Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Europe


by Amy Hackney Blackwell

Medieval Europeans believed in magic. They knew little of science and medicine, and in a complex and dangerous world magic seemed to be a reasonable explanation for natural phenomena. People were willing to do whatever they could to give themselves a sense of control over their lives. Doing so often meant wearing relics, taking herbs, and chanting incantations, at least. Some “magical” charms had real value; many herbs, for example, do have medicinal properties. Alchemists took basic village magical practice much further, studying the work of other scholars and performing experiments that blended science and magic.

Red coral, popularly used to ward off ailments and for other magical purposes; Britain, ca. 1500 (© Museum of London)

Medieval Europeans engaged in many types of magical practices. They used charms or rituals to protect their homes and themselves or to create other effects. Many people believed in the power of relics—the physical remains of holy people, such as saints—to have physical effects on the living. Pieces of what were said to be the True Cross (the cross upon which Jesus was crucified), the finger bones of saints, and fragments of the clothing of holy people were popular items for sale in medieval markets. Many people purchased and wore charms to protect them from harm; these charms could be items of jewelry or the bone fragments of saints. People continued to visit sites that had been sacred in pre Christian times; although these holy sites often took on Christian identities throughout much of the medieval era, for many people the separation of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs was only partial.

Villages frequently had residents who specialized in the use of herbal medicines and cures. These people were often women who worked as midwives and who were called on to treat various ailments. Although these “wise women” were respected for their healing abilities, they were sometimes held in suspicion for fear that their powers would allow them to do harm. During the late medieval period this suspicion often caused people to call these women witches. Because wise women were frequently widows living alone, they were vulnerable to this sort of persecution.

Wise women and village healers made ample use of herbs in both medicines and magic potions. Different herbs were said to have specific magical properties. Dill, for example, was thought to protect people from falling prey to witchcraft and from losing lawsuits. Some people hung sprigs of fennel over the doors of their houses to keep out witches. Garlic, it was believed, could keep away all manner of malevolent magical creatures, from vampires to snakes; it could also enhance courage and sexual performance. Some people took ginger in an effort to stave off old age. Henbane could cause hallucinations that people interpreted as visions from the spirit world; witches were said to use henbane to help them fly. Some people would put a new piece of horseradish in their purses every New Year’s Eve as a way to keep from running out of money during the year.

Love potions were extremely popular during the medieval period. Herbalists, alchemists, wise women, and ordinary folk made love potions from all manner of herbs: Lovage, marigold, mallow, mustard, mint, radish, sage, valerian, hops, ginger, cloves, and basil were just a few of the substances that people consumed in order to inflame others with lust or to enhance their own sexual performance. Basil, so it was said, had the additional virtue of being useful for magically breeding scorpions. .

The more scholarly form of medieval scientific and magical inquiry was alchemy. The word alchemy may have come from the Arabic term al-kimiya, meaning “the art of transformation,” which itself derives from the ancient Greek word khemeia, meaning “cast together,” which may be the etymological root of the word chemistry. Alchemists practiced their art throughout the ancient and medieval worlds. The most  proficient alchemists of the early medieval period practiced their art in the Middle East. Europeans discovered their works in the 1100s, when many Arabic texts and the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) were translated into Latin. European scholars became captivated with alchemical ideas, such as the concept that all substances could transform into a more pure and perfect state.

Medieval European alchemists pursued their goals using a combination of techniques, some of them not very different from modern scientific observation and others derived from mysticism, tradition, and magic. Alchemists sought several things. They are perhaps best known for their efforts to transform base metals (ordinary metals, such as iron) into gold. They also tried to brew a potion called a panacea, or a cure-all, that would restore youth, prolong life, and cure all diseases. Although these goals were impossible to achieve, medieval alchemists did accomplish a great deal of scientific inquiry that paved the way for the development of the modern fields of chemistry, physics, and metallurgy. Alchemical experiments resulted in the creation of dyes and pigments, the invention of different types of acid and other chemical compounds, insights into the properties of metals, and techniques for brewing various types of alcoholic beverages.

Alchemists were hampered in their pursuits by their lack of understanding of the properties of matter. They believed that all matter was made up of four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. This belief derived from the teachings of Aristotle. Alchemists theorized that each element was either hot or cold and wet or dry and that each metal had all of these properties. They reasoned that if they could rearrange these properties within a metal, they could transform it into a different kind of metal, ideally gold. Many alchemists believed that the transmutation of ordinary metals, such as lead, into gold could be facilitated by using a substance called the philosopher’s stone. No one knows exactly what the philosopher’s stone was, though it seems to have been imagined in powder form.

Alchemists tended to love secrecy and symbols. The foundations of their work were spiritual as well as physical, and much of their scholarship was based on mythology and mysticism. They also used astrology to explain physical phenomena. Consequently, the writings of alchemists were full of multiple meanings and cryptic suggestions, making them appear magical to the uneducated.

Many of the best-known scholars of medieval Europe were alchemists. Most of them were members of the clergy, mainly because the clergy were nearly the only people who knew how to read and who had access to books. The first scholars to venture into this field started with Arabic works on science and mathematics. Pope Sylvester II (ca. 945 1003) studied Arabic texts on science, mathematics, and astrology in Spain and introduced them into Europe. He was said to be a sorcerer. The English scholar Adelard of Bath traveled throughout the Arab world in the early 12th century and brought back with him several Arabic texts on astronomy and mathematics. By the late 12th century the works of Arabic scholars and Aristotle were more readily available to Europeans. Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200–80) supported the coexistence of science and religion. He was an excellent scientist for his time and wrote a great deal about botany, zoology, astronomy, and other topics, including music, particularly the wayin which music could purify the soul. His work on astrology gave him the reputation of being a magician.  The most important of the medieval alchemists was Roger Bacon (ca. 1220–92), also called Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.” He was an English Franciscan friar who worked as a professor at Oxford and the University of Paris. He performed numerous scientific experiments and formed many ideas that he describes in his book Opus majus (Greater Work, 1268). This book covers scientific and mystical topics, including the influence of the planets on human life, the visible spectrum of light, and the chemistry of gunpowder. Bacon’s work influenced all subsequent European alchemists. Alchemists of the 14th and 15th centuries were more like magicians than scientists. In their writings they generally assemble the work of earlier scholars rather than conducting and reporting on new experiments themselves. Their main interests were finding the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of youth. Many of them were persecuted as witches or sorcerers who were said to work against good Christian practices. Nicholas Flamel (ca. 1330–1417) spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone and claimed to have discovered it through a copy of the Book of Abraham that he purchased in Spain. He said that he could indeed turn base metals into gold and also claimed that he and his wife had achieved immortality. The German alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535) wrote a treatise called Libri tres de occulta philosophia (Three Books on Occult Philosophy, 1531), in which he describes the interaction of the natural world and the occult. Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493– 1541) is credited with transforming medieval alchemy into a more modern science and rejecting the image of the alchemist as a magician.

Church officials began taking a narrow view of witches and sorcerers in the early 1300s. Around this time magic, alchemy, and witchcraft became associated with Christian heresy. Many were accused of consorting with demons. Both alchemists and so-called witches used secret symbols and incantations in their work, giving rise to the suspicion that they had entered into pacts with the devil. Pope John XXII (1249–1334) issued an edict in 1326 forbidding priests and monks to practice alchemy. During the 14th century several people were tried for witchcraft or sorcery in France and Italy. Witch trials began occurring in England in the early 15th century. European witches were not persecuted on a major scale until the end of the medieval period. The first large European witch hunt occurred in Switzerland in 1427. The German book Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, was published in Germany in 1486 and became the scholarly basis for subsequent prosecution of witches. The height of the witch craze actually occurred during the early modern period, between 1580 and 1660.


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