6(3)

AN INTRODUCTION
TO ALCHEMICAL APPARATUS
IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES

William NEWMAN
Universités de Harvard et de Liège

Résumé

L’auteur expose le développement des appareils alchimiques durant le moyen
âge latin tardif. A cette fin il examine brièvement les sources historiques. Il
groupe ces sources en quatre catégories :
1° des textes latins qui sont traduits de l’arabe (XIIe - XIIIe s.) ;
2° des commentaires latins sur des textes arabes (principalement XIIIe - XIVe s.) ;
3° des travaux
originaux latins (XIIIe - XVIe s.) ;
4° des travaux latins qui dépendent de sources
non-alchimiques (XVe - XVIe s.).

Samenvatting

De auteur beschrijft de ontwikkeling der in de alchemie gebruikte toestellen
gedurende de late Middeleeuwen in het Latijnse Westen. Daartoe onderzoekt hij
in het kort de historische bronnen. Hij deelt deze in vier kategorieën in :

Latijnse teksten die uit het Arabisch vertaald zijn (12e-13e eeuw) ;
2° Latijnse
kommentaren op Arabische teksten (voornamelijk 13e-14e eeuw) ;
3° oorspronkelijke Latijnse werken (13e-16e eeuw) ;
4° Latijnse werken die op niet-alchemistische bronnen steunen (15e-16e eeuw).

The development of alchemical apparatus in the late Latin Middle Ages can be deduced from texts which fall within four main historical
types.

  1. Latin texts translated from Arabic (12th-13th c.).
  2. Latin commentaries on Arabic texts (mainly 13th-14th c.).
  3. Original Latin works (13th-16th c.).
  4. Latin works depending on non-alchemical sources (15th- 16th c.).

Descension
Fig. 1. - Descensory (from Holmyard, 1928).

DISTILLATION
Fig. 2. - Distillation (from Holmyard, 1928)

I. - Latin texts translated from Arabic

The first period begins in earnest with the absorption of works
attributed to Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakarī yāar-Rāzī (d. 925), whose
genuine Kitāb al-Asrār (Ruska, 1935a) was independently Latinized by
two different translators, first as the L. Ebu Bacchar et Raisy, and second
as the L. Rasis Ebobacre. The first of these translations was variously reworked in the 13th and 14th centuries : once with the rubric L. secretorum de voce Bubacaris (or L. Bubacaris), and in a second, appendixed
version, to which the rubric De investigatione perfectionis magisterii had
been added, with a false ascription to Jābir ibn Hayyān [1] . The translated part of the L. Bubacaris divides vasa [2] (among which it includes furnaces and ancillary tools) into « vessels in which bodies are dissolved »
(i.e. fused), and « vessels of operation, or for the treatment of species ».
The first type includes the fornax aurificum (a mis-translation of kūr, a
blacksmith’s furnace), manthici (bellow), boctice (crucibles : earthenware pots made to withstand great heat), tenallia (tongs), scarpella (here
probably shears), mallea (hammers), incus (anvel), and the bot et marbot
(from Arabic būt-bar-būt a descensory : a perforated crucible containing
reducible substances is set upon an ordinary crucible ; the unit is then
placed in a furnace and surrounded by coals. The contents of the upper
pot will partly fuse and run into the lower one, leaving their dregs behind ;
if metallic oxides were to be reduced, some charcoal would be added to
the upper crucible, in order to supply the necessary carbon, fig. 1). Vasa
operationis
include the cucurbita (a gourd-shaped vessel upon which a
still-head with delivery tube rests, the whole forming a complete still ; two
cucurbits may be seen in fig. 2), elembic (in most texts called an « alembic », from Arabic al-anbīq, in turn derived from the Greek άμβιξ - the still-head which sits on the cucurbit, two of which may also be seen in
fig. 2 : « alembic » is also used in Latin to denote the complet still), cucurbitae cum elembicco caeco ( « blind alembics » : the still-head is
sealed where it would normally have a delivery-tube, and then used for
refluxing and sublimation), aludel (from Arabic al-uthāl, in turn from the
Greek άιθάλη - a sealed sublimatory tube made from two sections ; see
fig. 3), cauchia (or canchia, from Greek κόγχαι - beakers), ampullae
(long-necked vials), curura (Arabic : qarūra - a flask), marmor (a marble
slab for trituration), moleta (here apparently a pestle, corresponding to
the Arabic fihr) , fornax quae per se sufflat (Rhases’s nāfikh nafsahu - a
sort of covered fire-bucket with twin bellows and a stand), mortarium de
vitro
(a glass mortar), and the water bath for cucurbits.

[1 This Liber de investigatione perfectionis magisterii is not the well-known work bearing the
same name, also attributed to Jābir ibn Hayyān (or « Geber » in Latin), and having the incipit « Investigatione(m) hujus nobilis (sime) scientie ex continua ... (TK 776). The latter
text has been printed many times, beginning with the incunabulum version of the Rome
printer Eucharius Silber (s.d. et l.) ; the former exists in manuscript only, though some parts
thereof are excerpted in Ruska (1935a) = [198-237).

[2 My rendition of Rhases’s notes on apparatus is derived entirely from Ruska (1935a) = [198-202).

[3 Gebri ... Summa perfectionis magisterii in sua natura ... , in Manget, J. J., Bibliotheca chemica
curiosa
, Genevae, 1702, vol. l. This is a reprint with slight variations of the
edition published by Marcellus Silber, and edited by Fausto Sabeo et al., between 1523
and 1527 in Rome. I am presently working on a critical edition of the Summa, but until this
task is accomplished, the reader may be advised to rely on the Sabeo edition and its reprints over the other available versions.

[4 The Liber fornacum, or Liber de fornacibus construendis has only been edited once, as is
also the case with the Liber de inventione perfectionis attributed to Geber. These works
were edited by a pseudonymous « Chrysogonus Polydorus »,and first printed in the ln hoc
volumine de alchemia continentur haec
... , (Nuremberg, 1541), printed by Johannes Petreius - the printer of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium caelestium. Because of the
extreme rarity of this edition and its reprints, I have been forced to use a modern German
translation - Ernst Darmstaedter, Die Alchemie des Geber (Berlin, 1922). The L. fornacum
occupies pp. 114-125 of this version.

[5 The L. fornacum (Darmstaedter, op. cit., 116) calls the fixatory furnace an athanor. If the
L. fornacum is really by the author of the 13th c. Summa perfectionis, we may then see an
early, transitional usage of the term « athanor, we may then see an
early, transitional usage of the term « athanor » here, which is similar to the Arabic tannūr
in that it relates to a high temperature oven. By the 14th c., however, such texts as the
L. de multiplicatione and the L. lucis had restricted the term « athanor » to the low temperature version of the domed furnace.

[6 Archives de l’Administration des Mines et fonds Warocqué (Musée de Mariemont).

[7 Une fois pour toutes, signalons que nous utilisons le terme « histoire des sciences » pour
faire court. Nous préfèrerions le terme, plus adéquat pour désigner notre discipline : « histoire et philosophie de la science et de la technologie ». Il y a encore des historiens qui ne
savent pas que l’histoire ne trouve la justification de son labeur érudit que si elle débouche
sur les problèmes éternels de la philosophie (l’histoire n’est-elle pas encore, pour certains, un genre littéraire ?). Et il y a encore des historiens des sciences qui ne savent pas
que l’étude de l’évolution de la science est impossible sans prendre en compte l’évolution
technologique ...

[8 Il existe un establishment scientifique et industriel comme il existe un establishment littéraire et culturel. La culture, en effet, est aux lettres ce que l’industrie est à la science,
à la fois source et réceptacle. L’écrivain produit des idées qui seront transposées, modulées et diffusées par la culture, comme le scientifique découvre des faits qui alimenteront
l’innovation technologique, moteur de l’industrie. L’ingénieur industriel transpose les
connaissances scientifiques dans le monde de la production en grandes séries, comme
le cinéaste, le journaliste et le réalisateur TV, véritables ingénieurs culturels, transposent
la création littéraire dans le monde de l’imaginaire quotidien, celui du chaud biznesse et
des masse-médiats.



















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