Alexis Smets took his Masters degrees in Philosophy and in Philosophy of Science at the University of Brussels. He subsequently began his doctoral studies in the History of Philosophy and Science at the Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands). His doctoral research is about the imagery in early modern books of chemistry.
Modern views on alchemy
Mention alchemy and you are likely to trigger a wide range of reactions, from outspoken rejection to enthusiasm. Not all old sciences have this ability, and so it might be worth looking at the case of alchemy a bit more closely.
For most historians of science, it is reasonable to say that like the rest of medieval science, alchemy has been superseded by more recent attempts at knowing nature. This assumption is reflected in the Oxford English Dictionary, where Alchemy is defined as “the medieval forerunner of chemistry”, and where ‘forerunner’ suggests a shift from alchemy to chemistry. While the OED defines Chemistry as the “the branch of science concerned with the properties and interactions of the substances of which matter is composed”, it states about alchemy that it was “concerned particularly with attempts to convert base metals into gold or to find a universal elixir.” Arguably, the shift that is suggested by the term ‘forerunner’ refers to the substitution of a research programme focused on knowing the substances of which matter is composed for a programme focused on the preparation of the ‘philosophers’ stone’ (the core ingredient for transmutation into gold). In histories of chemistry aimed at the general reader, this has for a long time been the prevailing narrative.
Another account deserves to be mentioned. It is the account that is more widespread in folklore, esoteric sciences and psychology. There, two words that are crucial in the characterisation of alchemy are ‘spirituality’ and ‘religiosity’, as opposed to a more ‘materialistic’ chemistry. What I have in mind here is Paulo Coelho’s celebrated Bildungsroman The Alchemist (1988), where an alchemist helps the main character Santiago to attain a genuine understanding of his destiny. Also, the noted psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) saw in alchemical texts and images the expression of the archetypes of man’s soul, which corroborates the idea that alchemy is related more to human issues than to the science of nature. And it is fair to say that the idea of a (partly) spiritual and/or religious alchemy has also been expressed in professional history of chemistry.
What we have here, then, is: first, the idea that there was a shift from alchemy to chemistry; second, while historians and scientists gladly look at this shift, reading popular literature and listening to ideas circulating in folklore lets you understand that, albeit ‘prescientific’, the mentality of alchemists was perhaps not a bad one, and that there are reasons to contemplate it with nostalgia. This means that there is something like a general agreement on the existence of a shift, but that the values attributed to it are inverted. In order to question these inverted values, I will challenge the narrative with a special focus on the characterisation of alchemy as religious and, to a lesser extent, as spiritual.
Relationships between alchemy and religion
Many alchemical treatises insisted that it was necessary to be touched by the divine grace in order to achieve the ‘stone’. The expressions ‘stone of the philosophers’ and ‘stone of the wise’ more or less describe the same idea: in order to be a good alchemist, you were required to become an accomplished philosopher or sage. Additionally, some kind of relationship with prophecy was not uncommon, because a number of alchemists maintained that they had received their knowledge of a recipe in dream visions, like some prophets of the Old Testament received revelations in dreams. The stone itself may qualify as religious because some alchemists claimed that it was partly natural and partly supernatural, or divine. While these aspects are usually limited to a handful of sentences in alchemical treatises, some documents are saturated with religious ideas, as are Figures 1 and 2.
Figure 1. ‘Aurora consurgens’ (MS Zürich Zentralibibliothek, Rhenoviensis 172)
Figure 1 is from an alchemical book written in the early 1420s, entitled Aurora consurgens (The Rising Aurora). The image conveys the idea that there is an analogy between the Holy Trinity and the relationships between the three components of the stone (here identified in anthropological terms as ‘body’, ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’). The same idea had already been brought in about a century earlier in a treatise De secretis naturae (On the Secrets of Nature), attributed to a then famous Franciscan friar and medical doctor, Arnald of Villanova (ca. 1240–1311). It supported the following analogy: “I say that Father, Son and Holy Ghost are the same thing although they are three. And so it is with our stone: three are one, different [things] are the same [thing].” The first part of this statement is the definition of the Holy Trinity that became a Christian dogma in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople.
The left part of the Aurora consurgens image goes one step further than On the Secrets of Nature in supporting the idea visually with a diagram, which many of its contemporary examiners couldn’t fail to identify as the scutum fidei, or ‘shield of faith’. Its name derives from Christian apologists using it in defence of the Trinitarian dogma in the face of heretics. Its logic was the following: albeit mutually different as ‘persons’, Father, Son and Holy Ghost (placed on the apices of the triangle) are nevertheless one and the same substance in that they are all God (in the middle of the triangle, where median lines are converging). To help the idea gain ground, some apologists added an analogy of the Trinity with hail, rain and snow, which are mutually different, and yet are all water.
Obviously, religion is involved in alchemy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t offer very deep insights into the distinctive nature of alchemy because during Middle Ages (and Renaissance) religion pervaded pretty much all areas of human activity. Thus the question is not if alchemy was religious, but how. In other words, it is necessary to distinguish between different religious attitudes; to know how contemporary readers understood them; and notably whether or not these attitudes provoked suspicion.
Posing questions this way allows us to see, for instance, that religious language has become predominant in alchemy mostly from the fourteenth century onwards, while previously the reader would primarily find references to wisdom. To understand why religion was injected into alchemical texts during the fourteenth century, it is worth recalling that the period was marked by prophecy; in adopting a religious language, alchemists were therefore in tune with their time.
What’s more, accurate readings of the texts and analyses of their reception shows that religious metaphors and analogies were rarely believed to be more than rhetorical tropes endowed with heuristic, mnemonic or, often, secret functions. The fact that they weren’t taken literally means that hardly anyone believed that the stone, for example, was composed of a soul, a spirit and a body, which were really equal to ours, humans. As a matter of fact, I’m unaware of medieval interpretations of alchemical treatises sustaining that they were meant to serve spiritual edification. I think it is safe to say that they were exclusively read in ‘materialistic’ terms, and this was still the case in the late seventeenth century, when Isaac Newton studied those texts.
Figure 2. ‘Basilica chymica’ (Frankfurt, 1609). From the copy held at Philadelphia, Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Let us now look at Figure 2. It dates from 1609 and is the frontispiece of a treatise of medical alchemy (or ‘chymistry’ to use a more widespread term at that time) entitled Basilica chymica, for Royal Chemistry, a title that says a lot about the ambition of the book. (Note that I will not comment upon the possible semantic difference implied by the use of the two terms ‘alchemy’ and ‘chymistry’ – suffice it to say that during the course of the seventeenth century, they were largely interchangeable.)
At first sight, the image looks like a full-fledged sibling of the Aurora consurgens image. Its scope, however, is quite different. For one thing, it differs because it is not at all about material transmutation. What we have here is a clear example of a philosophical and theological alchemy. The reason is that from the Renaissance onwards, Europe has been plagued with religious wars but also, on the intellectual side, suffused with a reappraisal of philosophy and theology that had been facilitated by a fresh import of Greek texts, first in Italy, then in the rest of Europe. What Oswald Croll (ca. 1563-1609), the author of the Royal Chemistry, and some of his colleagues were doing was attempting a new synthesis of scientific practice, speculative philosophy and theology. They sometimes associated it with spiritual techniques aimed at self-edification, but this was far from being the main goal of their pursuits.
The reference to Croll’s image brings me to an assumption implicit in the idea that alchemy was prescientific, religious or spiritual, and that its efforts were more or less exclusively directed towards the realisation of the stone: the assumption that there was something like ‘alchemy’ which didn’t change over time until it came out of fashion and died. If it is admitted that the Aurora consurgens and Croll’s work can be classified as alchemy, and if it is admitted more generally that alchemy can be historicised and hence cut into distinctive trends and periods, it becomes temerarious to make such broad statements about the discipline.
‘Spiritual’ and ‘religious’ are imprecise categories
I hope that by now it appears more clearly why speaking of religious or spiritual alchemy is illegitimate. First, alchemy has changed through its long existence, and thus what might be distinctive of one period is not necessarily applicable to another. Second, religion and spirituality are imprecise classificatory categories. However, as these characterisations have been prevalent during the course of the twentieth century for talking about alchemy, it is worth saying a word about their origins.
A first reason is that after being perused by seventeenth-century ‘chymists’, starting in the 1720s, medieval and renaissance alchemy was seen as superseded. What happened then is that ‘esoteric societies’ (think of Freemasonry), which developed during the same period, found inspirations in alchemical texts and images. Ironically, like medieval alchemists had altered the original meaning of religious texts, by reinterpreting them in terms of human transformation, such societies altered the meaning of alchemical texts. This is how spiritual alchemy proper was born, and hence it is not a medieval science but a production of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A second reason that facilitated the inclusion of alchemy within religion or spirituality must be ascribed to historians of science, mostly those active in the first half of the twentieth century. They contended that the development of medieval science had been inhibited by religion, both externally through censorship, and internally, due to a religious (sometimes ‘magic’) mentality keen to believe in all sorts of fantasies. By contrast, modern science was supposed to be born in the seventeenth century, when the link with religion had finally become looser and the allegedly correlative development of experimental method had started. In such a contrasting big narrative, experiment and religion became emblematic of the new and old ways, respectively, of making science. The alchemists, who had for diverse reasons welcomed religion in their discipline, were automatically classified as non-modern and prescientific.
Nowadays, such a polarising big narrative, revolving around conflicting mentalities and shifts, is no longer well received among historians, who tend to see historical continuities where their predecessors had seen epochal ruptures. Nevertheless, earlier historians’ views are still extant in popular histories of science and in secondary education, for instance, and are therefore still influential. This explains why the Oxford English Dictionary speaks of alchemy as a forerunner of chemistry instead of saying more neutrally that ‘alchemy’ is the medieval term for ‘chemistry’. This may also contribute to explain why the belief that there was an alchemy that was prescientific and religious or spiritual is still so popular today. (By saying that, let me make clear that I’m not denying that seventeenth-century science made spectacular advances, and that experimental methods played a role in this progress.)
To conclude: first, such tag names and the characterisation of science in terms of big shifts is historically inaccurate. Second, and more importantly, the contrasted view of history has serious implications. As regards our vision of the past, it entertains the myth of a ‘golden age’ (in the perspective of folklore) that, by definition, is no longer extant. Interestingly, a similar belief was very successful among alchemists, who believed that the ancients possessed the prisca sapientia (sacred/antique wisdom). It is thus no little irony that modern aficionados of such myths, precisely by believing in them, are perhaps less remote from the past than they may believe. As regards our vision of the present, it relies on the assumption that one key feature of modern science is that the boundaries between the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘religious’ and enquiries about nature are no longer permeable, which may tempt us into abstaining from questioning our own ways to do science (and to possibly inject diverse human/cultural data in it).
In turn, a close study of alchemy (and things of the past more generally) is much more than gaining knowledge thereof. Whatever the contents of historical studies and their resulting stories – either structured by clashes, revolutions and the characterisation of incommensurable worldviews, or told in terms of historical continuities –, in any case they contribute to reshaping the image that we have of the present time.
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© Alexis Smets