The Demise of Alchemy
The language of alchemy soon developed an arcane and secretive technical vocabulary designed to conceal information from the uninitiated. To a large degree this language is incomphrensible to us toady, though it is apparent that the readers of Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canon's Yeoman's Tale' or the audiences of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist were able to understand it enough to sufficiently laugh at it. Warnings against alchemists' unscrupulousness, which are found in William Langland's Piers Plowman, were developed amusingly by Chaucer in the Chanouns Yemannes Tale (c. 1387) in which he exposed some half-dozen 'tricks' used to delude the unwary.
These 'tricks' included the use of crucibles containing gold in their base camouflaged by charcoal and wax; stirring a pot with a hollow charcoal rod containing a hidden gold charge; stacking the fire with a lump of coal containing a gold cavity sealed by wax; and palming a piece of gold concealed in a sleeve. Deception was made more easy from the fact that only small quantities were needed to excite and delude an investor into parting with his or her money. These methods had hardly changed when Ben Jonson wrote his satirical piece The Alchemist, in 1610, except that by then the doctrine of multiplication - the claim that gold could be grown and expanded from a seed - had proved an extremely useful way of extracting gold coins from the avaricious. As their expert use of the alchemical language shows, both Chaucer and Jonson clearly knew a good deal about alchemy, as equally clearly did their readers and audiences.
By Jonson's day, the adulteration and counterfeiting of metal had become illegal. As early as 1317, soon after Dante had placed all alchemists into the Inferno, the avignon Pope John XXII had ordered alchemists to leave France for coining false money, and a few years later the Dominicans threatened excommunication to any member of the Church who was caught practicing the art. Nor were the Jesuits friendly towards alchemy, though there was evidence that it was the spiritual esoteric alchemy that chiefly worried them. Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), for example, defended alchemical experiments, published recipes for chemical medicines and upheld claims for palingenesis (the revival of plants from their ashes), as well as running a 'pharmaceutical' laboratory at the Jesuits' College in Rome.
In 1403, the activities of 'gold-makers' had evidently become sufficiently serious in England for a statute to be passed forbidding the multiplication of metals. The penalty was death and the confiscation of property. Legislation must have encouraged skepticism and the portrayal of the poverty-stricken alchemist as a self-deluded as or as a knowing and crafty charlatan who eked out a desperate existence by duping the innocent.
Legislation did not, however, mean that royalty and exchequers disbelieved in gold-making; rather, they sought to control it to their own ends. In 1456 for example, Henry VI of England set up a commission to investigate the secret of the philosopher's stone, but learned nothing useful. In Europe, Emperors and Princes regularly offered their patronage - and prisons - to self-proclaimed successful projectionists. The most famous and colourful of these patrons, who included James IV of Scotland, was Rudolf II of Bohemia, who, in his castle in Prague, surrounded himself with a large circle of artists, alchemists and occultists. Among them were the Englishmen John Dee and Edmund Kelly and the Court Physician, Michael Maier (1568-1622), whose Atalanta fugiens (1618) is noted for its curious combination of allegorical woodcuts and musical settings of verses describing the alchemcial process.
Given that by the sixteenth century, if not before, artisans and natural philosophers had sufficient technical knowledge to invalidate the claims of transmutationists, it may be wondered why belief survived. No doubt the wide gap between the uneducated artisans and the educated naturalists was partly responsible. Nevertheless, despite all the above, by the mid eighteenth century it had become accepted by nearly all chemists and physicists that alchemy was a psuedo-science and that transmutation was technically impossible. Those few who claimed otherwise, such as James Price (1752-83), a Fellow of the Royal Society, who used his personal fortune in alchemical experiments, found themselves disgraced. Price committed suicide when challenged to repeat his transmutation claims before Sir Joseph Banks and other members of the Royal Society.
Alchemy became history. Most chemists of the day
accepted Boerhaave's allegory of the dying farmer who had told his sons
he had buried treasure in the fields surrounding their home. The
worked so energetically that they achieved prosperity even though they
totally in find what they had originally sought.