Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds
Vol. III - Philosophical Delusions 1
Chapter 33 - George Ripley
While alchymy was thus cultivated on the continent of Europe, it was not neglected in the isles of Britain. Since the time of Roger Bacon, it had fascinated the imagination of many ardent men in England. In the year 1404, an act of parliament was passed, declaring the making of gold and silver to be felony. Great alarm was felt at that time lest any alchymist should succeed in his projects, and perhaps bring ruin upon the state, by furnishing boundless wealth to some designing tyrant, who would make use of it to enslave his country. This alarm appears to have soon subsided; for, in the year 1455, King Henry VI, by advice of his council and parliament, granted four successive patents and commissions to several knights, citizens of London, chemists, monks, mass-priests, and others, to find out the philosopher's stone and elixir, "to the great benefit," said the patent, "of the realm, and the enabling of the King to pay all the debts of the Crown in real gold and silver." Prinn, in his "Aurum Reginae," observes, as a note to this passage, that the King's reason for granting this patent to ecclesiastics was, that they were such good artists in transubstantiating bread and wine in the Eucharist, and therefore the more likely to be able to effect the transmutation of baser metals into better. No gold, of course, was ever made; and, next year, the King, doubting very much of the practicability of the thing, took further advice, and appointed a commission of ten learned men, and persons of eminence, to judge and certify to him whether the transmutation of metals were a thing practicable or no. It does not appear whether the commission ever made any report upon the subject.
In the succeeding reign, an alchymist appeared who pretended to have discovered the secret. This was George Ripley, the canon of Bridlington, in Yorkshire. He studied for twenty years in the universities of Italy, and was a great favourite with Pope Innocent VIII, who made him one of his domestic chaplains, and master of the ceremonies in his household. Returning to England in 1477, he dedicated to King Edward IV. his famous work, "The Compound of Alchymy; or, the Twelve Gates leading to the Discovery of the Philosopher's Stone." These gates he described to be calcination, solution, separation, conjunction, putrefaction, congelation, cibation, sublimation, fermentation, exaltation, multiplication, and projection! to which he might have added botheration, the most important process of all. He was very rich, and allowed it to be believed that he could make gold out of iron. Fuller, in his "Worthies of England," says that an English gentleman of good credit reported that, in his travels abroad, he saw a record in the island of Malta, which declared that Ripley gave yearly to the knights of that island, and of Rhodes, the enormous sum of one hundred thousand pounds sterling, to enable them to carry on the war against the Turks. In his old age, he became an anchorite near Boston, and wrote twenty-five volumes upon the subject of alchymy, the most important of which is the "Duodecim Portarum," already mentioned. Before he died, he seems to have acknowledged that he had misspent his life in this vain study, and requested that all men, when they met with any of his books, would burn them, or afford them no credit, as they had been written merely from his opinion, and not from proof; and that subsequent trial had made manifest to him that they were false and vain. [Fuller's "Worthies of England."]