Pope John XXII: Angry Chemist!

Sometimes you see people saying that Pope John XXII wrote a bull against chemistry. Actually, it was a decretal (canon law) against alchemy scams and counterfeiting coinage. He took alchemy himself as a young guy at the university (he also studied both medicine and law, which is pretty good for a shoemaker’s son) and was a patron of science as pope; so it’s a rage for science, not against science!

Here’s a literal translation:

On the Crime of Counterfeiting (De crimine falsi)
aka Spondent pariter and Spondent quas non exhibent.
Pope John XXII, at Avignon, circa 1317.

Riches-poor alchemists promise riches that they do not produce; equally, those who suppose themselves wise (Rom. 1:22) fall “into the pit that” they have “made.” (Ps. 7:16) For it is by no means doubtful that professors of this art of alchemy make fun of each other; at the same time, they are conscious of their own ignorance; they admire anything of this sort that anyone might have said about these things. When the sought-after truth about these things would not suffice, they decide the day, they exhaust resources, they dissimulate falsehood with the same words, so that at length, they feign what is not in the nature of things — true gold or silver to come into being by sophistic transmutation.

And sometimes the damned and damning temerity of them advances so far that they mint the characters of true public coinage on metals [that look] true to the eye, and they cheat the ignorant ones of the common people with none other than the alchemical “fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:21). And so, wishing to exile these things for times in perpetuity, We sanction them with this constitution according to [the French] edict, so that:

whoever shall have made gold or silver of this sort,
or whoever shall have commissioned it to be made accordingly,
or whoever knowingly shall have served the making of this (knowing what would be made),
or whoever knowingly would be selling [such] gold or silver for use or giving it out for paying back debt,

shall be compelled to pay, in the name of punishment, as much weight of true gold or silver to the public [treasury], for paying out to the poor, as he would have brought forth of alchemical [gold or silver]; [if] concerning these things, one shall have been established lawfully to have offended in any of the aforesaid manners. Furthermore, let those making alchemical gold or silver, or those using it knowingly (as was set forth before), be marked with the brand of perpetual dishonor. But if the resources of these same offenders should not suffice for paying out the aforementioned pecuniary punishment, the moderation of the judge will be able to commute it separately to some other punishment (it may be prison, or another kind of activity joined to it, paying attention to the difference in circumstances of the persons). Indeed, to those who bring forth ignorance of such great misfortune that they sell cash even more and look down with contempt upon the natural precepts of the law, go beyond the bounds of art and violate the prohibitions of the laws, so that one may see they are knowingly minting or molding counterfeits out of alchemical gold or silver, or making coinage by minting or molding, with this warning, We order them to be overpowered so that they may be entrusted to prison for their good, and the same ones may be dishonored in perpetuity. And if clerics be offenders, they will be deprived of the benefices they hold, above and beyond the aforesaid punishments; and from then on, they shall be rendered unfit to hold them.

Branding is a big French law thing, if you remember The Three Musketeers, and it came down from classical Roman law. The idea was to keep people from moving to another town and doing the same thing. (Obviously not a penalty we would support nowadays, though.)

Anyway, Pope Francis isn’t the first chemist-pope, and now you know.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Pope John XXII: Angry Chemist!

  1. Reblogged this on Head Noises and commented:
    Details matter. The irony of someone who actually did something about fraud that abused science being attacked as anti-science is darkly amusing.

  2. Pingback: The STEM Pope | Aliens in This World

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