The following is a guest post by Rachel Star Koladis, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She was an MLIS student at Southern Connecticut State University.
Henry IV of England ascended to the throne in 1399 and spent much of his reign defending himself against rebellions, plots, and assassination attempts. During that tumultuous time, King Henry IV was wary of anything that could weaken the crown, and so on January 13, 1404, he signed the Act Against Multipliers into law. This Act forbade the transmutation of base metals into gold or silver, which one might then use to create counterfeit coins. Its enactment was meant to protect the authority of the government by preventing the debasement of currency. Four decades later, Henry VI began issuing special licenses to alchemists to circumvent the statute in an attempt to pay for costly wars. Three centuries later, Robert Boyle successfully lobbied for the repeal of the Act, which came in 1688 with the Royal Mines Act.
Modern day chemistry, philosophy, and medicine all have roots in alchemy, whose practitioners hoped to transmute chemical elements, discover a universal solvent, and achieve purification of the earthly soul and immortality. Alchemy has a long history, with roots in ancient China, India, and Egypt. When Alexandria was founded in 331 BC, it became a place where alchemical knowledge was shared between Egyptians, Greek, and Jewish practitioners. While the student of alchemy had the noble goal of uniting the divine opposites to create a balanced whole, this art form has not always been held in high esteem. Possibly because the practice was carried out in semi-secrecy with complex symbols and rooted in pre-Christian knowledge, it has been associated with the occult, and perceived as fraudulent and a form of heresy.
It was the alchemists’ hope of transmuting lead into gold, a transformation the alchemists held to be the perfection of matter, that was seen as a potential threat by King Henry IV. The key to that transmutation was through the creation of the philosopher’s stone, a mysterious substance that was created from prima materia, or the primary base of all elemental matter, similar to our contemporary understanding of dark matter. Early alchemists theorized that there were four elements, each having a primary and secondary quality, air (1. fluid, 2. hot), fire (1. hot, 2. dry), earth (1. dry, 2. cold) and water (1. cold, 2. fluid), which they manipulated by removing one quality from each of two to produce a third. Each operation brought them closer to the final goal of the philosopher’s stone. This vision of the nature of matter was later challenged when new elements were discovered such as sulphur and mercury. Alchemy gave way to the new science of chemistry in the 17th century. The same Robert Boyle that advocated for the repeal of the Act Against Multipliers, also advocated to delineate chemistry from alchemy as a separate scientific field, though he remained a student of alchemy throughout his life.
For more information:
- Theatrum chemicum britannicum : containing severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language. Faithfully collected into one volume, with annotations thereon / by Elias Ashmole.
- Of the supreme mysteries of nature. Of the spirits of the planets. Of occult philosophy. The magical, sympathetical, and antipathetical cure of wounds and diseases. The mysteries of the twelve signs of the zodiack / Englished by R. Turner.
- A search of the Library of Congress for “alchemy“
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I am a new subscriber/reader, but I have really enjoyed these posts! Yesterday I learned (maybe) why women have insufficient pockets and today I read about alchemy. Thank you!
Marvelous work, thank you! I especially appreciate the resources in the endnotes.