The Secrets of Alchemy

An Alchemist’s Laboratory. 17th¬–18th century. Follower of David Teniers II. (Courtesy of Roy Eddleman, CHF Collections/Will Brown)

Detail from An Alchemist’s Laboratory. 17th¬–18th century. Follower of David Teniers II. (Courtesy of Roy Eddleman, CHF Collections/Will Brown)

John of Rupescissa: Alchemy Against the Antichrist
(Excerpted from pp. 63–65 and 69–70)

John of Rupescissa (or Jean de Roquetaillade) was born about 1310 in the Auvergne, in central France; he attended the University of Toulouse and then became a Franciscan friar. In doing so he was influenced by the ideas of a branch of the order known as the Spirituals, who opposed the increasing institutionalization of the Franciscan order as it grew, claiming that it had abandoned the ideals and rule of its founder, St. Francis of Assisi. The Spirituals, who saw themselves as the true followers of St. Francis, embraced radical poverty and fiercely criticized church hierarchy and the more mainstream Conventual Franciscans. The Spirituals were also caught up in apocalyptic fervor and a fondness for prophecies, believing that the Antichrist was about to appear.

It might seem incongruous that a man so fervently committed to the ideal of poverty would also devote himself to finding the secret of making gold. Yet at the start of his Book of Light, written about 1350, John states clearly why he studied chrysopoeia and why he decided to write about it.

I considered the coming times predicted by Christ in the Gospels, namely, of the tribulations in the time of the Antichrist, under which the Roman Church shall be tormented and have all her worldly riches despoiled by tyrants. . . . Thus for the sake of liberating the chosen people of God, to whom it is granted to know the ministry of God and the magisterium of truth, I wish to speak of the work of the great Philosophers’ Stone without lofty speech. My intention is to be helpful to the good of the holy Roman Church and briefly to explain the whole truth about the Stone.

True to his Spiritual Franciscan views, John says that the tribulation of the Antichrist is at hand, and that the church will need every form of help to withstand it; that help includes alchemy. John was not the only Franciscan who thought this way. The same concern about the coming of the Antichrist lay behind much of what Roger Bacon—also a Franciscan friar—wrote to the pope about sixty years earlier: the church will need mathematical, scientific, technological, medical, and other knowledge to resist and survive the assault of the Antichrist. We are well familiar with the use of science and technology for national security; in the case of John and Roger, we find a medieval precedent that includes alchemy as a means of ecclesiastical security.

John describes a series of sublimations of mercury with vitriol and saltpeter, followed by digestions and distillations. Despite the apparently clear directions, however, his first step will not work in a modern laboratory if followed verbatim. The sublimate “white as snow” that John describes making is undoubtedly mercuric chloride; therefore, the starting mixture must have included common salt, but this substance is not mentioned in the list of ingredients. There are two possible explanations. First, John’s saltpeter might have been quite impure and contained a large quantity of common salt. In fact, his book contains an annotation toward the end that notes how crude saltpeter ordinarily contains salt, and gives a method for purifying it by fractional crystallization. The second possibility is that John intentionally left out the crucial ingredient as a way of preserving secrecy. If this is the case, then it is significant that the end of his book includes a rather out-of-place paragraph describing the general importance of table salt, its ubiquity, its use in purifying metals, and so forth, and then states that “the whole secret is in salt.” Whichever explanation is correct, the historical message is the same: alchemical recipes have to be read with care. Those that seem unworkable need not reflect negatively on the author’s abilities or veracity, but might rather indicate a “hidden ingredient”—either something present as an unsuspected impurity or something artfully omitted.

John also wrote On the Consideration of the Fifth Essence of All Things. With it, he extended alchemy into a new area—medicine. During the Antichrist’s reign, Christians would need not only gold but also their full health. Thus, John recounts how he sought a substance that could prevent corruption and decay and thus preserve the body from illness and premature aging. He found such a substance in the distillate of wine—what he called “burning water” or “water of life,” and what we call alcohol. The Latin alchemical term for this delightful liquid—aqua vitae—lives on in the names of several liquors: the Italian acquavite, the French eau-de-vie, and the Scandinavian akvavit.