Reginald Scot’s influential The discoverie of Witchcraft, (first issued in 1584 and reprinted a number of times in the 17th century), has a section (the fourteenth book) devoted to a criticism of alchemy.
The First Chapter
Of the art of Alcumystrie, of their woords of art and devises to bleare mens eies, and to procure credit to their profession.
Ere I thought it not impertinent to saie somewhat of the art or rather the craft of Alcumystrie, otherwise called Multiplication; which Chaucer, of all other men, most livelie deciphereth. In the bowels herof dooth both witchcraft and conjuration lie hidden, as whereby some cousen others, and some are cousened themselves. For by this mysterie (as it is said in the chanons mans prologue).
They take upon them to turne upside downe,
All the earth betwixt Southwarke and Canturburie towne,
And to pave it all of silver and gold, etc.
But ever they lacke of their conclusion,
And to much folke they doo illusion.
For their stuffe slides awaie so fast,
That it makes them beggers at the last,
And by this craft they doo never win,
But make their pursse emptie, and their wits thin.
And bicause the practisers heereof would be thought wise, learned, cunning, and their crafts maisters, they have devised words of art, sentences and epithets obscure, and confectious so innumerable (which are also compounded of strange and rare simples) as confound the capacities of them that are either set on worke heerein, or be brought to behold or expect their conclusions.
For what plaine man would not beleeve, that they are learned and jollie fellowes, that have in such readinesse so many mysticall termes of art: as (for a tast) their subliming, amalgaming, engluting, imbibing, incorporating, cementing, citrination, terminations, mollifications, and indurations of bodies, matters combust and coagulat, ingots, tests, &c. Or who is able to conceive (by reason of the abrupt confusion, contrarietie, and multitude of drugs, simples, and confections) the operation and mysterie of their stuffe and workemanship.
For these things and many more, are of necessitie to be prepared and used in the execution of this indevor; namelie orpiment, sublimed Mercurie, iron squames, Mercurie crude, groundlie large, bole armoniake, verdegrece, borace, boles, gall, arsenicke, sal armoniake, brimstone, salt, paper, burnt bones, unsliked lime, claie, saltpeter, vitriall, saltartre, alcalie, sal preparat, claie made with horsse doong, mans haire, oile of tartre, allum, glasse, woort, yest, argoll, resagor, gleir of an eie, powders, ashes, doong, pisse, &c. Then have they waters corosive and lincall, waters of albification, and waters rubifieng, etc. Also oiles, ablutions, and metals fusible. Also their lamps, their urinalles, discensories, sublimatories, alembecks, viols, croslets, cucurbits, stillatories, and their fornace of calcination: also their soft and subtill fiers, some of wood, some of cole, composed speciallie of beech, etc.
And bicause they will not seeme to want anie point of cousenage to astonish the simple, or to moove admiration to their enterprises, they have (as they affirme) foure spirits to worke withall, whereof the first is, orpiment; the second, quicksilver; the third, sal armoniake; the fourth, brimstone. Then have they seven celestiall bodies; namelie, Sol, Luna, Mars, Mercurie, Saturne, Jupiter, and Venus; to whome they applie seven terrestriall bodies; to wit: gold, silver, iron, quickesilver, lead, tinne, and copper, attributing unto these the operation of the other; speciallie if the terrestriall bodies be qualified, tempered, and wrought in the houre and daie according to the feats of the celestiall bodies:with more like vanitie.
The Second Chapter
The Alcumysters drift, the Chanons yeomans tale, of alcumysticall stones and waters.
Now you must understand that the end and drift of all their worke, is, to atteine unto the composition of the philosophers stone, called Alixer, and to the stone called Titanus; and to Magnatia, which is a water made of the foure elements, which (they saie) the philosophers are sworne neither to discover, nor to write of. And by these they mortifie quicke silver, and make it malleable, and to hold touch: heereby also they convert any other mettall (but speciallie copper) into gold. This science (forsooth) is the secret of secrets; even as Salomons conjuration is said among the conjurors to be so likewise. And thus, when they chance to meete with yong men, or simple people, they boast and brag, and saie with Simon Magus, that they can worke miracles, and bring mightie things to passe. In which respect Chaucer truelie heereof saith:
Each man is as wise as Salomon,
When they are togither everichone:
But he that seemes wisest, is most foole in preefe,
And he that is truest, is a verie theefe.
They seeme friendlie to them that knowe nought,
But they are feendlie both in word and thought,
yet many men ride and seeke their acquaintance,
Not knowing of their false governance.
He also saith, and experience verifieth his assertion, that they looke ill favouredlie, & are alwaies beggerlie attired: his words are these:
These fellowes looke ill favouredlie,
And are alwaies tired beggerlie,
So as by smelling and thredbare araie,
These folke are knowne and discerned alwaie.
But so long as they have a sheet to wrap them in by night,
Or a rag to hang about them in the day light,
They will it spend in this craft,
They cannot stint till nothing be laft.
Here one may learne if he have ought,
To multiplie and bring his good to naught.
But if a man aske them privilie,
Whie they are clothed so unthriftilie,
They will round him in the eare and saie,
If they espied were, men would them slaie,
And all bicause of this noble science:
Lo thus these folke beetraien innocence.
The tale of the chanons yeoman published by Chaucer, dooth make (by waie of example) a perfect demonstration of the art of Alcumystrie or multiplication: the effect whereof is this. A chanon being an Alcumyster or cousenor, espied a covetous preest, whose pursse he knew to be well lined, whome he assaulted with flatterie and subtill speach, two principall points belonging to this art. At the length he borrowed monie of the preest, which is the third part of the art, without the which the professors can doo no good, nor indure in good estate. Then he at his daie repaied the monie, which is the most difficult point in this art, and a rare experiment. Finallie, to requite the preests courtesie, he promised unto him such instructions, as wherby with expedition he should become infinitelie rich, and all through this art of multiplication. And this is the most common point in this science; for herein they must be skilfull before they can be famous, or atteine to anie credit. The preest disliked not his proffer; speciallie bicause it tended to his profit, and embraced his courtesie. Then the chanon willed him foorthwith to send for three ownces of quicke silver, which he said he would transubstantiate (by his art) into perfect silver. The preest thought that a man of his profession could not dissemble, and therefore with great joy and hope accomplished his request.
And now(forsooth) goeth this jollie Alcumyst about his busines and worke of multiplication, and causeth the preest to make a fier of coles, in the bottome whereof he placeth a croslet; and pretending onelie to helpe the preest to laie the coles handsomelie, he foisteth into the middle ward or lane of coles, a beechen cole, within the which was conveied an ingot of perfect silver, which (when the cole was consumed) slipt downe into the croslet, that was (I saie) directlie under it. The preest perceived not the fraud, but received the ingot of silver, and was not a little joyfull to see such certeine successe proceed from his owne handie worke wherein could be no fraud (as he surelie conceived) and therefore verie willinglie gave the cannon fortie pounds for the receipt of this experiment, who for that summe of monie taught him a lesson in Alcumystrie, but he never returned to heare repetitions, or to see how he profited.
The Third Chapter
Of a yeoman of the countrie cousened by an Alcumist.
I could cite manie Alcumysticall cousenages wrought by Doctor Burcot, Feates, and such other; but I will passe them over, and onelie repeate three experiments of that art; the one practised upon an honest yeoman in the countie of Kent, the other upon a mightie prince, the third upon a covetous preest. And first touching the yeoman, he was overtaken and used in maner and forme following, by a notable cousening varlot, who professed Alcumystrie, juggling, witchcraft, and conjuration: and by meanes of his companions and confederats discussed the simplicitie and abilitie of the said yeoman, and found out his estate and humor to be convenient for his purpose; and finallie came a wooing (as they saie) to his daughter, to whome he made love cunninglie in words, though his purpose tended to another matter. And among other illusions and tales, concerning his owne commendation, for welth, parentage, inheritance, alliance, activitie, learning, pregnancie, and cunning, he boasted of his knowledge and experience in Alcumystrie; making the simple man beleeve that he could multiplie, and of one angell make two or three. Which seemed strange to the poore man, in so much as he became willing enough to see that conclusion: whereby the Alcumyster had more hope and comfort to atteine his desire, than if his daughter had yeelded to have maried him. To be short, he in the presence of the said yeoman, did include within a little ball of virgine wax, a couple of angels; and after certeine ceremonies and conjuring words he seemed to deliver the same unto him: but in truth (through legierdemaine) he conveied into the yeomans hand another ball of the same scantling, wherein were inclosed manie more angels than were in the ball which he thought he had received.
Now (forsooth) the Alcumyster bad him laie up the same ball of wax, and also use certeine ceremonies (which I thought good heere to omit). And after certeine daies, houres, and minuts they returned together, according to the appointment, and found great gaines by the multiplication of the angels. Insomuch as he, being a plaine man, was heereby persuaded, that he should not onelie have a rare and notable good sonne in lawe; but a companion that might helpe to adde unto his welth much treasure, and to his estate great fortune and felicitie. And to increase this opinion in him, as also to winne his further favour; but speciallie to bring his cunning Alcumystrie, or rather his lewd purpose to passe; he told him that it were follie to multiplie a pound of gold, when as easilie they might multiplie a millian: and therefore counselled him to produce all the monie he had, or could borrowe of his neighbours and freends; and did put him out of doubt, that he would multiplie the same, and redouble it exceedinglie, even as he save by experience how he delt with the small summe before his face.
This yeoman, in hope of gaines and preferment, etc.: consented to this sweete motion, and brought out and laid before his feete, not the one halfe of his goods, but all that he had, or could make or borrowe anie maner of waie. Then this juggling Alcumyster, having obteined his purpose, folded the same in a ball, in quantitie farre bigger than the other, and conveieng the same into his bosome or pocket, delivered another ball (as before) of the like quantitie unto the yeoman, to be reserved and safelie kept in his chest; whereof (bicause the matter was of importance) either of them must have a key, and a severall locke, that no interruption might be made to the ceremonie, nor abuse by either of them, in defrauding ech other. Now (forsooth) these circumstances and ceremonies being ended, and the Alcumysters purpose therby performed; he told the yeoman that (untill a certeine daie and houre limitted to returne) either of them might emploie themselves about their busines, and necessarie affaires; the yeoman to the plough, and he to the citie of London, and in the meane time the gold shuld multiplie, etc. But the Alcumyster (belike) having other matters of more importance came not just at the houre appointed, nor yet at the daie, nor within the yeare: so as, although it were somewhat against the yeomans conscience to violate his promise, or breake the league; yet partlie by the longing he had to see, and partlie the desire he had to enjoie the fruit of that excellent experiment, having (for his owne securitie) and the others satisfaction, some testimonie at the opening thereof, to witnesse his sincere dealing, he brake up the coffer, and lo he soone espied the ball of wax, which he himselfe had laid up there with his owne hand. So as he thought (if the hardest should fall) he should find his principall: and whie not as good increase hereof now, as of the other before. But alas! when the wax was broken, and the metall discovered, the gold was much abased, and beecame perfect lead.
Now who so list to utter his follie,
Let him come foorth, and learne to multiplie;
And everie man that hath ought in his cofer,
Let him appeare, and waxe a philosopher,
In learning of this elvish nice lore,
All is in vaine, and pardee much more
Is to learne a lewd man this sutteltie,
Fie, speake not thereof it woll not bee.
For He that hath learning, and he that hath none,
Conclude alike in multiplcatione.
The Fourth Chapter
A certeine King abused by an Alcumyst, and of the kings foole a pretie jest.
The second example is of another Alcumyst that came to a certeine king, promising to worke by his art manie great things, as well in compounding and transubstantiating of mettals, as in executing of other exploites of no lesse admiration. But before he beganne, he found the meanes to receive by vertue of the kings warrant, a great summe of monie in prest, assuring the king and his councell, that he would shortlie returne, and accomplish his promise, etc. Soone after, the kings foole, among other jestes, fell into a discourse and discoverie of fooles, and handled that common place so pleasantlie, that the king began to take delight therein, & to like his merrie veine. Whereupon he would needes have the foole deliver unto him a schedull or scroll, conteining the names of all the most excellent fooles in the land.
So he caused the kings name to be first set downe, and next him all the names of the lords of his privie councell. The king seeing him so sawcie and malepert, ment to have had him punished: but some of his councell, knowing him to be a fellow pleasantlie conceipted, besought his majestie rather to demand of him a reason of his libell, etc, than to proceed in extremitie against him. Then the foole being asked why he so sawcilie accused the king and his councell of principall follie, answered; Bicause he sawe one foolish knave beguile them all, and to cousen them of so great a masse of monie, and finallie to be gone out of their reach. Why (said one of the councell) he maie returne and performe his promise, etc. Then (quoth the foole) I can helpe all the matter easilie. How (said the king) canst thou doo that? Marie sir (said he) then I will blotte out your name, and put in his, as the most foole in the world. Manie other practises of the like nature might be hereunto annexed, for the detection of their knaverie and deceipts whereupon this art dependeth, whereby the readers maie be more delighted in reading, than the practisers benefited in simplie using the same. For it is an art consisting wholie of subtiltie and deceipt, whereby the ignorant and plaine minded man through his too much credulitie is circumvented, and the humor of the other slie cousener satisfied.