A protoscience that involved research into the refining of salt, metals, paints, and medicines as well as the transformation of common, lesser matter into rarer and more valuable forms. Though it reached its height of popularity in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, the discipline has been practiced in one form or another from the ancient world to the present day. The word alchemy has its roots in the Greek chemeia, itself a derivation of the word for smelting metals. When such practices entered the Islamic world in the early Middle Ages, it acquired the Arabic definite article al, producing al-kimiya. It is from this linguistic construction that the modern English words alchemy and chemistry derive.
The practice of alchemy combined the studies of metallurgy and chemical processes through laboratory experimentation with the studies of medicine and disease and mysticism, religion, and philosophy. The most well-known aim of alchemy was to find a technique through which the alchemist could transmute base metals like lead into gold. For some alchemists “the great work,” as they called it, was less about the prosaic transformation of materials than about a higher transformation of one’s soul: to leave baser human foibles behind for spiritual enlightenment. The vehicle by which either transmutation would occur was the production of the Philosopher’s Stone. Small portions of this material added to lead were said to change it into gold. Taken internally, the Philosopher’s Stone would act as an elixir of life. The transformative aspect of alchemy was only one part of a larger intellectual enterprise.
The primary hurdle in the study of the history of alchemy is answering the questions of just what was alchemy and what are its murky origins? It seems to have been practiced in numerous forms in different cultures and times around the world, from the Middle East to China and India. One result is that there is no one explanation – or panacea, to use an alchemical term – to cover the wide range of diversity of beliefs and objectives that fall under the category of alchemy. The common popular view of alchemy, its practitioners, and place of practice is that of Renaissance Europe. This form was itself a combination of many ideas from many different intellectual traditions, cultures, and religious contexts, all shoehorned into a Christian sensibility, but they were by no means a universal picture.
The practice of something akin to alchemy can be traced back to ancient Babylon. Alchemy in its modern, recognizable form appeared first in the early Moslem period. Following the fall of the Roman Empire (an event commonly seen as the end of the ancient world), two great Western cultural engines appeared – Christianity and Islam – which, in turn, joined with the preexisting Jewish world. For the most part, Christians rejected the learning of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, considering their pagan roots as antithetical to good religious practice. Islamic scholars, however, had few such qualms. In fact, they embraced pagan science and technology as an aid to proper Islamic worship and ritual. The Greek mania for simplifying the universe so it could be better understood led to the creation of the four elements concept. The Greeks visualized the world around a diagram listing air, fire, earth, and water as the four basic building blocks of the universe. They, in turn, were joined by the conditions of hot, dry, cold, and wet. The entire universe, they believed, was made up of combinations of these four elements and their corresponding conditions. Islamic and later Christian intellectuals embraced this notion as a simple and elegant way to view the workings of the cosmos. The logic behind this arrangement suggested that, if all matter was made of these four simple elements, it would be relatively easy to change one bit of matter into another by simply re-arranging the recipe by which they were combined. With that, the popular concept of alchemy was born.
Two of the most famous Islamic alchemists were Al Jabir ibn Hayyan (722-815) and Al Razi (866-925). Jabir, known to his later Christian admirers as Geber, created a number of alchemical apparatus – such as the distillation flask, alembic, and test tubes – that became standard equipment in any alchemical laboratory, and indeed any modern chemical laboratory. He also helped introduce it more disciplined and methodological approach to experimentation and careful laboratory record keeping. The Greek and earlier approach was haphazard and difficult to follow. Despite his improved working technique, Jabir’s work was also allegorical and couched in obscure symbolism. The modern word “gibberish” is thought to come from his name. Following the Crusades, alchemy spread into Christian lands where it became a mania in Europe.
The golden age of alchemy was from the late Medieval through renaissance periods of European history. Renaissance magi came to believe that the originator of alchemy was Hermes Trismigistus (thrice great Hermes), a composite of Greco-Roman deities. As a result, an entire body of knowledge, not all of which was alchemical, was developed based upon the writings attributed to this character and called the Hermetica. The first alchemical book to reach Europe was a translation by Englishman Robert of Chester called The Book of the Composition of Alchemy (1144). Alchemical books took on a distinctive appearance early. As many were searching for crude ways to turn lead into gold, the alchemists were careful to guard their work against prying eyes. As a result, they wrote their books in an increasingly allegorical language and symbolism so that only other initiates could read them.
While the basic underlying idea of alchemy is simple, the practical aspect of reworking the recipes for matter in order to transmute them into other forms proved a huge operational barrier. Practitioners devised a wide range of complex equipment perform their work. They were primarily concerned with distillation, where liquids were changed to a vapor through boiling and then returned to their liquid state, and with the heating, melting, and cooling of metals and chemicals. The central apparatus in the alchemical laboratory was the furnace. Because different metals melted at different temperatures, there were often several furnaces in the room so that multiple experiments could run simultaneously.
The most obvious impact of alchemy was on the early foundation of chemistry, including metalworking, gunpowder production, dye making, ceramics, glass making, and the development of the alcohol industry. Most modern scientific chemical processes can find their origins in alchemical research. Alchemy also had a role in the growth of modern medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. During the period when disciplines like chemistry and medicine were entering their modern forms, most doctors practiced a level of alchemical research, and some still openly practice astrology. Possibly the most influential of these alchemist doctors was Paracelsus.
Born Philippus Bombastus Von Hohenheim (1493-1541), he took the name Paracelsus to give himself greater social significance. He was a Swiss physician-astrologer who was also heavily influenced by alchemy. During his youth, he worked as a mining engineer studying rocks, minerals, and strata. Alchemical studies, combined with his practical knowledge of geology, led him to pioneer the use of minerals as cures for medical problems, rather than relying solely on astrological, religious, and herbal remedies. He accepted that disease was something brought into the body from outside. Paracelsus saw alchemy not as a way to produce silver and gold to make one rich, but as a means of producing medicines to make one healthy. His approach saw sickness in the alchemical tradition as a disharmony between the individual – the microcosm – and the universe around them – the macrocosm. He argued the human body needed a proper balance of minerals in order to maintain a proper balance of micro and macrocosm, thus good health. His work helped later followers to overturn the Galenic medical philosophy that had dominated the West for centuries.
Alchemy was such an integral part of Medieval and Renaissance thinking that it inspired Isaac Newton to engage in it, though secretly. Scholars are unsure just what Newton’s purpose was in taking up alchemy, but it was clearly important to him, as he wrote more on this subject than he did on the straightforward scientific topics such as gravity and optics for which he is best known. The work of Paracelsus and Newton show that, far from being some strange, foreign practice performed by cranks in the dark corners of society, alchemy, in a broad sense, was part of mainstream intellectual thought. It is persuasively argued by historians that alchemical research helped pave the way for later understandings of the universe and was a pivotal intellectual part of the Scientific Revolution, which supposedly did away with superstitious belief for a society based upon reason alone. All of early chemistry took its working methodologies and underlying assumptions directly from alchemy. Chemists eventually dropped the more superstitious and theological aspects of alchemy, but the core structure was retained. It can also be argued that alchemists did not disappear, they simply found better ways of earning a living by turning to rational chemistry. Once dismissed by scientists and historians alike as nothing more than a mildly interesting pseudoscience indulged in by persons of dubious integrity, the modern reappraisal of alchemy, and its resurrection as a worthwhile topic of historical study, came in the late 1970s with the publication of Belgian historian of science Robert Halleux’s Les Textes Alchemique. He saw the work of some alchemists as organized and experimental and thus forming the basis of modern experimental science. This opened up alchemy as a topic serious scholars could and should investigate. It was this growing body of literature that helped overturn so many of the fantastical and preconceived notions about alchemy.
A modern historiographic difficulty often encountered by those researching and writing about alchemy is its relationship to chemistry. The popular image of the alchemist as a wizard-like character practicing a dark art in a crowded, glass apparatus-filled hovel, attempting to change lead into gold is a misleading one that does not fit the historic facts. The origins of chemistry have been linked to the history of alchemy in popular as well as scholarly texts. The traditional view is that alchemy was a strange, irrational fringe pursuit and that chemistry, as a logical practice, evolved out of it almost accidentally. This view has been repudiated by the scholarship of Lawrence Principe and William Newman. Their close reading and analysis of original texts and primary sources shows that there was no differentiation between alchemy and chemistry to the practitioners of the field prior to about 1700. Principe and Newman suggest using the term chymistry to label the interwoven nature of these two historical pursuits. After the early part of the 16th century, however, a division between the two practices did appear, with alchemy veering off into the more spiritual and metaphysical aspect of the endeavor (including the transmutation of metals) and chemistry moving toward its modern form as a non-metaphysical science of materials and atomic structure. As such, chymistry was the foundation of the modern pharmaceutical and metallurgical industries and contributed to modern laboratory techniques of a number of sciences. The transmutation aspect can even be seen as an early step toward biological evolution theory.
While many Medieval and Renaissance practitioners of alchemy were frauds, scam artists, and sincere but self-deluded seekers of riches through the transformation of metals, a few were working consciously to turn the irrationality of mysticism into a rational method of understanding the universe. It was this part of the alchemical community that laid the ground work for the discovery of fundamental ideas about atomic theory, thermodynamics, the periodic table of the elements, and modern science in a wider context.
Alchemists never succeeded in some of their more popular if not common goals. There is little more than anecdotal evidence that any alchemist ever produced a Philosopher’s Stone or turned lead into gold. Modern alchemists with all the resources of modern laboratory technology – much of which originated with ancient alchemists – have yet to perform this feat either. As to the other aim of alchemy, the transmutation of one’s inner self into something higher and better, that is a metaphysical outcome science can neither prove nor disprove. Alchemy is thus an example of how something that is considered pseudoscience can eventually become science and shows the sometimes transitory nature of intellectual inquiry.