Alchemy in Medieval and Tudor England

Alchemy in Medieval and Tudor England

Guthrie Stewart

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Alchemy – a subject of much speculation and a lot of confusion. Is it all about turning lead into gold, or is it more than that?

This book guides you through the arrival and growth of alchemy in England in the medieval and Tudor periods.

On the way we meet famous people like Roger Bacon and John Dee; ordinary scoundrels and of course Kings and a Queen. The actual purposes of the alchemists, who were not just interested in gold and silver, are explained, and some of their practical works made clear.

Read on for an introduction to the past that you won’t forget!


The aim of this book is to give a short and readable introduction to some of the names, texts and themes associated with alchemy in England in the 12th to 16th centuries AD. In this period Alchemy is the art and science of making base metals into gold and silver and also of making a powerful medicine for healing every illness. What marks alchemy out from primitive metallurgy is that there is a body of theory behind the practise and often a religious connection and its interest in transmutation of base metals.

The earliest distinctly alchemical text, the Physika et Mystika, was written in Egypt, some time in the first century AD or so, and is falsely attributed to Democritus, an early Greek philosopher. Its title is best translated as Natural and Secret Things, but it does not explicitly discuss how transmutation works. Instead it contains practical recipes with an added comment “One nature conquers another nature”. The author is hidden behind a false name; the stealing of real people’s names by later authors happens all the way through alchemy, and is not usually meant to deceive in a modern sense, rather to embellish the work and make it more important to the reader. 

We know of a number of alchemists living and working in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, amongst them Maria the Jewess, who is credited with the invention of the water bath and other alchemical implements, and Zosimos of Panopolis who was alive around 300AD. Those of his works that have survived show a mix of gnostic thought and metal-working techniques. One recipe involves the distillation of eggs, the end result being a substance which can turn silver a gold colour. It is in his work that we see the relationship between the heavens and the earth fully explored, with the practical work mirroring the religious work that the gnostic adept carried out to purify his soul for ascent into heaven to be one with the unchanging Nous (the Divine Intellect), rejecting the ever changing material body on earth. That is, turning impure metals into the perfect metal, gold, is a mirror of purifying yourself to cast off the effects of the physical body. The methods of this were attributed to Hermes, the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian Thoth, who gave them writing and medicine, so there was a strong association with Hermes from early on in alchemy. 

Guthrie Stewart has studied chemistry and worked in laboratories and factories. Thus when he took up medieval re-enactment, alchemy was an obvious topic to research.Guthrie-Stewart400x544

Waiting only until he had his own back garden in which to practise, he has spent the last 7 years carrying out experiments based on real medieval alchemical texts, and studying the history of alchemy and chemistry, amazed at the recipes and the marvellous results. He also reads a lot of fiction and non-fiction.


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