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So I thought I’d do a partial book review, covering my area of expertise. The victim this time is Toni Mount. Don’t worry, she is far superior to Jonathan Hughes, and her book is worth having a look at.

The book itself is pitched at a general audience, and is therefore differently written than if for a more advanced one. The author has been a history teacher for 15 years and has an MA in research in medieval manuscripts. As a modern book it takes more seriously the actual practicality and results that medieval medical recipes give, and also covers all aspects of medieval medicine in a readable fashion.

There is a goodly lot of notes and references, including to primary sources, indicating she has done a lot of research.

So, nice stuff aside, onto the difficult bits that spoil my enjoyment somewhat. Firstly, on page 79 she claims that colourless lead crystal glass was invented in 1674, so before that spectacles, prisms and lenses were made of polished rock crystal. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence for this whatsoever. A few medieval and many more 16th century lenses survive, and many are of clear glass, or else of slightly tinted glass since it was hard to get proper pure clear glass. If lenses were made of rock crystal alone that would be rather a brake on their becoming so cheap in the 15th century.

Unfortunately for this page she seems to have relied upon a number of online resources assembled by enthusiasts, rather than properly vetted historical works, which is a shame.

Now, onto the alchemy.

This is in chapter 12, titled “Progress in Medicine”, which begins with a more revisionary modern approach to the knowledge and practises of medieval medical people, since the old approach of basically rubbishing all practise and theory of the time is ahistorical and wrong.

So far so good.

The start of the alchemical studies bit is good, mentioning Paracelsus dissolving opium in alcohol rather than water, and distillation remedies. Unfortunately it then on page 228 goes onto George Ripley, and repeats the usual nonsense about him, despite there being no real evidence that it is correct, and it isn’t phrased clearly either, so the reader might think it is all actual historical fact. She then compounds the crime by stating

“He wrote books on the alchemical arts: On the Philosopher’s stone and the Phoenix was a rewriting of earlier authors from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so wasn’t too controversial.”

At this point you should imagine me stroking my imaginary beard and saying “reaallllyyy” in a disbelieving tone of voice. Rampling’s magisterial and award winning “Catalogue of Ripley Manuscripts” has it spelt as Phoenice, in Sloane MS 1842, and a 17th century title for the well known late 15th century “Cantilena”, i.e. Song.

The internet has the full listing of it, here: http://www.ampltd.co.uk/collections_az/HistSc-1-4/contents-of-reels.aspx

that it is a 17th century work:

Sloane Ms 1842: (17th c)
Ripley, George, Terra terrae philosophicae (ff2-4)
Ripley, George, Medulla Philosophiae Chemicae (ff7v-10)
Pearce the Black Monk, Verses on the elixir (ff11-13)
Ripley, George, Philosophical verses and on the philosopher’s stone and the phoenix (ff20-27)
Bacon, Roger: Verbum abbreviatum (ff32-36)
Ripley, George, The great work and other writings (ff43-49, 57-61, 78-101)

Unfortunately, I’m not impressed by taking a 17th century title for a work when there is a perfectly good medieval title. The full version can be found here:


Now, if I am reading Rampling aright, the Cantilena is in the Corthop group of manuscripts, and as such is a core Ripleyan work, but I do wonder why she used a more recent title for it. I also find her assertion that it was simply a rewriting of earlier authors unsettling; it isn’t exactly a wrong statement, but it isn’t exactly linked directly to a reference, it’s more one of those too general to be accurate statements. The nearest is on the next page after a quote from the 1994 book “The mirror of alchemy- Alchemical ideas and images in manuscripts and books from antiquity to the seventeenth century”, by G. Roberts, published by the British Library. I’ve yet to get a copy, it’s a bit pricey.

Then she states that the green lion is apparently mercury, which is news to me. To some authors maybe, but certainly not all of them, and not during much of the medieval period. She does admit that she doesn’t know why the mercuric lion is green. Well, that’s because it isn’t mercury. I suspect she has been misled by Mr Roberts.

This is an example of an area where wider reading in the topic is necessary. Relying on secondary sources of good pedigree does mean I won’t get annoyed at you, after all we all have to rely on them at various times in our research and writing, since it is impossible to become expert at everything. But it certainly shows here.

She then moves onto Thomas Norton. She gives the usual, but actually historically accurate information about Norton, since a lot more is known about his life, and he has written a book after all which mentions some incidents during it. But including Norton here is a mistake, because he is not particularly relevant. To alchemy yes, to medicine not really. It would be much better to mention the petition to the King by the physicians seeking to heal Henry VI.

Then it’s onto William Harvey, who isn’t medieval really, even if he was born in 1578 (In many ways the 16th century was medieval in thought and deed). What would have been much better would have been to dwell more on the distillation books and use of alcohol as medicine, and the quintessence, which was popular in England in the 15th century. So popular that it was translated into English, and copied out quite a few times, and even better, straddled the line between medicine and alchemy. I can’t find mention of quintessence in the index.

So, a reasonable enough book let down by lack of research into the alchemy of the period, which is a shame.