Alchemy, practiced especially in the Middle Ages, is a
blend of science, magic,and religion. Its aim was to
discover a substance that would transmute the more common
metals into gold or silver and find a means of indefinitely
prolonging human life. Although its purposes and techniques
were dubious and often illusory, alchemy was in many ways
the predecessor of modern science, especially the science
of chemistry. 

The birthplace of alchemy was ancient Egypt, where, in
Alexandria, it began to flourish in the Hellenistic period;
simultaneously, a school of alchemy was developing in
China. The writings of some of the early Greek philosophers
might be considered to contain the first chemical theories;
and the theory advanced in the 5th century BC by
Empedocles-that all things are composed of air, earth,
fire, and water-was influential in alchemy. The Roman
emperor Caligula is said to have instituted experiments for
producing gold from orpiment, a sulfide of arsenic, and the
emperor Diocletian is said to have ordered all Egyptian
works concerning the chemistry of gold and silver to be
burned in order to stop such experiments. Zosimus the
Theban (about AD 250-300) discovered that sulfuric acid is
a solvent of metals, and he liberated oxygen from the red
oxide of mercury. 

The fundamental concept of alchemy stemmed from the
Aristotelian doctrine that all things tend to reach
perfection. Because other metals were thought to be less
"perfect" than gold, it was reasonable to assume that
nature formed gold out of other metals deep within the
earth and that with sufficient skill and diligence an
artisan could duplicate this process in the workshop.
Efforts toward this goal were empirical and practical at
first, but by the 4th century AD, astrology, magic, and
ritual had begun to gain prominence. 

A school of pharmacy flourished in Arabia during the
caliphates of the Abbasids from 750 to 1258. The earliest
known work of this school is the Summa Perfectionis (Summit
of Perfection), attributed to the Arabian scientist and
philosopher Geber; the work is consequently the oldest book
on chemistry proper in the world and is a collection of all
that was then known and believed. The Arabian alchemists
worked with gold and mercury, arsenic and sulfur, and salts
and acids, and they became familiar with a wide range of
what are now called chemical reagents. They believed that
metals are compound bodies, made up of mercury and sulfur
in different proportions. Their scientific creed was the
potentiality of transmutation, and their methods were
mostly blind gropings; yet, in this way, they found many
new substances and invented many useful processes. 

From the Arabs, alchemy generally found its way through
Spain into Europe. The earliest authentic works extant on
European alchemy are those of the English monk Roger Bacon
and the German philosopher Albertus Magnus; both believed
in the possibility of transmuting inferior metals into
gold. This idea excited the imagination, and later the
avarice, of many persons during the Middle Ages. They
believed gold to be the perfect metal and that baser metals
were more imperfect than gold. Thus, they sought to
fabricate or discover a substance, the so-called
philosopher's stone, so much more perfect than gold that it
could be used to bring the baser metals up to the
perfection of gold. 

Roger Bacon believed that gold dissolved in aqua regia was
the elixir of life. Albertus Magnus had a great mastery of
the practical chemistry of his time. The Italian Scholastic
philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catalan churchman
Raymond Lully, and the Benedictine monk Basil Valentine
(flourished 15th century) also did much to further the
progress of chemistry, although along alchemical lines, in
discovering the uses of antimony, the manufacture of
amalgams, and the isolation of spirits of wine, or ethyl

Important compilations of recipes and techniques in this
period include The Pirotechnia (1540; trans. 1943), by the
Italian metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio; Concerning
Metals (1556; trans. 1912), by the German mineralogist
Georgius Agricola; and Alchemia (1597), by Andreas
Libavius, a German naturalist and chemist. Most famous of
all was the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Philippus
Paracelsus. Paracelsus held that the elements of compound
bodies were salt, sulfur, and mercury, representing,
respectively, earth, air, and water; fire he regarded as
imponderable, or nonmaterial. He believed, however, in the
existence of one undiscovered element common to all, of
which the four elements of the ancients were merely
derivative forms. This prime element of creation Paracelsus
termed alkahest, and he maintained that if it were found,
it would prove to be the philosopher's stone, the universal
medicine, and the irresistible solvent. 

After Paracelsus, the alchemists of Europe became divided
into two groups. One group was composed of those who
earnestly devoted themselves to the scientific discovery of
new compounds and reactions; these scientists were the
legitimate ancestors of modern chemistry as ushered in by
the work of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier. The other
group took up the visionary, metaphysical side of the older
alchemy and developed it into a practice based on
imposture, necromancy, and fraud, from which the prevailing
notion of alchemy is derived.


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