At 1 p.m. on 13 July 1936, bidding opened at Sotheby’s on a trunk of Isaac Newton’s notebooks and papers. They had been in the family of the earl of Portsmouth for many years: a previous earl had lent them to the University of Cambridge, where scholars judged them of little scientific importance. Partly because of this indifference, the auction was overshadowed by a sale of Impressionist art at Christie’s, and almost escaped the attention of John Maynard Keynes, a Newton enthusiast. As it was, Keynes missed most of the lots, and shortly after the auction set about clawing back papers from successful bidders. Most of what he recovered concerned alchemy. On his death in 1946, Keynes bequeathed what is now a priceless collection – the auction in 1936 raised £9000; in 2020 Sotheby’s sold three stray leaves for £378,000 – to his Cambridge college, King’s, complete with a memorable tagline of his own devising. These esoteric writings demonstrated that Newton was not after all ‘the first of the Age of Reason, he was the last of the magicians’.
There’s something to be said for this opinion. In her history of English alchemy, Jennifer Rampling pays relatively little attention to Newton, perhaps because he’s an over-ploughed furrow, but does quote a startling passage from folio 13r of MS Keynes 22, an early Elizabethan manuscript annotated by Newton more than a century later. Here he describes how King Solomon employed the ‘vegetable stone’ – a base ingredient for alchemy, combining the four elements (earth, fire, water and air) – to make ‘trees & hearbs to flourish at all times of the yeare’ and ‘bring the birds down to him out of the air to sing and chirp & sit by him but also dwell with him’. Did Newton believe this to be possible? And if so, did he think it lawful to command nature in this way? It certainly seems, as Keynes suggested, that the great man was amenable to the idea of casting spells.
By calling Newton a magician, Keynes was doubtless exaggerating for effect; but in the 1930s and 1940s it was hard to think outside the narrative of scientific progress, a celebratory story that illuminated milestones of discovery and cast errors into the shade. Newton’s optics and laws of motion fitted the story; alchemy did not. Since then historians have ceased to be surprised by Newton’s alchemy or his interests in astrology, numerology and biblical prophecy. Whatever madness may have crept into his method (possibly a result of mercury poisoning), natural philosophy had different boundaries to modern science, encompassing – or porous to – the supernatural. The alchemical papers at King’s have produced several books, most recently William R. Newman’s Newton the Alchemist (2018). All promote the idea that alchemy and science were, in their own time, inseparable, and that rationalism and occultism were very far from vying for each other’s extinction and the esteem of posterity.
Outside academic history, however, the science/superstition dichotomy persists: alchemy’s fairytale trappings still hinder its restoration to the pre-modern intellectual mainstream. In Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford (2003), Sebastian Makepeace slaves away in ‘a hot, close, sulphurous room lit only by the flames of a great iron furnace in one corner. Benches along each wall were laden with glass beakers and retorts, with crucibles and sets of scales and every kind of apparatus for distilling and condensing and purifying. Everything was thick with dust, and the ceiling was completely black with years of soot.’ Pullman here is relying on a stock image developed over centuries, by painters especially. Brueghel in the 16th century, David Teniers in the 17th, and Joseph Wright in the 18th, all painted grimy scenes of reclusion and penury, with hints of mad obsession and radiant wonder. Cornelis Pietersz Bega’s alchemist, from 1663, adds pathos to the mix: were it not for the delicately held apothecary’s scales, this ragged hopeful might be a drunk squatting on the floor of a particularly untidy Haarlem alehouse. In nuanced ways, these portraits tell the same story: one of solitary men driven by some demon to care only for alchemy.
We aren’t told what is in Makepeace’s beakers, nor can we see inside the cracked mortar beside Bega’s alchemist. But records from the Court of King’s Bench, relating to a trial in 1418, offer some clues. The defendant, an alchemist named William Morton, had brewed up a substance from mercury, vermilion, realgar, arsenic, verdigris, charcoal, and sandiver (a salt extracted from molten glass). Like all alchemists craving noble patronage, Morton was not inclined to downplay his achievements and called his compound ‘Elixir’. The jury, examining a sample under the cold light of legal reason, described it more prosaically as ‘a black matter burnt and congealed in a round glass’. Like Lord Percy in Blackadder, whose alchemical pursuits engender not gold but a nugget of purest ‘green’, Morton had made some ‘black’.
Successful alchemists tend to be fictional. Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist (1988) is a meditation on following your dream. His alchemist really can turn lead into gold, using the fabled philosopher’s stone: an idea picked up by J. K. Rowling for Harry Potter. Other literary outings are more cynical, and so closer to reality. In Chaucer’s Canon Yeoman’s Tale, the yeoman is poor because his master, a practitioner of ‘that slippery science’, is poor. His tale concerns another canon, who with ‘sleights and his infinite falseness’, tricks a priest into believing he can make silver. As a satire on greed and exploitation, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) owes much to Chaucer. Sir Epicure Mammon, already rich, yearns for more wealth and power (also sex and lost youth). Reflecting, perhaps, on the witchcraft trials and alleged demonic possessions that were dividing opinion at the time, the play allows for scepticism as well as credulity, and the inevitability of imposture. Like Chaucer’s yeoman, Mammon’s sidekick Sir Pertinax Surly is a debunker of alchemy; and, like the canon, the conman Subtle merely pretends skill at this most mysterious craft.
On the whole, then, alchemists have not fared well in popular culture, doomed to be remembered as magicians and mountebanks. It’s impossible to read Rampling’s book, however, and not think better of them. First of all, transmuting metals was only part of their wider investigation into the workings of nature. The 13th-century philosopher Roger Bacon thought that alchemy would help humans prolong their lives and prepare for the Apocalypse. Besides, the alchemist’s claim that angels rather than demons guided his work was sincere. Why, in a world teeming with supernatural forces, should this be doubted? It was also with a straight face that alchemists insisted on their status as philosophers, with a lengthy pedigree of respectable scholarship. Newton’s note about manipulating birds related to a treatise of 1561, ‘The epitome of the treasure of health’, which drew on the work of the 15th-century alchemists Thomas Norton and George Ripley, who in turn were indebted to the formulations of Ramon Llull, a 13th-century Majorcan polymath. The key to alchemy was deep reading, between texts and across the ages. Keynes’s scrabbling about for Newton’s papers was as nothing compared to the avid manuscript hunting of generations of alchemists.
Much of the Western alchemical tradition grew out of knowledge spreading from Hellenistic Egypt and the Holy Land, and from Jewish and Islamic scholars, such as the Arab physician Avicenna, who discoursed on ‘philosophical’ elements (mercury, sulphur and salt) as well as conventional ‘material’ elements. By the 13th century, philosophical elements had become the cornerstone of Paracelsian medicine. Many English alchemists were monks and friars, who took trips abroad to track down parchments relating to geometry, magic, theology, medicine and alchemy. The most popular text was the Secretum secretorum, supposedly Aristotle’s teachings as passed directly to Alexander the Great, translated from Arabic into Latin. Another canonical text after 1300 was De anima by pseudo-Avicenna, which argued that the three basic ingredients in alchemy were human blood, hair and birds’ eggs. Students of such works were zealous keepers of secrets, but they also shared and discussed their learning by circulating manuscripts and, from the 16th century, printed books. The world they sought to understand belonged to them all, and demanded that a gifted few should work together to interpret the writings of former ages. Alchemists resembled learned theologians poring over the gospels, wary of mangling a single meaning and so missing or misrepresenting a holy truth. And with alchemy, everything needed interpretation because everything was obscure.
There’s a peculiar logic to the proposition that because the universe is strange, so too must be the means of decoding it. After all, medieval scholasticism taught that like must come from like: observable affinities between things were a condition of their fruitful manipulation. Walter of Evesham, a 13th-century Benedictine monk, advised that gold was good for treating leprosy, and blood good for metallurgy. But how and why such things were meant to work remained a mystery. Aristotle described a stone that was not a stone, and was animal, vegetable and mineral all in one – a kind of riddle requiring scriptural exegesis. So when an alchemical method called for eggs, say, this wasn’t always meant literally. If the active ingredient was ‘the juice of lunaria’, the demand might be for quicksilver or distilled wine. One reason that the reputations of alchemists like Ripley survived, even into the late 17th century, is that the procedures they recorded were so cryptic it was hard to confidently determine that they were wrong. Whereas modern experiments minimise the risk of failure by means of precise quantities, temperatures and timings, alchemical methods were wilfully opaque, often rendered in mystical verse full of wordplay, metaphors and arcane allusions. As an additional challenge, alchemical texts employed the disperso, which spread the stages of a process across different texts. And yet all this suited the bona fide alchemist: only true adepts could extract meanings – like Pullman’s Lyra, intuitively reading her truth-telling alethiometer.
The meeting of poetry and alchemy seems less absurd if we remember that alchemy was not an academic field in its own right. It was a slanted approach to intellectual inquiry, the pursuit of knowledge tout court, with intelligent links to medicine, metallurgy, oenology, physics, chemistry, biology, theology, moral philosophy, iconography and creative writing. Alchemists have been obscured by misleading classification and a haze of rationalist condescension. Demonology is a similar case. As Stuart Clark has shown, the Renaissance study of demons helped to construct a framework of debate within which other subjects, from physics to law to history, were profitably considered. It only looks like a pseudo-science if we starkly juxtapose it with enlightened modernity. Alchemy had no substance, in the sense that no one ever managed to make precious metals from base ones – but then neither did theology or astronomy (read: astrology), both also thoroughly speculative disciplines. Yet all these pursuits were rich in potential, boosting hope that the secrets of nature might be revealed and the interests of humanity advanced.
When alchemists – humble craftsmen as well as learned churchmen – weren’t studying or networking, what did they actually do? Much of their work was preparation: grinding, mixing, dissolving, desiccating and distilling. Heating was ‘incubation’, with the tower-shaped furnace known correspondingly as ‘the house of the chick’. Every vessel had a name, from the ‘bain-marie’ (after the Jewish alchemist, Maria the Prophetess) to alembics (stills) named after the animals they most resembled. And chemicals had abstruse nicknames: glass was called ‘the green lion’, mercury ‘white fume’. The philosopher’s stone was a laboriously produced reddish brown powder, used to promote base metals into precious ones. Even if metals weren’t involved, the aim was still to release power stored in nature so as to produce observable effects. The four elements possessed qualities that could be enhanced or suppressed to alter their basic nature. Significance was attached to sequences of colour change, above all the passage from black to the desired red but also movement through a spectrum of hues and shades, including the spectacular iridescence of the ‘peacock’s tail’.
The intensity with which alchemists worked was spiritual as well as practical – a diligent desire for enlightenment, akin to entering the priesthood. This spiritual dimension was especially associated with the Rosicrucians, a shady (possibly non-existent) early 17th-century brotherhood. A German work of 1616, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, often linked to the Rosicrucians, was a romantic allegory swirling with symbols of purification and transformation. Alchemists aimed to extract purity from nature’s corruption, clarity from confusion, and called the refinement of chemical matter ‘exalting’ or ‘ennobling’ it. They were seeking to define essential differences between elemental substances, and, as importantly, assert the difference between themselves and the charlatans, imposters and low-born craftsmen – the ‘slip-slop sauce makers’, as one indignant alchemist termed them.
The purpose of such boasting was to win patronage, for patronage was everything. Patrons were procured through conspicuous wisdom but also the assertion of intellectual provenance: creating and identifying with a coherent tradition. Alchemists were their own historians: the history that Tudor practitioners fashioned from a medieval past, for instance, lent them gravitas as well as a rhetorical defence against satire, giving reassurance to their sponsors that they really were on the side of the angels. For alchemists trod a narrow path of legitimacy, hemmed in by ambivalent feelings and suspicion about their motives, objectives and sources of power. Kings and princes censured alchemists as felons and traitors, but also licensed them to work for the crown – contradictory responses that sensibly coexisted. Though debasing the currency with artificial coin was outlawed, it was fine for cash-strapped monarchs to do it, if they found men of experience to assist them.
A legend holding that Edward III hired an alchemist to help fund a crusade contained a grain of truth: the king did think alchemy might alleviate his economic problems, one of which was a currency flooded with counterfeits. In the early 1340s, John of Walden was paid a considerable fee for his services, and then, when he failed to deliver the goods, was thrown in the Tower of London (he turns up in an audit of prisoners, seven and a half years later). But the glittering prizes kept hope alive. By 1400 alchemy was, as Rampling puts it, ‘simultaneously hailed as an elevated form of philosophy and damned as a fraudulent practice that threatened the integrity of English coin’. Early in the 15th century, multiplication of metal was forbidden by Henry IV, not because the act was intrinsically sinful, but because – as with minting coin – the crown had to have a monopoly. Philosopher alchemists who’d once sought patronage from foreign clerics were only too pleased to work inside the royal fold, where their distinction was self-evident. It also gave grounds for the aggrandising notion that philosophers supplied kings with wisdom – as Aristotle had Alexander.
The second half of the 15th century was dominated by Ripley, the canon of an Augustinian priory in Yorkshire, whose self-proclaimed task was to extract ‘the marrow of nature from its inner and more secret bones’. Yet, as ever, the route to clarity was maddeningly vague. Ripley’s experiments centred on ‘sericon’, probably red lead, dissolved in some ‘philosophical vinegar’, then distilled and condensed in order to separate sub-particles of silver and gold into ‘a marvellous salt’. From this might be derived a method for loosening the vegetative properties of base metals and ‘ripening’ them into precious ones. But within this cloud of confusion lay something less mystical: an impulse towards modern empiricism. Ripley, for example, wrote of ‘the vice of opinion and the virtue of proof’, an expression of his belief in testing interpretations – essentially, hypotheses – and observing the results, which would then be circulated for study. Ripley’s works of the 1470s were not only poetic bids for Edward IV’s patronage but seminal texts for future practitioners. ‘The Book of Ripla’, a manuscript now in the Bodleian Library, is copiously annotated with glossed meanings, filled gaps, ventured opinions and the ‘fantasies’ of its readers.
Henry VIII set alchemy back by dissolving the monasteries, which disrupted work and caused manuscripts to be lost, both in religious houses and the college libraries of Oxford and Cambridge. Furthermore, given the windfall provided by the dissolution, the king had no need to make gold: in this sense Thomas Cromwell was his alchemist. Concerns also grew about the German scholar Agrippa von Nettesheim’s bracketing of alchemy and magic as ‘occult philosophy’, with its suggestion that secret knowledge challenged rather than augmented royal power. This mingling of magic and treason produced the Witchcraft Act of 1542. When the poet William Neville cheerfully related to his chaplain an alchemist’s prophecy that the king would die and he, Neville, would become earl of Warwick, the chaplain informed Cromwell, who had the culprits sent to the Tower. (Neville had earlier attempted to make a cloak of invisibility, and, ironically, given his fate, desired a magic ring that would allow him to gain prestige at court.) Even so, an official debasement of the coinage in the 1540s encouraged alchemists to curry favour with the king, who in any case already enjoyed the company of men with alchemical interests. These included his librarian, Giles Duwes.
The Elizabethan period exalted an authentically English alchemical tradition, and saw the court magus Dr John Dee and Archbishop Matthew Parker become keen manuscript collectors. Nor was this a purely antiquarian urge. Post-Reformation alchemy was increasingly secularised, aligned with service to the state – it involved distilling medicines, mining, metallurgy and reforming the mint. The rich and powerful didn’t abandon hope that a lowly alchemist might yet change the world. In 1565 Elizabeth set up a Dutch alchemist in his own workshop at Somerset House, prompting a flurry of envious petitions to the crown. By now, England’s entitlement to alchemic rewards was no longer justified only by antique precedent, but by the approval that had been shown by divine providence to the new Protestant state. The orthodox godliness of alchemy mattered greatly to Edward Kelley, often seen merely as Dee’s dodgy partner in conjuration, but actually a virtuoso alchemist. Dee was awed by Kelley’s experiments in the 1580s, which included the manufacture of a sericonian solvent, ‘the great corrosive of the philosopher’, from dry yellow vitriol ground up with saltpetre.
In the 17th century, the corpuscular theories of Robert Boyle and others overtook alchemy, and a more mechanical philosophy made the magical universe redundant. The shift was, however, gradual. In the 1670s George Starkey, tutor to the young Boyle, published commentaries on Ripley, even as Ripley’s sericonian alchemy was bowing to Starkey’s chemistry. Starkey set great store by antimony (which reduced gold to a powder ‘like to the Atoms of the Sun’) and promoted a particulate conception of matter over the superannuated affinities of animal, vegetable and mineral stones. The decade saw a ten-fold increase in chemical books, sustained into the 1680s. The antiquary Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1652), a thick compendium of manuscript and print, reflected fondly on a pre-Reformation world of philosopher monks, cloistered and busy as bees, decoding and dabbling. But even as the old faiths faded, Ashmole was considering new possibilities, including a substance that might embed a spirit in a picture, or translate the language of birds.
Like Newton’s alchemy, Ashmole’s version only seems anomalous because we’re accustomed to thinking of such things as nonsense. But even in 1700, alchemy was still being taken seriously, albeit not literally. Its archaic rubric was sufficiently diverse and versatile to be put to new uses – even by natural philosophers hailed as founding fathers of modern science, but who were only feeling their way towards the Periodic Table and quantum mechanics, and with generations of journey time ahead of them. Alchemy may seem like a blind alley, the worst kind of deductive reasoning; but it remained attached to and energised by a miscellany of ideas, in constant motion, continually reinventing itself. Its investigative spirit was optimistic and progressive, and has an enduring legacy. The development of the Covid-19 vaccines proceeded not just from solid expertise, inspired lab work and rigorous testing, but also from an older kind of curiosity and courage, the kind that fires every revolutionary scientific advance into existence.