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The Art and (Proto)Science of Alchemy

The Art and (Proto)Science of Alchemy
A mixture of science, philosophy, and mysticism, medieval alchemy was a precursor to chemistry. Learn about this early science here.


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Medieval Alchemy

Medieval Alchemy

Alchemy in the Middle Ages was a mixture of science, philosophy, and mysticism. Alchemists approached their craft, believing that purity of mind, body, and spirit was necessary.

Medieval alchemy was centered around the idea that all matter was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. They theorized that the right combination could produce any substance on earth.




Origins and History of Alchemy

  • Alchemy emerged independently in China, India, and Greece, but degenerated into superstition. It drifted to Egypt and survived as a scholarly discipline.
  • In the 12th century, it was revived in Europe when scholars translated Arabic works into Latin.
  • By the end of the 13th century, philosophers, scientists, and theologians started discussing is more seriously.



The Goals of Medieval Alchemists

  • To discover the relationship of man to the cosmos.
  • To find the ingredient to make an elixir of immortality and transform common substances into gold.
  • Late in the Middle Ages, to use alchemy as a tool in the progress of medicine.



Achievements of Alchemists in the Middle Ages

  • Medieval alchemists made hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, potash, and sodium carbonate.
  • They identified the elements arsenic, antimony, and bismuth.
  • They invented and developed laboratories that are still used today in a modified form.
  • The practice of alchemy laid the foundation for further development of chemistry as a scientific discipline.



Disreputable Associations of Alchemy

  • Due to the secrecy of alchemists, the Catholic Church viewed alchemy with suspicion and ultimately condemned it.
  • Alchemy was never taught in Universities but passed on from teacher to apprentice or student.
  • Followers of the occult were attracted to alchemy.
  • Alchemy was used to defraud people.



Famous Medieval Alchemists

  • Thomas Aquinas, a theologian, studied alchemy before it was condemned by the Church.
  • Roger Bacon was the first European to describe how to make gunpowder.
  • Paracelsus used his knowledge of chemical processes to benefit the science of medicine.




The scientific revolution

Human history is often framed as a series of episodes, representing sudden bursts of knowledge. The Agricultural Revolution, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution are a few examples where ...


Much of the knowledge about the natural world during the middle ages dates back to the teachings of the Greeks and Romans. Many did not question these ideas, despite the many flaws.

  • Aristotle taught everything beneath the moon was comprised of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire.
  • Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy thought that heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, planets and various stars all revolved around the earth in perfect circles.
  • The ancient Greeks and Romans held to the idea that illnesses were the result of an imbalance of four basic substances and was related to the theory of the four elements.

Rebirth and Reformation

  • During the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in the arts and literature. It led to a shift toward more independent thinking.
  • In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther promoted his thoughts by printing and distributing them, encouraging churchgoers to read the Bible for themselves. This led to the Protestant Reformation.
  • In the process, the criticism and reform led to placing the burden of proof ahead in understanding the natural world, paving the way for the scientific revolution.

4 more ideas

Describing wonder

Wonder is said to be a childish emotion. However, as adults, we experience it when gaping at something unexpectedly spectacular.

Adam Smith, an 18th-century moral philosopher, describes wond...

Bodily symptoms

The bodily symptoms of this strange appearance point to three dimensions:

  • Sensory: The marvelous things take hold of our senses - we stare and widen our eyes.
  • Cognitive: We are perplexed because we don't have a past experience to understand them. It leads to a suspension of breath, similar to when we are startled.
  • Spiritual: We look upwards in veneration, which makes our heart swell.

The scale of wonder

At the mild end of this emotion, we talk about things being marvelous. More intense emotions might be described as astonishing. The extreme of this experiences is met with expressions of awe.

Medieval monks

Medieval monks had a hard time concentrating while they were supposed to focus on divine communication: to read, to pray and sing, and to work to understand God.

The ideal was a mind that was...

A method for concentrating

Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were to visualize the material they were processing. A branchy tree or a finely feathered angel. The images might loosely correspond to the substance of an idea.

The point was to give the mind something to draw, to indulge its appetite for interesting forms while sorting its ideas into some logical structure.

The problem of concentration

Any plan for sidestepping distractions calls for strategies on sidestepping distraction.

It is a fantasy to think that we can dodge distraction once and for all. There will always be exciting things to create distraction for the mind.