One of the characters in a current work in progress is an alchemist, which is a shame, as I know next to nothing about alchemy. I have been doing some reading, however, and it is, as you would expect, a fascinating, if complicated, subject.
Until the eighteenth century only seven substances were recognised as metals: gold and silver (the noble metals) and copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury (the base metals). Gold and silver were noble because they resisted corrosion, whereas the other metals changed, for the worse, over time. Much of the theory of alchemy was about ‘healing’ the base metals from their corrosive bodies.
There were various thoughts about how this might be achieved. Some thought that each metal had a body and a spirit and, if the sprits of two metals could be drawn off and the spirit of one added to the body of the other, the other would take on the substance of the original. Other alchemists adapted the ideas of Aristotle. He had identified four primary qualities: hot, cold, wet and dry. There were also four elements; fire, air, water and earth. Aristotle thought of them as abstract principles, but an alchemist called Jabir thought they might have physical existence. One of his theories was that gold is hot and wet, and lead is cold and dry, therefore turning lead into gold should just be a matter of introducing more hot and wet or reducing the cold and dry. Others again thought that combining mercury and sulphur in some special way would produce the Philosophers’ Stone, which would achieve the transmutation.
Alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt in the third century AD. The first great practitioner was Zosimos of Panopolis. He was one among many, but some of his work has survived, whereas that of his rivals, or colleagues, has not. He was a methodical researcher and was particularly interested in the action of vapours on solids. Theory was important to him, as well as practical research.
The first references to the Philosophers’ Stone, a substance which could turn base metals to gold, occurred in the seventh century.
From around 750 to 1400 alchemy developed in the Islamic world. Here the premise was developed that the Philosophers’ Stone was made up of two parts: a white agent for making silver and a red one for gold.
Somewhere between the sixth and eighth centuries the best known text relating to alchemy appeared. Although is attributed to Hermes or Trismagestus, the Emerald Tablet was probably an Arab work.
In the twelfth century alchemy came to Europe when Arab works, including the Emerald Tablet, began to be translated into Latin, but this declined in the twelfth century and more original works were written in Latin. A surprisingly large number of writers about alchemy in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries were Franciscan friars. These included Paul of Taranto, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon and John of Rupescissa. Not all of them thought it was a good idea, or even believed that it was acceptable to try to change metals into gold.
John of Rupescissa was influenced by the Spirituals in the Franciscan Order and was expecting the Antichrist to appear at any moment. He thought that any weapon that could be used against him should be investigated. Gold would be useful, he thought, and so would something that could prolong people’s lives. He was probably the first alchemist to consider using the healing properties of the Philosophers’ Stone on people, not, as popularly believed, to bestow immortality, but to extend life for a time. He was imprisoned in 1344 and spent the rest of his life in captivity, but he was permitted to carry out his experiments and to write. It was not his alchemy which worried the authorities, but his prophetic activities and his denunciation of clerical abuses. In 1351 he learned how to distil alcohol from wine when he was imprisoned in Avignon, where they had been doing this for medicinal purposes since the 1320s. He made tinctures by adding herbs to the alcohol and these tended to be more effective than those made using water. When he noticed that alcohol did not decay and that meat immersed in alcohol was preserved indefinitely, he thought he had discovered the elixir that would preserve life.
Alchemists became associated with counterfeiters and Pope John XXII condemned them in 1317. Edward II banned their efforts in England, but his son, Edward III, ever short of money, encouraged them.
Apart from its connection with counterfeiters and tricksters in general, alchemy was serious science. Its practitioners were not usually inspired by greed, but by curiosity. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that chemistry began to be seen as separate from alchemy.