One of the major ambitions of medieval alchemists was to discover the elixir of life, a sovereign remedy capable not only of healing the body but of transforming it. Given the widespread belief that care for the body came at the cost of care for the soul, it might seem surprising that any Franciscan would pursue the elixir, but those who did were among its most outspoken and optimistic advocates. They believed they could distill a substance that would purify, transmute, and ennoble the human body as well as the soul. In an age when Christians across Europe were seeking material evidence for their faith and corporeal means of practicing their devotion, alchemy, and the elixir in particular, offered a way to bridge the terrestrial and the celestial.
Framed as a history around science, Franciscans and the Elixir of Life focuses on alchemy as a material practice and investigates the Franciscan discourses and traditions that shaped the pursuit of the elixir, providing a rich examination of alchemy and religiosity. Zachary A. Matus makes new connections between alchemy, ritual life, apocalypticism, and the particular commitment of the Franciscan Order to the natural world, shedding new light on the question of why so many people claimed to have made, seen, or used alchemical compounds that could never have existed.
"Zachary A. Matus offers new and important insights gleaned from a full and contextualized view of Franciscan alchemy and religiosity. The personalities in question (Bacon, Rupescissa, the Spirituals) are arguably among the most interesting of the later Middle Ages, and Matus's tales of alchemical quest and apocalyptic disaster are not only fine scholarship but also great reading."—Leah DeVun, Rutgers University