Alchemical Manuscript: The ‘Alchimiae Tractatus’, 14th century

Wednesday 19 September 2018

In this week’s blog, postgraduate student Thomas Murrie shares with us some of the findings from his dissertation, the focus of which was on one of the Library’s manuscripts – the ‘Alchimiae Tractatus’ (ms38176).

Page from the ‘Alchimiae Tractatus’ (ms38176)

The Alchimiae Tractatus (ms38176) is a bound manuscript containing a collection of notes on alchemy, written on seventy-eight vellum leaves in a variety of hands, which consistently display English secretarial features. The scribes are anonymous and there are very few indicators as to where it could have been made, except for two mentions of “ric[ardus] de salopia” (Richard of Shrewsbury – not the Prince in the Tower, it is worth saying) and one mention of “sawtry ph[ilosophu]s” (the Sawtry Philosopher). These names are invoked as alchemical authorities, despite the fact that they do not seem to appear in any other surviving texts (alchemical or not), meaning that at the very least they were not famous individuals and possibly suggesting that instead they were associated with the production of this manuscript. Consequently, both names being linked to towns in the south of England, this gives us our best evidence to locate the production of this manuscript somewhere in this region, while the early English secretarial features of the hand places it in the late-fourteenth century.

Leaf from the front of the manuscript with the signature “J.Co. 6 March 1651” and list of chapters (ms38176)

The manuscript got its name from one of its seventeenth century owners; a leaf inserted into the front lists twelve separate chapters in the manuscript, with the title Alchimiae Tractatus at the top and the signature “J.Co. 6 March 1651” at the bottom. To offer a possible identity for this owner, it is best to trace the manuscript’s provenance back from where it is now, in the University of St Andrews Library’s Special Collections. It was donated to the University by Professor John Read, who bought it at auction in March 1936. A snippet from the auction catalogue relating to this item has been stuck into the back of the manuscript, in which it explains that this was part of a collection of manuscripts that had belonged to Cox Macro (c.1683-1767). Macro was named Cox after his mother’s maiden name, Susan Cox (1660-1743); she was the daughter of Reverend John Cox, rector of Risby. John Cox is an appropriate age and his relation to Macro as his maternal grandfather makes him a candidate for the “J.Co.” who wrote the page of contents. Macro died in 1767 and the auction catalogue leaves a period of fifty-seven years after this unaccounted for before telling us that the collection was bought by John Patterson, MP for Norwich, in 1819. He soon sold it to a bookseller, who quickly auctioned it in 1820, when it passed to Hudson Gurney (1775-1864). It is not said who owned the collection after Gurney died, although it does say that it was catalogued by the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1891. Finally, the collection was sold again at auction in 1936, which is where this item was bought by St Andrews University’s own John Read.

A snippet from the sale catalogue which has been inserted into the back of the manuscript (ms38176)

The mysterious J.Co. clearly examined the whole manuscript and endeavoured to separate the texts into chapters and give them titles. However, in reality the manuscript is more of a notebook and much more jumbled and awkwardly constructed than the contents page, with its list of twelve neat chapters, makes it seem. This is best illustrated by ff.23r-25v, which are listed as “notae quaedam alberti” (notes of Albertus Magnus). The first of these folios is in fact the only one which purports to have been taken from any work of Albertus; the folios which follow are filled with anonymous notes explaining how to make the vessels for each stage of the alchemical process. On closer inspection, we also see that f.25 does not belong to this section at all, since at the bottom of f.24v is a symbol followed by the phrase “req[ui]r[ere] i[n] xi folio seq[uen]te” and, at the top of f.34v, the same symbol appears, followed by a continued discussion of vessels, complete with the characteristic diagrams. The text on f.25r has nothing to do with the text on the previous folios and, given that it starts in the middle of a sentence, there seems to be at least one folio missing. It seems that f.24v ends one quire and that a half-sheet attached to the front of the next quire has been lost sometime during the manuscript’s history, leaving f.25r as the first folio of the next quire. This is more convincing because f.25 itself is a half-sheet attached to the front of the quire, so it is easy to imagine that there were originally two half-sheets in that position. This means that, when the scribe wrote the instruction to look “XI folio” on, there actually were eleven folios between the two sections. This also means that the manuscript was probably bound before the texts were written out.

Symbol at the bottom left of f.24v and at the top of f.34v (ms38176)
Example of space left for elaborated initials (ms37176)

This type of medieval manuscript was a witness to the activity it discusses; there are stains on some of the folios which lead Read to imagine that the manuscript had spent some time in the presence of bubbling alchemical experiments. Similar to how a book of hours gives us a look at the sort of object individuals would surround themselves with during the intimate time of prayer, the Alchimiae Tractatus gives us an insight to the method of practicing alchemists. The manuscript is almost devoid of decoration. The scribes left spaces throughout the texts for elaborated initials, which were never added. Instead the manuscript displays a prevailing concern with practicality. The diagrams of the vessels are instructive rather than decorative; next to the diagrams of each different vessel, there is often a symbol, which appears in the text next to the discussion of that particular vessel. This would allow the alchemist to visualize quickly the vessel being discussed while reading through the text and would help them ensure that their own vessels were the appropriate shape. The scribes copied out choice extracts from renowned alchemical works, such as the Semita Recta of Albertus Magnus, which best illustrated the practical elements of alchemy. These they supplemented with their own notes. This manuscript was probably a notebook for a number of budding alchemists; they mixed the works of alchemical authorities with their own notes and the product is messy, disorganized, and not particularly pretty. However, this manuscript’s value was placed in its utility and the Alchimiae Tractatus carries the hallmarks of a manuscript that was worked and reworked in the light of personal experience.

Thomas Murrie
MLitt Candidate 2017-18

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2 thoughts on "Alchemical Manuscript: The ‘Alchimiae Tractatus’, 14th century"

  • guthrie
    Friday 16 November 2018, 10.20pm

    This is a nice round of an interesting manuscript. You might be interested to know that Sawtrey crops up several times as a surname/ placename of alchemists in England, so I immediately wonder if there is a connection there. If you could say more about the text I would be very grateful.

    • St Andrews Special Collections
      St Andrews Special Collections
      Monday 19 November 2018, 9.22am

      We are glad you enjoyed the blog post and thanks for the information about the surname Sawtrey. If you would like to know more about the manuscript please get in touch with us at [email protected]


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