Many people who are interested in alchemy will have seen 2 books by a historian called Jonathan Hughes. Only Hughes is not a good historian at all. His work for the last decade has been on alchemy in England and it’s relationship with the courts of the kings. This is summarised in 2 books, “Arthurian myth and Alchemy” and “The rise of alchemy in fourteenth century England”.
Now, why do I not like his work? Essentially because in the first two chapters of his newest book, “The rise of alchemy in fourteenth century England”, ( published in 2012), there is a high density of errors of fact, poor or botched references and some odd reasoning. There are also problems with the rest of the book which will be covered in another post, which already continues for an inordinate length below the cut.
The following comments cover the first two chapters which are a general history of alchemy that demonstrates Hughes ability to get actual alchemical matters completely wrong, use secondary and disreputable sources, and his strangely uncritical view of the original manuscript sources. Finally the chapters abuse references to an astounding degree. Frankly, having worked through these two chapters, I found I had no desire to read the rest, since the first two chapters that lay the foundation are so botched. Furthermore, a number of statements are made which, which, at face value, are unusual and possibly wrong, but the claims are not argued or referenced, leaving one to hope that they will be dealt with at greater length in the rest of the book.
The one slight mitigating factor is that this book reads more easily and smoothly than his book on Arthurian myths in alchemy, which is reflected also in the change in publisher, from Sutton to Continuum, who are well known for publishing somewhat scholarly books on esoteric subjects for the layman.
Unfortunately what this means is that the lay reader will absorb the factual and conceptual errors all the more easily. And there are many such problems in the text. But first, a couple of caveats – this is a blog post, in which I have tried to make it as accurate as possible, and certainly more accurate than the book I am critting, but there may well be some small errors. And I tend to make blog posts less formal and more entertaining than academic writing, therefore this is not meant to be like a full blown published book review. Page numbers are taken from the paperback edition, since that is what I have access to.
That said, here is a list of many of the most glaring errors, confusions and downright bad history in the first two chapters:
Chapter 1, Introduction
Page 7, after writing about how Jung’s analysis of alchemy lacked a sense of historical and geographical perspective, he continues, “However, such omissions are not unusual in the modern age. Alchemy is a much studied subject, but its origins in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages are relatively neglected” – Hughes is being disingenuous here. The penetration of and changes and growth in alchemy in medieval Europe (note not origin) are reasonably well studied, the caution being that the amount of study varies depending on the availability of funding and appropriate people to do the work, and is usually found under the heading “history of science”. Moreover, the research of the last 30 years has overturned many of the suppositions and ideas of the previous 70 years. Either way, it is only relatively neglected compared to, well, I dunno, because he hasn’t said what. He even holds this opinion despite having read a number of modern works and papers on the topic of alchemy; perhaps he might be in ignorance of the wide variety of such papers in other European languages, except that even that excuse does not wash given his reference to papers by the likes of Obrist that are in French or Italian and various works on Catalan alchemists. Maybe he means that its part in society has been relatively less studied, which is kind of right, except that in reality there isn’t much evidence available and that isn’t what he wrote. The study of medieval alchemy is clearly in robust health to judge by the meetings and papers I have attended and read over the last few years, setting alchemy in its historical and geographical contexts just as he desires. Maybe he just doesn’t know how modern history of science covers the texts and their place in society and, especially important to his thesis, the intellectual milieu of the time!
Even worse, it continues, “Most university courses on alchemy and the occult tend to start from the Renaissance.” Which might be true, but is not a criticism in good faith because although scholars of the last 30 years or so have recognised and rebuilt our understanding of how the renaissance was a long process and grew out of medieval europe, lecture courses usually have to pick starting points and the renaissance and the late medieval occult revival is actually a definite period that develops out of the medieval, one of the critical points being the new translations of and re-introduction of the Corpus Hermeticum in the later 15th century and the amalgamation of it, astrology, alchemy and other magical strands into a big mess (Well not actually a mess but…). It’s a bit like criticising the small car you bought for its fuel efficiency for not having enough load carrying capacity, well of course it won’t because it wasn’t designed to carry lots of stuff. And of course the Renaissance is a moveable feast itself, it might help if he was more specific about dating it.
He makes some weird editorial comments about Britain and its history, such as this from page 7: “A study of alchemy in the fourteenth century may help to explain a number of anomalies. The British nation that exported to its vast overseas empire the scientific and industrial revolutions that laid the foundations for the modern world also incorporated onto its flag an occult symbol, the Red cross on a white background that, as we shall see, has strong alchemical associations. King James I, under whom the realms of England and Scotland were united, adopted the lion and the unicorn as the royal coat of arms, and by the 16th century this was a common alchemical motif with its roots in the late middle ages.”
To draw connections down the centuries without any rational reasons for them or attempts to link them in causality is really bad work; even if the lion and unicorn were associated with alchemical endeavours by the 16th century it doesn’t mean they have anything to do with high medieval alchemy at all, nor does it mean that they were actually adopted as supporters because of the desire to signal the crown’s interest in alchemy. No references are given for this the insinuations given here. Furthermore, the unicorn as a heraldic supporter comes from the arms of Scotland, and oddly enough Hughes hasn’t made any claims about the Scottish kings being into alchemy. James IV was interested in alchemy, but I don’t believe it was him who put the unicorn on the Scottish coat of arms. Besides, the other early alchemical colours are black and yellow, why aren’t they on the flag? And by the late medieval period most of the colours of the rainbow were involved too. The St George’s cross, as used in England, has no alchemical origin that I have ever read of, and it is rather hard to draw any alchemical links to it, especially without any supporting evidence or argument. Ultimately his mentioning of the colours in this context is irrelevant and unsupported. In fact it turns out that he makes something of a case later in the book, but that is not clear at all at this point.
Page 8, “The appearance of the Malificius Malificarum (The hammer of the witches) in 1481 encouraged the notion that engagement in occult activities implied entering into a diabolic pact with the forces of darkness.” – In this case Hughes has misspelled the Malleus Maleficarium and it was apparently written in 1486 and printed in 1487, not 1481. Moreover he gives no references for the date or the demonic connection. Whilst the general thrust of meaning is correct in that the Malleus did encourage such a notion, it was more a development out of the likes of the earlier papal bull issued by Pope Innocent VIII, which apparently emphasised that witches gained their power by worshipping the devil. However in historical context, this was not a massive change; the relationship between devils and magic was an established fact long before it was written. See for instance the 13th century works of Thomas Aquinas, who wrote about how magic is performed by demons who dupe the magician. Or the late 14th century Inquisitor Eymericus, who wrote against alchemists because he reckoned that when they failed to tramsute metals, they turned to demons to achieve it.
He claims, “The fundamental principle of the philosophy of the Grail legends and the myths of Arthur and his tutor Merlin was the wisdom and sanctity of nature.”, the nearby reference merely suggesting that “The name Merlinus that occurs in alchemical texts maybe a corruption of Merculinus. See Jung, Mysterium Conjunctionis, p.266” This is not a popular view of the Grail legends, as far as I can find. And Hughes makes no argument for it, no reference to a body of academic work to back it up. I checked with someone who has read a fair bit about the grail legends when doing an MA on Celtic studies, oddly enough they had no idea where he was coming from and the internet provides no clue as to where he gets this idea from. Is this Hughes own idiosyncratic intepretation? Who can tell? But I bet it confuses some people. It certainly doesn’t fit with what I know of the medieval attitude to nature, rather it sounds like a modern idea. And when you check the Jung reference, it is to a note that says “The verses of a certain Merculinus are preserved in Ros. Phil., Art. Aurif. (1610 edn), II, pp 242f.” As far as I can find out, the specific Rosarius Philosophorum mentioned is a 15th century work. So why is that relevant to alchemy in 14th century England? In fact are there any 14th century English MS that mention Merlin? Hughes doesn’t say.
He claims that Roger Bacon went to Spain to study the works of Jabir, but gives no specific reference for such an odd claim. In fact (judging by the essays in such a scholarly book as “Roger Bacon and the Sciences – Commemorative essays” edited by Jeremiah Hackett) Bacon never got further than Paris, and as far as I am aware knew little of the works of Jabir. At this point one can only ask what Hughes was smoking!
He writes, at the bottom of page 9, “The survival in Britain of nearly 3,500 fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century manuscripts of Latin translations of these Arabic treatises and the Latin alchemical treatises of the thirteenth-century English alchemists is testimony to the significance of alchemy in the later middle ages.” Reference 30, at top of page 10. This is very odd, given that the reference is to an article in French about Arabic alchemy, the twin article of an earlier, English version of the same book, which English version does not mention the number of texts at all. Maybe the other nearby references contain such information? The point here is not that the number of 3,500 is wrong (although some context would be nice, 3,500 out of 4,000 manuscripts total, or 3,500 out of 100,000?), but that it isn’t referenced properly, at all in fact. This type of error crops up all the way through these chapters!
Cinnabar, mercuric sulphide, is, according to Hughes, red and white. Not any of the samples I have, although there is a little white stuff visible in a photo of it on wikipedia. Maybe that is where he gets the idea from? Certainly all medieval mentions of cinnabar I have found see it as red.
He claims the symbol for mercury is over 3,000 years old, which is completely wrong, this statement is made without any supporting reference; in reality it is an evolved form of representation of Merury’s Caduceus, which is itself only traced back about 2,500 years, and the earliest alchemical-ish use of it appears to be nearly 2,000 years ago. The symbols for metals and planets are explored and explained in “Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus” which explains how the symbols for the planets have been traced to Greek texts in Egypt around 2,000 years ago, not 3,000 years ago.
He claims mercury was identified with the moon, page 10, “By 500BC it was used to make amalgams with other metals. This precious substance (identified with the moon) was deemed to be the origin of all matter and the origin of pure gold.”, whereas the earliest planet- metal connections the moon is identified with silver. The old standard reference for this sort of thing was a paper by Partington, “The origin of the planetary symbols for the metals”, which collates a number of sources, including a 1400-1600BC Babylonian list of planets and gods, through a Mithraic list of Celcius, and onto a list made by the alchemist Olympiodorous in the 6th century AD. In all these 22 references, 21 link the moon with silver, and only one with something else, namely crystal. Not mercury, which is only occaisionally linked to the planet mercury. This makes especial sense since the metal is in many traditions (Before high medieval Europe) treated as a spirit, not as a body, and bodies are what are affected by the planets. It later struck me that an alternative, more charitable reading of the above excerpt is that he has simply botched the explanation, making a poor job of separating out the older historical information about alchemy from the 14th century ones he is concerned with in the book, in which such a connection between the moon and mercury is made; the context isn’t anywhere near as clear as it should be, and of course no references are given. If I can misunderstand what he means, so can anyone else.
He claims that many texts were written for Edward III and his mother Isabella and his Queen Phillipa, but any references provided? No references are given, again one is left with the idea that this is a proven fact. Perhaps more is written later in the book? Certainly I have not come across much mention of these alleged texts in works by English historians of alchemy who might be expected to have mentioned them.
He claims that the alchemist understood ”The claims of the alchemist to hold the key to eternal youth and purity in his understanding and manufacture of the mysterious mercury, the first principle of all matter, may have been intellectually exciting; but it also aroused the interest of those in the pursuit of political power and especially Edward III’s successor, Richard II who, in the course of this 22-year reign, made a less successful attempt to rejuvenate his kingdom through the application of alchemical medicine.”. This is a little broad to say the least; by the 1330’s alchemists were getting into the idea of alchemical medicine, but Hughes adduces no evidence to show that they were and misses out the point that medicine to cure ills does not mean the same as eternal youth. What does ‘purity’ mean in such a context anyway? Or maybe he means by the time of Edward III? Either way a proper clarification would be nice. For instance, some alchemists reckoned human life could be extended by the use of elixirs, others that they could just keep you healthy and you would live only your natural span. There certainly wasn’t a universal agreement on the matter, as Leah deVun’s book “Prophecy, Alchemy and the End of Time” explains differents of thought between Roger Bacon and the likes of John of Rupescissa. (It also has lots of references and actually discusses and arguies it’s points, rather than doing as Hughes does)
His claim that Richard II was ‘steeped’ in alchemy is somehow based on Richard keeping occult books and having an interest in alchemy. Oddly enough alchemy is not the same as witchcraft, but Hughes repeatedly lumps every form of esoteric learning into the term ‘occult’ and this allows him to make broad generalisations with no historical backing. There is of course a difference between someone being ‘steeped’ in alchemy and just having some knowledge of it. Again, we are left wondering what Hughes will say about the topic later, but this is not made clear.
On page 15, “Alchemy is best defined as the attempt to understand and master the hidden powers within the earth.” No it isn’t; the powers are explained quite clearly as being the natural heat within the earth and the influence of the planets, working together to perfect metals to gold, or the natural tendency of metals to grow towards perfection, or if you are doing later medical alchemy, harnessing the four elements and the quintessence to your bidding, which definitely aren’t the hidden powers within the earth. The alchemist often attempts to mimic the heat of the earth in their furnace and the specific processes which produced precious metals. Of course the powers and influences that do the work are hidden from the uneducated or unblessed, but then that’s a common theme anyway. And since the metals are formed under the influence of the planets, that isn’t in the earth, even if the vapour and smoke which combine to form the metals is. Or you do it by elixirs which change the proportions of the 4 elements or the qualities of the metals, or you reduce them to the prime material and impress them with the qualities of gold or silver. At the least his characterisation of it is a very abstract statement which doesn’t help us get a proper understanding of the matter, ignoring the repeated, documented attempts by alchemists at improving metals and making medicines.
His understanding of the Quintessence seems to me to be a bit confused and lacking in depth (also on page 15), and he repeatedly uses cover names for such substances as if they are real. There’s no awareness or comment about the multiple meanings of the word quintessence or its history; for instance Hughes states that “This involved a philosophical search for a perfect balance between the four elements that existed in a mysterious fifth substance from which all the elements were believed to be derived, the quintessence. The most comprehensive theory defining this quintessence was the assertion that all metals derived from mercury and sulphur. Mercury was the female, cool and moist; and sulphur the make, hot and dry. Mercury is found in silver, pearl-like droplets in rocks and is extracted by smelting cinnabar, and sulphur can befound in its natural state in volcanoes. These two substances were seen as opposites (like the Yin and Yang water and fire principles that form the foundation of Chinese alchemy that could, in a Manichean sense, represent the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, that form the basic principle of life. (ref 3) The quest of the alchemist was to find the original prima materia, the pure form of mercury, the original water of creation, which could be obtained by removing from mercury all impure sulphur. This pure mercury was believed to be the one unchanging substance that was the origin of all life, the manifestation of God in matter which constituted the philosopher’s stone.”,
The point here is that these are concepts which became more popular through the 14th century thanks to works by pseudonymous authors, such as the man who wrote pseudo-Lull’s Testamentum. But that was only written in the 1330s;. yet Hughes writes throughout this chapter as if the definitions and concepts used then were univeral throughout the entire history of alchemy, which is definitely not the case. For instance, the importance of the or a quintessence was not much recognised at all before the 14th century. Finally, the reference within this quote leads to “For a summary of Chinese alchemy and links with western alchemy, see P.G. Maxwell, “The chemical choir: a history of alchemy” (London: Continuum, 2008), 11. 1-17. ” As is typical, this reference has been mishandled. The authors name is P. G. Maxwell-Stuart, a double barrelled surname.
His treatment of Merlin as an alchemist (page 19) suffers from the same faults – it is not a useful framework, but rather a populistic ahistorical summary that tells us little about the real place of Merlin in alchemy.
On page 20 we find, “The symbolism of red sulphur and white mercury emerged in England at the same time that Islamic science was making its first impression on English scholars visiting Islamic territories in Spain and southern Italy.” with reference 18 being to Fowden’s “The Egyptian Hermes”, only I can find no mention of red or white in the index of Fowden’s book nor of sulphur or mercury that is relevant to the claim made here. Abusing references like this is simply not on and indicates that Hughes is guilty of bad scholarship. And I don’t know of any evidence that such symbolism wa sknown of in the 12/early 13th century in England either.
His idea of where the word alchemy comes from is possibly wrong, page 20, “The name alchemy is derived by prefixing the Arabic definite article al to chemia (the preparation of silver and gold) which may be derived from Khwm, an ancient name for Egypt.” is just one out of a number of alternatives; there is no reference given for it. He is picking one specific old idea, not giving a reference for it, and ignoring the more modern intepretation which is more likely. Principe 2013, “The secrets of Alchemy”, page 23, states that the word plausibly derives from ‘chemeia’ or ‘chumeia’, meaning an ‘art of melting metals’. His sources for this are all old enough for Hughes to have been able to use them, if he was interested or to have a useful short discussion of the options.
Page 20, “The allegories and symbolism of alchemy with their emphasis on death and rebirth may owe much to the Pharaonic religion of the Nile valley with its emphasis on the cult of dismemberment and reintegration of the God Osiris; the worship of the sun god, Ra (represented by the alchemical sign for gold); and the advanced techniques in gold making and mummification of bodies. Ref. 19” When we turn to 19, “Egyptology,: the missing Millenium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings”, page 13, on page 13 we find no mention of Ra, Osiris, mummification; in fact it is totally irrelevant. Maybe some other sections of the book are relevant, but that is unclear. So Hughes has fouled up his reference completely.
The fact that the symbol for Ra is the circle with dot in middle is actually used as a symbol for the sun itself, is not mentioned just now. The spin he puts on it on it tends to make it seem like there is more continuity in thought and philosophy than was necessarily the case 2,000 years ago. A modern equivalent might be saying that we go to worship the sun on Sunday, or Freya on Friday, which of course would be wrong for most Europeans. Whereas if the main link is that people kept using the same symbol whilst dropping the old religion that would rather loosen his insistence upon the connection to the old Egyptian religion.
The previous problem is also a lead into another – It is as if he is wanting to paint alchemy as only an egyptian invention, when in fact it owes a lot to Hellenistic culture too, and influences flowing in from Babylonia etc. Sure, he mentions Greek culture, at the bottom of page 21; but it gets very little space compared with egyptian stuff. This is one of the key things about the formation of alchemy – the marriage of Hellenistic natural philosophy, gnostic and Hermetic beliefs, in the melting pot of northern Egypt with Egyptian craft techniques, and later some planetary astrology from Babylonia. Hughes does not give this its due at all.
He writes, “When the Arabs conquered Egypt … they became the heirs to the alchemical traditions of the Egyptians and Greeks.” and “Arab alchemists perpetuated a myth of a recovery of original alchemical knowledge from the ancient Egyptians (The alchemical symbol for gold is identical to the ancient Egyptian symbol of the sun god Ra) and they were drawn to what they perceived to be the occult mysteries underlying the pyramids, temples and the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Nile valley (ref 23)” ref 23 is to the distinctly secondary work “Marshall, “The philosopher’s Stone”, pages 181-6. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hughes drew much of this chapter from Marshall. And saved himself some work that way. Only Marshall has an agenda, that being to push a modern esotericists view of the world. As such you can see how Hughes is bigging up the ‘occult’ links and ignoring much else.
Page 23, Hughes states that: “The fusion of Egyptian and Greek influences on which Arab alchemy was founded may have originated in Alexandria but the advancement of metallurgical techniques, the use of corrosive acids and the refinement of the theory that all metals and indeed life itself merged from sulphur and mercury developed in cities in the heart of the Islamic empire in the seventh and eighth centuries in Baghdad and Damascus. It was in this environment that distillation techniques were employed in such inventions as the alembic to produce such essences as rosewater and where chemical retorts and cucurbits were first used to melt metals with the use of nitric and sulphuric acids.”
Well, I hadn’t noticed acids melting metals when I was working in a laboratory, which does suggest that Hughes has no understanding of chemistry. When you look up the nearest reference, it says reference 25! Oddly enough, reference 25, to Halleux, “The reception of Arabic alchemy in the west”, in “”The encyclopedia of Arabic Sciences, volume 3, ed. Rashad and Morelon, does not support this statement in any way, instead saying, page 897, about Europe: “The distillation device was introduced in the 12th century, through both alchemic and medical translations, but its two main applications, the water of life and mineral acids, seem to be European innovations which slowly extricate themselves from a jumble of plant extracts, incendiary compositions and corrosive liquids.” Hmm, that rather destroys what Hughes wrote.
Hughes writes, on page 21, regarding the 14/15th centuries, “During this period the corrosive acid salt petre, derived from camel dung, was imported from egypt.” with no reference given. This is basically a lie, or if you feel like being charitable, a major error. In fact, sal ammoniac was obtained from distillation of camel dung, not salt petre; the latter is a salt not an acid (the clue is in the name!) and could be used to make nitric acid, but that requires a distillation procedure, not just the salt itself. Moreover the distillation of camel dung is an Arabic alchemical practise, it was their works which popularised sal ammoniac (although maybe the Egyptians knew about it, it isn’t as clear that they had it). By the late 14th century, saltpetre was being produced in Europe, so why you would need to import it from Egypt is not clear (Although they probably did so earlier in the century), and anyway you make the acid in your own workshop, you don’t import it in bottles and definite recipes start appearing in the 13/14th century or so.
“The earliest surviving descriptions of Greco-Egyptian alchemical craft recipes for artificial pearls, gold and silver and dyeing date from papyri around 300BC found in a cemetery in Upper Egypt and they are based on older models” reference 21, page 22. This statement is somewhat problematical, with some older experts (e.g. the 1920’s), convinced that they are alchemical recipes, and some not. His source is a somewhat old work by Robert Halleuax from 1979. Larry Principe reckons they are not strictly speaking alchemical (Principe 2013, page 11), and I agree, because of the lack of overarching theory for the practise, which is one of the distinctions of alchemy. Certainly this is not a settled subject either. Anyway, I find it amusing that Hughes or some editing or printing error has put 300BC instead of 300AD! It’s also amusing that it ended up saying 300BC given that Halleux discusses the date and ends up plumping for the start of the 4th century AD, contemporary with Zosimos, but you have to read the next comment to understand.
In fact there is another difficult statement by Hughes, “One name to emerge was Zosimus (c. 350-420AD), a native of Ahkmin in Upper Egypt, who employed an enigmatic and aphoristic style that would characterize later alchemical texts”. Ref. 22, which is to Halleux, “papyrus de Leyde”, no page number. The only mention of Zosimos I can find is that he’s about contemporaneous with the Leyden and Stockholm papyri, on page 23, with reference to Plessner, “Zosimus” in DSB volume 14, 1976, page 631-632. So Hughes has added some editorialising which is irrelvant to the date at hand, and even worse, puts Zosimos into the wrong date and some town I can’t find online! Mertens, in their translation of Zosimos ‘Authentic Memoirs’, dates him around 300AD, not 400AD, and most likely from Panopolis! Where does Hughes get the idea of Ahkmin from? Well, I thought it was from Peter Marshall, “The philosopher’s Stone”, which says that Panopolis is the old name of Akhmim, except that Hughes uses a diferent spelling! (Marshall uses the modern spelling, as seen in wikipedia, it is unclear where Hughes gets his, but either way shows either a very poor production process or a cavalier approach to accuracy)
His treatment of the Jabir issue is not completely wrong exactly, more muddled and poorly written. It references a “Paul of Tarento”, which is a mistake, it should be “Paul of Taranto”. This is either a spelling mistake, or confusion born out of the medieval Latin version of the name, which is “Paulus de Tarento”. Hughes also readily adopts one idea of the place of origin of Jabir, apparently born 721 in Tus in Persia, died in 815 in Kufa Iraq, but no nearby references are given, and anyway one of the texts he has already referenced ( G. C. Anawati, “L’alchimie arabes”, in Histoire des sciences arabes III technologie alchimie et sciences de la view, ed. Roshdi Rashed with Regis Morelon, (Paris: Seuil, 1997)) says that some authors reckon he died in Tus. This is all far from settled and probably never will be. Ref. 27 is the nearest reference, to Ahmed al-Hassan’s book “Studies in Al-Kimya”, albeit without any page numbers and does seem to be where he got this information from, claiming Jabir died in Kufa and lived from 721 to 815, but the reference is rather far away to be obviously connected.
The other issue is that he switches between the probably real Jabir and the body of works attributed to him but written later, without any concern for the readers understanding of the complex situation. Thus we get, page 23, “The Jabirian corpus of ninth- and tenth century works defined the philosopher’s stone as a transmuted elixir that could transform any metal into gold and introduced the use of chemical agents such as sal ammonia and saltpetre. Jabir may be the originator of the sulphur mercury theory of the generation of metals: for fourteenth century alchemical writers like Petrus Bonus he was the authority who defined the active principle of metals as sulphur and the form of metals as mercury. Jabir was also preoccupied with the tincture that turns metals to gold and the necessity of carying out experiments.” Firstly, if they were 9/10th century, I think you’ll find that other works mentioned sal ammoniac and saltpetre first, although dating them all is rather hard. Secondly, note how he mentions this then Jabir, just the name, as if the 8th century man was real and working and did think up the sulphur/ mercury theory or rather, he doesn’t explain the difference between the man and the corpus. Some modern scholars suggest that the sulphur/ mercury theory actually comes from Balinus, an early 9th century author, i.e. when the real Jabir would have been in very old age (Some datings attribute him with living to be 95), and was then adopted into the Jabirian corpus. Either way, not making this so clear really doesn’t help anyone’s understanding of the situation and the modern view. Oh, and why mention that jabir defined the philosopher’s stone as an elixir, then a couple of sentences later that he was interested in tinctures? It seems a bit redundant.
The other problem in his treatment of Jabir is that of Geber, where he writes, “There are also at least seven Latin treatises carrying the name of Geber (Jabir’s Latin name) for which the Arabic originals have not yet been identified, giving rise to the assumption that they were the product of pseudo Latin authors. (reference 27)” When we turn to the reference section, it gives us Ahmed al-Hassan’s book “Studies in al-kimya” (which is a work of uneven quality), without any page number. I eventually found the 7 works claim on page 15. The rather large problem with this claim is that al-Hassan doesn’t really prove that any of these 7 (although I can count only 5 in the later chapter devoted to the Geber problem) are really by Islamic authors. Yes, it is clear, and his bete noir, William Newman admits as much, that the author of the “Summa Perfectionis”, one of these Latin Geber manuscripts, took a lot of things from Rhazi and Jabir (Or rather the corpus of works attributed to them). But it is still accepted that at least 4 of these works were written by Europeans, i.e. it is not an assumption, but an accepted fact. It is symptomatic of Hughes uncritical approach that he does not take all this into account or make it more clear what the modern conclusion is.
He mentions Rhazi, and attributes to him a book concerning ‘alums and salts’. There is a “Book on Alums and Salts”, written by pseudo-Rhazi, not the real Rhazi, probably in the 11/12th century AD in Spain and certainly not 9th century Iraq. (This is on Hughes Page 23, and ref 28 to Ahmed al – Hassan, “Science and technology in Islam in The different aspects of Islamic culture, edited by A Y Hassan, Iskander, Ahmed, vol 4, also Hassan, Studies in al-kimia, critical issues in latin and arabic alchemy and chemistry, no page number given!)
On page 24, we find: “That which is above is that which is below”, claimed to be from the Emerald Tablet of Hermes. This particular error is completely insane. I cannot find the language to express how totally bonkers it is that someone claiming to be a professional historian should make it. The essential fact is that the readily available english translations of this sentence say “That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of one thing.“, which is not the same as Hughes version. The earliest I can find such a garbled version is the 16/17th century “Glory of the world”. Or else he has taken it from a poor quality Golden dawn translation that is freely available on the internet. If he had even just used Holmyard’s old, broad brush book “Alchemy”, which he indicates in the references as having read!, he would have still gotten the correct quote. Even worse, the next references, which cover a comment about the finding of an arabic original of the Emerald Tablet, are to Steel and Singer, trans, The Emerald Table, (1927) in Holmyard, “Alchemy”, and to Fowden, “The Egyptian Hermes”, but with no page number given! Fowden’s work doesn’t even mention the Emerald Tablet, and it is not in the index! So he appears to be aware that good proper english translations are available, but has not used them!
At the bottom of page 24, he claims that the Turba Philosophorum was ‘possibly’ written in circa 900AD by “Utha ibn Sumaid of Kkh in Egypt”. No reference is given for this claim, and when you turn to a good source of information (Plessner, Isis vol 45 no. 4, page 333 and 334), you find mention of a “Othman ibn Suwaid of Akhmim in Egypt”, regarding one of whose works Plessner writes, “It seems permissible to detect in this work evidence of the Turba itself, or a book of similar nature.” Needless to say, not referencing this, changing the spelling (the only hit on google is to his own book) and turning an impression of a similarity into a definite possibility is hardly good practise, although I suppose it is easy to get the language wrong so as to over emphasise something, I am sure I have been guilty of that myself.
Then he claims (top of page 26, nearest ref 34) that the earliest latin translation of an alchemical text was around 1130 by John of Seville, who translated the Secreta Secretorum and dedicated it to a queen. No reference is given for this rather large and important claim. This claim is horrendously wrong for two reasons. Firstly, many previous historians refer to the earliest translation of an alchemical text as being in 1144 or so, the “Book on the Composition of Alchemy”. Hughes claim is only viable if you understand the Secreta secretorum is in fact about alchemy, something which I have never ever read anywhere in any reliable authorities on the matter and anyway he makes no actual argument for other historians of science being wrong in this way. Even one of his own previous references, the article in the “History of Arabic Sciences”, regards the first alchemical translation as being in 1144. Whilst it is true that versions of the Secreta Secretorum discuss transmutation, it is only as part of a much larger work dedicated to natural philosophy, medicine and social instructions. But the way it is presented by Hughes makes it appear certain that Spanish nobility were interested in alchemy in the 12th century. The second reason this is wrong is that, according to Thorndike, (‘John of Seville’, by Lynn Thorndike in Speculum, volume 34, number 1, January 1959, pages 20-38) only 188 lines of the medical information from the Secreta Secretorum were translated! Not the alchemical bit! Quoting Thorndike, “To begin with, the translator states that when he and the queen were once discussing human physiology,… she asked him, as if he were a medical man … for a brief booklet on the rule of health and wholesome living. As he thought it over afterwards, it suddenly occurred to him that Aristotle had written that sort of advice to Alexander, which he has copied … from the book in Arabic sirr al asrar ….” The likely source for Hughes error is misunderstanding a paper on the Secreta Secretorum in Hacket’s book (Roger Bacon and the Sciences, commemorative essays, edited by J. Hackett, Brill, 1997), and perhaps wikipedia or other less scholarly sources. Certainly it suggests a lack of depth of research!
He writes on page 26 that a Daniel Morley (Who isn’t mentioned in the index which is rather short and lacking in entries) worked as a translator in Toledo in 1140-1210, and returned to England to write a book on the 4 elements and the quintessence. The point here, apart from a lack of references, is that just because someone knows of the 4 elements and the quintessence, which in the Aristotelian sense is the 5th element beyond the moon, the one up in the spheres as it were, doesn’t mean they know of or are interested in alchemy. In fact Hughes may have gotten his information from Lynn Thorndike’s History of magic and experimental science, volume 2, which places Morley firmly in the camp of normal translators imbibing ancient natural philogophy from the arabic sources and not an alchemist or alchemically interested at all, which is the impression one gets when reading Hughes. Rather the context is of learned men wanting to find out the latest old new science in the same way as people write books now about the big bang and the exploration of Mars and suchlike or wider interest journals like “Nature”.
Arnald of Villanova was a famous pseudo-alchemist of the 14th century; modern authorities reckon the real Arnald, a 13/ early 14th century physician of great repute was not into alchemy, but Hughes suggests “Arnald may have been dubious about the possibility of the transmutation of metals but he shared many of the philosophical and scientific principles of Bacon, Bonus and Rupescissa. He was engaged in research into the prolongation of life and wrote a medical treatise on ageing, De humido radicali.”, which rather muddies the waters – it is not surprising that learned men of the time shared some concepts, it would be surprising if they didn’t. There were more than just these 4 investigating such things. When coupled with his repetition of the old, tired, myths of Arnald being into alchemical works, you are left with the idea that maybe Arnald of Villanova was really into transmutational alchemy, and with the idea that alchemy and medicine were much more strongly related at the end of the 13th century than they actually were. The reality is that it is around that time that it seems people were putting them together, but we have little evidence to say exactly how and why and where.
He refers, on page 28, ref 53, to Albertus Magnus being the originator of the cover names for gold and silver being father and mother. Number 53 leads to “The book of secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs stones and certain beasts, also a book of the Marvels of the world” edited by Michael R. Best and Frank H. Brightman, published in 1975, again with no page number, which makes tracing it very difficult. Having checked the book’s index, and read parts of it, I can find no trace at all of any evidence for this claim in the book. Not to mention that it is a 16th century compilation of earlier medieval material and newer works, including some of Albertus’s works on minerals, but it is not actually a true text by Albertus. So once again there is a major error in his references. In fact the idea of it’s father being the sun, and mother the moon, is found in the Emerald Tablet of circa 10th century AD, and at some point someone will have linked gold and sun, moon and silver, but it isn’t clear from Hughes writings who that was. Maybe it was Albertus?
On page 29, he writes that Roger Bacon was reputed to have a laboratory on Folly Bridge in Oxford and amongst other truly Baconian works Hughes mentions the “Speculum Alkymie”. Why mention Folly bridge and a laboratory? This makes Bacon appear more of an alchemist than it seems he was. Whilst the other texts Hughes mentions are by Bacon, I can’t seem to find any evidence or proper academic work proving that the Speculum Alkymie is by him. Certainly the version of it I’ve seen on Adam Maclean’s website doesn’t seem much like what else I have read by Bacon, and has a more 14th century feel to it.
The claim that the sun and moon in libra is a symbol of the quintessence in the late 13th century, a la Canterbury cathedral floor on page 30, is utterly wrong in every way. The quintessence was just not important at that time; it’s importance came well into the 14th century, not the 13th, and it was not associated with gold and silver at the time; if it were, I’m sure Hughes would have found a reference for it…
On the topic of Westminster abbey and it’s 13th century Cosmati pavement showing the earth and other planets, the four elements etc, page 29- 30, he makes a simplistic attempt at re-interpretation, tying it all into the use of the 4 elements by alchemists and the alchemical mercury and suchlike – In fact the earth was always known as being the domain of the 4 elements, ever changing, and this has nothing whatsoever to do with alchemy, dating back to Aristotle. Every scholarly non- and anti-alchemist by this time knew that there were 4 elements changing into each other, therefore why not represent this on the floor of the abbey with the planets? The fact that they did says nothing about their interest in alchemy. Instead it shows their interest in modern natural philosophy, a bit like having pictures of famous scientists on the bank notes. There is more on this topic in the next post.
Regarding myth and allegory in alchemy, Hughes lifts the idea that John Dastin and Pestrus Bonus introduced into alchemy a mythological and allegorical dimension from a work by Marie Louise von Franzen. She wrote a book about the symbolism and psychology of alchemy. She is an infamous Jungian, writing many decades ago, and thus almost totally irrelevant to the modern study of the history of alchemy, and is not usually referred to in polite company. Jungian interpretations are of little use because what he was doing was comprehending alchemy through his own ideas about psychology, rather than what the people of the time thought. Meanwhile, in much older alchemical texts, we find numerous allegories and mythological stories, such as the Dream of Zosimus, the Book of Crates and probably others, so Dastin wasn’t the first. Also, the idea of a wedding is found in such a text as De Anima in Arte Alchimiae by pseudo-Avicenna, which has a chapter titled “On the achievement of the mastery and of the wedding”. So Franz wasn’t accurate and Hughes might have known this if he had a better handle on history of alchemy.
Page 32, reference 72, that Roger of York wrote a book on alchemy, is to the ““New DNS”, John North” with no page or edition number given. Imagine my surprise when I finally found the entry in volume 60 of the 2004 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography! Once again, his references seem designed to confuse. Once is happenstance, twice co-incidence, third time is enemy action! Well okay I’ve lost count, but you get the idea.
Ref. 76 on page 33, re. Pseudo-lull’s Testamentum, is for M. McVaugh, “The development of Medieval Pharmaceutical theory in Arnoldi de Villanova”, Opera Medica Omnia 11 Aphorismi de Gradibus (Granada: Universitate de Baercelon, 1975), which seems an odd reference for stuff about Lull’s Testamentum? It appears to be the complete works of Arnald of Villanova! It is not easy to get hold of. If it is this, there’s 2 mentions of the word “testamentum” inside it, according to Google books, which makes me think that someone has really fouled up his references, since the mentions don’t make sense given the claim by Hughes.
His references 77, for a couple of MS, is for the claim that John Dastin’s dream was composed in 1328 and use metaphors drawn from Edward III’s court. Since Edward only became king in 1327, that seems pretty quick work, and at this stage one has to take Hughes word for it and assume he will explain things later, especially since medieval MS of the work are hardly the best reference for it actually drawing metaphors from Edward’s court. You might expect some more evidence relating it all, like letters, drawings and suchlike.
At the bottom of page 33 he writes, “Just before the start of Edward’s reign in 1326 the Secreta Secretorum was being copied: an illustrated text dedicated to the king was made by walter de Milemete. But this time two other alchemists working in Latin were having an influence in England. The Pretiosa Margarita Novella (the new pearl of great price) of Petrus Bonus survives in English manuscripts of the fourteenth century and was studied in the 16th century by readers of the Ordinal of Thomas Norton.” This all seems a bit odd given that the New Pearl of Great Price claims to have been written in 1330, 4 years after he suggests Bonus was having an influence, so that would suggest there’s some evidence for him coming to England? Not that I’m aware of, and Hughes doesn’t give any here. Even better, some copies of it claim to have been written in Pola in Istria, which is in Croatia! Although It is is also claimed that he came from Ferrara, which is in Italy, and had discussed the quesiton of alchemy etc in 1323, so certainly you could suggest that it was likely that a lot of interesting letters were going back and forth between alchemists in the 1320’s. But that isn’t what Hughes said and he certainly doesn’t show any link between Petrus Bonus and England.
Although it is possible, indeed likely, that the works of Dombleay Dastin, Rupescissa etc were making an impact on learned folk at the court of Richard III, it isn’t exactly proven or argued in this chapter. The fact that Dombleay dedicated one of his works to Richard III doesn’t say much about what the King himself thought of alchemy. If dedications were so important, it would be obvious that Queen Elizabeth the 1st was personally interested in alchemy, but she wasn’t particularly, except insofar as there was a possibility of gold at the end of it, and Hughes has already dismissed the possibility of an alliance between politics and the occult in the 16th century, so how come the same type of evidence 200 years earlier is significant?
On page 34, he claims that John Gower’s “Confessio Amantis”, chapter 7, outlines the principles of alchemy, including mention of the 4 spirits, the vegetative, animate, mineral stones. His nearest reference related to Gower is EETS ex series 81, book v II 2496ff, edited by Macauley, which is ref. 90. Having read chapter 7 of Gower, I cannot find any such principles of alchemy, and having looked up line 2496 in book 7, I find it is about wooing a lover. Instead, I managed to find mention of the 4 spirits etc, in line 2496 of book 5! Ahh, the perils of references and assertions by authors! Maybe this is just a printing error by the publishers and it should have said chapter five?
Hughes mentions that alchemists were employed at court to transmute, tint and dye metals, and he mentions some cases in England and France, although the words used suggest a more permanent appointment rather than, in the English case, being brought to court to show what they could do.
No reference is given for Hughes claim that a canon of the Royal Chapel of Windsor called William Shirchurch made fake gold in 1374 and fooled Chaucer with it. I can find no other evidence anywhere on the internet or in books about such a person. Wikipedia has a list of deans and canons of the Royal Chapel of St George at Windsor, founded by Richard III, and his name is not on it. I also checked a modern biography of Chaucer, “The life of Geoffrey Chaucer a Critical Biography, by Derek Pearsall, there is no mention in it’s index of Shirchurch, alchemy or a robbery of Chaucer by such a person. This leads me to conclude that, since this claim is lacking evidence, Hughes is a very naughty historian indeed!
Page 35 states categorically that there are two types of alchemist, the clerics and laymen with licences to practise! “The increased profile of alchemy in this second half of the fourteenth century raises the question of what alchemists actually did. There were two kinds of alchemists: clerics, and laymen with a licence to practice. Many of the latter were employed in courts transmuting, tinting and dyeing metals.” Then he goes on about alchemists in front of Edward III, and working at the court of Charles V of France, one called Thomas of Bologna. Also mention of Chaucer, but anyway this claim about two types of alchemist is a bit of a howler, since in England a licence to practise alchemy to make gold was only required after Henry IV in 1403. i.e. not in the 1380’s, which is to be expected from the context of the comment.
The sort of intellectual incoherence that Hughes is guilty of is also evidenced by the claim that alchemists are on the fringes of society, near the bottom of page 37, “Apart from the high rate of destruction of works on alchemy and natural magic, the other problem facing the student of the occult in the late Middle Ages is the very secrecy of the art. In 1375 the Carmelite friar, William Sedecarius, writing in exile an alchemical work called Sedacina, stressed in the importance of creating the elixir vitae of having a suitable secret laboratory with trustworthy associates that would be hidden from the uninitiated.(ref 104) Alchemists were shadowy figures on the fringes of society with no formal standing. Petrus Bonus described alchemy as a craft learnt by observing a master: its principles and practises of the subject were handed down from master to pupil in a secretivemanner reminiscent of the activities of the craft mysteries. Alchemists constituted a close knit clique. Benvenuto da Imola (1320?-88), a lecturer at the university of Bologna, in his commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy, refers to alchemists as most chummy artificers, so much so that if there were ony two in a country they would straight away find each other and create a partnership.” (Ref 104 is to Thorndike, history of magic, vol. III, pp 628-32 and is correct)
Yes, alchemists didn’t usually have formal standing as alchemists, but they usually pretended to have formal standing to boost their image, or did genuinely have formal standing; whether as a physician or a friar. Moreover if alchemists were such shadowy figures why were they employed at courts and able to meet and communicate with each other? There’s a bit of a paradox here, on the one hand they are shadowy figures of no standing, on the other they are so important and useful that they are employed at courts. If these claims were bracketed by dates and restrictions and some interesting discussion of the very real paradox they would be acceptable and importantly, useful, but as it is broad unevidenced comments confuse matters. They certainly indicate a cavalier attitude to the complexities of history.
On page 36, ref. 95, Hughes comments about a shortage of gold and silver coinage spurring interest in alchemy in the 14th century, his reference simply being to “The Jewish Alchemists” by Raphael Patai. Fortunately I have this book and was able to find mention of it, made all the harder due to no page number being given in the reference, as usual. It appears there was a peak of lack of gold and silver in the 1390’s, obviously starting earlier in the century and going well into the 15th. Of course the first problem is poor referencing, the second is that taking this bald statement at face value it doesn’t justify the interest in alchemy at the start of the century.
Leaving aside the argument about how accurate his interpertation is, there is a problem with trust here. He appears to misuse and abuse his references, or is tremendously careless with them, and despite referring to a number of good solid works, he appears not to have actually read them. The most obvious example is that of Fowden, which is mentioned twice as above.
Many of his references do check out when followed up, but the problem is the spin he puts upon them, and also the many unreferenced comments which he gives no evidence for. Regarding which I found this review of his earlier book:
“First, secondary sources are not always cited where the seriously committed reader needs them”
In this case he clearly he hasn’t referenced smaller claims such as the author of the Turba Philosophorum, but neither has he referenced quite massively important claims, such as John of Sevilles translation of the Secret of Secrets, which if it was true would put translation of alchemical texts back by maybe 14 years, except that actually he didn’t translate the alchemical bit…
Another subtle but important issue that is very important in the study of alchemy, is the use of decknamen, or cover names. A simple example is to use the word sun instead of gold, thus the real substance is hidden by a different name. A more complex example is the term ‘green lion’ which usually, but not always, means green vitriol or the acidic liquid distilled from it. Now you might imagine that, given the practise of re-naming substances in such a way was rather important in the 13/14th centuries, and has an effect on the interpretation of alchemical works and recipes, that it would be brought up and discussed in the introductory chapters. Well you’d be wrong. The closest he comes to admitting that there are different labels and names used for substances is when mentioning (with an erroneous reference) “… also introduced allegorical code names into alchemy describing sulphur as the father and mercury as the mother.” So having said that, Hughes continues merrily onwards. This is a … curious omission. And the fact of cover names is brought up in one of the books he references, “Alchemy” by Holmyard. There shall be further discussion of this issue in the next part of this critique.
A major structural concern is that the introduction and chapter 2 dot about the place without an obvious reason. So we get a compressed version of the main book, and a short run through the history of alchemy, except smushed together, with bits of both found in both chapters. This is clearly a mess, and is also quite irrelevant – why summarise at length the rest of the book? Why not just go straight into it? Hughes would have been better to have had his short foreward (not included in this critique), then launched into a background history of alchemy, taking 1 long or 2 short chapters as necessary. Then he could start into the meat of the book with the reader properly prepared.
So much for the introductory chapters. They are not completely wrong, but they show definite problems. Someone who doesn’t take any of this seriously would be unharmed, and someone who knew a lot about the topic could pick and choose what to believe and follow up, but the more middling sort of readers might really get into trouble. I suppose Hughes has at least done a lot of reading.
In the next part of this critique there will be discussion of some of the central concepts and ideas of the book, and why I think they are wrong, or irrelevant, or that he hasn’t argued his point well enough.