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Q&A Wednesday: A scholarly alchemist, with Gabriele Ferrario

T-S Ar. 44.4 and T-S NS 31.6
T-S Ar. 44.4 and T-S NS 31.6: Two halves of one page.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Gabriele Ferrario
Wed 6 Jul 2022

Gabriele, what are you working on at the moment?

I recently looked again at a manuscript I first noticed many years ago when I worked at the Genizah Unit. The fragments T-S Ar.44.4 and T-S NS 31.6 are two halves of the same page torn in two. The manuscript was studied by Paul Fenton in an article in 1997, and he identified it as a catalogue (Fihrist) of alchemical works. On close examination I discovered it was in fact a collection of alchemical recipes. What makes it special, compared to many other alchemical recipes in the Genizah, is that there are not only technical instructions but they reference in quite a lot of detail books of Arabic alchemical literature – works from the Jabirian corpus.

It looks like T-S NS 31.6 fragment has not fared as well as T-S Ar. 44.4. What is the Jabirian corpus?

The Jabirian corpus is a large collection of works attributed to Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, the most famous Arabic alchemist. The Jabirian corpus became very famous in Latin translation. In fact, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān is so famous that we don’t know if he really existed or not! It’s possible that his name was used as a cover name for a whole group of alchemists over a period of 200 years (9th-10th century). 

What the collective noun for a group of alchemists? A transmutation of alchemists?


How old is the fragment?

From the Classical Genizah Period – possibly 12th century.

Is the leaf from a book or was it only ever a single leaf?

It’s not clear, but the content does not end at the bottom of the page so we must imagine a larger composition. I cannot say, however, if it was a booklet or a longer book, or just a quire.

How does it differ from other alchemical fragments from the Genizah that you’ve studied?

For the most part alchemical material in the Genizah is only operative, consisting of laboratory recipes and prescriptions for performing alchemical work, while this manuscript is rich in references to alchemical literature, yet still anchored to the practice. It will give a recipe and procedure, and then say ‘like it says in this particular book of Jabir’ and then it will go on to another recipe and reference a different book of Jabir. For example, he refers to the Kitab al-Mujarrabāt (‘Book of Abstractions’), the Kitāb al-Riyad (‘The Book of the Garden or of the Flowerbed’), and Al-Kitāb al-Thāni min al-Sab‘in wa-huwa Kitāb al-Bāb (‘The Second book of the 70, which is the Book of the Door’) – all Jabirian works. The most fascinating thing is that in a couple of the references it is clear that the person writing the manuscript had in front of him physical copies of the Jabirian books he’s talking about. He refers to one particular book (Kitāb al-Rukn li-Jābir ‘The book of the Basis’ or ‘of the Pillar’ by Jābir, which is the Seventh Book of the One Hundred and Twelve Books) ‘of which there are two pages missing’ (in his own copy!). There’s another passage in which he says ‘on the 9th page of that book by Jābir’. I found those references to the reality of the books that he had in front of him interesting. These kinds of references to the physical nature of books are not usually found. What we see here are very specific references to particular passages in the copies that he owned or was copying from.

Is he writing for himself or for an audience? If he’s copying the material for anyone else, would he make an assumption that their pages would be the same as his pages?

It’s difficult to determine with certainty of course but it seems that he’s writing down the information for his own use.

What kind of recipes is he studying?

In general, he is working on metals. The beginning of the fragment describes procedures for colouring silver to make it look like gold. He then explores practices for cleaning silver, and ways to increase its volume, as well as techniques for dyeing other metals in order to ‘transmute’ them into silver. All the recipes have silver or gold as their main objective.

Was the writer interested in making metal look like gold or silver because they want to potentially trick someone with it, or because they think that if it looks like a precious metal, it is part way to actually being that substance?

You’ve hit upon the two extremes of the range that alchemy could cover in the Middle Ages. On one side we know that there were real, theoretical preoccupations with discovering how matter works and how matter changes into a different form, shape or colour, and there was genuine scientific interest by some of the authors in nature and in reproducing what nature does (but quickly and in a laboratory). On the other side, it is clear that these kinds of techniques for the transmutations of colours were not only present in alchemical works but in books for tricksters. Sometimes we also find such recipes in books for the inspectors of the market, who were supposed to check whether metals and precious stones were genuine or not. There are two intermingling interests in the work of the alchemist, and it’s also why alchemists tended not to reveal their secrets to people who were not accomplished philosophers as well, as they might use the recipes for nefarious ends. The close study of Arabic alchemical literature shown in this fragment reveals the two faces of alchemy – the learned scholar and the hands-on practitioner – that make it a discipline of interest for figuring out how the sciences were already shifting in the Middle Ages from a more theoretical, Aristotelian approach to being hands-on and scientific in the modern sense, accompanied by laboratory experiences that could be observed and repeated. A precursor in many ways to what science would later become.

Thank you, Gabriele!

From 15 July 2022, Gabriele Ferrario will be Assistant Professor of History of Arabic Science (Dipartimento di Storia e Comunicazione) at the University of Bologna.

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