History of alchemy (III). The European Middle Ages.


Viewing alchemy in ancient times and in the Byzantine and Islamic world, this third part provides a review of alchemy in medieval Europe.

Christian Europe

The "original" European treatises on alchemy, that is, they were not simple translations or reinterpretations of other rescued texts, began to proliferate, increasing significantly thanks to the printing press, and reaching their peak in the 17th century. Before reaching this point, there were great figures such as Roger Bacon (12th century philosopher, to whom the work Speculum alchimiae is attributed), Paracelsus (15th century, who used the term alchemy for any phenomenon of transformation, of the most complex to the most banal), or Giovanni Battista della Porta (16th century, author of Magia naturalis), among others.

To a large extent, medieval European alchemical thought moved between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian thought. Some believe that this was due to ecclesiastical pressures, and others think that it was simply because the majority of alchemists were religious, since they were the ones who could access reading and writing. In any case, this caused many purely theoretical works to exist and during its beginnings little progress was made in the experimental field.

This is the case of Albertus Magno (1193-1206), who, although he wrote a treatise on minerals (De mineralibus), and other philosophical and chemical treatises, it was after his death that works of alchemy began to be attributed to him to give them greater prestige. He is said to have discovered arsenic and it is true that he believed in the "powers" of minerals, and composition in things in matter and form (quod est and quo est), but his confirmed mentions of alchemy are almost exclusively in relation to thought. Aristotelian. His disciple, Thomas Aquinas, will be attributed the Aurora Consurgens, a treatise that mixes biblical quotations with alchemical texts.

For the medieval alchemist, alchemy is the complete philosophy, dealing with all natural, human and spiritual aspects. On the other hand, it can be said that until the 13th century, the existing works of alchemy are mainly translations of Arabic works or pseudo-epigraphic works of antiquity, such as the Secreta secretorum of Pseudo Aristotle, or the De anima in arte alchimiae, of Pseudo -Avicenna.

Specifically, Roger Bacon (1214-1294) took a lot from the two works cited, fully considered a medieval alchemist, in addition to being the first to propose a "scientific" method based on experimentation and empirical verification. He conceived the world as a set of hidden forces related to mathematics and geometry, but the most important thing, undoubtedly taken from works such as those mentioned above, is that he related the transmutation of metals with medicine, and therefore, the first ideas in Western alchemy that the purity of metals can be applied to the human body and therefore cure diseases or prolong life, as expressed in his work Opus Maius. These ideas will later be exposed in multiple apocrypha, which will provoke the alchemical madness of the Renaissance. However, for Bacon alchemy had a much more religious purpose, arguably even related to the resurrection, and as a tool against the Antichrist.

Vincent de Beauvais (1190-ca 1254?), was a Dominican friar whose life is known little, but who wrote one of the works that would be republished most in the centuries to come, the Speculum Maius, in the first part of which, the Speculum naturale, deals with minerals and elements, and explains that metals can actually be transmuted, although not towards their "purity", but towards their simple form. Likewise, although alchemy was not taught in universities, it was equated to specific studies such as botany or mineralogy.

Roquetaillade (or Rocatallada in Spanish; ca 1302-1366), was a Franciscan, philosopher and alchemist, who was punished and imprisoned several times for denying Christ or manifesting his apocalyptic visions. He developed a very particular type of alchemy, since it focused in obtaining the quintessence, which according to him, could be extracted from the distillation of wine. In his Liber Lucis he describes an alchemical furnace, which has been of great help to historians.

Another name that resonates in medieval European alchemy is that of Arnau de Vilanova (ca 1238-1311), although there are many doubts that he was really the author of properly alchemical texts, since there was another person named Pedro Arnaldo de Vilanova, already that both were court doctors and nobles. In the Rosarium philosopharum, a compilation of alchemical authors and ideas from the 14th century, his name is collected, and a theory that already appeared in the Summa perfectionis magisterii of Pseudo-Geber (v. Hª of alchemy II) is collected, perfected. . Islamic alchemy) - in this work it was assumed that all metals were composed of a base of sulfur and mercury; In the Rosarium philosophorum, the transmutation of metals was defended only from mercury, which "enclosed its own sulfur", and could be transmuted into a red tincture with which to obtain gold. Although this alchemical idea is of dubious attribution, it is true that Arnau de Vilanova, as a doctor, considered the possible ingestion of gold or a metallic tincture for therapeutic and medicinal purposes. Jabir or Geber (the authentic one) had proposed alchemy using natural plant or animal elements, but this completely changed in the Summa perfectionis magisterii of Pseudo-Geber, where it is established, and will be so from now on, that in alchemical study only They must use mineral bases.

Guillaume Sedacer (?-ca 1382), was a Carmelite who also compiled alchemical names and works, and who used an alchemical, symbolic and complex vocabulary to describe alchemical processes in his work Sedacina, with the clear function of making it difficult to the layman the understanding of his notes. His work gives more importance to symbols and illustrations than to the text itself, which would later become a trend in alchemy books.

It will be from the 14th century onwards when, little by little, the relationship between physical alchemy and spiritual work merge and give way to allegory, that is, to the "encryption" and complexity of alchemical symbols. It is at this same time when many religious orders prohibited the practice of alchemy to their members, partly because of the scams that began to occur with metals and alchemical medicines, and partly because alchemical spirituality was not always compatible with religious dogma. In addition, complex symbols and languages made it difficult to control widespread ideas. Although alchemy was not considered an illicit study, its religious detractors claimed that only the creation of nature was in God's hands, and that altering it was a heresy and blasphemy, if not directly a scam. However, if studying it and dedicating oneself to metals was never something prohibited by law, ecclesiastical detractors had to look for other accusations, such as those made by the inquisitor Nicolas Eymerich (1320-1399), which established that transmutation, because it was divine, It was impossible for human beings, and therefore alchemy could lead to worse things: fraud, or demonic invocation to achieve their goals.

At this time, in fact, any person dedicated to alchemy with notable wealth could be viewed with admiration and suspicion, but there was no such terrible persecution. Probably the Spanish Inquisition gave that bad image with the persecution, actually theological persecution, of Eymercih towards Ramón Llul, but as there were also very popular alchemical texts by Pseudo-Llul, confusion was afoot.

Finally, we have the case of the famous Parisian bookseller Nicholas Flamel (ca 1330-1418), who was said to have obtained the Great Work, the Philosopher's Stone, after having obtained an indecipherable manuscript, because, supposedly as a result of this discovery, , his fortune would have increased significantly, to the point of being able to have a house built, which still stands today at number 48 Rue Montmorency in Paris, as well as create and maintain numerous asylums and hospitals. King Charles VI of France would have been interested in him to contribute gold to the coffers. Furthermore, it was said that he and his wife, Perenelle, who was also a constant donor of his wealth to chapels and asylums, would have obtained immortality. Both were buried but, when their bodies were exhumed, the tombs were found empty, which fueled the legend... unfortunately, it is most likely that some looters, aware of the legends of Flamel as an alchemist, desecrated the tombs in search of remains of gold. .

The Book of Hieroglyphic Figures or the Book of Abraham the Jew were later attributed to Nicholas Flamel.

Hebrew alchemy

Often in the Middle Ages they wanted to present the Jew as the sorcerer and therefore also as the alchemist. The main problem with Jewish alchemy is that the information that has come down to us is biased by Christian visions, which intermixed Kabbalistic thought with alchemy, since both were "secret sciences." No doubt some of this confusion helped the expansion of the division between physical alchemy and spiritual alchemy.

Although they wanted to make great Jewish figures alchemists, such as Moses, David or King Solomon, the only real "alchemical" comparison documented is found in Isaiah 1, 25, where the biblical text says: << And I will turn my hand on you, and I will clean your dross to the purest, and I will remove all your tin >>, relating the purification of the soul with that of the metals.

Likewise, they wanted to look for a cabalistic comparison of metals and human beings in the description of the Dream of King Nebuchadnezzar that Daniel interprets, in Daniel 2, 31 et seq.: << You, O king, saw, and here was a great image . This image, which was very great, and whose glory was very sublime, stood before you, and the appearance of it was terrible. The head of this image was of fine gold; his chest and arms, of silver; his belly and his thighs, of bronze; his legs, of iron; his feet, partly of iron and partly of baked clay. >> There are two main problems with this vision: the first, that Daniel himself dismantles any alchemical theory, by referring to a dream of another person, and that it is a representation of the dynasties that are to come, some more fragile than others. The second, that although gold is very important in Jewish culture, the last cabalistic stage is represented by silver.

Over time, the word alchemy will even be given a special meaning in Hebrew: kimiya = ki mi ya = it comes from God. But it is a false etymology developed by someone who knew Hebrew and wanted to promote the false idea of Jewish alchemy.

We know of texts that were translated from Arabic to Hebrew in the 12th and 13th centuries, which may have caused some confusion for European alchemists. For example, the Book of the Palm Tree, or the King's Mother, which has been identified with a description of the philosopher's stone. We would also have the mysterious manuscript that Nicolás Flamel acquired in Paris in 1357, which only a Jewish convert from Santiago de Compostela could translate, and which was attributed to a certain Jew Abraham.

However, although any spiritual or physical interpretation of alchemy is absent from ancient Hebrew texts, from the 16th century onwards there will be a true expansion of the ideas of spiritual alchemy "based on Kabbalah", and in the Renaissance there will be a Hebrew alchemy itself, although this will draw on European alchemists, as will be seen in future articles.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


-Balasch E., Ruiz, Y. Diccionario de Magia antigua y alquimia, Tikal, 2003

-Íñigo Fernández, L.E. Breve historia de la Alquimia. Ediciones Nowtilus, MADRID, 2010.

-Martínez Rodríguez, T. Historia secreta de la Edad Media. Ediciones Nowtilus, Madrid, 2019.

-Servier, J., Diccionario crítico de Esoterismo. Akal, 2006

Related Posts:

>History of alchemy (II): the Byzantine world and the Islamic world

>History of alchemy (I): Egypt, Greece and Rome

>History of occultism (II): The Middle Ages

>The lapidary of Alfonso X the Wise: minerals and astrology in the Hispanic Middle Ages

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