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The answer is of course, yes and no.
Sparked by this rather meh, if not downright wrong in places, essay that seems to think that alchemy is magic in the medieval period:
http://www.medievalists.net/2015/05/31/courtly-magic-in-the-middle-ages/
Which is of first year undergraduate level frankly, nothing more than a re-hashing of a bunch of textbooks, or of tertiary works i.e. those which cite the works which cite the original sources.
Nevertheless, the question is always a good one to discuss.

You’ll notice that the essay references lots of works that concentrate on Magic, not so much on alchemy.* This is always a bit of a problem, with alchemy being ignored or lumped into other topics or viewed from a specific, often narrow and wrong, viewpoint.

Now, one of the first things to do is look at actual books on alchemy, the standard one volume work now being “The secrets of alchemy” by Lawrence Principe. He insists on page 125 of the hardback edition that:
“All of them agreed that its action was purely natural, that is, operating by natural laws alone.”

Admittedly he is referring here to the 16-17th centuries, but he continues,
“Although some critics tried to portray chrysopoeia {ie goldmaking} as operating in a non-natural manner that involved demonic agency and trickery – and was therefore something to be avoided – virtually all its advocates insisted on purely natural explanations.”
Principe also notes (page 89) that many 18th century writers grouped alchemy with witchcraft, necromancy, astrology etc under the heading of “occult sciences” and that (page 83) “it is akin to magic”. This idea has persisted today, but as anyone who does a bit of reading will find, sells alchemy woefully short, and Principe continues, “Alchemy was neither magical nor a so-called black art.”

A glance through the book “Promethean Ambitions” by William R. Newman, who on pages 177-178 reckons that natural magic and alchemy in the Arabic period overlapped but were distinct. He then goes on to discuss the “Book of the Cow”, a book of Arabic magic which is rather enthusiastic for lots of disgusting processes in order to get the result that you want.

So, what I am working towards here is the reader understanding that the word “magic” had a rather broad and variable meaning in the medieval period, and that to lump astrology, alchemy etc under “magic” is a dangerous simplification. Heck, even noted anti-historian Jonathan Hughes (Who has had two error riddled books published on alchemy in medieval England) groups alchemy into “occult” rather than magic.

The trickier thing is working out and demonstrating why calling alchemy magic isn’t really right. Not being good at Latin or an expert on medieval manuscripts I am somewhat hampered in producing primary evidence, but I have a lot of other sources.

Anyway, as for primary sources, a look through some copies and translations of later medieval alchemical works that I have, such as Russell’s of the Summa Perfectionis, or of the Aurora Consurgens, finds no mention of magic in connection with alchemy at all. I certainly don’t recall reading any medieval alchemical work that claims that alchemy is any form of magic.

Now, onto the good quality secondary sources, which are noticeably absent from the essay…

For instance, Lynn Thorndike’s magisterial “History of Magic and Experimental Science”, the first 6 volumes. (One of these days I shall get the last 2)
In volume 3, about the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we find that learned men accepted some forms of astrology but not others, and at no time (That I can find from skimming through it; it is rather a large book) does Thonrdike refer to it as magic or quote anyone who does.
What astrology is is occult. Meaning hidden, it refers to processes and effects that operate in a hidden way, a bit like gravity. You see the result and can work out the connection, but the mode of operation is not clear. It also clearly permits the term ‘occult’ to cover alchemy, insofar as the methods of operation can be rather hidden, although as noted above, alchemists spent a great deal of time explaining how alchemy worked in terms of the actual material physics of the world.

Of course, Thorndike’s books are titled “History of MAGIC and Experimental Science”, so what did he write about magic?
In volume 4, also covering the 14/15th centuries, he discusses a number of people and their opinions. Page 117 is about Jean Gerson, who it seems wrote that “But this does not justify Oneiromancy, augury, or the traditions of the magicians, who would make geomancy, chiromancy, pyromancy, and the like dependent on celestial virtue….”
On page 278, one Jacques le Grand, an Augustinian of Tolouse (who was at Paris in 1404), wrote a moral encyclopaedia, in which:
“James holds that the magic arts are nothing but seductions and inventions of the devil. He affirms that seven such arts are usually named: geomancy, hydromancy, aerimancy, pyromancy, chiromancy, armomancy, and nigromancy. But I do not remember to have seen this limited list in other authors.”

Then of course in chapter LXIII of this volume, we find Marsilius Ficino, who differentiated diabolical from natural magic, the latter using legitimate means such as celestial influences used for medicinal purposes.

The issue of method of operation brings up a controversial and tricky subject, namely the nature of magic and the division into natural and supernatural magic. Roughly speaking, the latter being what angels and devils do, the former being how a lot of things worked. It is important to remember that the whole “occult means evil” thing wasn’t around in the medieval period. Lots of things were hidden, i.e. occult, such as how astrology worked. This didn’t mean it was magic, or rather, it doesn’t mean it is magic the way we think of it.

Of course, in the 16th century we have the ultimate broadening of meaning in Della Porta’s “Natural Magic”, which is basically a recipe collection in the (then very new) tradition of Books of Secrets. For all that it involved “natural magic”, the recipes given were often of the sort used by alchemists and foundrymen and the like without any reference to hidden influences. Obviously calling it “natural” magic suggests there is unnatural magic, which is presumably that involving demons.

One interesting book I have is a History of Western Astrology, volumes 1 and 2. (Bought 5 or so years ago and not much read since, they are therefore an example of why I have a library) Pages 66-67 of volume 2 have a definition of magic, taken from Picatrix, the famous Arabic book on magic. The definition runs, “everything that absolutely fascinates minds and attracts souls by means of words and deeds”. This is rather a broad definition and I think difficult for a modern person to understand, unless you take into account the ideas about energies and influences that existed at the period.

It then goes on to talk about how talismans are used in magic, a “Spirit within a body”, a talisman being “a physical object designed to possess the sympathy, or even the life-force, for want of a better term, of a larger slice of the Chain of Being.”
Or in other words, of capturing part of the effect of the occult/ hidden and not visible and not widely known sympathies of the planets or even of gods or demons. Which certainly fits with what we think of as magic, but not at all with most alchemy, as indeed Zosimos argues in about the 3rd century AD in his attack on people who follow demons to get their tinctures to work, whereas the real true tinctures work because they follow nature, and do not rely on propitious times of operation i.e. the occult influences and sympathies of the demons/ planets.

The essay that sparked all this seems to think that astrology is magic, which isn’t really the case at all, rather, magic and astrology and alchemy are occult ‘sciences’ in the older meaning of the word, scientia meaning “knowledge”. And alchemy definitely isn’t magic, not relying on hidden similarities or the influence of angels or demons.

But, it is important to realise that modern occultists have been making shit up with regards to how interlinked the occult arts were. There was no great monolith of occult science, such as has been created today, and also the views of 18th century scientists that alchemy and magic and suchlike were all related superstitions to be consigned to the rubbish bin together is incorrect.

Finally, lets look at a book titled “Magic in Medieval Manuscripts”, by Sophie Page, which draws on the many manuscripts in the British Library. The index does not mention alchemy, and the book covers natural magic, the use of images and magical characters and ritual diagrams, the uses of spirits and angels and of course necromancy. Astrology gets a mention, but is not really a central part of the magics described.

So, in summary – the author of the essay is wrong. If they wanted to write such an essay a better umbrella term would be “occult”, and even that would require them to provide a definition and explanation of why these subjects fit under it.

* One of the ways to judge an article or book without digging into the precise arguments is, what sources do they use? If primary sources, that’s usually a good start, whereas if they frequently use works like “All Things Medieval: An Encyclopaedia of the Medieval World” then they really aren’t going to have a good handle on the subject. Of course, as Jonathan Hughes did, it is entirely possible to take primary sources and misinterpret them, but that is why you should also look at what is written in a work, rather than just the sources.

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