Alchemy is one term that most likely needs more explanation. In the past, the meaning of alchemy would have been common knowledge, but now it’s fairly obscure. Alchemy is considered by many to be the “father of chemistry”, although many historians of chemistry view alchemy as a sham. The “esoteric”, or inner belief, is that alchemy is an“enquiry into man’s relationship with the cosmos and the will of the Creator, manifested as either a devotional philosophy transforming sinful man into perfect being” (Hargreaves). The “exoteric”, or outer belief, is that alchemy was about transmuting base metals into gold. The truth was probably somewhere in between, or a combination of both. A lot of alchemists spent a good deal of their time pursuing the idea of an “elixir of life” or “philosopher’s stone”, a quest that has occupied men of all centuries.
In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal”, Winzy goes to work for Cornelius Agrippa and is mesmerized by a potion he’s working on. Winzy is tempted and drinks half the potion, which turns out to be one such “immortal elixir”, causing him to live at least 323 years. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is another example of literature that mentions alchemy. In this tale, an alchemist’s assistant tells about some tricks an alchemist plays on a priest. It is argued that this can be either a negative commentary on the Church or on the fraudulent science of alchemy.
Cornelius Agrippa is another subject that might need more explanation. Agrippa (1486-1535) was a German alchemist, humanist and occultist. He claimed to have doctorates in law and medicine. He taught at Dôle and spent a couple of years as the physician to the Queen mother of France, Louise of Savoy. He was concerned at the protestant church’s refusal to accept new knowledge that might regenerate the church, but his most important contribution was his “Renaissance dream of rediscovering a submerged but divinely ordained wisdom that would both confirm and revivify Christianity” (Nauert). His work of philosophy, De occulta philosophia, dealt with a want to control people and things by magic.
S. Hargreaves ”alchemy” The Oxford Companion to British History. Ed John Cannon. Oxford University Press, 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Missouri – Columbia. 17 February 2011 http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t110.e85
Charles G. Nauert, Jr. ”Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. Ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand. Oxford University Press, 1996. University of Missouri – Columbia. 17 February 2011 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t172.e0018>
exoteric, adj. and n.
Second edition, 1989; online version November 2010. <http://www.oed.com:80/Entry/66396>; accessed 16 February 2011. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1894.
esoteric, adj. and n.
Second edition, 1989; online version November 2010. <http://www.oed.com:80/Entry/64367>; accessed 16 February 2011. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1891.