The pseudonymous sixteenth century alchemist Denis Zachaire (1510–1556) records his joy of discovery, but mostly the drain on his finances and credulity in this gently satirical account of his life as an alchemist. Alchemy was a way of coming closer to God and like a lot of witchcraft (folk magic) was styled as allegory, sacred ritual or devotion with prayers and appeals to spiritual figures. It became Chemistry, a science, and much more heretical, when it was understood that far more advances could be made by assuming everything can be explained and there are no spiritual influences. Zachaire spent the family fortune trying to make gold, and despite his claim, likely didn’t. What he more acutely chronicled in his short “autobiography” was the parade of cheats, scoundrels and frauds and hapless enthusiasts as he ruefully details his expenses. Having transmuted his gold, he immediately sells off and gives away the remainder of his inheritance and moves away to live a modest life, naturally, so as not to attract attention. He died fairly young and evidently quite diminished, at 43.
The Autobiography Of Denis Zachaire
“I desired nothing better than to have the means to continue my experiments, a circumstance which constrained me to go to my home and to discharge the caretakers in order myself to have the management of my paternal estate. I rented it for three years for four hundred ecus in order to have the means to expend upon one recipe among others that an Italian had supplied to me at Toulouse. And he assured me that he had seen it tested. I kept this man with me to see the outcome of his recipe, to practise which I was obliged to purchase two ounces of gold and a marc of silver. When these were melted together, we dissolved them in aqua fortis, then we calcined them by evaporation. We tried to dissolve them with divers other waters by divers distillations so many times that two months passed before our powder was ready to make the reprojection of it. We used as much of it as the recipe required, but it was in vain; the only increase that I received from it was in the fashion of the shortened pound. From all the gold and silver which I had used I recovered only half a marc, without counting the other costs which were not small. So, my four hundred ecus were reduced to two hundred and thirty, and of this I supplied my Italian with twenty to go to find the author of the recipe, who he said was at Milan, in order that he might write back to us. After this I was at Toulouse all the winter awaiting his return, and I would be there yet if I had decided to wait for him – for I have not seen him since…. “
After some years, poorer and wiser, he returns home to continue his work:
“But this was not without having divers impediments, on the most important of which I am silent, from my nearest relatives and friends. One said to me: “What do you want to do? Haven’t you spent enough on such follies?” Another assured me that if I continued to buy such a menu of charcoal I would be suspected of making false money, as indeed he had already heard spoken of. Then there came another telling me that everyone (even the most important people of our city) were finding it very strange that I did not take up the profession of the long robe, since I was a licenciate in law, in order to attain to some honorable office in the city.
Others who were nearer to me ordinarily tempted me, saying, why didn’t I bring an end to those foolish expenses, and that it would be more to my advantage to save the money to pay my creditors and to buy some office, threatening me further that they would have the authorities come to my home to break up everything for me. They said further, “If you won’t do anything for us, have some respect for yourself. Consider that being about thirty years old, you appear to be fifty, since your beard has commenced to turn gray, and makes you seem very aged, from the pain that you have endured in the pursuit of your youthful follies”, and a thousand other pieces of comparable advice with which they ordinarily importuned me.
I leave it to you to imagine whether this talk was a bore to me, since at this time I was seeing my work go from better to better, and I was always attentive to the conduct of it in spite of these and comparable other delays which came upon me incessantly, and especially the danger of the plague which was so great during the summer that there was no foot-travel or traffic which was not interrupted, in such manner that a day did not pass that I was not looking with very great diligence for the appearance of the three colors which the philosophers have written ought to appear before the perfection of our divine work. These, thanks to the Lord God, I saw, one after another, for on the very next Easter day I saw the true and perfect experience of them on quick-silver heated in a crucible which I converted into fine gold under my own eyes in less than an hour by means of a little of this divine powder.
God knows if I was delighted about it. But I did not boast for all that. But after having rendered thanks to our good God who had shown me such favor and grace through his son, our redeemer, Jesus Christ, and after having prayed that he would illuminate me by his holy spirit to enable me to use it for his honor and praise, I went away on the next day to find the Abbe at his monastery to fulfil the covenant and promise which we had made together. But I found that he had died six months previously — at which I was greatly grieved. So it was also with the death of the good doctor, of which I was informed while passing near to his convent.
I therefore went away to a certain place to wait there for a friend of mine and near relative, with whom I had lived at my residence and whom I had left there with authority and express instructions to sell all and each of the paternal goods which I had, to pay my creditors with the proceeds, and to distribute the rest secretly to those who were in need of it in order that my relatives and others might feel some benefit from the great good that God had given me without anyone being the wiser. But they thought on the contrary that, despairing and ashamed of my foolish expenditures, I had sold my goods in order to retire to another place, as this friend of mine informed me when he came to find me on the first day of July. And we went to Lausanne, having decided to travel and to pass the rest of my days in a certain very renowned city of Germany, with a very small household in order that I might not be known even by those who see and read this little book of mine during my lifetime in our country of France.”
The Autobiography of Denis Zachaire: An Account of an Alchemist’s Life in the Sixteenth Century
Denis Zachaire and Tenney L. Davis.
Isis 1926 8:2, 287-299.