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Alchemy in the Scientific Revolution

Page history last edited by Garrett McCormack 15 years, 2 months ago

I. Medieval Background


During the Scientific Revolution, the term chymistry also included alchemy, alchemy distiguished by the pursuit of transmutation and subsequently eternal life. However, many thought alchemy was quackery, due to the secretive and codefied nature of the works and its desire to out-perfom nature and God by creating minerals.  Because of this mindset, Medieval universites shunned alchemy as an academic profession.  Alchemists resorted to apprencticeships to train others in practical alchemy.  Apprenticeships consisted of learning about dyes, perfumes, paints, brewing, metallurgy and medicine. Those who were prevalent in the practice of alchemy treated the subject much like a secret society because, in the vein of modern pharmeceutical companies, certain goods created a lot of wealth, and practitioners already established in alchemy did not want any more competition in the market. During the 17th century, however, chemistry was introduced at the university level, especially at medical schools. 


The main theory behind alchemy was the Corpuscular theory described by pseudo-Gerber in Summa Perfectionis. According to this theory, the product of a chemical process retains components of its original elements. The Summa perfectionis also included the "mercury alone" theory (the author's philosopher's stone theory), as well as an extensive description of chemical practice.


II. Practical Aspects of Alchemy and "Chymistry"


 Alchemy was often practical more than it was mystical (transformative metals and minerals).  Alchemists, after all, were involved in various trades, making advances in metallurgy, medicine, brewing, artistry, mining, and dyeing.  Yet the ultimate goal of many alchemists was the transformative side and this was often the most visible focus to the academic and scientific world.  Most scholars recognized both the practical and the mystical sides of alchemy, though some paid more attention to one than the other.  Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) wrote De re metallica, in which he tried to give a detailed description of what mining and metallurgists did, along with diagrams to illustrate their techniques.  Vanoccio Biringuccio's (1480- 1539) De la pirotechnia was a practical manual of metals and metallurgy.  In it he ridiculed alchemy as quackery because he, like Avicenna before him, believed it was impossible to artificially produce metals. However, he also commemorated chemistry as a way to create new and useful things such as medicine. Leonardo da Vinci had a similar attitude towards alchemy because of its rules and practice, but he appreciated it to a degree as a source for new paints and dyes.



III. Chymical Theory and Atomism


Two opposing theories in alchemy were the theory of substantial forms and corpuscular theory. Both attempted to explain the result of an alchemical reaction. For example, when silver metal reacts with nitric acid, the product is aqueous silver nitrate and hydrogen gas. As silver cannot readily be seen, scholars pondered, "Where did it go?" Another more familiar example is the combination of sodium and chlorine, an explosive metal and toxic gas respectively, to produce sodium chloride, which is harmless and edible table salt. Do the two original products still exist in a combined state, or are they now something totally new? 

     The theory of substantial forms stated that the result of an alchemical reaction was something entirely new. That is, the silver nitrate was some new compound. Corpuscular theory disagreed, believing that the result of an alchemical reaction was produced by the rearrangement of the reactant's initial particles and that the silver was still there, but rearranged.

     During the Scientific Revolution corpuscular theory began to take hold, and gradually the substantial forms theory became less popular. For example, Daniel Sennert, a German professor of medicine, in De Chymicorum cum Aristotelicis et Galenicis Consensu et Dissensu, questioned why after a myriad meddling with silver would you get silver back if, as substantial forms suggested, the result of these mutations was completely new. He also developed the "reduction to the pristine state," by use of experimentation in the corpuscular tradition.

Other authors, such as Paul of Taranto and Andreas Libavius concurred with Sennert.  Paul of Taranto argued for the corpuscular theory in his Theoria et practica. Andreas Libavius proposed the same thing in his Alchymia, arguingthat because original substances can be caused to reappear after the process, they cannot be an entirely new creation.  Moreover, Alchymia also became the first chemical textbook.


 IV. Chymistry and the Universities

 It wasn't until the late 17th century that Alchemy was taught in universities, and then it was taught in Medical schools, notably by Johannes Hartmann.  His existing notebooks show the extreme complexity of his lab guidlines, and outline proper rules for students of Alchemy to follow.  Also Andreas Libvaius had a large impact in the teachings for chymistry in the universities.  His textbook Alchymia was a practical guide on doing chemistry; it included descriptions of tools and processes.  Alchemical texts are notorious for being extremely esoteric and complicated. They are extremely cryptic and make use of metaphors. Even today chemistry retains some of these metaphors to relate concepts.  Interactions are described as "attracting" and "repulsing," molecules "attacking" each other, and lists are made of what chemicals another chemical "likes" or "dislikes."


V. Starkey's Influential Nature

George Starkey was an American who left for London in 1650 for better equipment and materials. Soon after joining the Hartlib Circle (a group of wealthy alchemists/natural philosophers), he gave up his medical practice and began circulating manuscripts written by Erineaus Philalethes. Starkey began telling stories about how great Philalethes' works were and giving him support so much that everyone around him believed and began studying the manuscripts. It wasn't until years later that historians discovered that George Starkey and Erineaus Philalethes were the same person. George Starkey had a tremendous influence on a number of scientists including Robert Boyle, whom he introduced into alchemy/chemistry, and Isaac Newton. Newton had a large collection of chemical books that were written by Philalethes (Starkey). A manuscript found in Newton's own handwriting was actually a transcription of Starkey's work. Newton's matter theory also contained traces of Starkey's matter theory throughout it.







Primary Sources

"...it [alchemy] is surely a fine occupation, since in addition to being very useful to human need and convenience, it gives birth every day to new and splendid effects such as the extraction of medicinal substances, colors, and perfumes, and an infinite number of compositions of things."

                                                                                                                                                                     -Georgius Agricola, De re metallica


Key Terms and Definitions


Hartlib Circle- A group of intellectuals in the field of chemistry in the scientific rennaissance.  Boyle was a member of this group.

Dispersion- method used by chemists to conceal their work which involves talking about subjects in fragments scattered through several works

Decknamen- A name given to something with the purpose of concealing its true identity from the unlearned in alchemical literature.

Syncope- method used to obscure chemical writings by ommitting ingredients needed to perform chemical processes.

Parathesis- the use of many different names for chemicals so that only the learned in chemistry will know how to discern them.

Summa Perfectionis- A work preported to have been writted by Gerber that contains the Corpuscular theory, the main theory behind alchemy. Actually written by Paul of Taranto.


Chrysopoeia- A Greek-based alchemic word which means gold-making.


Chymistry- The old spelling of chemistry. Also meant the sum total of all chemistry/alchemy, the making of

anything practical.


Alchemium- by Libavius.  Regarded as the first chemistry textbook ever to be written.






Relevant Links


Comments (3)

jgm829@... said

at 6:42 pm on Nov 23, 2008

I added some info on alchemy and how it was seen by people both inside the practice and outside of it, I also added some key terms and definitions. I do not remember the name of the first critic of alchemy that I mentioned but I believe he was Italian. If anyone could add his name, that would be great.

Alyson Collins said

at 10:15 pm on Nov 23, 2008

added some stuff, started putting headings that follow the handout Dr. Ramberg gave us , etc.

jonathan stutte said

at 11:40 am on Nov 25, 2008

fixed a little spelling (*quackery) and added some to the first and more to the second paragraphs.

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