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.
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.
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.
Sorry for the quiet period, I’ve been working and somewhat busy. But also working on this post, which turned into a longer one than I expected, hopefully it will spark a few ideas.
The question was sparked by reading a paper in “Chymia – science and nature in medieval and early modern Europe” about the “Disputatio Scoti”, by a pseudo-Scott, writing in the early 14th century. The article, by Benjamin Faure, tells how it was printed in 1546 in Venice in the Pretiosa margarita novella of Janus Lacinius, then in the 1622 fifth volume of Zetzner’s Theatrum Chemicum. Faure has identified 3 manuscript editions, adding to the eight Latin versions already known, along with four vernacular editions, in Italian, English, Czech and German.
He heplfully provides an index which lists the MS, their dates and locations. The earliest is from the 14/15th century, and is in Bologna, titled, “Disputatio Scoti super arte alkimie”. There are 5 MS from the 15th century, one from the 15/16th, and 8 from the 16th, one from the 17th.
Now obviously the number of MS that survive will not be the same as in circulation; I’m sure for instance that we lost quite a few in England during the reformation, then there’s the 30 years war and similar to consider on the continent. Nevertheless it appears that the work was pretty popular in the post-medieval period.
I can think of another text which was not very popular, but became more so later, Continue reading →
The first part of the title was sparked by reading a blog on Antonio Neri which mentioned schools of alchemy, and of course I started to wonder how much evidence there was for the transmission methods of alchemy. The second part is something I’ve been wondering about for a while.
So of course I started reading, and the answer is of course, yes, there’s plenty of evidence if you accept what the alchemists themselves wrote.
Which is a bit of a problem, insofar as their texts were written for so many different reasons and audiences and in most cases we just do not have other evidence of any use. The earliest alchemical text, the Physika et Mystika contains a story about the transmission of alchemical knowledge, but even there the story is complicated. The master dies suddenly, seemingly without transmitting the final secret to his son or his disciples. Eventually they have a feast in a temple in his honour, and during it a column splits open to reveal some books and these turn out to have the useful information and the saying “Nature delights in nature, nature conquers nature, nature masters nature.”
So books are important, but so also is initiation in a father – son relationship.
Another reason for looking at this topic is that modern esotericists have a similarly complex relationship to knowledge transmission, and some like to harp on about the initiatory part and how they learnt the secret from a master, others are clearly working from texts, and it is interesting to see whether or not their practise is much different from that of 600 years ago. I can’t find much information about the varying transmission routes in historical periods either, at least not gathered together in one place. So, on with the findings: Continue reading →
I’ve been busy. Various experiments have been undertaken, but failed. One succeeded but I have yet to write it up for the blog. Others are being worked up to and will proceed once I have enough of the right substances.
I’ve also been to the Kentwell open day, since it would be good to be a Tudor again this year.
I also attended the end of a meeting in Cambridge organised by the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry. The meeting was important because discussion was had about a new series of translations of alchemical works. They are desperately needed, at least in English, because so few works have been translated properly into English; many others have been translated into French or German but not English. Not all historians can take the time to learn Greek or Arabic or Latin, let alone people like myself.
So with more texts available in English, it will become possible for better, wider ranging studies to take place, updating our knowledge and making alchemy more accessible to the public, which is sorely needed.