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This is a peculiar little text, apparently from the 16th century. The original MS is apparently Ashmole 1423 in the Bodleian library, yet I can’t find it in their catalogue, it seems because it isnt properly digitised yet and they have multiple catalogues. Mind you I wonder maybe it doesn’t exist and the attribution is wrong.…

The Alchemy website has a listing of all works within the book, and it seems to date from the end of the 16th century.

http://www.alchemywebsite.com/mss/mss540.htm

It’s yet another book whose individual importance is low but as one of many such books around at the time can give a much broader and informed picture of the state of knowledge and public interest in alchemy, chymistry and related topics at the time. The more I have learnt the more I have realised that the public histories of alchemy give a very simple idea of it, necessarily so in many cases, but in others I think the research hasn’t been done, especially amongst all the surviving manuscripts.

So of course it probably won’t get digitised, he typed cynically.

Anyway, the 19th century transcription can be found here online:

http://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b24927004#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&z=-0.3378%2C0.2163%2C1.6476%2C0.9006

It starts very seriously, introducing John Gybbys of Exeter, who on his deathbed, wants to communicate his ‘great secret’ he has. He does so “ and ye wyll, shall have a cause to pray for my sowle and for the good deyd ye may do be my informacyn.” which to me sounds rather Catholic, i.e. pre-reformation. In the notes accompanying the transcription, the MS apparently belonged to John Dee in 1563.

There follows an odd text, clearly somewhat cut and pasted in from other sources, which starts with instructions to melt lead and hold a stick in it when it cools, so as to leave a hole. Then take mercury, “true and good; see he be strained and clarified well through a piece of leather white…” (modernised spellings)

This mercury is to be put to the metal, seemingly into the hole you have, whilst it is still hot even if solid, and a cucurbit of glass luted above the hole, over the crucible, and anything that appears in it is collected.

Eventually, you proceed to the usual gentle heating of your hermetically sealed vessel, which isn’t usually as well described as here. The mercury spirit that is distilled from it all is put back to the body, “… and iff the body reseave the spyritt againe, itt is perfytte, iff he wyll, not prove hym again.”

The stone you get is called lapis adamantis, or in English a ‘Shypman stone’ or a ‘lood stone’.

That is certainly a good way to confuse names.

The second step is to take the stone, put it in a glass pot, and mortified mercury, lute it shut, heat it, on and off, for 40 days! Which should cause the mercury to dissolve into a crystall clear water.

After for 24 hours burning with a great fire, it will turn black, when it should be taken out the pot. This is rather a departure from the norm. Black is supposed to change to white, and then red, often via a rainbow colour step.

I can fantasise about a poorly educated, country based alchemist gulling less sophisticated people, but it isn’t even clear if Gybbys really existed and was an alchemist!

When added to liquid mercury it will mortify it and it will harden, often shaking the crucible as it does so. When heated it will all melt and dissolve again, and it can be cast into an ingot.

An ingot of what, I hear you ask. To which I can only say, this sounds like a method of making a silver analogue. Not gold. Of course, Saturn usually means lead, the trick is how to make the lead harder and shinier.

Note the way it combines common forms of language and action yet in a slightly different way from normal. I’m sure that as historians dig deeper into the many different manuscripts, they will find many such variations, due to the many different people that have written them.

Here’s a photo of a somewhat weathered lead cauldron casting at Kentwell, done maybe 20 years ago now:

kentwell-lead-cauldron

Note the colour and dullness, which has to be overcome in order to make it look like silver.

As for other alchemists, every now and then I stumble across mention of others, there really were quite a lot of them. For instance, in “Alchemical poetry 1575- 1700” (the title is a lie, there is earlier stuff in it in translation) there is a work by Edward Cradock.

He attended Oxford University, and lived from around 1536- 1594, i.e. through the various religious upheavals and political change. He was a doctor of theology at Oxford and lectured on the topic, and according to a bibliographical entry on him, spent a lot of time on alchemy. He produced 3 alchemical works, the third being a poem “A treatise touching the Philosopher’s stone” which is therefore in the book above.

The book also features two verse works by Simon forman, and three verse translations from middle french by William Backhouses, in 1644. The texts are from 1413 and 1500, the latter being by pseudo- Jean de meun and titled “The complaint of Nature against the Erronious Alchymist” and ”The Alchymyst’s Answere to Nature”

I find it interesting that someone would translated older French alchemical poetry into English in the mid-17th century, and think it’s all part of the broader cultural importance of alchemy, which is something I just don’t think has been adequately covered, especially in a more public friendly fashion. It’s easy enough to state that alchemy was widely known of and popular amongst learned people, much harder to explain it in both breadth and depth.

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