12 January 2009

Professions: Alchemists

By Carrie Lofty

The public impression of alchemists has undergone radical shifts throughout the 2,500 years men and women have practiced the profession. These days, the term "alchemy" is used interchangeably with a notion of proto-chemistry, and in fact the root word "chem" is present in both, but that isn't necessarily true. Although alchemists regularly contributed to the advancement of chemistry and the understanding of other scientific concerns, their main endeavor was to discover the secret of life.

No one can quite agree where alchemy began, either through some fusion of Greek and Arab learning, or from ancient China. With either option, the roots of alchemy pre-date Christ. One initial goal that compelled alchemists was the transmutation of base metals into gold or, to a lesser degree, into silver. In fact, one theory as to the origin of the word "alchemy" is that it comes from the Greek word kimia, which means change.

Another alchemical passion was toward the discovery of a panacea, or elixir of life--a liquid thought to be the key to everlasting life. During the Middle Ages, this panacea became known as the Philosopher's Stone, an essential ingredient to both the creation of gold and the indefinite prolongation of life. I find it particularly interesting that the be-all, end-all of their endeavors was to not only prolong life, but to provide for a wealthy existence too.

Through the years, although they generally kept quiet their goals toward eternal life, perhaps for fear of being accused of Occult practices or witchcraft, alchemists made themselves useful to the greater populace by testing innumerable substances and refining chemical formulas from around the world. The creation, testing, and understanding of gunpowder, glass, ink, dyes, alcohol, medical remedies, herbal drinks, fertilizers, cosmetics, and leather tanning techniques all owe a debt to alchemists.

In my debut novel, What a Scoundrel Wants, Meg of Keyworth uses her knowledge to fund an illegal counterfeiting scheme--a popular means of making ends meet among alchemists of all eras. But the punishment for peddling poor substitutes had its risks.
"He demanded compensation for having offered us shelter."

"Offered," sneered Will. "And what compensation did he demand?"

"Emeralds, of course. I gave him asem instead."

"Jacob's dog, Asem? That would be fitting."

"No, asem. A false alloy of silver and gold." Her explanation assumed that learned cadence, the one tinged with condescension. But Will also recognized notes of excitement and wonder. "It's an amalgam of soft tin and white copper--melted, cast, and cleaned multiple times. Produced correctly, even artisans cannot discern asem from authentic gold."

"Nice swindle."

"But the quality of my materials was poor, which is why we hadn't traded it. At elevated temperatures, the consistency changes with any friction. Only a fool would believe those ingots had value beyond propping open a door."

"Perhaps that explains his face. I didn't give him those bruises."
Advances in the scientific method and our understanding of elemental processes put an end to the search for eternal life and the transmutation of goal, but alchemists underwent their own transformation into academically trained scholars and entrepreneurs known as chemists. We owe these men and women a debt, not for their failures to find a quick path toward a long, rich life, but maintaining a network of learning and inquiry that sustained society through the Dark Ages, plague times, Inquisitions, and other eras when learning suffered the constraints of fear.