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.

When did Medieval Europeans think that Hermes was alive? And a new question.

One answer to this question can be found in the catalogue of libraries of Henry of Kirkstede, written in the 14th century, up to his death in the 1370’s. Henry was a learned man, and for a while was the prior of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, a wealthy priory which is well known now for the poor and sometimes violent relations between the priory and townspeople. His catalogue covers books held in religious houses in Bury and a number of other towns and country sites, so whilst it does not cover a large area, it does give an idea of what was thought important by all these learned men.
Anyway, what he wrote in entry 259 was:

HERMES qui et Trismegistus sive Mercurius floruit tempore Phillippi regis Macedonum A Mdi 3500 et scripsit De verbo perfecto et De Mathesi. Vide in litera T verbo Trismegistus.

So, someone called Hermes Trismegistus was around in the time of the father of Alexander the Great. That is, around 340’s BC.

There is another entry for Hermes, under “Tremegistus vel Trismegisus qui et Mercurius vel Hermes floruit a.m. tempore <blank> et scripsit juxta Vincentinum in Speculo historiali lib 5to.”

He then mentions “Ad Asclepium lib” and “De verbo perfecto lib 1.” and some others, not specifically alchemical.

From both these entries it appears that the more classical Hermetic knowledge had been written about. Not the alchemical stuff.

There is an entry too for Asclepius, the god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology, and a narrator or recorder of much of the corpus Hermeticum.

Just to add to the confusion, Holmyard in his “Alchemy”, points out that there were 3 Hermes known of to the Arabic alchemists, one pre-flood, one not long after and a third in a time that I suspect is more that of Philip of Macedon. Thus Henry or the authors he was copying weren’t very well versed in Hermeticism. Which isn’t very surprising, given their comparative lack of information access.

By contrast, the English translation of John of Rupescissa’s Book of the Quintessence, therefore what John thought about Hermes in the mid-14th century, Hermes had the secret of the quintessence from an angel after Noah’s flood. Which is of course a lot earlier than the 4th century BC.

So I expect that a wider search would find a number of different dates of Hermes, probably about those that Holmyard suggests.

Having scanned through some of the translations of alchemical works that I have, it does surprise me how little Hermes comes up. E.g. in the Scala Philosophorum of Guido de Montanor, he is hardly mentioned at all, I saw more mention of Avicenna and Albertus Magnus and others. Of course as a pagan, he wasn’t exactly the best person to bring up in a discussion about how the world worked, but what it also shows is how alchemy had accumulated a long intellectual history of it’s own, 12 and 13 centuries of it before even Henry of Kirkstede. Thus medieval authors are happy bringing up pseudo-Democritus and the various arabic authors, and Hermes, despite being the most ancient and author of the Emerald Tablet (Not really, but that’s the story) just does not come up so much.

The new question that occurred to me was, can I use the library catalogues to find out more about the presence of alchemical books in Medieval England? Which got me enough information for another post, coming soon.

Alchemy and Magic, are they related?


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The answer is of course, yes and no.
Sparked by this rather meh, if not downright wrong in places, essay that seems to think that alchemy is magic in the medieval period:
Which is of first year undergraduate level frankly, nothing more than a re-hashing of a bunch of textbooks, or of tertiary works i.e. those which cite the works which cite the original sources.
Nevertheless, the question is always a good one to discuss.

You’ll notice that the essay references lots of works that concentrate on Magic, not so much on alchemy.* This is always a bit of a problem, with alchemy being ignored or lumped into other topics or viewed from a specific, often narrow and wrong, viewpoint.

Now, one of the first things to do is look at actual books on alchemy, the standard one volume work now being “The secrets of alchemy” by Lawrence Principe. He insists on page 125 of the hardback edition that:
“All of them agreed that its action was purely natural, that is, operating by natural laws alone.”

Admittedly he is referring here to the 16-17th centuries, but he continues,
“Although some critics tried to portray chrysopoeia {ie goldmaking} as operating in a non-natural manner that involved demonic agency and trickery – and was therefore something to be avoided – virtually all its advocates insisted on purely natural explanations.”
Principe also notes (page 89) that many 18th century writers grouped alchemy with witchcraft, necromancy, astrology etc under the heading of “occult sciences” and that (page 83) “it is akin to magic”. This idea has persisted today, but as anyone who does a bit of reading will find, sells alchemy woefully short, and Principe continues, “Alchemy was neither magical nor a so-called black art.”

A glance through the book “Promethean Ambitions” by William R. Newman, who on pages 177-178 reckons that natural magic and alchemy in the Arabic period overlapped but were distinct. He then goes on to discuss the “Book of the Cow”, a book of Arabic magic which is rather enthusiastic for lots of disgusting processes in order to get the result that you want.
Continue reading

Making blue and green ink


Having made black and red inks, I thought I would try something a bit more unusual. You can see blue, red and black ink used in this 15th century MS, the Livre de Sydrac in the British Library:
The difficulty was in finding recipes.
So, on with the experiments.

This recipe is to make azure, i.e. blue.
But uses cinnabar!
However it looks quite interesting, and odd, because it basically takes a typical sort of 14th century distillation recipe for making a mixed acid of nitric, sulphuric and some hydrochloride, and dissolving verdigris in it, when you want to make azure coloured ink.
Now I see no point in trying this with cinnabar, because it probably doesn’t have much effect and I’m saving my mercury exposure for other experiments, but as it happens, I have several acids lying around from earlier alchemical experiments.

So if I take one of them, and add some copper carbonate, I get this:

blue and green ink 1a

THe flask on the left has the correctly coloured liquid. It is rather blue, which is hopeful. Not all the carbonate has dissolved, and the final problem is how to make it thick and yet watery like ink.

They don’t say what gives the colour; certainly running a hand held XRF over the ink would be an interesting exercise, although I’m not sure it would be sensitive enough to detect everything. It would surely pick up red lead or lots of copper or iron or mercury.

So, I tried the watery stuff, unsurprisingly it didn’t work as ink, rather as drops of water. So I heated it up with some gum arabic, and it thickened up. However not enough and you can see the result in the last photo of this post.

A recipe for green ink, according to page 27 of “Introduction to Manuscript Studies” by Clemens and Graham, in a 15th century recipe, is:
“To make verdigris green. Take one pound of copper filings or scraps and wash it a little through a linen bag. Take ground egg yolks, quicklime, tartar sediment, common salt, strong vinegar, and boys’ urine, and mix everything in the vinegar and urine and put half of it in a copper vessel and stir four times a day, then put it over heat or in the sun to dry.”

Simple huh. Except not really. How do you prepare the dry ink? What have you done with the other half of the mixture?
Fortunately I have some copper powder, and all the other ingredients.

Leaving out the egg yolk, I put some vinegar, urine, quicklime, tartaric acid, salt into a beaker, stirred about, and added copper carbonate, which made it go green, which is a good start, and it is in the vessel on the right in the first photo.

After adding the egg yolk, it turned this colour:
blue and green ink 1
Again, the one on the right. A bit more blue. As it was, this stuff was the wrong colour and too watery to use as ink, not to mention a bit lumpy. I heated it, and it turned back a bit more green, but was still rather lumpy and too watery to be useful.

I tried them both, acid on the left, egg etc on the right:

blue and green ink 2
Neither flowed well at all, and both had rather a blue colour.
So, the end result is failure on both recipes. Okay, not grinding the egg yolk probably didn’t help, but I have to wonder about the practicality of the recipe.

I’m saving my money to buy gold to experiment with, so haven’t purchased some lapis lazuli.

Why this blog has been a bit quiet recently


I appreciate I’ve not been putting up the usual colourful/ on fire/ interesting fact-full posts recently, but several things in real life have gotten in the way. Number one is actually having a job. Number two is, it was the re-enactment season (Still is for some people), and I worked out that I have spent 18 days away from home visiting the 15th and 16th centuries since the end of April, being especially busy in June and July. Since that includes several hours packing and unpacking at the end of every period of time away, I have had less time to write or experiment.

I’ve also been working, slowly, on my big alchemy book, whose provisional title is “Backyard Alchemy”. The issue I’ve found there is that I don’t want to put all the stuff from the book on my blog before I actually manage to finish the book and find a publisher. Thus I have been more careful about what I have posted, and not put up a couple of posts of things I will likely mention in the book.
Another problem is simply that summarising a million word of other people’s research into alchemy into two dozen chapters, which also have space for my experiments, is actually quite hard. It is important to leave stuff out, and what I leave out might not be what you would leave out. It would be simple to write nonsense about alchemy, but writing something factual and useful yet interesting is actually a bit tricky, and summarising things well is also quite hard.
Nevertheless, I have managed to reach about 70% completion of the writing, with another 10% hanging on certain experiments, 10% drafted and the last 10% needing to be written/ sorted out. The experiments however are the problem, some need to be re-done, others have led down rabbit holes which need to be explored or ignored.

So keep watching here, I am carrying out more experiments and lining other things up for your entertainment and education. I hope to start finding an agent or publisher for the book at the end of the month, as long as I manage to bash some more word into shape and finish a couple of experiments.

A closer look at Harley 2407, thanks to D W Singer



Don’t say I’m not good to you – I looked up Singer with regards to this MS. It is a complex MS and Singer wrote a very complex network of references to all the alchemical MS she could find in England. Just learning your way about her work is a job in itself, in a way she was trying to make a hyperlinked document long before they were even thought of. Certainly it would be nice to have a modern equivalent, but transcribing and hyperlinking them all together is very far down the list of things to get done, even with all the unemployed people we have.

So, we have entry 803in Singer, from Harley 2407, f29v to 31v. Some of the spelling is bad in the original:

Arnaldus de villa nova. “Now I shal her begynne
to teche the now a conclusion

Now I have taght the how thus schal do
The blys of hevyn god bryng hus to.
Explicit Arnoldis de nova. Deo Gracias
(printed as anonymous Theatrum chemicum brittanicum pages 344-354

The number of entries for Harley 2407 takes up nearly a page on pages 1040 to 1041 of volume 3, so I can’t exactly check them all.
One of the longest is ff 18-29v, and is a running commentary on various well-known alchemical sayings

prol Inc Now to beholde and se transparently…
explct: … as well for mannes body as for metalle.
Explicit Prologusermes.
IncThe begynnying of owre ston ys water inpalpabil…
Explc: … now to teche the begynne and to make a ende by the grace of god almyghty and loke thow don in this manner a wyse.”

In a previous post I mentioned the drawings, including the one on F107, which is part of f106-111v, which Singer says is late 15th or 16th century, probably by the same hand as other parts which she refers to.

56 operations, each figure to end of F110 has an English legend, and “The legends of the figures at first follow more or less the order of the table of operations on F106. They gradually diverge from the Table and on Ff110-111v there are no legends.

On toads and snakes, we have the illustration on f68, which according to Sawyer is more of alchemical allegorical figures, she rather lumps them all together in this work. The text says “Sapo et bufo gradiens super terram et aquila volans.”

Now, since I wrote the above, I have managed to source this:
Singer trilogy

The slight problem is that the pages are not cut! This leads to a dilemma. Do I cut the pages for maximum readbility, or do I keep them whole on the grounds that these appear to be first proof editions that have not been properly read or looked after?

Anyway, here are some photos of relevant pages, including more information on the allegorical figures.
Singer 2407 three

Singer 2407 two

Singer 2401 one
I could look some others up if you like.


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