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.