The Magic of Alchemy

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During the medieval period, alchemy became a popular practice in Europe. Although it had been around for a long time, the fifteenth century saw a boom in alchemical methods, in which practitioners attempted to turn lead and other base metals into gold.

Did You Know?

  • The period between the thirteenth and late seventeenth centuries became known as the golden age of alchemy in Europe, but the study was based on an inaccurate concept of chemistry.
  • Some practitioners spent their entire lifetimes trying to turn base metals into gold; the legend of the philosopher’s stone became a riddle that many of them attempted to solve.
  • Gold was the ideal target for alchemical experimentation, because it contained the perfect balance of all four elements.

The Early Days of Alchemy

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Alchemical practices have been documented as far back as ancient Egypt and China, and interestingly enough, it evolved around the same time in both places, independently of each other.

In Egypt, alchemy is tied in with the fertility of the Nile River basin, fertility being referred to as Khem. By at least the 4th century BCE, there was a basic practice of alchemy in place, probably related to mummification procedures and connected strongly with ideas of life after death… Alchemy in China was the brainchild of Taoist monks, and as such is wrapped up in Taoist beliefs and practice... In its earliest practice the Chinese aim was always to discover the elixir of life, not to transmute base metals into gold. Therefore, there was always a closer connection to medicine in China.

Around the ninth century, Muslim scholars like Jabir ibn Hayyan began to experiment with alchemy, in the hopes of creating gold, the perfect metal. Known in the West as Geber, ibn Hayyan looked alchemy in the context of natural science and medicine. Although he never did manage to turn any base metals into gold, Geber was able to discover some pretty impressive methods of refining metals by extracting their impurities. His work led to developments in the creation of gold ink for illuminated manuscripts, and the creation of new glassmaking techniques. While he wasn’t a terribly successful alchemist, Geber was very gifted as a chemist.

Alchemy’s Golden Age

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The period between the thirteenth and late seventeenth centuries became known as the golden age of alchemy in Europe. Unfortunately, the practice of alchemy was based on a flawed understanding of chemistry, rooted in the Aristotelian model of the natural world. Aristotle posited that everything in the natural world was comprised of the four elements–earth, air, fire, and water–along with sulfur, salt, and mercury. Unfortunately for the alchemists, base metals like lead were not composed of these things, so practitioners couldn’t just make adjustments to proportions and change the chemical compounds to create gold.

That, however, didn’t stop people from giving it the old college try. Some practitioners spent literally their entire lifetimes trying to unlock the secrets of alchemy, and in particular, the legend of the philosopher’s stone became a riddle that many of them attempted to solve.

According to legend, the philosopher’s stone was the “magic bullet” of the golden age of alchemy, and a secret component that could convert lead or mercury into gold. Once discovered, it was believed, it could be used to bring about long life and perhaps even immortality. Men like John Dee, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and Nicolas Flamel spent years searching in vain for the philosopher’s stone.

Author Jeffrey Burton Russell says in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages that many powerful men kept alchemists on the payroll. In particular, he references Gilles de Rais, who was

tried first in an ecclesiastical court… [and] was accused of having used alchemy and magic, of causing his magicians to invoke demons… and of making a pact with the Devil, to whom he sacrificed the heart, eyes, and hand of a child or a powder concocted from the bones of children.

Russell goes on to say that “many magnates both secular and ecclesiastical employed alchemists in the hopes of augmenting their coffers."

Historian Nevill Drury takes Russell’s point a step farther, and points out that the use of alchemy to create gold from base metals wasn’t just a get-rich-quick scheme. Drury writes in Witchcraft and Magic that lead, as the basest of the metals, was representative of the "sinful and unrepentant individual who was readily overcome by the forces of darkness." Therefore, if gold included the powers of the four elements—fire, air, water, and earth—then by changing these elements' proportions, lead could be turned to gold.