What was the general altitude towards alchemists? Were they respected? Who funded them?

  • 3
    Alchemy existed in various forms across the European and Asian continents for a long period of time. So your question seems a little broad. You may want to narrow down when and where for your place and time of interest.
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 14, 2017 at 6:08
  • This is a very broad question- Europe is rather large to have the same opinion throughout on a group of people.
    – 米凯乐
    Mar 18, 2017 at 11:40
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    – MCW
    Jan 28, 2021 at 9:50
  • Not in the middle ages, but Johannes Kunckel and Johann Friedrich Böttger worked directly for German monarchs around 1700. And while respect was not really universal, they both seem to have enjoyed quite considerable credit with their respective monarchs, at least for a while.
    – Jan
    Jan 28, 2021 at 15:00
  • I am not sure that "alchemist" was a profession. Just like physicists, chemists or biologists didn't exist at the time, with few exceptions all kinds of people were doing alchemy (which also included chemistry before the 18-19th century). People like Newton, for example.
    – Greg
    Jan 31, 2021 at 8:48

2 Answers 2


You have to remember that chemistry was not a well-defined science yet. The borders between chemistry, natural philosophy, and alchemy were unclear. Universities would teach the seven liberal arts, consisting of the trivium and quadrivium. Other fields of study would be classified into this system, or simply called philosophy. There were people like Roger Bacon, who was a monk, or Albertus Magnus, who was a bishop. Their study could be called chemistry or alchemy.

Other alchemists would have promised rulers to make gold, which was common enough to lead to a papal bull against it. This was an edict against counterfeiting, not against alchemistry as such.

  • 1
    Many early men of science, such as Isacc Newton, dabbled in alchemy.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 14, 2017 at 18:04
  • @T.E.D. I would say Newton did more than dabble. It is interesting that despite the negative connotation of alchemy today, I think it is very arguable that his experience with processes, dealing with molten metal, etc. involved in alchemical research were extremely helpful to him in his work at the mint.
    – Jeff
    Mar 17, 2017 at 16:19
  • If there is no clear understanding of the division of alchemy and chemistry, one could say that he dabbled in chemistry, in addition to his maths and physics work.
    – o.m.
    Mar 17, 2017 at 21:11

Before roughly 1700, alchemy was simply another word for chemistry (the words are cognate). Any kind of work with chemicals could be called either chemistry or alchemy in Europe, depending simply on what kind of local vocabulary you were familiar with. Books about working with chemicals would be addressed to people doing any kind of work, including trying to make a philosopher's stone.

In 1699, the French Academy of Sciences was founded. They initially had virtually no code of ethics, and members included vivisection and human experimentation among their wish list for scientific experiments. However, "philosopher's stones" were banned from the very beginning.

By the mid 18th century, alchemy was completely excluded from high European society.

Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (2012)
Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1985)

  • Today we should respect the work of the alchemists. There was absolutely no way of knowing then that elements could not be transmuted through chemical processes and in fact they can be transmuted. I am not sure the matter is completely settled about transmutation -- I believe some have suggested that biological systems can actually transmute elements. (Although not lead into gold.) The central idea that chemistry and alchemy were the same field prior to 1700 implies that important chemical discoveries were made by alchemists.
    – Jeff
    Mar 17, 2017 at 16:22

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