Alchemy and Metallurgy

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Alchemy and Metallurgy


Economic and Military Resource. The term alchemy originated in medieval Islam as an Arabization of the Greek word chem'ia, which referred to working with melted metals. Metallurgy and alchemy remained intimately connected through the Renaissance, although by 1600 the metallurgical arts had attained a degree of professional distinction and were producing their own descriptive and theoretical literature. Indeed, the mining, smelting, and refining of metals constituted an important industry in central Europe during the sixteenth century, and the princes who ruled emerging nation-states sought to encourage its development everywhere as an economic and military resource.

Coinage. Metals were the basis of coinage, too, and control of money was crucial to maintaining political authority and stability. For this reason the production and debasement of precious metals, whether by smelters or alchemists, was a sensitive matter and conferred on alchemy the dual status of desirable secret technology and feared violation of the economic order. For the latter reason in 1317 Pope John XXII prescribed severe punishment for alchemists.

Transmutation. Educated people believed that things of the world were materially distinct because of differing qualities and that there was a single underlying matter that took varying forms. Gold differed from lead not because of any fixed elemental nature but because it possessed different qualities—it was yellower, more ductile, and resisted corrosion better than lead. Therefore, few doubted that the transmutation of one metal into another was possible, since in theory one could add or subtract qualities to vary the form of the material object. However, many writers were skeptical of any particular individual's claims to have mastered the art and become an adept, or expert, at transmutation. As a result, the deceiving false-alchemist who demands advanced payments for the secret to making gold from cheaper metals, only to escape before the fraud is detected, and the deluded alchemist who wastes his family's wealth in search of the “elixir” or “philosophers' stone” that will enable transmutation, became familiar figures in literature from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canons Yeoman's Tale (circa 1386–1400) to Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (1612) and Ludvig Holberg's The Arabian Powder (1722–1727). By the late sixteenth century, alchemy was much more than the dream of making gold (chrysopoeia) and the object of the poet's derision; it was also a means to make new medicines that held out the promise of treatment of “incurable” diseases, longevity, and inexpensive drugs for the poor. No wonder the Rosicrucians and other sectarian reformers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were interested in alchemy as a means to create a better society.

Translated Texts. Alchemy as a science, with a complicated theoretical structure, practical procedures, and professional vocabulary, came to the Latin West from the Islamic world in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when manuscripts attributed to Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan and other Arabic alchemists were rendered into Latin. These texts taught that metals comprised varying blends of philosophical principles called sulfur, which conveyed color, odor, and inflammability, and mercury, which gave metal its weight and fluidity (fusibility). The sulfur-mercury theory embodied the Aristotelian idea that metals and minerals were produced in the earth by various kinds of terrestrial vapors, or exhalations, which yielded metals, if they were moist and cold, or friable minerals, if they were dry and hot. Therefore, the sulfur-mercury theory was readily assimilated to Aristotelian matter theory in the thirteenth century by such renowned scholars as Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus.

Exoteric versus Esoteric. An indigenous European Latin alchemical scholarship, drawing heavily on Arabic theory, took root in the thirteenth century, of which the most influential text was the Compendium of Perfection, written by Paul of Taranto under the pseudonym Geber (Jabir). This treatise, which was widely copied and eventually printed, proved to be one of the most important sources of basic theory and laboratory procedures for exoteric alchemy. Exoteric alchemy is distinguished from esoteric alchemy by a general disregard for spiritual metaphysics and religious mysticism, concerns that came to characterize much alchemical writing of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries. Exoteric alchemical tracts often admonished practitioners to be morally pure and regard knowledge of the philosopher's stone as the ultimate gift of God, achievable through hard study and divine illumination. Writers of this tradition often cloaked alchemical procedures in elaborate religious or mythological allegory. Nevertheless, exoteric alchemy was not in itself a religious practice. The esoteric tradition, however, fed on late antique Stoic and Platonic ideas attributed to sages such as Hermes Trismegistus and Plato, and later on the Renaissance Neoplatonism of Marsilio Ficino and his followers. This approach incorporated a more-spiritual, less-materialist metaphysics that appealed to Reformation intellectuals such as Paracelsus and Jacob Boehme. By the early seventeenth century, alchemy as a species of matter theory that emphasized the chemical nature of all being and all change—from the original divine creation of the world described in Genesis (Gen. 1) to the body's internal processes of digestion, disease, and healing—was a salient feature of religious, philosophical, and medical discussion. There is, in fact, no historical justification for distinguishing between alchemy and chemistry in this period, since the terms were used without consistent distinction.

Medicinal Purposes. The use of alchemical methods to prepare medicines is found already in treatises attributed to Arnald of Villanova and John of Rupescissa (fourteenth century), who were concerned with extracting the essences of herbs, minerals, and animal products by distillation. The idea that the alchemist could prepare a tincture or elixir that could complete imperfect metals and make them into gold, the fully perfected metal, naturally extended to the belief that elixirs could perfect humans, too, healing their infirmities and conveying longevity. By the late sixteenth century, some alchemists were caught up in the quest for specific chemical preparations to treat particularly intractable diseases, such as epilepsy and syphilis, as well as general, cure-all elixirs called panaceas. Most such medical chemists, or chemical physicians, considered themselves to be followers of Paracelsus or were labeled Paracelsians by their critics, who found mystical alchemy to be impious and regarded alchemical drugs as dangerous poisons.

Causal Connections. Paracelsus and his followers radically altered alchemy and medical chemistry by elaborating a spiritual matter theory that added a salt principle to the sulfur-mercury theory and by making explicit and metaphorical connections between spiritualist theology, alchemy, and astrology. In general, the Paracelsians have been criticized for failing to distinguish adequately between identity and analogy. This problem is clearly evident in the Paracelsian theory that the human body reflects the greater world, or macrocosm, and that tremors of the body are phenomenally the same as earthquakes, having the same remote causes.

latrochemistry. As alchemists accumulated experience in constructing, fueling, and regulating furnaces and condensers to cool and recover the distilled vapors, they were able to prepare purer and stronger mineral acids to use as reagents, enabling them to separate mineral ores and recombine their constituents in new ways. Some of the metal compounds that they produced were highly poisonous and produced strong symptoms in humans, which the Paracelsians took to be indications of their great healing virtues, too. These products could be safely administered as medicines if the specific toxicities could be removed chemically. By 1600 iatrochemistry (medical chemistry) was emerging as a distinct part of medicine; chemically prepared

drugs were beginning to find their way into traditional medical practice and would claim increasingly large portions of the official pharmacopoeias (books describing drugs, chemicals, and medicinal preparations) in the new century.

Great Promise. Knowledge of how to use acids, distillations, and metallic agents such as antimony to separate mineral ores into their components was useful in nonmedical applications as well, particularly in assaying and refining silver and gold. As mining and refining became more commercially and strategically important in the sixteenth century, treatises on assaying, distillation, and metallurgy began to appear, reflecting a growing specialization in these professions. Princes often supported alchemists not only in the hopes that they might command the secrets of gold-making, but also to staff court laboratories for testing the purity of metals and ores, preparing iatrochemical medicines and various cosmetics and confections for domestic use. Laboratories, such as those found in the palace of Landgraf Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel and the basement of Tycho Brahe's villa, gradually moved into the public domain in the seventeenth century. Alchemists were also called on to prepare inks for printing, dyes for textiles and glass production, and other industrial chemicals. Alchemy held great promise for late-Reformation idealists, who sought the improvement of society through new methods of producing cheaper and more-effective drugs and other material goods.


Allen G. Debus, The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2 volumes (New York: Science History Publications, 1977).

Charles Nicholl, The Chemical Theatre (London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

Piyo Rattansi and Antonio Clericuzio, eds., Alchemy and Chemistry in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Dordrecht, Holland & Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994).