My friend Ted put up a bit of a mischeivous twitter poll before Christmas, that asked:
Let’s settle this once and for all. Alchemy was a 1. Vain pursuit of lead into gold with no science value 2. Spiritual metaphor never connected to real lab work 3. Psychological projection of psyche onto flask 4. Form of knowledge with applications in metallurgy, mining, medicine
I tend to think that it is all four, at different times with different people, for instance you can see points 1 and 4 in 16th century England at the same time, and who knows, perhaps some 2 as well, with point 3 being the 20th century Jungian idea about it.
But apparently a lot of people don’t know that point 4 is a major thing, Ted meets people like that all the time. In fact the last 40 odd years of historical research has dug into that area in a major way and shown a lot of connections, both in people involved in the various areas of technical knowledge and how they overlap with alchemy. So this is a post showing some of the evidence for it being a form of knowledge with applications in metallurgy, mining and medicine. Of course the caveat is that item 4 is, much more complex than can be summarised in a single short sentence in a tweet.
Some of our understanding of alchemy and medicine goes back a long way, insofar as historians in the 19th century recognised the links, but they have been explored in more depth more recently. Leaving aside concepts in Arabic alchemy or Chinese alchemy, in western Europe one of the earliest to link alchemy and medicine was, Roger Bacon. He reckoned that the philosopher’s stone could extend life (Not make you immortal), because the stone was a perfect thing capable of perfecting you too, i.e. balancing your 4 humours which would enable you to live your maximum natural lifespan. Other people thought so too apart from Roger, but the next big kick along was from John of Rupescissa in the 1350’s who wrote about making the quintessence and how it was a great medicine. Now there were various ways of making quintessences, but they relied upon equipment that was not well known, such as a pelican, and the physical knowledge of how to do it all came from alchemists and physicians.
So this led to the conflation of quintessences and various possible medicines with alchemical work, as you can see in the licence granted to multiply gold/ practise alchemy to a group of English physicians and intellectuals in 1456, with the avowed aim of making medicine to cure the mad king, but the terminology used covers medicine and metallurgy:
“The King to all unto whom &c. Greeting. Know ye, that the sages and most famous philosophers of ancient times have taught, and recorded in their writings and books under signs and symbols, that many glorious and noteworthy medicines can be made from wine, precious stones, oils, vegetables, animals, metals, and certain minerals; and especially a most precious medicine which some have called the mother of philosophers and Empress of medicines; others have named it the inestimable gloty; others, indeed, have named it the quintessence, the philosophers’ stone, and the elixir of life; a medicine whose virtue would be so efficacious and admirable that all curable infirmities would be easily cured by it … But also many other benefits, most useful to us and the well-being of our kingdom, could result from the same, such as the transmutation of metals into true gold and very fine silver; and when by much frequent cognition, have considered how delectable and useful it would be, both for ourselves and the well-being of the of our kingdom, could result from the same, such as the transmutation of metals into true gold and very fine silver;…”
Interestingly enough the word alchemy does not appear in the licence, which was concerned instead with the ‘tincturing of metals’. (From “A licence of Henry VI to practise alchemy”, Ambix vol. 6, 1957, 10-17. D Geoghega.
By the 16th century, this lead to Paracelsus and his alchemically made medicines using antimony. The fact that antimony was also an ingredient in many alchemical tinctures is entirely the point, I think. Not to mention all the other recipes which cropped up in books of secrets and
Bruce Moran wrote a book about alchemy, chemistry and distillation, including medicines, called “Distilling knowledge: alchemy, chemistry and the scientific revolution”, which I find a dull book yet lots of people like it.
Moving on from medicine, we enter the art world, where we find the late 14th century work on doing artistic works by Cennino Cennini, a Florentine craftsman, who explains that vermilion “is made by alchemy, prepared in a retort” and this suggests that at least in popular culture, changing metals into other substances was thought of as alchemy, and that the techniques from alchemy were of use in real crafts.
The next really important area is metallurgy, in which alchemy again played a role, in part because many goldsmiths seem to have been alchemists too, and alchemically produced innovations such as the mineral acids were absorbed into craft practises.
Moreover, Biringuccio, an Italian foundryman and craftsman pointed out in his 1540 book, that alchemy, distilling, goldsmithing and metal working were all kindred arts due to the use of fire.
Metallurgy and mining were of great importance by the 16th century, as technology developed, old mines were worked out and new ones dug. Many central and east European princes tried to increase their income by improving their mines or starting new ones. Therefore we have more evidence from 16th century Germany and eastern Europe, showing that alchemists were expected to have knowledge of minerals and matter in general, so they could advise Princes and artisans about their attempts to mine and make more money.
Tara Nummedal, in her book “Alchemy and Authority in the holy Roman empire”, page 33 of the paperback version, explains the career of Leonhard Thurneisser, who was born in 1531, trained as a goldsmith, worked in mining by 1559, and drew the attention of Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, who hired him and sent him to research mining and suchlike around central Europe. On these trips he learnt about Paracelsian medicine as well, and left mining to become a physician.
Nummedal also quotes Lazarus Ercker and Agricola, who wrote about mining and assaying, with Agricola writing “The alchemists have shown us a way of separating silver from gold by which neither of them is lost”, and Ercker that “assaying is a very excellent, useful and ancient art, which, like all the other arts that work with fire, originated very long ago as an outgrowth of alchemy.”
That latter point is almost certainly wrong, but indicative of what people thought in 16th century Europe about the early days of alchemy.
Another example of the use of substances and techniques that originated with alchemy is the production of colouring agents for glass, as explained by Antonio Neri in his book “The art of glass”, published in the early 17th century. Distillation of acids and other chemicals was clearly derived from alchemical practises, even if it was not so admitted.
Finally, the 17th century alchemist and general chymist, Becher, wrote, regarding alchemists, “If they have found no gold, they have meanwhile discovered good medicaments and other admirable arts, not to mention gunpowder, glassmaking, enamel, dyes, medicines and now the rediscovered eternally burning material [i.e. phosphorous]” (From page 200 of “The Business of Alchemy – Science and Culture in the Holy Roman empire”, by Pamela Smith.
The thing I find interesting is that so many practises and techniques were clearly developed by alchemists, yet not always acknowledged as such. The simple answer why is that alchemy was not a sufficiently respectable practise that it was good to say you were an alchemist or that you got the idea from them. Both Agricola and Ercker doubted transmutation of metals into gold or silver, and there were of course many arguments about the new medicines based on alchemical techniques. Put simply, alchemy was an important way of looking at the world and of interrogating it and trying to manipulate it, but it could never achieve mainstream popularity and respect, for a variety of reasons which would need their own post. Suffice to say, compared to smelting of metals, distillation of wine, etc, alchemy was a more secretive practise that could not clearly deliver on demand.
Moreover due to the secrecy involved in practising alchemy, there is a lack of good evidence of the development of technical procedures, quite apart from the confusion in alchemical texts.
The hidden or simply not acknowledged influences of alchemy are many, and not fully explored. Hmmmmm, that’s an idea for future work.