The Matter of Alchemy: Deciphering Medieval Practices
Organizer: Jennifer M. Rampling, Princeton Univ.
Presider: Peter M. Jones, King’s College, Univ. of Cambridge
Reading the Books of the Sages: Byzantine Hermeneutics of Ancient Alchemical Recipes Matteo Martelli, Univ. di Bologna
Byzantine alchemical texts present themselves as in a direct line from ancient sages, such as the 1st c treatise of Democritus containing works such as how to make gold, silver, and gemstones, or how to dye wool purple. Later texts often presented themselves as “rediscovering” or reinventing these techniques, usually accompanied by a citation of the “genealogy” of the text or techniques. Some alchemists such as 11th c Michael Psellus argued for the scientific, not magical, basis of their art, though the focus was still on creating gold. (He also discusses properties of gemstones.) Psellus collected 11 recipes for making gold and ascribed them to Democritus. Many collections of prior works were available to him, as a basis for his own experiments. Psellus was also interested in the making of precious stones and making pearls. E.g. Parisinus gr. 2325 13th c ms on “Deep Tincture of Stones, Emeralds, Rubies and Jacinths from the Book Taken from the Sancta Sanctorum of the Temples”. This work covered issues such as the identification of single ingredients, the interpretation of specific terminology, and discussions of methodological issues. We now look at a specific recipe.
”Take some komaris, which is difficult to find -- Persians and Egyptians give it the name of tálak, others the name of talák -- a half ounce; sulfer, a half ounce; water of untouched sulfur, 18 ounces; dilute the komaris and mix it with mercury; put the substance in a small glass vial and keep it.” The substance “komaris” appears in several different grammatical forms (or perhaps variants) and appears in several recipes. But what is it? Modern scholars point to the root of a plant Comarum palustre. But the Arabic equivalent suggested in the ms is “talc, talcum powder”, suggesting an entirely different substance. Elsewhere, komaron is glossed as “aphroselenon” (moon foam) as a cryptic identifier. The text now looks deeply into what the nature of this substance is. Does it come from multiple substances or is it a single species? Democritus says it is wine dregs and egg white and that you dilute it and rub it on a stone to turn it into a pearl. No specific textual citation for this is given, but it can be narrowed down based on the topic to a now lost volume surviving in Syriac translation. In this Syriac version, “komaris” (from Scythia) is a substance that is put into quicklime, mixed with wine dregs, and then rubbed on the stone you want to turn into a pearl. [Note that the actual nature of komaris is not indicated.] So is komaron the same thing as moon foam, or is it a separate substance that is combined with moon foam for the process? Or is the multiplicity of names and substances simply an accumulation of successive glosses and explanations?
“The Secret of Salt”: Salts and Their Use in Medieval Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Alchemy Gabriele Ferrario, Johns Hopkins Univ.
Interpreting the nature of the substances referenced in alchemical texts is hampered by the use of obscuring alias as well as a different conception of the nature of substances between the writers of the texts and modern chemical theory. Substances such as sulfer and mercury had a symbolic importance that went beyond their chemical substance, and alchemy treated them as creating other substances by means of manipulating the proportions. this paper looks at the category of salts as used in alchemical processes. Despite being less important symbolically, the proper understanding and manipulation of salts was essential to successful alchemical processes. Looking specifically at the writings of Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi. [Sorry for omitting the diacritics.] Al-Razi is said to have complied his text when reaching the end of his life when he wanted to preserve his knowledge. The contents first cover substances, then equipment, then operations. These operations are described in reference to the primary substances defined and described in the first section. Al-Razi describes 11 salts: weet (kitchen) salt, bitter salt, Andarani salt, Tabarzad salt, Nifti salt, Indian salt, egg salt, alkali salt, urine salt, lime salt, Oak ashes salt. Several of these names refer to the geographic origin but give no indication of the nature. E.g. Andarani salt, which is described as coming from a specific location, but the name is a corruption of a simple description. “Nifti salt” seems to refer to the act of splitting with an axe, suggesting a large crystal structure, but is also called “black salt”. The difficulty alchemists had in obtaining the correct ingredients derives from discontinuity in the knowledge of what these terms referred to. Later interpreters often worked backwards experimentally from the described results to identify which ingredients would produce those effects. In a later Arabic treatise “On alums and salts” we see many brief recipes that follow the same linguistic formulas as Al-Razi, hence the tendency of some translators to ascribe it to him. Latin translations of “On Alums and Salts” appear in the 14-15th centuries, as well as an Italian Hebrew translation from teh 16th century. All these point to the importance and fame of the Arabic text. The Hebrew translation has many translator’s interjections “this means” or “it seems to me” suggesting an experimenter’s commentary attempting to add value to the translation.
So what does this text say about salts? In a long discussion of the nature and varieties of salts, much of the description implies ordinary “kitchen salt”, though varieties are described as Indian, red, lime, bitter, compact, and references to geographic origin. Salt is treated as a purifying agent. The author has been trying to trace references to salt in alchemical fragments in the Cairo geniza. Most of them are recipes that can probably be traced back to translations of Al-Razi.
Getting Blood from the Stone: Alchemy as Decipherment in Medieval England Jennifer M. Rampling
In 1403-4 the alchemical production of precious metals was outlawed in England to prevent adulteration of the money supply. But at this time, an alchemist named Morton set up a workshop at Hatfield Peverel for practical production of precious metals, illustrating the conflict between alchemy as philosophical practice versus alchemy as craft. The unfortunate Morton ended up in court in violation of the aforementioned statue. This paper looks at who English alchemists talked about their ingredients. These included not only chemical substances, but also biological substances as well as salts and alums. The philosophy/craft distinction became manifested in a differential focus on metallic substances versus a broader range of natural ingredients. That is pure Aristotelian philosophy could be expressed in the pure “souls” of metals and their transformations. But this metal-based process was problematic in that it began with precious metals and therefore was expensive [and presumably, less attractive to patrons]. There was also a problem in the long manuscript tradition that included the wider descriptions of biological/natural substances. The philosophical tradition now begins to argue that references to ingredients like “eggs” or “blood” were meant only allegorically or to conceal the truth from the unlearned, and actually referred to the pure metals. The philosophical alchemists might distance themselves from the (illegal) craft-based approach, but the latter continued in popularity, focusing on “cookbook” style recipes with material goals. Getting back to Morton, although he allied himself with the philosophical alchemists, his own experimental writings included the broader non-metallic ingredient set. This is not the only example of conflict between alchemical philosophy and alchemical practice. As in the Pseudo-Ramon Llull Practica Testamenti which begins with a philosophical framing that uses an alphabetic mnemonic for ingredients but then includes not only the metallic mercury, but vitriol azoqueus, saltpeter, which then combine to form a “sticking menstruum”. [We now see the result of the paper author’s own experiments to reproduce some of these recipes.] The obscurity of texts such as this in a real sense drive experimentation, as the words themselves were insufficient for clear identification. This type of “translation” of supposedly allegorical terms, can be seen full circle in “practical” alchemists concluding that references to gold and silver as alchemical ingredients were themselves allegorical rather than literal references. This then drove further experimentation to identify what ingredients those “allegorical metals” were actually referring to. Philosophy might dictate alchemical discourse, but rarely succeeded in limiting practice.