Science or Magic? A Brief History of Alchemy

Alchemy, like medicine and agriculture, was part of the group that could manipulate primary qualities. This is a brief summary of the history of alchemy and its acceptance as one of the mechanical arts.

Gabriela Castillo

For ancient philosophers, craftsmanship and manual work were inferior activities practiced only by the lower classes. It wasn’t until the 12th century when Hugo de San Victor listed the 7 mechanical arts (emulating the seven liberal arts popular during the classical period and the Middle Ages) that he named a set of arts that involve physical results such as textile manufacturing, weapons, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and theater.

Alchemy was one of the mechanical arts, in which one tries to emulate nature for one’s own benefit, where through laboratories it was possible to produce materials that even exceeded in perfection their natural counterparts. But others were skeptical about the results of alchemical processes and argued that nothing artificial could match the perfection of nature.

Within the mechanical arts described by Hugo de San Victor, there are two branches: those that use primary qualities, such as agriculture and medicine, meaning that they can transmute ingredients while those that use only secondary qualities and can only induce the accidental form of the product, such as sculpture, carpentry, and painting.

Alchemy, like medicine and agriculture, was part of the group that could manipulate primary qualities. This is a brief summary of the history of alchemy and its acceptance as one of the mechanical arts.

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Avicenna and the Sciant Artifices

Although Aristotle did not write anything concrete about alchemy except to describe the components of matter and their changes, medieval alchemy was considered a branch of his studies on matter. One of the texts initially attributed to the philosopher was the Kitab al-Shifa by the physician and Aristotelian commentator Avicenna, partially translated in the 12th century by Alfred of Sareshel.

Many scholastics confused Avicenna’s text for an original treatise by Aristotle since the Greek philosopher was the principal authority on many topics of the Middle Ages, so his statements carried a strong weight, even with works and research that refuted many of his postulates.

Avicenna described how all metals derive from a combination of Mercury and Sulfur with variations in temperature. According to the text, Avicenna argues that although their accidental form can be manipulated, metals have their own substance, and these are immutable, so he denies that transmutation can be possible. His position is known as sciant artifices, and was adopted by several scholastics, including Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas’s Vitrus Loci

Thomas Aquinas, in his comments on Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum, agrees with Avicenna that elements cannot be transmuted and argues that alchemists could not reproduce the substance of metals as they occur deep within the earth, besides rejecting the artificial products of alchemists.

Thus, for him, products like Ammonium Chloride produced in laboratories through the decomposition of hair, or Copper Acetate made from vinegar were false because they were not produced within the Earth. For Aquinas, a vitrus locci, or mineralizing power that was only found in nature, deep within the earth, was needed.

Another author who takes the sciant artifices position was Giles of Rome. In his Quodlibeta, in addition to arguing about spontaneous generation in nature, Giles asserts that while gold, for example, could be produced artificially by alchemy, it would not be the same as natural gold because its substance would not be the same.

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Alchemists in Favor of Mechanical Arts

The rejection of several natural philosophers towards alchemy, and Avicenna’s criticism of the practice corresponds to an ancient tradition of rejection towards manual arts, considered unworthy for philosophers of aristocratic court. Despite the rejection of some natural philosophers towards the possibility of transmutation and alchemical practices, considering that man could never surpass nature, a literary tradition emerged in response to this negative reaction. The counterarguments to sciant artifices were based on observation, analogical reasoning, and Neoplatonic Aristotelianism.

Aristotle himself argued that artificial products could achieve perfection in a way that nature could not.

In the book of Hermes, written in the first half of the thirteenth century, the author refutes Avicenna’s argument, in which metals are not transmutable, and artificial art cannot achieve the perfection of nature, responding that the artificial products produced in alchemical procedures such as verdigris, vitriol, zinc oxide, and ammonium salt are better than natural forms. The ways in which mechanical sciences could produce results that even surpassed nature were varied and considered evidence against the argument that the artificial could never reach nature. Thus, the horticulturist could improve natural processes with successful grafts.

Among the most recognized alchemists who defended the position of mechanical sciences were the Dominican Vincent de Beauvais, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon. De Beauvais wrote the Speculum Doctrinae and the Speculum Naturale in the first half of the thirteenth century. In the latter, he wrote that alchemy belonged to mechanical arts and helped metallurgists in the procedures for each metal and doctors in isolating healthy components from harmful ones in the manufacture of medicines.

The De Mineralibus by Albertus Magnus also described alchemical procedures and the study of mineralogy. He argued against critics, including Avicenna, that metals possessed their substantial form, rather than just sharing one, which was that of gold. In his Opus Tertium, written in 1266, Bacon proposed alchemy as the primary means for reforming scholastic science.

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The Laboratorist Tradition and the Doctrine of Paul of Taranto

To reproduce the process of nature, alchemists set up laboratories for the processes of calcination, sublimation, fusion, distillation, solution, coagulation, precipitation, and crystallization. Albertus Magnus recommended the use of a laboratory with glass apparatus for the transmutation process.

The discovery of acid through condensation was the greatest achievement of Christian alchemists, who used the pseudonym Geber for fear of criticism. The texts of the Franciscan alchemist Paul of Taranto, Perfectionis and Theorica Et Practica, were popular during the thirteenth century. In Theorica Et Practica, Paul maintains the superiority of man over nature, invoking Plotinian hypostasis of Intellectus. In his texts, he describes the compositions of metals, the process of calcination that demonstrates the accumulation of sulfur and mercury of each metal.

In his text, Summa Perfectionis, Paul adopts the corpuscular interpretation of elements. This doctrine corresponded to a medieval alternative to atomism. He also adopted experimental verification in alchemical theories.

Paul’s methodology and corpuscular theory influenced seventeenth-century chemical science through Daniel Sennert in his Dechymicorum and the ideas of Robert Boyle.

Myths About the Church’s Reaction and the Attitude of Religious Groups Towards Alchemy

As there are myths, exaggerations, and unfounded rumors not only around alchemy but any aspect of science in the medieval period, it is good to clarify that despite criticism towards mechanical sciences that only correspond to an ancient tradition among natural philosophers, alchemy has helped establish the experimental tradition in the naturalistic discipline of these proto-scientists.

One of the most resonant myths is that Pope John XXII decreed a bull in 1317 prohibiting alchemy. In reality, there was no such prohibition, and the decree only focused on counterfeiters who claimed to have transmuted gold, which they then sold. The reasons were purely fiscal to avoid monetary devaluation.

Another myth is based on the supposed imprisonment of Roger Bacon, documented in Chronica XXIV Generalium Ordinis Fratrum Minorum, written a century later. Due to the time lapse of this source, it is impossible to know whether he was imprisoned or not and why. The text only describes that he was imprisoned for his “suspicious novelties,” as well as erroneously stating that he was a “master in theology,” as older texts claimed that he abandoned his studies to pursue his alchemical practices. It is possible that these “suspicious novelties” correspond to the spiritual movement, of which Bacon belonged, which emerged within the order of the Franciscans and was condemned by Pope John XXII. Anyway, it is debatable whether he was truly condemned or not.

Despite these condemnations, alchemical practices and texts continued to reproduce, an example that the opinion against alchemy and opposition only amounted to written condemnations or traditionalist opinions.

Story originally written in Spanish by Leonel Díaz in Cultura Colectiva.