A note on dating the Latin Morienus

Some problems

Doubts were raised about this book by the historian of alchemy, Julius Ruska.  Why should the prologue describe a short book like The Book of the Composition of Alchemy (otherwise known as the The Testament of Morienus or the Latin Morienus) as “such a great work”?[1]  The answer, presumably, is that the great work is that of alchemy: the writer believed that he was transferring, to the West, not just a practical technique, but a new concept of wisdom.

A second problem for J. Ruska was that the prologue promised to explain what alchemy was, to a readership that had never encountered it before, and yet the ensuing treatise took a previous knowledge of alchemy for granted.[2]  This has usually been the case in alchemical literature: the written word can only take the student so far; the key is never given; it has to be sought from an initiate.

Julius Ruska was also suspicious, because the author was clearly more familiar with the literature than would be possible, if this was the first book on the subject.[3]  The answer, of course, is that the original author was familiar with the Arabic literature on the subject, and that the Latin writer was making a translation, or perhaps a paraphrase, of the stories of Khālid and Marianos the Monk, then current in Arabic.[4]

The text is certainly full of difficulties; but its editor, Lee Stavenhagen, has worked out that there are two principal versions.  The earliest manuscripts have the shortened version, which just concentrates on the dialogue between Morienus and Khālid, but lacks a proper beginning.  Later manuscripts and printed books have the complete story, but in an improved, somewhat re-cast version.[5]  There is only an incomplete text of the primitive version, which L.Stavenhagen has published.

Robert of Ketton

Since there are no manuscripts that are older than the 13th century, how can this book be called a work of the 12th century?  At the end of the earliest manuscript, Oxford MS Digby 162, the date of composition is given: era MCLXXX secundo.[6]  Thus it would seem that the translation was made in 1182 of the Spanish era, which is 1144 C.E.  There is a sub-heading on the manuscript, at the start of the Morienus-Khālid dialogue, saying that the translator of that part was Robert of Chester (Robertus Cestrensis).[7]

This 12th-century Englishman is more properly called Robert of Ketton (in Rutland): he was referred to as Ketenensis in contemporary accounts; but this later became transformed into Cestrensis (a typical case, as the historian, Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny, has pointed out, of the substitution of the more familiar name for the less familiar).[8]  Robert was adept at using different calendars, and he certainly dated his 1145 translation of the Algebra of al-Khwarizmi according to the Spanish calendar: 1183.[9]  Not a great deal is known of his career: in 1136 C.E., he was studying with Plato Tibertinus in Barcelona,[10] and from 1141-43, he had to work on a commissioned translation of the Qur’ān.[11]

Lee Stavenhagen does not trust any of the prefaces or attributions, as they were the work of later copyists, and he doubts the attribution, even of part of it, to Robert, because the style of this translation is so different from that of his translation of the Qur’ān,[12] – although Robert was not the only person engaged in that undertaking.  (However, if Robert did not produce a part of The Book of the Composition of Alchemy, it is unclear to me why any later writer should have thought of fathering an alchemical work upon him).  Other means will be needed to date this book, whoever produced it.

Dating The Book of the Six Principles of Nature

The Book of Hermes Mercurius Triplex on the Six Principles of Nature (Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI Rerum Principiis)[13] can be of assistance here, because it shares the same prologue as the Latin Morienus.  This anonymous Hermetic book must, however, first be dated itself.  It appears in another Oxford manuscript from the Digby collection, MS Digby 67, which comes from the late 12th century and is already a copy.[14]  The original must, therefore, have been in existence in the 12th century.

The Book of the Six Principles of Nature must have been written after 1135, because it makes use of Johannes Hispalensis’ translation of Alcabitius and Guillaume de Conches’ Philosophia Mundi.[15]  The historian, Mark Delp, in his study of the Book of the Six Principles, has considered in detail the question of its relationship to the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris.  He is in no doubt that the Hermetic work copies Bernardus.[16]  To give one example, a long passage from Cosmographia 1:2:13 has been copied verbatim, but with the addition of mundi machina and tempus in temporalibus.  These are two of the Hermetic author’s six principles of nature and would make no sense in any other book.  When Mark Delp tried to see whether Bernardus could have had any reason for copying that passage (omitting those two concepts) and all the other passages which are duplicated, he failed to find any reason.[17]  He therefore concluded that the Book of the Six Principles was composed after 1147 (when Bernardus read his Cosmographia to Pope Eugenius III).[18]

As there are no borrowings from any later Latin writers and no mention of any Arabic concepts that were put into Latin after the mid-century, Mark Delp suggests that this book was probably composed not long after 1147.[19]  This would fit in with the evidence from a book called The Seven Sevens (De Septem Septenis), which has been incorrectly ascribed to John of Salisbury.[20]  A view of nature, said to have been propounded by Hermes/Mercury, is quoted by The Seven Sevens.  The quotation comes from The Book of the Six Principles.  Now The Seven Sevens is known to be a work of the later 12th century, and is found in a manuscript of that period.[21]  There is therefore plenty of evidence for the 12th-century provenance of The Book of the Six Principles of Nature.

The prologue on the three Mercuries

The Book of the Composition of Alchemy and the Book of the Six Principles of Nature have almost identical prologues, which attempt to distinguish three figures, all called Hermes or Mercury.  It will be important to determine which author copied the other.

First, however, an explanation is needed for these three figures.  The Greek god, Hermes, had taken on many of the attributes of the Egyptian god, Thoth, and had ended up with at least three jobs.  He guided the souls into the afterlife, he taught the magical arts and sciences, and he was a lawgiver.  He was known as Trismegistus (thrice great) because he was priest, philosopher and king.[22]

In the Islamic Hermetic tradition, the three aspects sometimes became three separate figures, all called Hermes.  According to the 9th-century Kitāb al-ulūf of Abū Ma‘shar and the 11th-century Tabaqāt al-umam of Sā‘id of Toledo: the first Hermes lived before the Flood, built the pyramids, understood the supernatural and was the same person as the Biblical Enoch[23] and the Qur’ānic Idrīs;[24] the second Hermes lived after the Flood, in Babylon, excelled in philosophy, mathematics and medicine, and taught Pythagoras; the third, Hermes Trismegistus, was a king in Egypt, who was skilled in all the sciences and inaugurated the practice of alchemy.[25]

A Latin version of this Arabic account of the three Hermes is found in a prologue, which is attached to the longer version of The Book of the Composition of Alchemy.  Here the three are named as Enoch, Noah and Hermes Triplex, King of Egypt.  The latter is Triplex, because he was prophet, philosopher and king, and he taught the world all the arts and sciences.[26]

This prologue is also found, but with an interpolation praising Hermes for his astronomical work, attached to the front of The Book of the Six Principles of Nature, where it is called The Prologue of the Three Mercuries.[27]  In both books, the prologue is clearly a separate piece of information.  It makes some sense attached to a book on alchemy which goes on to deal with the transference of Hermetic science from Hermes to Morienus.  In The Book of the Six Principles of Nature, however, there is no relationship between the treatise and the prologue, except for the short interpolation, which introduces works that will be quoted in the main part of the book.[28]  (There is a later Hermetic work which also re-uses the same prologue: it does not include the interpolation about astronomy.[29])  The main reason for attaching the prologue to the Book of the Six Principles was probably to bolster the assertion that this book was genuinely Hermetic.  Mark Delp, in his thorough study of everything relating to the Book of the Six Principles concludes that the original prologue was attached to the Latin Morienus, making that the older book.[30]

The final proof

Maybe the author of the Six Principles hoped to link his book with what he considered to be a ground-breaking work on alchemy.  Perhaps the Latin Morienus was the work of a colleague.  Whatever might be the reason, he was certainly keen to make a connection with the latter because, although his book had nothing to do with alchemy, his prologue claimed:

“Among his studies, Hermes Triplex, or Trismegistus, first brought alchemy to light.  Morienus, certainly one of the greatest philosophers, wrote his work down and undertook to reveal the secret nature of alchemy and, with much labour and careful writing, he at last achieved it.”[31]

Here is the proof that the prologue attached to the Latin Morienus (The Book of the Composition of Alchemy) came before the prologue attached to The Book of the Six Principles of Nature.  More importantly, here is the proof that the Latin Morienus was definitely known, in the twelfth century.

What was in the earliest editions of the Latin Morienus is not known, but it is likely to have been similar to the longer version in content, but less polished in style.  In other words, it was probably what is now known as the short version, but it may well have had a narrative introduction attached.

The Book of the Composition of Alchemy would, indeed, have made an ideal introduction to the subject for the Latin world, with its imposing figures, its simplified introductory history of the science, its narrative treatment, and its simple question-and-answer method for the basic exposition of the subject.  It was, as it were, a ‘First Latin Course in Alchemy’, purporting to be the initiation of the hitherto completely ignorant Khālid, by a master who was, very conveniently, seen to be a Roman Christian, Morienus Romanus.[32]



[1] “hoc tantum et tam magnum opus”: Book of the Composition of Alchemy, long version (S.49b) p.509. For Ruska’s objection, see J.Ruska: Arabische Alchemisten,1… (B.108) p.35.
[2] J.Ruska: op.cit. p.36.
[3] ibid. p.47.
[4] ibid. p.38; H.E.Stapleton and R..F.Azo: An alchemical compilation… (B.103) pp.61-62;  P.Kraus: Jābir… (B.104) vol.1, p.107;  L.Stavenhagen: Testament… (B.108) pp.60-64.
[5] L.Stavenhagen: The Original Text… (B.108) pp.4-8, and Testament… (B.108) pp.53-57.
[6] Oxford MS Digby 162, fol.28v.
[7] ibid. fol.23r.
[8] M.-T. d’Alverny: Deux traductions… (B.68) p.71 and p.71 note 2.
[9] C.Haskins: Studies… (B.111) p.122; and for Robert’s delight in different calendars, see the dates given at the end of the Qur’ān translation: M.T.d’Alverny: Deux traductions… (B.68) p.87.
[10] J.Kritzeck (B.68) p.62.
[11] L.C.Karpinski (B.106) pp.26-28; J.Kritzeck (B.68) pp.63 ff; M.T.d’Alverny: Deux traductions… (B.68) pp.71-85.
[12] L.Stavenhagen: The Original Text… (B.108) p.10.
[13] (S.52).
[14] W.D.Macray: Catalogus… (B.111) col.74;  T.Silverstein: Liber Hermetis … (B.64) p.235.
[15] T.Silverstein: Liber Hermetis… (B.64) p.235.
[16] M.Delp in P.Lucentini & M.Delp (B.64) pp.11-15.
[17] M.Delp in P.Lucentini & M.Delp (B.64) p.12.
[18] ibid. p.12.
[19] Ibid. pp.15-16.
[20] (S.62): It is published in P.L.199 among the works of John of Salisbury.
[21] T.Silverstein: Liber Hermetis Mercurii… (B.64) p.238; London MS Harleian 3969.
[22] S.J.Linden (B.101) pp.5,10 and 27.
[23] Enoch “walked with God.” (Gen.5:24)
[24] Idrīs “was a true man, a Prophet. We raised him up to a high place.” (Qur’ān 19:58)
[25] E.Blochet: Etudes… (B.103) pp.730-748; M.Plessner: Hermes… (B.103) pp.50-52; M.Asín Palacios: Ibn Masarra… (B.91) p.13 n.1.
[26] Liber de Compositione Alchymiae, longer version (S.49b) p.509, beginning: “Praefatio Castrensis: Legimus in historiis veterum divinorum tres fuisse philosophos…”  English translation in E.J.Holmyard: Romance… (B.108) p.77.
[27] Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI Rerum Principiis (S.52) ed. Silverstein, p.247; ed. Lucentini p.147, beginning: “Incipit Prologus de Tribus Mercuriis: Legimus in veteribus divinorum hystoriis tres fuisse philosophos…”
[28] Mark Delp in P.Lucentini & M.Delp (B.64) pp.8-9.
[29] Ibid. pp.5-7.
[30] Ibid. pp.5-10.
[31] Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI Rerum Principiis (S.52) ed. Silverstein, p.247; ed. Lucentini, p.147: “Hic etiam Triplex sive Trimegistus inter ludos suos prius alchimiam edidit. Morienus vero summus philosophus scriptis eius operam dedit, et secretam alchimiae naturam longo labore rimari cepit, de qua subtiliter scribens illam tandem composuit.”  That is the end of the prologue; the book starts and nothing more is said in it about alchemy.
[32] In fact he would have been a Greek-speaking alchemist, Marianos, from the Eastern Roman (i.e. Byzantine) Empire or Rūm in Arabic.  Marianos would therefore have been called al-Rūmī in the original Arabic texts.  This was translated as ‘the Roman’.

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