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By Katie Crowson on

From alchemy to astronomy: Practitioners of science and magic in Renaissance Europe

Assistant Curator Katie Crowson highlights the figures represented among the Science Museum Group collection that pursued ‘hidden’ knowledge in Europe during the Renaissance.

Magic played a vital role in the early development of modern science. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe saw a resurgence of learning and interest in the ‘magical arts’.

The term ‘Natural Magic’ was coined by Italian scholar, polymath and playwright Giambattista della Porta who published a book entitled Magia Naturalis in 1558. This covered a wide range of topics spanning alchemy, astrology, occult philosophy, meteorology and mathematics. This ‘Natural Magic’ was more widely accepted than some of the other categories of magic in this period such as ‘Goetia’, which was a type of sorcery whose practices were often considered evil.

Natural magic referred to attempts to discover the hidden workings of nature; it often relied on a combination of extensive reading and empirical experiments – those based on observation rather than purely theory. This empirical approach was adopted by figures associated with the Scientific Revolution, a period of drastic change in scientific thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which transformed attitudes to the natural world. Individuals such as Isaac Newton developed this empirical approach in their own experiments to try to understand nature.

However, this does not mean the evidence gathered by those who practiced magical arts was what we would today regard as ‘scientific’. Practitioners sought to discover the hidden knowledge of the occult through a variety of means, from alchemy experiments which sought to transform base metals into gold to summoning of angels in mirrors.

The resurgence of the ‘magical arts’ ultimately began to stall from the seventeenth century. The power and knowledge held by those who practised the occult eventually generated increasing fear and paranoia in the early modern period. After the Protestant Reformation in England, many people were suspicious of magic due to its association with Catholicism, such as the belief that relics had miraculous properties. This suspicion grew significantly after the accession of James I in 1603. James had persecuted witches as King of Scotland before he acceded the English throne, and wrote a book called Daemonologie about magic and witchcraft.

Nicholas Flamel (1330 – 1418): Alchemist, scrivener and the Philosopher’s Stone

Nicolas Flamel was a manuscript seller living in Paris – one of his houses still stands at 51 rue de Montmorency – it is the oldest stone house in the city.

Born around 1330, much of Flamel’s life is shrouded in mystery and speculation built up over the centuries following his death. This makes the history difficult to separate from the myth.

“Le Trésor des Trésors” (The Treasure of the Treasures) – Manuscript transcription of a work by Flamel

This book, produced in the eighteenth century, claims to be a manuscript transcription of a work by Flamel on alchemy and astronomical influences. The right-hand pages bear text and colour wash illustrations as well as notes in another hand.

Sources written almost two hundred years after his death claimed that Flamel not only turned base metals into gold but also created the ‘Elixir of Life’ which bestowed immortality on the drinker.

While this reputation continued long after his death, there is no historical evidence from Flamel’s life that indicates any of these achievements are real. Flamel and his wife Pernelle were wealthy philanthropists in the city, which may have contributed to his later reputation as an alchemist.

Paracelsus (1493 – 1541): Medicine and Magic

Paracelsus was a Swiss physician and alchemist who became one of the most famous medical scientists in Europe. He believed that chemistry, medicine, alchemy, theology and magic were all essentially connected.

In his writings he emphasised the importance of experimentation and the study of nature in medical practice. While he was working as a professor at the University of Basel he invited individuals without academic backgrounds, including alchemists, apothecaries and barber surgeons to work with him, stating ‘the patients are your textbook, the sickbed is your study.’

He also took a keen interest in folk beliefs, writing that ‘the universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.’ This all-embracing approach reflected his itinerant lifestyle. He travelled as a military surgeon to Russia, Arabia and Egypt, mixing with different cultures and learning from their medical beliefs and practices.

Paracelsus was a fiercely independent thinker; he rejected the emphasis on Galen’s humoral theory at the University of Basel. Galen had further developed Hippocrates’ theory that health was dependent on keeping the four humours – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm – in balance with each other, and that it was the imbalance of these that caused sickness. To become well, the humours would require rebalancing through means such as bloodletting. Although it originated in ancient Greece, humoral theory was still dominant in the medical practice of fifteenth and sixteenth-century Europe.

Small drug jar reputedly owned by Paracelsus, 1500-1541

Paracelsus’ approach to humoral theory differed from the teachings at the University of Basel. While accepting elements of it, he also advocated for targeting the illness in the specific regions of the body affected as opposed to taking a full-body approach.

Paracelsus used some methods which seem more scientific to us today, such as prescribing Laudanum, a tincture of opium, and metal alloys as a cure. However he also used more mystical treatments like destroying a poppet doll created to look like the unwell person in order to destroy the roots of the sickness. He took all these approaches seriously in his efforts to treat patients, utilising both the practical and the mystical.

Paracelsus saw such applications of magic as Christian duty. He argued that ‘human beings needed to know what the Devil knew . . . [including] the kind of knowledge that the Devil misapplied.’

For Paracelsus, reclamation of magic from the Devil to heal other human beings was key to his medical work.

John Dee (1527 – 1609): The occult, astrology and mathematics

An advisor to royalty, John Dee is one of the Renaissance’s most famous figures involved in occult sciences. His practices were broad, ranging from mathematics, astronomy and cartography to astrology, alchemy and divination.

He accumulated one of the largest private libraries of the day, with more than 4,000 books at his home in Mortlake. His estate also encompassed several outbuildings which were dedicated to alchemy experiments for his attempts to turn base metals into gold. Most of our knowledge about Dee’s practice of alchemy comes from the books which made up his library. This included works by earlier alchemists such as Geber and Arnald of Villanova, as well as those of his contemporaries.

In 1555 Dee was arrested for casting the horoscope of Mary I: this was perceived as treasonous, possibly because it was believed that horoscope was to ascertain when Mary would die and her sister Elizabeth accede the throne. He cleared his name, but this was only the first of several accusations which Dee would face as a result of his involvement in the occult, illustrating the great power and fear magic held in the Early Modern minds.

Despite this, upon acceding the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I made Dee one of her advisors – she even asked him to calculate the best day for her coronation using astrology. Dee benefitted from Elizabeth’s patronage during his time at court. In 1568, he published Propaedeumata Aphoristica. The book contained a mixture of physics and mathematics alongside astrology and magic. When he presented the work to Queen Elizabeth, she was impressed and had Dee give her mathematics lessons to enable her to understand it better.

Dee’s mathematical capability also saw him advise on naval navigation. He was in fact the first person to coin the term ‘British Empire’ to refer to the territories that England colonised. Between 1550 and 1570, he advised on English voyages overseas, primarily for the Muscovy Company, who had been granted a monopoly of Anglo-Russian trade. Dee instructed the company’s captains in mathematical navigation as well as preparing maps and providing instruments of navigation for their journeys.

Dee believed that mathematics was the basis of all things and key to knowledge. In 1570 he edited the first English translation of Euclid’s Elements in which he added a preface that proclaimed the importance of mathematics. He also expressed his conviction in the occult power of mathematics to reveal divine mysteries:

A marveilous newtrality have these things mathematicall, and also a strange participation between things supernaturall, immortall, intellectuall, simple and indivisible, and things naturall, mortall, sensible, componded and divisible.

Dee did not distinguish between his mathematics and his investigations of magic and communication with angels: both were part of his quest for a deeper understanding of the way the world worked.

John Dee’s crystal, used for clairvoyance and for curing disease.

In the 1580s, Dee became dissatisfied with his diminishing influence at court and instead turned his energies towards pursuing supernatural knowledge. He became increasingly interested in ‘scrying’, a process of looking into a glass, mirror or similar in the hope of seeing supernatural visions or spirits.

Dee employed a professional scryer to help him in March 1582. Edward Kelley was a medium – someone who claims to communicate with spirits – who said that he was able to contact angels through scrying. Soon Dee and Kelley were devoting large amounts of time to their ‘spiritual conferences’. Kelley’s angels communicated with him in a special language which he then relayed to Dee. Dee termed this language ‘Angelical’ and subsequent writers called it Enochian. On 6 May 1583, Dee wrote out the 21 letters of the Angelical alphabet in his diary, a manuscript which survives to this day in the British Library.

Enochian alphabet from Dr. John Dee’s manuscript diary for 6 May 1583, Sloane MS 3188

According to Dee, this crystal, which is now part of the Science Museum Group’s collection, was given to him by the angel Uriel in November 1582. It was used by Dee and Kelley for scrying and Dee claimed to have seen apparitions in it.

It was entrusted by Dee a year before his death to his son Arthur, who in turn passed it on to physician and alchemist Nicholas Culpeper in 1640 in gratitude for curing his liver complaints. Culpeper tried to use the crystal to cure illness until 1651 when he believed he saw a demonic ghost bursting out of it.

Claude glass believed to be John Dee’s scrying mirror

This mirror is stored in a sharkskin case and is believed to have once belonged to Dee. The base is made from a convex piece of glass with a black blacking. The mirror itself was originally designed to be used by artists to look at landscapes as it reduced the range of colours in a scene, making them look similar to the style of French landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). The Claude glass was therefore supposed to help artists create works similar to those of Lorrain. In contrast, it is believed Dee used the mirror for scrying.

In 1587 Kelley told Dee that the angel Uriel instructed them to share all their possessions, including their wives. Dee was distraught but believed it was a genuine instruction from the angel Urial and recorded in his diary on 22 May 1587 that they shared wives. Nine months later Dee’s wife gave birth to a boy, Theodore, who Dee raised as his own.

In 1603, King James I came to power in England. He had little tolerance of magic and Dee’s political and social influence declined sharply. He spent the end of his life in poverty and died only a few years after the King’s coronation.

These objects and the people associated with them illustrate a fraction of the complex relationship between knowledge, science and magic in this period. Each of them tried to pursue knowledge of the universe through all the routes available to them, consulting not only books, and mathematics but the stars, alchemy, spirits and folkloric beliefs. Experimentation, understanding of materials and observation of the natural world were all key parts of magic. These principles made the occult crucial to the development of what we would today term ‘modern science’.