with a spotty but continuous tradition
from the antiquity
to the late medieval
period. Its roots may very well lie in the medical
practices of Egypt
, from which remain numerous texts on pharmacy
, combined with the Greek philosophy
on the nature
of life, the universe, and everything
. Much, however, was lost after the collapse of the Roman empire
, and resurfaced only in the 11th century or later from Arabic
The basic principle was that the world was composed of four base elements: Air, Water, Fire, and Earth, which could be broken down further into atoms and combined to form everything else. Thus, gold and lead were just varied forms of Earth, and so the latter could be broken down and reformed to create the former, requiring only the proper catalyst for the reaction. This catalyst was named the Philosophers' Stone, and was said to exist in several forms. The White Stone could produce silver, while the Red Stone (sometimes said to be contained within the white) produced gold. The Liber de Alchimia, ascribed to Albertus Magnus, gives some of the elements involved in preparation: sulfur, boiled down in strong acid, then simmered with mercury for several days, then sublimed for several more, after which the powder is ground in a mortar.
The basic equipment of the Alchemist are as follows:
- Furnace for burning and dessication
- Brazier for controlled heating
- Mortar and Pestle for mixture and break-down of components
- Scales for accurate measurement
- Lead, the cheapest of the Earth metals
- Sulfur, the mixture of Fire and Earth
- Mercury. One of the most common. Probably how many of them died
- Alcohol. grain alcohol or spirits, alchemy introduced the term as a scientific product
- Vials and beakers, each made to a specific shape for each compound
Unlike much medieval magic
, Alchemy was founded firmly on philosophical
and theological theory
, taken from sources as wide-ranging as the Hieroglyphica
to the Bible
and the writings of the Church fathers
. Since the art demanded that the alchemist
be well-read and have adequate means of support for his work (notably the cost for obtaining or mining the required metals), many practitioners were priest
s or cleric
s; the Dominican
orders saw fit to issue several edicts in the 13th and 14th centuries against the practice, and Pope John XXII
declared stiff penalties for its fraudulent
Of course, many of the alchemists were complete frauds. One popular trick was to convince patrons of your skill by hiding silver in charcoal, then cracking open the coal to produce the results. Another was the use of hollow pestles, containing silver in the hollow to be "revealed" in the mixture. And, of course, many went broke looking for the magical formulae to make them wealthy.
But some honestly believed in the art and experimented with more practical products. The belief that non-biological products could be used as medicine first arose out of the alchemy of the 14th century, despite the obviously disappointing initial results. Other advances were made in the furnaces and stills, glass-blowing, astronomy, and purification and combination of metals.
And certainly not all believed in magic; Thomas Norton in his Ordinall of Alchemy warms his students against superstition necromancy. The degree of combination of magic and alchemy is hard to decide. Most of our surviving texts are longer treatises on theory and probably don't represent most practice. Clm 849, a Necromancer's Handbook from the 15th century, ends with lists of alchemical symbols and a simple recipe, which when read outside the context of the work looks almost respectable. Astrology was also a big part of it; careful observation of the stars could teach the alchemist what times were best suited for his experiments.
The age of alchemy more or less ended with the advent of the Enlightenment; its spirit of empiricism and experimentation were separated from the more arcane aspects, and slowly developed into something close to what we would call science.