Franciscans and the Elixir of Life: Religion and Science in the Later Middle Ages

Franciscans and the Elixir of Life: Religion and Science in the Later Middle Ages

Franciscans and the Elixir of Life: Religion and Science in the Later Middle Ages

Franciscans and the Elixir of Life: Religion and Science in the Later Middle Ages

Synopsis

One of the major ambitions of medieval alchemists was to discover the elixir of life, a sovereign remedy capable not only of healing the body but of transforming it. Given the widespread belief that care for the body came at the cost of care for the soul, it might seem surprising that any Franciscan would pursue the elixir, but those who did were among its most outspoken and optimistic advocates. They believed they could distill a substance that would purify, transmute, and ennoble the human body as well as the soul. In an age when Christians across Europe were seeking material evidence for their faith and corporeal means of practicing their devotion, alchemy, and the elixir in particular, offered a way to bridge the terrestrial and the celestial.

Framed as a history around science, Franciscans and the Elixir of Life focuses on alchemy as a material practice and investigates the Franciscan discourses and traditions that shaped the pursuit of the elixir, providing a rich examination of alchemy and religiosity. Zachary A. Matus makes new connections between alchemy, ritual life, apocalypticism, and the particular commitment of the Franciscan Order to the natural world, shedding new light on the question of why so many people claimed to have made, seen, or used alchemical compounds that could never have existed.

Excerpt

Producing the elixir of life was one of two major aims of medieval alchemists. Metallurgical alchemy, the transmutation of base metals, usually into gold or silver, was the other. Often discussed as a pseudoscience, alchemy in fact played a significant part in the genealogy of modern chemistry. It dealt, above all, with matter—its manipulation, improvement, and general properties. Sometimes limited to techniques that would be known to dyers, metal workers, and other artisans, in its most elaborated form alchemy was a scientia that explained the composition of the physical universe. Alchemy was tied quite closely to other disciplines of natural philosophy, including physics, astrology, and medicine. Yet in spite of its putative ability to explain the composition of material things, alchemy, unlike its sister disciplines, never gained a lasting foothold in the schools.

Perhaps because of this development, alchemy was not standardized. There was no single definition, nor a general curriculum. There were influential works, but as a practice outside or at the fringe of the university, medieval alchemy was idiosyncratic. Unlike, for instance, the study of theology or academic medicine, where students were expected to annotate specific texts with their master’s commentary, the decision to write about or practice alchemy was very much an expression of individual preference and circumstance. Therefore, it was not just detractors who argued with adherents over definitions of alchemy and its place within the fields of medieval scientiae and, more broadly, its proper role in Christendom. Adherents as well seldom agreed with one another on these questions. This is not without advantage to the historian, however. Alchemy’s marginality refracts, rather than reflects, normative intellectual life. It provides us a better perspective through which to understand the intellectual culture of the era, precisely because alchemical literature resists essentialization and generalization. This disunity of the literature was apparent enough that by the later Middle Ages, alchemical schools such as the Pseudo-Lullian recognized the messy reality of prior generations . . .

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