| The Arcanum |
By Janet Gleeson
Genre: Non Fiction
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What better in all the world than that divine stone of the Chymists, yet men in the achieving of it, doe commonly hazard both their braines and subsistence, and in case they come neer an end, it is a very good escape their glasses bee not melted or broken, or evill spirits, as Flamed admonishes, does not through envy blinde their eys, and spoile all the worke.
JOHN HALL, Paradoxes of Nature, 1650
Escape was the only alternative. He had failed to fulfill his promise to the king and his life now hung in the balance. On June 21, 1703, a dark-haired twenty-one-year-old prisoner gave the slip to his unsuspecting guards, stole from the confines of his castle prison and found his way to the meeting place, where his accomplice waited with a horse ready harnessed for a journey to freedom.
With a hastily murmured farewell and scarcely a backward glance, the fugitive mounted his horse and fled speedily through Dresden's narrow medieval streets. Passing through the fortified city gates and across the bridge traversing the wide span of the river Elbe, he hastened through the town's jumbled, dilapidated suburbs and then out onto the fertile plains surrounding Saxony's capital city. Only once before had he glimpsed the lush panorama of fields filled with grain, flax, tobacco and hops, and the vineyards laden with ripening grapes. That had been nearly two years before on his heavily guarded journey to captivity. Ever since, he had been haunted by the fear that he would never be free to see it again.
As he rode southward the terrain became increasingly contoured and the roads more perilous. Rutted by spring rains and the wheels of heavy wagons, the route wended its way toward a precipitous mountain pass skirting narrow ravines. But still the fugitive sped on, spurred by the certainty that as soon as his disappearance was noticed a search party of soldiers would be dispatched to recapture him. One did not escape the king easily, and success depended on the lead he could gain before they followed. If he was recaptured the penalty would almost certainly be torture and death.
The name of this daredevil fugitive was Johann Frederick Böttger. At the time of his desperate escape he had been held as a prisoner of Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, for nearly two years. The cause of his incarceration was neither murder, nor theft, nor treason, merely his proclaimed belief that he was close to discovering the secret that virtually every European monarch craved: the formula or arcanum for the philosopher's stone, the magical compound that would turn base metal into gold. Augustus yearned to be the first to find someone who could unlock that mystery, and he was not about to let a man who had promised to supply him with limitless wealth escape his clutches. Böttger had vowed to make gold and had failed to provide it. He could not expect to be shown mercy.
Viewed from our comfortably superior twentieth-century perspective, the notion that, by means of little more than the simplest laboratory equipment, some assorted ingredients and a few mystical words, any base metal might be transmuted into gold seems unquestionably absurd. We now know that the only way one element can be changed into another is by harnessing the might of nuclear technology and showering it with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Even then the amount of gold that could be produced in such a way would be infinitesimal compared with the energy and cost expended. But however far-fetched such a concept now seems, transmutationthe ability to change one metal into another more valuable one still obsessed men of learning and power in the Europe of Augustus's day.
The elusive philosopher's stone had been the holy grail of alchemists since the birth of the art in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, India, China and Egypt. It had subsequently flourished in ancient Greece and in the Arabic-speaking world; Arabic texts were in turn translated into Latin, and by the Middle Ages belief in alchemy had pervaded the whole of Europe.
By the late seventeenth century, despite the dawning age of enlightenment and the huge advances being made in scientific discovery, the theory of the philosopher's stone remained by and large undimmed. Far from being seen as a remnant of medieval superstition, it was still viewed seriously even by the fathers of modern scientific theory: Robert Boyle, the first chemist to collect gases and formulate a law governing their pressure and mass, and Sir Isaac Newton, the founder of modern physics, were both fascinated by alchemy.
The theory was rooted in the way early thinkers believed that the world functioned. According to Aristotle, on whose theories much European alchemy was based, all earthly matter was composed of four elementsair, water, fire and earth. Arabic alchemists, whose word alkimia christened the art, thought that metals were composed of various combinations of sulfur and mercury. The yellower the metal the more sulfur it must contain; hence, they reasoned, gold must be laden with sulfur, while silver would contain mainly mercury.
Mysticism and religion were also intertwined with this vision of the physical world. Astrology provided the link between the universe and man's existence and it was logical that it too should hold sway over alchemical study; all metals were thus linked to a heavenly body: gold was associated with the sun, silver with the moon, copper with Venus and so on. It was also believed that everything in the universe was alive, and depended on God, or the power of planetary influence, in order to function. Rocks and metals, like plants and animals, were believed to grow spontaneously. While an animal grew in the womb of its mother or a plant blossomed from the soil, minerals were born from seeds of metal deep within the earth and grew with the assistance of natural forces into large nuggets and seams.
Of all the minerals that the earth was able to produce spontaneously, gold to these early experimenters was the most sought after. The philosopher's stone, lapis philosophorum or red tincture, was, they believed, a substance contained in the earth through which metal traveled in order to transmute into gold. Thus, by finding or fabricating this compound, harnessing nature with the help of planetary or divine assistance, and speeding up the usual growth process in their laboratory, any metal might be transmuted into gold.
This goal was a secret to which the baffling writings of ancient philosophers were believed to hold the key. Hence it was not only with mixing potions but also with attempting to decipher and understand ancient teachings that most alchemists occupied themselves. They in turn mirrored the cryptic texts they interpreted by recording their own experimental processes in terms that were shrouded in mystery. Their spidery scripts and mysterious diagrams spoke of ruby lions, of black ravens, of lily virgins and golden mantles. Their ingredients, mixtures of horse dung, children's urine, saltpeter, sulfur, mercury, arsenic and lead, were given deliberately obscure symbolic names and their findings recorded in equally esoteric language.
Concealment and camouflage were paramount to ensure that any successful experiment remain safe from avaricious outsiders who failed to fully understand the significance of their quest. For it was not the wealth gold represented that motivated the true alchemists but its unique perfection and resistance to decayfor therein lay the key to immortality itself.
Unfortunately, as Johann Böttger had already found to his cost, his intrinsically noble ambition was more often than not lost on those wealthy enough to sponsor such gold-making experiments. All Augustus and his royal counterparts elsewhere in Europe were really interested in was their own pecuniary gain. But in this quest they encouraged alchemists in scientific research that extended the understanding of the world around them, in order to improve technology, boost trade and add to their wealth and prestige. So alchemists developed laboratory equipment, experimental techniques and manufacturing processes such as glassmaking and the fabrication of imitation gems, and thus laid the foundation for the development of modern industrial chemistry.
Augustus was only too aware that sponsoring the search for the arcanum was not without its attendant dangers. Credulous monarchs were easy game for the numerous charlatans and tricksters who toured the courts of Europe trying to dupe them into parting with real gold by means of little more than a promise that they would repay such investments thousandfold. The cost to those found guilty of such sharp practices was high; the penalty was likely to involve inquisition, torture and ignominious deathusually on a gallows decorated with gold tinsel. But there were many who thought the risk worth taking.
Was Böttger a fraudster? Clearly until now the king had thought not, for over the period that he had held Böttger captive he had lavished considerable sums of money on equipping a laboratory, as well as providing him with assistants and all the materials he could need. This escape attempt, however, could not fail to make him think twice.
This sobering thought must have preoccupied the fugitive alchemist as he fled through the night, stopping only when he needed to rest his horse. For four days he journeyed southward. Crossing the border into Austria and heading for Prague he rested on his way in the town of Enns. Here, in the anonymity of the bustling streets, he could temporarily cover his tracks before continuing his journey.
But the tentacles of Augustus's power were not so easily evaded. His soldiers refused to give up the chase. On June 26, 1703, their tenacity finally paid off when they traced Böttger to an inconspicuous inn where he had taken lodgings. He was summarily arrested and brought back to Dresden under close guard. The soldiers, recognizing his depression, did not let their vigilance slip and there were no more chances of escape. There was, however, plenty of time to wonder how the king would punish him for his audacity.
Back in Dresden, Augustus, now forced to consider what action to take in the light of Böttger's waywardness, called for the advice of the two men he had appointed as his prisoner's supervisors: Pabst von Ohain, manager of the royal silver mine at Freiberg, and Michael Nehmitz, royal privy secretary.
A highly trained scientist with a particular interest in mineralogy, von Ohain had been an appropriate choice of overseer, and had helped Böttger in his experiment by providing the necessary raw materials. Nehmitz, by contrast, had taken an instant dislike to the brash, overconfident alchemist and made his feelings clear from the start; he probably would not have cared less if the recaptured prisoner had been put to death.
Fortunately, however, von Ohain was still impressed by his troublesome charge. He put in a strong plea for clemency, begging the king to spare the alchemist's life. Böttger was not a charlatan, of that the supervisor felt sure; "something out of the ordinary and strange lay concealed within him." Böttger, realizing the danger he was in, also implored Augustus to spare him and gave a written undertaking never to try to escape again. From now on, he vowed, he would do nothing but pursue his gold-making for the king.
Augustus considered his options. He had already invested about 40,000 thalers, a great deal of money even by his extravagant standards, in equipping Böttger's laboratory and paying for his assistant.* Böttger seemed as confident as ever of his ability to find the arcanum, as well as suitably repentant. Von Ohain, whom the king held in great respect, believed in him. Despite his escape attempt Augustus still trusted him; his knowledge of science was formidable, his brilliance undeniable. After protracted discussions with his advisors the king at last decided to spare Böttger's neck, but ordered that he be kept under closer guard than before. Sooner or later Böttger would find a way of making gold, Augustus remained utterly convinced of it.
*A thaler was worth roughly 5 shillings (25 pence) in the eighteenth century, so Augusruss expenditure was equivalent to ?10,000in modern terms something like ?650,000 (given that a pound sterling today is worth roughly sixty-five times more).
Excerpted from The Arcanum , by Janet Gleeson . Copyright (c) 1998 by Janet Gleeson . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top