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This is a short blog post covering an interesting but rather deep topic which would require a great deal more research to make a full on really interesting post. So instead you have to make do with this. Maybe in a few years I’ll write something more.

Right from the start, alchemy was related to other areas of endeavour or crafts. The recipes in the Physika et Mystika are similar to and sometimes the same as those found in the manuscripts recording various craft recipes, the Leyden and Stockholm papyri. Basically the early alchemists took ideas from Hermetic and gnostic religion and mixed them with physical workshop practises.

It seems clear to me that early alchemy was actually a form of philosophy and mysticism and religion; I use all of those words because although an expert could probably make specific distinctions, it is beyond me in the case of the Physika et Mystika and many of the other texts written by Cleopatra or that refer to Isis.

And this stayed with it into the Byzantine Christian era, with explicitly Christian imagery and metaphor added to Hermetic texts such as Zosimos “On the Letter Omega”. Some of the later alchemists surely enlarge the natural philosophical side of alchemy as well, making it less specifically religious, more an explanation of how the world works. The making of gold is treated as a specific work that can be done, not with religious implications, but rather due to knowledge of how the world actually works. This can also be seen in the works of Zosimos of course.

Sometimes I think the history of the last 2,500 years can be read as a move from simple religion based explanations of how the world works, and the development of alternative approaches, and the success of this is clear.

When we move onwards to Arabic alchemy, as far as I can tell from what I have read over the years (The lack of decent English translations is vexing and restricting), is that the gold making part was absorbed, as was the natural philosophical part of knowing how things worked. You can see this in the works of Jabir. Much less so in ar-Rhazi, who seems solely interested in the material physical work of alchemy and manipulation of material. The interesting question is how much alchemical understanding is related to medicine in the period; not much as far as I can tell, even if Rhazi was a physician and used ideas from alchemy in medicine or vice-versa, and there was surely crossover of techniques of distillation and manipulation of matter. Instead you find alchemy being mixed up with what we now think of as magic, as in for instance The Treasury of Alexander.

I suspect that the reduction in importance of the religious aspect of alchemy was due to the fact that the Islamic takeover was basically a religious- political one. Thus thoughts of other religions could not be allowed or were downgraded, whereas that still left the natural philosophical / workshop approach, which was already well embedded in the middle east. The Arabic invaders were very interested in the more complex and ‘advanced’ ideas and philosophies, such as with their absorption and writings about and improvement of Galenic medicine and astronomy, but they didn’t want the religious concepts which still pervaded some forms of alchemy. An interesting work, the “Turba Philosophorum”, written in the 9th century, translates alchemical ideas and concepts from a Christian approach into an Islamic one, making them more palatable to the rising new power centres. In turn, these new power centres carried out their own developments of various aspects of alchemy.

So when alchemy reached western Europe, it did so partly as fragments of earlier material, and in a strange jumble of fragments and new treatises and secondary material from Arabic alchemy, which, again, to a reader of a different culture, surely led to some metaphors and potential ideas being ignored or not understood, and thus what came across most strongly was chrysopoeia and natural philosophical understanding. The relationship to magic was mostly suppressed by translators due to religious reasons, because magic was icky and unnatural and required demons, although the natural magic/ demonic magic distinction was around then as well.

So at the start, alchemy is mostly natural philosophy and how this permits gold making, albeit often not so well explained or understood. But then in the 13th and 14th centuries, with the likes of the Secreta Sectretorum becoming more popular, and the works of John of Rupescissa, alchemy and medicine became more clearly linked. (Apparently Roger Bacon’s writings linking alchemy and medicine didn’t actually affect others much) Distillation was used for medical works as well, and is one of the most important direct influences of alchemists upon another field.

Parallel to the growth of medical alchemy was the revived relationship of it to artisans and their works. The original method of transmission were by learned men, but information percolated into the artisanal classes, perhaps as gold making ideas spread. Thus the quintessentially alchemical practise of distillation to produce acids and other liquids became an important part of entirely non-alchemical work, such as the use of nitric acid to separate gold and silver, a late to early post-medieval invention. The techniques and recipes were absorbed by jewellers, goldsmiths and artisans working with casting metal. Actual alchemists were more sophisticated in their work, and importantly the methods for testing gold were more effective and sophisticated, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if there was some changes in what alchemical recipes were used because the earlier ones simply couldn’t give good results against the new methods of testing gold.

There was also a rise in the use of religious imagery and concepts to explain alchemical work. The death and rebirth of Christ obviously matches the purification and perfection of metals in the alchemical work. It has been suggested that this is why many church authorities took against alchemy in the 14th century.

Although alchemy and magic were said to be related by the likes of the anti-alchemical inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich in the 1390’s or so, claiming that alchemists turned to demons to carry out transmutations, there really doesn’t seem to be much or any textual evidence in favour of linking magic and alchemy in the later medieval period, until we get to the Hermetic revival in the later 15th century and the rise of the concept of natural magic into relative prominence.

And even then things are subtly different, so much so that I think properly investigating them would take a while. Moreover, with the natural magic/ demonic magic concept having some power at the time, it doesn’t seem to have been universal, and plenty of alchemical works treat alchemy simply as a type of physical activity that stems from a natural philosophic understanding of how the universe works. Which of course also covers natural magic of course.

Anyway, the important point to note is that at the end of the medieval period and in the 16th century, alchemy was firmly related to medicine, to artisanal practises, and peoples understanding of how stuff worked. Much less so to anything you might call magic. (A related post on this blog: https://distillatio.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/the-natural-magic-of-giambattista-della-porta/)

Astrology too, as argued by Newman and Grafton; although I think they base their comments on an insufficient sampling of the literature and thus are too definite, there is the simple fact that astrology is just not well represented in alchemy at this time, for whatever reason. (See this blog post which explores some reasons: https://distillatio.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/alchemy-and-astrology-something-i-read/ Also the comment at the bottom)

The 16th century is basically more of the same, with the links to magic strengthening, medicine remaining important, and natural philosophy growing toward the end of it. There were people like Paracelsus, and many of the names which became famous with the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century were born in that century and inspired by works written in it. The story of how alchemy became chemistry is quite interesting, but now, after 40 or 50 years more work by historians, complicated and deep. It would require an entire book to explore it properly, and I do not think anyone has properly done it justice, although if anyone knows of anyone who has it would be nice to know. Certainly Principe in his “The Secrets of Alchemy” spends a couple of chapters on the matter of alchemy in the 17th century and that is a good starting point.