The first part of the title was sparked by reading a blog on Antonio Neri which mentioned schools of alchemy, and of course I started to wonder how much evidence there was for the transmission methods of alchemy. The second part is something I’ve been wondering about for a while.
So of course I started reading, and the answer is of course, yes, there’s plenty of evidence if you accept what the alchemists themselves wrote.
Which is a bit of a problem, insofar as their texts were written for so many different reasons and audiences and in most cases we just do not have other evidence of any use. The earliest alchemical text, the Physika et Mystika contains a story about the transmission of alchemical knowledge, but even there the story is complicated. The master dies suddenly, seemingly without transmitting the final secret to his son or his disciples. Eventually they have a feast in a temple in his honour, and during it a column splits open to reveal some books and these turn out to have the useful information and the saying “Nature delights in nature, nature conquers nature, nature masters nature.”
So books are important, but so also is initiation in a father – son relationship.
Another reason for looking at this topic is that modern esotericists have a similarly complex relationship to knowledge transmission, and some like to harp on about the initiatory part and how they learnt the secret from a master, others are clearly working from texts, and it is interesting to see whether or not their practise is much different from that of 600 years ago. I can’t find much information about the varying transmission routes in historical periods either, at least not gathered together in one place. So, on with the findings:
Early European texts – The early translators would surely have relied upon books and seen it as a method of learning by book, rather than by initiation.
Michael Scot – Ars Alchemie – seems to talk about how you learn from the wise words of the ancient philosophers, and your own thinking, mention of fools and others who do not understand things, and of bad teachers. Thus perhaps both methods are mentioned here, as one might expect in a thriving, busy court of physicians, philosophers and alchemists.
Albertus Magnus – I don’t have access just now to his book on minerals, but it seems likely that he regarded it as a more textual based practise on the basis of the works of ancient experts.
Roger Bacon – judging by the text in his Opus Majus (pages 624-627 of the Kessinger edition), he regarded alchemy as an experimental science, so things had been found out by experiment, and good medicines are described in the Secreta Secretorum and other books. Thus initiation is clearly unnecessary.
Geber- the alchemist learns by doing and by thinking about how the world works, and learning from texts, especially this one, but cannot be certain of success unless he is virtuous in the eyes of god.
Pseudo-Geber – in the Of the investigation or search of perfection – assumes you have read of other artists and authors, but states at the end that the sapient artificer can learn it all from Gebers books, i.e. it is not a matter of initiation but rather learning from an authoritative text. So not really different in import from the Summa Perfectionis. Same ideas in the Invention of verity.
Petrus Bonus of Ferrarra – he seems to be interacting with written alchemical texts and their critics, and of course is not a practical alchemist. So he is more on the alchemy through texts side of the discussion, with the standard medieval quoting and listing of important figures who agree with him or make agreeable arguments.
John of Rupescissa seems to have gained his knowledge of alchemy from books, rather than personal contact.
The many transcribers of the Libellus de Alchimia ascribed to Albertus Magnus likewise seem to have depended upon many different texts, rather than an oral assurance of a recipe.
John Dastin – letter to Pope John 22nd, no mention of initiation but of old masters live Avicenna. The visio, 17th century english translation, not really applicable.
Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s tale – the yeoman explicitly denies that it is possible to learn about multiplying from books, but as part of his rejection of alchemy or at least the dodgy folk he has met who practise it. At the end he says God is against transmutation, mentioning some alchemical texts, but the fraudulent canon he describes doesn’t mention any texts or authorities to boost his own standing.
Guido de Montanor – the Scala Philosophorum – Not really mentioned in my search through it.
Thomas Norton – practised then initiated by someone (page 28 of EETS edition of the Ordinal). In the prohemium to the work he writes “Therefore this booke to an alchymystre wise, is a boke of incomperable price, ” and earlier discussed how it is hard to understand the works written by earlier alchemical masters. Later he writes how the secrets of alchemy could be had by grace if you worked hard.
Ripley – not obviously in the 12 gates, in the Marrow, the alleged introduction refers to him having attained it by his travels in Italy,
The Donum Dei, or at least the 16/17th century English translation, states that the author has the art only from the inspiration of God!
The Aurora Consurgens – Page 109 of the Maclean edition translated by Paul Ferguson says “This description of the modes and processes of the operation of the Elixir or Philosophical tincture should suffice. If, in this little book, which seeks to bring the conten to fall other books to perfection, we have been less clear than we might have been and have concealed certain things then wise readers who are investigating these subjects must understand that they can acquire a deeper knowledge by a close personal, contemplation and re-reading of the text, and by consulting the writings of the old Philosophers.” Or in other words, by book, contemplation and practise alone. No need for initiation.
Thomas Charnock – judging by his own words, received the secret of the stone from a master, but in order to be able to understand it he had to have lived a clean life and done a great deal of alchemical reading and practise beforehand. His text dwells much on the importance of learning and being of good standing and virtuous, so I wonder if that is more the point at issue, in which case it follows neatly on from the earlier medieval ideals.
John Dee – I do not have any writings by Dee, but a perusal of works about him suggests he worked from a textual tradition, i.e. thought you could learn alchemy from books, experience and thought.
William Bloomfield – Bloomfields Blossoms – seems to learn by dream and therefore revelation, if anything.
Humfrey Locke- hard to see anything about his own learning, although chapter 1 is interesting re. What to do with information and who to trust. So again the text implicitly assumes that you can learn from previous texts.
Clement Draper – closer to the modern idea of science, in that you collect information, i.e. recipes and practises and ideas and try them.
Given the variation in mentions of the method of learning about alchemy, one can only conclude that for most alchemists the precise method of transmission wasn’t important, and certainly less so than the information about making the stone. It is clear that many medieval and post-medieval alchemists did not rely upon initiation by an expert, rather were expected to be able to tease the secret of the elixir from the books that they got and their own wisdom and practise. If you were not both wise, capable and in good stead with God, you wouldn’t succeed. And if it was not possible to learn the art without at least some help from the books, why did people write them and claim that they held great secrets?
This is where things become more complicated because of the multi-faceted nature of alchemy. There are a number of surviving practical texts from the medieval period that tell you how to do many real and useful things, from casting in Theophilus to medical textbooks to ink recipes. But only some alchemical texts approach their simplicity of explanation and materialistic practical approach to the work in hand. Most hide the instructions within cover names and allusions and raise the level of alchemy into that of a scholarly art rather than a mere practical artisanal labour. (There should be some papers/ books about this topic already? I just can’t think where I have read them, or else they are paragraphs inside books and everyone just nods their heads and agrees)
This raises the obvious question, what makes an alchemist? Personal hard work or divine revelation or instruction from a master or divine inspiration?
As far as I can see, the tension between what modern esotericists would surely describe as the true path handed down from time immemorial from master to student, and the book learnt sort of method which relies upon the readers thought and actions to make sense of the sacred text, has not yet solidified into a definite barrier in the period under consideration. Even with the problems I have reading texts, it seems that there was not such a hierarchy or grouping of alchemists, and many different ones thought differently about it. There was no central dogma of alchemy except in the most general of terms, such as in the Emerald Tablet, which can be interpreted extremely widely.
But I do perceive a slight increase in the interest in an initiatory experience, under the tutelage of an adept, in the later medieval period. Why would that be? I suspect part would be down to there being a sufficiently large number of (not a community though, that suggests more contact and interactions than we have evidence for) alchemists in the country combined with people wanting to learn the art, that it became possible to have and claim that you learnt from someone good and knowledgeable, which would reflect positively on you. And it really isn’t so far from saying “I learnt it from Geber”, relying on a textual authority, as to saying “I learnt it from X”, relying on the authority of your master. Moreover the combination of increased ‘spiritual’ content and ideology in the alchemy of the period would surely encourage the use of such secrecy in behaviour, allied to the need to keep some of it secret for your own health, lest you be kidnapped or charged with falsifying the currency. In fact that leads to two pressures – one spiritual- religious, the other fear of legal repercussions. Both together would tend to make transmission methods become more personal and less discussed, the secrecy so engendered being expressed at times by mention of an initiatory system. Certainly most texts contain injunctions to keep alchemy secret from the unworthy, which points to the way alchemical knowledge was tied up with ethical considerations, something that would require another blog post.
Finally, by the later sixteenth century we have the evidence to at least say that transmission methods became more random and chance derived. For instance Clement Draper, in Debtors prison in London in the 1580’s- 90’s, was speaking to anyone who claimed to know anything, and writing down what they said, and even experimenting using the recipes so recorded. Or various medical men, charlatans and writers of books of secrets (see the works of William Eamon for more) were talking to others, bribing them, getting them drunk or just stealing the recipes from them. None of it involved master to pupil transmission or swearing to keep it secret or anything like that, and many weren’t spending years mastering the various textual recipes.
It would be easy to write the differences off as down to different survival of evidence. The earlier alchemists were more educated and wrote for a narrower audience and there were fewer of them that left written evidence of their existence and practise. Hence the possible differences in our knowledge of their works and transmission methods. I suspect though that it is more complex than that, and hypothesise an increase in the number of people who know of and work with or around alchemy, which naturally increases the number of accounts, given increased literacy of the period. So although the lower class did have something to do with alchemy before the 16th century and their transmission methods may have been more like the professors of secrets, I do reckon there was a change in culture in the 16th century that meant the master – scholar transmission was just not as important or sacred. Yet there were plenty of people being open about their alchemy, which would surely indicate a shrinking of the effects I suggested earlier about cultural and spiritual pressures to keep quiet.
So in that respect, I start to wonder why Thomas Norton and Charnock were so intent on emphasising their success came from initiation into the secret? Because they weren’t writing for a wide audience and were outside the older scholarly tradition and so wanted to look better?
Clearly a shyster would use claims of initiation by a famous or learned person to try and boost their appeal to the victim, but why would Norton and Charnock make such claims? Were they embedded in a certain historical and authoritative view of alchemy which required such claims in order for them to be taken seriously? Of course they may simply have thought it important to mention that they had made the elixir after being so instructed by their elders, and by that time there had been transmission of alchemical knowledge in England through several generations of scholars, with evidence for widespread practise and knowledge of alchemy since the later 14th century. If we assume 10 to 20 years is spent mastering alchemy, then from the time of Chaucer to Thomas Norton we have at least 4 generations of alchemical practitioners, and we should also consider the influence of the likes of Gilbert Kymer and others in the 1450’s and 1460’s which would surely have helped spur a flourishing alchemical scene in England under Edward IV, even if we only have evidence for some of it. (There were at least 4 alchemists granted licence/ mentioned in the Royal paperwork of the time, as well as a commission into alchemy, suggesting many more were active. Unfortunately I have not found any mention of a report from the commission)
Another question is, what is the difference between argument with reference to authority figures, and by my initiatory master being bigger than yours? Clearly, the first is more medieval, whereas the latter is more what you see in the modern time. And for all that they say their tutor was great and wonderful, Charnock and others hide their identity behind the usual allusions and hints and scraps of fact, suggesting not so much a game of one-upmanship but that they are claiming to be part of a notional set of true alchemists. The difference between the two concepts is less obvious, but it can be imagined that the one upmanship is an egotistical thing of the now, demanding that the other party bow down to the speakers greater strength and connections. The older method is, if anything, less confrontational, more in keeping with the religious spirit of the time and the notion of alchemy as a Donum Dei.
Further research would be required, but at this stage it is clear that there are multiple strands of alchemical transmission, of varying importance to the alchemists themselves, and part of socio-cultural issues in the wider society.