ALCHEMY

Although the intellectual tendencies of the Hellenic mind were hardly
calculated to favour the development of chemistry as a science, the
speculations of the Greeks concerning the essential nature of matter
and the mutual convertibility of the “elements” led incidentally to an
extension of the art of operative chemistry. This extension resulted
from attempts to realise what was the logical outcome of the teaching
of their philosophers—viz., the possibility of the transmutation of
metals. The idea of transmutation has its germ in the oldest systems
of philosophy. It was a plausible doctrine, not wholly unsupported by
the phenomena of the organic world; and it naturally commended itself
to men who were only too prone to adopt what their cupidity and love of
wealth predisposed them to believe.

It has been assumed that alchemy at no time in its history had the
slightest claim to a philosophical foundation, but that its professors
and adepts, even at the outset, consciously traded on the credulity and
greed of their dupes. Much may be urged against such a partial view.
The supposition is not consistent with history or with evolutional
tendencies. It may be, as Davy once said, that “analogy is the fruitful
parent of error;” but the idea that metals could be modified—could even
be changed one into the other—seemed to find support in innumerable
chemical phenomena well known but imperfectly understood. The fact that
alchemy—that is the profession of making gold from other metals—came to
be practised by rogues is no proof that it never had, and never could
have had, a philosophical basis.

The changes which substances experience under the influence of fire,
air, and water, or as the result of their action on each other, are
frequently so profound that even the most superficial of the early
observers of chemical processes could not fail to be impressed by
them. Many of these changes are, in fact, far more striking as regards
alteration in outward characters—such as colour, lustre, density,
etc.—than are the differences between individual metals; say, between
lead and tin, or between tin and silver, or between brass and gold.
That copper ores, by appropriate treatment with other ores, or that
copper itself by the addition of another metal, could be made to
furnish a metallic-looking substance having certain of the attributes
of gold was known to the earliest workers in metals. What is thought
to be the oldest chemical treatise in existence is a papyrus in the
possession of the University of Leyden. It consists of a number of
receipts for the working of metals and alloys, and describes methods
of imitating and falsifying the noble metals. It explains how, by
means of arsenic, a white colour may be given to certain metals, and
how, by the addition of cadmia, copper acquires the colour of gold.
The same papyrus describes a method of blackening metals by the use of
preparations of sulphur. The limited knowledge of chemical phenomena
and of chemical processes which these early workers necessarily
possessed, so far from precluding a belief in the possibility of
transmutation, actually encouraged it. As nothing was known of the
true nature of brass or of its exact relation to copper, it was not
unreasonable to suppose that, if this substance could be made to
acquire _some_ of the attributes of gold by a process essentially
chemical, processes of a like nature might cause it to acquire, if
not _all_, at least so many of them as to enable it to pass for gold
of greater or less fineness. To them, as to us, perfection was, in
technical practice, a question of degree: the very language of the
metallurgists of old was in this respect nowise different from that of
the metallurgists of to-day.

It is not necessary to suppose that these early attempts were
deliberately and consciously fraudulent, like those of coiners who
knowingly seek to make an alloy of lead and tin simulate silver. The
first alchemists sought in good faith to make something which should
be of the true nature and essence of gold as they conceived it to be.
In fact, the idea of transmutation had a rational foundation in a
theory of the intrinsic nature of metals which may be looked upon as a
development of the ancient beliefs concerning the essential nature of
all forms of matter.

Just as the Aristotelian “elements” were qualities which, according to
their degree, determined the nature of substances, so, in like manner,
the specific character of a metal depended upon the relative proportion
of its “sulphur” and “mercury.” These terms had no certain reference
to what we to-day understand by sulphur and mercury. They denoted
simply qualities. The essence or “element” of mercury conferred lustre,
malleability, ductility, and fusibility, or, speaking generally,
the properties which we connote as metallic; while to the essence
or “element” of sulphur was to be attributed the combustibility—or,
speaking generally, the alterability—of the metal by fire. By modifying
the relative proportion of these constituent elements, or by purifying
them from extraneous substances by the operations of chemistry, it
was conceived that the several metals could be changed one into the
other. To effect this purification it was necessary to add various
preparations known as “medicines,” chief among which was the _Great
Elixir_, or _Magisterium_, or the _Philosopher’s Stone_, by which the
final transformation into the noblest of the metals could alone be
achieved.

The Arabic words _kímyâ_ and _iksír_ were originally synonymous and
each was used to denote the agent by which the baser metals could
be transmuted into silver and gold. Ultimately the former term
became restricted to indicate the art of transmutation (alchemy),
whereas _iksír_, or _al-iksír_, continued to denote the medium by
which the transmutation was effected. By later writers the term
was used to indicate a liquid preparation—the _quintessence of the
philosophers_—whence we have the word _elixir_, which always means a
liquid.

The alchemistic theory of the compound nature and mutual relations of
the metals is usually ascribed to Geber; but, although he adopted it,
he distinctly states that it did not originate with him, but that he
found it in the writings of his predecessors.

The idea of the _stone_, the _philosophical powder_, the _grand
magisterium_, the _elixir_, the _tincture_, the _quintessence_—by
all of which terms the transmuting medium is known in the literature
of alchemy—is probably connected with another conception respecting
the origin of metals which can be traced to very early times and was
prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. It was supposed of old that
metals were _generated_ within the earth, as animals and plants were
generated on its surface, and that something akin to a seed, or semen,
was needed to initiate their formation. The great problem of alchemy
was to discover this fecundating substance, as upon it depended the
genesis of the perfect metal. This idea of the conception of metals
runs through the literature of alchemy. It explains many allusions and
much of the terminology of its writers. For example, the furnace in
which the alchemist makes his projection is constantly spoken of as the
_philosophical egg_.

It is impossible to say with certainty when and where the art of
alchemy originated. There is no evidence that it has the antiquity
which certain of its adepts claimed for it. Oleus Borrichius referred
it to the time of Tubal-cain. The earliest writers on alchemy were
probably Byzantine ecclesiastics, some of whom professed to ascribe
the art to Egypt, and eventually to the mythological deity Hermes,
whose association with chemistry in such terms as “the hermetic art,”
“hermetically sealed,” etc., is thus explained.

This much is established—that at some period prior to the tenth century
there arose a special class of operative chemists, for the most
part more learned in the knowledge of chemical phenomena in general,
and more skilled in chemical manipulation, than the craftsmen and
artisans engaged in the manufacture of technical products. They devoted
themselves to searching for methods whereby the common and baser metals
might be converted into silver and gold. The first known definition
of chemistry relates to the aim and operations of this special class.
It occurs in the lexicon of Suidas, a Greek writer of the eleventh
century, who defines chemistry, χημíα as the preparation of silver
and gold. Attempts at the artificial preparation of the noble metals
probably originated with the Arabians, who followed the Egyptians and
the Greeks in the cultivation of chemical pursuits.

Neither Hesiod nor Homer makes mention of the art of producing gold
from any other metal, or speaks of the universal medicine. Nor are
they referred to by Aristotle or by his pupil Theophrastus. Pliny
nowhere speaks of the philosopher’s stone, although he tells the
story of Caligula, who, tempted by his avarice, sought to make gold
from orpiment (_auripigmentum_) by distillation. “The result was that
he did indeed obtain both, and of the finest kind; but in so small
quantity, and with so much labour and apparatus, that, the profit not
countervailing the expense, he desisted.”

According to Boerhaave, the first author who mentions _al-chemia_
is Julius Firmicus Maternus, who lived under Constantine the Great,
and who, in his _Mathesis_, c. 15, speaking of the influences of the
heavenly bodies, affirms “that, if the moon be in the house of Saturn
when a child is born, he shall be skilled in alchemy.”

The first writer who mentions the possibility of transmuting metals
would appear to be a Greek divine called Æneas Garæus, who lived
towards the close of the fifth century, and who wrote a commentary on
Theophrastus. He was followed by Anastatius the Sinaite, Syncellus,
Stephanus, Olimpiodorus; and, says Boerhaave, “a crowd of no less
than fifty more, all Greeks, and most or all of them monks.” “The art
seemed now confined to the Greeks, and among them few wrote but the
religious, who from their great laziness and solitary way of life were
led into vain, enthusiastical speculations, to the great disservice and
adulteration of the art…. They all wrote in the natural style of the
Schoolmen, full of jargon, grimace, and obscurity.”

Experimental alchemy, as distinguished from industrial chemistry,
may, as already stated, be said to have originated with the
Arabians. At first, alchemy was regarded as a branch of the art of
healing, and its professors were invariably physicians who occupied
themselves with the preparation of chemical medicines. In fact, in
the beginning its true aim was regarded as that which Paracelsus and
the school of iatro-chemists subsequently defined it to be. Under
the rule of the Caliphs the study of chemistry made considerable
progress, and its literature was greatly augmented. The most notable
name in the history of chemistry during the eighth century was
=Abu-Moussah-Dschabir-Al-Sufi=—otherwise =Geber=—(born 702, died 765),
who is stated to have been either a native of Mesopotamia, or a Greek
and a Christian, who afterwards embraced Mahometanism, went to Asia,
and acquired a knowledge of Arabic. According to Leo Africanus, a Greek
who wrote of the antiquity of the Arabs, Geber’s book was originally
written in Greek and translated thence into Arabic, and he was not
known by the name Geber, which signifies a _great man_ or a _prince_,
till after this version. Latin translations of what purported to be his
works were first published in the early part of the sixteenth century,
and an English rendering appeared in 1678. According to this it would
seem that Geber regarded all the metals as compounds of “sulphur” and
“mercury,” the differences between them depending upon the relative
proportion and degree of purity of these constituents. He is said to
have distinguished them by the astrological names of the planets: thus
gold became _Sol_, silver _Luna_, copper _Venus_, iron _Mars_, tin
_Jupiter_, and lead _Saturn_. That an occult connection of the metals
with the stars existed was part of the creed of alchemy, and the
influence of that belief is still traceable in chemical, and especially
in pharmaceutical, literature; as, for example, in such terms as _Lunar
caustic_, _Martian preparations_, _Saturnine solutions_, _etc._

It has been held that the idea of a universal medicine had its origin
with Geber. But this may be due to a misreading of his words, which
in reality may have reference to the transmutation of metals. He
tells of a medicine which cures all lepers. But this may be nothing
but allegory. By _man_ is probably meant gold, and by _lepers_ the
other metals; and the medicine is the universal solvent or agent
which transmutes. Alchemistic literature is full of allegories of
this character. Berthelot has shown that in reality there were two
Gebers—one who is generally considered to be of Arab origin, and
another whose identity is not established, but who was probably a
Western European who appears to have lived about the year 1300.[1]

[1] There is very little doubt that the work of “Phileletha,”
which professed to be taken from an “Uhralten MS.”
preserved in the Vatican Library, entitled _Geberi des
Königes der Araber_, and published by Hieron. Philipp.
Nitschel, Frankfurth and Leipzig, in 1710, is spurious.

Other notable names in the history of Arabian alchemy are =Rhazes=, or
=Abû Bakr Mohammed ibn Zakaráyá el-Rázi=, who lived _circa_ 925, and
=Avicenna=, or in Arabic =Abû Ali el-Hosein ibn-Abdallah ibn-Sina=,
born 980, died 1037. The former, a Persian, practised medicine at
Baghdad as a follower of Galen and Hippocrates. The latter, one of
the most eminent of Moslem physicians and a voluminous writer, was a
native of Bokhara. He is mainly known in the history of science by
his _Canon of Medicine_, in which he describes the composition and
preparation of remedies. He wrote at least one treatise on alchemy, but
others attributed to him are probably apocryphal. Of his _Philosophia
Orientalis_, mentioned by Roger Bacon and Averroes, no trace remains.

Although it is reasonably certain that the alchemists of the time
of Geber and of his successors had a considerable acquaintance with
manipulative chemistry, there were so many impudent literary forgeries
during the alchemical period that the precise extent of the knowledge
possessed by the early chemists must always remain uncertain.

A number of the ordinary chemical processes, such as distillation,
sublimation, calcination, filtration, appear to have been known to,
and to have been commonly practised by, the Arabian chemists; and many
saline substances, such as carbonate of soda, pearlash, sal-ammoniac,
alum, copperas, borax, silver nitrate, cinnabar, and corrosive
sublimate, were prepared by them. They seem to have known of certain
of the mineral acids, and were familiar with the solvent properties of
_aqua regia_.

An examination of the literature of alchemy serves to show how its
principles and tenets developed. The philosopher’s stone is first heard
of in the twelfth century. Prior to that period the greater number of
the Greek and Arabian writers contented themselves with affirming the
fact of transmutation, without indicating how it might be accomplished.
The universal medicine and the elixir of life were the products of a
later age; no mention of them is known before the thirteenth century.

Alchemy flourished vigorously during the Middle Ages, and lingered
on even until the early part of the nineteenth century. Its history
is simply a long chapter in the history of human credulity. For the
most part it is a record of self-deception, imposture, and fraud. It
produced an abundant literature, mainly the work of ecclesiastics,
between the seventh and fourteenth centuries; but as regards the
artificial preparation of the noble metals or the discovery of the
universal medicine or the elixir of life it was barren of result.

Although no clear line of demarcation is possible, it may be
convenient, in dealing with the personal history of alchemy, to divide
it into the two periods before and after Paracelsus, since under his
inspiration and example alchemy underwent a great development as
regards its professed objects. These eventually became so extravagant
that, wide as are the limits of human credulity, its pretensions
gradually brought it into disrepute, and it fell by the weight of its
own absurdities.

One of the most reputable of the early Western alchemists was =Albert
Groot=, or =Albertus Magnus=, born at Lauingen in 1193. He was a
Dominican monk, who became Bishop of Regensburg, but, resigning his
bishopric, retired to a convent at Cologne, where he devoted himself to
science until his death in 1282. He is credited with having written a
number of chemical tracts, for the most part in clear and intelligible
language, which is more than can be said of the greater portion of
alchemistical literature. He gives an account of the origin and main
properties of the chemical substances known in his time, and describes
the apparatus and processes used by chemists, such as the water-bath,
alembics, aludels, and cupels. He speaks of cream of tartar, alum and
caustic alkali, red lead, liver of sulphur and arsenic, green vitriol
and iron pyrites.

Contemporaneously with him was =Roger Bacon=, _Doctor Mirabilis_,
one of the most erudite men of his age, who was born near Ilchester
in Somerset in 1214, and, after studying at Oxford, became a friar,
occupied himself in philosophical pursuits, and wrote numerous tracts
on alchemy. He describes what was probably gunpowder, but there is
no certain proof that he invented it. In his _De Secretis Artis et
Naturæ_, written before 1249, he gives instructions for refining
saltpetre, and in an anagram which Colonel Hime, in his _Gunpowder and
Ammunition_, has interpreted, he states that a mixture “which will
produce a thundering noise and a bright flash” may be made by taking “7
parts of saltpetre, 5 of young hazel wood, and 5 of sulphur.” He died
in 1285.

=Raymund Lully=, a friend and scholar of Bacon, was born in Majorca
in 1225 (others say 1235), and was buried there in 1315. A member of
the Order of Minorites, he had a great reputation as an alchemist; and
a number of books on alchemy and chemical processes are ascribed to
him. He described modes of obtaining nitric acid and aqua regia, and
studied their action upon metals. He obtained alcohol by distillation,
and knew how to dehydrate it by the aid of carbonate of potash, which
he obtained by calcining cream of tartar. He prepared various tinctures
and essential oils, and a number of metallic compounds, such as red
and white precipitate. To him is usually ascribed the first idea of a
universal medicine.

There is some difficulty in believing that all that is ascribed
to Lully was actually the work of his age, for it would appear to
have been a common practice with the disciples and followers of a
notable scholar to usher in their performances under their master’s
name—a practice not unknown in later days. “So full are they of
the experiments and observations which occur in our later writers
that either the books must be suppositious, or the ancient chemists
must have been acquainted with a world of things which pass for the
discoveries of modern practice” (Boerhaave). The story is that Lully
plunged into the study of chemistry from the desire to cure a maiden of
a cancered breast, and that he was stoned to death in Africa, whither
he had journeyed as a missionary. It has been further alleged that
at one period of his life he made gold in the Tower of London by the
King’s order, and that he offered Edward III. a supply of six millions
to make war against the infidels. As Boerhaave drily remarks, “the
history of this eminent adept is very much imbroiled.”

=Arnoldus Villanovanus=, or =Arnaud de Villeneuve=, a Frenchman, is
said to have been born in 1240, and to have practised medicine in
Barcelona, where he incurred the enmity of the Church by reason of his
heretical opinions, and was obliged to leave Spain. He led a wandering
life, eventually settling in Sicily, under the protection of Frederick
II., and acquired a great reputation as a physician. Summoned thence by
Clement V., who lay sick at Avignon, he lost his life by shipwreck in
1313.

=Johannes de Rupecissa=, or =Jean de Raquetaillade=, a Franciscan friar
who lived from about the middle to the end of the fourteenth century,
wrote a number of treatises on alchemy, and described methods of making
calomel and corrosive sublimate. He was accused of the practice of
magic, and, by order of Innocent VI., was thrown into prison, where he
died. He was buried at Villefranche.

=George Ripley=, an Englishman, Canon of Bridlington, practised alchemy
during the second half of the fifteenth century. He spent some time
in Italy in the service of Innocent VIII. On his return to England he
became a Carmelite, and died in 1490. Like Bacon, he was charged with
magic. According to Mundanus, he followed alchemy with such success
that he was able to advance to the knights of St. John of Jerusalem
large amounts of gold for the defence of the Isle of Rhodes against the
Turks.

One of the most important names in connection with the history of
alchemy is that of =Basil Valentine=. Of his personal history nothing
is known. He was supposed to be a Benedictine monk who lived in Saxony
during the latter half of the fifteenth century; but there are grounds
for the belief that the numerous writings attributed to him are in
reality the work of various hands. The attempt made by Maximilian I. to
discover the identity of the author was unavailing, nor have subsequent
inquiries had any better result. The collection of books bearing his
name, first published in the beginning of the seventeenth century,
reveals quite a remarkable number of chemical facts up to that time not
generally known. The most important of these relate to antimony and its
preparations, such as butter of antimony, powder of algaroth, oxide
of antimony, etc. He seems to have known of arsenic, zinc, bismuth,
and manganese. He described a number of mercurial preparations, and
many of the salts of lead were known to him. He mentions fulminating
gold, and was aware that iron could be coated with copper by immersion
in a solution of blue vitriol. He knew of green vitriol and the
double chloride of iron and ammonium, and gave the modes of making
a considerable number of other metallic salts, such as the _sal
armoniacum_, which we now know as sal ammoniac. He also appears to have
prepared ether and the chloride and nitrate of ethyl.

There is reason to believe, as stated already, that many of the
published works ascribed to these learned men are the work of obscure
individuals who traded on their fame. What may with certainty be
credited to them serves to show that their theoretical opinions had
much in common. They all regarded the transmutation of metals and
the existence of the philosopher’s stone as facts which could not be
controverted. They followed Geber in assuming that all the metals were
essentially compound in their nature, and consisted of the essence or
“element” of mercury, united with different proportions of the essence
or “element” of sulphur.

The alchemists were the professional chemists of their time, and many
of them were practising physicians. Indeed, professional chemistry may
be said to have originated out of the practice of physic. As the number
of chemical products increased and their value in therapeutics became
more and more appreciated, there arose another school of alchemists,
whose energies were devoted, not to the transmutation of metals—which,
however plausible as a belief, seemed hopeless of achievement—but to
the more immediate practical benefits which it was recognised must
follow from the closer association of chemistry and medicine. This
school came to be known as the iatro-chemists. As their doctrines
exercised a great influence upon the development of chemistry, it
will be desirable to treat of them and their professors in a special
chapter.