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Roger Bacon (1214–1294) followed in the footsteps of Aquinas and devoted much of his study to alchemy, with the third book of his epic Compendium Philosophiae relating much about his tireless search for the Philosopher’s Stone.He reinforced the idea that alchemy was a pursuit of creating substances from elements, a definition that can be crudely applied to modern chemistry.
The mysterious, occult side of alchemy still captures the imagination of the modern public, with Harry Potter chasing the elusive Philosopher’s Stone and names such as John Dee spawning thousands of occult sites studying the esoteric symbolism behind alchemical symbols.
Most of the modern interpretations have a basis in historical fact, and writers such as Chaucer, Ben Jonson, and Dante gleefully included alchemists as shady charlatans and figures of parody.
Gerard of Cremona (1114 – 1187) and Robertus Castrensis (c1150) were just two of the translators who made the original Arabic texts available in Latin.
Alchemy was already a well-established discipline, influencing metallurgy and medicine and, as with many branches of science, it became tied to the religious establishment with which it would share an uneasy alliance over the next few centuries.
To add to this shift towards a rigorous scientific method, one can look at the textbooks produced at the time.
In the majority of cases, the alchemists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries still held to the Aristotelian worldview, where all metals were derived from mercury and sulfur.As was the case with the Islamic scholars, Medieval and Renaissance alchemists followed the Aristotelian tradition of four elements as the basis of substance, a view that would not be challenged until the later Renaissance, when the findings of Newton, Boyle, and their contemporaries dragged European science and philosophy into the modern age.One of the first recorded European alchemists was Gerbert of Aurillac (946-1003), who became Pope Sylvester from 999–1003, and was tainted with the reputation of studying the dark arts.However, this comedic touch should not detract from the idea that Renaissance alchemists were often bona fide scientists, searching for truth and often applying the scientific method to their research.In fact, it can be argued that, in terms of the development of science, the alchemists were further ahead than many other disciplines.Archaeologists have found alchemical artifacts across Europe, showing the popularity of this proto-science, although the potential for riches offered by the transmutation of base metals into gold probably lay behind the popularity.Certainly, great minds such as John Dee (1527–1608) spent a lot of time in this pursuit, often attracting the patronage of rich sponsors.For example, a book by a German chemist, Andreas Libau (c1550–1616) was very thorough and undoubtedly acted as a great teaching aid, relating detailed methodology, calculations, and instructions for preparing compounds, but it also promoted this old idea, one that would persist until Boyle (1627-1691) tore it apart.Alchemy was a discipline that originated with the Greeks, although the Chinese and Egyptians were also instrumental in developing the foundations, and it spread to Europe via the Islamic world.The alchemists not only laid the foundations for chemistry, but they contributed to the practical side of physics, creating gases, solids, and liquids that later scientists could study, directly influencing the great physicists of the Age of Enlightenment, from the late 17th century onwards.As with most academic disciplines, the practice of alchemy was aided by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, in 1440, alongside the increased tendency of people and ideas to migrate, allowing knowledge to spread across Europe and beyond.