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Michael Maier (1568–1622) was a famed yet ill-fated alchemist of the German late Renaissance. He is best known for a beautiful multimedia work — Atalanta fugiens (1618) — and for his defense of the Rosicrucian brotherhood, an elusive esoteric order which claimed to possess the secrets of alchemy. Like the Rosicrucians, Maier dedicated his life to the quest for the highest goal of alchemy: the philosophers’ stone. In Maier’s day it was thought this mysterious substance could transmute lead into gold, heal the sick, and even reverse the aging process.
In both his printed works and his practice as a doctor, Maier had to strike an uneasy balance between the old-fashioned Galenic medicine of the universities and the new healing paradigm of Paracelsus, a great Swiss alchemist who pioneered the use of chemical medicines. Because Paracelsian practice was believed to involve supernatural forces, Maier was also faced with a theological dilemma. The Lutheran faith of his upbringing did not permit contact with the supernatural realms outside of the Church and its established sacraments. Yet the Rosicrucians were not only alchemists — they also claimed to practice the Paracelsian arts of summoning angels and nature spirits. As a consequence, anyone publicly defending their program — as Maier did in his Silentium post clamores (1617) and Themis aurea (1618) — risked persecution amid the rising sectarian hostilities of the Counter-Reformation.
Despite this risk, powerful men among the European royalty and nobility were willing to pay a great deal of money to obtain the secrets of alchemy, magic, and astrology. This esoteric knowledge could be passed on orally or written down in private manuscripts. As Europe’s economy collapsed and the continent descended into the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), Maier’s exploitation of this “economy of secrets” became increasingly desperate.
A map of Maier’s peregrinations lends us a graphic impression of an early modern alchemist’s quest for medicines, for the knowledge and raw materials required to manufacture them, and for the patrons willing to purchase them. Maier was born in 1568 near Kiel on the northern border of the Holy Roman Empire. His father worked as a gold embroiderer (Goldsticker) for the governor of Schleswig-Holstein, Heinrich Rantzau (1526–1598). The governor was an early patron of Maier’s work, as well as an inspiration for his interest in Egypt, which Renaissance scholars believed was the source of a lost ancient wisdom (the prisca sapientia).
From 1587 Maier studied physics, mathematics, logic, and astronomy at the University of Rostock. A degree would help him to transcend his relatively low social status as an artisan’s son, but unfortunately Maier returned home empty-handed four years later. Nevertheless, in 1592 he defended some Galenic medical theses for his master of arts at Frankfurt an der Oder. During the following three years Maier interned under a physician to the Danish royal family, and in his spare time he conducted his first laboratory experiments. However, at this point he tells us he was “unwilling to squander money” on the “dark and profound” art of alchemy.
Following his internship Maier set out on a peregrinatio academica, the traditional “pilgrimage” undertaken by students to further their knowledge in foreign lands. In 1595 he travelled to the University of Padua, one of the foremost medical schools in Europe, where he acquired the title of poet laureate. Before a year had passed, however, he had fled in disgrace after wounding a fellow student. Despite the efforts of the Paduan authorities to stop him, Maier managed to gain his doctorate at the University of Basel shortly thereafter.
In the following years Maier roamed the Hanseatic trading ports of the Baltic Sea as a travelling vendor of Galenic medicines. Far removed from an illustrious career, in December of 1601 he was to be found prescribing dried frogs in vinegar at the White Horse Inn in Danzig. During this period Maier claims to have become a “close acquaintance” of the famed astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), whom he met in Rostock and Hamburg. He also met the alchemist and Christian Cabalist Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1605) while in Danzig, but he came to regard the man as a fraud (Betrüger).
While Maier’s medical practice relied on Galenic “simples” — unmixed preparations derived directly from plants and animals — his sights were set upon a more lucrative business. His interest in alchemy had been piqued by the healing of a chronically ill man with an English aurum potabile (“potable gold,” a liquid or powdered form of the philosophers’ stone), and in 1603 he struck out along the trading route linking Danzig with the gold and silver mines of Hungarian Carpathia. Returning to his hometown near Kiel with the minerals he had acquired, he completed his first alchemical experiment on Easter of 1604.
This turn to alchemy paid dividends for Maier. The pinnacle of his career was reached with his appointment as personal physician (Leibarzt) to Rudolf II — the melancholy emperor who felt he had been “bewitched,” such was his fascination with alchemy and the occult arts. In pursuit of his obsession, Rudolf brought together alchemists, Kabbalists, and magicians from across Europe to work at his court in Prague. His aim was to foster pansophia (“universal wisdom”), a grand synthesis of the various spheres of knowledge.
Maier moved to Prague at some point in 1608. During his time at the imperial court he began to write Arcana arcanissima (1614), a work of “mythoalchemy” in which Greek and Egyptian myths are interpreted as an ancient secret code for the alchemical work. This mythoalchemical approach was to become the hallmark of Maier’s printed works.
Although the emperor granted him the honorary title of imperial count palatine, for reasons unknown Maier left Rudolf’s service in 1610. He subsequently gravitated toward the court of Landgrave Moritz of Hessen-Kassel, Germany’s foremost patron of alchemy. While serving Moritz, Maier had the opportunity to investigate the English alchemical remedy he had first encountered in Danzig. Travelling to London, Maier met the infamous Francis Anthony (1550–1623), who for many years had been engaged in an acrimonious dispute with the College of Physicians concerning his aurum potabile.
Maier later described Anthony as his “good friend,” and he even coauthored Anthony’s printed defense of the aurum potabile (Apologia veritatis illucescentis, pro auro potabili, 1616). Returning to the continent in 1616, Maier took with him two hundred Königsthaler worth of Anthony’s medicine in the hope of selling it at the annual Frankfurt Fair. But like Anthony before him, he was refused a medical license by the authorities. In this case the city physician (Stadtarzt) of Frankfurt am Main personally testified that Maier was unable to cure his patients with the aurum potabile in his possession.
The Frankfurt Fair also provided an opportunity for Maier to sell his books, the majority of which were printed by the Frankfurt publishers Lucas Jennis and Johann Theodor de Bry. But in this enterprise, too, he failed to turn a profit. Despite his earlier attempts to secure the patronage of Moritz of Hessen-Kassel, Maier had only gained a modest extramural position at the Hessian court in mid-1618, and this was revoked before his death. By 1619 he was living with his wife and children in Magdeburg, where his fortunes steadily declined in the early years of the Thirty Years’ War.
The outbreak of full-scale conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire was accompanied by the Kipper und Wipper financial crisis, a period of rapid inflation caused by the debasement of gold and silver coins. In his desperation to procure raw materials for his aurum potabile and luna potabile (potable silver), Maier turned to his wife’s jewelry, as well as to debased coinage that had been withdrawn from circulation.
In this twilight of his career Maier also began to compose astrological, geomantic, and medical tracts for Gebhardt Johann von Alvensleben (1576–1631), a noble landholder in the vicinity of Magdeburg. His unfinished Strategemata medica triaria included Paracelsian “white magical” remedies operating via the power of the imagination (vis imaginativa). Maier’s journey to Torgau to meet Paul Nagel (died 1624), a Paracelsian chiliast who moved in the circles of both Jacob Böhme and the early Rosicrucians, provides another indication of this turn toward theologically suspect arts.
The end of Maier’s star-crossed quest for patronage came in 1622. Having produced an aurum potabile “far excelling” Anthony’s in efficacy, he set out for his native Holstein to deliver a sample to Duke Friedrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1597–1659). Along the route home he stayed at Rostock, where he dedicated his Cantilenae intellectuales de phoenice redivivo to Duke Friedrich on August 25, 1622. However, he died before reaching Holstein, apparently from a chronic illness.
Shortly afterwards, some bittersweet news arrived in Magdeburg: the King of Sweden (Gustav II Adolf, the Lutheran “Lion of the North”) was offering Maier free housing and upkeep plus a salary of two thousand Reichsthaler in exchange for his services. At the very end of his itinerant and ultimately tragic life, it seems Maier had been tantalizingly close to securing the lucrative patronage for which he had long striven.