A history of the world in 101/2 inches

10 Alchemy
Click to follow
The art and science of alchemy, which thrived from around 200BC until the 18th century, was founded on very rational principles. Plato and Aristotle had given us a theory of matter that held everything to be made of earth, air, fire and water. Each of those in turn combined two of the primary qualities: hot, cold, wet and dry. Earth is cold and dry, air is hot and wet, fire is hot and dry, water is cold and wet. When fire loses its heat, it becomes earth - in the form of ash; when water is heated it becomes air - in the form of steam. In principle, anything can therefore be turned into anything else by stripping it down to its basic components, then remixing them with a little heating, chilling, wetting or drying.

But to do it properly, you need the Philosopher's Stone, which has the power to turn all things to gold. "I have seen and handled more than once the Stone of the Philosophers," said JB van Helmont. "In colour it was like powder of saffron but heavy and shining even as powdered glass." Van Helmont, incidentally, was a noted chemist who invented the word "gas".

The Stone, however, did not only turn base metal to gold. It also had the power of giving eternal life and transforming a person from earthly impurity into heavenly perfection. Here, however, we must make a distinction between exoteric (outward) and esoteric (hidden) alchemy. The former is concerned with the practical business of finding the Stone, concocting an Elixir of life, making gold and living for ever. Esoteric alchemy, however, is a mystical and religious concept linked to the belief that only the pure of soul will be granted the divine grace needed to discover the Philosophers' Stone in the first place. Thus the first objective becomes not so much transmuting metal into gold, but transmuting the sinful towards purity.

There are 15 alchemists listed in the Dictionary of National Biography, of whom the following deserve special mention:

Sir Thomas Ashton and Sir Edmund de Trafford who, in 1446, were given special privileges by Henry VI to continue their experiments. The King also forbade and of his subjects from molesting them.

Thomas Charnock (1526-1581),0 who was bequeathed the secret of the Philosophers' Stone by an alchemist in Salisbury but was frustrated when his equipment perished in a fire in 1555. Two years later he was again on the verge of success when he was called up for the relief of Calais.

Edward Kelley (1555-1595), who claimed to have discovered the Philosophers' Stone among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. He also had his ears cropped in the pillory at Lancaster after a conviction for forgery.

John Dee (1527-1608), who employed Kelley, never noticed his mutilated ears (which were hidden beneath a skull cap), sent Queen Elizabeth a piece of gold which he had made from metal cut from a warming pan, and gave his son quoits made from transmuted gold.

John Damian, who was court alchemist to James IV of Scotland. He also built himself a pair of wings and tried to fly from the ramparts of Stirling Castle but fell to the ground and broke a leg. He blamed the feathers he had used which came from barnyard fowl unaccustomed to flying. Despite this failure, James IV still paid pounds 15.16s.0d for his alchemist's gown of damask and pounds 4 for his velvet socks.

Alchemy began to fade when Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chymist in 1661 in some ways fulfilling Isaac Newton's prediction that science would lead away from alchemy and theology towards materialism and atheism. Its scientific respectability, however, was partly restored in the 1950 when Carl Jung represented the whole of alchemy as a basis for depth psychology. More recently, Beethoven's piano sonata Opus 110 has also been compared in structure with the symbolic patterns of alchemy.