Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

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Alchemy in the Latin World

  • Sébastien MoureauEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_22-2


Alchemy, originally an attempt to find a process to transmute base metals (such as lead and copper) into gold or silver, may be considered a metallurgical science mixed up with considerations of theoretical philosophy. Medieval alchemy in the West may be divided into two main stages: from the middle of the twelfth century to the end of the thirteenth century, the Arabic material was assimilated and Latin treatises were composed on the basis of this material, but with an increasing level of distinctive features; during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, alchemy developed from the Latin texts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries rather than from Arabic sources.

Alchemy never came into universities; it was a knowledge on the fringe. However, it had a very close link with natural philosophy and medicine. The authoritative texts in alchemy are few in number: some Arabic translations (especially those attributed to al-Rāzī and Avicenna), the Summa perfectionis, and some texts attributed to Arnald of Villanova, Ramon Llull, and Johannes de Rupescissa. Authors used to compile ideas from previous major alchemists.

The Latin word alchimia is a transcription of the Arabic al-kīmiyā’, which is itself a transcription of the Greek word χ υ μεíα (fusion).

Before the Latin Translations of Arabic Texts

The Early Middle Ages in the West did not know of alchemy. The only traces observed are some technical recipes translated from Greek alchemical compendia but completely divorced from the context. For instance, the Mappae clavicula, a craft treatise dating from the ninth century or earlier, contains metallurgical recipes.

The first circulation of Arabic alchemical materials dates from the beginning of the twelfth century, but they were designed for a very practical use. The Diversarum artium schedula of the monk Theophilus (maybe the pseudonym of the Saxon Roger of Helmarshausen, who lived between 1106 and 1140) contains one alchemical recipe which comes probably from Arabic sources. Some additions to the Mappae clavicula attributed to Adelard of Bath (fl. 1140) also betray an Arabic origin. These observations allow us to conclude that some Arabic recipes were already circulating in the West from the beginning of the twelfth century but on a very small scale.

The Latin Translations of Arabic Alchemical Treatises

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a wide movement of Latin translations from Arabic texts developed in Spain and Italy. Since various Islamic classifications of science did regard alchemy as a discipline in its own right, as well as Latin texts based on Arabic sources such as Dominicus Gundissalinus’ De divisione philosophiae, many treatises were translated.

The Liber de compositione alchimiae of “Morienus,” translated by Robert of Chester in 1144, is generally considered to be the first alchemical treatise known in the Latin West. This text reports a dialogue between the Umayyad caliph Khālid b. Yazīd (c. 668–704/709), known as the first Arabic alchemist in the Islamic tradition, and the monk Maryānūs, a legendary disciple of the Greek alchemist Stephanos of Alexandria; the authenticity is very doubtful; this work is in all likelihood pseudonymous. Translations of many classical works of alchemy were made in the subsequent period. Gerard of Cremona (1141–1187) translated three treatises, one from the corpus attributed to Jābir b. Ḥayyān (a very large corpus of texts probably written during the end of the eighth century and the ninth century), the Liber divinitatis de septuaginta (the Book of Divinity, a part of the Kitāb al-sab‘īn, the Book of Seventy); the De aluminibus et salibus (on alums and salts), a technical text which gained a wide diffusion (it was a major source to Vincent of Beauvais for alchemy); and a Lumen luminum. Other works of the two main Arabic alchemists, Jābir b. Ḥayyān and Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (854–925/935), were translated, such as the Liber misericordiae (Kitāb al-raḥma, the Book of Forgiveness) of Jābir and the Liber secretorum (Kitāb al-asrār, the Book of the Secrets) of Rāzī, along with pseudepigraphical texts. Some alchemical treatises attributed to Avicenna were also translated, such as the Ad Hasen regem epistola de re tecta (Risālat al-iksīr, Epistle on the Elixir), which might be genuine, and the alchemical De anima (On the Soul), which is spurious and exerted a great influence. In a more allegorical vein, the Turba philosophorum (Muṣḥaf al-jamā‘a, Book of the Community), a discussion between legendary Greek alchemists, and the Tabula chemica (al-Mā’ al-waraqī wa-l-arḍ al-najmiyya, The Silvery Water and Starry Earth) by “Senior Zadith” (Muḥammad ibn Umayl, first half of the tenth century) were translated. Among these translations, we also find some treatises not originally imbued with alchemy, as, for instance, the De secretis naturae (Kitāb sirr al-khalīqa, Book of the Secret of Creation) of Balīnās (Pseudo-Apollonius of Tyana): translated by Hugo Sanctellensis before 1151, it contains the Emerald Tablet, a very short and enigmatic text attributed to Hermes, which gained currency in the West.

From Arabic alchemy major theoretical concepts were imported, such as the theory of mercury and sulfur as the two principles of metals. All metals are made by the mixture and cooking of mercury and sulfur in the depths of the earth during a period of hundreds of years. Modern appellations are misleading: mercury in that time was considered to be a cold and moist principle, whereas sulfur was regarded as a hot and dry principle. The differences between metals depended on the purity of these principles and on the place and the duration of the cooking. The theory of elixirs is also typical of Arabic alchemy: in order to transmute base metals into gold, the alchemist has to balance the properties of a body (coldness, heat, moisture, and dryness). He will achieve this by using a preparation called “elixir.” This preparation is made from the distillation of materials (generally organic substances such as hair, eggs, blood, etc., but these substances are technically called “stones”).

Various trends of Arabic alchemy, technical, allegorical, etc., all found their way into the West. The reception of Arabic alchemy was a complex movement. Scholars believed that alchemy could offer a major technological contribution to the knowledge of minerals. Alchemy never penetrated durably the academic world, however, in spite of several attempts. One of the reasons for this is to be found in a translation made by Alfred of Sareshel around 1160 of a section of Avicenna’s Kitāb al-Shifā’, in which the possibility of transmuting species is denied (in a well-known passage called the Sciant Artifices). The translator added this section at the end of Aristotle’s Meteora (under the title of De mineralibus, more generally known today, although erroneously, as the De congelatione et conglutinatione lapidum), and it was therefore regarded as one of Aristotle’s genuine works. This wrong assumption was largely responsible for the development of what we commonly call the alchemical debate, in reference to the fierce discussion among the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century scholars about the possibility of transmutation.

One of the major problems met with by the translators of alchemical works was that a large part of the recipes that formed the basis of the practicae was transmitted orally. Reading these recipes was very difficult and many words were coded. Some of these Arabic codes are found in Latin alchemy, as translations or transcriptions. Moreover, the method called verbum de verbo (translation word for word) of many translators made texts quite difficult to understand.

The Thirteenth Century

From the beginning of the thirteenth century, the assimilation of Arabic alchemy went further. Treatises started being written directly in Latin in the style of the Arabic translations, and attributed to renowned authorities, such as the Summa perfectionis of Pseudo-Geber. The authenticity of these first Latin alchemic works is subject to various discussions.

The translator Michael Scot (d. 1235) probably wrote an Ars alchemiae. His alchemy is entirely based on Arabic elements. It contains very scanty theoretical information and is mostly concerned with recipes. The main scope of this author was to solve obscurities and contradictions of Arabic texts in order to provide a more intelligible alchemy to the Latin world.

Albert the Great (1193–1280) wrote a De mineralibus, in which he assumed the possibility of transmutation (even though he asserted that he never met an alchemist succeeding in his work, his philosophical principles did not allow him to deny this possibility). This work is the most accomplished attempt to develop a proper mineralogy in the Latin West. It is based on Greek and Arabic materials, which were assimilated and adapted. In addition to this, some 30 alchemical treatises are attributed to him, probably wrongly.

The Franciscan Roger Bacon (1214–1293), in his Opus maius, regarded alchemy as an important field of knowledge. Assuming that the alchemical work was a sort of medicine for metals, he was the first in the West to assume that it could be applied to the human body and, hence, that it could be used to remove its corruptions and prolong a man’s life (the so-called prolongatio vitae). Alchemy was therefore to his eyes one of the foundations of medicine. Many apocryphal alchemical treatises are attributed to Roger Bacon, too.

At the end of the thirteenth century, in addition to the translations of Jābir b. Ḥayyān’s texts mentioned above, a corpus of Latin texts began to circulate under the name of “Geber” (the Latin name of Jābir b. Ḥayyān), the Summa perfectionis being the most successful. Recent research tentatively attributes the authorship of this work to the Franciscan Paul of Taranto, without any certainty. The alchemy of the Summa perfectionis had a very large diffusion and was regarded as a major source for centuries. The theory of “mercury alone” is one of its typical features: mercury is the main base of metals and is the only principle of their medicine. The alchemical work is no longer made on the basis of organic matters (as it was said in the pseudo-Avicennian De anima, the main text of this trend in the Latin West) but on the basis of various mercurial compositions made from minerals (mercury, ammoniac salt, sulfur, and arsenic).

The technological and economical rise of the thirteenth century led scholars of this time to be significantly interested in alchemy. During this century, alchemy was usually not mixed up with allegorical considerations. Neither was it more practical, however, as is often assumed, first because alchemy had always had a practical side and then because its development during this century was theoretical as well. However, from the end of the thirteenth century, the increase in the number of alchemical frauds aroused suspicion about alchemy’s validity.

Scholastics (such as Vincent de Beauvais, Robert of Kildwarby, and Thomas Aquinas) never ranged alchemy among the artes liberales. They rather considered it as a mechanical art, a tool used for the sake of other disciplines (such as medicine and metallurgy). The theoretical side of alchemy was explained by physics, by natural philosophy. As an art basing its operations on philosophical principles, alchemy was linked with medicine and agriculture (which were also considered as secondary fields of physics).

The Fourteenth Century

During the fourteenth century, the main sources of alchemical authors were not directly the Arabic texts translated but the Latin treatises composed during the thirteenth century: the Summa perfectionis became one of the main authoritative texts. Moreover, the allegorical trend of alchemy began to expand in the Latin West; the Turba philosophorum and the Emerald Tablet came to be used more widely. We also observe a Christianization of alchemy, the appearance of a more religious alchemy (as was already the case in Arabic alchemy). The pharmaceutical side of alchemy was particularly well developed (especially the distillation of alcohol). The attempt to find the elixir of life and the medical topic of body restoration became a core issue.

The alchemical debate remained intense in the fourteenth century. The opponents of alchemy, in addition to the Sciant artifices, asserted that the transformation of species was against nature; in reaction to this assertion, alchemists invoked the fact that they were doing what nature itself was doing (the creation of metals), the only difference being that they did it more quickly. A decree entitled Spondent quas non exhibent is said to have been promulgated (in 1316?) by Pope John XXII against false coiners (although this decree does not appear before the end of the fourteenth century). Although it did not condemn alchemy as such, this decree encouraged suspicion against alchemists (in addition to the increase in the number of frauds). However, no juridical condemnation of alchemists took place. One of the major opponents to alchemy was Nicolas Eymerich (1320–1399), who asserted in his Contra alchymistas that alchemists, once they had been disappointed with their art, were turning to demons or to the devil.

Some alchemical treatises are attributed to Arnald of Villanova (1240–1311), the famous Catalan doctor. These texts are probably not genuine, but the question is not solved yet. In the Rosarius philosophorum, the most widespread of these works, we find an alchemy based on the theory of the “mercury alone” (like in the Summa perfectionis). The alchemist has to reduce a metal to its prima materia (mercury containing sulfur) and project this mercury on a vile metal in order to transmute it. He rejected the use of organic matter. He also mentioned, following Roger Bacon, the possibility of healing the human body, thanks to alchemy. Other treatises attributed to Arnald of Villanova are characterized by a more religious doctrine, as the De secretis naturae and the Tractatus parabolicus, in which the alchemist established a link between the philosopher’s stone and Christ.

This allegorical and religious kind of alchemy is also found in the alchemical treatises wrongly attributed to Thomas Aquinas (such as the De multiplicatione, c. 1320).

Toward the middle of the fourteenth century, a commentary on the Emerald Tablet was written under the name of a certain Hortulanus, in which the alchemical Work is meant to be a reproduction of God’s creation.

In his Pretiosa margarita novella (written between 1330 and 1350), Petrus Bonus of Ferrara synthesized the main alchemical ideas of his time, mainly from the Summa perfectionis. He was more a philosopher than an alchemist, and considered alchemy as a divine art, introducing theology into the debate.

Ramon Llull (c. 1233–c. 1316), the Catalan philosopher, opposed alchemy. However, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, a corpus of apocryphal alchemical texts began to circulate under his name. This corpus gained a very wide diffusion (until the seventeenth century), and many different ideas and trends are found in it. The most important one (and probably the first) is the Testamentum: the alchemical doctrine of this work shows close resemblance to the doctrine expounded in the works attributed to Arnald of Villanova (but, as the dates of those texts are not clearly settled, it is impossible to assert which way the influence spreads). One of the specificities of the Testamentum lies in that it mentions for the first time in the West, in addition to the transmutation of metal and healing of the human body, the creation of gemstones through the alchemical work. The Arabic concept of elixir also occupies a very important place in this book. The observation of colors as signs of different stages in the alchemical work became central in the pseudo-Llullian corpus. This work was raising alchemy to the status of natural philosophy, which contributed to giving it a very long-lasting success (until the seventeenth century).

In the Liber de consideratione quintae essentiae omnium rerum (c. 1351–1352), Johannes de Rupescissa (d. after 1365) introduced into alchemy the use of the concept of the quintessence to designate the result of repeated distillations. In the trend of the prolongatio vitae of Roger Bacon, he asserted that the quintessence provides incorruptibility for corruptible things (in the sublunary world), considering it as a terrestrial corollary to the celestial ether. He also showed a very religious fervor in his writings in defense of the Franciscan order. His ideas were followed by many alchemists: for instance, one of the pseudo-Llullian treatises, the De secretis naturae, is clearly indebted to his work.

The book of Guillaume Sedacer (d. 1382), the Sedacina, is an original work. Beside the list of major alchemical authorities of this period, he created a proper alchemical vocabulary (mainly from Arabic words).

The Fifteenth Century

To date, the alchemy of the fifteenth century has not received much attention. The main alchemical doctrines of this century are those of Arnald of Villanova, Johannes de Rupescissa, and especially Pseudo-Ramon Llull. This was the time of an enormous production of alchemical manuscripts. Among alchemists of this century, George Ripley (fl. 1470) should be mentioned as a very original author. He composed an alchemical poem in English entitled The Compound of Alchymie […] Conteining Twelve Gates, mainly inspired by pseudo-Llullian theories and by the work of a mysterious alchemist, Guido de Montanor. This poem quickly became a classic of medieval alchemy.


Medieval alchemy was at first based on Arabic texts and then specifically on Latin compositions. It remained a marginal knowledge, and never came into universities, but had a very close link with natural philosophy and medicine. Treatises were generally compilations of ideas of previous renowned alchemists, and the great authorities were just a few: some Arabic translations (especially those attributed to al-Rāzī and Avicenna), the Summa perfectionis, and some texts attributed to Arnald of Villanova, Ramon Llull, and Johannes de Rupescissa.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Warburg InstituteUniversity of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Institut OrientalisteUniversité Catholique de LouvainLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium