What happened to Alchemy? All That Glitters Is Not Gold
What really happened to alchemy? For millenniums it was the occupation of all the engaged brilliant minds of three continents since before recorded history until the late seventeenth century. Certainly some of their experimental insights evolved into fields of their own. In modern science remnants still exist but the tradition turned a certain corner shedding the mist of the mystical and sprouting too many names to be understood (or maybe misunderstood) like it once was. Some methods of successful empirical experiments might have graduated into chemistry or chemical engineering and observations of the stars became a part of astronomy but what about the rest of it.
Reading about this enigmatic period in history usually generates more questions than it answers. But the vivid imagery of the times, both real and imaginary, of darkened fire-lit smoky laboratories, dragons, magic ingredients, and very colorful characters, makes it very interesting. The confusing and complex symbolism and language in some alchemical texts is in part due to the long history of source material passing through different languages, cultures and myths with some embellishment. The persecution of the Medieval Christian Church also made hiding meanings necessary because the alchemists could not pretend to improve upon nature, the work of God, or else.
Some good Alchemical Texts: The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton
In one regard, in the pursuit of fabricating gold, we might propose that alchemy has completely succeeded. Although many enlightened alchemists did not think making gold was a worthy aim, that is in fact what many people around the world have always aimed at. What does it matter now if actual gold cannot be produced if something else can serve to represent and serve as value? Today money is the essence of a belief system and has no real physical existence. Metal is no longer the basis for money. Today’s electronic money can be moved from one company to another, to bank accounts, and to retail locations without any physical manifestation. Digital money is the real money supply. If we belief that an institution will honor its checks and transfers of accounts that is all that matters. Banks have computers that create numbers of value, they don’t hold much of actual value, financial value is purely imaginary. Financial services specialize in multiplying their numbers with only thin references to reality as recent and recurring collapses reveal once imaginations glimpse reality. Its just like magic.
International banking and finance has a long history contemporary with medieval alchemy. Perhaps they had the same aim of finding gold. The first international financiers were the Knights of Templar. They got their start financing the Crusades. With Europe in a physical money shortage (silver, gold and copper) the Crusades (and other European adventure conquests) were perhaps motivated as much to solve the metal raw material problem as they were for religious reasons. If they were looking for gold, as they began to control international finance, they found it. As a reward, the Templars were destroyed and disbanded around 1312. The Pope and the Kings weren’t happy with someone else controlling too much of their domain (gold). Who knows what really happened to the remaining Templars.
Next, in the 1400s, the most innovative international financiers were the Medici family of Florence. They established and spread new methods of giving credit and took over cities and countries all over Europe. They quickly built their empire amassing wealth by charging lending fees. Their monetary power soon led to involvement in church, government, war and science. They were involved in the thick of the chaotic times (including the trial of Galileo Galilei) and were sometimes exiled and despoiled but also became royalty and Popes until the last royal died in 1737. By the 1600s, through continuing advances by the European banks, money was already more about credit than it was about metal.
About the history of money: Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money
Also during this time, secret societies continued to be all the rage naturally because having money, ideas or power openly was not a very good strategy. The followers of Thoth and Hermes, the keepers of ancient wisdom, banished orders and exiled groups formed secret societies. In Germany in 1614 a book was published called the Fama Fraternitatis Rosae Crucis which claimed that a secret brotherhood of alchemists was working to transform the war-ravaged, religiously contentious Europe through religion, politics, the arts and sciences. The group however never made its presence felt.
Those who would have been alchemists in the past, in our era became scientists, and perhaps a few became philosophers, astronomers, monks or politicians. Did some of them become (secret) international financiers transmuting ideas into digital gold? Making physical gold proved to be difficult but building wealth is not so hard. Over hundreds of years, this probably wasn’t the ultimate design or conscious plan of alchemists (or maybe it was) but fabricating digital gold has been a bonanza for some.