Franciscans and the Elixir of Life

Religion and Science in the Later Middle Ages

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Zachary A. Matus
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , April
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Metallurgical alchemy attempts to turn base metals into gold. Medicinal alchemy, in contrast, seeks to prepare an elixir of life whose transformative powers can cure all ills and prolong life. In Franciscans and the Elixir of Life: Religion and Science in the Later Middle Ages, Zachary A. Matus interprets a handful of texts about the elixir of life written by three Franciscans: Roger Bacon (d. ca. 1292), Vitalis of Furno (d. 1327), and John of Rupescissa (d. after 1365).

The pursuit of alchemy was a marginal pursuit in the Franciscan intellectual life of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Nonetheless, Matus argues, efforts to prepare the elixir of life were consistent with Franciscan valuations of the material world and the overall materiality of medieval Christian practice. Each man approached the task of imagining and creating an elixir differently. By tracing the genealogical origins of the elixir of life as conceived by each of these three men and situating their diverse alchemical efforts in relation to contemporary religious thought and practice, Matus offers a finely-detailed picture of one moment in the still-unfolding relationship between religion and science.

Of course, the terms science and religion had different meanings in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries than they have today. Matus helps his readers avoid the anachronism of imposing modern meanings on medieval contexts while developing a fuller appreciation of the contingent nature of the historical development of science. As is clear upon reflection, lived religiosity—especially ritual practice—transcends the artificial boundaries often drawn in our times between the material and spiritual domains. Matus skillfully illustrates the interpenetration of these two domains through an analytical focus on, first, the role of apocalypticism in shaping the alchemical work of Bacon, Vitalis, and John, and, second, the subjunctive nature of both religious ritual and alchemical science. (By “subjunctive,” Matus refers to the act of imagining or seeking to produce something as it could or should be.)

While wisely separated for analytical purposes, the two storylines—apocalypticism and the subjunctive—are interrelated. Both speak of expected and intended transformations. For example, rituals produce “the world as it should be, not necessarily as it is” (101, emphasis in the original). Matus’s analysis of apocalypticism and the subjunctive extends the likely scholarly interest in his book beyond the more obvious fields of religion and science or medieval history, for example, into the fields of ritual studies and lived religion. Even readers with no particular interest in the medieval period may find much to ponder here that will illuminate distinctly modern ways of imagining the apocalypse and practicing religion in a secular age.

In a penultimate paragraph that is more evocative than well-developed, Matus connects the subjunctive mood of alchemical science in the medieval period to the role of the imagination in twenty-first century science. In doing so, he reminds us that the interpenetration of actual and possible worlds endures today in both science and religion. Both are embedded in the material existence of what is and yet remain open to the subjunctive mood of what may yet be.

Franciscans and the Elixir of Life will be of interest to scholars and graduate students of Franciscan studies, medieval history, the history of science, and religion and science, and also to those interested in ritual studies and lived religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Menning is faculty affiliate in the school of humanities and sciences at Ithaca College.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Zachary A. Matus teaches history at Boston College.


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