II. - Latin commentaries on Arabic texts

Rhases’s division of alchemical vessels into vasa dissolutionis
and vasa operationis proved unpopular in the Latin West, but his method
of categorizing - which was functional rather than morphological -
caught on at once. The Latin appendix in the so-called De investigatione
perfectionis magisterii
, for example, divides vasa into six genera, each
defined by its use (Ruska, 1935a).

Under these categories the editor includes most of Rhases’s
vasa operationis along with the descensory, while ignoring his blacksmithing tools. He also makes some significant additions, which are distributed as follows.

  1. « Vessels for the sublimation of spirits » (meaning sulfur, mercury, orpiment / realgar, and sal ammoniac) - cannina (Arabic : qinī na-flasks).
  2. « Vessels for the fusion of spirits » - tuba sive canna (a vessel similar to our Florence flask, and another which seems to be a retort), cannutum (vide ps. Rhases, De aluminibus et salibus, cap. 25, in Robert Steele, 1929 : here this apparatus is called a cammitum - it was a closed cylinder with an opening in the side, in which lead and mercury were sometimes coagulated), and scutellae (two pots sealed mouth to mouth, presumably for the purpose of sublimation).
  3. « Vessels for the calcination of spirits » - vas reverberationis (a reverberatory furnace vide infra), olla (pot), and simia (a flask tapering at both ends).
  4. « Vessels for distillation » - distillatio per filtrum (since distillatio merely means « dripping down », the re-worker shows a pot with two cloth strips passing a solvent into two smaller pots by means of capillary action as an example of distillation : fig. 2).
  5. « Vessels of congelation »- alembic duplicati (two alembics, each with its spout feeding into the other), and canna retroversa (a still whose delivery tube leads back into the cucurbit to form a refluxer : this is the « pelican » of later alchemy).
  6. « Vessels for dissolution » - vas dissolutionis sub fimo (a flask encased in decaying dung which supplied heat, and vapors for deliquescence), dissolutio sacculi (an animal bladder containing reagents to be dissolved by deliquescence was suspended in an open pot - vide ps. Rhases, De aluminibus et salibus edition cited above, cap. 20), and dissolutio marmoris (a marble slab serving as a surface upon which salts deliquesce). The Latin editor also describes the preparation of argilla artis (often called lutum sapientiae), the « lute » used to seal all joints between apparatus, and smeared over vessels to distribute heat. The recipe calls for one part lime, one half part powdered bricks, and one part iron or rust scales, mixed together with oil. Glass vessels should generally be used quoniam puriora sunt et minus penetrabilia, but because they break or melt under intense heat, the appendix includes a recipe for pottery clay, containing powdered bricks, cinders, iron filings, ground glass, and loam.

Fig.3. - Aludel and furnace. The top half of the aludel as drawn is too large
for the concha (from Holmyard, 1928).

Fig. 4. - Athanor (from Rupescissa edited by Manget, 1702).

The gaps in the late medieval appendix to Rhases are as instructive as its inclusions. The treatise supplies no specific directions for
making apparatus ; there is no mention of dimensions, pottery techniques, or glass-blowing : the alchemist is intended to buy most of his
equipment from artisans, an assumption often made by alchemical writers through the Scientific Revolution. There is no mention of water-cooling for either still-head or delivery tube, though medical writers of the
13th century knew that this reduced the loss of low boiling-point distillates (von Lippmann, 1914). Nor does the treatise know anything of fractionating methods ; the use of intermediate condensing flasks between
still and receiver seems to have been incorporated into alchemy during
the 14th and 15th c. The Latin re-worker is also vague in his description
of furnaces. The vas reverberationis (vide supra) appears to represent the
medieval glass-maker’s oven. Here the fuel is segregated from the heated objects by a perforated grate : the flames pass through the grate and
are driven back by an arching cover above the hearth : hence the name
« reverberation furnace ». The apparent absence of open-shaft and cupellation furnaces shows that neither Rhases nor his editor were interested in large scale smelting or liquation of ores.

[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
, 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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