The Moorish schools of Spain were famous, not only for their researches
in natural history, but also for the interest they took in chemistry,
then called alchemy: a name which sufficiently indicates the nation
which chiefly pursued these studies, and the language that recorded
their progress. The practical turn taken by alchemy, as the foundation
of a scientific _materia medica_ in minerals, is shown by the writings
of Rases. This author, who belonged to the ninth and tenth centuries
(860-940), produced a considerable work on medicine in which he devoted
special attention to the diseases of children. Under his name appeared
several alchemical writings, either his own or the productions of the
school which followed his teaching and borrowed his name.

Michael Scot, as we know, had become familiar with the works of Rases
while still in Sicily, and thought so highly of the _De Medicina_ as to
borrow thence for his treatise on physiognomy no fewer than thirty-one
chapters relating to that subject.[106] It is a natural conjecture then
which leads us to find in his acquaintance with this author’s writings
the starting-point of Scot’s interest both in medicine and in alchemy.
Leaving for the present what may hereafter be said of his name and fame
as a physician, let us examine the origin and nature of his work as a
student of the Arabian chemistry. We have reached what would seem to be
the proper moment for such an inquiry. The treatises of Michael Scot on
this subject are not dated indeed, but their form shows them to belong
to the epoch of his work as a translator. They were therefore probably
produced during the period of his residence at Toledo, and as there
is a long interval, otherwise unaccounted for, between 1210, when the
_Abbreviatio Avicenna_ appeared, and the date of his next publication
some seven years later, this blank cannot be better filled than by
supposing that it was during these years he found time for the study of
alchemy, and for the translation or composition of the writings in that
branch of science which still bear his name.

In this, as in almost all his other studies, Michael Scot sat at the
feet of Eastern masters. But the Arabians themselves had derived their
chemical science, at least in its first principles and primitive
processes, from still older peoples. If we are to understand the progress
of human thought in this science we must trace it from the beginning,
following again that beaten track of tradition by which not physiognomy
and alchemy alone, but almost all the secrets of early times, have
reached the modern world.

Primitive chemistry was closely connected with the still older art of
metallurgy, out of which it arose by a natural process of development.
Those who worked with ores soon discovered the secret of alloys, whereby
a considerable quantity of baser metal, such as copper, lead or tin,
could be added to gold or silver, so as greatly to increase the bulk
of the whole without injuring either its appearance or usefulness. The
problem of the crown set before Archimedes, and happily solved by that
philosopher in the bath, shows how dexterously alloys were used by the
Greeks, and what subtle means were necessary for their detection.

M. Berthelot has reminded us[107] that the transmission of receipts
for such processes from early times to our own has been naturally and
inevitably secured by the unbroken continuity of practice in the arts
which gave them birth, and that they thus passed safely from generation
to generation, and even spread from the tribes that originated them
to other and distant peoples. He cites in support of this observation
a papyrus of the third century, preserved at Leyden, which, he says,
contains what are substantially the same directions as those of the
chief mediæval authorities in such matters: the _Mappae Clavicula_ and
the _Compositiones ad Tingenda_.[108] These receipts are not unnaturally
entitled ‘How to make Gold,’ and it is curious to find in them the
veritable starting-point of the dreams which made so many a furnace
smoke, and so many a crucible glow during the course of centuries, in the
vain hope of effecting an actual transmutation of substance.

Thus it was that in the first ages, long before authentic record, in the
dimness of early Egyptian history, or of that still more ancient Pelasgic
civilisation from which the pyramid-builders learned so much, the germs
of this science may already be perceived. Only one source of genuine gold
seems then to have been known: the mines of Ophir. This circumstance,
by making the supplies of precious metal small and uncertain, mightily
encouraged the art which taught men to counterfeit its appearance in
a colourable way. How this was done may be judged of by the receipts
themselves. The _Mappae Clavicula_, for instance, has the following:
‘To make gold. Silver, one pound; copper, half-a-pound; gold, a pound;
melt, etc.’ Here indeed a considerable proportion of the precious metal
itself was required, but there are other receipts which dispense with
any such admixture. It is said, for example, that one hundred parts of
copper and seventeen of zinc joined in a state of fusion with divers
small proportions of magnesia, sal ammoniac, quicklime, and tartar, yield
an alloy which is fine in grain and malleable, which may be polished and
used in damascening just as if it were the pure gold that it has all
the appearance of being. Such then were the receipts which formed the
hereditary riches of the mighty clan of the _Smiths_. It is easy to see
how the famous ‘powder of projection,’ so much sought in later times,
was, in fact, but the transfiguration of one of these formulae.

When, during the early centuries of the Christian era, the traditions of
Greece found a new home in lower Egypt, and especially in Alexandria,
they were profoundly influenced by the still more ancient philosophy of
the East. We have already remarked this in the case of another science,
that of physiognomy, but the same influence may also be traced in the
modification it brought to the notions of primitive chemistry. The
Chaldæans and Persians had long believed that the heavens influenced the
earth, and were capable of producing strange effects in the lower spheres
of being.[109] Their wise men considered that an individual connection
could be established between the stars and the elements, the planets
and the metals. It was in contact with this new doctrine and under its
influence that there arose the hope, soon hardening into a settled
belief, that the rules of art might be sufficient to effect an actual
transmutation of the baser into the nobler metals, of copper into gold,
and of tin or lead into silver.

This opinion must have been immensely heightened, and its authority
reinforced, by the secrecy with which the receipts for alloying metals
were guarded. These were handed down orally from father to son; were not
committed to writing till a comparatively late period, and even then
remained for the most part the cherished treasures of temple guilds. On
the well-known principle of the proverb, ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico’
this secrecy tended to confirm the impression that, however much had been
communicated, more remained untold, to await discovery by the patient
and undaunted chemist. The Therapeutæ or Essenes were among the earliest
representatives of this new tendency, as appears from the testimony
of Josephus,[110] who describes them as not only devoted to ancient
writings, but eager to investigate the properties of minerals. The
chief object of their inquiries, the maintenance of health by medicines
thus derived from the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, is not only an
early instance of the connection between chemistry and pharmacy, but is
remarkable as the probable starting-point of the search for the elixir
of life: that other and nobler dream which so much of the enthusiastic
energy of the mediæval alchemists was spent to realise.

The point of connection between these speculations of Eastern philosophy
and the practice of the primitive chemistry may with probability be
sought in the fire which of necessity played so large a part in the
operations of the metal-worker. Fire bore a highly sacred character in
the philosophy and religion of the East. This element, it soon came
to be thought by those whom Eastern speculation influenced, might be
trusted not only to melt, to calcine and to sublime in the vulgar way,
but to form the long-sought link of sympathy between the stars of heaven,
themselves compact of fire, and the elements of earth, as these were
subjected to its piercing and transforming power. In its due employment
the suspected connection between the higher and lower worlds would become
an accomplished fact. Thus, under the power of the planets, in some
favourable hour and fortunate conjunction, the mighty work would be done:
the philosopher’s stone discovered, the metals transmuted, and the elixir
of life produced.

It is highly curious to find this idea presented in a novel and perhaps
an exaggerated form by a writer of the sixteenth century. This was
Fra Evangelista Quattrami of Gubbio, _semplicista_, or master of the
still-room, to the Cardinal d’Este. He wrote a book entitled, _The
true declaration of all the metaphors, similitudes, and riddles of the
ancient Alchemical Philosophers, as well among the Chaldeans and Arabians
as the Greeks and Latins_.[111] According to this work, the potable
gold; the elixir of life; the quintessence, and the philosopher’s stone
were nothing but fantastic names for the fire itself which was used
in distillation and other chemical operations. In this the Frate may
possibly have touched the true sense of Al Kindi at least, who, in his
commentary on the _Meteora_,[112] speaks of fire as if it were the all in
all of the alchemist.

While the primitive chemical practice followed the progress of the
arts which it served, the new theory of alchemy, with the ever-growing
tradition of fantastic experiments arising out of it, found different and
less direct channels in its descent from ancient to modern times. It has
been customary to speak of the Arabs as if that nation had been the chief
means of transmitting the knowledge of Greek doctrine to our mediæval
scholars, but we now know that there was a previous link in the chain
of intellectual succession. This was supplied by the care and industry
of the Syrian subjects of the early Caliphs, nor did their learned men
play a less important part in the history of chemistry than in that of
the other sciences. Sergius of Resaina, a scholar of the fifth century,
was, it is said, the first Syrian who attempted to translate the Greek
chemists, several of whom mention him by name. The chief development
of this work belongs, however, to the ninth and tenth centuries, and
its glory must ever remain with the great school of Bagdad. Chemical
treatises composed by Democritus and Zosimus[113] were there and then
rendered into Syriac, as may be seen by the manuscripts still preserved
in the British Museum and at Cambridge.

It was not long before the Arabs themselves began to feel powerfully the
intellectual impulse thus communicated to them in the heart of a country
which they had made their own. Khaled ben Yezid ibn Moauia, who died in
the year 708, is said by their historians to have been the first of that
nation who devoted his attention to chemistry. In his case the filiation
of doctrine would seem very plain, as he was the pupil of a Syrian monk
named Mariannos. Djabar, the _Geber_ of Western writers, followed in
the same line of study, and from the ninth century there was a regular
school of Arabian chemists whose labours may be studied in the manuscript
collections of Paris and Leyden.

In the eleventh century appeared a curious phenomenon, in the shape of
a dispute among the Arabians of that day regarding the truth of the
tradition which pronounced the transmutation of metals possible. The
unwearied but still unavailing experiments which had now been carried on
through several ages, produced at last their inevitable effect in the
shape of philosophic doubt, eagerly urged on the one part and as eagerly
repelled on the other. The chemical school was now divided according to
these opposite opinions, and each party in their writings sought to give
weight to what they taught by borrowing in support of their arguments the
names of the mighty dead. In this conflict it was left to the followers
of Rases to sustain the affirmative and to assert the possibility of
transmutation. These were the apologists for the past, and the advocates,
in the name of their great master, of that hope which had inspired
previous research and borne fruit in so many important discoveries.

The defence of the new doubt belonged on the other hand to the school
of Al Kindi. This chemist lived and died during the ninth century. He
was probably the earliest Arabian commentator on Aristotle, and seems to
have paid special attention to the _Meteora_ of that author. The treatise
_De Mineralibus_, so often appended to the _Meteora_ as a supplement,
is ascribed to Al Kindi in the Paris manuscript.[114] It represents the
alchemy of the time.

Between these two contending parties stood the school of Avicenna, which
now occupied an intermediate position and doubted of the doubt. That this
had not always been the opinion of Avicenna himself is plain, however,
from a passage which occurs in his _Sermo de generatione lapidum_, where
the author unhesitatingly pronounces against the theory of transmutation.
‘Those of the chemical craft,’ he says, ‘know well that no change can be
effected in the different species of things, though they can produce the
appearance of them: tinging that which is ruddy with yellow till it looks
like gold, and that which is white with colour at their pleasure till
the same effect is in great measure produced. Nay, they can also remove
the impurity from lead, so that it looks like silver, though it be lead
still, and can endue it with such strange qualities as to deceive men’s
senses, and this by the use of salt and sal ammoniac.’[115] Avicenna was
evidently well acquainted with the secrets of art and held them at their
proper value. Had his followers in the eleventh century done the same
they would have supported the school of Al Kindi instead of taking a less
definite position.

This view of the later Arabian schools and their differences is forced
upon us by the fact, that works are extant under the names of Rases, Al
Kindi, and Avicenna, which evidently belong to the eleventh century,
the period when they first appeared, and could not therefore have been
written by authors who lived at an earlier date. They are plainly the
production of later chemists who followed more or less intelligently the
doctrine of these great masters in alchemy. The artifice involved in this
ascription of authorship is one which has always been common in Eastern

We have a direct interest in observing that Spain was the country where
these developments of the later Arabian chemistry arose, contended and
flourished. Spain, therefore, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries,
became, by the attraction she offered to European scholars, the country
where these theories first reached the Latin races, and began to find
an entrance among them. M. Berthelot indeed, by a happy citation, has
enabled us to fix, almost with certainty, the very moment of this
important event. Robert Castrensis, the author alluded to, remarks: ‘Your
Latin world has not as yet learned the doctrine of Alchemy.’ These words
are taken from the preface to this author’s version of the _Liber de
Compositione Alchimiae_, and a colophon informs us that the translation
was completed on the 11th of February 1182. We may add that the same
year, corrected, however, in one copy to 1183, was the date of another
of these versions of the Arabian chemistry: that of the treatise called
_Interrogationes Regis Kalid, et responsiones Morieni_.[116] Here then we
stand on the threshold of a new age, and find ourselves in presence of
an intellectual movement which was certainly of the greatest importance,
since in it we may trace the origin of our modern chemistry. The
knowledge of what had already been gained by Greek and Arabian alchemists
was the first step to independent research among the Latins. The closing
years of the twelfth century saw that knowledge at last beginning to
unfold itself in a form intelligible to the Western schools.

As in Bagdad during the ninth century, the palmy period of Syrian
studies, so in Spain three hundred years later, the work was in its
commencement essentially one of interpretation, and the first age of
these labours was distinguished by the number of versions which were
then produced. From 1182, through the whole of the following century,
students laboured in the translation of Moorish books on chemistry. Only
towards the close of this period did a tendency become apparent which
led in the direction of improvement and innovation. The seed already
sown had begun to bear fruit. The material thus derived from Eastern
sources was now treated with a new freedom, enriched by the results of
original experiment, and edited in forms which betray the influence of
scholastic philosophy. The criticism, however, which would determine the
precise point when this change began to be operative, and the extent to
which it proceeded, attempts what is perhaps an impossible and certainly
a difficult task. For it is a remarkable fact that no Arabic texts
have been preserved to us which can be regarded as the originals from
which these earlier Latin versions were made. This want is probably due
to the widespread destruction which overtook the Moorish libraries of
Spain.[117] That such originals did at one time exist, however, is made
certain by the correspondence which the Latin translations show with
those which have come down to us in another language, the Hebrew. The
labours of these Latin translators during a hundred years may be found
in the manifold collections of chemical treatises, containing some
forty or fifty articles apiece, which were arranged and copied out at
the beginning of the fourteenth century. These volumes became, after the
invention of printing, the chief quarry whence were composed the _Ars
Aurifera_; the _Theatrum Chemicum_ of Zetzner, and the _Bibliotheca_ of

We are now in a position to understand, not only the nature and progress
of the work in which Michael Scot took part, but the exact development
which alchemy had reached in his day, and therefore the relation which
his chemical publications bore to the general direction of study in this
department of science. The time and care which our survey of the field
has demanded need not be thought ill spent. It has prepared the way for
a more intelligent appreciation of Scot’s labours as a chemist, and has
furnished us with the means of coming to a true judgment regarding their
authenticity and value.

To put the matter to the proof: we may begin by dismissing altogether
from consideration a treatise which has long been attributed to Scot, and
still appears in the most recent list of his works: the _Quaestio curiosa
de natura Solis et Lunae_. It has probably received more attention
than it deserves since it appeared under Scot’s name in the _Theatrum
Chemicum_.[118] The subject of this treatise is indeed an alchemical
one; for the _sun_ and _moon_ of which it speaks are not these heavenly
bodies themselves, but, by an allegorical use common in the Middle Ages,
and derived from the Eastern theories of sympathy already mentioned,
stand for the nobler metals of gold and silver. A brief examination,
however, shows that Scot could not have been the author. The very
style suggests this conclusion; for it is distinctly scholastic, and
proper therefore to a later age than that which aimed at the direct and
simple reproduction of Eastern texts. It is satisfactory to find that
this criticism, hardly convincing _per se_, is fully borne out by what
occurs in the substance of the work itself. The author quotes from the
_De Mineralibus_ of Albertus. Now Albertus Magnus, by common testimony,
produced this treatise after the year 1240, and we may anticipate what
is afterwards to be told of Michael Scot’s death so far as to say here
that he had then been long in his grave. The _De Natura Solis et Lunæ_
then must be ascribed to some other and later alchemist, who lived in
the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century.
A more careful examination of the treatise than has been necessary for
our purpose might succeed in fixing its date with greater precision, and
might possibly throw some light upon the person of its true author.

Another work ascribed to the pen of Michael Scot, and one which seems
likely to be authentic, is that contained in the Speciale Manuscript.
This volume is one of those collections of alchemical tracts made in the
fourteenth century to which we have already alluded. It belonged to the
library of the Speciale family in Palermo, and has been made the subject
of an interesting monograph by Carini.[119] No. 44 of this manuscript is
entitled _Liber Magistri Miccaelis Scotti in quo continetur Magisterium_.
The term _Magisterium_, or supreme secret of art, would seem to carry
with it a certain reference to Aristotle, ‘Il _Maestro_ di color che
sanno,’ as Dante calls him.[120] Curious as the appearance of such a name
in connection with alchemy may seem to us, it is certain that Aristotle
held a high place in the chemical traditions of the Middle Ages. The
_Meteora_ afforded a text which lent itself readily to large commentaries
by the Arabian chemists. The tract _De Mineralibus_, which we noticed
when speaking of Al Kindi, was one of these commentaries, and it is easy
to see how it became confused with the text which it illustrated so as
in time to be considered the work of Aristotle himself. This, we may
believe, was the ground on which so many alchemical works were afterwards
published under the same mighty name.[121] An interesting example appears
in the Speciale collection itself which contains the following title:
_Liber perfecti Magisterii Aristotelis qui incipit cum studii solertis
indigere_.[122] The treatise _Cum studii_ is also found in the Paris
manuscript,[123] where it is ascribed to Rases. To the school of Rases
then we are inclined to attribute the works on the _Magisterium_, and
among the rest therefore, this treatise in the Speciale Manuscript, which
bears the name of Michael Scot, seemingly because he translated it from
the Arabic. This conclusion is confirmed when we notice the character of
some of the chapter headings as given by Carini; for example: ‘Qualiter
_Venus_ mutatur in _Solem_’; and again, ‘Transformatio _Mercurii_ in
_Lunam_.’ These show beyond all doubt that the doctrine which Michael
Scot published by means of this version was that held by the school of

A curious question here offers itself for our consideration. In the
times of Robert Castrensis alchemy was as yet unknown to the Latins.
Michael Scot, as we shall presently see, described it in one of his works
as meeting with but a poor reception at its first introduction among
them.[124] How then did it come to pass that in a few years the theory
of Rases became so popular in the West, and continued for so many ages
to direct the progress of chemical study among the European nations with
enduring power? We find the explanation of this sudden change in the
fact that human thought has always been subject to the tyranny of ruling
ideas. In our own day the place of direction is filled by a doctrine
of development which is eagerly made use of in every department of
knowledge. In those earlier ages the same place seems to have been held
by a doctrine of _transformation_. This idea ruled the thoughts of men
like an obsession, in whatever direction they turned their minds. We see
it in their superstitions, suggesting the wild tales of were-wolves and
of other animal forms assumed at will by wizard and witch. We find it in
religion, infusing a new meaning into the hyperbolical language of still
earlier times, till, under this direction, there came to be fastened
upon the Church a full-formed doctrine of Transubstantiation.[125] It
is the operation of the same idea then that we are to remark also in
the scientific sphere. As soon as the first shock of their surprise was
over, the Latins greedily embraced a theory of chemical change which
related itself so naturally to the prevailing habit of their minds, and
which promised to show as operative in the mineral kingdom a law already
conceived to hold good in the world of organic life.

The Riccardian Library of Florence possesses another of those volumes
to which we have already referred: a collection of alchemical treatises
formed in the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth
century.[126] Among these appears one called the _Liber Luminis Luminum_.
It is said to have been translated by Michael Scot, and, as there is no
reason to doubt this ascription, we have now the means of determining
with some fulness and accuracy the lines on which the philosopher
proceeded in his chemical researches.

The book opens with a preface somewhat scholastic,[127] and one which,
on this ground as well as on others, is probably to be ascribed to Scot
himself. In this part of the work he informs us that he took as his
basis in the following compilation a text called the _Secreta Naturae_.
To it he added material derived from other sources, which seemed
necessary in order to complete the doctrine of chemistry contained in the
_Secreta_. In this way he endeavoured to present his readers with a full
and practical body of Alchemy according to the teaching of the school to
which he belonged.

In the study of a composite work, such as the _Liber Luminis_ is thus
declared to be, our first problem is naturally to determine and separate
the original text from the additions which have been made to it. Which
then are those parts of the _Liber Luminis_ that represent the _Secreta
Naturae_? Very fortunately the volume where the _Liber Luminis_ is found
contains another treatise that throws considerable light on the matter.
This is the _Liber Dedali Philosophi_. The correspondences between that
book and the _Liber Luminis_ are so many, close, and verbal, that it is
evident both have borrowed from the same source. This source can hardly
have been other than the _Secreta Naturae_, so that a comparison of these
two books such as is attempted in the Appendix[128] should go far to
determine what that hitherto unknown text was.

The question of the chemical doctrine contained in the _Secreta_ is an
interesting one, and we shall return to it, but meanwhile, let us observe
that the _Liber Luminis_ contains hints which seem to carry us further
still, and throw some light upon the source from which the _Secreta_ was
itself derived. One of the authors quoted is a certain ‘Archelaus.’ Now
there was a veritable chemist of this name who lived during the fifth
century. This author wrote a treatise on his art in Greek verse. In later
times his name seems to have become common property, as did so many
others distinguished in alchemy, and to have been freely used by some who
wrote long after his day. Thus the Riccardian manuscript itself contains
no less than three books ascribed to this author: the _Liber Archelai
Philosophi de arte alchimiae_,[129] called also in the margin _Practica
Galieni in Secretis secretorum_;[130] the _Summula_, ‘quam ego Archilaus
transtuli de libro secretorum’;[131] and finally the _Mappa Archilei
nobilis philosophi_.[132]

The fact that these titles mention the _Secreta_ is enough to show us
that in following up the alchemy of the Pseudo-Archelaus, we are on the
right track. As we proceed the traces become still more interesting and
significant. The _Summula_ offers the following curious passage: ‘Et
hoc feci amore Dei et cuidam compatri meo, qui pauper sint [_sic_] et
infortunatus, et postea fortunatus fortuna bona et amore Imperatoris
Emanuelis et Frederici.’[133]

The name Emanuel is found in other alchemical writings. The _De Perfecto
Magisterio_, for example, which has been reprinted by Zetzner, embodies
another work, the _Liber duodecim aquarum_ which is expressly said to be
taken from the ‘Liber Emanuelis.’ Pursuing the matter further still, we
come to the _Liber Aristotelis_ which commences, ‘Cum de sublimiori atque
precipuo.’ The author of this treatise, we find, claims not only the
_Liber duodecim aquarum_ (‘quae qualiter se habeant in libro quem XII.
aquarum vocabulo descripsimus, prudens lector intelligere poterit’), but
also, it would seem, the very one of which we are in search (‘in libro
secretorum a nobis dictum est’). Everything inclines us to the belief
that we here touch the source from which the main part of the _Liber
Luminis_ was drawn, and this conclusion is not a little strengthened when
we observe that the treatise ‘Cum de sublimiori’ is called the _Lumen
Luminum_ in the Riccardian copy.[134]

The _Secreta_, however, was not the only source from which the _Liber
Luminis_ and the _Liber Dedali_ were drawn, and the assertion of the
preface that the former was composed of extracts from many different
philosophers is fully borne out when we examine the substance of the
books themselves. A strain of Greek influence is to be traced, for
example, in the names of Archelaus, Dedalus, Plato, and Hermes, as well
as in the use of _ciatus_ as an equivalent for the word ‘cup,’ and this
reminds us strongly of the _Summula_ with its reference to the Emperor
Manuel. It is not impossible that Scot may have borrowed much from the
Byzantine chemists of the twelfth century. With this notion agrees
the passage of the _Liber Dedali_ where Saracens are spoken of as
foreigners. On the other hand, much had evidently been taken from Arabic
sources, as is plain from the names given to several of the vessels
used in alchemy, such as the _alembic_ and _aludel_. Indeed, Unay and
Melchia, who are quoted in the _Liber Luminis_, must have been Moors,
for the corresponding passage of the _Liber Dedali_ describes them as
from ‘Lamacha of the Saracens.’ Both these texts agree in showing such
familiarity with the process of refining sulphur that one is led to
suppose the _Secreta_, their common original, may have been composed in
Sicily. The _Liber Luminis_ says of one of the alums that it is ‘brought
from Spain:’ an expression agreeing well with the notion of a Sicilian
author, who would naturally speak of Spain as a foreign land.

Leaving, however, these questions of origin and derivation, let us
come to that of the chemical doctrine taught in the book which Michael
Scot compiled, or at least translated. The title of the _Liber Luminis
Luminum_ is a significant one, and has a real relation to the contents
of the work itself.[135] To discover the sense which it must be held to
bear we have only to turn to the passage in which, speaking of alum, the
author says: ‘sicut illuminat pannos, ita illuminat martem ut recipiat
formam lunae. Ut enim lana illuminatur ita et metalla illuminantur.’[136]
A distinction is clearly present in the writer’s mind between the
substance and the form of the metals. He probably held that there existed
but one common metallic substance, which assumed the appearance of
iron, gold, or silver, according to the form which it had received. His
employment of the title _Liber Luminis Luminum_ was meant to indicate
that the purpose of his book was that of teaching the student how metals
might best be purified and improved. Their inferiority, when of the baser
kind, he conceived as an impurity, manifesting itself in the imperfect
forms of lead, iron, tin, and copper. He believed that this being removed
or changed by art, they might be made to shine with the lustre and
indeed possess the only distinctive quality of gold and silver. That we
have rightly read the meaning of this title seems plain from a curious
spelling which may be noticed in the _Liber Dedali_. ‘Illuminantur’ there
appears as ‘aluminantur.’ The chemistry taught in these books did in fact
prescribe the use of alum as a great means of purifying and refining the

The preface of the _Liber Luminis_ closes with a brief summary of the
chapters which compose the work itself. The first of these deals with
the different salts used in this chemistry: common salt; rock salt;
alkali; sal ammoniac; nitre and others. The second treats in like manner
of the various kinds of alum, the third describes the vitriols, and
the fourth the powders or spirits, by which we are to understand those
minerals which are capable of being sublimed or made volatile, such as
sulphur, arsenic, and mercury. Two supplementary chapters, the one on
the preparation of the salts, alums, and vitriols, and the other on
that of the remaining class of chemicals, complete the whole book. This
supplement seems genuinely such, as it is not mentioned in the general
contents, as these appear in the preface. Perhaps we do not err if we
suppose it to have embodied the result of Scot’s own experiments in

It is indeed the practical nature of the alchemical doctrine taught in
the _Liber Luminis_ which strikes us most strongly when we read this
book. A large part of it is taken up with exact descriptions of the
minerals, according to their various forms and the countries from which
they were derived. The rest consists of receipts for their employment
in refining metals. Whatever we may think of the validity and use of
these processes, we cannot fail to notice that they are described in
a perfectly straightforward and simple style. Here are none of the
mysteries, the riddles and ridiculous allegories so common in chemical
works written at a later time. The truth of the matter may probably be
that, in following the doctrine here set forth, Michael Scot and the
alchemists of his time did obtain results which were then so surprising,
as to excuse a certain exaggeration in those who described them. Tests
that could touch and reveal the real nature of the metals under any
change of outward appearance were not then so well known as now. Copper
that had been made to shine like gold, or to assume the appearance of
silver, was practically gold or silver to those who had no means of
discovering that the real nature of the metal itself remained unchanged.
Thus then are to be understood the assertions of the _Liber Luminis_
regarding transmutation. They are plainly made in all good faith, and
depend on the doctrine already mentioned, which held that the differences
between the metals were an affair of the superficial form rather than of
the underlying substance. To change the appearance of one metal to that
of another, was therefore to effect a real transmutation: the only one
conceivable by the philosophers of that time. When the _Liber Luminis_
speaks of giving copper ‘a good colour,’ or preparing iron to ‘receive
the appearance (_formam_) of silver,’ these expressions reveal with frank
sincerity the conceptions of this alchemy and the results it endeavoured
to obtain.

One other alchemical work attributed to the pen of Michael Scot remains
to be noticed; the _De Alchimia_, contained in a manuscript of Corpus
Christi College, Oxford.[137] Tanner in his _Bibliotheca_ has noticed
this work in the following terms: ‘Chymica quaedam ex interpretatione
Michaelis Scoti dedicata Theophilo regi Scotorum. Corpus Christi MS.
125. In eodem codice MS. fol. est haec nota “Explicit tractatus magistri
Michaelis Scoti de aelchali,” huius vero tractatus, a priore diversi, hoc
tantum fol. extat.’ This account is erroneous in several particulars.
‘Scotorum’ should be ‘Saracenorum,’ and ‘de aelchali’ is a misreading of
‘de alkimia,’ as a glance at the manuscript informs us. Nor is it the
case that we have here to deal with two distinct works. The last leaf, to
which Tanner more particularly refers (fol. 119, old numeration), shows
a hand of the fourteenth century, and forms the only remainder of the
original. The rest of the manuscript (fol. 116-118) has been supplied by
a scribe of the fifteenth century, but the whole is perfectly continuous,
as appears plainly when we notice that the first words of the original
(fol. 119 _recto_), ‘et cum siccatus,’ have also been written by the
later scribe at the bottom of page 118 _verso_.

In spite of the highly suspicious dedication, ‘Theophilo Regi
Saracenorum,’ several reasons incline us to regard the _De Alchimia_ as,
in substance at least, a genuine work of Michael Scot. To begin with,
it clearly belongs to a very early period; for, in the opening words of
his preface, the author describes alchemy as a science, noble indeed,
but as yet neglected and contemned by the Latins (‘apud Latinos penitus
denegatam’). In the same sentence we find him referring to the _secreta
naturae_, just as Scot does in the _Liber Luminis_, and declaring his
purpose to furnish the world with a commentary on it in the work he now
attempts (‘secreta naturae intelligentibus revelare’). In the opening
paragraph of the book itself he seems to refer plainly to the _Liber
Luminis_ as a work written by him (‘notitia de salibus vel salium
prout in aliquo libro a me translato dixi’). Nor should we overlook
the distinctly ecclesiastical tone which is to be observed in the _De
Alchimia_. Part of the preface is conceived almost in the form of a
prayer, commencing thus: ‘Creator omnium rerum Deus qui cuncta ex nihilo
condidit,’ and in at least one passage, a well-known text of Scripture is
reproduced (‘et haec est res quae erigit de stercore pauperem et ipsum
regibus equiparat’). This style is a noticeable characteristic of all the
works of Michael Scot.

On the other hand, the _De Alchimia_ shows several doubtful features
which, on the supposition that it came from Scot’s pen, can only have
been due to some interference with the text at a subsequent time. Such is
the dedication to Theophilus, King of the Saracens, which we have already
noticed, and the latter part of the preface shows a turgid passage (‘hic
est puteus Salomonis et fimi acervus, et hic est fons in quo latet anguis
cuius venenum omnia corpora interficit,’ etc.) that strongly recalls the
fancies of the later alchemy.

The body of the work, however, is no doubt genuine, and offers matters
of considerable interest. The first of these is perhaps the distinction
drawn here between the greater and the lesser mystery (magisterium) of
alchemy. The former, it seems, was the transmutation of _Venus_ into the
_Sun_; that is, of copper into gold. The latter comprehended the fixation
of mercury and its transmutation into the _Moon_, or silver.

We soon notice too that the author addresses himself not, as one would
at first expect, to ‘Theophilus,’ but to a certain Brother Elias (‘tibi
Fratri Helya’)—another proof, if any were needed, that the dedication
to the apocryphal King of the Saracens was due to some other and later
hand. ‘Brother Elias,’ however, was far from being a merely imaginary
personage. He was an Italian, born (for accounts vary) either at Bivillo
near Assisi, Cellullae or Ursaria near Cortona, or in Piedmont. In 1211
he joined the Order of St. Francis, then just formed, thus becoming
one of its earliest members. His history as a Franciscan was rather
an eventful one. On the death of St. Francis in 1226 he succeeded the
Founder as General of the Order, but was deposed by the Pope in 1230 on
some suspicion that he favoured schism among his brethren. The Order
re-elected him in 1236, but he was finally removed from office by Gregory
three years later, and profited by the occasion to join himself openly to
the party of the Emperor. For this he suffered excommunication in 1244,
and was not restored to the privileges of the Church till 1253, when
he lay on his death-bed at Cortona. There is no doubt that he had the
reputation of possessing skill in alchemy, as a treatise is extant called
the _Liber Fratris Eliae de Alchimia_.[138] This renown would not tend
to his honour in religion. It seems indeed to invest with a cruel and
pointed meaning the words used by the Pope on the occasion of his first
deposition.[139] He is said to have been sent in early days on an embassy
to the Emperor of the East. Perhaps this may have been the occasion when
he first acquired a taste for those chemical studies which that nation
still pursued. Michael Scot addresses him in the _De Alchimia_ as a pupil
(‘Et ego, Magister Michael Scotus, sum operatus super solem, et docui te,
Fr. Elia, operari et tu mihi saepius retulisti te instabiliter multis
viabus operasse’), while at the same confessing that he was not above
learning some of the secrets of art from the well-known Franciscan.
This relation between two such distinguished men has not hitherto been
noticed, and is certainly a curious point in the history of the times.

The _De Alchimia_ presents several features which distinguish it from
the _Liber Luminis_. One of these is an early passage which refers to
the correspondence between the metals and the planets, and explains
that when the latter are named we must understand that the former are
intended. Near the end of the treatise a description of the _materia
chemica_ occurs, but it would seem as if this had been written to
supplement that given in the _Liber Luminis_, for it deals, not with
salts, alums, vitriols, or volatile substances, but with the different
varieties of what the author calls ‘gummae,’ which, however, are mineral
substances;[140] and with ‘tuchia’ in all its various kinds.

Many words and phrases, however, might be cited to show how the strain
of doctrine observable in the _Liber Luminis_ is continued with scarcely
any change in the _De Alchimia_. We have hardly read a line in the
first receipt before we meet with the expression ‘sanguinem hominis
rufi’ recalling the ‘sanguinem hominis rubei’ of the _Liber Luminis_.
The ‘pulvis bufonis’ indeed is here replaced by another ingredient
derived from the animal kingdom, the ‘sanguis bubonis’; but, reading a
little further, we find the familiar ‘urina taxi’ again recommended
as an almost universal solvent and detergent. Evidently both works
proceeded from one and the same alchemical school. The number of Arabian
chemists[141] cited in the _De Alchimia_ seems to show that if these
books came from a Greek source it was not that of ancient times, but some
Byzantine school that had borrowed much from Eastern alchemists.

To give a substantial idea of the _De Alchimia_ let us translate one of
the formulae which it contains: ‘Medibibaz the Saracen of Africa used to
change lead into gold [in the following manner]. Take lead and melt it
thrice with caustic (‘comburenti’), red arsenic, sublimate of vitriol,
sugar of alum, and with that red tuchia of India which is found on the
shore of the Red Sea, and let the whole be again and again quenched in
the juice of the _Portulaca marina_, the wild cucumber, a solution of
sal ammoniac, and the urine of a young badger. Let all these ingredients
then, when well mixed, be set on the fire, with the addition of some
common salt, and well boiled until they be reduced to one-third of
their original bulk, when you must proceed to distil them with care.
Then take the marchasite of gold, prepared talc, roots of coral, some
carcha-root, which is an herb very like the _Portulaca marina_; alum of
cumae something red and saltish, Roman alum and vitriol, and let the
latter be made red; sugar of alum, Cyprus earth, some of the red Barbary
earth, for that gives a good colour; Cumaean earth of the red sort,
African tuchia, which is a stone of variegated colours and being melted
with copper changeth it into gold; Cumaean salt which is …; pure red
arsenic, the blood of a ruddy man, red tartar, _gumma_ of Barbary, which
is red and worketh wonders in this art; salt of Sardinia which is like ….
Let all these be beaten together in a brazen mortar, then sifted finely
and made into a paste with the above water. Dry this paste, and again
rub it fine on the marble slab. Then take the lead you have prepared as
directed above, and melt it together with the powder, adding some red
alum and some more of the various salts. This alum is found about Aleppo
(‘Alapia’), and in Armenia, and will give your metal a good colour. When
you have so done you shall see the lead changed into the finest gold, as
good as what comes from Arabia. This have I, Michael Scot, often put to
the proof and ever found it to be true.’

If such a receipt is valuable as indicating the chemical practice of
those days, it is no less interesting as it throws light upon the
life and occupations of Scot. He must have set up a complete chemical
laboratory at Toledo, with crucibles for the melting of metals, and
alembics for the distillation of the substances which his art required
him to mix with them. His situation was one very favourable to these
pursuits, not only because Spain was one of those countries where the
doctrine of alchemy made its greatest progress, and attracted most
powerfully the concourse of foreign adepts, but also from the facility
with which the necessary _materia chemica_ could there be procured.
The _sierras_ of that country were full of mineral wealth of all
kinds, especially quicksilver, which was one of the substances most
frequently chosen to become the subject of the transmuter’s art. In
the _Alpujarras_, a mountainous district lying under the soft climate
of Granada, grew plenty of these rare herbs employed in alchemy, as
they were also in the medicine of the Arabians. Ibn Beithar of Malaga
describes them in his botanical thesaurus, and it is said that after the
Moors had lost that fair kingdom their herbalists, even as late as our
own times, made yearly journeys from Africa to gather in these hills
the plants which ancient science taught them to value highly. But the
days of the ‘ultimo sospiro del Moro’ were yet in the far future, and
meanwhile Michael Scot in his laboratory at Toledo could easily command
all these treasures for the purposes of experiment. Nor was it in vain
that he fanned his fires, and watched the metals melt and the menstruum
distil in the process of the lesser or greater mystery. If he never saw
_Venus_ blush into the true substance of _Sol_, or _Mercury_, the fickle
and obstinate, congeal into a veritable _Luna_, his chemical practice,
and the records in which he has embodied it, mark none the less true and
significant a moment in the history of scientific progress.

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