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Alchemy in the Middle Ages was a mixture of science, philosophy, and mysticism. Far from operating within the modern definition of a scientific discipline, medieval alchemists approached their craft with a holistic attitude; they believed that purity of mind, body, and spirit was necessary to pursue the alchemical quest successfully.
At the heart of medieval alchemy was the idea that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. With the right combination of elements, it was theorized, any substance on earth might be formed. This included precious metals as well as elixirs to cure disease and prolong life. Alchemists believed that the "transmutation" of one substance into another was possible; thus we have the cliché of medieval alchemists seeking to "turn lead into gold."
Medieval alchemy was just as much art as science, and practitioners preserved their secrets with an obfuscating system of symbols and mysterious names for the materials they studied.
Origins and History of Alchemy
Alchemy originated in ancient times, evolving independently in China, India, and Greece. In all these areas the practice ultimately degenerated into superstition, but it migrated to Egypt and survived as a scholarly discipline. In medieval Europe, it was revived when 12th-century scholars translated Arabic works into Latin. The rediscovered writings of Aristotle also played a role. By the end of the 13th century, it was discussed seriously by leading philosophers, scientists, and theologians.
The Goals of Medieval Alchemists
- To discover the relationship of man to the cosmos and take advantage of that relationship to the betterment of mankind.
- To find the "philosopher's stone," an elusive substance that was believed to make possible the creation of an elixir of immortality and the transmutation of common substances into gold.
- In the later Middle Ages, to use alchemy as a tool in the advancement of medicine (as Paracelsus did).
Achievements of Alchemists in the Middle Ages
- Medieval alchemists produced hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, potash, and sodium carbonate.
- They were able to identify the elements arsenic, antimony, and bismuth.
- Through their experiments, medieval alchemists invented and developed laboratory devices and procedures that are, in modified form, still used today.
- The practice of alchemy laid the foundation for the development of chemistry as a scientific discipline.
Disreputable Associations of Alchemy
- Due to its pre-Christian origins and the secrecy in which its practitioners carried out their studies, alchemy was viewed by the Catholic Church with suspicion and ultimately condemned.
- Alchemy was never taught in Universities but was instead transmitted from teacher to apprentice or student clandestinely.
- Alchemy attracted followers of the occult, with which it is still associated today.
- There was no shortage of charlatans who used the trappings of alchemy to defraud.
Notable Medieval Alchemists
- Thomas Aquinas was an eminent theologian who was permitted to study alchemy before it was condemned by the Church.
- Roger Bacon was the first European to describe the process for making gunpowder.
- Paracelsus used his understanding of chemical processes to advance the science of medicine.
Sources and Suggested Reading
- Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul by Titus Burckhardt; translated by William Stoddart
- Alchemy: The Secret Art by Stanislas Klossowski De Rola
- Alchemy: the medieval alchemists and their royal art by Johannes Fabricius
- The Philosophers Stone: A Quest for the Secrets of Alchemy by Peter Marshall