The rare books vault of the Department of Special Collections hosts many old books on various topics, including some disciplines that aren’t being taught at university anymore, like the mysterious art of alchemy. The Philip Mills Arnold Semeiology Collection encompasses a considerable number of books on this and other neighboring “lost” or “secret arts,” printed between the early 17th and the late 19th century.
The privilege of knowledge
The spectrum of content in these books is wide. One aspect many of them have in common is the limited accessibility of the knowledge they contain. For that reason, many books carry variations of the word “secret” in their title, like the old form “secrete” or the Latin word “arcanum.” One of the older books in the Arnold collection for instance, a book by Michael Maier printed in 1614, is called “Arcana arcanissima”—“the most secret of secrets.” Some of these books don’t just deal with knowledge that is secret, but also with knowledge about keeping things secret, like secret writings or ancient hieroglyphs. In any case, there is a strong tendency to explore the arts and ways of alchemy while at the same time keeping it hidden from the general public.
One science—or many?
The print publications on alchemy and neighboring arts are not defined as clearly as modern scientific disciplines are today and the lines are fuzzy. Many texts deal with chemical substances and their reactions, with chemical or alchemist elements, healing practices or various ingredients for medical potions and concoctions. Our copy of Johann Jacob Wecker’s “Kunstbuch” (1616), for instance, shows a number of annotations and highlighting in old ink, indicating that one of its owners used this book in his practice of medicine.
George Wilson’s “Compleat Course of Chymistry” (1709), about a century later, extends its reach far beyond what we would today call “chemistry.” Wilson includes lists and instructions on various chemical elements as well as detailed engravings and descriptions of apparatus setups, but he also includes chapters on “Chymical Medicines” and an appendix on the “Transmutation of Metals”—recipes that are supposed to turn lead into gold.
An alternative to student loans
Amongst all other things, one of the central goals of many alchemists was the transmutation of “base metals” like lead into “noble metals” like silver or, most notably, gold—though never for personal gain, of course, but only in the name of scientific progress. The primary means believed to allow such a reaction was a substance called the “Philosopher’s Stone.” This is probably the best-known aspect of alchemy today, and has found its place in modern popular culture. This substance should not only allow the creation of a potion of eternal life and youth, but also serve as a sort of catalyst for the transmutation of metals, triggering the chemical reaction without being part of it. Since it wouldn’t be used up in the reaction, once found, it could be used many times over. Thus, many an alchemist has set out to find this substance in long, expensive and hazardous experiments, and although many claim to have found it, actual proof for its existence or functionality has yet to be delivered. Still, writing, publishing, and selling a book on how to transmute lead into gold might have put bread and butter on more than one alchemist’s table, and some of them even succeeded in performing this transmutation in front of a live audience. Of course, who is to say whether they had actually found the right formula, or had just covered a piece of gold with a thin layer of lead that would dissolve in the right chemical solution, leaving behind a genuine piece of gold that could be examined by the amazed observers?
The new spirituality
During the age of Enlightenment, science had gained more and more importance and contributed to the decline of the role of monarchy and religion as the major social guidelines. Instead of relying exclusively on what aristocrats and priests where telling them, many people now turned towards more rational explanations for the mysteries of the world. Alchemy, as one of the first actual sciences, contributed significantly to this development. On the other hand, the destabilization of religion left a hole where the cozy comfort of its guidance had been, leading to a sprouting of occult and esoteric societies. Some of these circles pursued science, arts, and education furthering humanistic and ethical values, but others were devoting their time to more practical endeavors. Consisting almost exclusively of privileged white men, these groups and lodges created powerful economic and political networks and did not reject occult or esoteric practices either. Still, they were aiming at limiting this knowledge to their very circles.
Ye Olde Alchemy and the modern sciences part ways
Just like religion had been left behind by science, alchemy was now about to be left behind by the modern disciplines we know today. Alchemist practices like experimenting with elements and their reactions emerged into chemistry, methods of healing and the ingredients and recipes for related substances formed medicine and pharmacology, others are now found in physics, psychology or anatomy. Today, alchemy is not considered a veritable “science” anymore and has found its niche next to occultism and esotericism. And yet, there are those who claim that some of the alchemist knowledge of medieval and early modern times is not to be mistaken for invalid experiments or formulas, but represents metaphorical or even encrypted knowledge—thus, in a way, still secret and hidden—that can show us a path to spiritual enlightenment, even today.
- Cobb, Cathy and Goldwhite, Harold, Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
- Geßmann, Gustav Wilhelm, Die Geheimsymbole der Alchymie, Arzneikunde und Astrologie des Mittelalters. Ulm/Donau: Arkana, 1959.
- Levere, Trevor Harvey, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball. Baltimore / London: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.
- Lippmann, Edmund O. von, Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie. Mit einem Anhange: Zur Älteren Geschichte der Metalle. Berlin: Julius Springer, 1919.
- Owen, Alex, The place of enchantment: British occultism and the culture of the modern. Chicago / London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- Ruland, Martin, Lexicon Alchemiae sive Dictionarivm Alchemisticvm, Cum obscuriorum Verborum, & Rerum. Reprint of the edition printed in Frankfurt 1612. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1964.
About the Author
Tobias Feldmann is a PhD student in German and Comparative Literature, Track for International Writers at Washington University in St. Louis. He avidly reads and writes realistic and speculative fiction as well as poetry and enjoys archival work.