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Anonymous on Alchemy, Aristotle, and Creation: An Unedited Thirteenth-Century Text

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 February 2016

John R. Clark*
Fordham University


Around the year 1200 there appeared a Latin translation of Pseudo-Aristotle's De mineralibus, in which the author denied the possibility of the transmutation of metals. This statement, especially when placed in the mouth of the revered Aristotle, was a severe blow to the aim of the alchemists. Indeed it had been Aristotle's theory of the generation of metals in his Meteorologica and his theory of a common origin of all metals that had encouraged the alchemists in their efforts to transmute base metals into gold. This pseudo-Aristotelian challenge to the truth of alchemy seems to have elicited at least one previously unrecognized response. In a short treatise, tucked away in a sixteenth-century manuscript of alchemical miscellany, an anonymous author quotes “Aristotle” saying that the species of metals cannot be transformed or transmuted, but includes the proviso, also taken from Aristotle: unless they be reduced to their primary matter. This materia prima is identified by our author as the moistness that comes from water, water whose creative power our author grounds in Holy Scripture, especially in the hexaemeral tradition of the story of creation from the book of Genesis.

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Copyright © 2006 by Fordham University 

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1 See Newman, William, “Technology and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages,” Isis 80 (1989): 427, “Our story begins with the English translator Alfred of Sareshel, who around 1200 translated a meteorological section of the Persian philosopher Avicenna's (980–1037) Kitāb al-Shifā' (The Book of Remedy) and inserted it into the fourth book of Aristotle's Meteorologica, already translated by Henricus Aristippus. This short text, which came to be known in Latin as De congelatione et conglutinatione lapidum, immediately acquired the authority of a genuine Aristotelian production, since it appeared to be the conclusion of the Meteorologica's fourth book. It became thereby the locus classicus for all subsequent attacks on alchemy, and virtually any alchemical writer – whether philosophically sophisticated or not – felt obliged to respond to the arguments of ‘Aristotle’ (i.e., Avicenna).” See Schmitt, Charles B. and Knox, Dilwyn Pseudo-Aristoteles Latinus: A Guide to Latin Works Falsely Attributed to Aristotle before 1500 (London, 1985), 43–44, §59 De mineralibus.

2 Newman, (“Technology,” 425) writes, “In fact, the alchemy of the late Middle Ages was a perfectly reasonable and sober offshoot of Aristotle's theory of matter.” See also Read, John Prelude to Chemistry: An Outline of Alchemy, 2nd ed. (orig. publ. 1939; repr. Cambridge, MA, 1966), 9–19, 120; and Eichholz, D. E. “Aristotle's Theory of the Formation of Metals and Minerals,” Classical Quarterly 43 (1949): 141–46.

3 This proviso, “unless they be reduced to their primary matter,” was included in Alfred of Sareshel's Latin text, but not in the original Arabic, according to the edition of Holmyard, E. J. and Mandeville, D. C. Avicennae De congelatione et conglutinatione lapidum (Paris, 1927), 42 and n. 6.

4 Halm, Karl and Meyer, Wilhelm Catalogus Codicum Latinomm Bibliothecae Regiae Monacensis, Tom. 2, Pars 4 (Munich, 1871), 171–72.

5 Clark, John R., “Marsilio Ficino among the Alchemists,” Classical Bulletin 59 (1983): 5054.

6 Singer, Dorothea Waley, Catalogue of Latin and Vernacular Alchemical Manuscripts in Great Britain and Ireland dating from before the XVIth Century, 3 vols. (Brussels, 1928–31), and Thorndike, Lynn and Kibre, Pearl A Catalogue of Incipits of Medieval Scientific Writings in Latin, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA, 1963), list over a dozen texts extant only in this manuscript. Neither Singer nor Thorndike and Kibre cite the Cum multi sint.

7 See Brown, Michelle, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (Toronto, 1990), 102, for what she terms hybrida cursiva, but our text has some bâtarde characteristics; see Thomson, S. Harrison Latin Bookhands of the Later Middle Ages 1100–1500 (Cambridge, 1969), pl. 82.

8 Our author cites certain texts (Pseudo-Aristotle, , De mineralibus, and the Hermetic Emerald Tablet, for example), which are datable to, or not readily available until, the thirteenth century. See n. 1 above or n. 14 below.

9 The edited text follows the orthography and sense pauses of the scribe; the punctuation has been modernized. Only a few emendations needed to be made and they are listed in the apparatus.

10 This interpretation of the word principium seems to derive from the Aristotelian concept of principle, the Greek word arché. See Aristotle, , Metaphysics 983a, 1012b1013a, and passim; also his Generation of Animals, passim. See Häring, N. “The Creation and Creator of the World according to Thierry of Chartres and Clarenbaldus of Arras,” in Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 22 (1955): 151 n. 1, “At least as early as St. Ambrose, the Latin exegetes of the verse speculated on the various meanings of the phrase In the beginning. See Ambrose, Hexaemeron I, 4, 12–16; P.L., 14, 139A, Scotus, John De Div. naturae III, 18; P.L., 122, 679C.”

11 See Aquinas on Creation, trans. Baldner, Steven E. and Carroll, William E. (Toronto, 1997), 2: “Thus, for example, Christians read the opening of Genesis in the light of the opening of the Gospel of John: identifying ‘in the beginning’ with ‘in/through Christ.”’ Baldner and Carroll are citing Ratzinger, Joseph “In the Beginning …”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Ramsey, Boniface (Grand Rapids, MI, 1995), 9–10.

12 In this paper, translations of the Bible, unless otherwise identified, will be taken from the Douay-Rheims version.

13 It remains a matter of controversy between the Eastern and Western Church whether, for an understanding of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is thought to proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son (filioque). The word filioque was added to the Nicene Creed by the late sixth century; not however in the Eastern Church. See Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ: Ecumenical Reflections on the Filioque Controversy, ed. Vischer, Lukas (Geneva, 1981), esp. p. 6, “Attempts were made at the Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439) to impose the filioque on the East; especially in the thirteenth century because of the anathema which Lyons laid on those who rejected the clause.” See also Marthaler, Berard The Creed: The Apostolic Faith in Contemporary Theology, rev. ed. (Mystic, CT, 1993), 247–58.

14 See Ruska, Julius, Tabula Smaragdina: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der hermetischen Literatur (Heidelberg, 1926). The earliest Latin text of the Emerald Tablet is dated to the twelfth century, and the Tablet was known in the thirteenth century to Albertus Magnus; see Taylor, F. Sherwood The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry (New York, 1949), 88–90; and Read, Prelude to Alchemy (n. 2 above), 51–55.

15 See Tabula Smaragdina, ed. Ruska, , 2: “1. Verum, sine mendacio, certum et verissimum. 2. Quod est inferius, est sicut (id) quod est superius, et quod est superius, est sicut (id) quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.” Our author's striking omission, in addition to the five-word conclusion, is the comparative word sicut in linking the world below to that above.

16 As understood in the argument here, the author is drawing upon the alchemical doctrine whereby the world of the macrocosm is mirrored in the world of the microcosm. Later, in the Paracelsian tradition of the sixteenth century, “an analogy was drawn between mercury, sulphur, and salt composing the nature of metals and (respectively) spirit, soul and body composing the nature of man.” Roberts, Gareth, The Mirror of Alchemy: Alchemical Ideas and Images in Manuscripts and Books from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century (Toronto, 1994), 51.

17 See Newman, William R., Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature (Chicago, 2004), 21: “Aristotle argued that these ‘primary qualities’ [hot, cold, wet, and dry] existed within the four elements and provided the means by which they could be transformed into one another…. The operation of the elements and the four qualities occupies many of Aristotle's physical works, such as De generatione et corruptione, De Caelo, and the Physics itself.” See also Moran, Bruce T. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 25–26; and Coudert, Allison Alchemy: The Philosopher's Stone (Boulder, CO, 1980), 18–19.

18 On the other hand, Clarenbaldus of Arras, a student of Thierry of Chartres, interprets the “caelum et terram” to refer to all four elements: heaven = fire and air; earth = earth and water. See Tractatulus (Liber de Eodem Secundus) §36, ed. Häring, N., “The Creation and Creator of the World according to Thierry of Chartres and Clarenbaldus of Arras,” in Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 22 (1955): 137–216, esp. 175; text on 200–216, esp. 212, “caelum et terram creavit, scilicet quattuor elementa. Nomine enim ‘caeli’ duo superiora elementa quae sibi cohaerent, ignis scilicet et aer, nomine vero ‘terrae’ quae sibi quoque cohaerent ad invicem, terra scilicet et aqua, designantur.”

19 If this phraseology seems a bit strange to us, it would not have been for our author. The modern reading of John 1:4 is “In him was life and the life was the light of men,” with the preceding verse, 1:3, being “All things were made by him and without him was made nothing that was made.” The phrase “that was made” (quod factum est), which we think of as the end of verse 3, was actually taken as the beginning of verse 4 in the Vulgate text until ca. 1532, reading “what was made in him was life and the life was the light of men.” See de la Potterie, I., “De interpunctione et interpretatione versuum Joh. 1:3–4,” Verbum Domini 33 (1955): 193–208, esp. 200–208.

20 See Dronke, Peter, “Thierry of Chartres,” chap. 3 in A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy, ed. idem (Cambridge, 1992), 377, citing William and Thierry; also Wetherbee, Winthrop Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century: The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres (Princeton, 1972), 111, citing Bernardus and Guillaume de Conches. Guillaume de Conches (William of Conches), De philosophia mundi 2.3 (PL 172:58B); Thierry of Chartres, Tractatus de sex dierum operibus 8–9; Silvestris, Bernardus Commentary on Martianus Capella, ed. Jeauneau, E. “N. sur l'Ecole de Chartres,” repr. in Jeauneau, E. Lectio Philosophorum (Amsterdam, 1973), 44–45. Jeauneau, on 31–33, cites other patristic and medieval authors who took positions on this matter both pro and con.

21 For this standard interpretation, see Augustine, , De civitate Dei 11.19; Pseudo-Augustine, Dialogus quaestionum LXV, qu. 24 (PL 40:741); Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae: De potentia q. 4, art. 1 (Opera Omnia, vol. 13 [Paris, 1875], 125); Comestor, Petrus Historia Scholastica: Genesis, chap. 3 (PL 198:1057); and Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia: Recreation for an Emperor, ed. and trans. Banks, S. E. and Binns, J. W. (Oxford, 2002), chap. 3, p. 36, “Tradunt alii factam esse divisionem angelorum quando diuisit Deus lucem a tenebris, quasi bonos appellans lucem et malos tenebras.”

22 The author repeats the words nostrum propositum descendamus from line 25 (actually ad propositum nostrum descendamus) and the opening of section two of his text, but adds the word aquam (86) here to specify precisely the focus of his third and main point.

23 Nowhere else in the manuscript was I able to find a similar occurrence where letters in the middle of a treatise were written in thicker and taller strokes for emphasis. See also n. 38 below for further scribal practice in this treatise.

24 Thierry of Chartres, De sex dierum operibus, ed. Häring, N., “The Creation,” 137–216, esp. 156 for Häring's commentary (text on 184–200); Hermann of Carinthia De Essentiis: A Critical Edition with Translation and Commentary, ed. Burnett, Charles (Leiden, 1982).

25 This primal role of water is, of course, a traditional concept, dating back to the time of the Ionian philosopher Thales in the early sixth century B.C. See Häring, N., “The Creation,” 154, and Thierry of Chartres, De sex dierum operibus §28, ed. Häring, N. 194.

26 See Thierry, , De sex dierum operibus §28, p. 194: per calorem, and Clarenbaldus of Arras, §44, p. 214: colore immixto. The “divine aid” of line 38 refers to God the creator (see Thierry, De sex dierum operibus §28, p. 193: per virtutem artificis and p. 194: de virtute Creatoris operatoria); the “celestial influences” of line 98 to the powers of the stars and planets above. See Levere, Trevor H. Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball (Baltimore, 2001), 5; and Coudert, Allison Alchemy, 54, “Like every other branch of science and learning up to the seventeenth century, alchemy was profoundly influenced by astrology.”

27 See Burckhardt, Titus, Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, trans. Stoddart, William (Baltimore, 1971), 63, “Of materia prima, the primordial substance, one can only say that it is purely receptive with regard to the form-giving cause of existence and that at the same time it is the root of ‘otherness,’ for it is through it that things are limited and multiple. In the language of the Bible, materia prima is represented by the waters, over which, at the beginning of creation, the Spirit of God moved.”

28 The opening words of the hymn, Magnae Deus potentiae, are omitted here but included in the verse as cited in such Victorine and Chartrian authors as Hugh of Saint Victor, Summa Sententiarum 3.1 (PL 176:89C); William of Conches, De philosophia mundi 1.22 (PL 172:55C) and Glosae super Platonem, ed. Jeauneau, E. (Paris, 1965), 121; and Clarenbaldus of Arras, Liber de eodem secundus §44, ed. Häring, N. 215. The concluding word of the verse seems to be aera, rather than aerem as here. The hymn, “Magnae Deus potentiae,” is the fifth in the series, De dierum creatione hymni VI, which were ascribed to Ambrose. With minor variations in wording, the hymn is also part of the Breviary, Roman Feria quinta ad Vesperas. See PL 17:1229 and AH 51:37.

29 That water is more subtle or finer (subtilior) than earth was also expressed above at line 95.

30 See the references cited in n. 2 above; also Taylor, , The Alchemists (n. 14 above), 1214.

31 Taylor, , The Alchemists, 13.

32 Aquinas, Pseudo-Thomas, commentary on Aristotle's, Meteorologica, Book 3 (Lectio IX ad finem) cited in Taylor, The Alchemists, 98–100. In the Leonine edition of the Opera Omnia, vol. 7, p. 627, cols. 1 and 2. On the authorship of the commentary, see Newman, (n. 1 above), 437 and n. 45.

33 Note the adjectival use of the word mineralem to modify speciem at line 134. The earliest citation of its adjectival use is ca. 1233 in Latham, R. E., Revised Medieval Latin Word-List (London, 1965), 299.

34 “Lapides vero et metalla ex humore fuisse concreata resolutio eorum in eundem humorem ostendit.” Thierry, , De sex dierum operibus §28, ed. Häring, (n. 24 above), 194. See also Hermann of Carinthia, De Essentiis, Book 2.75vD–76rC, on the generation of minerals, ed. Burnett, Charles (n. 24 above), 204–9, and commentary, 330–32, esp. 330, “In deriving material from water Hermann is clearly indebted to the Arabic tradition which was ultimately based on Aristotle's, Meteorologica (cf. Abu Ma'shar's passing references to metalla que ex diversis vaporibus congelantur [Introductorium 1.3 (a6v)]; cf. also Damascenus, Nicolaus De plantis 2.2; Magnus, Albertus Meteorologica 3.5, fol. 116rb; metalla enim non sunt nisi sicut aqua que congelatur vehementia frigoris et siccitatis).”

35 Thierry §28, p. 194, wherein he cites priscis philosophis and quibusdam philosophis for the argument that water is the matter of all things.

36 See Aristotle, , De generatione et corruptione 2.8 (335a10–11). In Aristoteles Latinus IX 1: De generatione et corruptione, Translatio Vetus, ed. Judycka, Joanna (Leiden, 1986), 71: “omnia quidem enim nutriuntur eisdem ex quibus sunt.” Thierry of Chartres has a somewhat similar citation in his De sex dierum operibus, ed. Häring, , 150 and 188 §13: “omne nutribile ex eodem nutriri, ex quo materialiter constat, physica testatur. Sed corpora stellaria ex humore nutriri physici dicunt, Videntur igitur ex aquis materialiter constare.”

37 For the Latin text, see Aquinas, , Summa theologiae, 5 vols. (Ottawa, 1941–45), 4:2925b. Note that Aquinas and our anonymous author have turned the impersonal Aristotle quotation into a more personal first person plural observation. Of more import for our author may be Aquinas's quotation of this passage in his Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics 1.3, wherein the philosopher is speaking of Thales' position that “moisture is the principle of being.” See Aquinas, In Metaphysicam Aristotelis Commentaria, ed. Cathala, M.-R. (Turin, 1926), 1.4.80: “Ex eodem autem viventia nutriuntur et sunt; et sic humor videtur esse principium essendi.”

38 As for the use of the first person, composui and dico had been used in line 3; supersedeo in line 24; otherwise the first person plural had been used several times (in fide nostra 17; propositum nostrum descendamus at 25 and 86; sumus and nutrimur at 135). The rubrication of a word in the middle of a treatise is rare, but not without precedent, in this manuscript. See also n. 23 above, for further scribal practice in this tract.

39 See n. 1 above. Also see Newman, William R., Promethean Ambitions, 4344.

40 Magnus, Albertus, Book of Minerals 3.1.9, trans. Wyckoff, Dorothy (Oxford, 1967), 178, although apparently he too once thought the work to be by Aristotle. See Newman, Promethean Ambitions (n. 17 above), 44–46. Roger Bacon also, ca. 1245, believed the work to be Aristotelian, but by 1266 he had dismissed it as “a second-rate commentary by Alfred of Sareshel.” See Newman, “Technology and Alchemical Debate” (n. 1 above), 433.

41 See Newman, , Promethean Ambitions, 294 and n. 10.

42 See ibid., 44: “a world where Aristotle was referred to customarily as ‘the prince of the philosophers,’ or simply as ‘the philosopher.”’ It is somewhat interesting that our author has used the appellation, “the prince of philosophers,” to signify Hermes Trismegistus above at line 26.

43 Isaiah 45:8 is sung at Vespers on the feast of the Annunciation; it is also part of the Advent liturgy. See the Liber Usualis, ed. Benedictines of Solesmes (New York, 1962), 1414 and 1080, 316–58 passim.

44 See Holmyard, E. J., Alchemy (orig. publ. 1957; repr. Baltimore, 1968), 43–59: chapter 4, “Alchemical Apparatus.” Cf. Newman, Promethean Ambitions, 51, who speaks of Thomas Aquinas and “the concept of virtus loci – the power of a specific place. His idea is that metals can be generated only by natural heat operating in the subterranean chambers where ores and metals come into being.”

45 The “qui ubi vult spirat” of line 164 is taken from John's Gospel 3:8, where, instead of qui, the subject given is Spiritus: “The Spirit breatheth where he will.” It is somewhat curious that our author does not pursue this section of John's Gospel further. In verse 3:5 can be found the words “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”

46 See Newman, , Promethean Ambitions, 4354.

47 See n. 40 above.

48 See Roberts, , The Mirror of Alchemy (n. 16 above), 5051.

49 See p. 152 and n. 13 above.

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