POSSIBLY AUTHORIAL, PROBABLY UNIQUE
‘Wer rechten Alchomey’, an exceptionally rare alchemical text in Low German with twenty- eight illustrations of early scientific equipment, together with two related works including a version of the Buch ysaac semys sun von Babilon, manuscript on paper[northern Germany, fifteenth century (probably mid century)]
Sm 4to. 157x114mm, 48 leaves, complete, collation: i-iv12, contemporary foliation at head with ‘1-47’ in Arabic numerals followed by ‘xlviii’ on last leaf, single column of 18-20 lines of a Germanic hybrida bookhand, red rubrics and simple initials, twenty-three pages with diagrams of early scientific equipment and a crowned coat-of-arms set within flames, watermark circular in part and too indistinct to help with localisation or date, a few minor spots and mostly marginal small stains, in good condition on heavy paper, in old vellum, recased
‘Wer rechten Alchomey’, an exceptionally rare alchemical text in Low German with twenty-eight illustrations of early scientific equipment, together with two related works including a version of the Buch ysaac semys sun von Babilon, manuscript on paper.
- Written and decorated, perhaps by the author (see below), for use in practical alchemical experiments, in northern Germany (note use of ‘vl’ spellings for the more common High German ‘fl’) in the middle of the fifteenth century. To this the original hand, and other later hands over the next century or so, added notes of chants and other alchemical snippets to the first leaf and blank verso of last and to the border of fol. 47r, including the phrase “Parturiunt Montes, nascetur Ridiculus mus” (a line from a fable of the first-century Latin author Phaedrus, alluding to a farcical story in which a mountain appeared to go into labour with loud groans, and a mouse emerged from its foot as an apparent miracle birth).
- Almost certainly owned by Emanuel Mai (1812-97), bookseller of Berlin: see his catalogue for 1854, vol. I, no. 276 (there recorded with “48 Blatter mit roth und schwartz gemalten Figuren” with a record of the same second text as here, correctly giving that text’s Low German spellings (note that in a slight garbling of detail, Mai lists the second text as beginning on “pag. 47” but it is in fact on fol. 46v – opposite the leaf numbered ‘47’).
- Recently re-emerging in a private collection in in the US.
Text and the alchemical illustrations of the codex:
When we think of alchemical manuscripts, especially those with any illustrations, the rarity of early examples means that the vast majority of those that come to mind are of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Yet fifteenth-century Germany was a hotbed of medieval alchemy, and produced many new texts and specialists involved in early chemical experimentation. Alchemy was a fundamentally practical subject, never a formal part of the university syllabus, and was most probably learnt as a form of craft apprenticeship, and so while its practitioners often used texts in Latin, their studies existed first and foremost in vernacular languages with masters and students conversing in those over their experiments as they worked. Thus a great part of the value of the present manuscript is in its representing the cutting edge of those studies, as an apparently authentic voice of the dawn of practical alchemy. Moreover, it stands extremely early in the German tradition of such works – no alchemical work in German was catalogued by Herwig Buntz before the Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit, written between 1415 and 1419 (see his unpublished thesis: Deutsche alchimistiche Traktate des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts, submitted to the University of Munich in 1968, and the same author’s article on that work in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 101, 1972, pp. 150-160).
The present codex comprises: (i) the text of Wer rechten Alchomey (fols. 1r-35v), with the first original leaf here once with only the title of this work, followed by the main text beginning on the next leaf – and the remaining space on the first original leaf filled up by the main hand with later alchemical notes referring to the source as a work of a ‘beloved Christopher’ (“Lieber christoff”); (ii) a text digesting the work of Isaac Judeus/Isaac ibn Sulaiman al-Israili (an occultist and doctor, who served as court physician to the last Aghlabite prince, Ziyadat Allah, and the Fatimite caliph, ‘Ubaid Allah al-Mahdi, and who died in 932/42 in Egypt: here fols. 36v-46r), this text opening “Das ist die puch das ysaac semis sun von Babilon …”; and (iii) a short and unidentified alchemical work, opening “Lieber vett’ ich pitt dich mit vleys du wild daz puech nymant …” (fol. 46v-48r).
All parts of this book are of exceptional rarity, and two of the three texts may well be unique. The first text here can be traced by us in only two other witnesses: (1) an unillustrated fifteenth- or sixteenth-century manuscript, now Vienna, Österreichen Nationalbibliothek MS. 3025. (Med. 222), and with a differing ending to that here, and thus perhaps with its text in a truncated form to this witness (see Tabulae codicum manu scriptorum praeter Graecos et orientales in Bibliotheca Palatina Vindobonensi, I, 1864, p. 181, no. 3025); and (2) another unillustrated copy of the text offered by Emanuel Mai as no. 275 in the same 1854 catalogue as the present manuscript – perhaps sharing an origin and provenance with the present manuscript, but evidently unseen in the last one hundred and seventy years. The tiny number of copies and their apparently restricted distribution suggests that none of these stands at any great remove from the anonymous author of the text, and the probable longer version of the text here and the inclusion of an integrated cycle of illustrations, make the present copy the most complete. It may well be the author’s own copy, from which the other two were made. No other copy of this text appears to have ever been offered for sale before, and a future comparison of this witness with that in Vienna and the short readings preserved by Mai for the lost manuscript promises substantial scholarly rewards for anyone interested in this text or the German alchemical mileau that produced it.
The second text here is a close variant of a work recorded in a single sixteenth-century manuscript (Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek, MS. Clm 25114), and in this form may well be unique. Likewise, the third text cannot be traced elsewhere by us and may well be unique. This would accord well with the suggestion that this is the author’s own copy, containing the best version of his Wer rechten Alchomey and perhaps the only surviving copies of the last two texts.
The texts here principally concern the transmutation of certain metals, elements and chemical compounds (most commonly here gold and silver, with copper and sulphur also frequently mentioned, as well as “salarmoniac” [Salammoniac, or ammonium chloride crystals], borax, ‘white arsenic’ and mercury, among others). In addition to this, the Wer rechten Alchomey contains an array of drawings of practical equipment for handling and changing the form of these elements, including kilns, heating pans, distillation equipment and vessels.
Alchemical texts of this great age are of exceptional rarity on the market, and those with any form of diagrams or illustrations far more so, the last to come to the market the heavily fire-damaged Galletti Alchemical compendium, with twenty-two such diagrams accompanying the Summa perfectionis magisterii attributed to Geber, written in Germany or the Netherlands c. 1489, and sold immediately after Bloomsbury Auctions’ sale of 7 December 2020 (where it was lot 44).