Sorry for the quiet period, I’ve been working and somewhat busy. But also working on this post, which turned into a longer one than I expected, hopefully it will spark a few ideas.
The question was sparked by reading a paper in “Chymia – science and nature in medieval and early modern Europe” about the “Disputatio Scoti”, by a pseudo-Scott, writing in the early 14th century. The article, by Benjamin Faure, tells how it was printed in 1546 in Venice in the Pretiosa margarita novella of Janus Lacinius, then in the 1622 fifth volume of Zetzner’s Theatrum Chemicum. Faure has identified 3 manuscript editions, adding to the eight Latin versions already known, along with four vernacular editions, in Italian, English, Czech and German.
He heplfully provides an index which lists the MS, their dates and locations. The earliest is from the 14/15th century, and is in Bologna, titled, “Disputatio Scoti super arte alkimie”. There are 5 MS from the 15th century, one from the 15/16th, and 8 from the 16th, one from the 17th.
Now obviously the number of MS that survive will not be the same as in circulation; I’m sure for instance that we lost quite a few in England during the reformation, then there’s the 30 years war and similar to consider on the continent. Nevertheless it appears that the work was pretty popular in the post-medieval period.
I can think of another text which was not very popular, but became more so later, the “Compound of Compounds” attributed to Albertus Magnus. It’s popularity increased once the original first third was added to a late medieval/ post-medieval practical section involving the use of acids. The original is from the 1330’s, likely to have been written in Paris, and does not mention Albertus Magnus, although later versions do. The later version in question, Paris MS 7147 is 16th century, and has the typical kind of illustration of the period:
There is also a Vatican MS, I can’t find a date for it. Anyway, the Compound was included in the printed Theatrum Chemicum vol. 4 in 1602. As well, the existence in the mid-16th century onwards of printed collections of alchemical works would render the MS unnecessary and reduce the chances of any being written at all.
Swinging back by the original assumption about survivals, we start by assuming that the survival rate is similar enough across texts, which is perhaps a large assumption, but an internet search suggests that modern scholars have yet to agree on what sort of survival rate has happened at all:
Leaving that thorny problem aside, then, I have come up with a number of ideas. Perhaps one reason for the increased popularity of a medieval text in the post-medieval period is the desire by later alchemists to find as many older texts that gave them information as possible; the rise of the antiquary, so to speak. An old text would be useful in several ways, as a new angle of attack on the stone, as a means of corroborating what other texts said, and as a new and different inspiration for the reader’s alchemical works or writing, as well of course it being labelled as the work of someone famous so worth having in it’s own right.
By contrast, in the medieval period the practical alchemical manuscript was certainly very popular. including the Semita Recta attributed to Albertus Magnus, which was also re-worked into the Mirror of lights. Of the Semita Recta, we have about 30 texts in Latin, and a similar number in English translation. ((Grund, “Ffor to make Azure as Albert biddes”: Medieval English Alchemical Writings in the pseudo-Albertan tradition, Ambix vol. 53, no. 1, March 2006))
Most are from the 15th century, and given the adaptations and redactions, it appears the translators were more interested in the practical parts of the works, and certainly far more copies of them have survived than of the Disputatio or the Compound.
Another famous practical work to consider is the 13th century Summa Perfectionis, which was copied and re-copied many times, and had various parts of it re-used in other works or paraphrased.
Looking at Chapter 7, starting page 227, of Newman’s translation and critical edition, he lists manuscripts of the Summa. There are around 60, many from the 15/16th centuries, and about 16 from the 14th century, 3 or 4 from the 13th. This indicates an immediate popularity that is simply not seen with the Compound of Compounds, only a little with the Disputatio, and if we assume a greater survival by the 16-18th centuries, then the similar numbers of MS as compared to the Disputatio Scoti, it seems that the heyday of the Summa was the 14-15th centuries, but the Disputatio was comparably more popular later.
Another comparison can be made with the not so practical works of George Ripley and Thomas Norton, respectively the Compound and the Ordinal; they naturally have few copies surviving from the later 15th century, which is not surprising given they were written in the 1470’s or so. According to Reidy (Early English Text Society no. 272, Thomas Norton’s Ordinal), there are 31 surviving manuscripts of the Ordinal, the earliest from around 1480; unfortunately he does not list the MS by date, so I am unsure as to the distribution of them. Either way that is a respectable number of MS to survive.
As for the Compound, it is dated to 1470 and everyone agrees that it was written by Ripley. (Jennifer Rampling, “Catalogue of Ripley Manuscripts”) Well, it was tricky counting them, but well over 20 MS from the 16th century in English survive, and several from the 17th century. There are more in Latin and French, and it seems clear that the work was very popular throughout the 16th and into the 17th century, both in England and abroad. Perhaps a deeper examination of the manuscript reproduction qualities and any information regarding their original owners would help our understanding of the works and their position in society. For instance a good data point is the MS Codex 111, at the University of Pennsylvania, dating from 1582-1600, and was probably owned by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, one of the richest courtiers of Elizabeth I. He had one of the largest libraries in England and was well known for his interest in science and alchemy.
Which brings us to the pseudo-Ripleian corpus, including the famous scrolls, whose quality of reproduction suggests that some were made as valuable positional goods, i.e. they told the visitor that the owner was rich, intelligent and important. That makes a third reason for copying medieval works, especially in the later and post-medieval period. Certainly it would have been a good reason in the 13/14th centuries, when copies of written works were even more valuable, but at this time it was also the case that alchemy in terms of manuscripts was a pursuit of scholars and people with some education and religious connections. Hence a smaller circle of alchemists and simply less need to care about how well illustrated your copy of something was; merely having a copy of the Testamentum and works attributed to Albertus Magnus would be enough to give you status, whereas MS like some of the Ripley scrolls have been carefully illustration using expensive illuminators and obviously belong in a more ostentatious setting.
Of course some clerics were rich enough to afford illuminations and the like, and I do wonder how much evidence survives of bishops and their ilk having good quality alchemical manuscripts? On the other hand the earliest and also best copy of Norton’s Ordinal might have actually been made for him, and as a well off merchant he could have afforded it. In which case it would have been both a monetary and an intellectual status symbol, which I am sure some alchemical works were. Even after printing made it easier to afford them, works like the Splendor Solis were made, with large expensive illustrations.
In fact, on reading up about the Splendor Solis, (made in the 1530’s, based upon a 1520 German edition of the Aurora Consurgens) I found that Jorg Vollnagel, who has studied the manuscripts, wrote:
“It is not only that it contains an implicit
reference to the Aurora Consurgens, the opulence of which is meant to be surpassed, and not only in the title: the rising dawn, in Latin ‘aurora consurgens’, is followed by the shining sun, ‘splendor solis’. In fact, it becomes clear – and this is the message that the mastermind of this work wants to express – that this manuscript has been consciously conceived as the most splendid of all alchemical manuscripts. For the brilliant miniatures, inspired by numerous illustrations from earlier alchemical manuscripts, shine brighter than their predecessors, eclipsing their beauty and opulence. Just as the sun stands at the zenith of the sky, the Splendor Solis can rightly be called the climax of alchemical imagery.“
It appears that the example of it in the Harley collection in the British library was owned by King Charles II at one point, which is exalted company indeed.
The economic niche of alchemical works is surely not as well explored as it could be. Any such study would consider both the price of the secret (as seen in Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s tale, IIRC it was 40£), and of manuscript copying in the periods in question, as well as the libraries owned by intellectuals and bishops and priories etc.
There are even more reasons for the disparity in popularity that are hard to pin down with any accuract without good evidence. Some alchemists, (And this is certainly still a problem today), were looking for works which confirmed their previous reading, along the lines of “If you liked this book, you’ll love this one”, or “See, X agrees with Y, so they must be right”. Which is of course one reason for so many false names attached to texts, using the status of the famous person to burnish the text.
A final reason which would count on both practical and theoretical works, might be how original they are. The famous ones are famous for a reason, not just because many copies survive, but because in the context of the alchemist or philosopher who copied them, they were new, original and illuminating. By comparison, the original Compound of Compounds appears not to have been as original as the Summa Perfectionis. The latter was the seed for an entire Geberian corpus, which grew and suggests that a desire for smaller, more digestible copies of works is not a new phenomenon, but also that the new and original is important.
So much for the image of the medieval period as dull and unchanging.