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Western Medieval Manuscripts : Compilation of alchemical works, including the 'Crowning of Nature'

Western Medieval Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>Among the manuscripts that came to Cambridge University Library in 1715 with King George I's great benefaction of the library of John Moore, bishop of Ely (1646-1714), is this alchemical manuscript, which includes a seventeenth-century copy of the illustrated alchemical work 'Crowning of Nature'.</p><p>Circulating anonymously and without a fixed title from the sixteenth century onwards, the 'Crowning of Nature' depicts in an allegorical manner the stages of the alchemical process of creating the philosophers' stone. Within a circle representing an alchemical vessel, figures symbolising alchemical substances (lions, toads, birds, angels, trees, moon and star, king and queen, among others) are shown to conjoin, separate, dissolve, evaporate, and transmute. These illustrations, generally 66 in number, bear titles indicating the name of the stage or process in the experiment, and are occasionally accompanied by an English or Latin text. More than forty copies of the 'Crowning of Nature' are known to be extant, but there are likely a number of further, hitherto unidentified witnesses (most of the identified copies are recorded on the <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Alchemy Website</a> compiled by Adam McLean).</p><p>What is rather remarkable is that the 'Crowning of Nature' uses the contemporary alchemical idiom and symbolism to translate into pictures what the alchemical practitioner saw in the workshop: the colours used in the manuscript mirror those of the actual substances; the symbols – e.g. 'moon' for silver and 'sun' for gold – agree with the customary <i>Decknamen</i> (code names) for substances; the solid shapes, flowing streams, fiery flames, and billowing clouds depict the changing physical states of substances during chymical reactions quite clearly; and the enclosing vessel, sometimes shown more literally as a rotund flask with a short neck, explicitly indicates at what stage of the experiment the vessel is to be hermetically sealed with a stopper or to be kept open to release vapours. In the copy preserved in MS Gg.1.8, which is not accompanied by an explanatory text, the images are drawn only on the rectos of the leaves (while the versos are left blank), so that leafing through the 'Crowning of Nature' from its beginning with the base substance of 'Mercurius' (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(63);return false;'>80r</a>) to the final 'Fixation' of the philosophers' stone (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(193);return false;'>145r</a>) – with the central vessel as a fixed point within which the alchemical substances are constantly changing – creates an animation of the experiment. </p><p>It would be tempting to assume that this copy of the 'Crowning of Nature' was once in the possession of one 'William Waldy', who is mentioned in a Hebrew caption underneath the diagram here preceding the 66 experimental images (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(61);return false;'>79r</a>; a contemporary hand translates the inscription as 'Liber Magistri William Waldy'). However, it seems that this line is not original to this manuscript, but was copied from an ancestor. Indeed, this manuscript is closely related to a seventeenth-century manuscript - Glasgow, University Library, MS Ferguson 8 - which includes the same diagram with the same Hebrew caption. Interestingly, in MS Ferguson 8 the outlines and fine details of all ‘Crowning of Nature’ images were pricked to facilitate copying. All of its leaves were excised at some point in its early history, and then re-inserted on the stubs that their removal had created, and show some surface smudging on the rectos, suggesting that indeed one or several copies were made from it with the technique of pricking and pouncing (on pricking for pouncing in MS Gg.1.8, see Cambridge University Library's <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Special Collections Blog</a>). A comparison of the illustrations and lettering in the Glasgow and Cambridge manuscripts shows that these two copies of the 'Crowning of Nature' agree very closely with each other, save for very minor and slight variations (e.g. the exact shape of the lion’s claws) that are obvious infelicities. It is reasonable to assume, then, that the entire sequence of the 'Crowning of Nature' in MS Gg.1.8 may have been copied directly from MS Ferguson 8.</p><p>Bound with the 'Crowning of Nature' in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century were two texts copied from printed sources. The first is a seventeenth-century manuscript copy of Daniel Widdowes' (or Woodhouse's) English translation of Wilhelm Adolf Scribonius' <i>Rerum naturalium doctrina methodica</i> (1583), titled <i>Naturall Philosophy: or A Description of the World, and of the Severall Creatures Therein Contained</i>, and here apparently copied from the second English edition of 1631 (the first had appeared ten years previously); Scribonius was a German philosopher and natural philosopher of the second half of the sixteenth century and writes here, among other things, on the nature and qualities of metals, which explains the tract’s inclusion in an alchemical compendium. The second text is the apparently anonymous alchemical work 'Thesaurus, sive medicina aurea', which was published in the <i>Aurifontina chymica, or, A Collection of Fourteen Small Treatises Concerning the First Matter of Philosophers...</i>, edited by John Frederick Houpreght (London, 1680). </p><p>Anke Timmermann</p></p>

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