The importance of good lute


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Once again whilst distilling I was reminded of the importance of a good lute. That is, the stuff that serves to hold the glassware together, forming a strong and impervious seal. Various recipes are given, depending on the circumstances and author. John of Rupescissa suggested paper, egg white and fine flour, which works nicely, especially with modern ground glass joints when making the quintessence of alcohol.

I wrote about lute a couple of years ago:

The obvious point is that the lute for glassware involves egg whites and stuff to hold them together, usually a mix of organic and sometimes inorganic stuff. The net result can be like this:



Lute at alembic and serpent

Which is egg white, fine flour and fine linen. It is not exposed to any temperature above 100C, but that is certainly enough to start cooking the egg and flour, which just so happens to make something a bit bready that expands slightly and seals any gaps. It also has the advantage of being easy to put in place, because it is soft and squishy. It certainly works and prevents the dangerous and irritating loss of the substances being distilled.

In fact that makes me wonder when it went out of use. So, off to the old chemistry textbooks!

(Fortunately I collected a lot of scanned ones from a few years ago when researching a few things)

In the 10th edition of Griffin’s Chemical Recreations, from 1860, mention is made on page 180 of the old use of cork and cement, prior to the invention of cork borers and caoutchouc-tubes.

Various other textbooks don’t really go into practical chemistry at all.

So a question that will take a lot longer to answer than I had hoped.

Anyway, here’s another picture, this time showing my new serpent in action:

New serpent in action

There’s over 3 feet of glass tubing here, which is just enough for the distillate to cool down and drip out of the end rather than rushing out as vapour, which was always a problem I had before. Note the coloured fabric, which is offcuts from my various re-enactment clothings, which are soaked with water. These hold the water close to the warm glass, which then heats them up and the water evaporates, helping cool the glass and then the vapour within it. You can even see steam rising from the cloths, although not in this photo.




Alchemical texts written and copied in 15th century England – how many survive?



A simple question, with a full answer beyond the scope of a mere blog post. Nevertheless I find the question interesting as a way of roughly gauging the popularity of alchemy in that period and the activities of the alchemists. The century was certainly one in which it became more widely known and translation from Latin to English got going. By at least knowing how many MS have survived, we know that more have been destroyed or lost in the meantime, and therefore can make vague estimates of the production of them. Moreover if some expert were to examine them all and compare the handwriting we could tell how many people were copying manuscripts, either for their own use or for whoever was paying them.

I have already noticed that medieval University library catalogues were rather short on alchemical works:

That and what I have read about manuscripts suggests that they were copied and circulated privately. So unless you could afford a scribe, or were concerned with secrecy, you would do the work yourself. Which naturally limits the copies you could personally make, and does raise questions about how much the works were passed around.

The difficulty in estimating numbers of surviving MS is of course how many places have MS. To start with, there is the British Library. Then there are the various university libraries, with Cambridge and Glasgow having good collections. Not to mention libraries abroad as well. All of which makes this a very partial summary.

Continue reading

In search of orange



It occurred to me that it would be nice to be able to dye cloth orange. So, looking in “Colours from nature” by Jenny Dean, I found a number of methods.

Here is the first one, on the left is a red made as normal with no mordant piece of wool, and on the right of it the same stuff, no mordant, but heated for a while in a madder solution with vinegar added to it:

dyeing orange photo1

You can see that the result is very red for the original madder, showing it can dye without a mordant, albeit it is a darker red because I heated it strongly. Making the solution more acidic made it kind of orange, but unevenly and it looks rather odd.

Two other uses of madder were tried. One was unheated, no vinegar solution, no mordant, left to soak for some days. The other was the left over solution of madder and vinegar. The first one on the left was in the solution for half an hour to an hour with some agitation now and then. The second was left in overnight for at least 12 hours, both being from the left over solution.

dyeing orange photo2

The third one on the right was from the unheated solution, and spent 2 days in it, no vinegar used.

The result is that the unheated soak for a few days gave a very light, not very good orange, not acceptable really. The best result was from the slightly warm older solution of madder and vinegar, the colour is deep, and what we think of as orange. The long soak was just too long and the colour isn’t right.

Thus the best madder one was a long soak in the cool acidised solution. If I’ve remember the order I did things in properly….

It seems that using brazilwood with an acidic modifier gives an orange as well. Again, using vinegar as the modifier, I put some brazilwood into a beaker and heated it with the same wool as before. The result was somewhat poor. I heated and nearly simmered the brazilwood for nearly 45 mins as it said, then put hastily alum mordanted wool into it, and boiled it for another 45 mins, left it to soak for 2 or 3 hours, and the result was the fabric on the far right of this photo:

dyeing orange photo3

Pretty bad really, it was a lot easier to get a red with the brazilwood than orange.

Of course the slight problem is that I am not really sure what the medieval method of getting orange was. Just to add to the difficulty, the word “Orange” was quite new to the language, appearing in the late 15th/ early 16th centuries, and what the Tudor Tailor people sell as something approximating orange is called tawny:—fabric-sold-by-the-half-yard

(Ref. For orange is page 159 of “The senses in late medieval England” by C. M. Woolgar)

Said book by Woolgar also says that tawny was a mottled cloth of orange, brown and yellow colour, which I assume means it was dyed in the skein, i.e. the threads that were to be woven were dyed, not the finished cloth.

So I feel happy enough dyeing cloth this colour, although perhaps only for late medieval use onwards.

What I have had trouble finding is actual period recipes online. I am not aware of many books on medieval dyeing that look at the topic as a whole, rather there are scholarly papers on specific aspects, and many books on using plants to dye with, and not so much that links them together. If anyone knows of any I would be grateful, otherwise will be reduced to badgering dyers I know to write such a book.

Here’s one colleciton of links:

unfortunately many are broken.

There is also this scholarly set of links, which looks interesting:

Oh yeas, a quick note on the chemistry. The Alizarine molecule (see here: which is the main constituent of the redness changes colour depending on the pH of the solution, or so wikipedia says. Once again though I find the major problem is that according to the internet, the only source for this information is a paywalled paper from 40 years ago, and nobody else at all knows what actually happens with it all. Or rather, they all repeat the same information picked up from somewhere years ago, which is no use at all to me. The closest I can find to useful information is from 19th century scientific papers, which are all paywalled. Naturally not being part of a university is a handicap.

Naturally they didn’t know about the chemistry back then (I must try and see if there were any medieval theories of how dyeing worked) but they would have experimented with different additives and mordants and used what worked for them. Some towns had good water for dyeing, and became famous in part because of that. Others had hard water with lots of calcium and that tends to make dyeing poor.





The part medieval alchemy played in the scientific revolution




There have been a lot of books and articles discussing the scientific revolution that took place in the 17th century. However, even after 9 years reading and research, I’m still uncertain about the precise place of alchemy in the scientific revolution, meaning what part alchemical ideas, knowledge, experience and technology played in it.
Which is silly, but there you go. Part of my problem seems to be that the closest thing to such a discussion that is easily available is in the book “Alchemy tried in the fire” by Principe and Newman, which is about George Starkey and his alchemy in the 17th century, and how (quoted from the back cover of said book) “… that many of the principles and practises characteristic of modern chemistry were already present in alchemy.”

The problem for my understanding being that the book is focused on Starkey’s work and ideas of other alchemists near in time to him, and that it is written in an academic style with a great deal of supporting detail. Moreover, the main link to medieval alchemy being the works of pseudo-Geber, (which Newman identifies as being Paul of Taranto) and specifically the interest in testing and use of the balance, which he traces back to Arabic sources, but, there is a much wider world of alchemy out there which Newman doesn’t bring in as relevant, whereas I think a lot of it is. Whilst it is good practise to be specific and narrow about exactly what you are are saying and the evidence you use to support it, Newman has this tendency concentrate only on the specific few sources that he knows in detail, and appear amazingly confident about his sometimes broad statements, which just rubs me up the wrong way even if he is correct.

(More information about the place of alchemy in the scientific revolution is undoubtedly available in academic papers, but they are harder to get hold of and are rather a jungle, so I just don’t have them)

It turns out that I considered this topic 3 years ago, when this blog was young:

Re-reading it, I find that it is rather short and lacking in detail. I still stand by the conclusion at the end: Continue reading

Trying to work out practical recipes from 15th century English Alchemical poetry



This post brought to you courtesy of Anke Timmerman and the Knowledge unlatched consortium (

The tweet:

was obviously a challenge.

Her book can be found here, and can be read online for free:

Now, onto the recipes, or at least some of those in English that I can read:

The prose text “Lead”, found on page 313, starts with the simple manufacture of lead acetate, and the distillation thereof, which produces the usual red liquid that is a weird mixture of organic substances. This is no different from the Ripley method suggested by Jennifer Rampling, and I think also that which is produced from John of Rupescissa’s quintessence of alchemy recipe.

It even says to put the stilled liquid upon the stuff left behind in the alembick, which Ripley recommends, but then you put it onto silver and make it brittle.

At this point I start to wonder if it really means lead, and doesn’t mean some other thing. The description of thin plates, vinegar and the resulting white powder is clearly of lead acetate though, I’ve not heard or seen anything else give such a result.

More specifically, the instructions say to put the distilled liquid back onto the white product of calcination of the stuff left after the distillation. Why it would be white is unclear to me, since if it is lead it should be blackish after calcination. So perhaps something unusual is happening here.

Or of course the poem is not meant to be taken practically.

The Thomas Hend text on page 317 is also clearly a lead and vinegar one. It has suddenly become clear to me how variations in the concept were all the rage in late 15th/ early 16th century England. You see this a lot in alchemical recipes, new fashions in activity and substance that sweep across Europe or countries and hold sway for decades, until something else comes along. That vinegar had been used in earlier recipes is not in doubt, but what happened in the later 15th and early 16th centuries was the codification and spread of specific series of actions which we could dub Ripleyan. These recipes continue to turn up in alchemical literature into the 17th century, in the works of Basil Valentine, as explored by Lawrence Principe.

I define them specifically as ones that on the surface use vinegar and have metals, oxide or carbonate, dissolved in the vinegar. It is then distilled, and a red liquid produced. You can get a reddish liquid from such a process, as I have proved myself ( and as modern esotericists have also shown. The only slight problem is that things start to diverge from what you would expect given modern chemistry and it all gets a bit complicated and the best thing to do is stop and do something else for a while.
Or do more experiments and read more sources, both of which I am planning on doing this year.

Transmission of alchemical ideas via travellers and books


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Obviously alchemical ideas and practise had to be communicated between people, by word of mouth or writing. But we are lacking in information about a lot of the information transfer in the past and exactly how it happened. This is a big, sprawling topic that I didn’t really cover in my book (,

so I am attempting to summarise some of my thoughts about it now.

Concentrating on Europe, and England, the earliest transmission was by learned men travelling to Spain and Sicily, to translate or copy alchemical and other related works on things like astrology and natural philosophy. They then returned home with a copy or two, or the copies were given as gifts to places of learning, or they went home and mentioned alchemy and such in their writings at home. The latter occurred with information about the four elements, as the translator Daniel Morley, who had copied and translated works abroad, being asked to write about this knowledge when he returned home to England in the 12/13th century. The books in places of learning were then copied by other visiting monks/ copied and given as gifts/ read by visitors who made their own notes, and thus the information filtered northwards.

Naturally this meant a very slow rate of transmission. It wasn’t until the 13th century and Roger Bacon before we really have much talk about Alchemy in England, but even then there’s not really much evidence of anything until the 1310’s and 1320’s, when it started to get rather busy and crops up in various circumstances, from legal records to an archaeological find in Cambridge.

But Bacon got his information from copies of only a handful of texts, perhaps picked up when he was in Paris. Bacon’s sources were, according to the article by William Newman on him in “Roger Bacon and the Sciences – commemorative Essays”, edited by Hackett:

an alchemical work attributed to ar-Razi, called the Lumen Luminum, another false work attributed to Avicenna called the Liber de Anima, as well as of course the Secreta Secretorum of pseudo-Aristotle.

He was basically working from texts, apparently with no transmission of secrets and ideas and practise in any other way. Moreover they were Arabic texts, translated into Latin and passed about between learned men and copied until Bacon made his own copies or purchased ones from people. In fact in his Opus Tertium he claimed to have spent “…more than 2,000 livres in these pursuits on occult books and various experiments and languages and instruments, and tables and other things.” (From page 119 of the Dover paperback of Holmyard’s “Alchemy”)

The 1330’s were also an interesting time with regards to other alchemical authors with the writing of The Testamentum of Raymond Lull, a pseudo-Lullian treatise, an early version of which claims to have been written in St Katherine’s, London, England in 1332. Unfortunately this was written in Catalan, so whilst the work itself may have been written at the time and place claimed, it didn’t have any effect on English alchemy, and the earliest mention of Lull as an alchemist is apparently from the 2nd half of the 14th century, according to Michela Pereira. Moreover he didn’t really appear in English alchemy until the 15th century, when we find a translation from Catalan into Latin or English taking place. So here we have a possible occurrence of a roundabout route of works, hampered by the use of a minority language (Catalan), and the importance of a universal language, i.e. Latin.

Later on, you can see that the audience for alchemical works and numbers of alchemists that we have record of greatly increases as the texts are translated into the local language in the 15th century and more people can read and write. The Semita Recta was translated into English, French and German from Latin in the 15th century, and many of these copies have survived. People passed it around interested parties who then made their own copy or had one made for them. There is evidence for a circle of alchemically interested intellectuals and doctors in 1440’s England, related to the Semita Recta and various pseudo-Albert of Magnus works. They would likely meet and discuss alchemical matters when possible, and pass on manuscripts or copies of them to each other.

I see no reason to doubt that similar things were happening all across Europe, with educated men, both professional and mere servants and artisans, learning about alchemy from each other and what works they found.

George Ripley, the famous 15th century English Alchemist, allegedly travelled abroad in order to learn more about alchemy and other topics, and by the 16th century we have various learned men writing about collecting books from the continent themselves, or their friends are asked to pick up what books they can find. Of course this was also the age of printing, and of a wider community of letters that was different from the earlier one in the 13th century.

Jennifer Rampling has written a paper (Available here: about how John Dee and Edward Kelly, in their peregrinations about Bohemia and Eastern Europe, spread knowledge of the works of George Ripley, which in turn were used by the alchemists in the late 16th/ early 17th century in their own writings and were also printed in books.

Another issue in consideration of alchemical knowledge transfer is that of transmission from master to pupil. If that was all that happened, then that would mean that alchemy was a rather different subject than what we think of it as being today. (I wrote a blog post on this 18 months ago:

However that clearly was not all that happened, although we have several claims about it taking place from the 15th and 16th centuries in England. But perhaps because it was seen as a Donum Dei, a gift of God, the alchemist could learn from books (After all, the Bible was a book too) and ultimately it was God that would give him the knowledge to make the stone. Also the idea was abroad in the later medieval period that it was legitimate to interrogate God’s creation to find out better how it worked, and as such, learning how do transmutation from books and by experimentation was entirely okay.

What I do wonder about is how useful alchemy was as a marker for being well educated, which could open some doors for your career, and also as a means of rubbing along well with people of other nationalities. There was to some extent still a pan-European feudal society, with people of the appropriate status mingling easily with each other and having languages and habits in common. Of course by the 16th century that had fragmented with the rise of nationalism and the reformation. I suspect though that it proves more useful in that regard in the 17th century, with the appearance of Rosicrucianism.

Certainly religion was important; it turns out that an Irish humanist called Richard Stanihurst (1547-1618) graduated from Oxford, and began alchemical studies in London, but he was a Catholic and left England, working in the Bishopric of Liege, where he was involved in the Paracelsian movement, and he ended up at the court of King Philip II of Spain. I doubt he would have been permitted to attempt to cure various diseases using alchemical methods if he was a Protestant and probably would not have left London. What seems clear from the summary of his life in the summary of Azogue no. 4, is the importance of groups of alchemists/ chymists/ medical men for passing knowledge and practises and supporting research. Stanihurst would surely have had a much harder time of it without support from the likes of the Bishop of Liege and others in the same area. As with the dissemination of Ripleyian alchemy, patronage is an essential part of the travels made by knowledgeable people and dissemination of their works. Unfortunately the issue is that the evidence for earlier ones, such as in the 13th century, just has not survived.

So, to summarise it – alchemical knowledge travelled with people as they travelled, and by written texts as they were traded and given and received. It was retarded by language problems, and by distance, and made easier by patronage from the rich and powerful.

Things alchemy was related to and helped with and used by


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This is a short blog post covering an interesting but rather deep topic which would require a great deal more research to make a full on really interesting post. So instead you have to make do with this. Maybe in a few years I’ll write something more.

Right from the start, alchemy was related to other areas of endeavour or crafts. The recipes in the Physika et Mystika are similar to and sometimes the same as those found in the manuscripts recording various craft recipes, the Leyden and Stockholm papyri. Basically the early alchemists took ideas from Hermetic and gnostic religion and mixed them with physical workshop practises.

It seems clear to me that early alchemy was actually a form of philosophy and mysticism and religion; I use all of those words because although an expert could probably make specific distinctions, it is beyond me in the case of the Physika et Mystika and many of the other texts written by Cleopatra or that refer to Isis.

And this stayed with it into the Byzantine Christian era, with explicitly Christian imagery and metaphor added to Hermetic texts such as Zosimos “On the Letter Omega”. Some of the later alchemists surely enlarge the natural philosophical side of alchemy as well, making it less specifically religious, more an explanation of how the world works. The making of gold is treated as a specific work that can be done, not with religious implications, but rather due to knowledge of how the world actually works. This can also be seen in the works of Zosimos of course. Continue reading

Sometimes I think people don’t know what Alchemy is, or else they don’t explain why they think there is alchemy in what they see

Sparked by this:

I have been following the British library’s MS digitisation program for a while, waiting for it to get to alchemical works. Unfortunately the one linked to above seems to have been oddly labelled.


Here is the list of contents:
1. Macer Floridus, De viribus herbarum (ff. 2r-38v); (a herbal, too early for alchemy in western Europe

2. Marbod of Rennes, Liber lapidum seu de gemmis (ff. 39r-54v); ( about gemstones, no mention of alchemy according to my sources, but of course discussion of the 4 elements in how gems are formed.

3. Pseudo-Ovidius (Thierry, abbot of St. Trond?), De mirabilibus mundi, hexameter verse (ff. 54v-57v); ( appears to be a Roman era collection of natural history, geography etc, by Gaius Solinus, but here seemingly attributed to someone else.

4. Johannes Philosophus, Summa chiromantiae (ff. 58r-66v); ( Palmistry

5. De quatuor temporibus anni (ff. 67r-69r); (a short pamphlet on natural history, the 3 seasons, might be this:

6. Doctrina Henrici libello de imagine mundi (ff. 69v-70v). ( Described by the BL as “A brief text on humours with the title ‘Doctrina Henrici libello de ymagine mundi’ added later;”

7. Office of the Passion, Matins, excerpt (ff. 70v-75v); (A devotional office of the period

8. Johannes de Sacro Bosco, Algorismus (ff. 76r-86v); (Introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals to European universities according to Wikipedia

9. ‘Tractatus super Arithmeticam’ (ff. 87r-114r); (Seemingly a mathematical treatise, not much information to be had.

10. Johannes de Sacro Bosco, Computus (ff. 114v-144); (More mathematics?, but not much info on it can be found.

11. Notes on arithmetics and a drawing of the Virgin (ff. 144v-146r); (Does not appear to be alchemical

12. Pseudo-Ovidius, De vetula, excerpt (ff. 147r-147v); (This is a 13th century elegiac comedy written in Latin.

13. Odo of Tournai, Rhythmomachia with tables (ff. 148r-157r, 157v-159v); (Is apparently a board game!, see more at wikipedia:

14. Chronicle relating to the year 1291 (ff. 160r-177v). (I cannot read it, but it seems likely that a chronicle isn’t about alchemy.

Note the general lack of actual alchemical texts. The “Composite miscellany relating to medicine, alchemy and mathematics(quoting from the BL description) itself is from the 2nd half of the 13th to mid 14th centuries. I suppose the nearest modern equivalent would be a pile of university level textbooks on a variety of topics, especially maths, plant based medicine, and some religious thought. It should be emphasised that the works in this collection are not the sort of populist type of book you might be familiar with nowadays; the very fact that they are written in Latin means that only the tiny fraction of the population who were literate in it means they were for the intelligentsia, hence my description as university level textbooks.

Chiromancy is basically palm reading,
but looks at the entire hand, not just where some of the lines on the palm are. Interesting to find it in such an early, scholarly text, but it seems it is a definite interest of medieval scholars, even if not actually treated as a part of their intellectual endeavours. It seems to have been something of a holdover from older ideas about how the world worked.

I found some information on it here, that seems to refer back to original treatises, and therefore should be useful:

But it is certainly not alchemy. Neither are gems. Although wikipedia says this about the Book of gems by Marbod of Rheims:

The most popular of Marbod’s works was the Liber de lapidibus, a verse lapidary or compendium of mythological gem-lore; by the fourteenth century it had been translated into French, Provençal, Italian, Irish, and Danish, and it was the first of Marbod’s works to be printed.[5] (Obviously it’s wikipedia but it refers to pukka sources)

Marbod himself lived from about 1030’s to 1123, and seems to have had homosexual attractions but did not believe in actually consummating them.

Now, in summary, the manuscript Harley 3353 can be said to be evidence for a person or persons interested in many things about the world, how it works, how it is structured, etc, and dedicated to thinking about all this in a way which is not exactly familiar to modern folk. Yet I can find no definite evidence for alchemy in the texts within it, so the question is, why does it have that tag attached to it?

Maybe I should ask the BL.

Using Oak Galls to dye wool



A fairly simple way of dyeing cloth in the medieval period was to use oak galls, although I have no idea how often it was done. The tannins within them act as a mordant, so you don’t need that expensive import, alum. Then if you add some iron you can vary the shade, iron being fairly easy to come by, at least by the late medieval period.

So I prepared two examples, using fairly fresh oak galls gathered at the weekend. Following the instructions given in “Colours from nature” by Jenny Dean, you can get black after adding green vitriol (Iron sulphate) to the tannin solution. I roughly followed her instructions; at this stage I don’t care about exact yields, just proof of process.

Taking 3 oak galls, I ground them up, put one half in a beaker, boiled it for a while (I see no need to boil as long as Dean suggests though) and strained off a brown solution into another beaker with some white wool cloth in it. This was then heated on and off for an hour or so, and left in the beaker for a day. Here it is, looking a bit like tea before adding the cloth:

Oak gall boiling Dec15

The rest of the ground oak galls were added to the first beaker, heated with water, and then some green vitriol added, which turned it black (On the left. On the right is the cloth in the previous solution):

oak galls dyeing Dec15

This was then strained through some linen like the first lot, and heated with the cloth in it. I took the cloth out three times to allow it to air, as Dean says, and boiled it again every time it went back in.

Finally I took it out and allowed it to dry.

This first photograph was taken before rinsing the black cloth out. On the left, the undyed fabric, middle is the oak galls alone, right is the galls and green vitriol:

oak gall dyeing comparison first

When I had washed and dried the black fabric, it looked less dense in colour, because I’d removed some of the black dye:

oak gall dyeing comparison after washing

(The other differences are that the first photo was taken with indirect morning light, the second I think with the flash, during later afternoon)

Simple enough anyway. The black looks pretty good even after rinsing, but because of the acidic nature of the green vitriol it will be interesting to see if it suffers any damage over the next year or two.  The brown is more a light tan, which would itself be acceptable I am sure, although I’m not sure how to get the dark brown of some clothing.  Perhaps walnut hulls or copper moderated madder, from what Jenny Dean writes.  I think I need some more books on dyeing though, to cross correlate the information.



How widespread were alchemical books in Britain in Medieval times and who owned them?



Following on from the previous post, it turns out that Henry of Kirkestede mentions 674 authors, but I cannot find any others related to alchemy.

Maybe Henry didn’t count alchemical books? Certainly there are a lot of scholarly works in his catalogue, including Thomas Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste and many others less well known. But it is interesting that he mentions Hermes but not alchemy, which was certainly known about in the country in his time; Robert Bacon knew about it, and from the little he knew it seems that knowledge about alchemy was newly arrived in England in his time, a century before Henry.

So I needed some more evidence to really start thinking about the availability of alchemical texts. Fortunately, other library catalogues have been preserved and brought out in modern editions! The Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues is listed here:

Which leads nicely onto the next question, how widespread were alchemical books?

Firstly though a few caveats are in order. Most of the catalogues cover religious institutions, or secular ones with a specific purpose (e.g. almshouses) and so their book choice is likely to be somewhat restricted, and likely would not include many on alchemy. Especially because an interest in it and practise of had been specifically banned in most orders of monks and friars since the late 13th century!

An exception would likely be university college libraries, which given the subjects taught and debated, might well contain more alchemically related works than otherwise expected, on the basis that they were part of natural philosophy. So if it turns out as I expect and recall reading in various academic papers, then the locus of alchemical investigation was circles and groups of private individuals.

(The following is written in a more note-taking style, because that’s simpler than trying to turn notes into a long winded explanation)

Now, regarding smaller secular institutions, we have volume 14, Hospitals, towns and the Professions. A search of the index finds mention of Bartholomew the Englishman and his De proprietatibus Rerum. Also of an astrological work being written in the same village as an alsmhouse. Index V mentions bestiaria, a couple of editions of the Secreta Secretorum and a copy of the Seneschaucie, but they are anonymous works. One of the Secreta is in the London Hospital of St Mary Elsing in the 7th October 1448 index of books. Another in the 1489 bequest to the Hospital of St Giles in Norwich. The index of authors has no Albertus Magnus, one volume about medicine by Avicenna, no mention of Hermes, one of Robert Grosseteste as translator of Aristotle’s Ethics. Other works cover legal matters, historical ones (e.g. the Scalacronica) and of course theological or religious matters.

So the more secular institutions really don’t seem to have had a great interest in Natural History.

Now, volume 12, on Scottish Libraries, which covers both royal ones and religious houses and the Universities.

Searching the index, no mention of alchemy. The index of authors at least has Albertus Magnus, mainly his commentaries on various authors and his summa theologiae; a full selection of Aristotle, Agustine, Averroes, Bartholomew Anglicus, Bocaccio, Cicero (In Queen Mary’s library at Holyroodhouse) in 1569. Or see works by Galen in St Mary’s college, St Andrews, circa 1574.

There is one mention of Hermes, but it is the Poemander translated by Marsilius Ficinus, in Queen Mary’s library.

Finally, found Khalid ibn Yazid, Liber Secretorum Alchemiae, in a 1531 printed edition of alchemical works, which contains the speculum alchemiae, and Geber de alchemia. Printed at Strasbourg? It is in St Leonards college in St Andrews, the list made in 1597 or 99. The interesting and clear point is that by the later 16th century there were lots of books, thanks to printing. The list for this college reaches 262 books, many more than in Cathedrals and suchlike two centuries earlier.

Ultimately thought it is a bit disappointing. However given the upheavals in Scotland in the early and mid-16th centuries, I think it likely that a fair number of books were lost, destroyed or sold, and thus we do not have a proper accounting of the books present in medieval Scotland. Having said that, there really isn’t any evidence for alchemy in Scotland before James IV and his alchemist in 1501 or 03 or whenever.

Now, onto volume 10, the University and College libraries of Cambridge, which should be much more interesting.

Starting again with the index of authors, we immediately find many copies of Albertus Magnus, including the Mineralia. Also works by Alhazen, Al-Kindi, Alphidius on De lapide Philosophorum, which is found in a 1418 catalogue of Peterhouse college, as part of the Magnus liber Alkymye!

Which contains works by Geber, pseudo-Michael Scott, secretum secretorum, speculum alchimiae, Democritus Secretum super corpus, spiritum et animam, and so on.

Pseudo-Avicenna’s De Anima comes up at least once.

Lots of stuff related to normal natural philosphy, eg Aristotle, Gilbertus etc etc.

Hermes, several works, eg Aqua uitae perhennis, and others, in the Peterhouse volume already mentioned. A dialogus de nat ura deorum of Hermes Trismegistus, is in the university common library in 1473. Also contains De spiritu et anima, (Bloomfield 935) whatever that is.

A de Quinta essentia of Ioannes de Rvpescissa, in a 1457 King’s college inventory of the library.

Michael Scott, Physiognomia siue De secretis naturae, a 1477 edition donated in 1539 to Jesus college.

There are quite a few books attributed to Rhazi, not all surely alchemical, but there’s a Flores Secretorum, in the Peterhouse MS, and various others. Also medical works by Richard the Englishman. Lots of books by Grosseteste and Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and the usual texts one would expect in a university related to the Trivium and Quadrivium.

So, in summary, there do seem to be more alchemical books in university colleges, but not as many as you might have thought; one volume in particular had a large number of shorter treatises within it. I think it likely that this is partly down to lack of official approval; alchemy is well known for not managing to make the leap to respectability, but there should also be considered the many injunctions to secrecy made by alchemists over the years, that would not permit making the books publicly available. Yet one or two such books were donated to the colleges over the years by former students.

It therefore instructive to look at a non-university alchemist. Thomas Norton is famous for his Ordinal of Alchemy, in which he mentions many authors. It was written in the 1470’s, based on the previous 20 years of his alchemical experience. Thus it is later than Kirkstede, and some of the university catalogues. It seems to me, on the evidence available, that there was a flourishing of alchemical knowledge in England in the 1440’s and 50’s, and as such Norton would have more texts available for study.

So, alchemists and philosophers he mentions include Albertus Magnus, Arnalde of Villanova, Robert Bacon, Arisleus, Avicenna, Democritus, Dalton, Gilbert Kimere, Hermes, Kalide, Maria, Ortolane, Plato, Raymond Lull, John of Rupescissa, Geber. Which indicates that he had at least heard of, or was familiar with the most famous and popular alchemical authors of the time. In turn that argues that he had or had read a fair number of alchemical manuscripts. Yet only one volume in the list in Cambridge had many of the works by these authors, and some of them didn’t appear at all.

I would like to think that a generation or two of Cambridge scholars copied out parts or all of the Magnus liber Alkymye and spread it about the country, but of course proving that would be rather hard.

Certainly it seems that a non-academic had access to a great many texts (If of course they could afford to buy them or made the right friends), and there is some confirmation of this if you look at the history of the Libellus de Alchimia or the Semita Recta and the career of Gilbert Kymer and others of his generation in mid-15th century England. These texts and their English copies of them indicate the presence of networks of alchemists and philosophers outwith universities and other seats of learning. Although some of the members held positions within such institutions, the actual alchemical work and manuscripts appears to have been held separate from the official libraries.

Certainly I could refine things by looking at the other volumes of the Corpus of British medieval library catalogues, such as no. 1, The Friars Libraries, or no. 5, Dover Priory. That would require more visits to the NLS and time spent on research, which I can’t really do right now.

The interesting thing is if anyone knows of specific evidence for personal private books? Such as in wills, e.g. the necromancer’s I blogged about back in July.


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