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Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time

Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupecissa in the Late Middle Ages

Leah DeVun
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time
    Book Description:

    In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Franciscan friar John of Rupescissa sent a dramatic warning to his followers: the last days were coming; the apocalypse was near. Deemed insane by the Christian church, Rupescissa had spent more than a decade confined to prisons-in one case wrapped in chains and locked under a staircase-yet ill treatment could not silence the friar's apocalyptic message.

    Religious figures who preached the end times were hardly rare in the late Middle Ages, but Rupescissa's teachings were unique. He claimed that knowledge of the natural world, and alchemy in particular, could act as a defense against the plagues and wars of the last days. His melding of apocalyptic prophecy and quasi-scientific inquiry gave rise to a new genre of alchemical writing and a novel cosmology of heaven and earth. Most important, the friar's research represented a remarkable convergence between science and religion.

    In order to understand scientific knowledge today, Leah DeVun asks that we revisit Rupescissa's life and the critical events of his age-the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, the Avignon Papacy-through his eyes. Rupescissa treated alchemy as medicine (his work was the conceptual forerunner of pharmacology) and represented the emerging technologies and views that sought to combat famine, plague, religious persecution, and war. The advances he pioneered, along with the exciting strides made by his contemporaries, shed critical light on later developments in medicine, pharmacology, and chemistry.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51934-2
    Subjects: History, Religion, Health Sciences, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-10)

    From the confines of his prison cell in the mid-fourteenth century, the Franciscan friar and alchemist John of Rupescissa boldly predicted the destruction of the society that held him captive. Rupescissa (also called Jean de Roquetaillade or Rochetaillade) was born around 1310 near the town of Aurillac, in the region of southern France known as the Auvergne.¹ By the age of roughly forty-six, when he wrote his Liber ostensor quod adesse festinant tempora (The Book that Shows that the Times Are Soon to Be at Hand), he was a tireless predictor of the apocalypse and a thorn in the side...

    (pp. 11-31)

    In 1356, John of Rupescissa warned in his prophetic treatise, the Vade mecum in tribulatione, that within just a few short years, Antichrist would appear among Christians, ushering in a terrifying climax of human history:

    Before we come to the year 1365, there will appear publicly an eastern Antichrist whose disciples will preach in parts of Jerusalem with false signs and portents to bring about the seduction of all with error . . . in the five years between 1360 and 1365, destructions will abound beyond all human estimation: tempests never before seen from the sky, floods of water unheard...

    (pp. 32-51)

    John of Rupescissa’s examination before the papal curia provides a clear indication of just what was at stake in the fourteenth-century controversy over poverty in the Franciscan order and the larger church. Rupescissa writes in his Liber ostensor that he was brought before a large clerical audience in 1354 and confronted with the inflammatory content of his own writings. Rupescissa’s examiner, Cardinal Guillaume Court, addressed him:

    “Brother John, in your books which this same cardinal has held in his hand, you prophesy that we must suffer the greatest tribulations, and be humiliated, and lose our wealth and this temporal glory...

    (pp. 52-79)

    Held for decades in prisons, John of Rupescissa enjoyed few comforts from the outside world. He valued the visions he received from God, as well as the rare generosity of other people, one of whom helped Rupescissa through—of all things—alchemy. Rupescissa explained:

    And since I was held unjustly in this dark cell by my enemies, and since my body was corrupted by the evils of the chains and the cell, through the kindness of a servant, I was able to have aqua ardens from a certain man of God and my friend; and with only a smearing of...

    (pp. 80-101)

    In the fourteenth century, an aspiring alchemist had at his or her disposal a considerable array of texts to comb for the secrets of the art. Some texts provided only instructions for the synthesis of gold and silver; some offered remedies for the preservation of human health and youth; some even hinted at the great social change that would result from limitless wealth and youth. It is perhaps no wonder that the Franciscan and Dominican orders promulgated a series of bans on alchemical practice in the late thirteenth century, or that John XXII, who was skeptical of transmutation but worried...

    (pp. 102-128)

    The vivid and complex imagery of alchemy has long interfered with scholars’ ability to understand the science and its significance to medieval society. Enigmatic code names such as “green lion,” “sun,” “moon,” and the crucified “Christ” are omnipresent in alchemical literature, even as such texts purport to reveal secret operations to readers. Early-twentieth-century scholars such as E. O. von Lippmann and Julius Ruska were among the first to study such code names (Decknamen in German). Their research, continued today by historians such as William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe, attempts to decipher the code names, in part by identifying...

    (pp. 129-149)

    As we have seen, Rupescissa used code names and analogies based upon religious ideas in order to identify alchemical materials and practices: the quintessence was heaven, the elixirs were Christ or his blood, the alchemical apparatus was an instrument of the passion. This chapter will attempt to make clear why such language was so important. Rupescissa applied eschatological concepts to alchemy not only to understand the workings of the natural world and to communicate them to his readers but also to assert a place for nature in the teleology of salvation history. Rupescissa argued that divinity was embedded providentially in...

  12. Eight CONCLUSION
    (pp. 150-164)

    John of Rupescissa survived some of the most tumultuous decades of the Middle Ages. The Great Famine, the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, the Jacquerie, and the papal “Babylonian Captivity” unfolded before his eyes. Viewed through the lens of Joachite and Franciscan Spiritual apocalypticism, such events loomed even larger. To Rupescissa, they constituted mounting evidence that an apocalyptic clash between good and evil was imminent. He saw the persecution of righteous Christians by a church that appeared on the verge of allying with Antichrist. He received news of conflicts among secular and ecclesiastic governments that confirmed the many apocalyptic...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 165-222)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 223-244)
  15. Index
    (pp. 245-256)