Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Ancient Chemistry & Alchemy, article in the Chemist and Druggist 1894
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M. Berthelot, the eminent French chemist, has in these latter years devoted himself with much persistence to the study of the history of chemistry. His equipment for work of this kind is of an unusually complete character. In addition to his scientific attainments, he is a clear thinker, a close reasoner, and gifted with unusual critical ability. So much as this it is, perhaps, necessary to say, because his conclusions are not always in accordance with those generally received. The merit of M. Berthelot's investigation lies in the fact that he has not been contented to accept any statement at secondhand. The great libraries of Europe are rich in texts bearing upon alchemical science and the beginning of chemistry, but to a great extent these ancient MSS. have been overlooked or ignored. M. Berthelot has devoted ten years of patient study to their elucidation, with the valuable help of some of the most learned Egyptologists of the day. Many of these texts have been printed in the Origines de l'Alchimie, published in 1885, so that they are now open to students of science generally. The recent publication of La Chimie au Moyen Age completes M. Berthelot's work. An interesting epitome of the whole subject was published in the Berne det deux Months for September 15 and October 1, 1893.
The starting-point of the alchemic tradition is lost in the mist of ages. Zosimus the Panopolitan traces it to the rebel angels, who, seduced by the love of women, betrayed its secrets in return for their favours. For this they were driven from Heaven, and thus was founded the race of Giants. Tertullian, writing of this tradition, held that the secrets confided to women by the fallen angels related to the art of poisoning, to transmutation, to magical incantation, and to working in precious stones.
It is curious how widely disseminated this myth became in the dark ages, but it is only part of that intimate blending of early science with religion which all history teaches. In fact, all early science was of a religious character. The temples of the East were the storehouses of learning. All industrial work was inaugurated with magical rites, and the priest was as important as the builder.
In Ancient Egypt alchemy was the "sacred" art, and was taught only to kings' sons. All Egyptian learning was symbolic, and language is so continually used in a vague and enigmatical sense, that it is difficult to define its precise meaning. The pupils of the alchemists were bound by oath to keep secret all teaching imparted to them. Nevertheless, the Egyptian people possessed a wide knowledge of the working of metals, of alloys, of working in glass and precious stones, similar to that practised by the alchemists of a later age. A papyrus discovered in a tomb at Thebes gives instructions for purifying, tempering, and soldering metals; for making glass; for mixing love-philtres; for procuring dreams; and for ensuring the success of any undertaking. This papyrus, M. Berthelot believes, contains the oldest-known alchemical receipts.
M. Berthelot insists on an intimate connection between Babylonian, Chaldean and Egyptian science. The story of the philosopher's egg appears to have been common to all.
There is preserved in the National Library at Paris a number of alchemical manuscripts of great interest. They were brought into France in the reign of Francis I., who made extensive purchases of books in Greece and in the East generally; they were written in the Greek language and copied in the 15th century. A still earlier manuscript is that of St. Mark, at Venice. This dates from the 11th century. It bears marks of loving study and has many marginal notes. Its pages are stained by chemical substances and its figures are more carefully drawn than those in the later MSS. It probably represents the position held by the occult sciences in the 4th century, or even at an earlier period. Many of these texts were probably written by authors who had seen and studied those priceless works of early learning which have been lost to us by the destruction of the Alexandrian Library.
To say that these MSS. have been discovered by M Berthelot would be incorrect. Borrichius, a Danish doctor, referred to them in the 17th century. They were known to Du Gange and Reinsius. Hoeffer published extracts from them in his History of Chemistry, but it is M. Berthelot who has assigned to them their true importance.
It has been usual to look upon Arabia as the birthplace of chemical knowledge. M. Berthelot claims to have proved that this was not so, and contends that the part played by the Arabs, even as transmitters of an earlier knowledge, has been greatly exaggerated. The fact seems to be that eastern science has come down to Europe in two well-defined streams, one by way of Syria and Arabia, the other from Egypt through the Alexandrian Greeks and the industrial arts of the Koman Empire. A great part of Arabian learning was of Hellenic origin. The book of Crates is impregnated with Greek ideas, and the same may be said of the authentic works of Geber. The importance of Hellenic influence has perhaps been overlooked through the absence of alchemical symbols in the Arab writings. This is most likely due to Mussulman intolerance of everything pertaining to magic. It is a curious fact that alchemical symbols do not appear in the Latin translations of the thirteenth century, and their reappearance at the close of the fourteenth century was owing to the direct influence of Greek authors. The art of distillation, which has been generally attributed to Arabia, was really practised in Greece centuries before the birth of Geber, and the same may be said of many other processes.
Arabian influence has been exaggerated also in assigning to Arabic authors Latin writings of a later date: There is strong internal evidence that the Latin works of Geber are spurious. His undoubtedly genuine works are full of declamative and vague idealism, charlatanesque to a degree, but containing philosophical ideas, generally of Greek origin. For instance, he traces an analogy between metals and living beings similar to that which exists between the body and spirit. This corresponds with Aristotelian theories. That Geber was conversant with Greek philosophy is attested by his translation of the logic of Aristotle and other works of a metaphysical character. But the Latin words attributed to him are of a different order altogether. They are scholastic in style and method, and treat of matters unknown to Arabian scholars. In the "Alchemy," mistakenly attributed to Geber, the manufacture of nitric acid is described, although its discovery took place long after his death.
Broadly speaking, M. Berthelot maintains, that Science properly so-called originated with the Greeks. All knowledge anterior to them was of a non-rational character, steeped in mysticism and sacerdotalism, even when most usefully applied. But in science, as in literature, the Greek intellect was clear, critical, and perceptive. Thus came about that divorce between Science and Empiricism which elevated the epoch of the 6th century to a point beyond which but little progress was made until the end of the 16th. Not that this growth was sudden—superstition dies hard; but charlatanism became discredited by enlightened minds, and had far less sway than in later times, when the antique culture was swamped by the breaking-up of the Roman Empire. This enlightened knowledge was transmitted through Syria to its Mussulman conquerors. Syrian scholars translated and edited Greek authors, Aristotle particularly. Alchemy, medicine, and astronomy were their favourite studies, and professors of these sciences acquired great influence at the Courts of the Byzantine Emperors. Bagdad eventually became the seat of important schools. It is to Syrian scholars that we owe many of the most important alchemical manuscripts scattered through the libraries of Europe. They are generally translations from the Greek, and form the basis of M. Berthelot's historical theories. An important MS. in the British Museum commences with a list of symbols—the names of the metals and those products of materia medica employed in chemistry. These are identical with those of the Greek authors. M. Berthelot remarks that in this the names of the metals are associated not only with those of the corresponding planets, but also with those of similar Babylonish divinities. Tin is represented at the same time by Zeus and by Bel; copper by Venus and Bilati, or by Astera; lead by Kronus and by Camosch. The seven earths, the twelve stones employed as remedies and for amulets, the nineteen coloured metals used in tinting glass, recall those numerical combinations so dear to the NeoPythagoricians and to Orientals generally. There are besides, a number of other manuscripts written in Latin, which prove that chemistry—particularly as applied to the Arts—was practised long before the Arab influence made itself felt in Europe. There are of an essentially technical character. The Compositiones ad tigenda, a manuscript of Lucques, contains recipes for tinting mosaics, dyeing skins, gilding iron, writing in gold, &c. Italian jewellers made use of many of these formulae. Recipes also for soldering and for reducing the precious metals to powder are numerous. This was an important art in the Middle Ages, facilitating the carriage of gold from one country to another.
Many of these old manuscripts are really trade-manuals and collections of workshop-receipts rather than treatises of learning. The Syriac MS. at Cambridge includes twelve books written by Zosimus, a Greek author, who lived in the third century of our era. These books are lost in the original Greek, but their authorship is uncontested. They treat, amongst other matters, of working in copper, tin, mercury, lead, electrum and iron. Several of these preparations are referred to under the names of their authors, as is the custom at the present day. This, as pointed out by Berthelot, was quite opposed to Egyptian tradition, which attributed all alchemical works to Hermes. The special interest possessed by many of these ancient texts consists in the fact that they have been completely ignored by the historians of chemistry in past times, and in the light they throw upon European science before the time when Arab learning became prevalent in Europe. A tradition of the manufacture of unbreakable glass runs all through the middle ages. It is frequently referred to in these texts, and is said to have been discouraged by Tiberius on account of its influence on existing trades. These treatises influenced the whole industrial life of the dark ages, particularly in Italy and France. They represent alike the work and the culture of a period extending from the early years of the Christian era to the time when a similar stream of knowledge coming from the same Greek source passed by way of Syria and Arabia into Europe through the medium of the Crusades.