Today, the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorcerer’s Stone, as it is known today) is merely thought of as a work of fiction from the pages of a Harry Potter novel. However, in the Middle Ages, the very real search for the Philosopher’s Stone was second only to that of the Holy Grail. It was believed that this mysterious stone –which one had to concoct from secret ingredients – could turn base metals into gold, and reveal the secrets of immortality. This fascinating documentary unearths the astonishing events surrounding this legendary stone, and the alchemists and adventurers who stopped at nothing in their search for this tantalising quarry. The programme also takes a wider look at medieval alchemy, and how this now-obsolete science paved the way for modern scientists.
The search for the Philosopher’s Stone presented a different challenge to that of the Holy Grail: while the latter was a geographical riddle, the Philosopher’s Stone was made of a variety of secret elements that an alchemist had to combine. Alchemists believed that gold was the most superior metal in the world, as it did not tarnish, rust or corrode. It was thought that the Philosopher’s Stone was made of something purer than gold itself, and that its presence next to something of a lesser metal could turn the inferior object into gold. Similarly, as gold was seen as perfection, human beings could draw from its elixir too, and turn from mortal (imperfect) to immortal (perfect).
These ingredients were hidden in bizarrely coded manuscripts that baffle scholars to this day, written by alchemists who lived in their own secret society. The creation of the stone was rumoured to be a hazardous and possibly fatal pursuit, yet this did not dissuade the finest scientific minds of the era – not to mention the most powerful European rulers – from chasing the stone’s secrets.
The programme follows the stories of alchemists such as Nicholas Flamel – brought to life in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ –who really existed and was rumoured to be hotly on the trail. The programme also looks at two noted alchemists – Edward Kelly and John Dee –whose obsessive search for the stone resulted in stories of madness, conversations with angels and even wife-swapping.
Some of today’s most prominent chemistry scholars, such as Harold Goldwhite and Lawrence Principe, explain why these men only sound crazy in today’s era. In the Middle Ages, alchemy and the experiments devised to create the stone represented a huge stride forward in science. Today we owe most of our modern lab equipment and experimental techniques to the efforts of these alchemists. The programme examines their work and asks if their search for immortality and the secrets of transmutation were really on sound scientific ground. It also poses the question: did any of these alchemists – as rumoured – succeed in cracking the secrets of the stone?