Lesson 8) All Puffed Up
Professor Rosenquist is struggling with the long Renaissance-style dress she has opted to wear today instead of her robes. She’s pretty tall in general but this dress seems to be taller. Waving her wand around a simple light fixture hanging from the ceiling, she transfigures it into an elaborate chandelier. Satisfied with her work, Professor Rosenquist turns around and walks back to her desk, passing by various magical portraits that were painted during the Renaissance and who have a temporary home in the classroom today. A sword rack rests in the corner and several fancy pots are strategically placed around the room.
The students walking in will notice that Professor Rosenquist looks quite stiff today and refuses to move from her spot in the front of the classroom. She waits for everyone to stop chattering before addressing the class.
“Welcome to the penultimate stop on our journey. Traveling is great but all things must come to an end, whether you want them to or not. That being said, your finals are next week. They are cumulative and will include information discussed in the last lesson. There will be a review assignment today that will help you prepare for your finals. With that out of the way, let’s venture into the Renaissance!”
Ashes to Ashes
The Renaissance was a cultural movement of intellectual inquiry. Alchemists looked back at the works of Aristotle and Plato, as well as movements such as Stoicism and Hermeticism, to create the unique philosophy that shapes alchemy as we know it today. This philosophy views all phenomena as alive and striving for perfection. Everything that is imperfect will eventually become perfect (i.e. a base metal will eventually become gold) over the course of time or with the help of the Philosopher’s Stone. This era saw the rise of great alchemists such as Nicolas Flamel and Paracelsus, as well as the split between the wizarding world’s continuation of alchemy and modern science pioneered by Muggles.
Nevertheless, the Renaissance saw a rise in medicinal alchemy. Part of this was due to the Black Death or Black Plague, a disease that struck Europe from 1346 to 1353. Healers and alchemists were in high demand during the time. If you have been keeping up with History of Magic, you would know about the infamous Nicholas Malfoy and his conquest, murdering countless Muggles while saving wizarding families. However, others had intentions of not only saving wizarding families, but also making Muggle-safe medicines to combat the disease. One in particular was Arnold of Villanova. Arnold was a Spanish alchemist that pioneered this medicinal movement in the late thirteenth century. Many of his tonics cured ailments for Muggles and wizards alike. He also created several elixirs and potions that helped rejuvenate body tissue and increase longevity. Arnold treated several national leaders, ministers of magic, and popes. Yet, even he couldn’t escape the harsh accusatory nature of the Catholic Church at the time. Arnold was briefly imprisoned in Paris for his heretical view on the alchemical nature of the Holy Trinity.
Paracelsus was another pioneer of this medicinal movement and is considered the father of chemistry. He created a branch of medicinal alchemy called Iatrochemistry that was popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Other alchemists created herbal tinctures and tonics that provided relief to the diseased. Silver and mercury-based antibiotics were created around this time by alchemists, which proved to be the only effective treatment for the plague, pneumonia, syphilis, and infections.
Huff n’ Puff
The fascination of gold making during the Middle Ages spurred a new class of Muggle alchemists to form during the Renaissance called puffers. Puffers gained their name because they constantly sat next to their furnaces, fanning their bellows; they believed that extremely hot temperatures alone could transmute the metals. This movement peaked in the sixteenth century. Large sections of cities such as Paris, Prague, and Vienna were devoted to alchemical workshops.
Unfortunately, metals can’t be transmuted through heat alone, so puffers resorted to trickery when their methods failed. One of the most common methods was covering chunks of real gold with a dye or paint that can be easily removed by dipping them into acidic solutions they claimed to be “magical elixirs.” This fooled several people in charge, yet some puffers headed to the gallows when they were unable to produce more gold than consumed. So many people claimed to produce gold that several nations were sent into a panic that the practice would upset their economies. Laws were passed in many nations prohibiting the alchemical production of gold and silver. Although Henry IV of England outlawed alchemy in 1404, he issued licenses for alchemists in 1440. Later, laws were passed that a certain percentage of gold coins had to use alchemical gold.
European royalty later realized that they could print paper money instead of having alchemists magically multiply their coffers. This idea sprung up in the early 1700s. The French prince of Orleans employed alchemists to produce gold to pay off his debts, but he dismissed them all after he met the Scottish financier and gambler, John Law. Law suggested that the prince should print worthless paper money to pay off his debts. These promissory notes became the legal tender and were traded publicly. This idea caught on around the world and paper money is now common in most nations.
Now, this isn’t the case within the wizarding world. For example, notice how we use Galleons, Sickles, and Knuts instead of paper money. If you have ever walked into Gringotts, you should have noticed all the goblins running the bank. Goblins actually mint our currency. There is a tight-knit trade industry between alchemists and goblins. Alchemists transmute base metals into silver and gold, as well as produce bronze through alloying. These metals are then sent to goblins to be minted for currency. This relationship of trust was built over the years due to the fact that goblins can discern genuine metals from counterfeit metals. Metals from pseudo-alchemists have been weeded out through this alchemist-goblin trade system.
Speaking of pseudo-alchemists, this group included not only puffers, but also uninitiated amateurs and those pretending to be alchemical scholars in both the Muggle world and the wizarding world. Alchemy was torn between these pseudo-alchemists and the true adepts. True adepts were alchemists who based their laboratory work on a philosophical and spiritual system based on the works of Thoth and Hermes. Their transmutations weren’t carried out as a way to accumulate wealth, but as a demonstration of Hermetic principles. It’s important to understand the difference between these two types of alchemists when studying texts. Both true adepts and pseudo-alchemists wrote treatises on alchemy, yet they differed greatly in their objectives and dedication to the art.
Alchemist Spotlight: Isaac Newton
This week’s Alchemist Spotlight was, yet again, a hard choice. However, I eventually decided to go with Sir Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton (1642 - 1726/1727) was a physicist and mathematician who was recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time. Most people have heard of the story of Newton sitting under the apple tree which eventually led to the establishment of the Universal Law of Gravitation. Someone so influential to modern science couldn’t have been an alchemist, right? Actually, they could be. Newton wrote more on alchemy than any other subject, however most of his alchemical works were never published due to the Royal Society deeming them “not fit to print.” Newton considered himself, first and foremost, an alchemist. His laws of light and theory of gravity were inspired from his alchemical work.
Newton believed in the theory that alchemy originated with Thoth and the events of Zep Tepi. He demanded complete secrecy when working on his alchemical experiments. One of his servants at the time said that he rarely went to bed and wasted around six weeks of staying in his laboratory. Newton was fearful that the secrets of alchemy would leak into the world because mankind was not ready for such power and the political and social consequences that would follow. In 1676, Robert Boyle announced that he discovered a special type of mercury that became hot and glowed when it was mixed with gold. Newton was terrified that Boyle revealed too much and even wrote him a letter cautioning him to keep his alchemical knowledge secret.
Newton’s lifelong work actually focused on antimony, a steel-gray metal that tarnishes to a black finish. In alchemy, antimony is nicknamed the “Black Dragon.” When sufficiently purified antimony ore is heated to high temperatures, it forms long and slender crystals that then shape triangular branches around a central point that resembles a star when cooling. This crystalline star shape is called the regulus of antimony by alchemists, after the brilliant double star in the Leo constellation also named Regulus. The regulus of antimony combines readily with gold and Newton was absolutely fascinated with it.
Newton also theorized that you can gain cosmic knowledge from the spirits of metals. He believed that the spirit of the Black Dragon was purified and released during the creation of the regulus. The consciousness of the alchemist played a role in capturing this powerful presence. The stronger the bond between the alchemist and the matters at hand, and the more skilled the alchemist, the easier the regulus will form. Clear weather also helps considerably. Newton created the regulus of iron and the regulus of silver to use as reflecting mirrors that he could put in a telescope. This allowed him to peer deep into space. Newton took it a step further and applied mercury that was distilled three times to the silver regulus. This made the most perfect reflecting mirror ever used in a telescope. Around the same time, he was also publishing his papers on the nature of light and gravity.
In the mid-1670s, Newton wrote a long treatise titled The Clovis, which detailed his years of experimentation with the regulus of antimony. He mentioned that he transmuted antimony into the philosophical mercury that would make gold multiply and grow. In other words, he managed to discover a substance contained within the Philosopher’s Stone. This was a huge accomplishment in the field and today we are trying to find ways to replicate Sir Isaac Newton’s success.
That’s enough for today! Don’t forget to do your review assignment and I will see you next week for finals!