Alchemists - charlatans or scientists?

The ideas about the possibility of transmutation of metals, that is, about the transformation of one into another, were popular even in the era of Antiquity. Of course, it was about converting lead or tin into gold or silver. But not the other way around! However, the real boom of experiments with desperate attempts to turn base metals into noble ones began in the Middle Ages.

The closeness of gold in its qualities to lead and mercury was evident even in Antiquity. But how to achieve the transformation of one into another?


To the delight of all future alchemists, the Arab scientist Jabir ibn Hayyan wrote at the turn of the 8-9 centuries that the key to success in experiments with transmutation is a certain substance that can not only turn any metal into gold, but also cure any diseases, which means that gives immortality to its owner. This substance began to be called the "great elixir" or "philosopher's stone".


By the 10th century, the teachings of Jabir ibn Hayyan proved to be extremely popular in Europe. The thirst for getting rich quick, and even power over time, led to the fact that among the sovereign seniors and wealthy townspeople there was an exuberant demand for alchemists. That is, people who have the necessary knowledge to search for the philosopher's stone. Hundreds of secret laboratories arose (to keep the sacred knowledge secret), where endless experiments with all kinds of substances were carried out for the cherished goal.

In medieval Europe, every self-respecting monarch maintained his own team of alchemists and supplied them with everything they needed. Some went even further. So, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire Rudolph II in his residence organized not just a secret basement for dubious experiments, but a real alchemical center. With such patronage and support, the results were not long in coming.

Of course, no one found the Philosopher's Stone. But on the other hand, people's knowledge of the properties of substances has been incredibly enriched. And at the same time, many discoveries were made that had far-reaching consequences.

In the 13th century, the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, experimenting with saltpeter, received black powder. At the turn of the 13-14 centuries, the Spanish alchemist Arnold from Villanova created a work in which he described in detail not only various poisons, but also antidotes, as well as the medicinal properties of plants. This was a huge step forward for medieval medicine. In the 15th century, the German alchemist monk Vasily Valentin (whose existence, however, is disputed by some researchers) discovered sulfuric acid, and also described antimony in detail for the first time.


The Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, who lived in the first half of the 16th century, made a huge contribution to progress. It was he who turned alchemical experiments into a serious science. And soon interest in alchemy began to decline. For educated people, the futility of all attempts to learn how to turn mercury or lead into gold became obvious.

Most of the objects that are familiar to us from school (during practical work in chemistry lessons) were invented and introduced into circulation by alchemists. Or at least adapted for laboratory experiments. These are, for example, beakers, flasks of different shapes, all kinds of filters, droppers or pipettes, coils, as well as burners with a device for adjusting the intensity of the flame.

Curiously, in the 19th century, the work of alchemists was mentioned as a waste of time. It was believed that medieval explorers were charlatans and adventurers who only speculated on the ignorance of society. And their works had no practical result. It was only in the 20th century that such an assessment was abandoned and the important role of alchemists in the creation of modern chemistry was recognized.


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