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THE ATTRACTION OF ALCHEMY FOR MONKS

AND FRIARS IN THE 13TH-14TH CENTURIES

Wilfrid Theisen, O.S.B.

Of the so-called pseudo-sciences (astrology, geomancy, cheiro


mancy, alchemy) the latter has left us the most extensive
manuscript tradition. By the time the art and science of alchemy
reached the Latin West in the middle of the twelfth century, with
the rst translation into Latin of an Arabic alchemical work, it
had already acquired a strong mystical element. At what point
alchemy went beyond the attempts to change base metals into
gold to concern itself with the transformation of the artists soul is
diicult to determine. For medieval philosophers of nature alchemy
was an art or science based on the unity of all matter and even
the unity of spirit and matter. In Islam, Arabic alchemists be
lieved that alchemical process required for its success the grace of
God, higher cosmic powers and the skill of the alchemist.
Considering the many facets of this art or science it is not sur
prising that it held a strong attraction for western philosophers.
Its promise to restore youth, heal all sicknesses of whatever du
ration and enlighten the minds of the adepts who practiced it,
could and did arouse the concern and opposition of religious lead
ers. In time, alchemy was also associated with demonology, a part
nership that drew condemnation from the Inquisition. The aura
of secrecy surrounding alchemy has made interpretation of many
texts diicult, leaving many questions unanswered. Two questions
considered in this paper are: 1) Why did so many members of re
ligious orders nd the lure of alchemy so irresistible? and 2) What

Wilfred R. Theisen, O.S.B., has


been teaching physics and humanities courses
since 1955. Research interests include medieval optics, alchemy and the
relationship between religion and evolution. Current address is St. Johns
Abbey, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.

239
were the real reasons why alchemy drew sustained opposition
from the superiors of religious orders?

THE DOMINICANS AND ALCHEMY


Interest in alchemy was already strong in the rst part of the
thirteenth century, as is shown in the work of Robert Grosseteste,
(1168-1253), the rst Chancellor of Oxford University and later
Bishop of Lincoln.1 Religious could easily have learned about
alchemy in the universities, while they were studying the works
of Aristotle. Although Aristotle knew nothing of alchemy, when
Alfred of Sareschal translated Aristotles Meteorology he ap
pended a number of chapters of Ibn Sinas work on metals which
did discuss alchemy.2 Of course there were already numerous
Latin translations of Arabic alchemical works available by the
end of the twelfth century.3
Consequently it is not surprising that natural philosophers
would show more than mere curiosity towards this art. The
greatest of these in the thirteenth century, Albert the Great, had
a keen interest in alchemy. Though he probably was not the au
thor of the many alchemical works attributed to him, Albert was
convinced of the possibility of the transmutation of metals.
Young Dominican friars would have found in his writings at least
mild support for alchemical pursuits.
Alberts pupil, Thomas Aquinas, refers to the art of alchemy in
a number of places, but his interest appears to be only incidental,
i.e., only as alchemy is related to other matters. For example, in
the Summa 2-2. 77. 2, Thomas concludes that if alchemists sell
false gold as if it were genuine, the sale is unjust, and retribution
must be made. However, if alchemists were able to produce true
gold, selling it would not be illicit. In 3. 66. 4 he observes that al
chemical water cannot be used for Baptism, as it does not retain
any of the original properties of water. In his commentary on the

1See James McEvoy, The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste (Oxford 1982)


pp. 15, 165-66, 182, 187.
2See Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8
vols. (New York 1923) 2.250.
3Charles Homer Haskins, Studies in the History of Mediaeval Science
(New York 1960). See Index under alchemy.
4See Pearl Kibre, Albertus Magnus on Alchemy," in Albertus Magnus
andthe Sciences, ed. James Weisheipl, O.P. (Toronto 1980) pp. 187-202.

240 ABR 46:3 - SEPT. 1995


Meteorologica 3. 9 Thomas expresses his belief that alchemists
are able, by means of occult powers, to produce genuine gold from
sulphur, quicksilver and certain vapors (these comments, how
ever, may be later interpolations). In his commentary on Book 2
of Peter Lombards Sentences 7.3.1, Thomas concludes that
demons cannot produce genuine gold even by means of alchemy,
since true gold is produced by sunlight, whereas alchemical gold
is produced by ordinary re. This view is found also in Quaes
tiones disputatae de potentia 6. 1, i.e., that nature can produce
gold from earth but art is unable to accomplish this. If this repre
sents Thomas nal opinion, it is not surprising that in his com
mentary on Boethius De TYinitate he lists alchemy as one of the
mechanical arts, like agriculture, only lower on the scale, and not
a true science. Although the alchemical work, Aurora Consur
gens, has been attributed to Thomas Aquinas, the arguments in
favor of his authorship do not seem convincing.5
A contemporary of Albert and Thomas, Vincent of Beauvais,
subprior of the Dominican monastery in that city, knew of Arabic
alchemical writings and accepted the possibility of transmuta
tion.6 There is also an account of a Dominican who went to Sar
dinia around 1250 to practice alchemy in order to help his blood
brother acquire wealth.7 Thorndike gives the names of four other
Dominicans associated with alchemical works.8
Although there are few identied Dominican alchemists, there
is evidence that the number who engaged in alchemy is by no
means inconsiderable. Nine General Chapters of the Dominican
Order passed decrees prohibiting the practice of alchemy: Pest
(1273), Bordeaux (1287), Trier (1289), Metz (1313), Barcelona
(1323), Lyons (1348), Verdun (1356), Carcassone (1378) and Col
mar (1434).9 In all instances the prohibition was sweeping, . . .

5See Marie-Louise von Franz, Aurora Consurgens (New York 1966) pp.
x-xiii and Robert Halleux, Les Textes Alchimiques ('Ihrnhout-Belgium 1979)
p. 105.
6See Thorndike, History 3.471-72.
7See Benedictus Maria Reichert, Vitae Fratrum Ordinis Praedicatorum
(Rome 1897) pp. 290-91.
8History (see note 2 above); 3.63, William of 'hmis; 3.132, Walter della
Flamma; 3.136, Thomas; 3.223, Philip.
9Acta capitulorum generalium ordinis Praedicatorum, ed. Benedictus
Reichert, 9 vols.(Rome 1898) 1.170, 238, 252; 2.65, 147,322,373, 446; 3.231.

WILFRID THEISEN, O.S.B. 241


that all brothers refrain from studying, teaching or practicing
alchemy in any way. Nor shall they keep any books about that sci
ence, but give them to the prior as soon as possible, who shall in
good faith hand them over to the provincial priors."10
There was no penalty attached to the practice of alchemy by
the 1273 General Chapter, but in 1287 the General Chapter at
Bordeaux decreed that the offender would be imprisoned,
which, according to the Dominican historian Vllliam Hinnebusch,
was an extreme penalty, reserved for the more grave lapses, for
apostates from the Order, and for friars who wandered about the
country without permission.12 This penalty was also imposed in
1289 at Trierla; in 1313 the Chapter ordered the books of alchemy
to be burned within eight days of nding them, and those who did
not comply with this injunction incurred the penalty of excommu
nication. In 1323 the penalty was excommunication latae sen
tentiae, and those who knew of alchemical activities and did not
inform their superiors were to be punished severely as well.15
That the penalties became more and more severe indicates that
the mere prohibition of alchemy had been ineffective and that the
numbers engaged in alchemy must have aroused considerable
concern in the superiors of the Order, a concern which continued
throughout the fourteenth century.

THE FRANCISCAN S
The other mendicant order, the Franciscan, also had members
who manifested serious interest in alchemy. Elias of Cortone, who
succeeded Francis of Assisi as acting superior general of the Or
der in 1226 and as elected superior general from 1232 until
1239,16 pursued alchemy with enthusiasm. According to one biog

10Ibid., 1.170. The Latin text reads: . . . fratribus universis. Quod in


alchimia non studeant, nec doceant nec aliquatenus operentur, nec aliqua
scripta de sciencia illa teneant, sed prioribus suis restituant quam cito
poterunt, bona de per eosdem priores prioribus provincialibus assig
nanda."
111bid., 1.239.
12The Early English Friars Preachers, vol. 14 of Dissertationes Histori
cae (Vatican City 1951) p. 198.
13Acta 1.252.
14Ibid., 2.65.
151bid., 2.147.
1"5See Encyclopedia Brittanica, 11th ed. (New York 1910) 9.271.

242 ABR 46:3 - SEPT. 1995


rapher, this colorful and controversial friar rounded up any mem
bers of the Order who had practiced alchemy or had knowledge of
it and kept them attached to his palatial residence at Assisi.17
Several alchemical works have been attributed to him,18 but little
work has been done in establishing his authorship. Another
Franciscan of the thirteenth century, Paul of Taranto, has been
credited with writing an alchemical work long attributed to the
Islamic alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan (cited in the literature as
Geber until recently).19 However, without doubt the Franciscan
that provided the major impetus to the study of alchemy was
Roger Bacon (1219-92). He discussed alchemy favorably in the
Opus minus,20 Opus tertium,21 Epistola de secretis operibus artis
et naturals,22 Opus maius23 and in his commentary on the pseudo
Aristotelean Secretum secretorum.24 Bacon saw speculative
alchemy as necessary for the understanding of all of natural phi
losophy and theoretical medicine. Practical alchemy could not
only produce precious metals in greater abundance than could
nature, but could produce great goods for the state and procure
the prolongation of life.25
Bacon was willing to claim even more: If we knew the proper
ties of all things, then we would know scripture and all of philos
ophy, and consequently all of human and divine wisdom.26 Such

17 Ed. Lempp, Fr. Elie de Cortone (Paris 1901) p. 121, n. 1.


18 See entries under Elias and Helias in Dorothea Waley Singer, Alchem
ical Manuscripts in Great Britain and Ireland, 3 vols. (Brussels 1928) and
in Lynn Thorndike and Pearl Kibre, A Catalogue of Incipits of Mediaeval
Scientic Writings in Latin (Cambridge, MA 1963).
19William Newman has recently edited and published this text: The
Summa Perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber (New York 1991).
20Roger Bacon, Opus minus in Opera quaedam hactenus inedita, ed. .S. J
Brewer (London 1859) pp. 313-15, 359-89.
211m, pp. 39-43.
221m, pp. 538-51.
23Roger Bacon, Opus maius, ed. John H. Bridges, 2 vols. (Frankfurt 1897)
2214-15.
2"Roger Bacon, Secretum secretorum, cum Glossis et Notulis Rogeri Ba
coni, ed. R. Steele (Oxford 1920) pp. 117-27.
25Bac0n, Opus minus, pp. 39-40.
26Ibid., p. 389. The Latin text reads: Si igitur sciverimus omnium rerum
proprietates tunc scripturam sciemus et philosophiam totam; et per conse
quens totam sapientiam divinam et humanam.

WILFRID THEISEN, O.S.B. 243


praise of alchemy and such a promise could easily have allured a
considerable number of friars into the pursuit of the great art. It
is not surprising that numerous alchemical writings were at
tributed to such a strong promoter of alchemy.27
Although the list of Franciscans known to have written al
chemical works or practiced alchemy is not long, enough names
have survived to provide ample evidence of considerable interest
in it. Lynn Thorndike and Dorothea Singer mention several other
Francisans of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries who en
gaged in alchemy.28 St. Bonaventure, while convinced that the al
chemists could indeed produce genuine gold, had little to say
about their practice. Like St. Thomas, Bonaventure deliberated
whether demons could produce genuine gold by the art of
alchemy.29 In several sermons he does warn against an inordinate
pursuit of gold, but does not explicitly condemn the alchemists.
Did he, however, sense that this pursuit was attracting too many
of his confreres and turning them away from their apostolic activ
ity?30 Marcelin Berthelot concludes that such activity as has been
uncovered in the manuscripts attests to a kind of secret society of
Franciscan chemists, known for their practice of this art and also
suspected of other heresies.31

27 Dorothea Waley Singer, Alchemical Writings Attributed to Roger Ba

con," Speculum 7 (1932) 80-86. See also E. Brehm, Roger Bacons Place in
the History of Alchemy, Ambix 23 (1976) 53-58, and Guy-H Allard, Reac
tions de Trois Penseurs du XIIIe Sicle visvis LAlchimie," Cahiers Detudes
Mediuales 2 (1974) 97-106.
2fisee Thorndike, History 2, chap. 54, devoted to Bartholomew of Eng
land and also vol. 3, where he gives the following names: p. 174, Gerardus
Marionis; p. 223, Osbert de Pueblo and John of Apuleia. Singer, Alchemical,
(note 18 above) gives the following Franciscans: p. 172, Raymond Galfredus;
p. 196, Nicolas and Bernard; p. 287, Ferrarius; p. 301, Osbert.
29See Sancti Bonaventurae opera omnia, 9 vols. (Ad aquas claras
[Quaracchi] prope Florentiam, 1882 . . He discusses alchemy briey in
.).

two places in his Commentaria in Quatuor Libros Sententiarum Magistri


Petri Lombardi: Lib. Dist. Art. Arg. (2.201 in the
4, 2,

7,

2,

2,

2,
P.

Quaest.
3

Opera) and also Lib. Dist. 47, Art. ad (4.978 in the Opera).
2,

2,

Quaest.
3

3Ibid., 9.74, Sermo de Sancto Nicolao . . qui vadunt post aurum in ne


.

descendunt in aetemae mortis inter-itum (. . those who pursue gold will


.

in the end reach everlasting death) and 9.466, Sermo de Sancto Andrea
Apostolo: . . appetitus auri et argenti inordinatus est occasio naufragandi"
.

(. . the unbridled desire for gold and silver the cause of shipwreck).
is
.

31La Chimie au Moyen-ge, vols. (Paris 1893) 2.77, Jai releve ces cita
3

tions avec dautant plus de soin qu'elles attestent au XIIIe siecle lexistence

244 ABR 46:3 - SEPT. 1995


In view of the attraction for alchemy among the Franciscans, it
is not at all surprising that the superiors reacted. The General
Chapters of the years 1260, 1279, 1292, 1313, 1316, 1337 and
1354 forbade the study, practice, teaching of alchemy and also the
possession of alchemical works. The penalties were severe: 1) im
prisonment, 2) exhumation of a deceased impenitent violator or
3) ipso facto excommunication.32 If Berthelots conjecture of the
existence of an alchemical secret society among the friars is cor
rect, the reaction of the General Chapter could have been foreseen.
The documents do not give the reasons for the prohibitions, but
silence is in keeping with such legal decisions. However, in spite
of this consistent stand against alchemy, there appeared at the
end of the fourteenth century one of the most inuential of the al
chemists, the Franciscan, John of Rupescissa.33 His work stands
as evidence of the tenacity with which Franciscans pursued the
secret art.

BENEDICTINES AND OTHER MONKS


Sufcient evidence has been gathered to show that the monks
in this period also engaged in alchemy. Lazarus Zetzner,34 J.J.
Mangetf5 and Singer36 include the works of several abbots, pri
ors and ordinary monks. However, because of the unreliability of
authorship ascription in alchemical texts it is diicult to assess
the amount of activity in the cloisters. It is possible, however, to

d'une petite confrrie dalchimistes, inconnus de lhistoire, personages


dailleurs suspect derreur, cest-a-dire d'hrsie, aux yeux de leurs contem
porains, comme lont toujours et les alchimistes.
32See Archivum Franciscanum historicum (Ad aquas claras prope Flo
rentiam, 1908) 18 (1925) 21-23; 33/34 (1941) 34-37.
33On the work of this alchemist and his inuence see J. Bignami-Odier,
Etudes sur Jean de Roquetaillade (Paris 1952) and also Thorndike, History
3, chap. 22.
31'Theatrum chemicum, ed. Lazarus Zetzner, 6 vols. (Strasburg 1659-61)
1.783-86.
35Bibliotheca chemica curiosa, ed. J.J. Manget, 2 vols. (Geneva 1702)
2.898-902, lists the names of the following monks: Vincentius, Efferarius,
Petrus, Alexander, Durandus, Albertus.
36Alchemical, pp. 144, 191, 193, 323. The Hill Monastic Manuscript Li
brary, St. John's University, Collegeville, MN; has several dozen alchemical
manuscripts on microlm from Austrian monasteries, but the dates of some
of the original works have yet to be determined.

WILFRID THEISEN, O.S.B. 245


identify at least one Benedictine monk of the fourteenth century
as an alchemist of some repute: Walter, of the Abbey of Evesham
in Worcestershire.
Despite the lack of specic identications, there is no doubt
that monks were not exempt from the attraction to alchemy. In
1339 four monks of the Abbey of Boulbonne were denounced to
Pope Benedict for engaging in alchemy and other occult prac
tices.38 In 1317 the General Chapter of the Cistercians ordered,
under penalty of excommunication, that the monks refrain from
practicing or studying alchemy; anyone who failed to report such
activity to the superiors was subject to the same penalty.39 One of
the earliest attacks on alchemy was made by Giles of Rome, a
Hermit of St. Augustine, at the end of the thirteenth century.
Giles refused to accept the possibility of transmutation on philo
sophical grounds.40

POPES, CARDINALS AND BISHOPS

The papal attitude towards alchemy during the latter part of


the thirteenth century and the rst decades of the fourteenth cen
tury can be described as mildly supportive. For example, the most
notable alchemist of the thirteenth century, Arnold of Villanova,
reportedly was closely associated with the Roman Curia.41 Popes
Boniface VIII and John XXII were regarded as having an interest

37See Donald Skabelund and Philip Thomas, Walter of Odingtons


Mathematical Treatment of the Primary Qualities, Isis 60 (1969) 331-50
and Thorndike, History 3.128-36.
38Jean-Marie Vidal, Moines Alchimistes lAbbaye de Boulbonne (1339)"
Bulletin de la Socit Ariegoise des Sciences, Lettres et Arts 9 (1903) 1-8.
Herweg Buntz states that the centers of alchemy before 1500 were the clois
ters, but probably includes other religious houses besides monasteries in
this term. See Die europische Alchimie vom 13. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert,
in Emil Ploss, Heinz Roosen-Runge, Heinrich Schipperges, Herwig Buntz,
Alchimia, Ideologie und Technologie (Munich 1970) p. 188.
39Statuta Capitulorum Generalium Ordinis Cisterciensis ab anno 1160
J
ad annum 1786, ed. .M. Canivez, 8 vols. (Louvaine 1935-) 3.337. Although
not a Benedictine, William Langland was educated by the Benedictines in
Worcester. (Encyclopedia Brittanica [New York 1992] 7.145.]) He expressed
mild disapproval of alchemy because he regarded it as deceptive. See Piers
the Plowman, trans. Margaret Williams (New York 1971) p. 174.
See Newman, Summa, pp. 32-35, for an analysis of Giles arguments.
41Robert Halleux, Tlextes, p. 121.

246 ABR 46:3 ~ SEPT. 1995


in alchemy.42 A number of alchemical works have been attributed
to cardinals43 and bishops.44 Of course there is the distinct possi
bility that alchemists falsely attributed alchemical works to the
powerful to gain an aura of respectability for themselves.

MOTIVATIONS FOR ALCHEMY


Since alchemical activity was centered in the religious commu
nities in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the question of
motivation is a major concern for historians. In many instances
the texts state that alchemy is a means of providing aid to the
poor, orphans and widows.45 Some religious pursued the art to
pay for the building and support of cloisters and churches.46 Such
extravagant claims were made for the Philosophers Stone that it
is not surprising that the pursuit of it would be hard to resist: It
rejoices the soul, preserves youth, brings strength to the old and
drives away every sickness.M7 As we saw above, Roger Bacon
made even more excessive claims for the sacred art. The author of
Aurora Consurgens promised that those who are faithful in the

42For Boniface VIII, see Manget, Bibliotheca 1.698; Singer, Alchemical,


p. 140; and Buntz, Europische, p. 127. For John XXII, see Manget, Biblio
theca 1.102, 103; Zetzner, Theatrum 1.62 and also C.H. Josten, The Text of
John Dastins Letter to Pope John )OUI,'Ambix 4 (1949) 34-51.
43Zetzner, Theatrum 1.781 mentions a cardinal of Lotharingia; Singer,
Alchemical, p. 140, Cardinal Gilbert; p. 164, Cardinal John of Toledo and
Cardinal Hugo; p. 201 Cardinal Albinus; p. 262 Cardinal Adrian. Manget,
Bibliotheca 2.901, lists Cardinals Garcia, Melchior, Perronius. I have not
checked their dates.
There is a report from 1060 that Archbishop Adalbert of Hamburg was
producing gold coins. See Ploss, Alchimia (note 38, above) Vorwort, n.p.
The translator Michael Scot, a priest and a nominee for archbishop of an
Irish see, has been cited as the author of at least one alchemical work by S.
Harrison Thomson in The Texts of Michael Scots Ars Alchemie Osiris 5
(1938) 523-59. See also Singer, Alchemical, pp. 143, 197, 287, 316, 537 for
the names of bishops to whom alchemical tracts were attributed.
45Manget, Bibliotheca (note 35) 1.659, 662, 836, 840, 844, 849; 2.207,
209, 212, 214, 231, 264, 285, 327, 349, 410, 464, 537.
46Wilhelm Ganzenmiiller, Die Alchemie im Mittelalter (Paderborn 1938)
p. 229.
4'7Manget, Bibliotheca (note 3) 2.311. This is from the Rosarium, at
tributed to John Dastin, an alchemist of the fourteenth century. The Latin
text reads: Laeticat animam, conservat juventutem, renovat senecu
tutem, et omnem corporis depellit aegritudinem."

WILFRID THEISEN, O.S.B. 247


pursuit of alchemy shall nd wisdom and salvation.48 For these
reasons the Philosophers Stone was often called Gods gift, and
divine help was sought in pursuing it.19

ALCHEMY AND THE LAW


Although, as we have seen, religious orders forbade their mem
bers from alchemical activity in the thirteenth century, papal
opposition lagged. Only in 1317 did Pope John XXII issue his
famous decree against the minting of coins from alchemical gold
and silver, Spondent quas non eachibent.5o The decree had a very
specic intent, as is evident from the title, Concerning the crime
of counterfeiting. That this is the import of the decree is empha
sized by the commentator, who refers the reader to a decree that
dealt with the counterfeiting of money in France.51 It is also
evident from the decree that the pope did not believe that the al
chemists were producing true gold: . . . and nally, though there
is no such thing in nature, they pretend to make genuine gold and
silver by a sophistic transmutation.52
That Pope Johns decree was not meant to prohibit alchemy
completely is evident from the writings of several civil and canon
lawyers of the fourteenth century. Oldrado da Ponte, oannes An J
dreae, Baldus of Perugia, Alberic de Rosate, Andrea dIsernia and
Albertus Brunus all considered the questions: Do alchemists
sin? Is alchemy prohibited by divine or civil law? They all con
cluded that alchemy may be practiced. In fact, if alchemists suc
ceeded in producing true gold, they should be praised for bringing
benets to the people, provided that the alchemists did not
achieve their effects with the help of demons. They were con
vinced that the alchemists could achieve their goal with the help

48Franz, Aurora, p. 101.


49See Wilfred R. Theisen, John Dastins Letter on the Philosophers'
Stone, Ambix 33 (1986) 79.
5oThis decree was not a papal bull, but a decree or a constitution, of less
importance than a papal bull. It is found among the decrees known as
Extravagantes, i.e. decrees issued in a different time period from other dec
retals published in a volume.
51 See James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (New York 1911) pp. 125,
414.
52Ibid., . . . ut tandem quod non est in rerum natura, esse verum aurum
vel argentum sophistica transmutatione conngant.

248 ABR 46:3 - SEPT. 1995


of the stars and the natural powers of herbs, stones and other el
ements. In support of their belief in transmutation of species they
referred to St. Augustines theory of rationes seminales.53
It was only at the end of the century that the Catholic Church
raised a strong voice against the practice of alchemy. This opposi
tion came from Nicolas Eymerich, the Dominican Inquisitor of
Aragon, in the form of the decree, Contra Alchimistas, issued in
1396, during the ponticate of Pope Benedict XIII.54 Eymerichs
position with regard to alchemy is given in the following conclu
sions: 1) It is not possible to produce true gold, silver or precious
stones by means of art; 2) Demons are not able to produce gen
uine gold, silver or precious stones by art, as that would give
them the power to create ex nihilo, a power that belongs to God
alone; 3) Demons are able to transport these things from one
place to another, as even thieves can do; 4) Alchemical gold has
the appearance of gold, but not all the properties of gold, such as
weight; 5) Consequently alchemical gold cannot be used to make
coins, nor in medicines; 6) Alchemical gold can be used to make
ornaments and such objects as tableware; 7) It is forbidden to in
voke the aid of demons, as this is abandoning God and turning to
devils; 8) Alchemy is forbidden by divine law (Sirach 3111-8); 9)
Alchemy is forbidden by human law (decree of Pope John ml);
10) Alchemists should repent of their past and refrain from their
practice in the future.55

REASONS FOR OPPOSITION TO ALCHEMY


Since Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Eymerich and some of
the canonists of the fourteenth century all mention the invocation
of demons in connection with alchemy, this association was a fac

53For a summary of legal opinions concerning alchemy, see Zetzner,


(note 34) Theatrum 1.8-63. A thorough discussion of the legal issues can
be found in Francesco Migliorino, Alchimia lecita e illecita nel 'Irecento:
Oldrado da Ponte, Quaderni medieucli 11 (June, 1981) 6-41.
54This decree has been edited by Sylvain Matton with a brief commen
tary in, Le Trait Contre les Alchimists de Nicolas Eymerich, Chrysopeia 1
(1987) 93-136. It was addressed to a Benedictine abbot of Spain.
55Ibid., pp. 118-35. Heinrich Schipperges in Strukturen und Prozesse
alchimistischer Uberlieferungen, reports that a canon from Trier, John of
Livania, wrote a treatise against alchemy in 1374. See Ploss, (note 38)
Alchimia, p. 73.

WILFRID THEISEN, O.S.B. 249


tor in the disapproval that alchemy met in some quarters. It is
possible that the religious of this period were given to invoking
evil spirits; this was one of the accusations brought against the
monks at Boulbonne.56 However, considering the religious tone of
the vast majority of extant alchemical works, it is difcult to hold
that demon worship would have been a major element in alchemy
throughout the fourteenth century. Many texts begin with a
prayer for Gods assistance; it is inconceivable that this was a cover
for the invocation of demons. One alchemist even made a point of
praying that he escape the devils inuence.57
If the religious tone of the alchemical writings is accepted as
genuine and not as a cover for demon worship, what aspects of
alchemy did arouse opposition from religious orders? One reason
for its condemnation surely must have been that the alchemist
incurred major expenses, as this is frequently mentioned.58 It is
easy to imagine that superiors would have been greatly con
cerned over allowing religious to use funds and time for a purpose
that produced so little tangible results. It was also recognized
that alchemy could have harmful physical effects, which is not
surprising, considering the toxic nature of some of the alchemical
materials.59
These, then, are the four explicitly stated reasons for the oppo
sition to alchemy: 1) It was fraudulent; 2) It was done with the
help of demons; 3) It was expensive; and 4) It was unhealthy.
There could also have been other reasons for opposing alchemy
which are not explicitly given in any of the documents. The very
religious tone of the writings might have occasioned some disap
proval among those who felt that it was a mild form of blasphemy
to draw parallels between alchemical operations and Christian
dogmas. For example, in the pseudo-Thomistic Aurora consur
gens the writer refers to the doctrines of the trinity, creation, eu
charist, baptism, judgment, resurrection, incarnation and virgin
birth. The Philosophers Stone is called the Tree of Life, Unfailing
Light, Gift of God, Sacrament of God, Divine Matter; the stone, it
is claimed, puts poverty to flight and, after God, is the best

56See Vidal, Moines, pp. 134-35.


57 See Zetzner, (note 3) Theatrum 4.155.
58E.g., Wilfred Theisen, John Dastin: the Alchemist as Co-creator,"Am
bit 38 (1991) 75; also Matton, Trait, (note 54) p. 132.
59Migliorino, Alchimia, (note 53) p. 30.

250 ABR 46:3 - SEPT. 1995


medicine available.60 The alchemists were warned that God alone
could change one species into another and to claim this power
makes one worse than the pagans.61 More offensive to Christian
ears would have been the comparison drawn between the re
demptive work of Jesus and the effects produced by the Stone.62
Equally objectionable is the analogy drawn by Peter the Good be
tween the virginal conception of Jesus and production of the
Stone.63 Bernard of Trier credits the Stone with the power to
ward off poverty and all the ills of soul and body.64 As we saw
above, John Dastin was no less enthusiastic about the effects that
could be brought about by its use.65
These extravagant claims that the alchemists were making, of
ten couched in religious language, must have been reason enough
to draw both the attention and the opposition of religious superi
ors. Although the claims might not be classied as heresy, strictly
speaking,66 the promise of virtual immortality and freedom from
bodily and mental ills was inconsistent with the Christian view of
life. For this reason it is difcult to explain why Pope John XXII
and the Inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich focused their opposition on
the production of false gold and the invocation of demons. Only if
their knowledge of alchemical writings was extremely limited
could they have been ignorant of the broader and deeper implica
tions of the sacred art. Did Church ofcials dismiss most alchem
ical works as being too esoteric and consequently of limited ap
peal to warrant any specic action other than that taken by Pope

60See Franz, Aurora, (note 5) passim.


61Zetzner, Theatrum (note 34) 1.51. On alchemists as creators, see
Theisen, John Dastin (note 58).
62See Manget, Bibliotheca (note 35) 1.884 and the extensive treatment
given this theme by CG. Jung in Psychology and Alchemy, trans. F.C. Hull,
in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, ed. H. Read, et al. (Princeton 1968) pp.
353, 357, 372, 374, 389, 424.
63Pretiosa margarita novella 6, t.1, in Manget, Bibliotheca 2.30. (note
35).
6Qui credat his evitari posse pauper-tatem intolerabilem et morbos
omnes animi et corporis . . ." in Manget, Bibliotheca 2.388 (note 35).
65See 11. 47.
66Ganzenmiiller, Alchimie (note 46) p. 21, states that he nds nothing
heretical in the alchemical literature he read: Aber in der ganzen Masse
c_l_er uns bekannten alchemistischen Schriften ndet sich keine einzige
Ausserung, die auf grundsatlichen Widerspruch zum Christentum
schliessen la'sst.

WILFRID THEISEN, O.S.B. 251


John XXII and Eymerich? Do the two documents referred to
above express the only basis for the ecclesiastical opposition to
alchemy? Do they fully account for the century-long condemna
tion by the General Chapters of the three orders? Or was there in
fact another dimension to alchemy, a mystical dimension, that
was never stated explicitly but only esoterically? Was this mysti
cal message the real, but unexpressed, reason for the opposition?
That there was a mystical dimension to alchemy almost from its
very inception was shown by H.J. Sheppard. Alchemy, seen as
bringing base metals to perfection through a number of stages, is
an apt metaphor for the spiritual journey as described by many
Christian mystics. Evelyn Underhill pointed out how readily the
alchemical process can be used as a metaphor for the journey to
spiritual perfection, e.g., No transmutation without re, say the
alchemists. No cross, no crown, says the Christian.68 One basic
question to be considered is whether alchemy was conceived as a
spiritual pr0cess couched in the language of chemistry, as Shep
pard has claimed.69 If this was the case in the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries, it would help to explain both the appeal to
the many religious who wrote the alchemical works and also ac
count for the esoteric language, since the spiritual journey was
always considered ineffable to a degree. Moreover, if the whole
process that the alchemists were describing were really spiritual,
this would explain why alchemy was regarded as a gift from God
and also why divine assistance was regularly sought in its pur
suit. There is no reason to believe that such a view would bring
religious leaders to oppose the practice of alchemy or the spread

G7Gnosticism and Alchemy, Ambix 6 (1957) 86-101.


68Mysticism (New York 1955) p. 401. See also pp. 102, 418, 432. She goes
so far as to state, p. 148: That the true and inward business of that work,
when stripped of its many emblematic veils, was indeed the reordering of
spiritual rather than material elements, is an opinion which rests on a
more solid foundation than personal interpretations of old allegories and al
chemical tracts.
69Gnosticism (note 67) p. 87. In Psychology and Alchemy (note 62
above) and in Alchemical Studies, Carl Jung deals with the relationship be
tween religion and alchemy extensively, but does not treat in any detail the
many alchemical works of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that
have a religious and mystical aspect. It is this thorough, detailed analysis
which is needed to establish a clear relationship between mysticism and
alchemy in the period being discussed in this paper.

252 ABR 46:3 - SEPT. 1995


of alchemical writings, i.e., this particular metaphorical lan
guage, prudently employed, would not be found offensive.
However, if alchemy . . . held out to men of fervid religious con
viction hopes of personal salvation,o the religious leaders would
by no means take a neutral stance. Alchemy would then have
been seen as a form of Pelagianism and would have been con
demned as such. But no Church official or writer in the thirteenth
or fourteenth centuries has been known to condemn alchemy on
this ground.
A further question arises concerning the relationship between
alchemy and religion: Were the mystical writers of the thir
teenth and fourteenth centuries inuenced by alchemical works,
using them as a source of imagery and metaphor to describe their
own experiences? The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of
Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Saint Gertrude, Julian of Norwich
and Henry Suso show no denite inuence. Although they talk of
gold, trial by re, seeking treasure and precious stones, such
imagery can be found in the Bible in many passages, as a concor
dance will verify.71

CONCLUSION
Unfortunately it is not yet possible to account entirely for the
popularity of alchemy in the religious orders in the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries. Its attraction surely went beyond the
mere desire to transmute base metals into gold and even beyond
its promise of restoring health and youth. This issue will not be
settled until the relationship between alchemy and Christian
mysticism has been claried. Although the surviving documents
provide ample evidence that alchemy was suspect in this period
and give some reasons for this, this issue too will remain clouded
until a better understanding of the surviving quasi-religious al
chemical texts is achieved.

7Sheppard, Gnosticism (note 67) p. 99.


71 St.Gertrudes writings might bear closer scrutiny, as she shows a pen
chant for the use of alchemical terms like gold, silver, wax, heat, furnace,
re, liquor, bath, vessel, as well as numerology and colors in describing her
mystical experiences. Neither she nor any of the other authors mentioned
refer to any alchemical works or authors.

WILFRID THEISEN, O.S.B. 253