Most alchemical treatises contain cryptic symbols that denote alchemical elements, compounds and processes. The sun and moon, for example, are symbols of the metals gold and silver. Some manuscripts offer the reader a table with the explanation of these symbols, but in most cases they are regarded as common knowledge. There are several theories that explain the use of symbols in alchemical treatises. Some people believed that alchemical knowledge was so powerful and difficult that it should be hidden from “unworthy” people who did not have an alchemical background. Another possibility is that not all alchemists understood the complicated recipes and experiments and therefore resorted to the use of symbols.
This sixteenth-century manuscript starts with a list of symbols and their explanations. Some of these symbols are used throughout the book. The manuscript contains various alchemical texts, such as the tenth volume of Paracelsus’ De gradationibus (pp. 13 - 22) and several recipes.
The text on altimetry between pp. 209 - 217 was added later on. The elaborate drawings in this text illustrate how to measure various heights.
- Before a scribe could begin to fill the quires with text, the layout of the page needed to be designed and prepared. What instruments did the scribe of this manuscript use to prepare the pages?
- Manuscripts were used by a variety of readers, including scholars, students, members of religious houses (monks, nuns), courtiers, and individuals with a professional background (notaries, physicians, merchants, etc.). Observe the material features of this manuscript and speculate what background the reader of this book will have had. Focus on either the first reader (for whom it was first produced) or a later one, for example based on later annotations to the text. What material features support your speculative claim?
- Boeren, P. C. (1975). Codices vossiani chymici. Universitaire Pers Leiden.