(More on texts, since the weather isn’t letting me do anything outside)
Is that they get re-written and edited. An annoying example I have just worked out is the ‘Compound of Compounds’, (or Compositum de Compositis in the original latin) frequently attributed to Albertus Magnus.
The earliest copy claims to have been written in Paris in 1331, and certainly everything about it matches that claim, which occurs in the rubrication (the bit written in red; medieval scribes did that to highlight important things or the start or end of a text) at the end of the work. No mention is made of Albertus Magnus, although one sentence says “For it is proved in our book on minerals that the generation of metals is circular”, and Albertus Magnus did indeed write a book about minerals, which is perhaps where later alchemists got the idea of it being written by him.
Now, an English translation was made for and published by Adam Maclean a decade ago. I bought it 3 or 4 years ago, and was enamoured of the long sequence of dissolutions given in chapter 5 onwards. These involved the distillation of acids and the dissolution of mercury and other metals in them. The first 3 chapters are the usual sort of high medieval introduction to what metals are made of and the importance of sulphur, mercury and arsenic for making an elixir.
However something always worried me about the text as a whole. The practical bits about distillation of mineral acids and their use to dissolve mercury to make the first matter, i.e. the mercury has been reduced to a mixture of the first level of material, below the four elements, whereupon it can have imprinted upon it the balance of elements needed to make gold or silver, always seemed different from the first 3 chapters. They were too practical in a modern sort of way, didn’t mention arsenic and felt wrong, not early 14th century at all. Maybe that was an artefact of having been translated twice, I thought.
So before carrying out such experiments, I determined to compare the English translation to the original text, which is held in the National Library of Scotland.
Finally, after a number of hours work, the medieval handwriting, a Gothic sort of script, became more legible and I was able to compare the original MS with the translation. (Someone else was also there studying it too, but I never met them and they haven’t responded to my request for email)
But what I found was extremely vexing.