OxNet Seminar 4 – Alchemy

This week we delved into the mystical realms of Alchemy with Walker Christian, Durham University. Here are some student reflections on the session:  

Alchemy is undoubtedly mysterious yet not indecipherable. Walker Christian depicted how, with the right foundations and perspectives, one might distil the swathes of allegory and illustration. Adopting his approach allowed me to understand the alchemist: a character far more than a recluse in search of gold. The alchemist was a scientist exploring an absurd and confusing world, experimenting and analysing. It was a philosopher embracing a redemptive role, perfecting and balancing. It was a thinker in search of an ordered universe. 

Thady Fox, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School 

During this seminar, I learned that alchemy was the art of crafting and melting metals, and applied naturally occurring laws to speed up natural processes. The practice was mocked by figures such as Chaucer due to its controversy in many aspects including: a way to defraud the King (transmutation, the conversion of lead into gold causing economic disregard), its Christian imagery and the concept of the philosopher’s stone (which supposedly grants eternal/an extension of life). This lead to alchemy being forced underground, with recipes and processes ingeniously inscribed in metaphorical alchemical images, carefully crafted to keep them as secretive and coded as possible.  

Alchemical pictures usually depict/consist of two main opposing figures; the sun versus the moon, hot and dry properties of sulphur versus cold and wet properties of mercury, masculine versus feminine. In many images the medieval cosmos is beautifully displayed where spherical shapes are suggested, the perfect circles/orbits play a huge roll in portraying the heavens, the connection between the centre of the Earth and how everything is interlocked in some way. Alchemy wasn’t fully appreciated by many, despite it being the practice of converting and changing metals based on their properties. It was a process of transformation, creation and combination. 

Sofiyah Muzafar, Crompton House Sixth Form  

In this intriguing seminar we studied the ancient art of alchemy and its crucial place in history dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt and possibly beyond. We discussed how alchemy was in fact a great deal more than just a quest to turn base metals into gold. Instead revolving largely around transformation as a whole and how to turn an imperfect material into a perfect one. Studying the colour changes of chemical processes and how metals were formed. It was fascinating to examine the alchemical images and debate the symbolism that helped keep the secrets of alchemy hidden from those who were considered unworthy of joining its select group of scholars for hundreds of years. 

Molly Mooney, Sofiyah Muzafar, Crompton House Sixth Form  

Upon hearing the world ‘alchemy’, it is almost impossible not to conjure up images of wizards and fanatics, crazed in their attempts to turn lead to gold. However, Walker Christian’s lecture on the rich cultural history of alchemy in the Medieval and Early Modern world has completely shifted my perspective. Having never encountered the topic before, I was fascinated to learn about the interwoven elements of science, philosophy, religion and astrology, each playing a critical collaborative role in the development and communication of new ideas. These surprisingly nuanced beliefs have captured my attention, and I look forward to continuing my own personal research. 

Abbie Strain, Sir John Deane’s College 

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