CSMBR | Delaying Death: The Role of Alchemy in Roger’s Bacon Medical Works

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@ 10:00 am - 11:00 am

DELAYING DEATH: The Role of Alchemy in Roger’s Bacon Medical Works

Virtual Talk

In a small fragment of a work now called the Liber sex scientiarum, the English Franciscan Roger Bacon explained that the human body had the potential to be immortal. If Adam had remained in the Garden of Eden, he would have been able to live forever, sustained by the fruit produced by the Tree of Life. But even though mankind had sinned, Bacon understood the Bible to teach that all humans would eventually reach the ideal state of immortality, albeit only after the resurrection.
At the moment of the resurrection, each person would receive an incorruptible, and therefore immortal body, which would be subject to neither disease, decay, nor aging. Despite mankind’s fall, Bacon said, wise men could learn how to make approximations of these bodies, so that their own lives would be greatly lengthened. Though no one could live forever before the resurrection, wise men might be able to extend their lives by decades, even centuries, through the prolongatio vitae—the extreme prolongation of life.
My talk examines Bacon’s alchemical theories and explains how he believed that the key to extending life lay not in the curricula as taught in the medical faculties of the universities, but in the study of alchemy. Though twelfth- and thirteenth-century alchemy was generally concerned with the transmutation of metals, Bacon’s alchemy was a much larger area of study, encompassing the generation and corruption of all material things in the sublunary world. It was this aspect of alchemy, which Bacon referred to as speculative alchemy, that explained how the four elements interacted with each other to make the basis of reality.
Thus, the study of alchemy in conjunction with humoral medicine could explain not only how the human body worked, but how it interacted with the materials around it, illuminating the method of prolonging life to extreme lengths.