12th-Century Latin Alchemy

The pantheist and illuminist tradition, whose development is being traced from medieval Islam into the Latin West up to the end of the 12th century, has not only been bound up with Neopythagorean and Avicennist philosophy; it has also been attached to the development of alchemy (even though Avicenna would not have approved).  Is there any evidence for the transmission of Islamic alchemical traditions into late 12th-century Latin culture?  This is a very early date, right at the beginning of any possible Latin acquaintance with the subject.

Evidence that alchemy was known in the twelfth century

The term ‘alchemy’ is used, without the need for any comment or explanation, in three 12th-century Latin translations of astrological works,[1] one of which can even be dated to the first half of the century.  This latter work was translated by Hugo Sanctallensis (of whom more will be heard later).  There is also a 12th-century manuscript of an anonymous book entitled Alchamia,[2] which is concerned with practical experiments in organic chemistry (taken from al-Rāzī) and with recipes of a somewhat magical nature.[3]  The interesting thing about this book is that it is definitely based on Arabic originals, showing that Islamic alchemy was being welcomed into Western Europe, although this book had no spiritual message.

Alchemical imagery in Cligés

Alchemical imagery can be found in the vernacular literature of the second half of the 12th century.  Chrétien de Troyes’ curious French romance of Cligés[4] mixes the heroic exploits of Arthurian knights with contemporary political, diplomatic and military stories from Greece, Germany and England, to bolster a love story which is clearly designed as a ‘corrective’ to the popular, but adulterous, story of Tristan.  The literary historian, Lucie Polak, gives the late 1170s as the approximate dating for the Cligés; the text’s latest editor, Claude Luttrell, puts the date between 1185 and 1187.[5]  Another possible clue, that the book was written soon after 1180, can be based on the assumption that the author had no intention of any of his readers checking up on him, when he claimed that the source of his story was a book in the library at Saint Pierre in Beauvais: this church had burned down in 1180.[6]  (Many writers of this period were adept at claiming spurious ‘earlier versions’ for their stories, because complete originality was not trusted.)  The book was certainly known by 1188, when a work called Florimont took issue with points made in Cligés.[7]

Its alchemical imagery comes at the climax of the main narrative.  It is the point at which the heroine is about to suffer grievously, before her life is transformed in a secret marriage of true love.  Chrétien de Troyes presumably thought that the Christian imagery of resurrection and the alchemical imagery of rebirth could give his story an added dimension.  The heroine, who has been obliged to feign death, is severely flayed, and nearly roasted alive, by the doctors of Salerno[8] (this is the stage of dissolution of the mineral, or mortification for the person).  She is then taken into a ready-made tomb, – like Christ’s, sealed and guarded, – from which she will rise again[9] (the vessel of transmutation is often referred to as a grave or tomb[10]).  After that, she and Cligés, her husband, are hidden in a safe place, so that they can enjoy a true marriage, in a tower which seems to have no entrance[11] (this is the hermetically sealed athanor, which provides a constant heat and which, because of its shape, is often referred to in alchemy as the ‘tower’ in which Sol and Luna (sun and moon, male and female principles) are held captive for the uniting of the contraries, which must precede the new creation[12]).  What is the name of this heroine?  Fenice.  She is the phoenix,[13] the mythical bird that is reborn in the fire, a symbol for the reborn Christ, the bird that in alchemical symbolism stands for the final red stage of resurrection and perfection.

In his previous romance, Erec et Enide,[14] Chrétien had dealt with moral questions of integrity, responsibility, love and marriage, by using the Arthurian characters, story-lines and imagery (ultimately based on ancient Celtic myths) which were hugely popular at the time, thanks to the encouragement of Henry II of England and his new Angevin (Plantagenet) empire, which dominated the western coasts of Europe.[15]  In Cligés, Chrétien was probably writing a story about similar themes; but this time he also used the new imagery and symbolism of alchemy.[16]

The Book of the Composition of Alchemy

The privilege of being the first Latin alchemical translation from the Arabic is claimed by The Book of the Composition of Alchemy (Liber de Compositione Alchymiae), otherwise known as The Testament of Morienus Romanus.  The claim that it wishes to make is probably that this is the first book in Latin, which combines the spiritual and the practical teaching of alchemy.  There are plenty of difficulties with this text, not least the fact that there are two versions, a shortened, more primitive, version that is used in the earliest 13th-century manuscripts,[17] and a longer version,[18] in which the Latinity of the text has been refined, suggestive of a later revision.[19]  However, the shortened version lacks an introduction and a beginning.  It is only interested in the alchemical teaching itself, the dialogue between the adept, Morienus, and the seeker, Khālid.  It just wants the meat, without the pastry, as it were; it cuts out the preamble to get straight to the science.  The original version of this book presumably had the more primitive text (of the short version), but with a beginning to it – probably one similar to that found in the longer version, but written in a much less polished style, – which made it part of a complete story.

A few manuscripts actually give the work a date in the twelfth century, which is not accepted by the historians, J. Ruska or L. Stavenhagen.[20]  The dating of this book has been difficult and has depended on the dating of other evidence, and so it is reported in detail elsewhere.[21]  In short, its 12th-century provenance has been proved, using evidence from a 12th-century book called The Six Principles (De VI Rerum Principiis).  This mentions an important book on alchemy composed by that great philosopher, Morienus (and even copies part of its introduction), thus demonstrating that the alchemical Testament of Morienus Romanus was certainly known in the 12th century.[22]

The book’s beginning (missing from the short version)

The introduction (to the longer version) explains that the book is being published because the Latin world is ignorant of what alchemy really is.  No clear definition is given, but it is hinted that it has to do with the transformation of natures and their conversion to a better state, that it is based on the assumption of the underlying unity of all things, and that it works by the mingling of basic contraries.  The introduction claims that this is a book of divinity, which harmonises the two testaments and shows forth the truth.[23]

The story (still in the longer version) begins with a brief chain of transmission of teaching from Hermes, through Adfar of Alexandria[24] and Morienus Romanus,[25] to Khālid ibn Yazīd who, in this story, is King of Egypt.  He seeks wisdom from the Christian hermit, Morienus, who comes, performs the great work, and departs before he can be detained.  Khālid sends his servant, Ghalib, to find him.[26]  This is where the shorter version starts, with a single sentence of introduction:

“In the name of the Lord, holy and compassionate: this is the story of how Khālid ibn Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiyya [Calid filium Iezid filii Macoia] came into possession of the spiritual riches handed down from Stephanos [Adfar] of Alexandria to Morienus, the aged recluse, as is written in the book of Ghalib, bondsman of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiyya.”[27]

The didactic dialogue on the practice of alchemy (both versions)

Morienus is found, living a self-sacrificing life as a hermit near Jerusalem.  He is brought back to Egypt and questioned by the king.  The rest of the book is in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil.  Morienus begins by emphasising the underlying unity of all things, and he talks of the 4 elements, of sulphur and mercury, of the many names for the one path etc.; and he ends with useful tips on particular techniques involving such things as eudica (a kind of glaze), blood, the green lion (green vitriol), red ochre, et al.[28]  There is, in other words, plenty of experimental chemistry in this little book.

Nevertheless, there is a constant emphasis on the parallels between chemical and human development.  There must be coition, pregnancy, birth and growth: the creation that they are engaged in must be organic generation, not mechanical construction.  Some of the statements could refer to both chemical and personal states, such as that there is no growth without purification, putrefaction and a change of appearance.[29]  Some are deliberately arcane: there must be a double composition – but the second composition is not the work of the hand.[30]  It is a mingling, in the correct proportions, of hot and cold, fire and water, wet and dry, earth and air.  Cleansing the “earth” or “body” of darkness, whitening it, and infusing it with spirit or fire[31] could refer to a personal purification and illumination, as well as a chemical one.  As Morienus warns Khālid early on:

“No one will be able to perform or accomplish this thing, which you have so long sought, or attain it by means of any knowledge, unless it be through affection and gentle humility, a perfect and true love.”[32]

Its more obviously spiritual teaching (both versions)

As the dialogue turns to matters concerning the philosopher’s stone, the spiritual dimension of alchemy seems to become more evident.  The stone is given several enigmatic descriptions.  It is delicate to touch but:

“there is more mildness in its touch than in its substance.  In mass it is very weighty, but of a sweet taste, and its proper nature is aerial.”[33]

Its odour is at first very foul, that of death and decomposition, but later very fine.[34]  There should be no financial expense: it cannot be bought.

“On this point, Zosimos said: ‘I enjoin you to spend nothing for this operation, particularly for the Golden Work’.”[35]

Khālid presses Morienus to tell him where he can find it:

“King Khālid said: ‘Tell me where the sources of this thing are, whence it may be gathered as there is need of it.’  But Morienus fell silent and, casting his gaze downward, reflected deeply for some time.  Then he raised his head and spoke: ‘Truly, this matter is that created by God, which is firmly captive within you yourself, inseparable from you, wherever you be; any creature of God deprived of it will die.’ ”[36]

No-one created by God can be without it.  The secret is partially revealed: look within.

This revelation comes at about the mid-point of the dialogue.  Having admitted so much, the teacher clarifies his statement:

“For this matter comes from you, you are yourself its source, where it is found, and whence it is taken; and when you see this, your zeal for it will increase.  Consider this and you will find that it is true.”[37]

The philosopher’s stone, like the spirit of humanity, is found within the soul.  Khālid’s own self is the mine, from which to extract that mineral.

It does seem that this early Latin work is in the usual tradition of alchemy, working towards both a spiritual and a mineral transmutation.  It ends with a statement that:

“the whole key to accomplishment of this operation is in the fire, with which the minerals are prepared and the bad spirits held back, and with which the spirit and body are joined.  Fire is the true test of this entire matter.”[38]

There would be little possibility of chemical change without a fiery furnace to provide the necessary heat; similarly, there would be few personal transformations without what may be symbolised as the purging and creative fires of the spiritual forge.  The book ends, as might be expected of a religious work:

“Here ends the book of Morienus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.”[39]

12th-century versions of the Emerald Table

The other alchemical work, whose translation into Latin can definitely be assigned to the twelfth century, is the most famous of all Hermetic works, the Emerald Table (Tabula Smaragdina).  It is found in a 12th-century manuscript, from St. Germain-des-Prés in Paris, in which it forms the end of the Book of the Secrets of Nature (Liber de Secretis Naturae), attributed to Apollonius of Tyana.[40]  This Latin translation, accomplished in Spain by Hugo Sanctallensis, is very close to an Arabic version, which has been studied by J. Ruska;[41] although Hugo may have been translating, at least in part, from a Hebrew version of it.[42]  To give a date to Hugo’s work, it is known that he did most of his work under the patronage of Michaelis Tirassonis, Bishop of Tarazona from 1119-1151.[43]

The Emerald Table may have been translated twice in the 12th century, as the historians, Dorothea Singer and Robert Steele, have suggested that Plato Tibertinus, another 12th-century translator, was responsible for The Book of Hermes on Alchemy (Liber Hermetis de Alchimia) which also contains the Emerald Table.[44]  The narrator in this case is given as Galen (Galienus); but that is probably owing to confusion caused by the Arabic name for Apollonius, Balīnūs.[45]  All versions are equally cryptic, and all are no doubt susceptible of multiple interpretations, but Hugo’s version will be used where possible, since that one is unquestionably of the 12th century.  T.Burckhardt’s commentary on it will also be helpful.[46]

General religious principles of the Emerald Table

The original Table was supposed to have been a tablet of green stone (not necessarily emerald), inscribed in Phoenician characters, which had either been discovered in Hermes’ tomb by Alexander the Great, or had been taken from between the hands of the dead Hermes in a cave near Hebron.[47]  In the preamble to its appearance at the end of the Book of the Secrets of Nature, the reader is not promised a certain technique with which to master chemistry; he is promised the whole of philosophy.[48]  Then the Table begins enigmatically:

“Things above come from below; things below come from above.”[49]

The correspondence between what is above and what is below underlies much Hermetic science.  It can be interpreted astrologically, as the heavens figuring what is to happen on earth; metaphysically, as the correspondence between the universe and humanity; philosophically, as the relation between agent and patient; psychologically, as that between mind and body, and so on.

The Table is a series of aphorisms, of which the next is:

“Everything portentous comes from one source, just as all things have their origin in one and the same principle.”[50]

Everything proceeds from the One. There is a unity behind the multiplicity, which is the unity of being.

“Its father is the sun and its mother the moon.”[51]

The sun and the moon are alchemical symbols for gold and silver, or for sulphur and mercury; but more importantly, they symbolise the universal polarity of masculine and feminine, active and passive, fire and water.  On a religious plane, they may stand for the active spirit of morality and illumination (the Holy Spirit) and the passive state of unity and being (God).  These are the ‘father and mother’ of the magistery, i.e. the mastery of the arts necessary for regeneration.  Humans must be filled with both before they can be transformed.

“The wind carries it in itself; it is softened by the earth.”[52]

If the spirit and the soul, – fire and water, sun and moon, – play an essential part in the ‘great work,’ the mind and the body, figured by air and earth (the other two of the 4 elements and the 4 parts of the person), are not to be forgotten.  We only know about our possibilities for improvement by using our brains; similarly we need the body to look after, nourish and nurse us.  (Indeed, the other version of the Table in The Book of Hermes on Alchemy says: “Earth is the nurse thereof.”[53])

More particular alchemical instruction in the Emerald Table

The next few lines are very corrupt in Hugo’s version.  The corresponding lines in The Book of Hermes on Alchemy are:

“It is the father of all works of wonder throughout the whole world.

The power thereof is perfect.

If it be cast on to the earth, it will separate the element of earth from that of fire,

the subtle from the gross.”[54]

This is a reference to the work of putrefaction and purification, the death of the body (the gross) to release the spirit (the subtle), the renunciation of material things to become aware of the spiritual.

“It mounts from the earth to the heaven.  From heaven, it will flow back down to earth, because it contains the strength and power of what is above and what is below.  By the same principle, all darkness is lit up.”[55]

The separation of gross matter, or body, and volatile matter, or spirit, is only a preliminary to the integration of the two in the perfected creation, or the divinised person.  The spirit is embodied and the body is spiritualised in the creation of a new, spiritual person, one who could be said to incarnate the spirit of God.  This is the illumination of the light of God within.

The Table ends with three statements.  Firstly, ‘it’ is infused in every part of creation (is this a reference to the Agent Intelligence, the world-soul, the philosopher’s stone, or all of them at once?).  Secondly, the microcosm (humanity) mirrors the macrocosm (the universe).  Thirdly, all this is what Hermes calls his triple science or his threefold wisdom.[56]  (Hermes combined the jobs of at least three gods, and was always called Trismegistus (thrice greatest).  Sometimes in the Islamic alchemical tradition, there were three separate figures all called Hermes.[57])

12th-century Latin alchemy

The Emerald Table was available to the Latin world from the middle of the 12th century, and it can certainly be interpreted in an illuminist and pantheist way (while keeping its other levels of meaning).  For any alchemical enthusiasts, this was reinforced later in the century by the Book of the Composition of Alchemy (the Latin Morienus), which taught the dual purpose, at once practical and personal, of the magistery (the alchemical work).  Early Latin alchemy, like its Islamic progenitor, taught an experimental method, potentially applicable to metals and to men.  It based its philosophy on a more or less pantheist view of the unity of the world.  Most importantly, it believed in the indwelling of the philosopher’s stone, the spirit of God within every individual, making it possible for him, after the right training, discipline and purification, to be united with God, to be reborn as a new spiritual man, to become like gold, embodied light.



[1] C.Burnett (B.106) pp.104-6.
[2] MS Berlin 956; see L.Thorndike: History of Magic… (B.106) vol.1, p.774.  
[3] W.Ganzenmüller: Eine alchemistische Handschrift… (B.106) p.44.  It begins:  Take 400 hens’ eggs laid in the month of March…
[4] English translations by W.W. Comfort (B.110) pp.91-179, or by W.W. Kibler (B.110) pp.123-205.
[5] L. Polak (B.110) pp.9-13.  C.Luttrell & S.Gregory’s edition of the Old French text (B.110) p.vii.
[6] W.W.Kibler (B.110) p.508 n.2.
[7] Tony Hunt (B.110) pp.19-20.
[8] W.W.Comfort (B.110) pp.166-169; W.W.Kibler (B.110) pp.194-7.
[9] W.W.Comfort pp.170-171; W.W.Kibler pp.197-8.
[10] L. Abraham: Dictionary of Alchemical  Imagery (B.106) p.90.
[11] Description of the tower: W.W.Comfort pp.163-4; W.W.Kibler pp.191-2.  How the two become one, in the tower: W.W.Comfort pp.172-3; W.W.Kibler pp.199-200.
[12] L.Abraham: op. cit. pp.203-4.
[13] Ibid. p.152.
[14] Translated by W.W.Comfort pp.1-90; and by C.W.Carroll, in Kibler pp.37-122.
[15] G.Duby: France in the Middle Ages (B.50) pp.197-8.  It may be relevant that Marie, Countess of Champagne, was Henry’s step-daughter and a patroness of Chrétien.
[16] Chrétien de Troyes may also have used some alchemical imagery in his Yvain.  After his collapse, Yvain’s moral and spiritual recovery is dependent on his rescuing, at great peril to himself, a masculine (sun) symbol, the golden lion, and a female symbol, his wife’s servant called Lunette (little moon).  By doing so, he establishes control over himself and regains his self esteem, and so he can now become a perfect knight. Yvain is transl. in W.W.Comfort pp.180-269 and W.W.Kibler pp.295-380.
[17] This text is S.49a; English translation in L.Stavenhagen: Testament… (B.108) pp. 3-47.
[18] This text is S.49b; English translation in E.J.Holmyard: Romance of Chemistry (B.108) pp.75-77, 105-8, 136-7, 272-6, 300-1, 327-8.
[19] L.Stavenhagen: Testament… (B.108) p.54.
[20] L.Stavenhagen: The Original Text… (B.108) pp.2-3 & p.10.
[21] In the note on the dating of the Latin Morienus which follows this piece.
[22] T.Silverstein: Liber Hermetis Mercurii… (B.64) pp.235-8.
[23] Book of the Composition of Alchemy longer version: tr. E.J.Holmyard: Romance… (B.108) p.77; text (S.49b) p.509.
[24] Adfar is the Greek alchemist, Stephanos of Alexandria, whose didactic dialogue with the Byzantine Emperor, Heraklios I (610-641), probably provided the model for the Arabic original of this book: L.Stavenhagen: Testament… (B.108) p.62.
[25] Marianos is mentioned in the list of famous alchemists given by al-Nadīm in his Fihrist: see J.W.Fück (B.102) p.92.  A later Arabic writer, Ibn Khallikān (c.1260), calls Marianos a Greek monk who taught Khālid and refers to what may be the Arabic original of this book.  Marianos would have been surnamed al-Rūmī in Arabic, because he lived in Rūm, the Roman (i.e.Byzantine) Empire of the East.  The Western translator has translated al-Rūmī literally as “the Roman,” making his book, which hands on Arabic knowledge to the Roman world, seem to show how such wisdom was actually first taught by Romans to the Arabs: see L.Stavenhagen: Testament… (B.108) pp.63-64.
[26] Book of the Composition of Alchemy longer version: tr. E.J.Holmyard: Romance… (B.108) pp.105-7; text (S.49b) p.510.
[27] Book of the Composition of Alchemy short version: tr. L.Stavenhagen (B.108) p.3; text (S.49a) p.2.
[28] ibid.(short version) pp.13-15, 19, 25, 35-43; text  (S.49a) pp.12-14, 18, 24, 34-42.
[29] ibid. pp.29-31; text pp.28-30.
[30] ibid. pp.31-33; text pp.30-32.
[31] ibid. p.33; text p.32.
[32] ibid. p.11; text p.10.
[33] ibid. p.23; text p.22.
[34] ibid. p.23; text p.22.
[35] ibid. p.25; text p.24.  Zosimos, a 4th-century Greek Gnostic and alchemist, actually appears in the text as ‘Rosinus’.
[36] ibid. p.27; text p.26.
[37] ibid. p.27; text p.26.
[38] ibid. p.47; text p.46.
[39] ibid. p.47; text p.46.
[40] MS Paris BN lat. 13951.
[41] J.Ruska: Tabula… (B.107) pp.113-4.
[42] For instance, Apollonius’ birthplace, Tyana, Tuana in Arabic, has become thawaca, a misreading, according to F.Nau, which can only be understood, if the text was in Hebrew, and the reader mistook a Hebrew nun for a caf: see F.Nau (B.107) p.100.
[43] C.Haskins: Studies… (B.111) pp.69-79.
[44] D.Singer & R.Steele: The Emerald Table (B.107) p.489.  The Alchimia of the title is written, in code (with each vowel replaced by its following Latin consonant): Liber Hermetis de Blchkmkb.
[45] ibid. p.489.
[46] In Burckhardt: Alchemy… (B.101) pp.197-9.
[47] S.J.Linden (B.101) p.11.
[48] Hugo Sanctallensis: Tabula Smaragdina (S.37) p.178. There is a French translation in Monod-Herzen (B.106) pp.91-92.
[49] ibid. p.178: “Superiora de inferioribus, inferiora de superioribus.”
[50] ibid. p.178: “Prodigiorum operatio ex uno, quemadmodum omnia ex uno eodemque ducunt    originem.”
[51] ibid. p.178: “Cuius pater Sol, mater vero Luna.”
[52] ibid. p.178: “Ea ventus in corpore suo extollit, terra fit dulcior.”
[53] Liber Hermetis de Alchimia version of the Table, translated by Singer & Steele (B.107) p.486.
[54] Liber Hermetis de Alchimia version translated by Singer & Steele (B.107) p.486.
[55] Tabula Smaragdina of Hugo Sanctallensis (S.37) p.178: “ Eduxit a terra, ad caelum conscendet, a caelo ad terram dilabitur. Superiorum et inferiorum vim continens atque potentiam. Unde omnis ex eodem illuminatur obscuritas.”
[56] ibid. p.178.
[57] See the study on the dating of the Latin Morienus, in the following note, for further information on the three Mercuries.

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