Alchemical treatises England: late Fourteenth Century

Page with illustrations of alembics and furnaces (folio 28r)

Page with illustrations of alembics and furnaces (folio 28r)

The craft of alchemy developed significantly in the Thirteenth Century and it is consequently the subject matter of a large number of surviving late medieval manuscripts. This literature incorporates a spectrum of works, ranging from those dealing with technical metallurgical matters to those couched in mystical language concerning the transmutation of base metals into gold. This manuscript is a compendium of texts. Included are works by the thirteenth century Dominican scholar Albertus Magnus, William de Furnivall’s On the Sublimation of Arsenic, a copy of the Mappae Clavicula, a dictionary of alchemical terms, and anonymous treatises on salt and divination. The opening displayed to the left is from Albertus Magnus’s Straight Path in the Art of Alchemy. It is illustrated with simple diagrams of furnaces, used to ‘sublime’ or distil various substances. The illustrations in alchemical works are often unsophisticated, but nonetheless essential in books that were intended to be used in intensely practical ways.

The first part of Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale provides a fascinating account of the workings of an alchemist’s laboratory with its unending and elusive experimentation. Although Chaucer refers to the craft as a ‘slidynge science’, he takes great delight in listing the strange names of the chemicals and processes, and obviously had some practical knowledge of chemistry.

Page with illustration of furnace (folio 27v)

Page with illustration of furnace (folio 27v)

Illustrated page from Albertus Magnus' The Secret of Philosophers (folio 62r)

Illustrated page from Albertus Magnus’ The Secret of Philosophers (folio 62r)

Illustrated opening from Albertus Magnus' The Secret of Philosophers (folios 67v - 68r)

Illustrated opening from Albertus Magnus’ The Secret of Philosophers (folios 67v – 68r)

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