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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The alchemy of the sixteenth and the seventeenth
centuries represents a fusion of many seemingly dis-
parate themes derived from ancient and medieval Near
and Far Eastern sources. A simple definition is difficult
if not impossible. The alchemists always maintained
a special interest in the changes of matter and surely
most of them accepted the concept of transmutation,
but there were other significant strains evident in al-
chemical thought as well. Important among these was
the early and persistent belief that the study of alchemy
had a special role in medicine through the preparation
of remedies and the search for the prolongation of life.
In addition to this was the belief that alchemy was
the fundamental science for the investigation of nature.
And yet, if the alchemists spoke repeatedly of experi-
ence and observation as the true keys to nature, they
also maintained a fervent belief in a universe unified
through the relationship of the macrocosm and the
microcosm—a relationship that of necessity tied this
science to astrology. The alchemists were convinced
further that their search for the truths of nature might
be conceived in terms of a religious quest which would
result in a greater knowledge of the Creator. It is not
surprising then to find a late sixteenth-century author
defining medicine as “the searching out of the secretes
of nature,” a goal that was to be accomplished by resort
to “mathematicall and supernaturall precepts, the ex-
ercise whereof is Mechanicall, and to be accomplished
with labor.” Having thus defined medicine, he went
on to state that the real name of this art was simply
chemistry or alchemy (Bostocke, 1585).

In short, while few would deny that there were
elements of modern science in alchemy, it is also true
that this was a study permeated with a mysticism
foreign to the post-Newtonian world.


The difficulty in dating alchemical texts has resulted
in a long-standing controversy over its origins. Yet, if
the priority of Near Eastern, Indian, and Chinese al-
chemists remains in dispute, there is general agreement
among scholars that the student in search of the roots
of alchemy must be concerned not only with early
concepts of nature, but also with the practical craft
traditions of antiquity. The oldest surviving works of
metal craftsmen combine an emphasis on the change
in the appearance of metals with the acceptance of
a vitalistic view of nature—a view that included the
belief that metals live and grow within the earth in
a fashion analogous to the growth of a human fetus.
It was to become fundamental to alchemical thought
that the operator might hasten the natural process of
metallic growth in his laboratory and thus bring about
perfection in a period of time far less than that required
by nature.

Several texts point to the existence of a practical
proto-alchemical literature in the ancient Near East.
The recent study of two Babylonian tablets (Oppen-
heim, 1966) dating from the thirteenth century B.C.


but copied from still earlier originals describes the
production of “silver” from a copper/bronze mixture.
These early recipes already contain elements of ritual
and the processes themselves call for secrecy. Both
were to become common themes in later alchemical
literature. The Leiden and Stockholm papyri (ca. third
century A.D.) would appear to be part of the same
practical tradition. Here, among some three hundred
recipes, will be found directions for the imitation of
the noble metals. A method for the doubling of asem
(the gold-silver alloy, electrum) indicates the future
direction of alchemical literature. The similarity be-
tween the directions given in these papyri and passa-
ges in the Physica et Mystica of Bolos Democritos of
Mendes (perhaps as early as 200 B.C.) indicates that
the latter work also profited from an acquaintance with
the metal craft tradition. However, mystical passages
in his work were to become the subject of exegesis
for Hellenistic alchemists of late antiquity. The
pseudo-Democritos was revered by them as a sage of
great authority and his work thus forms a connecting
link between the practical metal craft tradition and
the true Alexandrian alchemy of late antiquity.

Alexandrian alchemy was based on Greek philosophy
as well as on the practical tradition of the craftsmen.
The early comparisons of man and nature found in the
pre-Socratics and in Plato's Timaeus fostered an inter-
est in the relationship of the macrocosm and the
microcosm, a doctrine which played a major role in
alchemical thought well into the seventeenth century.
Systems of intermediary beings and the pneuma were
employed by the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, and other
philosophical sects in antiquity to provide connecting
links between the two worlds.

Also important for the development of alchemical
thought was the long tradition of speculation on the
Creation. The philosopher interested in both the Crea-
tion and Nature was inevitably drawn to the question
of the origin of the elements and the possibility of a
prima materia. The views of the pre-Socratics on the
prime matter formed a springboard from which later
authors launched their own concepts. Thus Aristotle
conveniently summarized the views of his predecessors
prior to refuting them in his Metaphysics. However,
the subject was one of no less importance to him than
it had been to them. Aristotle accepted the four
Empedoclean elements (earth, air, water, and fire) with
their attendant qualities and he believed that they were
mutually transmutable.

The genesis of the elements also forms an important
section of Plato's Timaeus where the subject is devel-
oped mathematically, but to alchemical authors of late
antiquity who were influenced by Neo-Platonic, Gnos-
tic, and Christian sources, the accounts found in Gene
sis and the Pymander attributed to Hermes Trisme-
gistus were no less significant. Surely the alchemical
literature was stamped with a Creation-element theme
throughout its existence. In the sixteenth and the
seventeenth centuries chemical authors still focused on
the elements in their defense or attack of any given
system. An important example may be found in Ger-
hard Dorn's defense of the Paracelsians which he based
on an analysis of the “Physics of Genesis” and the
“Physics of Hermes.” Similarly Robert Boyle placed
special emphasis on the problem of the elements in
his criticism of the Aristotelians and the Paracelsian
chemists in the Sceptical Chymist (1661).

The earliest true alchemical texts in Greek date from
the end of the third century A.D. These are clearly
connected with the earlier practical tradition as well
as with current philosophical and religious thought.
Two of the more important authors are Zosimos, author
of the encyclopedic Cheirokmeta, whose work links
these alchemical texts with the book of Bolos Demo-
critos, and Maria the Jewess, whose text is significant
for its detailed description of the laboratory equipment
of the Alexandrian alchemist. The latter work indicates
that the emphasis on distillation and sublimation proc-
esses—still so pronounced in the Renaissance—was
already characteristic of alchemical recipes in late
antiquity. These Alexandrian texts are openly con-
cerned with transmutation. The processes given stress
color change as a guide to progress—from black to
white to yellow to violet. The sequence was clearly
associated with the change from a chaotic and un-
defined primal matter to metallic perfection. And al-
though the final stage was eventually to be changed
from violet to red, the emphasis on color was to remain
a basic theme in descriptions of the Great Work.

Although practical recipes form part of these third-
and fourth-century texts there is also present in them
a pronounced interest in secrecy and mysticism. Alle-
gorical dream sequences form part of this literature,
and the role of spirits is considered important in the
transformation of matter. And while one may extract
some scientific information from the Greek alchemical
codices, he will find it difficult to separate this material
from the ever-present religious aura that pervades these
works. An example may be seen in the analogous treat-
ment of metals and mankind. Because of the truth of
this it was felt that the operator might follow the death
and resurrection theme as he pursued his work. It was
this aspect of alchemical thought that dominates the
later Greek texts. The work of Stephanos (ca. 610-41)
is replete with prayers, invocations, and allegorical
descriptions. There is little indication here that the
alchemist still had close personal contact with the
laboratory. The text of Stephanos was highly influential


and it was used by later alchemists both as a model
and as a subject for commentaries. Alexandrian al-
chemy did not continue much longer as a living tradi-
tion. Before the tenth century the basic texts had been
codified and few new texts were composed in Greek
after that time.

Although Pliny and Dioscorides refer to mineral
substances of medical value, Hellenistic alchemical
texts do not indicate any real concern with pharma-
ceutical chemistry. This is in marked contrast with the
development of alchemy in China and India. As early
as the eighth century B.C. there was a belief in physical
immortality in China, and this was later to become
closely associated with Taoist thought. A text from the
second century B.C. refers to the transmutation of
cinnabar to gold and within a few hundred years the
concept of longevity was to be clearly connected with
chemically prepared drugs and elixirs. This is evident
in the Nei P'ien of Ko Hung (ca. A.D. 320) which was
to become a standard Chinese text on this subject. In
it will be found sections on the transmutation of metals
and on elixirs of life—and all this mixed with rules
for the attainment of long life and immortality. Chinese
alchemy paralleled Alexandrian alchemy in its frequent
reference to the macrocosm-microcosm analogy as well
as in the development of both esoteric and exoteric
approaches to this subject. Thus, while the Chinese
alchemist sought a potable gold and various chemically
prepared drugs in his quest for longevity and immor-
tality, the texts also indicate a real interest in alchemy
as the search for the inner perfection of the soul.

From India the Sanskrit Atharva Veda (perhaps as
early as the eighth century B.C.) refers to the use of
gold as a means of preserving life, and there are other
early texts relating gold to immortality. Buddhist texts
of the second to the fifth centuries A.D. discuss the
transmutation of base metals to gold by means of a
juice concocted from vegetable and mineral sources.
The still later tantric-Hatha yoga texts (post-eighth
century) show the same trend toward increased mys-
ticism already noted in the Greek and the Chinese
sources. Here the operator undergoes the experience
of an initiatory death and this is followed by a resur-
rection. In metals the result may be seen in the perfec-
tion of gold—in man, the alchemist induces in his own
person a similar separation of spirit from gross matter.
In this case the result is a perfected person with an
infinitely prolonged youth.


Similarities between Chinese and Indian alchemy
have long led to speculations regarding the possible
transmission of common concepts. To date, however,
few facts have come to light to substantiate these
speculations. The origins of Islamic alchemy are some-
what easier to discern. Here there is little question
about the importance of Greek sources. Traditionally
Prince Khalid ibn Yazid (d. 704) was the first Muslim
convert to alchemy and it is significant that his teacher
was said to be one Morienos, a pupil of the legendary
Stephanos of Alexandria. Although there is little likeli-
hood of truth in this story, the strong Greek influence
on Islamic alchemy may be further confirmed by fre-
quent references to Alexandrian authors and the gen-
eral use of Greek philosophical concepts. Translations
were made into Arabic at learned centers throughout
the Near East not only of the works of such major
figures as Aristotle, Galen, and Ptolemy, but also of
Zosimos, Bolos Democritos, and Stephanos. Among
these centers the old Sassanian academy at Jundi-
Shapur played a role. Similarly a group of Sabians at
Harran were influential in transmitting Indian alchemi-
cal and astrological thought into the Islamic tradition.

The ascription of alchemical works to earlier authors
was as common to Islamic authors as it had been to
their Greek predecessors. The short alchemical classic,
the “Emerald Table,” was said to have been written
by Hermes Trismegistus, but the earliest surviving
version is in an early ninth-century Arabic text ascribed
to the first-century (A.D.) magician, Apollonios of
Tyana. A similar problem exists in regard to the Turba
This exists only in Latin, but it has been
shown by E. J. Holmyard and J. Ruska to have been
composed originally in Arabic early in the tenth cen-
tury. The dialogue form is used in the Turba and the
speakers are supposedly the Greek philosophers of an-
tiquity. Islamic alchemy did not confine itself to Greek
sages and gods alone in this regard. The eighth-century
scholar, Jabir-ibn-Hayyan, probably authored only a
few works on alchemy. However, some two thousand
titles are ascribed to him. The great bulk of these seem
to derive from members of the Isma'ilya sect, the
Brotherhood of Purity, and they date from the ninth
and the tenth centuries.

Islamic alchemy is characterized by both the practi-
cal and the mystical elements seen in the earlier Greek
texts. There are frequent warnings that the information
being revealed is for the initiated alone and there is
a continued use of the allegorical approach which had
become common in late Greek works. The religious
nature of the art is emphasized and the predominant
vitalism favored by alchemical authors may be seen
in discussions of the generation of metals, and in the
sexual interpretation of fundamental stages of the great
work. As in the Alexandrian texts the progress of the
operator may be followed through the now standard
sequence of color changes. The concept of the philoso-
pher's stone is also well developed in the Arabic litera-


ture. This stone allegedly provided a substance which
brought about the rapid transmutation of base metals
to gold. It derived from the earlier concept of special
elixirs which might cure illnesses in man and which
in an analogous fashion might perfect—or cure—
imperfect metals in inanimate nature.

Aristotelian element theory is commonly employed
in the Arabic texts, but in addition the Jabirian works
employed the Sulphur-Mercury theory of the metals.
This concept suggests that all metals are composed of
different proportions of a sophic sulphur and a sophic
mercury. While there was general agreement that these
two substances have a resemblance to common sulphur
and mercury, it was asserted that they were much
purer than anything that could be produced in the
laboratory. A quantitative relationship between the
two was implied, but the mathematical relationship
expressed in these texts may be most easily related to
the number mysticism favored by the Neo-Pythago-
reans and Eastern mystics. Although the Sulphur-
Mercury theory appears first in this literature, it seems
to be a modification of the concept of the two exhala-
tions within the earth that lead to the formation of
minerals and metals. This concept is discussed in the
fourth book of Aristotle's Meteorologica.

In the Arabic literature the reader finds an emphasis
on medical chemistry for the first time outside of the
Far East and India. The work of the physician al-Razi
(Rhazes, 860-925) is decidedly practical in nature.
Although he accepted the truth of transmutation and
discussed elixirs of varying powers, in the Book of the
Secret of Secrets
Razi spoke at length of chemical
equipment and he described in detail the laboratory
operations requisite for the chemist. In addition he
described a large number of laboratory reagents and
classified them into the categories of “animal,” “min-
eral,” “vegetable,” and “derivative.” Chemical texts
continued to employ the first three of these as a basic
scheme for arrangement until well into the eighteenth
century. Razi's interest in medicine and practical
chemistry influenced later Islamic work in medical
chemistry. The work of ibn-Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037)
and Abu Mansur Muwaffak (late tenth century) indi-
cates a special interest in chemically prepared sub-
stances of pharmaceutical value.


Western alchemy developed from Arabic sources. As
Islamic scholars had sought alchemical texts in the
eighth century, so their Latin counterparts sought sim-
ilar works four centuries later. The earliest dated Latin
translation of this genre is the story of Prince Khalid
and Morienos. This was completed by Robert of
Chester on the eleventh of February, 1144, a year after
he had translated the Koran and a year prior to the
completion of his translation of the Algebra of al-
Khwarizmi. The De compositione alchemiae of
Morienos proved to be only the first of many such
translations made during the following century.

There are frequent references to alchemy in the
work of Thomas Aquinas and from the commentaries
on Aristotle written by Albertus Magnus it is clear that
the subject was of great interest to thirteenth-century
scholars. Albertus knew the work of Avicenna and he
commented on the fact that this Islamic scholar had
both accepted and denied the possibility of transmuta-
tion in different works ascribed to him. Although
Albertus believed in the truth of transmutation himself,
he remained skeptical of the “transmuted” metals he
had seen, since the artificial product had not been able
to withstand the heat of the fire. With Albertus we
also have early evidence of the application of the
sulphur-mercury theory in the West. In his De miner-
he referred to the ancient concept of the ex-
halations, but he went on to discuss a new theory that
attributed the origin of metals to sulphur and mercury.

Some of the most interesting medieval alchemical
treatises date from the late thirteenth and the early
fourteenth centuries. The Pretiosa Margarita Novella
of Petrus Bonus of Ferrara (ca. 1330) reflects the influ-
ence of scholasticism in its tripartite structure. Argu-
ments in favor of transmutation follow the initial
refutations, and these in turn are followed by positive
answers to the objections. Peter accepted transmuta-
tion himself, and he further stated that the true process
might easily be learned in an hour. At the same time
he was honest enough to admit that he did not know
how to produce gold himself. No less influential was
the Summa perfectionis which was ascribed to Jabir
(Latinized as Geber, late thirteenth century). As in the
Precious Pearl the sulphur-mercury theory forms the
theoretical basis for an understanding of the metals,
and the alchemist is informed that he must arrange
these substances (understood as ideal substances resem-
bling most in nature common sulphur and mercury)
in perfect proportions for the consummation of the
Great Work. Geber described in considerable detail the
laboratory processes and equipment of the alchemist.
This text reflects an important change in distillation
techniques that seems to have originated among
twelfth- and thirteenth-century chemists. The intro-
duction of condensation at this time made possible the
collection of low boiling fractions for the first time.
As a result we find in the literature of the mid-twelfth
century the first reference to alcohol. Geber confirms
this change in equipment and procedure. He described
condensation apparatus in detail, and in addition he
was the first to give a method for the preparation of
a mineral acid—our nitric acid. These substances plus
the mixtures of other mineral acids placed powerful


new reagents in the hands of alchemists who were to
use them regularly after this period.

The alchemy of the late fourteenth and the fifteenth
centuries indicates an increasing interest in allegorical
and mystical themes. Thomas Norton's Ordinall of
(1477) is little concerned with clear-cut de-
scriptions of chemical processes or laboratory equip-
ment. Rather, we meet here with a lengthy poetical
account of the difficult nature of the work, the need
of virtue for its successful conclusion, and veiled de-
scriptions of the true process. These and similar texts
were accompanied by a widespread reaction against
alchemy. The unsavory characterization of the alche-
mist in medieval literature knows no better example
than Chaucer's “Canon's Yeoman's Tale” (ca. 1390)
while on an official level there were the decrees and
statutes of Pope John XXII (1317) and Henry IV of
England (1404) directed against those who attempted
to multiply gold.

Closely connected with the widespread medieval
interest in transmutation was a parallel trend toward
medical chemistry. By the fourteenth century distilla-
tion and other chemical processes were in use among
Italian physicians as a means of identifying the dis-
solved substances in the much frequented mineral
water spas. A century later Michael Savonarola ordered
these tests into a procedural form that became the basis
of the later methods of aqueous analyses composed by
Gabriel Fallopius and Robert Boyle in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries.

No less important was the medieval physicians' de-
pendence on alchemy as a source for new medicines.
The Eastern interest in the prolongation of life is
evident here. This may be seen as early as the mid-
thirteenth century in the work of Roger Bacon. Bacon
fully accepted the truth of metallic transmutation and
he suggested that this might be utilized to alleviate
the poverty of mankind. For Bacon alchemy was a
major field of experimental science and he explicitly
stated that one of its goals was the search for a length-
ened life span. In the Opus tertium (1267) he com-
mented that although many physicians used chemical
processes to prepare their medicines, very few of them
knew how to make metals and fewer still knew how
to perform those works which led to the prolongation
of life.

The same theme occurs in the work of Bacon's
younger contemporary, Arnold of Villanova, who
argued that alchemy must play an important role in
the much needed reform of medicine. In this way new
remedies and the elixir of life might be found. The
alchemist John of Rupescissa (mid-fourteenth century)
insisted that the only real purpose of alchemy was to
benefit mankind. His works abound with medicinal
preparations derived from metals and minerals and he
emphasized distillation processes which seemingly
separated pure quintessences from the gross matter of
the natural substances. It was this medieval tradition
of medical chemistry that bore fruit in the Renaissance
“distillation books” of Hieronymus Brunschwig, Con-
rad Gesner, and others who looked on alchemy and
chemical operations as a basic tool for the preparation
of medicines rather than the search for gold.


The work of Marsilio Ficino and his followers asso-
ciated with the Platonic Academy in Florence resulted
in a heightened interest in the mystical texts of late
antiquity. Ficino himself translated the Hermetic
corpus (1463) and this text was of great influence in
the revival of Natural Magic, Astrology, and Alchemy.
Interest in these subjects is closely intertwined with
the course of the Scientific Revolution. Indeed, the
sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries witnessed
an ever-quickening concern with alchemy. This new
interest reached a peak in the middle years of the latter
century before declining. It was just at this time that
the major collected editions of alchemical classics were
being prepared by Zetzner (1602, 1622, 1659-61),
Ashmole (1652), and Manget (1702).

The fresh flavor of Renaissance alchemy is perhaps
best seen in the work of Paracelsus (1493-1541) and
his followers. The iatrochemists of the sixteenth and
the seventeenth centuries follow directly in the steps
of their medieval predecessors. Like them, they ex-
pressed an interest in transmutation, but they were
primarily concerned with the medical applications of
alchemy. For some this meant the preparation of
chemical drugs, but for others it meant a mystical
alchemical approach to medicine that might apply to
macrocosmic as well as to microcosmic phenomena.

Paracelsus may be characterized as one of the many
nature philosophers of his time, but he differs from
others in his emphasis on the importance of medicine
and alchemy as bases for a new understanding of the
universe. Characteristic of the Paracelsians was their
firm opposition to the dominant Aristotelian-Galenic
tradition of the universities. They were unyielding in
their opposition to Scholasticism which they sought to
replace with a philosophy influenced by the recently
translated Neo-Platonic and Hermetic texts. The reli-
gious nature of their quest is ever present. Man was
to seek an understanding of his Creator through the
two books of divine revelation; the Holy Scriptures
and the Book of Creation—Nature. The Paracelsians
constantly called for a new observational approach to
nature, and for them chemistry or alchemy seemed to
be the best example of what this new science should
be. The Paracelsians were quick to offer an alchemical


interpretation of Genesis. Here they pictured the Cre-
ation as the work of a divine alchemist separating the
beings and objects of the earth and the heavens from
the unformed prima materia much as the alchemist may
distill pure quintessence from a grosser form of matter.

The search for physical truth in the biblical account
of the Creation focused special attention on the forma-
tion of the elements. Paracelsus regularly used the
Aristotelian elements, but he also introduced the tria
—the principles of Salt. Sulphur, and Mercury.
The latter were a modification of the old sulphur-
mercury theory of the metals, but they differed from
the older concept in that they were to apply to all
things rather than being limited to the metals alone.
The introduction of these principles had the effect of
calling into question the whole framework of ancient
medicine and natural philosophy since these had been
grounded upon the Aristotelian elements. Furthermore,
the fact that Paracelsus had not clearly defined his
principles tended to make the whole question of ele-
mentary substances an ill-defined one.

The Paracelsians sought to interpret their world in
terms of alchemy or chemistry. On the macrocosmic
level they spoke of meteorological events in terms of
chemical analogies. On the geocosmic level they
argued over differing chemical interpretations of the
growth of minerals and the origin of mountain springs.
And in their search for agricultural improvements they
postulated the importance of dissolved salts as the
reason for the beneficial result of fertilizing with
manure. For them this was the familiar universal salt
of the alchemists.

The Paracelsians approached medicine in a similar
fashion. They felt assured that their knowledge of the
macrocosm might be properly applied to the micro-
cosm. Thus, if an aerial sulphur and niter were the
cause of thunder and lightning in the heavens, the same
aerial effluvia might be inhaled and generate burning
diseases in the body. Similarly, chemical deposits were
formed when the internal archei governing the various
organs failed to properly eliminate impurities from the

The Renaissance was a period of new and violent
diseases and the chemical physicians stated that their
new stronger remedies were essential for the proper
cures. The work of Paracelsus is reminiscent of medie-
val distillation chemistry, but by the end of the century
iatrochemists were turning less to distilled quintes-
sences and more to precipitates and residues in their
search for new remedies. In all cases it was argued
that alchemical procedures resulted in the separation
of pure substances from inactive impurities.

In the century between 1550 and 1650 conflicts
between Paracelsian iatrochemists and more traditional
Galenists were common. The detailed critique of the
Paracelsian position by Thomas Erastus became a fun-
damental text for those who opposed the chemical
medicine, and a sharp confrontation between chemists
and Galenists followed in Paris in the first decade of
the seventeenth century. Here the debate centered
largely around the possible dangers of the new med-
icines. Both Andreas Libavius and Daniel Sennert re-
viewed this controversy and concluded that the best
course for physicians would be to accept the useful
remedies of both the old and the new systems. This
was the compromise position taken by the compilers
of the Pharmacopoeia of the Royal College of Physi-
cians of London (1618) and after this time there were
few who denied the value of chemistry for medicine.

Yet, if the chemists debated with more traditional
philosophers and physicians, they disagreed no less
among themselves. At the opening of the seventeenth
century Robert Fludd defended the chemically
oriented views of the Rosicrucians and he described
his mystical alchemical interpretation of nature and
supernature in a series of folio volumes on the macro-
cosm and the microcosm. Here he placed considerable
emphasis on an alchemical interpretation of the Crea-
tion and he utilized mechanical examples to support
his views. His work gave support to the alchemical
plea for a new science and it was viewed with alarm
by Johannes Kepler, Marin Mersenne, and Pierre

Jean Baptiste van Helmont was no less a chemical
philosopher than Fludd, and he described in detail his
transmutation of mercury to gold by means of a small
sample of the philosopher's stone. Van Helmont sought
a chemical understanding of man through medicine,
but, in contrast to Fludd and most Paracelsians, he
rejected the macrocosm-microcosm analogy. Van
Helmont thus was less interested in macrocosmic and
geocosmic phenomena than Fludd and he concentrated
more on practical and theoretical medical questions.
The influence of both authors was considerable in an
age when great uncertainty existed about the future
course of the new science. As late as 1650 John French
could still suggest that only chemistry should properly
be considered the basis for a reform of the universities.
Similarly John Webster (1654) stated that the new
learning must be grounded principally upon the works
of Francis Bacon and Robert Fludd.


If the chemical philosophy seemed a plausible alter-
native to the work of the mechanical philosophers in
the middle decades of the seventeenth century, this
alternative did not remain a viable one for long. The
impressive results of the mechanists—culminating in


the Principia mathematica of Isaac Newton
(1687)—stamped on “respectable” natural philosophy
the mathematical abstraction of the new physics. And
yet, this is not to say that alchemical thought died after
a final flowering in the sixteenth and the seventeenth
centuries. The collection of manuscripts at King's Col-
lege, Cambridge leaves little doubt that Isaac Newton
was passionately concerned with the traditional prob-
lems of transmutation. Furthermore, recent research
indicates that Newton's alchemical speculations may
have been instrumental in the crystallization of some
of his more acceptable concepts of physics. Similarly,
Robert Boyle was influenced by alchemical thought.
He published on the degradation of silver and his
theoretical views were strongly influenced by his early
reading of van Helmont. However, it is possible to go
beyond these examples. Alchemical works were written
by the important practical chemist, Johann Rudolf
Glauber and the medical chemistry of the Renaissance
alchemists found a new proponent in the revision of
Franciscus Sylvius de la Böe whose work went through
numerous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century edi-
tions. In like manner many elements of Paracelsian
chemistry were retained in somewhat altered form in
the texts of the eighteenth-century phlogiston chemists.
At the same time the German revival of alchemy and
Rosicrucianism stimulated a new interest in earlier
interpretations of a vitalistic and mystically oriented
universe. The impact of this on the growth of the
nineteenth-century Naturphilosophie has yet to be as-

Many characteristic themes of alchemical thought
and style are present in the earliest texts that have
survived. Both the secrecy and the practical recipes
of the metallic craft tradition are evident in the works
of the late Hellenistic authors dating from the late third
and the fourth centuries A.D. The allegorical and sym-
bolical style of later alchemical works is also present
here, and this is a reflection of the mystical tenor of
the current philosophies and religions of the late Em-
pire. The medical theme is absent in the Greek tradi-
tion and this seems to have been derived from Eastern
sources. First found in Chinese alchemical works em-
phasizing the lengthening of life and the search for
immortality, medical alchemy was integrated first into
Islamic and then into Western alchemy and medicine.

There is little doubt that alchemy, understood in its
broadest sense as a chemical key to nature, played a
significant role in the development of the Scientific
Revolution. The claim that this mystical science should
replace the Aristotelianism and Galenism of the schools
was looked on with dismay by early seventeenth-
century mechanists who were forced to clarify their
own views in their attacks on authors such as Paracelsus
and Robert Fludd. At the same time, however, the
chemical and alchemical call for a new science based
on new observations in nature was important in a
period that witnessed an ever-lessening adherence to
scholastic authority. Finally, the Paracelsian and iatro-
chemical adoption of the primary goal of the medical
alchemy of the Middle Ages resulted in the permanent
acceptance of chemistry as a legitimate tool of the
physician and the pharmacist.


The standard source for Greek alchemy is the Catalogue
des manuscrits alchimiques Grecs
edited by J. Bidez, F.
Cumont, J. L. Heiberg, O. Lagercrantz, et al., 8 vols.
(Brussels, 1924-32). Earlier, but still useful is the Collection
des anciens alchimistes Grecs
by M. P. Berthelot and
C. E. Rouelle, 3 vols. (Paris, 1887-88). Recent editions of
Chinese alchemical texts include Alchemy, Medicine and
Religion in the China of
A.D. 320. The Nei P'ien of Ko Hung,
trans. and edited by James R. Ware (Cambridge, Mass.,
1966), and Nathan Sivin, Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary
(Cambridge, Mass., 1968). A collection of Arabic
and Syriac texts will be found in M. P. Berthelot, La chimie
au moyen âge,
3 vols. (Paris, 1893). The latter work should
be supplemented with the numerous studies of Julius Ruska
on all aspects of Islamic alchemy and the intensive study
of Paul Kraus, Jābir ibn Hayyān, 2 vols. (Cairo, 1942-43).
Basic collected editions of the Latin alchemical texts in-
clude the six-volume Theatrum chemicum published by
Lazarus Zetzner (Strassburg 1659-61) and the two-volume
Bibliotheca chemica curiosa edited by Jean Jacques Manget
(Geneva, 1702). The most extensive German collection is
the Deutsches Theatrum Chemicum prepared by Friedrich
Roth-Scholtz, 3 vols. (Nuremberg, 1728-32). The standard
French collection is the Bibliothèque des philosophes chi-
prepared by Jean Maugin de Richebourg, 4 vols.
(Paris, 1741-54). The most extensive collection of alchemical
poetry in English is that of Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Che-
micum Britannicum
(London, 1652), reprinted with an intro.
by A. G. Debus (New York, 1967). The standard edition of
the works of Paracelsus is that of Karl Sudhoff and Wilhelm
Matthiessen, Sämtliche Werke, 15 vols. (Munich and Berlin,
1922-33), and the collected works of van Helmont went
through numerous editions in several languages from 1648
to 1707.

Bibliographies of alchemical texts date from an early
period, but the two standard lists are J. Ferguson, Biblio-
theca Chemica,
2 vols. (Glasgow, 1906), and Denis I. Duveen,
Bibliotheca Alchemica et Chemica (London, 1949). A survey
of recent scholarship in the field will be found in Allen G.
Debus, “The Significance of the History of Early Chemis-
try,” Cahiers d'Histoire Mondiale, 9 (1965), 39-58, and ex-
tensive bibliographies including recent research will be
found in R. P. Multhauf's The origins of Chemistry (London,
1966), pp. 355-89, and Mircea Eliade's The Forge and the
(New York, 1962), pp. 186-204. Eliade updated the


latter bibliography in his “The Forge and the Crucible: A
Postscript,” History of Religions, 8 (1968), 74-88. For a
bibliography of Paracelsus and the later Paracelsians see
Karl Sudhoff, Bibliographia Paracelsica (Berlin, 1894; re-
print Graz, 1958), and “Ein Beitrag zur Bibliographie der
Paracelsisten im 16. Jahrhundert,” Centralblatt für Biblio-
10 (1893), 316-26, 385-407. Recent research in
this field is covered by the Paracelsus-Bibliographie 1932-
1960 mit einem Verzeichnis neu entdeckter Paracelsus-
(1900-1960), compiled by Karl-Heinz
Weimann (Wiesbaden, 1963). In these bibliographies the
reader is directed particularly to the works of Ernst Darm-
staedter, Allen G. Debus, Mircea Eliade, Wilhelm Ganzen-
muller, Gerald J. Gruman, E. J. Holmyard, C. G. Jung,
Hermann Kopp, Edmund O. von Lippmann, R. P. Multhauf,
A. Leo Oppenheim, Walter Pagel, J. R. Partington, P. Ray,
John Read, Julius Ruska, H. J. Sheppard, John Maxson
Stillman, Frank Sherwood Taylor, and R. Campbell Thomp-


[See also Allegory; Creation in Religion; Experimental Sci-
ence in the Middle Ages; Hermeticism;
Islamic Conception;
Macrocosm; Neo-Platonism.]