THE ACCEPTANCE OF ALCHEMY
How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? (OldT:Proverbs 1:22)
Alchemists were often ingored or tolerated and at times vilified or revered.
Alchemy was a touchy subject at best. By reading K. K. Doberer's The
Goldmakers, we find out that Pope Boniface VIII, himself, practised
alchemy. Yet thirteen years after his papacy ended, Pope John XXII issued
a stringent bull against alchemy during his first year in the chair
(1316 AD). It seemed that after awhile, Pope John tried to find out for
himself whether or not it was possible to make gold. A Latin treatise on
alchemy, published in French in 1557, claims to have his method of
transmutation. The large amount of gold found in his treasury after his
death further the speculation of his alchemical successes.
As an epitaph to Pope John, K. K. Doberer wrote: "Pope John had had the determination and the intellectual independence to make these experiments in spite of his own Bull. He had anathematized and excommunicated emperor and princes, and shortly before his death he had been at issue with the theologians of the University of Paris, and had himself been threatened with impeachment for heresy." (pg 55) Luckily for many monks, only the German monasteries took the Bull very seriously.
As for royality, alchemists were elevated to court positions or hunted down depending on the mood of the ruler in charge. In 1404, Henry IV issued a stringent prohibition of alchemy. By 1440, his grandson, Henry VI began to issue special licences for those wishing to practise alchemy, and alchemy was again a noble pursuit.
Why the change? The following excerpt from The Goldmakers may explain it:
Jaques le Cor: Minister of Finance and Alchemist
About 1440 there lived in Bourges a merchant named Jaques le Cor. He had enriched himself by bold trading enterprises, and now had his own ships at sea. At this time, however, the city of Bourges was the place of residence of the King of France, Charles VII.
Nothing was more natural than that this monarch, hard pressed by the English armies, should begin to borrow money from the rich Jaques le Cor. And the only security the King could offer at the time was to appoint Le Cor as his Finance Minister. A useful Minister of Finance, with the task of making up the budget deficit from time to time out of his own pocket! It is not to be wondered at that in the end Le Cor considered what better ways there might be of filling the gap, what less burdensome method of feeding this unceasing trickle of gold coins.
The Minister of Finance of the King of England had much the same cares. So both set their minds hard at work, and it is simply impossible today for the historian to say which of the two first hit on the brilliant new idea. Both, in any case, turned it quickly to account.
In England a prescribed portion of all gold pieces was now coined from alchemical gold, and the alchemists were not pressed too hard if their gold did not stand all the usual commercial tests. All it needed was to have a good appearance for a while, for it was used for the payment of the troops on the Continent. In order to increase the confidence in them, the die of the reigning King Henry VI was not used, but that of the good old rose nobles of Edward III. No wonder that from then on Raimund Lullus was suspected of having coined all the nobles of Edward III alchemically, with varying success.
After a little experience with these inferior rose nobles, the English soldiers very naturally tried to exchange them at once for French gold coin. But the French troops had meanwhile been armed by Le Cor with similarly produced gold, and each side paid each other much the same coin.
Le Cor had the alchemical gold minted with the dies of the good and popular French crowns bearing the royal coats of arms. He certainly did his best to make these gold coins as good and genuine and lasting as he possibly could, for unlike the English he had to issue them in his own country. But it could only be expected of him that he should make the best use of his own alchemical knowledge and that of his contemporaries and should energenitically pursue alchemical research and experiment: it could not be expected that he should squander the rare and natural gold on these damned coat-of-arms crowns.
It is difficult to settle today which was of these counterfeit gold peices was worse, the French or the English. It was Le Cor, at all events, who in the end was left to "hold the baby." When under the enthusiasm aroused by Joan of Arc the English were driven back, they did not load themselves either with alchemical French coat-of-arms crowns or with their own dubious rose nobles, but took with them all the genuine gold to be had.
Thus in the end Jaques le Cor found himself in a France overflowing with counterfeit gold pieces. The coins, however, that bore the French arms had been minted under Le Cor's supervision, and there was nothing to prevent him from being arraigned for issuing false coin. All those who had been cheated with counterfeit money, blind and intentionally blind to the fact that Le Cor had done his faithful duty to his king and was now merely being made a scopegoat, shouted for his execution.
When his trial started it was impossible, of course, for the king to intervene openly without implicating himself. And as those who had been cheated were determined that blood should run, the judges were afraid of incurring unpopularity if they showed any leniency. So the extreme penalty was pronounced. The king could easily have made the needs of the State an excuse for doing nothing. But he was a just man. Breasting the wave of popular fury, he pardoned Jaques le Cor. But in order to give a sop to the universal feeling he was obliged to banish him.
The king knew, however, that Le Cor had not only drawn upon his own fortune in the king's service, but had acted with true statemanship in paying artificial gold with like coin. So when, in 1453, Le Cor went into exile to Cyprus, the king permitted him to take to his new home the remainder of his fortune.
[From The Goldmakers, by K. K. Doberer; pages 65 to 67.]