Henry IV cracks down on alchemy

Philoso­phers are banned from turn­ing base met­als into gold with this ner­vous procla­ma­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

In all the years of English po­lit­i­cal his­tory, few acts of par­lia­ment look odder than the Act Against Mul­ti­pli­ers, signed into law by Henry IV on 13 Jan­uary 1404. In­stead of lib­er­at­ing the na­tion’s school­child­ren from the tyranny of times ta­bles, this was ac­tu­ally an at­tempt to deal with a much more un­set­tling threat: the rise of alchemy.

Although the idea of alchemy – the be­lief that, with the right for­mula, a philoso­pher could turn base met­als into gold – now seems ab­surd, it was one of the foun­da­tions of what be­came mod­ern chem­istry. Early sci­en­tists, from the Dan­ish as­tronomer Ty­cho Brahe to Sir Isaac New­ton, were of­ten fas­ci­nated by alchemy. To many na­tional govern­ments, how­ever, it seemed a threat to the nat­u­ral or­der. For if an al­chemist man­aged to make gold at will, he would not only un­der­mine the en­tire eco­nomic sys­tem, he would be­come the most pow­er­ful man in the land.

So in early 1404, Henry IV – a man who knew a thing or two about over­throw­ing an es­tab­lished regime – de­cided to crack down on the al­chem­i­cal threat. The Act Against Mul­ti­pli­ers or­dered that “none from here­after should use to mul­ti­ply gold or sil­ver, or use the craft of mul­ti­pli­ca­tion; and if any the same do, they in­cur the pain of felony”. From this point on­wards, prospec­tive al­chemists needed an ex­pen­sive li­cence to pur­sue their ex­per­i­ments. Only in 1689 was the ban lifted, thanks to lob­by­ing from one of the great­est sci­en­tists of the day – Robert Boyle, the fa­ther of mod­ern chem­istry, who was him­self a keen but sadly un­suc­cess­ful al­chemist.

A 14th-cen­tury French il­lus­tra­tion shows al­chemists at work. Alchemy was deemed to pose a real threat to those with power in the me­dieval world – as such, an act passed by Henry IV made the prac­tice a felony

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