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Alchemy and the quest for long life: Wellcome MS. 446

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By | Early Medicine, From the Collections

Alchemy, with its cryptic language and fantastic symbolism, evokes many aspects of the culture of the Middle Ages. In alchemical manuscripts, drawings of alembics, funnels and furnaces vividly represent this long lost art. Alchemy’s goal of transmuting base metal into gold fuels our imaginings of strange preindustrial laboratories, and of the men who were part of this scientific, or not-so-scientific, project. Did they really believe that they could make pure gold? Or were they charlatans, quacks and fools? The philosopher’s stone they so desperately sought was also called ‘the elixir of long life’, and they deemed its curative possibilities endless.



But alchemy was also so much more. It was an art, a scientific and technological project that foreshadowed modern chemistry. It resulted in the development of a multitude of chemical instruments and procedures. It contributed to the evolution of modern medicine and science. Furthermore, beneath alchemy’s esoteric veneer lay a deeper philosophy of life, one in which everything was interconnected and matter was pliable to human technology.

The Wellcome Library’s Western MS. 446, produced in France in the late 15th century, is a rich example of an alchemical treatise, although it is devoid of most of the cryptic alchemical phrases that are so enigmatic to us today. It centres rather on the technical possibilities of the art. Amply illustrated with 56 colour drawings, it details 20 chemical procedures and processes. The main text is followed by seven folios of full-page alchemical drawings, seven folios containing an alchemical synthesis, and three folios of practical recipes. The manuscript offers a unique way to approach a historical subject that is often reserved for patented scientists or specialists. It also encourages us to ponder the occultist trend that now, thanks largely to the internet, surrounds a discipline that was kept alive for centuries.



The quality and relative uniformity of the illustrations are what have made this manuscript known to scholars. They are painted in watercolour and retain vivid colours (red, yellow, green and blue-grey). But more importantly, they are closely related to the text, since they offer deliberate illustrations of the author’s technical demonstrations.

The text is written in late Middle French and is a perfect example of how the language was transitioning towards modern French at this time. It offers great uniformity of spelling and vocabulary. The writing is consistent with the period, clear and uniform throughout (except for folios 39–44, where the hand changes for the script as well as for the drawings). Editorial features are clear and consistent, with red chapter headings and paragraph marks.

The manuscript’s subject matter is alchemy in its medical doctrinal sense, meaning that the purpose of the text is to assist in producing the ‘elixir’ of long life. Therefore, the text is rather pragmatic and technical, with the usual symbolic overtones shared by many alchemical works, but none of the mystical and philosophical apparatus of some of the very learned alchemical treatises. This feature makes it very accessible to a wide audience, both in the Middle Ages and today. The text gives a unique and extensive list of alchemical apparatus and vessels, about 80 per cent of which are illustrated in every detail. This is a rare opportunity to document and contextualise medical pharmaceutical techniques that were made accessible in the Middle Ages through alchemical treatises.

Images of alchemical furnaces.

MS. 446, folio 65r: alchemical furnaces. Wellcome Images L0032813.

The text has traditionally been held to be a Middle French translation of a Latin Pseudo-Ramon Llull treatise entitled ‘Imago vitae’, but a close examination of the text and its sources reveals that this is not in fact the case. The structure of the text does not match any known Latin versions of the ‘Imago vitae’. Rather, the text seems to be a patchwork of several sources in Latin and Middle French, including the ‘Testamentum’ of Pseudo-Llull, ‘Le Rosaire’ (a Middle French rendition of Pseudo-Arnau de Vilanova), the ‘Summa perfectionis’ of Pseudo-Gerber and, finally, a Pseudo-Pope John XXII treatise known as ‘L’élixir des philosophes’. The compiler of the text selected theoretical parts and pieces that fitted his own process of experimentation, so the compilation does seem to be the work of an actual practitioner of alchemy.

Furthermore and lastly, the manuscript bears witness to the changes in the audiences for alchemy at this time. While in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries alchemy was the preserve of clerics, in the fifteenth century alchemical themes percolated down to the laity. MS. 446 reflects this change, since it is written in the vernacular. This particular manuscript, therefore, ushers in the Renaissance era, when alchemy became almost a prerequisite for scientific speculation, until modern chemistry relegated the art of transmutation to the realm of wishful fantasies.

Author: Geneviève Dumas, PhD (2001), McGill University, is Professor of Medieval Studies at the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada. Her research focuses on the circulation of scientific, technical and medical ideas around the Mediterranean, especially in the setting of the medieval town of Montpellier.

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