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Alchemy: History of the Great Secret Part IV

Updated on February 20, 2015
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Elizabeth has been an EMT for a year, a writer for 10 years, and an artist all her life. She pulls inspiration from her favorite authors.

Chapter Four

Unlike the inconsistent accounts for the birth of alchemy in other regions, most historians concur on the date of alchemy’s formal introduction into European culture[1]. On February 11th, 1144, Robert of Chester[2] completed his Latin translation of the Arabic work Kitab al-Kimya[3] (Book of the Composition of Alchemy). By this point, Europe of course had many craftsmen and physicians, however, the discipline of alchemy was previously unknown. Translators in Spain, such as Robert of Chester, brought to the Latin language many new words, such as “alcohol,” “elixir,” and “athanor[4].” During the same period, Gerard of Cremona, and Adelard of Bath were translating alchemical works into Latin, while men such as Saint Anselm, Peter Abelard, and Robert Grosseteste attempted to make alchemy and religion compatible in Europe and therefore acceptable to study.

Gerard of Cremona was a translator in Spain in the mid 12th century. He worked with the scientific and alchemical works of the Arabs that were left in the abandoned libraries in Toledo, translating them into Italian. His most well known translation is of Ptolemy’s Almagest, an Arabic text about astronomy and planetary movements, originally written in the 2nd century. His contemporary, Adelard of Bath, was also responsible for many new Latin translations from the Arabic texts of astrology and alchemy, but is most well known for introducing the Indian numbering system to Europe.

An illumination of the physician Rhazes from Gerard of Cremona's work "Recueil des traités de médecine"
An illumination of the physician Rhazes from Gerard of Cremona's work "Recueil des traités de médecine"

The Theologians mentioned earlier were mainly concerned with the concept of rationalism, the theory that reason is a good source of justification and knowledge, which, if compatible with faith, would allow for the scientific and alchemical experimentation that was often viewed as heretical. Saint Anselm was, before his death, Anselm of Canterbury, a monk who was the founder of the ontological[5] argument for the existence of the Christian God. He outlines this argument in the second section of his work, Prologion:

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, than we can conceive of a greater being – that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

Saint Anselm and his contemporaries (including the aforementioned theologians) helped in the rise of Scholasticism, the critical thinking method that dominated academic teaching in Europe from the 12th to the 16th century. Sciences such as astrology and alchemy became not only acceptable, but also useful – many known alchemists were also philosophers and were out to prove the existence of God.


During that first century, alchemical knowledge in Europe was limited to translations and encyclopedias, and there was a general lack of new knowledge or study in the field. In the mid 13th century, an encyclopaedist named Albertus Magnus reworded and explained the imported alchemical texts in the style of Aristotle. Although Magnus also produced original works, like his Book of Minerals, there is little to suggest that he himself was a practicing alchemist. However, his well-known student, Thomas Aquinas, has had alchemical texts attributed to him as well. Thomas was a Dominican priest, and studied his faith in the tradition of scholasticism before turning to study ethics, metaphysics, and natural law. Shortly before his death, he offered commentary on the Song of Songs[6], a passage in the bible that follows the traditions for alchemical allegory. Alongside Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon also made contributions to the alchemical field. After studying the Secretum Secretorum, Bacon believed in a universal science – a complete picture of wisdom and scientific knowledge that encompassed medicine, alchemy, astrology, and others. Although he didn’t produce any major works on alchemy, his ideas about integrating morality, alchemy, the prolonging of life, and salvation contributed to Christian theology. In the same century, alchemical texts by Pseudo-Geber[7] were published. These works included practical chemical operations and the sulphur-mercury theory[8] – both explained with a clarity that was unusual for the period.

All of the above contributions helped alchemy develop into a structured system of belief by the 13th century. Alchemists believed in the original Hermetic teachings, and shrouded their work in allegory and mystery, believing that uninitiated commoners should not have their secrets. They experimented with chemicals and made theories about how the universe works. All of their work culminated in the belief that after the Fall in the garden of Eden, the human soul was divided in two, and that through the purification of the soul the two halves could be reunified and a person could be reunited with god.

Unfortunately, the 14th century saw trouble for alchemists in Europe. Authors like Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer both depicted alchemists as liars and charlatans. In Dante’s Inferno, part of his larger work, The Divine Comedy, alchemy is mentioned by Griffolino and Capocchio as a way to define themselves.

So you will see I am the suffering shadow

of Caoocchio, who, by practicing alchemy,

Falsified the metals, and you must know,

Unless my mortal recollection strays

How good an ape I was of Nature’s ways

— Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, Canto XXIX, lines 109-140
The tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, preserved  at Musee de Cluny in Paris, France.
The tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, preserved at Musee de Cluny in Paris, France.

Both shades above mention alchemy directly, and the second mentions the falsification of metals – for which there were recipes in the Leyden Papyrus X, as referenced in chapter 1. Despite the highly Christian overtones of alchemical practice at the time, the attempt to multiply or counterfeit gold apparently left a lot of citizens feeling cheated. As a result, Pope John XXII issued an edict, the Spondent quas non exhibent, which forbade alchemists from promising the transmutation of metals into gold. King Henry IV of England, after encouraging educated men to study alchemy in the hopes of creating more metal and paying off the kingdom’s debts but continuously failing, also banned the practice of multiplying metals.

Although the 14th century brought trouble for alchemists, a few did manage to make history. Nicolas Flamel is perhaps the most ubiquitous. Flamel lived in France during the mid 14th century into the early 15th century, and was well educated – capable of reading and writing as was unusual for commoners at the time. He was, among other things, a manuscript seller. Flamel and his wife were Catholic in faith and lived into their 80’s (Flamel himself lived into his 88th year), and were recognized for their wealth and charity.

A book, published in 1613 in Paris, entitled Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures, was attributed to Nicolas Flamel. Whether or not he truly wrote it, the publishers forward describes Flamel’s work on the philosopher’s stone, and tells a legend of Flamel and a mysterious book, thought to be the Book of Abraham the Mage. Again, whether or not the legend is true and the book was written by Flamel, the possibilities that he studied and dabbled in alchemy are pretty good. A manuscript seller, in that period, would have seen many translations and works about a great many subjects, and the recent popularity of alchemy meant that many alchemical texts would have come and gone through Flamel’s stock. Even his self-designed tomb-stone is littered with alchemical images and references.

Nicholas Flammel

Throughout the 14th and into the 15th century, alchemy continued in the tradition of Flamel – entirely focused on attempts to create the philosopher’s stone; not many real contributions were made. However, there are three more alchemists of the time worth mentioning.

Raymond Lully (1232-115) is often credited with alchemical works and ideas, however there is so much conflicting information about his life that historians are almost certain that his name was used as a pseudonym by other alchemical authors. The real Raymond Lully, while interested in the occult, as illustrated in his work The Book of the Lover and the Beloved and hinted at in his work Ars Generalis Ultima (The Ultimate General Art), was first and foremost a missionary and mathematician. He died in 1315 in Tunis, Tunisia, Africa from being stoned by the natives.

Other accounts of the life of “Raymond Lully” speak more of his alchemical works and his study of the Hermetic tradition through the research of the Muslim theology. A work attributed to Lully is entitled Experimenta and contains descriptions of a total of thirty four alchemical experiments, which include uses of nitric acid (aqua fortis) and alcohol (aqua vitae). One interesting account of Lully states that he was held in the Tower of London under the reign of Edward II, ordered to turn metals into gold for the crown. To this Lully agreed, under the condition that the 50,000 pounds of gold that he reputedly created would be used to continue the Crusades. This tale also includes Lully escaping from the Tower and fleeing to Asia, where he lived to be 150. The gold he is said to have created is the Noble of Edward III, which serves as further proof that much of the information about Lully is mere legend, or that his name was used after his death by other alchemists who wished to remain anonymous. The Nobles were indeed manufactured in the Tower of London, but sources suggest that they were in fact made by George Ripley.

The Noble of Edward III, originally made in the Tower of London in 1344
The Noble of Edward III, originally made in the Tower of London in 1344

For Grief and Pain whereof his Members all began to swell;

With drops of Poysoned sweat approaching thus his secret Den,

His Cave with blasts of fumous Air he all bewhited then:

And from the which in space a Golden Humour did ensue,

Whose falling drops from high did stain the soil with ruddy hue...

— George Ripley, Twelve Gates

George Ripley lived in England in the 15th century after studying in Italy and developing a personal relationship with Pope Innocent VIII. He published a work that goes by two titles; The Compound of Alchymy or Twelve Gates Leading to the Discovery of the Philosopher’s StoneLiber Duodecim Portarum in the Latin. It was dedicated to King Edward IV and was, in fact, part of a twenty-five volume alchemical work. His work was later commented upon in the 17th century by Eirenaeus Philalethes, who mainly focused on Ripley’s Vision, which was part of his Twelve Gates work.

The last preeminent alchemist of the Middle Ages may have actually been two historical figures, commonly referred to as Bernard Trevisan, an Italian alchemist who lived in the 15th century, reportedly 1406-1490. Like Nicolas Flamel, his life and work were dedicated to the search for the secret of the philosopher’s stone. Works attributed to him include The Answer of Bernardus Trvisanus to the Epistle of Thomas of Bononia, The Prefatory Epsitle of Bernard of Tresne, and Trevisanus de Chymico Miraculo, Quod Lapidem Philosophiae Appelant.

Footnotes

  1. Alchemy had previously been into Europe as a geographical region, but had not yet been practiced by Europeans as a cultural group.
  2. A British arabist. He worked in Spain during the 1140’s, when the country was divided between Christian and Muslim rulers and cultural traditions and practices were exchanged rather freely.
  3. Written by Geber, as discussed in the previous chapter
  4. An athanor is a self-feeding furnace that is meant to maintain a steady temperature for laboratory alchemical processes.
  5. The ontological argument is the argument by way of reasoning. “X means Y, and since X is true, Y must also be true.”
  6. More on the Song of Songs in the next chapter
  7. An author who has not been indisputably identified, although he or she is sometimes identified as Paul of Taranto.
  8. The idea that metals are formed within the earth by combination of mercury and sulfur, and which metal is produced depends on the purity of each and the proportions of each in the mixture.

© 2015 Elizabeth Skinner

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