Lyon: Macé Bonhomme, 1557.
First edition of this extremely rare collection, which includes the first French translation and second appearance overall of the famous ‘Mirror of Alchemy’ of the ‘Doctor Mirabilis’ Roger Bacon. Bacon’s “skill in mathematics, experimental science and mechanical inventions was so remarkable for his time that … he acquired the reputation … of being a magician” (Ferguson). Of Bacon’s De l’admirable Pouvoir et Puissance de l’art & de nature, Duveen remarks that it is: “one of the most remarkable and at the same time one of the most authentic works by Roger Bacon. It contains almost prophetic gleams of the future course of science, dealing with automobiles, flying machines, diving-bells, telescopes, burning-mirrors, a sort of gun-powder, etc.”.
First edition of this extremely rare collection, which includes the first French translation and second appearance overall of the famous ‘Mirror of Alchemy’ of the ‘Doctor Mirabilis’ Roger Bacon; the first English translation was published in 1597. The works L’elixir des philosophes and L’art transmutatoire are published here for the first time; all the other works are the first vernacular editions. Bacon’s “skill in mathematics, experimental science and mechanical inventions was so remarkable for his time that … he acquired the reputation … of being a magician” (Ferguson I, p. 65). He was “the first Englishman who is known to have cultivated alchemical philosophy” (Waite, p. 63). Bacon maintained that alchemy is “a Science, teaching how to transforme any kind of mettall into another … by a proper medicine … Alchemy therefore is a science teaching how to make and compound a certain medicine, which is called Elixir, the which when it is cast upon mettals or imperfect bodies, doth fully protect them” (quoted in Linden, p. 4). “Bacon’s discussions of alchemy are scattered throughout his work … at times recall[ing] Aristotle’s theories concerning the origins of metals and Geber’s sulphur-mercury theory: they are notable for their clarity of expression and general avoidance of alchemical jargon” (ibid., p. 111). Bacon explored “the purification of gold beyond the present achievements of alchemy,” intent on “producing astonishing as well as practically useful effects by harnessing the hidden powers of nature” (DSB). Some of these effects are described by Bacon in his De l’admirable Pouvoir et Puissance de l’art & de nature, about which Duveen remarks that it is: “one of the most remarkable and at the same time one of the most authentic works by Roger Bacon. It contains almost prophetic gleams of the future course of science, dealing with automobiles, flying machines, diving-bells, telescopes, burning-mirrors, a sort of gun-powder, etc.” ABPC/RBH list only one complete copy of this collection (in a modern binding) offered by Schab in 1947 for $250 (none at auction). Caillet mentions the last copy at auction being the Yemeniz copy in 1867 when it fetched 85 francs (that copy is now in the Mellon collection at Yale). The English translation of Bacon’s ‘Mirror of Alchemy’, which was published 40 years after our collection, and which Ferguson describes as “one of the greatest rarities of alchemical literature”, is not as rare as the present edition; the last complete copy at auction was Honeyman’s (Sotheby’s, 30 October 1978, lot 186, £4500). OCLC lists 3 copies in US: Harvard (first part only), Yale, University of Pennsylvania (we have not verified the completeness of the last copy – the online description is identical to Yale’s, including the Mellon/Yemeniz provenance).
Alchemy, the mediaeval forerunner of chemistry, began in ancient and Hellenistic Egypt, probably originating in the Egyptian goldsmith’s art, but later absorbing aspects of Greek philosophy and different religious traditions.After the fall of the Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Islamic World. The word ‘alchemy’ itself was derived from the Arabic word ‘al-kimiya,’ which in turn derives from the Greek ‘khemia’ (the ‘art of transmuting metals’). The introduction of alchemy to Latin Europe may be dated to 11 February 1144, with the completion of Robert of Chester’s translation of the Arabic Book of the Composition of Alchemy. Through much of the 12th and 13th centuries, alchemical knowledge in Europe consisted largely in Latin translations of Arabic works, but original works began to appear in the 13th century, notably those of Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon.
Alchemists attempted to ‘purify,’ ‘mature,’ and ‘perfect’ certain materials. Common aims were the transmutation of ‘base metals’ (e.g., lead) into ‘noble metals’ (particularly gold and silver), the creation of an elixir of immortality, the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease, and the development of an ‘alkahest’ or universal solvent. In Europe, the creation of a ‘philosopher’s stone’ was variously connected with all of these projects; this stone came in two varieties, prepared by an almost identical method: white (for the purpose of making silver), and red (for the purpose of making gold), the white stone being a less matured version of the red stone.
The present collection begins with Bacon’s Mirror of Alchemy, which first appeared as Speculum alchemiae in 1541, in a Latin collection published at Nuremberg which also contained the first printings of Hermes Trismegistus (with Hortulanus’ commentary) and the tract by Khalid ibn Yazid. These four works were translated into French by Nicolas Barnaud (d. 1605?) according to some sources, or by Jacques Girard de Tournus, the translator of the last two parts of this volume, according to others.
Roger Bacon was born in Ilchester, Somerset in either 1214 or 1220. After his matriculation at Oxford, he was one of the pioneers in teaching Aristotle’s natural philosophy at the University of Paris. He returned to Oxford, where he was strongly influenced by Robert Grosseteste and the Franciscan school, but in 1257 he was sent back to Paris by the Franciscans, whose order he had entered. Under the patronage of Pope Clement IV, he wrote the Opus majus, his most important work, not published until 1733. Together with his Opus Minus, and Opus Tertium, this presented his views on how to incorporate Aristotelian logic and science into a new theology. He sent these works, and perhaps others, to Clement in 1267/68. But his protector Clement died in 1268 and, following the Condemnations of 1277, he was imprisoned, to be set free only a year before his death at Oxford, in 1293.
The Mirror of Alchemy sets out the sulphur-mercury doctrine of the composition of the metals and describes the alchemical process in which the materials are heated in a tightly closed vessel. Chapter 1, ‘Of the definitions of alchemy,’ defines alchemy as a science teaching how to make and compound the Elixir which, when it is cast upon metals or other imperfect bodies, will perfect them. The nature of various metals is described in chapter 2, ‘Of the natural principles, and procreation of minerals’, starting with gold, which is perfect, followed in increasing degrees of imperfection by silver, steel, lead, copper, and iron. Chapter 3, ‘Out of what things the matter of elixir must be more nearly extracted,’ sets out the sulphur-mercury theory of the composition of metals. These are not, of course, the modern elements sulphur and mercury, but ‘philosophical principles’: sulphur refers to the hot, dry, active, masculine aspect of the metal, and mercury is the cold, wet, receptive, feminine aspect of the metal. Chapter 4, ‘Of the manner of working, and of moderating, and continuing the fire,’ describes how to maintain a fire in the ‘athanor’ (furnace), while chapter 5, ‘Of the quality of the vessel and furnace,’ discusses the natural processes in the mountains and under the earth that create different metals. Chapter 6, ‘Of the accidental and essential colours appearing in the work,’ is an analysis of all of the colours of the stone in alchemy: through putrefaction, it becomes black, then the alchemist must extract the ‘whiteness’, and then it turns red. Here Bacon refers to the fourfold model of ‘nigredo’ (blackness, representing putrefaction), ‘albedo’ (whiteness, representing purification), ‘citrinitas’ (yellowness, the solar dawn or awakening), and ‘rubedo’ (redness, alchemical perfection). The final chapter 7, ‘How to make projection of the medicine upon any imperfect body,’ discusses the ultimate goal of the work, the ‘projection’ of the Elixir onto any imperfect body that will make it more perfect.
Following the Mirror of Alchemy is the famous Emerald Tablet of Hermes, the esoteric content of which contrasts with the rather practical emphasis in the Mirror. The ancient Greeks identified their god Hermes with the Egyptian Thoth and gave him the epithet Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest,” reflecting his pre-eminence as priest, philosopher, and king. A vast literature in Greek was ascribed to Hermes, among which was the Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet. This highly metaphorical synopsis of the philosophical principles that underlie making the philosopher’s stone was thought to have been engraved on a tablet of emerald found resting in the hands of the entombed Hermes. It was reputed to contain the secret of the ‘prima materia,’ the starting material for the creation of the philosopher’s stone. It was highly regarded by European alchemists, from the Middle Ages through to the eighteenth century, as the foundation of their art and its Hermetic tradition. Although Hermes Trismegistus is the author named in the text, the first known appearance of the Emerald Tablet is in a book written in Arabic between the sixth and eighth centuries. The text was first translated into Latin in the twelfth century. A manuscript English translation of the Emerald Tablet by Isaac Newton is held by King’s College, Cambridge.
An important commentary on the Emerald Tablet was written in about 1325 by Hortulanus (or Ortolanus), about whom little is known. This commentary revolves around the ‘primordial heat,’ praised by Hermes as a universal substrate that gives dynamism to the whole cosmos. Ortolanus believed that alcohol or quintessence is the hidden primordial heat in all material things. Ortolanus’ commentary was printed several times in the 16th century and became very popular among alchemists of the early modern period.
The next work in the collection is a testament to the early Muslim interest in alchemy, which flourished after their conquest of Alexandria in 642, from which they acquired the bulk of Greek philosophy and science. “Khalid of Damascus (c. 668 – c. 704) was among the first of the Moslem scholars to take a serious interest in alchemy. Under his direction, Arabian translations of Greek and Coptic treatises were completed. He is also said to have personally studied alchemy under the tutelage of the Christian scholar Morienus – himself a pupil of Stephanos of Alexandria – and to have written alchemical poems. The Secreta Alchymia is a reasonably clear and comprehensive summary of topics and themes that were to become central in alchemical writing in the West, including certain of its primary processes, relations between the body and soul of metals, degrees of fire, laboratory equipment, and the preparation of both the white and the red stones” (Linden, p. 71). Khalid’s tract discusses alchemical practice as well as theory, thus complementing the companion essays that had preceded it.
“Perhaps the most important alchemical work attributed to Khalid is the Liber secretorum artis (Book of the secrets of the Art) or Liber secretorum alchimiae (Book of the Secrets of Alchemy) [which] has in due course taken its place in the standard medieval and Renaissance collections of alchemical classics” (Patai, p. 125). However, “there is a clear indication that [the original author] was a Jew and that he shared the early Jewish alchemists’ desire to confine the knowledge of the Great Art to the adepts of their own people” (ibid., p. 126). The misattribution to Khalid “lies in the prevalent medieval tendency to attribute writings pseudepigraphically to famous authors … its aim was to secure acclaim for the treatise by claiming that it was written by a famous alchemical author” (ibid.).
The first part of the collection concludes with a work wrongly attributed to Jean de Meun (or Mehun) (ca. 1240-1305). He is best known for his continuation of the mediaeval French poem, the ‘Romance of the Rose’, in which he references several alchemical sources, including Bacon. The work here attributed to de Meun is, in fact, a slightly revised version of Bacon’s Le miroir d’alquimie. “It would appear that the editor, excited as he was by the idea of publishing works attributed to two such renowned authors, did not read the treatises he was having printed” (Brownlee & Huot, p. 266).
The second part of the collection comprises two separate treatises, ‘L’élixir des Philosophes’ (pp. 1-150) and ‘L’art transmutatoire’ (pp. 151-205). Jacques Duèse (1245-1334) was born at Cahors, France. He entered the church after studying law and medicine at the Sorbonne, and was elected to the pontifical crown in 1316. “Pope John was frequently accused of avarice, and it is true that he made stupendous efforts to raise money, imposing numerous taxes unheard of before his papacy. He manifested considerable ingenuity in that regard, and so the tradition that he dabbled in hermetic philosophy (alchemy) may be founded on fact. He did issue a stringent bull against alchemists, but it was directed against the charlatans of the craft, not against those who were seeking the philosophers' stone with real earnestness and with the aid of scientific knowledge. The pope may have introduced this mandate to silence those who had charged him with the practice of alchemy himself. Whatever his reason, it is probable that he believed in magic and was interested in science … Pope John’s scientific predilections are evident from his keeping a laboratory in the palace at Avignon and spending much time there … it may well be that the activities in his laboratory also centered in some measure on alchemistic research. This theory is strengthened by the fact that Pope John was friends with Arnold de Villanova, famous physician, astrologer, and alchemist. Among the writings attributed to Pope John XXII is the alchemical work L’Elixir des philosophers, autrement L’art transmutatoire, published at Lyons in 1557” (Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology).
Bacon’s second work in this collection, comprising its third part, is De l’admirable Pouvoir et Puissance de l’art & de nature. It was first published at Paris in 1542, together with the tract by Coelestinus, in a compendium edited by Oronce Finé. “According to Bacon, a more complete understanding of natural laws and the properties of things would foster wonderful inventions: incredibly fast conveyances that could move independent of animal power; submarines and diving bells for exploring the ocean floor; machines for human flight; alchemical processes that could prolong life; and mirrors and lenses that could set fire to entire armies or produce terrifying and delightful optical illusions. These speculative technologies exemplify the promise of scientia experimentalis, Bacon’s theory of technology, which authenticated natural knowledge and offered a blueprint for how human ingenuity could harness the secret, untapped potential of nature … The purpose of scientia experimentalis was threefold: to affirm or refute theories; to create instruments or machines to pursue knowledge; and to uncover the secrets of nature. Bacon later amplified his explanation of scientia experimentalis in his Epistola de secretis operibus artis et naturae et de nullitate magiae (ca. 1270s) [translated here as De l’admirable Pouvoir et Puissance de l’art & de nature] … which includes passages on fantastical machines, optical illusions, and alchemy, to the wider dissemination of Bacon’s theory of scientia experimentalis and his argument for the potential of technology … It was often included alongside an alchemical text, the Speculum alchemiae, attributed to Bacon in the early modern period, and these texts both reflected and augmented Bacon’s reputation as an alchemist and an experimentalist” (Truitt, The circulation of invention: Roger Bacon’s theory of technology in early modern Europe – https://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/research/projects/circulation-invention-roger-bacon%E2%80%99s-theory-technology-early-modern).
The final part of this collection is a work by the Celestine monk Claude Rapine, also known as Claudius Coelestinus, which was probably composed shortly after 1478. Rapine became the chief conduit of Nicolas Oresme’s views on the subject of marvels and divination in the sixteenth century. “The work of Coelestinus does not pretend to much originality but discusses whether there are influences from the stars, whether they can be measured by us, and the causes of apparent marvels, in all this following the authority of ‘that great student of philosophy, Nicolas Oresme,’ whom Coelestinus regards as almost his contemporary, although Oresme actually flourished during the second half of the fourteenth century … After finishing the brief dedication to Junius, in opening the text proper Coelestinus states that, when anything marvellous or unusual occurs whose cause is not immediately evident, many persons have recourse to the sky and to the unknown influence of the sky, while the devout ascribe the event to God, if it good, and to the demon, if it is bad. This they do chiefly from ignorance because they are not willing to observe or investigate natural causes or neglect them or cannot understand them for lack of training. He will treat of nine matters in as many chapters: 1 optical illusions; 2 errors of hearing; 3 of taste and touch; 4 of the nutritive and digestive system; 5 of the generative and formative functions; 6 of slips of the tongue and of divination; 7 of mental operations; 8 of the operations of demons; 9 of the influences of the sky. While this outline shows some originality in arrangement, it starts off very much like Oresme’s Quodlibeta, and the subsequent detailed exposition of Oresme’s views is evidently based chiefly if not wholly on that work of his. Since it, like Oresme’s other discussions of magic and astrology, was not printed, it must have been largely through Oronce Finé’s printing of the summary of Coelestinus that the views of Oresme continued to exert influence in early modern times. This abstract was sufficiently popular to appear fifteen years later in a French translation by Jacques Girard de Tornus at Lyons in 1557.
“It must be admitted that Coelestinus has made a skilful condensation of Oresme’s long, involved, elaborate scholastic Quodlibeta, and has greatly improved upon his original in simplicity and clarity of arrangement … while Coelestinus follows Oresme closely as to illusions and errors of the senses, such psychological factors as attention, credulity and individual differences in intelligence, and in the attempt to find a natural explanation for magic and marvels attributed to demons, he does not follow him in his sweeping attack on astrologers and the occult influence of the stars. Rather, the attitude of Coelestinus is decidedly favourable to astrology” (Thorndike, pp. 630-634).
The collection was reprinted at Paris in 1612 and 1613 (these omit the version of Miroir attributed to Bacon but retain that attributed to de Meun). Part of the collection was published in English translation in 1597, omitting the works by de Meun, Pope John and Coelestinus.
Not in Adams; Brunet I, p. 141; Caillet, Manuel bibliographique des sciences psychiques ou occultes I, 624; Durling, A Catalogue of Sixteenth Century Books in the National Library of Medicine, 430; Ferguson, Bibliotheca Chemica, p. 64; Wellcome 14314019 (incomplete, containing the first part only: https://archive.org/details/hin-wel-all-00001728-001/page/n8/mode/2up). Brownlee & Huot, Rethinking the ‘Romance of the Rose’, 2016. Linden, The Alchemy Reader: from Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton, 2003. Patai, The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book, 1994. Thorndike, ‘Coelestinus’s summary of Nicolas Oresme on marvels,’ Osiris 1 (1936), pp. 629-635. Waite, Lives of alchemystical philosophers, 1888. Not in Waller, which has only a defective copy of the English translation.
Four parts in one vol., small 8vo (136 x87 mm), pp. , 2-134, [2, colophon] [Bacon: 5-34; Hermes: 35-38; Hortulanus: 39-56; Khalid: 57-108; de Meun: 109-134]; , 2-205, [2, blank]; , 2-95; , 2-191, . Woodcut initials and head-pieces, 11 woodcuts of alchemical apparatus in L’Elixir des Philosophes (some light damp stains, a few restored wormholes in upper blank margin). Each of the four parts has a separate title page, but there is no general title (none called for); a table of contents of the whole is printed on the title verso of ‘Le Miroir d’alquimie.’ Eighteenth century calf, spine richly gilt (minor restoration to head of spine). A very good copy of an extremely rare book..