THE MONASTERY LINK
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (NewT:Acts 20:28)
Perfecting the world and the soul was the true alchemist's mission. Even
as early as 300 AD, we find this to be a driving force. Here is an excerpt
from a letter Zosimos the Wise wrote his former sweetheart, Theosobeia of
"He who will devote himself to the great work must be free from selfishness and greed and filled with piety and goodwill. He must know the true times of the planets, the magic formulae and processes, and the magic substances. Fruitless are all efforts of the unlearned and the deceitful, who strive not after knowledge but after gold--after the curing of the incurable malady of poverty, a curing which they might have attained by other means, as by marrying a rich wife with a great dowry." (The Goldmakers, page 29.)
External Link: Allegories of Zosimos of Panoplis.
Is it any wonder then that many alchemists were monks? A true alchemist was working towards the salvation of the natural world. Many worked from scrolls captured during the Crusades. What better laboratory than a monastery, safe from the greedy intentions of profane? Though there were alchemists in almost every Holy Order, I (Amanda Doerr) will just deal with the two most influential, the Dominicans and Franciscans.
External Link: The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine, a Benedictine monk.
It is said that amoung Europeans, Saint Dominic was the first to learn the secret of the philosopher's stone. And when he died in 1221 he is said to have left this knowledge to a young monk in his order, the twenty-eight-year-old Albertus.
This young Dominican was the Swabian Count von Bollstadt, who had studied at Padua, and had then entered the Dominican Order. Thus, if Saint Dominic had passed on the secret, he had not transmitted it into unworthy hands. The monk Albertus had command of physics, mechanics, and chemistry. His Order sent him into many countries to instruct the monks. He taught at the monasteries of Cologne, Hildesheim and Freiburg, and at Ratisbon, Strasbourg and Paris. The young man who had became a monk in his twenty-ninth year was called at forty, Doctor Universalis.
But his reputation continued still to grow. In 1260 he was made Bishop of Ratisbon. In three years he restored the impoverished and debased bishopric and liberated it from a burden of debt. That, it was whispered, was nothing wonderful for a man who possessed the secret of the philosopher's stone, and could make gold.
In his seventieth year he resigned his see, entered the Dominican monastery at Colonge, and once more devoted himself entirely to the sciences. After his death in 1280 he was called Albertus Magnus, Albert the Great. (Side note: In 1932 AD, Albertus Magnus was canonized as a Catholic saint.)
Albertus Magnus has often been represented as an opponent of alchemy, on the strength of short extracts torn from a passage in the second treatise of the third book of his History of Metals. Here, however is the full passage:
"Alchemy so proceeds that it breaks up a certain body, takes it out of its species, and clothes with the most essential of its components a body of another species. Consquently that alchemical process is the best, which proceeds from the selfsame means as nature herself. Namely from the purification of Sulfur by boiling and sublimation, the purification of Mercurius, and the good admixture of both with a metal basis. For those two cover every sort of metal."
"Those, however, who propose to whiten with white and to magenta with magenta, while the species of the coloured metal remains the same, are undoubtedly decievers and do not make either true Gold or true Silver. And yet almost all take this course entirely or in part. I have subjected to test specimens of alchemical gold and silver that has been brought to me. They endure six or seven firings. But when the heat is applied to them still more often, their body is destoryed or burnt up."
It is particularly the added sentences against deceivers that are quoted as the whole judgment of Albertus Magnus on alchemy. But a single sentence from the next treatise in his book shows us how necessary it was that we should give the whole passage quoted. In the next treatise he says:
"Gold proceeds from Silver more easily than from any other metal. For it is only necessary to change its colour and weight, and this is done without trouble."
[From The Goldmakers, by K. K. Doberer; pages 42 to 43. Side note added.]
If there is any of the contempories of Albertus Magnus who can be mentioned in the same breath with him, it is Roger Bacon, the learned English Franciscan monk. Of a prosperous family like Albert von Bollstadt, Roger Bacon was born in Somersetshire, 1214. He studied at Oxford and Paris, and, like Count Albert, became a monk and then a famous teacher of the sciences. His students in Paris called him Doctor Admirabilis.
But there soon came a deep divergence between the destinies of Brother Roger and Brother Albertus. Albertus was accorded honour and distinction by the superiors of his Order. Roger belonged to another Order, the Franciscan. His superiors regarded the scientific studies of the monk Roger with the deepest suspicion. Was he not an enthusiastic supporter of another suspect Franciscan monk, teaching in Paris--Peter Peregrine? Did not this Peregrinus, also known as de Maricourt, speak against "blind faith"? Did he not teach that experiment alone can bring us knowledge of all natural things in medicine and chemistry, yea, of all things in heaven and earth?
We need not wonder at finding Brother Roger Bacon soon back in Paris, from Oxford, summoned to appear before the judges of the Order, and then condemned to bread and water and solitary confinement. For ten years he was held thus in Paris by the General of the Franciscan Order, Giovanni di Fidanza, called Bonaventura.
Then, in 1265, Guy de Foulques, Papal Legate at the English Court, was elected Pope. He ascended the papal throne as Clement IV. Guy de Foulques had known in England of the scientific work of Roger Bacon. Now, as Pope Clement, he could overrule the superiors of the Order and demand fresh scientific work from Roger Bacon.
For ten years Roger Bacon had been denied pen and ink. Now radiant with joy, he set to work again. In rapid sucession he wrote his Opus Majus, his Opus Minus and his Opus Tertium.
In his Opus Majus in addition to expounding the great basic ideas of the sciences, Roger Bacon carries on a courageous campaign for freedom of research. "More secrets of knowledge," he writes, "have always been discovered by plain and neglected men than by men of popular fame, because the latter are busy on popular matter." And he adds that he has learnt more useful and excellent things from people without fame than from well-known professors.
It is his Opus Minus that contains a detailed description of the philosophy and practice of alchemy. In practical work Roger Bacon had evidently continued the experiments of Peregrinus, the attainment of high temperatures by means of burning glasses, which were so useful to later alchemists and chemists . . . The chronicler, Peter von Trau, tells in 1385 of two such reflectors which Roger Bacon was said to have made at Oxford University. With one of these glasses . . . a candle could be lit at any hour of the day or night. In the other reflector men could see what was being done in any part of the world. The narrator adds to this naive remark that Oxford student had begun to waste far too much time on such experiments. They spent more time lighting candles, he says, than reading books.
Roger Bacon himself was not left too long to experiment by the superiors of his Order. In 1278 there came a new purge of troublesome philosophers in the Order of St. Francis, and Brother Roger was once more placed on bread and water in a solitary cell. This time he was in his cell for fourteen years. He spent only the last few years of his life in freedom at Oxford, in the little room in the squat tower of the gateway at Folly Bridge. And here is a simile concerning the uses of alchemy which Roger Bacon gives in his work De Augmentia Scientiarium:
"Alchemy may be compared to the man who told his sons that he had left them gold buried somewhere in his vineyard; where they, by digging found no gold, but by turning up the mould about the roots of the vines, procured a plentiful vintage. So the search and endeavours to make gold have brought many useful inventions and instructive experiments to light."
[From The Goldmakers, by K. K. Doberer; pages 43 to 46. Boldface added.]
Another Fransican monk, by the name of Bertholdus, tried to solidify quicksilver. Because of his penchant for dangerous experiments, he was soon given the nickname "Black Berthold". Unknown to Berthold, the substances he used in his quest to tame quicksilver produced what was later to be called gunpowder. Hermetically sealing his crucible to keep the hot and cold spirits in, it is no wonder his crucible exploded when he heated it. This didn't deter Black Berthold. He tried it again and used a bronze mortar with a brass plate wedged on top. When Berthold recovered from the blow, all he found was the empty mortar and a hole in the ceiling of his cell.