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October 16 Alchemy in the Middle Ages

Page history last edited by Nicole Hagstrom 15 years, 6 months ago


     Alchemy is often a difficult subject for modern people to understand, as its goals and ideals are not commonplace in our society today. Moreover, it was often written in secret codes. While  the etymology is uncertain,  "alchemy"  has possible ties to ancient Greek "quimia," meaning fusion, and the Egyptian "kimi," meaning "black matter." Today, however, the Arabic "Al-kimiya" is typically assumed to be the root. After being introduced by the Greeks, alchemy developed in the Arabic world, and was eventually transmitted to the Latin West around the twelfth century A.D.  Vast amounts of texts on the subject exist, yet are difficult to interpret due that they often contradict each other and were sometimes written in metaphors or code. Many alchemical texts were written in such codes because they were meant to be read by only those deeply emersed in the subject and, therefore, had an understanding of its literature. In order to obtain increased circulation and credibility, texts were also rarely attributed to their true writers, and instead were written under the pseudonym of famous natural philosophers or alchemists (e.g. Geber).

     The Leiden and Stockholm Papyri (4th century A.D.) are two of the earliest extisting texts on the subject of Alchemy, and contain recipes from earlier texts instructive in the making of dyes, fake gems, fake gold, etc.  They also discuss the issue of mimicry vs. true reproduction; mimicry was known as Aurifiction, and the true reproduction of a substance was known as aurifaction. The possibility of nature being reproduced was based on Aristotelian matter theory and metal formation as a natural (organic) process.  Even while reproduction was considered theoretically possible, it was still a highly debated topic.

     Alchemy is regarded as a chapter in the history of natural philosophy. Alchemists believed in the idea of the unity of all matter, which permitted decomposition and recomposition. This was symbolized by the ouroboros, a mythical dragon that swallows its own tail. Metals had a special place in nature, and their components, sulfur and mercury, endowed them with particular properties. Unsually, metals were limited to seven types: gold, silver, iron, copper, tin, lead, and quicksilver. These metals formed a hiarchy, with gold being the most perfect form a metal can take. It was essentially viewed as a "ripe" metal, and all other metal types were in the process developing into gold while in the earth. Therefore, it was thought that human transmutation of base metals into gold was just a hastening of what the earth naturally does.


History of Alchemy

     Though the concept of alchemy originated in ancient Greece, the Arabic world truly developed the practice.  Perhaps the most influential of the Arabic alchemists was Jabir ibn Hayyam (8th century A.D), known to the Latin world as Geber.  Geber worked with animals and plants to isolate their properties and became so influential that hundreds of texts were attributed to his name after his death.  His "seventy books" focused on plants and animals.  His sulfur-mercury theory of metals was a modification of the Aristotelian matter theory and stated that all metals were made up of some combination of elemental sulfur and elemental mercury, gold being the metal with the most perfect proportions.  By knowing a metal's "interior" and "exterior" properties, it would be possible to change those properties, creating gold.  These properties were taken to be Aristotle's hot/cold and wet/dry dichotomies for the elements. Abu Bakr al-Razi, in the ninth century, added a third element, salt, to Geber's original two.  His work, Secretum Secretorum, also contained descriptions of alchemical procedures and apparatus such as distillation, crystallization, solutions, evaporation and many others.  Providing a commentary on the works of earlier Arabic alchemists was Avicenna, whose writings on Alchemy were once attributed to Aristotle.  He argued that transmutation and replication were limited, and emphasized the differences between artificial and natural products, claiming the inferiority of man made products. Avicenna made many arguments including the fact that we do not know the essences or construction of metals and therefore copying is impossible, and also identification of products after alchemical processes would be impossible as well.

     In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Arabic works were translated and assimilated into western culture.  Several additions to the canon were made by Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and others, but the most important was Summa perfectionis, attributed to Geber, but now believed to have been written by Paul of Taranto.  The subject matter of Summa perctionis shifted away from plants and animals, which Greber studied, and towards metal.  The text is overall Corpuscular and atomistic.  In Paul's view, the original tiny particles retain their identity within the larger corpuscle. It is these larger corpuscles that then form tight clusters with other large corpuscles in different proportions to form the makeup of metals. The "mercury alone" theory expressed in this work contained the premise that philosophical mercury would act upon any metal and turn it to gold.  It became the cornerstone of Alchemical theories for the middle ages. Summa perfectionis itself did not contain matters of spirituality, but the idea of Donum Dei, alchemical success being a gift of God, soon took hold.  For this reason and others, Alchemical texts became very secretive as many considered the gift too sacred to share with others.  This also played the role later in the fusing of religion and alchemy. Paul of Taranto was also the author of "Theorica et Practica" in which he declares that alchemy can not only match the powers of nature, but most certainly exceed them in manufacturing metals.



Alchemical Code


Here is an example of how complicated alchemical texts could be. This comes from Sir George Ripley's Twelve Gates:


Pale and black with false citrine, imperfect white and red,

The Peacock's feathers in gay colours, the rainbow which shall go over,

The spotted panther, the lion green, the Crows bill blue as lead.

These shall appear before you perfect white, and many more others.

And after the perfect white, grey, false citrine also,

And after these, there shall appear the red body invariable,

Then you have a medicine of the third order of his own kind multipliable.


Contemporary Influences

     Although Alchemy has disappeared over the past centuries, it has appeared in various pop culture works. J. K. Rowling references aspects of alchemy throughout her Harry Potter series. Some are obvious, like the use of seven (7 books, 7 years at Hogwarts, 7 days a week, 7 ancient metals) and the four houses of Hogwarts representing the four ancient elements of earth, air, water, and fire. However, unless knowledgable in alchemy, the reader may miss some of the more subtle references.The main alchemical figure mentioned throughout Harry Potter is the real historical figure Nicholas Flamel. Flamel is considered the only person to achieve alchemical immortality through the creation of the Philosopher's Stone (could change metals and properties of metals), and sightings of Flamel have been reported in the centuries following his studies. Other more subtle references to alchemy is the belief in three main phases of the chemical reaction; the last three books and three main characters represent these reactions. Sirus Black is believed to represent the first phase of a chemical reaction, the nigredo phase, literally, the "black" phase. Sirius dies in the fifth book, much like the first phase of the reaction "dies" in a chemical reaction. This book is also a dark time for Harry, in which he is "torn down," adding to the black phase allegory.  Following the nigredo phase is the albedo phase, the "white phase," represented by Albus Dumbledore who dies in the sixth book.  This book is also rife with "white" imagery.  The last phase is the rubedo phase, the "red" phase represented by Rubeus Hagrid and the red-haired Wesley family. Again, the seventh book contains "red" imagery, though it is more subtle than the preceeding white imagery. Harry, Ron and Hermionie also represent the three main elements needed for an alchemical reaction. Ron and Hermionie are the sulfur and mercury originially believed to create gold when combine in the perfect combination. And Harry is al Razi's salt, the last element to create an alchemical reaction. 




Primary Sources



Key Terms and Definitions

Aurifiction:  a term in alchemy meaning to mimic something rather than produce the real substance

Aurifaction:  This is a term meaning to produce a real reproduction, or a genuine clone of something in alchemy 

occultum:  interior properties asociated with metals

manifestum:  the exterior properties associated with metals

Mercury:  one of the elemental things that makes up metals in proportion with other elements such as sulfur according to Geber.  Mercury is responsible for conveying maleability.

Sulfur: the other element other that mercury said to compose all metals in different proportions according to Geber.

Salt:  a third element introduced by Al-Razi in his elemental theory of metals. 


Relevant Links



Comments (8)

Garrett McCormack said

at 8:47 pm on Oct 16, 2008

i added a couple things here and there and some definitions

jgm829@... said

at 1:15 am on Oct 18, 2008

I edited some of the grammar in the article

Grant Berry said

at 12:28 pm on Oct 18, 2008

Added a little on alchemy's origins, and then just a few things here and there.

jgm829@... said

at 4:39 pm on Oct 18, 2008

I added some information on the seven metals, their hierarchy, and the development of gold.

Jessica Germer said

at 1:07 pm on Oct 19, 2008

i added a few things and then did some editing

Alyson Collins said

at 1:10 pm on Oct 21, 2008

Did slight editing, overall goog notes page didn't have much trouble following it at all. :)

liz mastroianni said

at 6:45 pm on Oct 26, 2008

just looked over it edited some stuff, but good summary overall

Nicole Hagstrom said

at 1:54 am on Oct 28, 2008

Just switched the order of some of the paragraphs and made headings for even further convenience. Also, I simplified some sentences, but really did not touch their actual content.

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