Alchemy and the Middle Ages

Post 22 of 109

In the history of science, Alchemy (from Arabic الخيمياء [to el-khīmiyā]) is an ancient practice proto and a philosophical discipline that combines elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art. Alchemy was practiced in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Persia, the India and China, in the ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, the Islamic Empire and then in Europe until the 18th century, in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2 500 years… Although its origins are uncertain, the origins of chemistry are lost in the mists of time.

These sources are technical and magical at the same time. When the Greek civilization is founded, is already known to the copper, bronze and iron; also gold and silver are used for ornaments and easy to work lead is far from being ignored. Known the way get dyes (murex purple), melting the enamel and since the remotest antiquity, removed the vermilion (red sulfur), a bright, very heavy liquid as the silver and that possesses all the properties of a metal. The first Greek philosophers, whose method of approach of most of the problems was theoretical and speculative, came to the conclusion that the Earth was made up of a few elements or basic substances. Empedocles of Agrigento, around 430 BC established that there were four such elements: Earth, air, water and fire. A century later, Aristotle meant that the sky was a fifth element, ether. The Greeks believed that the substances of the Earth were formed by different combinations of these elements in various proportions. The Greeks raised the question of whether the matter was continuous or discontinuous, i.e. If it could be divided and subdivided indefinitely at an ever finer powder, or if, at the end of this process, it reached a point where the particles were indivisible. Leucippus of Miletus and his pupil Democritus of Abdera (CA 450 B.c.) insisted that the second scenario was true.

In 600 BC Greek philosopher such from Miletus discovered that you resin fossil discovered in the beaches of the Baltic Sea, which we call amber and they called elektron had the property of being attracted feathers, threads or lint to be rubbed with a piece of skin. The alchemical thought of ancient Greece was based on theories and speculations, and very rarely in the experimentation. Many of the Greek writings of the theme were kept and woke up the study of this science in the middle ages.

The successors of the Greeks in the study of substances were the medieval alchemists, though immersed in the magic and quackery, came to conclusions reasonable and credible than those, since they at least managed to materials on which speculated. During the middle ages, especially between 5 and 15 centuries, science was obscured by the religious concerns. However, in the 7th century science reappeared with the Arabs who had accumulated the ancient knowledge of the Egyptians and ancient Greek philosophy through the Alexandrian school, founding a practice: Alchemy, the precedent of chemistry. European Alchemy was inherited from the Arabs in this way:

1 – the Arab influence penetrated in the West first by Spain: the Caliphate of Cordoba reached its apogee during the reigns of Abd ar-Rahman II (912-961) and Al – Hakam II (961-976). Schools and libraries that attracted students from throughout the Mediterranean world were created. According to tradition, the monk Gerbert, later Pope under the name of Sylvester II (999-1003), was the first European who knew alchemical works written by the Arabs, although he personally was mostly theologian and mathematician.

2nd – but were mainly the crusades which put West in relation to the Arab civilization and aroused keen interest in the oriental science. Note also that Scicilia represents a link between the East and Italy: astrologer Miguel Escoto dedicated his De Secretis (1209), works in which the alchemists theories were widely developed, his master Emperor Federico II of Hohenstaufen.

Alchemy started to become fashionable in the West in the middle of the 12th century, period in which was translated from Arabic into latin work known as the peat philosophorum (peat of philosophers). Translations of Arabic increased progressively and raised an extraordinary literary vogue of Alchemy in the 13th century.

The alchemists considered metals as compounds, resulting from bodies of 2 common properties: Mercury, which was the metal, and sulfur, which was the fuel. They later considered a third principle, salt, identified with the strength and solubility.


These alchemists principles were replaced during the middle ages to the elements of the Hellenic philosophy. An immediate idea was the possibility of getting the transmutation of metals, through the combination of these three principles, but this transmutation could only be feasible in foreknowledge of a catalyst that is called philosopher’s stone. The history of Alchemy is basically the search for the philosopher’s stone.

On the other hand the confused with magicians and sorcerers, alchemists suffered persecution by religious authorities. Trying to explain the different properties of the substances, the alchemists attributed these properties to certain elements, which were added to the list. They identified mercury as the element conferring properties metal substances, and sulfur, as that was the property of combustibility.

According to the alchemists, a substance can be transformed into another simply adding and subtracting elements in the appropriate properties. A metal such as lead, for example, could transform into gold by adding an exact amount of mercury. For centuries continued the search for the proper technique to make gold a “base metal” and based on this whole medieval Alchemy.

In this process, the alchemists discovered substances much more important than the gold, such as mineral acids and phosphorus. Mineral acids: nitric, hydrochloric, and especially sulphuric; they introduced a true revolution in the experiments of Alchemy. These substances were acids much stronger than the strongest known up to then (acetic acid or vinegar), and with them could break down substances, without needing to use high temperatures or involving long periods of waiting. The first mineral in discovery of acid was probably nitric acid, made by distillation of saltpeter, vitriol and alum.

That presented more difficulties was sulfuric acid, which was distilled vitriol and alum alone but required corrosion and heat-resistant containers. Much harder was hydrochloric acid which was distilled from common salt or salt of ammonia and vitriol or alum. Anyway, few alchemists were tempted by these important secondary successes, to deviate from what they considered their main search. Many simulated producing gold by means of conjuring tricks to win financial support from patrons. The work of the alchemists of the middle ages, though unsuccessful in the discovery of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of long life, and therefore sterile, produced undoubted progress in laboratory chemistry, since they prepared new substances, useful devices invented and developed techniques later used by chemists

In this way, as science continued discovering and continually streamlining the mechanisms of the universe, founded on its own materialistic metaphysics, Alchemy was left stripped of its chemical and medical, but incurably subject to these connections. Reduced to an arcane philosophical system, poorly related to the material world, Alchemy suffered the fate common to other esoteric disciplines such as astrology and the Kabbalah: excluded from University studies, rejected by his former patrons, relegated ostracized by scientists and usually considered the epitome of quackery and superstition. However, the Rosicrucians and Freemasons have always been interested in Alchemy and its symbolism. A large collection of books on Alchemy is kept in the philosophical and hermetic library of Amsterdam.

This article was written by Psalm Triginta