History: Ancient, Classical and Medieval Alchemy

Ancient Civilisations: c. 2000BC:

 The first people to experiment with science were the Egyptians and Babylonians, who applied their skills in a practical manner, without considering the theory of the processes involved. Although they made many innovations, such as the refinement of metal ores and in the applications of dyes, little real science had been done. For instance, Egyptian alchemists once attempted to make gold by painting the surface of lead with egg yolk, so that it appeared yellow. In spite of this, the word alchemy is derived from the Greek for "The Egyptian Art".

The Greeks and Romans: 600BC-500AD

No real scientific theory was pursued for about a millennium, until Greek philosophers in c.600BC began to wonder about the rules which governed the world around them. The Greeks were unusual in the ancient world, in that they considered the theory of science to be more important than its application: they were 'thinkers', not 'doers'. 

The Greeks laid many of the foundations for later alchemists, as well as devising many of the mathematical, geometric and scientific concepts that still hold sway in the scientific world today. Much of their work was continued by the Romans, but they were much more practically-oriented, and as a result, many of the less immediately useful theories were lost for the time being. 

The Medieval Period: Europe and the Islamic States: 500-1350AD

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Dark Ages, science suffered greatly. Since even nobles were rarely able to read in the early Middle Ages, most of the Roman knowledge was carried forward solely by literate monks, who saw fit only to keep track of the scientific knowledge that did not disagree with the teachings of the Bible.

Meanwhile, in the East, the Islamic scholars who too had been in contact with the Greeks began to develop their theories and extended their picture of the world. However, there was no scientific exchange between East and West until after the Crusades, when knowledge slowly began to filter into the Christian world. 

The Far East: c.1000AD

Scientific exploration was also occurring far away in China. The Chinese devised many inventions long before they reached the west, including gunpowder, incendiary devices, and even a tank. However, the isolationist policies of Medieval China meant that this knowledge stayed firmly locked away in the East.

The Return of Scientific Thinking: c.1350AD

Two major innovations in the West and Near East pushed their technological advancement in front of that of the Chinese. The first was glassblowing. Although the Romans were greatly skilled glassblowers, the art was lost with the fall of their Empire, and only returned to Europe through the Arabic nations, who had kept the skill alive. Much of chemistry can be done only under glass, since other ceramics tend to interfere with the reactions.

The other innovation was more of a theoretical one. The Renaissance, beginning around 1350, marked an upsurge in the popularity of science as well as the more well-known artistic revolution. For the first time, Islamic scholars were admired by many Christians , rather than despised as devil-worshipping sorcerers. Of course, the power of the Church had not fallen from the Dark Ages, and often pioneering scientists were persecuted as evil magicians and witches.



Tudor England and Natural Magic: c.1500-1600AD

To escape from accusations of witchcraft, alchemists devised a system of classification which divided magic into two categories, light and dark, good and evil. Of course, their system of 'natural magic' was the good sort, working solely with the magic that existed in all natural things. The other, evil, sort was sorcery, whose practitioners were accused of gaining power from the devil to aid their own ends. The famous natural magician and alchemist Giambattista della Porta wrote:

"There are two sorts of magic: the one is infamous, and unhappy, because it has to do with foul spirits, and consists of enchantments and wicked curiosity, and this is called sorcery, an art which all learned and good men detest... the other magick is natural, which all excellent wise men embrace, and worship with great applause."

Alchemists and their counterparts in astrology and natural magic gained a great deal of power in the period corresponding to the Tudor reign in England. Knights, lords and even kings were known to show an interest in alchemical experiments. Queen Elizabeth I of England is known to have consulted an astrologer to ascertain the best date for her coronation, and later in life was the patron of a project to discover the Elixir of Life, as was the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Even ships would not leave port if an astrologer foretold bad tidings. 

The Fall Of Alchemy: c.1600-1700AD

However, the whims of different monarchs led to a fall in the popularity of alchemy and other magically-based 'sciences'. When James I came to the English throne in 1603, he hated 'magicians' and many who had lived in luxury under the reign of his predecessor Elizabeth were forced into hiding and poverty.

In addition, the new physical sciences were gaining impetus with the noble classes. These sciences were based upon the theories of alchemy, but discarded the concepts of magic in favour of reason and logic. They eventually led to what are known today as physics and chemistry. The flawed science of alchemy could not compete with the clear advances being attained by scientists such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, and alchemy sank into obscurity.

Modern Alchemy

However, true science did not totally destroy alchemy, and alchemical remedies and theories have been quoted throughout the 20th century. An alchemist was known to be working in London during the Second World War, offering traditional medicines to those suffering from the lack of civilian healthcare, though he was killed when a bomb landed on his laboratory.

In addition, 'new-age' theories have led to a resurgence in the popularity of natural magic during the last twenty years. While the search for substances such as the Philosopher's Stone and the Alkahest have been largely abandoned, the role of alchemy in traditional medicines is a new area of interest.