III. ALCHEMY OF THE MIDDLE AGES
The care we have taken to note down at the moment of its birth each of the ideas which influenced alchemy, allows us to sketch more rapidly the history of its decline and fall. Albert Groot, commonly known as Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), revived the theory of Geber, and, in spite of the tendencies of the time, entertained the same doubts as his illustrious master on the possibility of transmutation. He is the first to speak of the affinity of bodies, a term he uses in reference to the action of sulphur on metals. He gives the savans of the day the sage advice not to take service with princes, who are sure to treat as thieves those who do not succeed. And, indirectly, he warms princes that philosopher's gold is only tinsel. Beginning with nitric acid, which he calls prime water, and so on, through a regular series of secondary, tertiary waters, &c., he proposed a method for dissolving all metals. Roger Bacon, while opposing magic, calls oxygen aer cibus ignis, and regards the elixir as a substitute for time, that agent of which nature takes no account. Gold is perfect, because nature has consummated her work. But Roger Bacon seems to have turned his genius principally to physics and mechanism. St Thomas Aquinas, in his theological writings, forbids the sale of alchemist's gold, and in his special treatise on the subject unmasks and imposture of the charlatans of the day, who pretended to make silver by projecting a sublimate of white arsenic on copper. Further, Aquinas, by reducing the primitive elements of metals to two, revives and corroborates the theory of Galen and Albertus Magnus. About the same time we find a pope, John XXII., and a king, Alphonso X. of Leon and Castile, occupying themselves with alchemy. But the pope in a well-known bull denounced all those searchers for gold "who promised more than they could perform;" another proof that alchemy and the search for gold, though distinguished by the true alchemist, were confounded by many adepts. It is evident that the science, as far as the seeker for gold was concerned, was approaching the times of king John and Philip the Fair, who found in unscrupulous charlatans abettors in their debasement of the currency, and that for disinterested alchemists those evil days were at hand when, disgusted at attaining no practical result, the most serious of them sought in the physiological mysteries of generation, in the Adam and Eve, the red man and the white woman, of the first chapters of Genesis, what they failed to find in Rhazes, in Geber, and the Arabian Aristotle. The science was still called chemy. It was as a compliment to the Arabians masters, who were still quoted side by side with Genesis, that they added to the word the Arabic article al. Thepopular etymology of the day was likewise Arabic, or, more correctly speaking, Semitic; the Hebrew chom or the Arabic cham signified heat. Hence their furnaces for heating, the alembics for modifying heat, and the Bains-Marie for imitating the temperature of warm blood; for they could only proceeded by analogy. Nevertheless, the great men of the day were the alchemists. The boldness of their actions, the ecdntricity of their genius, prove it.
Few novels are as interesting as the story of Raymond Lully (1235-1315). He began life as the passionate lover of the Lady Eleanor of Castello. He was cured of his passion by the lady herself, who discovered to him the ulcer which was eating away her breast. At her desire he consecrated himself to God, to the service of humanity in general, and especially to the conversion of Mussulmans. Christianity, in the mouths of the European disciples of Geber and Rhazes, was better adapted than it now is for converting infidels, whose knowledge it respected while deploring all the more their errors. In his eightieth year Raymond Lully died in sigh of the island of Minorca, from the consequences of a stoning he had received at Tunis a few days before while preaching the gospel. This was on his third mission, and he did not hide from his friends that he sought the crown of martyrdom. He had invited the support of all the princes of Europe, and in particular of the kings of France, England, and castile. Alchemy, indeed, with him seems to have been mainly a means of recommending himself to these kings, and at the same time a search for the panacea. But his trust was placed much more in his rhetoric, which he borrowed from the cabala, in his oriental eloquence, and his Christian faith. By the number of conversions he made at Algiers, at Tunis, and at Bugia, where during his second voyage he was snatched from imminent martyrdom by his friends among the converted Mussulmans-that is to say, in the very strongholds of Islamism-he succeeded in demonstrating that his idea of uniting all worshippers of the true God in a common faith was not chimerical. Lully's principal success was with disciplies of Averroes; and no one who reflects will be surprised at this. As the moral difficulties of missions were less than they are now, so the practical dangers were greater. This too needs no explanations.
Raymond Lully's works on alchemy are hopelessly obscure, notwithstanding elucidations, compendiums, vade-mecums, and a certain dialogus demogorgon, which, if the title is to be believed, Lullianis scriptis multam, proeclare lucem adfert. Nor need we wonder at this. Eirenaeus Philalethes, the pseudonym under which some English adept, whose real name has not been discovered, wrote, states positively that he has learned nothing from Raymond Lully, adding at the same time a curious reason- "Some who are no adepts give more instruction to a beginner than one whom perfect knowledge makes cautions." Eirenaeus is fond of quoting Bernard of Trevisa, who, he tells us, has given him, more especially in his letter to Thomas of Bologna, "the main light in the hidden secret." But of all writers he gives the palm to Sir George Ripley. Bernard of Trevisa, whom he mentions, spent a long life and a considerable fortune in romantic travels, in the purchase of books, and in the pursuit of chemical experiments. When depressed and weary with chasing shadows which were ever eluding his grasp, he used, as a pastime and relaxation, to read the Turba Philosophorum, or the Great Rosary, just as Don Quixote would read the romances of chivalry. At last, when seventy-five years old, the good Bernard, for so the adepts calle dhim, thought he had discovered the secret, - at least the joy of what he considered a real success served for a while to lull his restless energies. His letter to Thomas of Bologna shows no ordnary man. "Dissolutions of this sort," he writes, "by acids or aqua fortis, are not the true foundations of the art of transmuting metals; but rather the impostures of sophistical alchemists, who think that in them resides the secret of that sacred what they can never do is to produce the various kinds of metals in their perfection; because metals when dissolved by corrosives do not remain in the same proportion and original form as they do when dissolved by mercury, which may be truly called the water of metals. Bodies dissolved by mercury are not decomposed (separabuntur); their nature remains hidden in mercury till they fill up its intervals (usque ad sui reinspissationem). Mercury contains interstices (latentia), and therefore metals can lie hidden in mercury." He then goes on to compare the part that mercury plays in amalgams to that of water (simplex aqua) in vegetable and animal structures. He is well acquainted with what the French now call l'eau de composition; but, as usual, he pushes his analogies too far. We may remark in passing that it was his opponents the alchemists who, by the discovery of their aquoe fortes, provided modern chemistry with one of its most powerful agents.
In speaking of Bernard, we incidentally hit upon a word which exactly characterizes mediaeval works on alchemy-they are romances, romances full of interminable allegories, they sometimes begin and always end with an invocation to Christ and the Trinity. From time to time, amid the old abortive attempts to read the riddle of the universe, we find some new idea cropping up. The generation of plants and animals had failed to explain the generation of metals; so they turned to digestion and fermentation for analogies, and though they never reached their goal, they picked up much that was valuable on the way. The road itself was barred, and therefore to profit by their works we must follow them into bypaths and digressions. Thus, for instance, we may study with advantage their dialectics. Whilst refuting their adversaries, they were gradually laying the foundations of the logic of science. True alchemists were generally haughty and contemptuous; the mechanic often grew rich on the scraps which the alchemist was too proud to touch. We cannot always make sure of understanding them, yet from the medley of their writings more fragments of real chemistry may be gathered than is generally supposed. There is rhythm and harmony, a ring of true genius about the best of their works, which charms us if it does not send us to sleep with its sweet but monotonous music. In reading Laurent Ventura's book, De Ratione Conficiendi Lapidis Philosophici, we are tempted for a moment to endorse the strange fancy of the Dutch Rabbins, "that even if a man do not understand the language of the Zohar, he ought no less to read it; for this language, as the cabalists have written it, is a medicine for the soul.:
Often what appeared a work of pure fiction (as the Roman de la Rose) concealed a treatise on alchemy; often, on the other hand, what purported to be a work of pure alchemy was a medium for heretical theology, sometimes for the ideas of Spinosa and Goethe. The times, moreover, were sad, and all could appreciate the advantage of a romance. It was not given to every one to follow the terrible logic of Danstin, the contemporary of Raymond Lully, the author of a Rosarius, which has never been published, from which M. F. Hofer gives the following extract: Î "All bodies may be divided into three classes- 1. Sensible and intellectual beings (animals and men); 2. Vegetables; 3. Minerals. Like always tends to unite with like. Intellectual elements are homogeneous with the Supreme Intelligence; that is why the soul yearns to be absorbed into the Deity. The elements of the body are of the same nature as the surrounding physical world; hence their tendency to unite the one with the other. Death is then for all a moment to be desired." Dico Amen tibi, reverende mi Doctor, to borrow Bernard's favourite expression.
After so much mist and fog we need a breadth of fresh air. Let us pass at once, then, to the Luther of science, who reproached so bitterly the Luther of theology with only going half-way-to an epoch which witnesses the new birth of intellectual life, and to a man who was carried by the new movement into every sort of extravagance, though his errors were those of a generous and unselfish nature. Let us treat of the Renaissance and Paracelsus.
Read the rest of this article:
Alchemy - Table of Contents