This question defies a simple answer, as the alchemists were different things at different times. Also, different historians have postulated different interpretations of these ancient scientists. By carefully examining these different perspectives in relation to their historical contexts it will be possible to identify the alchemists as they existed in the Middle Ages.
To gain a thorough understanding of the alchemists, this paper will first briefly look at the origins of alchemy in Egypt and Greece, then trace its development in the Middle East. Once this background has been laid out, a systematic examination of the medieval development of the alchemical art will be commenced, emphasizing the role of individuals and identifying the changing characteristics that defined alchemy. For the sake of continuity, a brief look at alchemy's degeneration and death in the Renaissance will be taken. But first, a general overview of the prevalent ideas about the alchemists should be addressed.
Ask the common man on the street what the alchemists were, and one will hear that they were pseudo-scientists who attempted to turn lead into gold, believed everything was composed of the four elements earth, air, fire, and water, and who believed in mystical-magical nonsense. This is about the limit of most people's understanding of the art, but for a single sentence definition it is not altogether incorrect.
For a deeper understanding of alchemy, one might turn to a chemistry textbook. But according to a college textbook used at the University of Southern California, "By about 400 B.C. [the Greeks] had proposed that all matter was composed of four fundamental substances: fire, earth, water, and air... The next 2000 years of chemical history were dominated by a pseudo-science called alchemy. Alchemists were often mystics and fakes who were obsessed with the idea of turning cheap metals into gold." (Zumdahl pg. 38) So much for a deeper understanding.
Historians of a more occultist bent look at the alchemists as true magicians who actually accomplished the work of transforming lead into gold. beyond this, occultists see the alchemists as religious mystics who tried to discover the secret of purifying man's soul through learning about the workings of nature. (Edwards, p. 17; Gettings, p. 13)
Another view looks at the alchemists in a more philosophical way; alchemists were religious reformers who worked in secret and used chemical terms in a secret code that really referred to theological and philosophical beliefs to escape persecution from the church of their day. (Hitchcock, pp. iii-x; Burckhard, pp 28-31)
Of course it should be possible to use bits and pieces of each of these theories to assemble a realistic idea of what the alchemists were, but before this is done a question arising from these theories must be addressed: Where do these diverse theories come from? The answer lies in the writings put forth by the alchemists themselves. The best way to describe how confusion should arise is to give an example taken from an alchemical writer:
Concerning the Nature and Properties of Mercury.
ALL THINGS ARE concealed in all. One of them all is the concealer of the rest- their corporeal vessel, external, visible, and movable. All liquifactions are manifested in that vessel. For the vessel is a living and corporeal spirit, and so all coagulations or congelations enclosed in it, when prevented from flowing and surrounded, are not therewith content. (Paracelsus, p. 415)
One can understand how confusion can arise. This writer was said to have been fairly clear in his writings. This passage was not really about mercury, but about the human body. In any case, the alchemists intentionally wrote cryptically. It seems to have been a hallmark of their art. Artiphius, a medieval alchemist, refers to this by writing, "Is it not recognized that [alchemy] is... passed on orally, and is full of secrets?... Are you so simple as to believe that we would clearly and openly teach the greatest and most important of all secrets, with the result that you would take our words literally?" (Burckhardt, p28) This is only one of many examples in which alchemical writers refer to the cryptic phrasings of their works. It is almost a tradition among the alchemists and can be traced back to the Greek founders of the Art. The "cipher" was passed on from teacher to student orally, and unfortunately the "code" to decipher these texts has been lost. Modern historical interpretations invariably differ as to exactly what the alchemists were writing about. (Burckhardt, pp.30-3)
History and Development of Alchemy
Alchemy's origins are shrouded in the mists of time, but can be traced clear back to the ancient Egyptians. Metallurgy and mysticism were inexorably tied together in the ancient world, as the techniques of turning ugly ores into an almost holy metal seemed to be a priestly art. In fact, alchemy in Egypt was the domain of the priest class. (Burckhardt, p.15)
Legend has it that the founder of alchemy was a man named Thoth or Hermes. According to these Egyptian legends, Thoth wrote forty-two books on knowledge, covering law, medicine, alchemy, etc. Over time, Thoth, if he even existed at all, came to be regarded as a god by the Egyptians. Even later, as Egyptian knowledge passed to the Greeks, Thoth was called Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes the thrice-greatest. (Lindsay, pp. 160-9) The work of Hermes, often referred to in early alchemical texts is, sadly, completely lost to modern scholars. It is possible that it perished with the library at Alexandria, along with so much written material of the time. However, Hermes' "Emerald Table" has been transmitted through Arab sources. It is generally understood that the twelve principles expounded in the manuscript formed the basis for alchemy, called the heremitical philosophy by the early alchemists.
The first point of the "Emerald Tablet" tells the purpose of heremitical science: "in truth certainly and without doubt, whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of one thing." (Burckhardt, p. 196-7)
This is the macrocosm-microcosm belief central to the hermetic philosophy. In other words, the human body (the microcosm) is affected by the exterior world (the macrocosm), which includes the heavens through astrology, and the earth through the elements. (Burckhardt, p. 34-42)
The Greeks appropriated the heremitical beliefs and added pythagoreanism, ionianism, and gnosticism. Pythagorean philosophy is basically the belief that numbers rule the universe, originating from the observations of sound, stars, and geometric shapes like triangles. Ionian thought was based on the belief that the universe could be explained through concentration on natural phenomena; this philosophy was developed by Plato and Aristotle, whose works came to be an integral part of alchemy. The third component introduced to heremitical philosophy by the Greeks was gnosticism, a belief prevalent in the pre-Christian and early post-Christian Roman Empire. Gnosticism was the conviction that earthly matter is evil and that learning about the nature of spiritual matter would lead to salvation. By the end of the Roman Empire these philosophies had been joined to the heremitical philosophies of the Egyptians. (Lindsay)
At this point alchemy moved east to be taken up by the Arabs, but before moving on, Augustinian views of science should be illustrated, as they had a profound impact on Western thought up until the retransmission of Arab philosophy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Saint Augustine was an early Christian philosopher who wrote of his beliefs shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire. In essence, he felt that reason and faith could be used to understand God, but experimental philosophy was evil: "There is also present in the soul, by means of these same bodily sense, a kind of empty longing and curiosity which aims not at taking pleasure in the flesh but at acquiring experience through the flesh, and this empty curiosity is dignified by the names of learning and science." (Augustine, p. 245) Augustinian ideas were decidedly anti-experimental, yet when Aristotelean experimental techniques were made available to the West they were not shunned. Still, Augustinian thought was well ingrained in medieval society and was used to show alchemy as being un-Godly.
Much work was done on the development of alchemy by the Arabs but it shall only be summarized here for the sake of brevity. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy because more was written down. In Alexandria, where much of the alchemical work was done in the Roman Empire, the art was mainly oral and little was committed to paper for the sake of secrecy. (Lindsay, p. 155) It is possible that some writing was done in Alexandria and was subsequently lost or destroyed in fires and the turbulent periods that followed.
In any case, most of the earliest writings that have come down through the years are Islamic texts. (Burckhardt p. 46)
The Arab world was a melting pot for alchemy. Platonic and Aristotelean thought, which had already been somewhat appropriated into heremitical science, continued to be assimilated. One very important Aristotelean idea was that of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. According to Aristotle, each element had a sphere to which it belonged and to which it would return if left undisturbed. (Lindsay, p. 16) Alchemists adapted this a little: The four elements were really qualitative aspects of matter, not quantitative, as our modern elements are. "...true alchemy never regarded earth, air, water, and fire as corporeal or chemical substances in the present-day sense of the word. The four elements are simply the primary, and most general, qualities by means of which the amorphous and purely quantitative substance of all bodies first reveals itself in differentiated form." (Hitchcock, p. 66) Platonic and neo-Platonic theories about universals and the omnipotence of god were also absorbed.
Of the many Arab heremitic philosophers, Jabir ibn-Hayyn of the eighth century was the most noteworthy. To Aristotelean physics he added the four properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. (Burkhardt, p. 29) Each element was characterized by these qualities: Fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. In metals two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was cold and dry and gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. (Burckhardt, p. 29)
By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to the west. The search for the stone, or grand elixir, had originated from China, most scholars believe, and was supposed to have the added effect of being able to make one immortal. (Edwards, p. 38) It is not known how much Chinese alchemy was added to the Islamic version of the Art, but that Chinese theories influenced Arabic scientists has been commonly accepted. (Edwards pp. 33-59; Burckhardt, p. 10-22)
Likewise, Hindu learning was assimilated into Islamic alchemy, but again the extent and effects of this fact have not been researched to any worthwhile extent. An eleventh century alchemist named Alberuni testified to the existence of Hindu alchemy saying that they "have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them. They call it Rasayana. it means the art which is restricted to certain operations, drugs, compounds, and medicines, most of which are taken from plants. its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age." Islamic numerology was also taken by the Arabs, but assimilation of this into alchemy was left for the European alchemists of the Renaissance. (Lindsay p. 87-8; Edwards, p. 28)
Arabic beliefs were intrinsically tied to Islamic alchemy, and when Europeans appropriated the philosophies of the Arabs, alchemy came along for the ride, so to speak. Because these beliefs had originated from a Christian society they were not too difficult to adapt to Christian theology. Gerbert of Arillac (d. 1003) was among the first to bring Islamic science to Europe from Spain. Later men such as Adelard of Bath (d. 1144) brought additional learning. But until the thirteenth century the moves were mainly assimilative. (Hollister p. 124, 294)
There were some exceptions to this trend. Saint Anselm (1033-1109) was an Augustinian who believed faith must precede rationalism, as Augustine and most theologians prior to Anselm had believed, but Anselm put forth the opinion that faith and rationalism were compatible and encouraged rationalism in a Christian context. His views set the stage for the philosophical explosion to occur. Saint Abelard followed Anselm's work, laying the foundation for acceptance of Aristotelian thought before the first works of Aristotle reached the West. His major influence on alchemy was his belief that Platonic universals did not have a separate existence outside of man's consciousness. Abelard also systematized the analysis of philosophical contradictions. (Hollister, p. 287-8)
Robert Grosseteste (1170-1253) was a pioneer of the scientific theory that would later be used and refined by the alchemists. he took Abelard's methods of analysis and added the use of observations, experimentation, and conclusions in making scientific evaluations. Grosseteste also did much work to bridge Platonic and Aristotelian thinking. (Hollister pp. 294-5)
Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) and Thomas Aquinus (1225- 1274) were both Dominicans who studied Aristotle and worked at reconciling the differences between philosophy and Christianity. Aquinas also did a great deal of work in developing the scientific method. He even went so far as to claim that universals could only be discovered through reasoning: this ran contrary to the commonly held Platonic belief that universals were found through divine illumination alone. Magnus and Aquinas were among the first to take up the examination of alchemical theory, and could be considered to be alchemists themselves, but for the fact that these two did little in the way of experimentation. One major contribution of Aquinas was the belief that since reason could not run in opposition to God, reason must be compatible to theology. (Hollister p. 290-4, 355)
The first true alchemist in Medieval Europe was Roger Bacon. His work did as much for alchemy as Robert Boyle's did for chemistry and Galileo's did for astronomy and physics. Bacon (121401294) was an Oxford Franciscan who explored optics, languages, and alchemy. The Franciscan ideals of taking on the world rather than rejecting the world led to his conviction that experimentation was more important than reasoning: "Of the three ways in which men think that they acquire knowledge of things - authority, reasoning, and experience - only the last is effective and able to bring peace to the intellect." (Bacon p. 367) "Experimental Science controls the conclusions of all other sciences. It reveals truths which reasoning from general principles would never have discovered." (Hollister p. 294-5) Roger Bacon has also been attributed with originating the search for the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life: "That medicine which will remove all impurities and corruptibilities from the lesser metals will also, in the opinion of the wise, take off so much of the corruptibility of the body that human life may be prolonged for many centuries." The idea of immortality was replaced with the notion of long life; after all, man's time on Earth was simply to wait and prepare for immortality in the world of God. Immortality on Earth did not mesh with Christian theology. (Edwards p. 37-8)
Bacon was not the only alchemist of the high middle ages, but he was the most significant. His works were used by countless alchemists of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Other alchemists of Bacon's time shared several traits. First, and most obviously, nearly all were members of the clergy. This was simply because few people outside the parochial schools had the education to examine the Arabic-derived works. Also, alchemy at this time was sanctioned by the church as a good method of exploring and developing theology. Alchemy was interesting to the wide variety of churchmen because it offered a rationalistic view of the universe when men were just beginning to learn about rationalism. (Edwards p. 24-7)
So by the end of the thirteenth century, alchemy had developed into a fairly structured system of belief. First and foremost, the alchemists were all true Christians. They believed in the macrocosm-microcosm theories of Hermes, that is to say, they believed that processes that affect minerals and other substances could have an effect on the human body (i.e., if one could learn the secret of purifying gold, one could use the technique to purify the human soul.) These men believed the philosophers' stone was a substance that was capable of purifying base metals (and thereby transmuting them to gold) as well as purifying the soul. They believed in the four elements and the four qualities as described above, and they had a strong tradition of cloaking their written ideas in a labyrinth of coded jargon set with traps to mislead the uninitiated. Finally, the alchemists practiced their art: they actively experimented with chemicals and made observations and theories about how the universe operated. Their entire philosophy revolved around their belief that man's soul was divided within himself after the fall of Adam. By purifying the two parts of man's soul, man could be reunited with God. (Burckhardt p. 149)
But in the fourteenth century, all this was to change. William of Ockham, an Oxford Franciscan who died in 1349, attacked the Thomist view of compatibility between faith and reason. His view, widely accepted today, was that God must be accepted on faith alone; He could not be limited by human reason. Of course this view was not incorrect if one accepted the postulate of a limitless God versus limited human reasoning capability, but it virtually erased alchemy from practice in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Hollister p. 335) Pope John XXII in the early 1300's issued an edict against alchemy, which effectively removed all church personnel from the practice of the Art (the inquisition didn't help, either.) (Edwards, p.49)
Alchemy was kept alive by men such as Nicolas Flamel, who was not noteworthy except for the fact that he was one of the few alchemists writing in those times of war, plague, famine, and persecution. Flamel lived from 1330 to 1417 and was an alchemist in every sense of the word. He was not a religious scholar as were many of his predecessors, and his entire interest in the subject revolved around the pursuit of the philosopher's stone, which he is reputed to have found; his work spends a great deal of time describing the processes and reactions, but never actually gives the formula for carrying out the transmutations. Most of his work was aimed at gathering alchemical knowledge that had existed before him, especially as regarded the philosophers' stone. (Burckhardt pp.170-181)
Through the high middle ages (1300-1500) alchemists were much like Nicolas Flamel: they concentrated on looking for the philosophers' stone and the elixir of youth (now believed to be separate things.) This had only one possible consequence; the cryptic allusions and symbolism lead to wide variations in interpretation of the art and, while many "true", that is, inducted, alchemists existed, many new alchemists interpreted the purification of the soul to mean the transmutation of lead into gold and pursued this track. These men came to be viewed as magicians and sorcerers by the common people, and were often persecuted for their practices. (Edwards pp. 50-75; Norton pp lxiii-lxvii)
One of these men who emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century was named Cornelius Agrippa. This alchemist believed himself to be a wizard and actually thought himself capable of summoning spirits. his influence was negligible, but like Flamel, he produced writings which were referred to by alchemists of later years. Again like Flamel, he did much to change alchemy from a mystical philosophy to an occultist magic. He did keep alive the philosophies of the earlier alchemists, including experimental science, numerology, etc., but he added magic theory, which reinforced the idea of alchemy as an occultist belief. In spite of all this, Agrippa was still a Christian, though his views often came into conflict with the church. (Edwardes p56-9; Wilson p.23-9)
Alchemy continued in this way through the dawning of the Renaissance. Alchemist/con-artists abounded, who would use popular beliefs and sleight of hand to convince a noteworthy person such as a professor or minor noble that the secret of transmutation was possessed by the alchemist. Invariably the "alchemist" was summoned to the local lord's court for a presentation. When none was forthcoming, nasty things happened to the imposter. (Wilson p.31-44)
Then, in the early sixteenth century a man named Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541) remolded alchemy into a new form rejecting the accumulated occult paraphernalia that had accumulated over the years and calling for new observations and experiments. Paracelsian dogma was the last "ism" to be grafted onto alchemy before its death. Paracelsus rejected Aristotelean traditions, but kept much of the Heremitical, neo-Platonic, and Pythagorean philosophies; however, Heremitical science had so much Aristotelean theory that his rejection of Aristotle was meaningless for all intents and purposes. Basically, what Paracelsus rejected was the magic theories of Agrippa and Flamel; Paracelsus did not think of himself as a magician and scorned those who did. (Williams p.239-45)
Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. He coined the words "alcohol" and "zinc" and used experimentation in learning about the human body. His heremitical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man the microcosm and Nature the macrocosm. He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. (Debus & Multhauf, p.6-12) He summarized his own views: "Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines." (Edwardes, p.47)
While the Paracelsian interpretation led to the development of modern medicine, a different offshoot led to modern chemistry. Robert Boyle (1627-1691) is well known for his studies of gases (i.e. Boyles law) But few realize the importance of this man to modern chemistry. In the early 1600's, alchemy was used synonymously for medicine and chemistry. By Boyle's time, alchemists had disposed of most of the occultist beliefs that once plagued the Art, but still they clung to the heremitical beliefs that had been carried down through the millennia. Boyle did away with this. He assumed nothing in his experiments and compiled every piece of relevant data; in a typical experiment, Boyle would collect data on the place in which the experiment was carried out, the wind characteristics, the position of the sun and moon, and the barometer reading, all just in case they proved to be relevant. (Pilkington p.11)
With the birth of modern chemistry, alchemy was made impotent. As scientists began to discover and rationalize the clockwork of the universe, alchemical theories were thrown to the waste bucket, unneeded and forgotten. It is sobering to observe that alchemy, after having such a rich and colorful two thousand years of history - during which it enjoyed the preeminent position among scientific studies - could be so easily and totally ostracized by scientists and common citizens.
-- Written by BryceHarrington