The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth-Century England


The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth-Century England: Plantagenet Kings and the Search for the Philosopher’s Stone

By Jonathan Hughes

Continuum Books, 2012
ISBN: 9781441142788

Publisher’s Synopsis: Alchemists did more than try to transmute base metals into gold: they studied planetary influences on metals and people, refined plants and minerals in the search for medicines and advocated the regeneration of matter and spirit. This book illustrates how this new branch of thought became increasingly popular as the practical and theoretical knowledge of alchemists spread throughout England.Adopted by those in court and the circles of nobility for their own physical and spiritual needs, it was adapted for the diagnosis and therapeutic treatment of the illnesses of the body politic and its head, the king. This is the first work to synthesize all aspects of alchemy and show its contribution to intellectual, social and political life in the fourteenth century. Hughes explores a rich body of manuscripts to reveal the daily routines of the alchemist and his imaginative mindscape, and considers the contribution of alchemy to the vernacular culture and political debate, leading to a reassessment of the intellectual life of the middle ages.

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Excerpt from Chapter 7: Alchemical Themes in the Kingship of Edward III

The alchemical texts, and presumably the advice of Edward’s physicians and counsellors, stressed how important it was for the young king in waiting to recognize his place in the divine alchemical work and to prove it by attaining, through daily regimen, a humoral balance that would result in just and moderate rule, bringing health and prosperity to the body politic. However the alchemical source of the early fourteenth century also explicitly maintained that knowledge of the secret of secrets involved an understanding of the hidden forces within the earth, and this in turn would bring earthly power. The most obvious manifestation of this interest in alchemical secrets lay in the belief that controlled experimentation with mercury and sulphur could effect transmutation of base metals into gold. In the fourteenth century there was a great demand for alchemical gold because the shortage of gold and silver coinage had reached crisis proportions. The promise of transmutation was the reason for the employment of many alchemists as the royal courts and obvious source of trouble when the patience of royal patrons ran out. The myth that Edward III imprisoned an alchemist, Raymund Lull, in the Tower in an attempt to force him to transmute, and then pursued him when he escaped, may originate from Edward’s issuing of an order in 1327, a few years after Pope John XII had passed legislation attempting to restrict alchemists from counterfeiting coinage,  to have brought to his presence two alchemists, John Rous and Magister William Dalby. In 1350 Edward III had John de Walden thrown into the Tower after providing him with 5,000 gold crowns and 20 pounds of silver ‘to work thereon by the art of alchemy for the benefit of the king.’ Edward also prevented the imprisonment of an alchemist in 1336 and in 1350 he financed full research.

See also: Alchemy: the key to life? – from The Newsletter of the University of East Anglia

Sharan Newman