Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 5.  Alchemy


Medieval Scholarship

As translation centers in Europe converted more and more Arabic manuscripts into Latin, European scholars gained access to an increasingly rich array of ancient learning.  But the social, political, economic, and cultural climate of the world these medieval minds inhabited bore little resemblance to that of the documents' ancient authors.  It required an intense effort to make sense of their words and truly digest the information they contained.  From this effort, three significant intellectual traditions emerged:

In his Book of Minerals, Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) exhibits characteristics of all three of these traditions:

Book I (Tractate i, Chapter 5)

[M]ineralizing power is a certain power, common to the production of both stones and metals, and of things intermediate between them.  And we say in addition that if this is active in forming stones, it becomes a special [power for producing] stones.  And because we have no special name for this power, we are obliged to explain by analogies what it is.

Let us say, then, that just as in an animal's seed, which is a residue from its food, there comes from the seminal vessels a force capable of forming an animal, which [actually] forms and produces an animal, and is in the seed in the same way that an artisan is in the artifact that he makes by his art so in material suitable for stones there is a power that forms and produces stones, and develops the form of this stone or that.  This can be seen still more distinctly in the gums that ooze out of trees; for we see that these are moisture that has been intensely acted upon by earthy dryness; and so they are solidified by cold.  But when they remain in the tree and do not ooze out, a force in the tree converts them into wood and leaves and fruit.  In exactly the same way it happens that, when dry material that has been acted upon by unctuous moisture, or moist material that has been acted upon by earthy dryness, is made suitable for stones, there is produced in this, too, by the power of the stars and the place, as will be shown below, a power capable of forming stone -- just like the productive power in the seed from the testicles, when it has been drawn into the seminal vessels; and each separate material [has] its own peculiar power, according to its own specific form....

(Book I) Tractate i, Chapter 6

...[S]tones do have specific forms.

These forms are not souls, as some of the ancients thought; for ... the soul has [not] one function only, but many, which it performs by its own power and not by chance; but the nature of stone has only one function, and what it performs is performed by necessity, which is not so with the soul.  Furthermore, the first function of the soul is life; but no characteristics of life are found in stones.  For if a stone used food, it would necessarily have pores or channels by which food would sink into it; and that this is not so is shown by the hardness and compactness of many stones, which prevent them from being divided and opened up for the intake of food.  Furthermore, if [a stone] used food, it would necessarily have a part for drawing in the food in the first place, like the roots of plants or the mouth of animals; and we see nothing like this in stones....

Book II (Tractate i, Chapter 1)

...[T]here are no two opinions about it:  stones do have powers of wonderful effect and these powers reside not in their constituents but in the way they are combined....  Nor is it true that living beings [only] ought rather to have these powers.  For throughout nature it is as if a thing which is occupied with the higher powers is withdrawn and cut off from the lower [ones].  Evidence of this is that intelligent beings, such as men, are not so keenly aware of changes in the elements as brutes are -- for instance, birds judge the different hours and seasons better than men do.  And man himself, when he is occupied with meditation, does not exert his sight and hearing, so that he does not perceive what is before his eyes.  Thus in the whole of nature it is as if living beings, when they are occupied with the higher powers of the soul, do not exert the lower, less noble powers that inanimate compounds exert....

Albertus Magnus is the purported author of several treatises on alchemy.  While these claims are disputed by some modern scholars, there is little argument that Albert was an avid experimentalist.

The Hermetic Tradition

Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great) is a legendary figure.  Although many throughout history have believed Hermes actually existed, "he" is an embellished composite of many individuals whose collective curiosity about the substantial nature of matter led them to develop a system of practical methods for analyzing (taking apart and scrutinizing) a wide range of materials, including rocks and minerals.  Hermes is reputed to be the author of The Emerald Table, a cryptic yet influential document which found its way from to Europe where it was translated from Arabic into Latin before 1200:

The Words of the Secret Things of Hermes Trismegistus
adapted from The Alchemists (1951) by Frank Sherwood Taylor (1897-1956):  89-90

1. True, without deceit, certain and most true.

2. What is below, is like what is above, and what is above is like that which is below, for the performing of the marvels of the one thing [the pneuma, a word with a rich and complex meaning:  it is more than simple "air" or "breath," it is that which gives life and animation to all beings -- it is akin to what Obi-Wan Kenobi meant by "force"].

3. And as all things were from one thing, by the mediation of one thing [the pneuma]:  so all things were born of this one thing, by adaptation.

4. Its [the pneuma's] father is the Sun, its mother is the Moon; the wind carried it in its belly; its nurse is the Earth.

5. This [the pneuma] is the father of all the perfection of the whole world.

6. Its power is integral [i.e., it can unify disparate entities], if it be turned into earth [solidified].

7. You shall separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, smoothly and with great cleverness.

8. It [the pneuma] ascends from the earth into the heaven, and again descends into the earth and receives the power of the superiors and inferiors [i.e., it links the macrocosmos and microcosmos, the heavens and the world of men].  So thus you will have the glory of the whole world.  So shall all obscurity flee from thee.

9. This is the strong fortitude of all fortitude:  because it will overcome every subtle thing and penetrate every solid.

10. Thus was the earth created.

11. Hence will there be marvelous adaptations, of which this is the means.

12. And so I am called Hermes Trismegistus, having three parts of the Philosophy of the whole world.

13. What I have said concerning the operation of the Sun is finished.

To conduct their analysis the earliest alchemists designed and their successors perfected furnaces in which high temperatures could be created and maintained, as well as an assortment of specially-shaped containers that could be used to generate steam and collect its distilled condensate.  You find out more about the history of alchemy, and view illustrations of alchemical instruments (click on "Imagery") at Adam McLean's Alchemy Web Site.

Conditions in Europe at the Beginning of the Fourteenth Century

The "Little Optimum":  750 - 1250

Relatively disease-free period marked by good climate:

  • mean temperature 1° C higher than preceding 500 years
  • mild winters and dry summers

Increase in European Population, 700-1300 CE

Population (millions)
Percent Increase

Introduction of New Technologies
  • heavy plow able to handle rockier soil of Northern Europe
  • animal harness permitting horses to be used as draught animals
  • spinning wheel
  • horizontal loom
  • water-powered machinery
  • Gothic architecture
  • Hindu-Arabic numerals
  • blast furnace
  • right-angled crank to operate lathe, rotary grindstone
  • compass, eyeglasses, lateen sail, clockworks, firearms

New social and political organization

  • Old structure--
    • walled towns
      • cathedral, administrative buildings
      • roughly 50 households (~300 inhabitants)
    • most people live and work in countryside as part of manorial system
  • New structure--
    • rise of estate farming with tenant farmers
    • migration of population from rural areas to cities and towns
      • towns become densely-populated settlements of 10-20,000 inhabitants

Growth of market and industry economy

"Little Ice Age":  after 1250

Marked by:

  • colder, longer winters
  • cooler summers
  • increased glaciation
  • high rainfall

Climatic conditions:

  • caused series of disastrous harvests throughout Europe
    • crippled cultivation of cereals and grapes in north
    • washed away topsoil
    • killed seedlings
    • gave advantage to weeds
  • hindered the production of salt by evaporation
    • made meat preservation difficult
  • created ice floes
    • blocked northern sea traffic

Population Reducing Catastrophes

  • 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292, 1311
  • Great Famine of 1315-1317
Wars and civil disorders:
  • Hundred Years War (1337-1453)
  • local warfare caused destruction of crops, of houses, and of life in general
Pestilence and Disease:
  • The Black Death (1347-1352)
  • epidemic attributed to bubonic plague caused death of one-third to one-half of European population



The Four Horsemen of the Apcalypse (1498)
by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

Emerging Interest in New Knowledge
in the Community of Scholars
Condemnation of heresies in Aristotle (13th c):
  • prompted Christian philosophers to explore possibilities that dogmatic Aristotelians had ruled out
  • allowed them to consider and discuss alternative notions
Technological advances from East and population decrease (14th c):
  • increased interest in tinkering and machinery
  • led some to pursue hands-on experimental inquiry
Rise of humanism (15th c):
  • set new goals for scholars
  • to rescue ancient manuscripts, translators must:
    • strictly adhere to original text
    • identify true intention of ancient authors
    • purge old errors of interpretation and translation
Go to:
  • works of Paracelsus (1493-1541)
  • The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague (c. 1916) by Chayim Bloch (1881-1973)
  • The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) by John Gerard (1545-1612)
Readings for Week
Lecture Notes for