbolism, the more convinced Newton was that it contained some important truth. This is what attracted him to alchemy: an ancient, quasi-religion, rich in chemical symbols and bizarre drawings with human figures representing events in distillation experiments. Newton spent an enormous amount of time reading, copying, and writing about alchemical theories. He owned a total of 1752 books of which 369 were scientific and most of these were about alchemy. He also owned 170 books on what was called “practical magic.” In Newton’s manuscript MS 3975, he kept 25 years of records of his alchemical experiments using gold, lead, and mercury metals. He also wrote 3 versions of an Index Chemicus with over 900 headings, 5000 page references, and 100 authors cited. During this time, he worked primarily alone in a shed near his room at Cambridge University. Sometimes his assistant, Humphrey Newton (no relation), worked with him. Newton shared some of his findings with other alchemists such as Robert Boyle, but most of his work he kept to himself. Unlike Boyle, Newton practiced what he called a “high silence.” He thought of his work in alchemy as “noble” or sacred, not to be shared under any circumstances with lesser minds or, as Newton put it, “the vulgar.” It is evident that he valued it very highly.

After analyzing Newton’s unpublished manuscripts on alchemy, it is clear that Newton incorporated concepts from alchemy into his religious beliefs. Newton rejects Descartes’ clockwork universe because it had no spiritual dimension. Instead, he infuses his universe with what he called a “vegetative spirit” or what alchemists called “the pneuma,” a mysterious, holy energy from the Gods. He also believed there was an additional substance permeating all of 3-D space called the “ether.” Light waves and sound waves as well as planets and stars traveled through this ether. Newton believed that it was the interaction between the pneuma and the ether with molecules of matter that gave rise to all the chemical reactions observed in nature.

To explain how matter was created in the universe, Newton adopted some ideas of Paracelsus,  a Renaissance alchemist who was also something of a social activist. Paracelsus believed that the creation story in Genesis actually described the distillation of substances with God as the supreme adept. Adam, Eve, and the snake are symbols like the figures in an alchemical illustration. God the alchemist creates all the elements and minerals in the universe. In this way, alchemy is central to Newton’s belief in Christianity and science.
Ironically, it is these alchemical beliefs which sustained Newton for two decades of intense study. He was socially isolated with only one or two friends and no wife, girlfriend or mistress. Voltaire wrote that, concerning women, Newton “had no passion or weakness.” Well, nowadays people wouldn’t be so sure about the weakness part, even if it didn’t concern women. When his roomate at Cambridge, John Wickins (or Wickens) moved out after 20 years, Newton suffered a deep depression or a psychotic breakdown (historians aren’t sure which). Wickins married and became a clergyman and even if he was just a long-time, close friend of Newton, without any homosexual innuendo, Newton felt that loss very deeply indeed (but I can’t help wondering why he considered his friend so completely “lost” while married – didn’t he hear of the institution of a family friend or social visits?). To make the things even worse in the following year Newton’s mother died. His response was to cut off contact with others and engross himself in alchemical research. These studies for many years were an embarrassment to Newton scholars. The problem was that, afterwards, Newton left Cambridge, and his most productive years were over. He got involved in running the Royal mint and presiding over the Royal Society. He never married, although he was certainly in a position to if he wanted. Was it a result of a heartbreak?

In 1936, a collection of Isaac Newton’s unpublished works were auctioned by Sotheby’s on behalf of Gerard Wallop, 9th Earl of Portsmouth, who had inherited them from Newton’s great-niece. Known as the “Portsmouth Papers”, this material consisted of three hundred and twenty-nine lots of Newton’s manuscripts, over a third of which were filled with content that appeared to be alchemical in nature. At the time of Newton’s death this material was considered “unfit to publish” by Newton’s estate, and consequently fell into obscurity until their somewhat sensational re-emergence in 1936.Of the material sold during the 1936 Sotheby’s auction, several documents indicate an interest by Newton in the procurement or development of The Philosopher’s Stone. Most notably are documents entitled, “Artephius his secret Book”, followed by “The Epistle of Iohn Pontanus, wherein he beareth witness of ye book of Artephius”, these are themselves a collection of excerpts from another work entitled, “Nicholas Flammel, His Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall Figures which he caused to be painted upon an Arch in St Innocents Church-yard in Paris. Together with The secret Booke of Artephius, And the Epistle of Iohn Pontanus: Containing both the Theoricke and the Practicke of the Philosophers Stone”. This work may also have been referenced by Newton in its Latin version found within Lazarus Zetzner’s, “Theatrum Chemicum”, a volume often associated with the Turba Philosophorum and other early European alchemical manuscripts. Nicolas Flamel, (one subject of the aforementioned work) was a notable, though mysterious figure, often associated with the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone, Hieroglyphical Figures, early forms of tarot, and occultism. Artephius, and his “secret book”, were also subjects of interest to 17th century alchemists.

I will end this series in a slightly cynical way. What about contemporary alchemy? These days, few people would dare hang out a shingle and advertise themselves as professional alchemists but do not believe they don’t exist. They are out there and indeed  they are many. Being able to recognize them is the first step toward understanding the true secrets of alchemical transformation although it is not a kind of transformation you might expect. These people sometimes change the life around them and us for worse, not for better.
They are politicians. They are hucksters, scammers and con men of every color, creed, nationality and gender. They are the people who have succeeded in making us cautious about dealing with others of our own species. They are the people who are practicing modern varieties of alchemy. They are the people who want us to believe that they can transform nothing into something or one thing into another. How they are able to accomplish this ‘magic’ lends revelation to the understanding of all kinds of alchemical activities. After all, a successful alchemical transformation requires more often than not someone who believes that it can happen.  Small wonder the true alchemist’s lot was such that they were often depicted as a melancholy and frustrated beings.


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12 Responses to A brief history of alchemy – part four and the last

  1. I thought your closing was very truthful, I am skeptical of people who proclaim they can create something out of nothing. They are indeed con artists and I never thought of alchemy being a transformative comparison.

  2. Anachronist says:

    I agree – true alchemy has never been about deceit, Lena, but plenty of people have pretended to be alchemists in order to achieve their criminal goals.

  3. Tracy says:

    Excellent work, Anachronist. Yes, it's funny how the instruction to share wives was purely Kelley's interpretation – as John Dee couldn't see the spirits in the scrying glass.And you don't get owt for nowt, as my old chemistry teacher was fond of saying.

  4. Anachronist says:

    Thanks Tracy, I am so pleased you like it!

  5. I think modern alchemists are working in the stock market today. Those guys claim to be able to create wealth out of nothing. 🙂

  6. Anachronist says:

    I think modern alchemists are working in the stock market today. Those guys claim to be able to create wealth out of nothing. 🙂Right, and here we go, another year of global crisis behind us and the prospect's black…also because of them.

  7. Blodeuedd says:

    Poor men, never getting what they wanted…or did they? *insert spooky music*great essay 😀

  8. Anachronist says:

    Thanks! I don't know about them never getting what they wanted…they did have a choice, didn't they? Newton was one strange fellow, tough…

  9. After that last paragraph, I feel like I need to go lock my family and myself up. Cynical indeed. o_o Great essay, B!

  10. Anachronist says:

    Thanks Jen and nothing to worry about as long as you lock your doors just in case ;).

  11. Now I'm going to have to think of HP all day. 😉 I also always thought of Newton as an alchemist. It also makes sense he would discard Descartes. Many thought he was the antithesis of Christianity of that time.Such a great essay! Poor melancholy and frustrated men…

  12. Anachronist says:

    Thanks Melissa. Newton was certainly a controversial figure and also a pitiful one. Such a great mind and so lonely…it makes me think a great intellect is not such a fine gift after all.

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