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This one is one of my favourites, yet it has hardly been looked at by modern researchers:


The first part of antiquarian studies consists of working out the date and provenance of manuscripts. In this case it was owned by John Dee and looked at by Elias Ashmole, as well as modern people like Dorothea Waley Singer who made a modern catalogue of alchemical manuscripts. Once that is done it might be decades before anyone takes it in hand and examines it properly.

I have held and looked at this MS myself in the British Library; when I am feeling a bit uninspired it really perks me up to look at the original source of information, previously held by such famous people as Dee and Ashmole.  Yes, you too can get to hold something read and thought over by such famous people!

As a 15th century English manuscript it has a number of interesting points which to me broaden our understanding of alchemy. For starters there are several illustations similar in intent to those in the Ripley Scrolls, which are a late 15th/ early 16th invention. (Stolen from the British Library website, they seem to be copyright free)

Harley 2407 toad and snake and sun HArley 2407 1st

Harley 2407 sealed vessel

They are decidedly not like the straightforwards ones in Thomas Norton’s Ordinal, but are certainly rather figurative, and as such fit with the 15th century vogue of such illustrations that are also seen in thelikes of the Aurora Consurgens, yet are a bit different. Of course if illustrations like that are found before and outwith the Ripleyan corpus, that makes it clear that more people had more ideas about illustrating aspects of alchemy and perhaps the scrolls were part of a wider culture of alchemical illustrations rather than being the one and only great wonderful thing that appeared out of nowhere. One of the failings of public communication is, often unwittingly, to narrow down the subject by concentrating on the big gaudy obvious stuff. Whereas historians of thelast few decades have spent their time searching out all the less well known things and relationships, so that we have a much broader understanding of what went on and who knew whom and was influenced by them etc.

So in this particular case, given the interest in alchemy in England throughout the 15th century (More information is in my book: http://www.newcurioshop.com/alchemy-medieval-tudor-england/) I suspect that there was a wide circle of alchemical people who imbibed both of continental and home grown ideas, out of which came the Ripley scrolls (The early ones of which were of good quality and rather expensive, and I have a short post on them here: ).

One of the fascinating things about this MS is that it has alchemical and seemingly astrological stuff in it. This is a hoary old debate within study of alchemy, precisely what place astrology has in it, and goes back to the time of Zosimos. The more recent modern look at it is by William Newman and Anthony Grafton in “Ssecrets of Nature – astrology and alchemy in early modern Europe”. It being a while since I have read it, I’m probably not describing their argument well, but basically they say that in the medieval period at least, despite the apparent use of astrology as a bit of a cover for things, it isn’t actually part of the great work, is more misdirection. I think their argument probably doesn’t cover all the relevant sources and something isn’t quite right about it, but I can’t be sure what, yet, due to lack of proper research by myself. It is entirely possible that most alchemists thought alchemy had nothing to do with astrology and yet that some thought it did.

This is a fairly standard sort of diagram showing the planets and suchlike:

Harley 2407 planets

What we can surely say for certain is that both alchemy and astrology involve the study of and interpretation of the natural world, so to find writings on both of them together in the same MS is not surprising at all given that the author or copyist was probably interested in how the world worked.

To say more about Harley 2407 I’d have to read it all, but it hasn’t been fully digitised and my MS reading skills are a bit poor at the moment.

This set of drawings:

Harley 2407 alchemical vessels

is in fact just a few of a much longer series of roundels showing alchemical operations. Note that it shows different forms of distillation, which it labels “Separation”. The rectification ones are a bit of a puzzle, it not being clear to me how they work as rectification, insofar as they are just another distillation. This sort of thing is mentioned in Norton’s Ordinal, line 2430:

Upon these words thei taye they]ir grounbd,

That air est cibus uignis fownde.

But trust me that such circulation

Is but oonly a Rectificaqtion,

Better serving for separation

and correction than for transmutation

The Scala Philosophorum talks about distillation being the activity that rectifies something, but given how different authors use the same words differently depending on the type of alchemy they are doing or how they approach it, I don’t think it worth going into here.

Some of the verses in it were printed by Ashmole in his Theatrum Chemicum Brittannicum or so I understand.

But anyway, it is a fascinating little book with lots to learn from it.