During the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries the cult of
alchemy attained to the dignity of a religion. Belief in transmutation
and in the virtues and powers of the philosopher’s stone, in the
universal medicine, the alkahest, and the elixir of life, formed its
articles of faith. The position it acquired was due to some extent to
the attitude towards it of the Romish Church. Many reputable bishops
and fathers were professed alchemists; and chemical laboratories, as
in the Egyptian temples, were to be found in monasteries throughout
Christendom. Pope John XXII., who had a laboratory in his palace
at Avignon, is the reputed author of a work, _Ars Transmutatoria_,
published in 1557. But to a still larger extent it was due to the fact
that alchemy appealed to some of the strongest of human motives—the
wish for health, the fear of death, and the love of wealth. It was a
cunningly devised system, which exploited the foibles and frailties of
human nature. The policy of the Church, however, it should be said, was
not consistently and uniformly favourable to alchemy. Its practices
occasionally came under the papal ban, although at times, to suit the
exigencies of Christian princes, the interdict was removed. Theosophy
and mysticism were first imported into alchemy, not by Arabs, but by
Christian workers. The intimate association of religion with alchemy
during the Middle Ages is obvious in the writings of Lully, Albertus
Magnus, Arnaud de Villeneuve, Basil Valentine, and other ecclesiastics.
Invocations to divine authority are freely scattered over their pages.
Even the lay alchemist professed to rule his life and conduct by the
example and precepts of the good Bishop of Regensburg. He was directed
to be patient, assiduous, and persevering; discreet and silent; to work
alone; to shun the favour of princes and nobles, and to ask the divine
blessing on each operation of trituration, sublimation, fixation,
calcination, solution, distillation, and coagulation.

Although alchemy, at least in its decadent days, lived for the most
part by its appeal to some of the lowest instincts of mankind, and is
only worth notice as a transient phase in the history of science, a
few details concerning the tenets and practices of its professors may
be of interest to the curious reader. And first as regards the nature
of the philosopher’s stone—the grand magistery, the quintessence.
Many alchemists professed to have seen and handled it. It is usually
described as a red powder. Lully mentions it under the name of
_Carbunculus_. Paracelsus says that it was like a ruby, transparent
and brittle as glass; Berigard de Pisa that it was of the colour of
a wild poppy, with the smell of heated sea salt; Van Helmont that it
was like saffron, with the lustre of glass. Helvetius describes it
as of the colour of sulphur. Lastly, an unknown writer, under the
pseudonym of “Kalid,” says that it may be of any colour—white, red,
yellow, sky-blue, or green. As the substance was wholly mythical, a
certain latitude of description may reasonably be expected. Some of
the alchemists were of opinion that the magistery was of two kinds—the
first, the _grand_ magistery, needed for the production of gold; the
second, the _small_ magistery, only capable of ennobling a metal as far
as the stage of silver. Then, as to the amounts required to effect a
transmutation, accounts are equally discrepant. Arnaud de Villeneuve
and Rupescissa assert that one part of the grand magistery will convert
a hundred parts of a base metal into gold; Roger Bacon, a hundred
thousand parts; Isaac of Holland, a million. Raymond Lully states that
philosopher’s stone is of such power that even the gold produced by
means of it will ennoble an infinitely large amount of a base metal.

It is hardly necessary to state that a preparation of such potency
is capable of effecting anything or everything; and accordingly, as
time went on, other attributes than that of transmutation came to be
associated with it. It may be, as Boerhaave surmises, that the idea of
a universal medicine had its origin in a too literal interpretation
of Geber’s allegory of the six lepers. Be this as it may, during the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the philosopher’s stone was gravely
prescribed as a means of preserving health and prolonging life. In
case of illness one grain was directed to be dissolved in a sufficient
quantity of good white wine, contained in a silver vessel, the draught
to be taken after midnight. Recovery would follow after an interval
depending upon the severity and age of the complaint. To keep in good
health, the dose was to be repeated at the beginning of spring and
autumn. “By this means,” says Daniel Zacharias, “one may enjoy perfect
health until the end of the days assigned to one.” Isaac of Holland
and Basil Valentine are equally explicit, but in their case it is
recommended that the dose should be taken once a month: thus life would
be prolonged “until the supreme hour fixed by the king of heaven.”
Other alchemists were not always so prudent in prophecy. Artephius gave
the limit of human life thus prolonged as a thousand years; Gualdo,
a Rosicrucian, was stated to have lived four hundred years. Raymond
Lully and Salomon Trismosin, we are told, renewed their youth by means
of it. The advanced age at which Noah begat children could only be
due, says Vincent de Beauvais, to his use of the philosopher’s stone.
Dickinson wrote a learned book to prove that the great age of the
patriarchs was owing to the same secret.

But not only were health and length of days the fortunate lot of him
who possessed the philosopher’s stone; increase of wisdom and virtue
equally followed from its use. As it ennobled metals, so it freed
the heart from evil. It made men as wise as Aristotle or Avicenna,
sweetened adversity, banished vain-glory, ambition, and vicious
desires. Adam received it at the hands of God, and it was given also to
Solomon, although the commentators were rather exercised to know why,
as he possessed the philosopher’s stone, he should have sent to Ophir
for gold.

It would serve no good purpose to attempt to describe the recipes
given by various alchemists to prepare this precious substance. With
an affectation at times of precision, they were purposely obscure, and
always enigmatical. As Boyle said of them, they could scarcely keep
themselves from being confuted except by keeping themselves from being
clearly understood. One example of their recipes must suffice: “To fix
quicksilver.—Of several things take 2, 3 and 3, 1; 1 to 3 is 4; 3, 2
and 1. Between 4 and 3 there is 1; 3 from 4 is 1; then 1 and 1, 3 and
4; 1 from 3 is 2. Between 2 and 3 there is 1, between 3 and 2 there is
1. 1, 1, 1, and 1, 2, 2 and 1, 1 and 1 to 2. Then 1 is 1. I have told
you all.” No wonder, after an equally luminous explication, a pupil
of Arnaud de Villeneuve should have exclaimed: “But, master, I do not
understand.” Upon which the master rejoined that he would be clearer
another time.

Nor is it necessary to dilate upon the other virtues which were
ascribed at various times to the philosophical powder, as, for
example, its power of making pearls and precious stones, or of its
use in preparing the _alkahest_, or universal solvent, invented by
Paracelsus. In their attempts to fathom the depths of human credulity
the alchemists at length over-reached themselves. The idea of a
universal solvent carried with it, as Kunkel pointed out, its own
refutation: if it dissolved everything, no vessel could contain it. And
yet, says Boerhaave, a whole library could be filled with writings by
the school of Paracelsus on the alkahest. From the latter end of the
sixteenth century repeated attempts were made to expose the pretensions
and demonstrate the absurdities of alchemy. Among its adversaries may
be cited Thomas Erastius, Hermann Conringius, and the Jesuit Kircher.
Many of their dupes, potentates and princes who were powerful enough
to exercise it, occasionally visited with their vengeance those who,
unmindful of the injunctions of Albert the Great, had traded too long
upon their credulity. The Emperor Rudolph II., who earned the title of
“The Hermes of Germany,” was a zealous cultivator of alchemy, and had a
well-equipped laboratory in his palace at Prague, to which every adept
was welcome. Ferdinand III. and Leopold I. were also patrons of the
hermetic art, as were Frederick I. and his successor, Frederick II.,
Kings of Prussia. Indeed, at one period nearly every Court in Europe
had its alchemist, with the privileges of the Court fool or the poet
laureate. The fraud and imposture to which the practice gave rise led
occasionally to the promulgation of stringent laws against it, and at
times the pursuit of operative chemistry became well-nigh impossible
in some countries. In the fifth year of the reign of Henry IV. (1404)
it was enacted that “None from henceforth shall use to multiply gold
or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if the same do he
shall incur the pain of felony.” According to Watson, the true reason
for passing this Act was not an apprehension that men should ruin their
fortunes by endeavouring to make gold, but a jealousy lest Government
should be above asking aid of the subject. At the same time, letters
patent were granted to several persons, permitting them to investigate
the universal medicine and perform the transmutation of metals.

Alphonse X., of Castille, the author of the _Key of Wisdom_, practised
alchemy. Henry VI., of England, and Edward IV. had dealings with
adepts. Even Elizabeth Tudor, who was a shrewd enough sovereign,
had the notorious Dr. Dee in her pay. Charles VII. and Charles IX.,
of France, Christian IV., of Denmark, and Charles XII., of Sweden,
sought to replenish their exhausted treasuries by the aid of the
philosopher’s stone. If princes eventually learned not to put their
trust in alchemists, alchemists learned equally to their cost not to
put their trust in princes. Duke Julius, of Brunswick, in 1575, burnt
a female alchemist, Marie Ziglerin, who had failed in her promise to
furnish him with a prescription for the making of gold. David Benther
killed himself to escape the fury of the Elector Augustus, of Saxony.
Bragadino was hanged at Munich in 1590 by the Elector of Bavaria.
Leonard Thurneysser, who gained an evil notoriety in his day as one of
the most unscrupulous of the followers of Paracelsus, and who amassed
considerable wealth by the sale of cosmetics and nostrums, was deprived
of his ill-gotten gains in 1584 by the Elector of Brandenburg, and
died in misery in the convent. Borri, a Milanese adventurer, who had
deceived Frederick III., of Denmark, was imprisoned for years by that
monarch, and died in captivity in 1695. William de Krohnemann was
hanged by the Margrave of Byreuth, who, with grim irony, caused the
inscription to be fixed to his gibbet: “I once knew how to fix mercury,
and now I am myself fixed.” Hector de Klettenberg was beheaded in 1720
by Augustus II., King of Poland.

All the followers of Hermes were not so wary or so candid as the
artist who declined an invitation to visit the Court of Rudolph II.,
saying: “If I am an adept, I have no need of the Emperor; if I am not,
the Emperor has no need of me.” Well might John Clytemius, Abbot of
Wiezenberg, write: “_Vanitas, fraus, dolus, sophisticatio, cupiditas,
falsitas, mendacium, stultitia, paupertas, desesperatio, fuga,
proscriptio et mendicitas, perdisæque sunt chemiæ_.”

Despite the attacks of Kunkel, Boerhaave, the elder Geoffroy, Klaproth,
and other chemists of influence and repute, alchemy died hard. It
found believers in England until near the close of the eighteenth
century, and was professed even by a Fellow of the Royal Society—Dr.
James Price, of Guildford, who, in chagrin at the exposure of his
pretensions, put an end to his existence in 1783. Hermetic societies
existed in Westphalia, at Königsberg, and at Carlsruhe down to the
first decade of the nineteenth century. M. Chevreul, who lived well
into that century, relates that he knew of several persons who were
convinced of the truth of alchemy, among them “generals, doctors,
magistrates, and ecclesiastics.” The strange medley of alchemy,
theosophy, thaumaturgy, and cabalisticism professed by Christian
Rosenkreuz is not without its adherents, even in this twentieth century.

If the baser metals have not been made to furnish gold, truth at least
has followed from the practice of error. This is the only transmutation
which the art of Hermes has succeeded in effecting. To err is human.
Although alchemy is not without its special interest as one of the
most remarkable aberrations in the history of science, some of its
practitioners, it must be admitted, deceived only themselves: if
misguided, they were at least honest, and pursued their calling in a
settled conviction of the soundness of their faith. Although they never
reached their goal—the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone and the
Elixir of Life—their labours were not wholly vain, for many new and
unexpected facts came to light as the result of their assiduity.

“Credulity in arts and opinions,” wrote Lord Bacon in _De Augmentis

is likewise of two kinds—viz., when men give too much belief to
arts themselves, or to certain authors in any art. The sciences
that sway the imagination more than the reason are principally
three—viz., astrology, natural magic, and alchemy…. Alchemy may
be compared to the man who told his sons that he had left them
gold, buried somewhere in his vineyard; while they by digging found
no gold, but by turning up the mould about the roots of the vines
procured a plentiful vintage. So the search and endeavours to make
gold have brought many useful inventions of light.