An exhibition in Special Collections
Throughout the ancient and medieval time periods, the study and practice of alchemy was deeper and more complex than just the pursuit of turning lead into gold. Alchemy has a long, intricate history that is multifaceted and mysterious. It is both a scientific exploration of chemical substances and a spiritual philosophy seeking personal transformation.
There have been approximately four thousand printed books issued between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as several thousand manuscripts, letters and other writings in museums, libraries and private collections all over the world.
Although so many alchemical texts exist, it is difficult to understand what was actually used in experiments. The literature is deliberately obscure and cryptic in order to conceal alchemical practices from the uninitiated. The texts contain so much obscure symbolism that the writings are often unintelligible. Substances are rarely referred to by their common name. Typically substances have several pseudonyms and at times symbols or glyphs are used instead of words. Understanding alchemical imagery and emblems is instrumental in being able to read and comprehend the text or follow an experiment.
From a modern perspective, it may seem difficult to see alchemists as legitimate scientists and philosophers. Additionally, it may seem to modern viewers that alchemical practices must have been considered heretical. However, it is quite the opposite; the only heresy lay in alchemical fraud. There were charlatans or ‘puffers’ who pretended to be alchemists in order to make money off of the naïve and gullible, giving real alchemists a bad reputation.
Alchemists were both men and women of intelligence who were seekers of truth ––called ‘Adepts.’ Alchemists are considered the ‘Fathers of Laboratory Technique’ and alchemical experiments have greatly contributed to the practice of medicine, paving the way towards homeopathy and other remedies. Practitioners of alchemy performed real experiments and developed a theory of natural philosophy. They sought to conquer nature with natural processes and thereby perfecting nature.