This paper will examine the exploitation of ‘natural’ substances to alleviate spiritual problems. In particular, it will examine the quest of John of Rupescissa (c.1300 – c.1366), a Franciscan prophet and alchemist deemed mad in a 1349 trial for heresy, to distill from mundane ingredients the ‘quintessence’, an ineffable substance that would create an incorruptible body and banish demons from the mind. This paper will reflect on John’s attempt to cope with his own claims to heavenly knowledge as well as the striking self-reference that seeking the ‘quintessence’ was the province of the mad and foolish.
Medieval alchemy centered on a belief in the perfectibility of the natural world. Paradoxically, however, the language of decline, presuming degeneration as an inescapable feature of history, permeated alchemical discourse, which so impenetrably encrypted the philosophers’ secrets that they seemed lost to modern practitioners. This paper uses the performance of Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman to open up an exploration of the paradox in alchemy’s conceptualization of time and progress – an exploration that leads to larger questions about how the culturally dominant model of historical decline affected other kinds of efforts to improve conditions in the world.
King Henry VI of England (1422-1461) became interested in alchemy as a possible solution to the increasing economic problems of his country. In 1444, Henry began licensing individuals to practice the transmutation of metals. Complicating his life and his reign, he became both mentally and physically ill from at least 1453 until 1455, which caused an interruption of Henry’s practice of supporting alchemists. After Henry was again well enough to assume the throne, he began commissioning investigations into alchemy and once again issuing licenses for its practice. His financially floundering kingdom needed a new source of gold and silver, and Henry sought out alchemists to solve the problem; furthermore, with his failing health, Henry seems to have supported the idea of finding a medicine capable of providing a universal panacea. Both commissions and licenses were carefully regulated after the king’s recovery. Most of them had only a year or even a few months to report their findings, which pushed them to work devotedly during their limited time. Henry’s use of licenses expanded the purpose of licenses to include intellectual property, in this first case, that of alchemy.