Alchemy in the History of Ideas
Back to introduction
During the latter half of the 20th century the focus of some scholars turned towards alchemy, which had been much neglected until that time by serious researchers. Historians of art, the history of ideas and literature became aware of the ways in which alchemical ideas had influenced artists, philosophers and writers in past centuries. As historians explored the documents and letters of important people of the 16th and 17th centuries they sometimes found connections to alchemy. The courts of Rudolf II in Prague, of Moritz of Hessen-Kassel, and Frederick of the Palatinate all had close ties to alchemists. Alchemy at that time was not some ancient worn out philosophy, but was viewed as being at the leading edge of the technology of the time. Alchemists such as Thurneisser and Glauber were actively involved in the chemical industry, making key substances necessary for the economy of that period. Alchemists of that period required the patronage of wealthy and influential people if they were to gain the leisure for their studies.
All this is visible to historians and documented in letters and manuscripts, so it is possible nowadays to investigate what was taking place in alchemy many hundreds of years ago. In the early part of the 20th century this in-depth historical research was very difficult to do, consequently, many people then held instead to the belief that we could never find out about alchemy and alchemists in any exact way. This opened the doors to all sort of speculative esoteric books, which portrayed alchemists in an idealised and romanticised way. In this regard we need only think of the writings of, say, Manly Palmer Hall. In time, the scholars were able to penetrate what was up till then a seemingly impenetrable morass of speculative nonesense and make believe, and at the beginning of the 21st century we now have a much clearer historical picture of alchemy and alchemists.
The scholarly approach to alchemy is very rewarding as one gets to a much better focussed picture of alchemy and its place in the society of its time, in the context of the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

See the page of scholarly articles,   my alchemy academy discussion group archives or the bibliography section

Reading list
Some quotations
Frequently asked questions
Common misconceptions

The different ways of
looking at alchemy

allegorical journeys
historians of ideas

Study Courses

Alchemical, astrological and
emblematic art prints

Alchemy and art

Art books Series

Study course on Bosch's
Garden of Earthly Delights

New Hieronymus Bosch Website