Edith: I’m so delighted to welcome my fellow Californian Jeri Westerson to the blog today. While her Crispin Guest mysteries, set in old England, don’t exactly qualify as cozy mysteries, they are wicked awesome stories, and she’s a wicked nice, and creative and funny, person. I wait every year for the new book to come out. And now Shadow of the Alchemist is finally released! Maybe this post will tell us how Old England was magically transformed into New England. And if not, it’s bound to be a good read, just as her books are. (Go read them – you’ll love them.)
Jeri: With the release of my newest Crispin Guest Medieval mystery, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, I thought that I’d talk a bit about alchemy and alchemists, since it plays such a pivotal role in the book. I suppose the first question would be, what is alchemy?
In the strictest sense, it is the attempt of the medieval person to make sense of the world around them. It is the precursor to the scientific method, while at the same time making use of spiritualism, mysticism, numerology, astrology, and just plain imagination. The alchemist relied on the writings of those that had come before, including the Greek philosophers and Jewish documents of Kabbalah and mythology, that didn’t so much as experiment with science as merely proposed how the world worked, without the benefit of empirical evidence.
On the face of it, alchemy captured the imaginations of scholars and dabblers. Alchemists experimented with minerals and performed chemistry, really looking at what they wrought from their work. In later centuries, this would become the scientific method of postulation, performing the experiment to see what happened, trying to repeat results, and then analyzing those results. The alchemist became a great distiller, boiling down their minerals to create other things. It was called the Royal Art, for more likely than not, their patrons were royalty.
The Philosopher’s Stone
Alchemists tried to achieve many things with their art. And alchemists appeared all over the world in all different cultures and disciplines. In the west, their main concern was the Great Work, that of turning simple metals, like lead, into gold. In the east, it was the quest for immortality. These two disciplines later combined. The Philosopher’s Stone is an object that can change lead into gold, but it can also create the Elixir of Life that can grant immortality.
The philosophy and principles behind alchemy stretch into various forms of mysticism and were handed down to us in varying ways. One can look at the symbolism in Tarot Cards and see much of the alchemist there. The magical dreamscapes in the Tarot (which are not medieval but come much later) have its foundations in the Middle Ages (card suits in the medieval period, for instance, were not hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds but wands, swords, cups, and coins, the same as you will find in “modern” tarot cards) and further back to ancient Egypt and Greece. One simply couldn’t begin alchemy without a thorough understanding of symbolism and the mythology behind it. Certain favorable phases of the moon were required before beginning one’s experiments.
It’s very zen, thinking like an alchemist. They all believed that we—you and me and every plant, animal, and mineral—are made up of more than we could see with the naked eye. The spiritual is bound up with the physical. It’s separating the spiritual and the physical that can open the door to transmutation, that is, changing one substance into another (physicists are our modern alchemists when they create new and elusive atomic elements). The alchemist first identifies the tria prima, or the three elements of life, (which is different from the Four Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, but not too far because they do all connect — are you keeping up?) which are the spirit, the life-giving principle of Nature itself; the soul, the unique essence of each thing that identifies it; and the body. In alchemy, it’s not only that which is alike that is needed for the Work, but that which is opposite. Sun and Moon, Man and Woman, for instance. Each has their own importance and function, working against one another but also, when combined, can create.
Famous alchemists of the past can conjure an ethereal image just by mention of their names: Nicholas Flamel, who is a main character in SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, also had a mention in HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE (or, as they called it in America because I suppose publishers thought Americans didn’t know any better, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.) He is most closely associated with creating the Philosopher’s Stone, yet it was not in his lifetime that he was associated with alchemy, only afterward.
Paracelsus was a scholar and alchemist from the fifteenth century, and the embodiment of what we will later call “scientist,” only he was born a little too early for that. Among his many accomplishments: he founded the discipline of toxicology; insisted upon using observation rather than merely relying on the word of the philosophers of the past; coined the terms “zinc,” “chemistry,” “alcohol,” and “gas”; and even delved into psychology by daring to suggest some illnesses were caused by the mind.
Michał Sędziwój was a Polish alchemist and medical doctor from the seventeenth century. One of his greatest accomplishments was discovering that air is not a single substance but in fact is made up of many, one being what would later be called oxygen.
Though we are still far off in discovering ways to turn lead into gold—though not too far with the ability to manipulate atoms—the alchemist was invaluable to later strides in science. Without these earlier pioneers—sometimes facing the wrath of the Church and their own colleagues to promote their radical ideas—we might still be behind in understanding the world around us.
Readers: Jeri will answer your questions today (that is, today on West Coast time). Ask away!
Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries. Her brooding protagonist is Crispin Guest, a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London, encountering thieves, kings, poets, and religious relics. Her books have garnered nominations for the Shamus, the Macavity, the Agatha, Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Jeri is president of the southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and is vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. When not writing, Jeri dabbles in gourmet cooking, drinks fine wines, eats cheap chocolate, and swoons over anything British.
See Jeri’s website for more on SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST and the whole Crispin Guest series, including book club discussion guides and the series book trailer video.