If only the alchemists of centuries past had the key to creating great wealth out of nothing that our directors of banks and industries have discovered life might have been a lot less dangerous for them.
Alchemy: the ancient art of transforming one thing into another and achieving wisdom and, hopefully, gold along the way.
Let’s face it few are interested in wisdom but the art of transforming base metals into gold, well that was something else entirely. Every avaricious, greedy prince and tyrant wanted two things out of life – greater power and greater wealth – which made life precarious for the alchemist.
Imagine if you claimed to have a recipe for turning a lump of base metal into gold – do you think you’d be allowed to get on with life or might you find yourself hunted down, locked up and tortured until you revealed your secret formula (which let’s face it were worthless)?
The philosopher’s stone* was the name given to the substance that was believed to transmute base metals into noble ones (such as gold) and its secret was sought for centuries by men and women through experiments with metals and minerals. They were known as alchemists and they popped up just about everywhere in the known world but I’m going to concentrate on one or two Scots associated with the craft.
Alexander Seton’s launch into the cunning art of alchemy began when a Dutch ship foundered off Scotland’s coast at Seton near Edinburgh in 1601 and Alexander Seton was one of those who rescued its crew. The ship’s pilot and Seton became friendly and the following year the Scot visited the Dutchman in Holland and as they parted Seton produced a piece of gold in front of the astonished Dutchman as a gift.
News of the amazing creation quickly spread and Seton, it seems, was happy to display his remarkable ability, repeating the performance all around the Continent accompanied by his servant William Hamilton. While Seton wasn’t particularly Scottish-looking with his French-cut beard and florid face Hamilton was – red-headed and bearded (Scottish not French).
At Strasbourg Seton demonstrated to a local goldsmith how to make gold and gave him a portion of the powder he used in his transmutations. The goldsmith successfully replicated the process until he ran out of the powder given him by Seton and soon gained a reputation for the feat. His name was on everyone’s lips and soon it came to the notice of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague who ordered the goldsmith to his court.
Realising he was in trouble, the goldsmith explained that a Scotsman, now gone away, had supplied him with the powder and it had run out but this cut no ice with Rudolph who insisted the goldsmith supply him with gold. Of course he could not and tried to run away but was captured and died in the Emperor’s tower prison.
Seton was not so naive and as he moved across Europe he frequently changed his name to avoid detection though still practising his art – each time amazing those who witnessed his experiments. In Frankfurt-am-Main eyewitness watched him add his secret powder to an ounce of mercury and potash heated in a crucible and when the mixture was really hot a pellet of yellow wax was dropped in. The result was gold which was then weighed and assayed as twenty-three carats.
Subscribing to the scheme of thought, best to leave them wanting more, Seton soon made himself scarce only to pop up somewhere else, replicate the procedure and move on leaving an air of mystery behind. People called him Cosmopolite (citizen of the world), for want of his own name.
He and Hamilton continued to roam around the Continent demonstrating and promoting the art of alchemy always one step ahead of discovery until Seton was overheard asking for lapis lazuli in an apothecary shop in Cologne. The city was full of self-proclaimed alchemists and alchemy detractors – well where else would they congregate? – and so it was suspected this stranger wanted the lapis for such practices and laughed at another puffer in their midst. Seton felt he had to defend the art and so set up a demonstration. Once again gold was produced, this time from antimony oxide heated with the magic powder. One man there insisted Seton repeat the experiment with lead and unseen by Seton slipped a fragment of zinc into the crucible with the intention of sabotaging the affair. Imagine his fury when Seton again produced gold.
Before he left the city Seton amazed a group of men by heating broken iron pliers in a crucible along with some of the powder and succeeding again in making gold which was duly tested by a goldsmith’s wife, herself proficient in metals, and declared true. By now Seton’s profile in Cologne was dangerously high and he and Hamilton fled once more.
A strange and frenetic existence was about to get a little bit more hazardous. Seton fell in love.
He ran away from Munich with a beautiful Fraulein to Krossen and was summoned to his court by the Elector of Saxony. Seton, being too busy on honeymoon business sent Hamilton to put on a show in his place. It all went well, perhaps too well, and Hamilton suspected anyone capable of producing gold from nothing would not be a free man for long. Sensibly he headed back home to Scotland.
Seton was taken by the Elector’s men and when he refused to reveal his recipe for the secret powder he was bound to a rack and his body stretched until his joints dislocated, he was whipped, stabbed and burnt with molten lead but refused to talk.
A Moravian called Michael Sendivogius planned to save Seton, to find out his secrets of course. He sold his house and with the money bought a great deal of drink for the dungeon guards. Once they were well and truly drunk he sneaked in and carried Seton off, for by now the Scot was so tortured he was incapable of walking. They stopped by Seton’s lodgings to pick up his stock of powder, and his wife, and made for Poland.
At Cracow Sendivogius asked that Seton reveal to him his secret potion. Seton refused but said he would provide him with sufficient powder to produce gold, and so he did, giving the Moravian all his remaining powder.
Seton died soon after and possibly in the hope of finally obtaining the secret formula Sendivogius married Seton’s young widow. She did not have the formula but still the Moravian had a substantial quantity of the powder Seton had given him and so he became an alchemist demonstrating in much the way Seton had done until he was kidnapped by a fellow countryman of his, a dignitary in search of the secret of gold.
Unable to provide him with the information Sendivogius was locked up in prison from which he managed to escape and set out again as not any old alchemist but adopted Seton’s title of Cosmopolite. He was not as smart as Seton and was tricked and all the remaining Seton powder was stolen from him. He lived long after that but without Seton’s powder his powers of alchemy were at an end.
The most famous of Scotland’s alchemists was Balwearie man Michael Scot or Scotus whose life straddled the 12th and 13th centuries. Educated at Durham, Oxford and Paris universities Scot was a philosopher, mathematician, theologian and astrologer. A polyglot, he was very well-educated and influential.
At one time he was employed by Emperor Frederick II of Sicily as his court astrologer and fount of knowledge on just about everything under the sun: geography, astronomy, locations of hell, purgatory and heaven; volcanoes, rivers, seas, human souls. Scot was today’s equivalent of Google.
Men such as Scot were in great demand by rulers with some education who desired a whole lot more and Scot was hardly bashful about his abilities-
“Every astrologer is worthy of praise and honour since by such a doctrine such as astrology he probably knows many secrets of God, and things which few know.”
He was the author of books on alchemy including Magistery of the Art of Alchemy and Lesser Magistery which describe his experiments with alums, salts, vitriols, spirits in conjunction with herbs and minerals as exotic as you like from as far away as Alexandria and India. Nothing escaped his trials – dust of moles, owl blood, opium, toads he fed on herbs and vinegars.
He translated Liber astronomiae (Book of Astronomy) by Alpetragius (Abu Ishaq, Nured-din al-Bitruji al-Ishbilt), which examined Aristotle’s astronomical system and other Aristotelian works and wrote commentaries on Aristotle, treatises on natural philosophy and studied physiognomy (reading character from faces) and his De physiognomia et de hominis procreatione proved so popular it went to 18 editions between 1477 and 1660. He was also into chiromancy (reading palms).
Scot’s powers as a magician were marvelled at – he rode astride a demon horse and sailed the seas on a demon ship that terrified pirates. On his arrival one time in Paris it was said when his jet-black steed set its first hoof down on Parisian soil the bells of Notre-Dame rang out, the second hoof tore down the walls of the palace and before the third foot touched the ground the king of France promised Scot all he desired. As well as having a reputation so great that his name was woven into mythology, Scot dressed for the part in long flowing robes and pointed cap that have come to epitomise wizards.
Such was the faith in Michael Scot’s ability to see into the future the Emperor Frederick avoided Florence for that was where the Scot predicted he would die. Unfortunately the Emperor did go to Firenzuola and died. Firenzuola, which the Emperor should have known, means Little Florence.
Scot foresaw his own death from a blow on the head by a stone and so he took to wearing an iron helmet. On the one day he removed it during a church service a small stone dropped from the church roof and killed him (soon after which might demonstrate the power of thought for he feared just such a happening yet this was a small pebble.)
Michael Scot achieved celebrity or is that notoriety in Dante’s Divine Comedy where he suffers abominably for his arts and Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Quell’ altro, che ne’ fianchi è così poco
Michele Scotto fu, che veramente
delle magiche frode seppe il gioco
That other there, whose ribs fill scanty space,
Was Michael Scot, who truly full well knew
Of magical deceits the illusive grace.
(Dante’s Inferno, canto xx.115-117)
You must know then, sweet Master, that not long ago there dwelt in this city (Florence) a great master of black magic named Michael Scott (because he came from Scotland), who was greatly honoured by many gentlemen, of whom few are now alive.
The philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola disapproved of Scot while the French scholar Naudé supported him.
The Scottish 18thC Border’s Orientalist makes mention of Scot the magician in his Lord Soulis –
The black spae-book from his breast he took,
Impress’d with many a warlock spell:
And the book it was wrote by Michael Scott,
Who held in awe the fiends of hell.
Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) dedicated his mathematical work, Liber Abaci, to Scot. Liber Abaci was one of West’s earliest references to Hindu-Arabic numbers and examined currency, measurements, perfect numbers, Euclidean geometry, formulas for square pyramidal numbers etc and most notably a section on the growth of rabbit populations.
The most prominent Scottish author with references to Michael Scot is his namesake Sir Walter Scott who in The Lay of the Last Minstrel has him as the magician who divided the Eildon Hill into three.
Scot was also worked into that marvellous writer James Hogg’s story The Three Perils of Man.
Following his death, Scot’s body was returned to Scotland from the Continent and along with his magic books he was interred in Melrose Abbey – or so it is said. The reason for his books being buried along with him might relate to the legend that within his books were such secrets, even fiends lurked within, and anyone who opened them up did so at their peril.
King James IV’s interest in alchemy was such he had a laboratory made at Stirling Castle around about 1500. He was the man who left two babies with a dumb woman on Inschkeith Island in the Firth of Forth as he was curious as to which language they would speak – apparently “good Hebrew” .
Hugely interested in the world and its mysteries James IV studied medicine among other subjects and would pay people to have him do things to them, medically speaking. At least he asked – and paid for the privilege.
But to return to the alchemist lab at Stirling. There the alchemist-in-residence, an Italian called Damian, dressed appropriately in a damask gown and velvet hose when carrying out his experiments on metals and minerals: gold, silver, lead, tin, sulphur, white lead, cinnabar (a bright red form of mercury), alum, aqua vitae (distillations of substances from ethanol to whisky [a lot of it]). The lab contained the usual paraphernalia you see in illustrations of similar alchemist workshops – bellows to fire up charcoal, peat, wood and coal furnaces for heating substances, glass flasks for holding solids and liquids, mortars to crush minerals and gems, vinegar to produce metal salts, sugar (no idea) and so on.
Damian was not the most successful of alchemists, nor great at flying – a feat he attempted from high up on a tower at the castle. He broke his leg on landing and blamed his failure on having used the wrong kind of feathers for his wings and, as the author John Holmyard commented – “Had eagle feathers been used exclusively he would no doubt have touched down at Le Bourget.”
The illustrious Scottish mathematician and magician John Napier of Merchiston of the 16th and 17th centuries and inventor of logarithms was captivated by the sciences of alchemy and necromancy so that it seems only appropriate his constant travelling companions were a black spider and a black rooster.
My final shout to Scottish alchemists is one who really wasn’t one but more a conventional chemist who had a particular interest in crystallography, a 17th century Aberdonian called William Davidson who became physician to both the Kings of France and Poland. Davidson was the first to occupy a chair of chemistry in France, in 1648 and apparently the first person from the British Isles to become a professor of Chemistry. He wrote an influential work called Philosophia Pyrotechnia seu Cursus Chymiatricus which integrated Neoplatonic, Paracelsian and corpuscular theories. Davidson was a popular lecturer and his talks on chemistry at the Jardin du Roi attracted all sorts of people, including England’s philosopher Thomas Hobbes and diarist John Evelyn.
Alchemists were chemists, men or women who mixed substances together to create something else more significant – or tried to. Their claims to be able to make gold made them into targets for rapacious individuals who would stop at nothing to learn their ‘secrets’. Their laboratories were often little more than a corner filled with the accoutrements of their art. The substances they used were often dangerous and the life they led and the claims they made certainly made their existence fraught with menace too. By comparison today’s fat cats and company directors who award themselves and each other obscene bonuses on top of obscene salaries have no need of the art of alchemy, the art of kidology does them nicely.
*Philosophers’ stone created from a complex set of operations involving grinding, combining, distilling, condensing and much more to produce a very volatile substance known as water of the Sun and from this liquid all sorts could occur, or not.