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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Educational Material

Unit 8 - Alchemy and Chemistry in the Renaissance


1.1 Topic Description
In Renaissance culture the universe is composed of heavenly bodies and man of organs in relation to the forces of the cosmos. The approach of medical knowledge to body care is based on the interconnection of astrology and science. During the 15th and 16th centuries, philosophy and magic are combined with empirical theories, with a new model of knowledge based on phenomenological investigation and research. The influence exerted by magic thought on lovers of the scientific revolution was undeniable and relevant. Examples of this influence are the astronomer and doctor Copernicus, William Harvey, physician who described completely the sistemic circulation and properties of blood and supported the theory that the heart is "principle of life" like the "Sun of the human microcosm", as well as Isaac Newton who was influenced by alchemy. Magic and medicine, alchemy and natural sciences merge to create original and engaging theories for scholars and science men.

At the end of the 14th century, alchemy is developed through three main streams: the project of transmutation which was part of the Summa of Pseudo-Geber (Paolo di Taranto); the alchemy of the elixir, elaborated in the texts attributed to Ramon Llull and Arnaldo da Villanova, which aimed to produce a more general agent of transformation, capable of promoting health and prolonging human life; and finally, with Giovanni di Rupescissa, the development of distillation procedures from organic and inorganic ingredients (alchemy of the 'fifth essence'), a line decidedly oriented towards pharmacological and therapeutic purposes which would constitute the fundamental characteristic of the subsequent Paracelsian renewal. Alchemy was introduced in Europe by the Arabs.

Thus, it began with Elucidarius Christopher from Paris, inscribing himself in the seventies of the 15th century, in a tradition of alchemical art that dates back to the 13th century, and which had been codified in the triple use of the elixir as an agent of human health, the preparation of precious stones and metallic transmutation.

The method of distillation was used also by doctors, pharmacists and aromatherapists who shared with alchemists the techniques and tools to break down organic substances into their elementary components. The use of the practice has, for the former, the objective of the composition of a refined product with loss of the so-called feces, dry residue equated to the element "earth". The alchemists, for their part, present distillation as a system for finding the raw material, in accordance with an ancient doctrine dating back to Roger Bacon. The alchemic distillation takes place in sealed jars, "in such a way that nothing is added or removed" (according to a common place present in many authors of the time), and aims to obtain, through the indefinite repetition of circulations, the real transmutation, understood as a return to the pure and primordial quinta-essentia.

The distinction between the two main fields of application of distillation, pharmacological and alchemical, stands out with absolute evidence in the Libellus de aqua ardenti written in 1440 by Michele Savonarola, who is the most illustrious representative of doctors' interest in distillation in Italy in the 15th century. This interest is also found in France (Jacques Despars) and England (Gilbert Kymer).

Michele Savonarola's interest is connected to other forms of therapeutic use of alchemic products by doctors.

Around the elixir and one of the main texts that founded its western tradition in the Late Middle Ages, the Pseudo-Lullian Testamentum, a part of the English alchemical research of the middle of the 14th century was concentrated by a group of doctors and naturalists who in 1456 addressed a petition to the king in order to search through alchemy "the precious medicine that philosophers defined as the mother of all medicine", i.e. "drinking gold".

The theme of drinking gold became central to 15th century and Renaissance alchemical medicine. The therapeutic virtues of gold are rooted in its incorruptible metal character, symbol of perfection, in its connection with the Sun, the giver of life, and finally with the heart, also a vital source.

The therapeutic connotation of the alchemical elixir becomes an essential element for the cure, so that the "miraculous" therapeutic effects of the preparation are exalted in the treatments.

Paracelsus (1493/4 – 24 September 1541), born Theophrastus von Hohenheim (full name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), was a Swiss physician and alchemist of the German Renaissance. He was one of the most influential medical scientists in early modern Europe.

He was a pioneer in several aspects of the "medical revolution" of the Renaissance, emphasizing the value of observation in combination with received wisdom. He rejected Galen’s claim that health and disease were controlled by the four humours and told doctors to study nature and develop personal experience through experiment. On the other hand, he continued to subscribe to all kinds of folk beliefs such as gnomes, spirits and fairies.

Paraelsus argued that the body was a chemical system that not only had to be balanced internally, but it also had to be in harmony with its environment. On the basis of this idea, he introduced new chemical substances into medicine, for instance the use of the metal mercury for the treatment of syphilis.

In 1526 he was appointed Professor of Medicine at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Paracelsus overthrew convention by publicly burning the books of Ibn Sina and Galen. He also invited ordinary citizens to his lectures, which he gave wearing an alchemist’s leather apron rather than an academic gown.

Paracelsus was one of the first medical professors to recognize that physicians required a solid academic knowledge in the natural sciences, especially chemistry. He pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine.

Paracelsus believed in the four "Aristotelian" elements of earth, air, fire, and water. His medical theory was based on the notion that earth is the fundamental element of existence for humans and other living things. Paracelsus believed that earth generated all living things under the rule of three "principles": salt, sulfur, and mercury. He therefore believed these substances to be very potent as chemical reactants, as poisons, and as medical treatments.

From his study of the elements, Paracelsus adopted the idea of tripartite alternatives to explain the nature of medicine, taking the place of a combustible element (sulphur), a fluid and changeable element (mercury), and a solid, permanent element (salt). The first mention of the mercury-sulphur-salt model was in the Opus paramirum dating to about 1530. Paracelsus believed that the principles sulphur, mercury, and salt contained the poisons contributing to all diseases (Pagel, 1958). He saw each disease as having three separate cures depending on how it was afflicted, either being caused by the poisoning of sulphur, mercury, or salt. Paracelsus drew the importance of sulphur, salt, and mercury from medieval alchemy, where they all occupied a prominent place. He was probably the first to give the element zinc (zincum) its modern name, in about 1526, likely based on the sharp pointed appearance of its crystals after smelting (zinke translating to "pointed" in German). Paracelsus invented chemical therapy, chemical urinalysis, and suggested a biochemical theory of digestion (Waite, 1894). He used chemistry and chemical analogies in his teachings to medical students and to the medical establishment, many of whom found them objectionable (Borzelloca, 2000).

Paracelsus was the first to connect goitre with minerals, especially lead, in drinking water. He prepared and used new chemical remedies, including those containing mercury, sulfur, iron, and copper sulfate, thus uniting medicine with chemistry, as the first London Pharmacopoeia, in 1618, indicates.

Paracelsus never established any one strong school of thought or medical practice. He did, however, influence future generations of iatrochemists (physicianchemists, iatro being Greek for "physician"), who continued to apply chemistry to questions of medical practice. His new methods were very controversial, and in 1538 he was exiled from Basel. He died in 1541 in Austria. Paracelsus, in fact, contributed substantially to the rise of modern medicine, including psychiatric treatment. Paracelsianism is the early modern medical movement inspired by the study of his works (De Vries, Spruit, 2017).

Wanting to give an overall evaluation of the influence exerted by Paracelsus' works and his "new medicine" between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, it can be said that Paracelsus' medical doctrines were accepted in the canon of traditional medicine. Despite considerable resistance from the traditionalists, the ontological conception of the disease and the three principles were accepted by the majority of 17th century doctors. On the other hand, there continued to be a strong rejection of the magical doctrines present in Paracelsus' work, especially among the exponents of Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy. However, it was precisely these doctrines - which were linked to the neoplatonic currents - that aroused the interest of the heterodox circles, which often saw Paracelsus as the initiator of a 'third Reformation'. The fascination exercised by Paracelsus the magician and alchemist survived much longer than his outdated medical doctrines since the discovery of the 'great circulation' by William Harvey and the emergence of inductive methods in the natural sciences in medicine.

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