Technology and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages

Technology and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages

Newman, William

Chicago Journals: The History of Science Society – Isis, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 423-445


The medieval attitude toward technology is one of the more interesting topics available to historians concerned with the transition from antiquity to modernity. Considerable debate has focused on the sweeping claims made by Lynn White for the social and cultural impact of technological changes wroughtin the Middle Ages. Others, such as Guy Beaujouanand James Weisheipl, have looked at Scholastic classifications of the arts and sciences and found a higher appreciation for the role of the artisan in society than earlier sources betray.Despite the growing consensus that the MiddleAges provideda fertile seedbed for technological development,one significant  contemporary debate has been largely overlooked,namely,the late medieval dispute over the importance of alchemy-whether it fit into the legitimate fields of knowledge and whether its claims were possible or even legal.Why should we considerthis topic within the context of medieval technology? As I shall show in this essay, alchemy provided a natural focus for the issue of man’s artisanal power in the natural world.

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