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Alchemy in Europe and the Middle East - The Latin Middle Ages

century alchemical alchemists metals

In the twelfth century, Europeans such as Gerard of Cremona, Daniel of Morley, and Robert of Ketton began to translate more than seventy Arabic texts into Latin, introducing Europeans for the first time to the alchemical corpus and the Arabic term al-kimiya, which became the Latin alquimia, alkimia, alchimia, or alchemia. By the end of the century, translations from Morienus, the Corpus Gabirianum, and al-Razi, as well as a host of other spurious alchemical texts, acquainted Europeans with the central figures, techniques, and ideas of the Greek and Arabic alchemical traditions. A vibrant European technical literature emerged, dealing with alchemical techniques for dye-making, distilling, metallurgy, mineralogy, and, of course, the transmutation of metals.

Alongside this practical literature, European alchemists writing in Latin also continued to develop the theoretical foundations of their art. Around 1250 the prominent philosopher Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280) legitimated scholarly interest in alchemy when he praised alchemists' ability to imitate nature in his De mineralibus (On minerals). The late-thirteenth-century Summa perfectionis magisterii of Pseudo-Geber (or "the Latin Geber," likely the Italian Franciscan Paul of Taranto) replaced the mercury-sulfur theory with the "mercury alone" theory, which stated that mercury was the fundamental component of metals, while sulfur was a pollutant. Drawing on Aristotle, medieval natural philosophy, and medical theory, Pseudo-Geber also articulated a corpuscular theory of matter, positing that all matter is composed of small particles.

In the thirteenth century a debate emerged around alchemy's legitimacy and its relationship to other fields of knowledge. The central issue was whether alchemy, as a form of human art or technology, was capable of successfully imitating or even surpassing nature. Responding initially to ibn Sina's famous rejection of transmutation (often given greater authority by its erroneous attribution to Aristotle), scholars such as Roger Bacon (c. 1220–1292) and Paul of Taranto forcefully argued that true alchemists could indeed use their knowledge of metals to affect real transmutations. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome (Aegidius Romanus), and the inquisitor Nicholas Eymeric formulated theological objections to alchemy, arguing that the power to transmute species was reserved for God alone. This religious critique reached its peak around 1317 with Pope John XXII's condemnation of those alchemists who "promise that which they do not produce." Although this papal bull's primary target was alchemical counterfeiting of metals, it sanctioned the increasingly vociferous backlash against alchemists' claims of power over nature. Still, alchemy continued to flourish in the fourteenth century, as evidenced by the popularity of the Fransciscan Johannes de Rupescissa's treatise on the quintessence, or inner essence, of all matter, and a spate of alchemical texts spuriously propagated in the fourteenth century under the name of the thirteenth-century Catalan physician Ramon Lull.

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