A simple question, with a full answer beyond the scope of a mere blog post. Nevertheless I find the question interesting as a way of roughly gauging the popularity of alchemy in that period and the activities of the alchemists. The century was certainly one in which it became more widely known and translation from Latin to English got going. By at least knowing how many MS have survived, we know that more have been destroyed or lost in the meantime, and therefore can make vague estimates of the production of them. Moreover if some expert were to examine them all and compare the handwriting we could tell how many people were copying manuscripts, either for their own use or for whoever was paying them.
I have already noticed that medieval University library catalogues were rather short on alchemical works: https://distillatio.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/how-widespread-were-alchemical-books-in-britain-in-medieval-times-and-who-owned-them/
That and what I have read about manuscripts suggests that they were copied and circulated privately. So unless you could afford a scribe, or were concerned with secrecy, you would do the work yourself. Which naturally limits the copies you could personally make, and does raise questions about how much the works were passed around.
The difficulty in estimating numbers of surviving MS is of course how many places have MS. To start with, there is the British Library. Then there are the various university libraries, with Cambridge and Glasgow having good collections. Not to mention libraries abroad as well. All of which makes this a very partial summary.
Dorothea Waley Singer’s catalogue of alchemical manuscripts is a good place to start, fortunately I have a copy. Unfortunately it is a 1928-31 paperback edition with uncut pages, that resembles a publishers proof copy! Moreover there simply are too many pages to search thoroughly. Nevertheless I tried, looking for MS that were written in English or are said to be English and identified as being 15th century which will naturally limit the total. Not all MS now in British collections of alchemical MS were written in England and of course we cannot tell when they arrived in this country so I think that is the best way to do it.
And it lists them by each specific work, so the total count will be of the number of copies of each work in English. I get a rough total of 27 works from the first volume. Naturally Latin copies would greatly outnumber these.
Another way of approaching it is through online resources. Adam Maclean has had a useful database online for decades:
is a link to part of the Sloane collection. My methodology is simple, to search for “15th” and see what it says.
Searching the BL, Bodleian, Wellcome, Ferguson Collection and others on the list, I find quite a few that are 15th century, but not all of them are English in origin. Some are Italian or German. Of course these might have been brought into England at some point in the 15th century, but I’d need to do a lot more digging to find out more.
I get a rough estimate of 48 books which look like they might be English, held in various libraries in English speaking countries. This is not a great total. If I counted each individual work within each book I would get a much higher one. At this point I started wondering if that meant there were not so many alchemists in England after all.
Another way of narrowing it down is considering families of manuscripts. For instance the Pseudo-Albertian ones studied by Peter Grund. These are about thirty texts in English, and about 100 in Latin from the 15th and some from the 16th centuries. The English ones seem mostly to be related to the Semita Recta in various ways.
Of the 48 or more books I counted above, many contain such copies of pseudo-Albertian works and thus overlap with these noted by Grund.
There are also the copies of Ripleyian alchemical works to think about.
A read through of Rampling’s Catalogue of Ripley Manuscripts suggests quite a few more manuscripts, albeit overlapping a lot with those I have already counted from the British Library. There are 3 copies of the accurtations of Raymond referred to as the Corthop group after the scribe/ location/ person who bought them. The Cantilena is late 15th century, but Rampling cannot or does not specify which copies are definitely 15th century, which would be difficult to work out. The Compound of Alchemy is from 1470, but again has a number of copies from the late 15th century. The same goes for the Epistle to Edward IV. The sheer number of various libraries and collections mentioned by Rampling indicates that any attempt to quantify the number of surviving manuscripts takes more than just looking through a few lists online.
Looking at Norton’s Ordinal, more copies of it seem to be 16th century, matching the apparent rise of national alchemical authors rather than the profusion of foreign ones seen in many 15th century books.
It seems though that several hundred copies of various texts have survived, often bound into collections of texts. The multiple copies of some works argues for at least one copy per alchemist, or per several alchemists as it was passed on through sale or inheritance or such over the decades.
So, an extra, tentative conclusion is that the number of alchemists was in the double figures in the 15th century in England. Obviously more than 9, but surely not much more than 100. Which makes me think I should add up the written evidence for numbers of alchemists in England.
* goes and does it *
The total I can find from my notes of alchemists written about in the 15th century consists of 8 or 9 licences to practise alchemy, some for one person such as John Mistelden, others the 12 petitioners for 3 to be granted a licence for the treatment of Henry VI. An entry in the rolls suggests that multiple people were multiplying gold and silver in or near London in the 5th year of Henry IV. Then there was Henry IV, who granted permission to Richard Carter at his manor of Woodstock, Sir Henry Gray of Contenor, David and John Marchaunt, and finally John French at Coventry.
So there are easily 20 or more men involved in alchemical activities, not to mention Ripley, Norton and some of the others Norton mentions. Given the number of different texts copied out, and the fact that an alchemist would have gathered a number of texts together to study, I think it likely that there were indeed more than 20 alchemists, but not necessarily that many more, perhaps 40 or 50 in the century. Of course this sort of estimate also assumes a certain stability about the term alchemist and those who practise it. It seems likely that many people who called themselves alchemists were not dissimilar to those who get the bug for something, e.g. join a gym after Christmas, and attend for awhile, before losing interest. Or else tried their hand at alchemy simply because they had nothing better to do and it sounded good or they could con money out of someone. So whilst there may have been 40 or 50 who were serious literate alchemists who spent years in study, others would dip in and out of it and try it for a few months on the basis of THE ONE TRUE WORK they had gotten their hands on.
In this respect the case of Thomas Norton is interesting, because he seemed to have spent a fair few years learning alchemy and other things, before stopping it in order to pursue a proper career. How many years did alchemists study alchemy? (Remember they were apothecaries, philosophers or goldsmiths first, and alchemists as a hobby)
And again the issue arises, how long did each one keep a text for?
So in summary, this is an area without any hard answers, only estimations that can act to keep speculation from running amok.
Don’t worry, the weather has nearly improved enough for me to start more experiments using alchemical recipes. I just need to work out which recipes to try.