The ‘Mirrour of Alchemy’
‘Roger Bacon, vulgarly call’d Friar Bacon, made his appearance about the same time ; the glory, and at the same time the shame of the age. We first hear of him at Oxford, in the year 1226, as a fellow of a college; but he afterwards embraced the monastic state, and lived a religious in the abby of Westminster. He was beyond all comparison the top-man of those times; and might, perhaps, stand in competition with the greatest that have appeared since. ‘Tis wonderful, considering the ignorant age wherein he liv’d, how he came by such a depth of knowledge, on all subjects. His treatises are composed with that elegancy, conciseness, and strength, and abound with such just and exquisite observations on nature, that, among the whole tribe of chemists, we don’t know one that can pretend to contend with him.’
Herman Boerhaave, A new method of chemistry (London, 1727) p. 15 .
Roger Bacon was perhaps one of the best known English alchemists of all time. As Amanda Power (2006) argues, the story of his life and the ensueing legends which surrounded it were a contemporary phenomenon which endured well into the eighteenth century precisely because Bacon could be identified as a national icon. Bacon’s scientific researches had recommended him to the nascent Royal Society and in the late 1670s an abortive attempt was made by that society to print his collected works. In 1733, the year in which Worth died, Bacon’s most famous work was printed, the Opus Maius, edited by Samuel Jebb, a friend of the well-known English physician Richard Mead.
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum chemicum Britannicum… (London, 1652), P3v.
As the following titlepage of Worth’s 1688 Dutch edition of George Starkey’s 1684 Collectanea Chymica (London), makes clear, Boerhaave’s conclusion that Roger Bacon was still held in high esteem in England owed much to the proselytizing work done by George Starkey in this and other works. Worth may well have bought this Dutch copy of Starkey’s compendium of earlier alchemists while he was studying for his medical degree at Leiden. Certainly his acquisition of a Dutch copy of Starkey’s work suggests that his interest in alchemical matters dates to early in his career. It contained one of the most famous alchemical texts of all: the Mirrour of Alchemy which had been attributed to Roger Bacon since the fifteenth century.
George Starkey (ed.) Eenige philosophische en medicinale tractaatjes… (Amsterdam, 1688), titlepage.
Speculum Alchymiae, The True Glass of Alchimy by Roger Bacon
‘I Salute or greet unto thee, most dearly beloved, the Glass of Alchemy, which in my heart I have figured or Printed, and out of the Books of wise-Men have drawn, in the which is contained fully all that they have gathered to the Perfection of Alchimy, I do give it unto your Person, and in the which all things which are required to this Art be here gathered together, and those which be in divers places dispersed: I shall thus answer unto your Prudence and Wisdom, all thing be created of the four Elements, and they be the Roots and matters of all things, and the diversity of things consisteth in three, that is to say, Colour, Taste and Smell. There is not to me but three viz. Diversities of Elements, divers Proportions, divers Decoctions, and divers Mizxtions. Wherefore if ye will one Metalline Body transform into another, ye must know the Nature of one contrary and of another in every diversity, and when you know this then you may by Addition and Subtraction, put to more of one Element, and the less of another, and seeth them together well or evil, and also to mix them together well or evil unto your own will and desire. And that may a Man do well in Metalls if he might know without errour, how to separate the Elements, that is to say, to reduce them to their first Matter and Root, which Root is Brimstone and Quicksilver or Sulphur and [Mercury], and then that is the Root or Matter nearest or nearer; but because the separation of Elements in Metalls is difficult and hard, the Masters did seek how to get the Roots nearest without any labour, from Brimstone and Quicksilver, and of these they made their Separation of Elements, which they used, and said that only the Elements did cleave in Metalls, and that strange Elements of other things, as the blood, Eggs and Hair, do not enter but by Vertue or by Commixtion of them, with the aforesaid Elements, drawn of the Spirits and Bodies Metalline; but because we cannot resolve or separate as Nature doth, for Nature separateth without Apposition of any strange things in the space of a thousand years, and we cannot live a thousand years, therefore if we will make this Separation we must find the cunning or knowledge by the which we may do it sooner; but this we cannot do by no ways except we do pt unto them things divers and contrarious, for by his contraries ought ye to separate the Elements by our Knowledge and Mastery, therefore when two contrary things be mixed together one worketh in another so maketh him to give of his Complexion and Virtue, part thereof; for this cause ye must first learn to know the Complexion and Properties of all things, before you do enterprise to make commixtion together in their proper Natures, and it is needful that you know the works of Nature which you intend to do, and how much and what every thing doth give, of his Nature and Complexion, and how much, and what he lacketh of another Complexion and Nature, by the means of the working which you do, and by the Nature of contrary things, which you do commix together, and if you do err in any of these, to know how much and in what; for if you know this, then you do know how to rectifie any thing of the World, and to reduce any thing unto his first Matter or Complexion, or to any other thing according to your desire; then by the contrary, if you know not this you shall not enterprise to meddle, but by means of some things to attempt to make ingression or such like until you do know this, and this is in light or in light things, and the Philosophers do say that if any Man do know how to convert one Nature into another he knoweth all the whole Mastery: and Avicen doth say the same, that so it is, all your desire ought to be to this, for this which I have said be the beginings of Roots of Alchemy Philosophical and Medicine. And without the Knoweldge of these Roots (if you will do any work or Medicine, which is called the Elixir in this Art to transmute imperfect Bodies into Sol and Lune, of whatsoever the Medicine was in his Confection) you must think well of four things which I shall tell you.
The first is, that you do know how to prepare well all your things, and that you do know how to remove that which doth hurt most, and that which doth comfort your Intention, and that you know the sign when you have that which you desire to hav, and that you know how to remove that which you ought to remove: For all that Man doth hath an end, and a certain Term, for according to Philosophers when Nature intendeth to destroy any thing, to generate another thing, worse or better, it intendeth to seek a certain degree which it doth not pass beyong and so standeth, and then another thing preparate, doth so provoke another special form which he had not before.
The second is, that your things preparate you do know to commix them well together, and that is of sundry and divers things to make one Substance to be inseparable for ever; for if you know not how to mix your things well and naturally, so that every thing be destroyed, and so brought first unto their own primary being and proper species, and one new thing to be generated of them, it is worth noting that you have done, and that you know the sign when your mixtion is completed.
The third is, that you know the certain proportion, that is, the certain quantity of such things as thou oughtest to mix together, and also to know by reason why it should be so, that thereby you may be sure to find the thing that you look for: By the quantitites that you know to have mixed upon your melted Bodies, it will way at the last slowly or quickly how well soever the things were prepared, without they were mixed together according to Knowledge and Nature thou hast lost all thy Labour as much as the final complement doth contain, and that shall be well perceived in the Examination thereof, when the Body transmuted is put to Examination in Ashes or the Test, for there he will consume and waste away according as there was too much or too little of his Proportion at the first; but if the Proportions were rightly mixed according to Knowledge and Reason, then it shall not do so. And Rasis saith, if thou knowest how to convert Lune into Sol, thou knowest the contrary, that is to say, Sol into Lune. But to know to do this, there is a certain Term and quantity hidden, which for to know thou oughtest not a little to study, that is to say, though oughtest thereabout greatly to study, for Rasis saith, that the wise-Men did never hide any thing but quantity and weight, and we care not whether People do know it or no, for we have made and written our Books unto you that understand what we mean, and to our Sons and Children. And when you know that then may you well perceive that no Author or Book doth agree or accord with other in Weight and quantity, and therefore for lack of the Knowledge thereof riseth a great errour, and it is hidden for this Cause, that none but a wise-Man and learned may compass to accomplish the same, which doth all his things with Knowledge and Reason, of the subtil Knowledge of Natural things; for it if might be had otherwise, Men which do meddle without Knowledge and reason; but only through Foolish boldness might have come to the end, they would no more have cared for the Learning and Wisdom of wise-Men, than for Dogs, if that their own proper Industry and Wit could have helped them to have found or gotten it.
The fourth thing which you ought to consider, is the greatest secret of all and might Wisdom, that is, that you know how to fortifie your Medicine and multiply his Vertue, and this is a work of great Prudence and Wisdom, and if you understand this last, one part of your Medicines will not only convert ten parts of any Body melted but a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, ten thousand thousand, and much more without end, according to the several Circulations you shall make. And this which I have now said if you do understand, it sufficeth you, and I have touched all things that is needful, and they which do undestand those things, they know the Art and none other, and to speak of this Art is to speak by means as we have spoken, and to work the Art of Alchemy is to work as we have said, and to teach the Art is to teach as we have taught, and he that teacheth any other teacheth nothing, and he that worketh any otherwise worketh nothing. For who so desireth this Art, if he do err in any of the aforesaid Articles he shall never come to good end, untill he knoweth the foresaid Articles, and the wise-Man saith that Glass purgeth Metalline Bodies Corrupt,and cleanseth them: For Glass maketh the Metalline Bodies of hard Fusion, soft in fusion, and this is a Secret. And with salt Bodies are calcined and dryed, for salt doth cleanse the Bodies in as much as he dryeth up the Sulphur which is in them, by the which humidity they stink and be black and burnable, for the Bodies calcined is clean suffering the Fire without stinking, and this is a great Secret; but know you that it is spoken for another Secret, which I will not show here, not yet will write of it, for it is the Secret of all Secrets; for by that Secret, when it is well and perfectly known, a Man may come to the Secrets of all other kinds, and of this Secret, I have shewed you part, and if you know not that which resteth, I will declare no more neither by Tongue not Pen. Now is ended the Glass of Alchemy which I have given for his Name worthy the same, for in that you may when you will, behold, and see as in a Glass contained all the Articles pertaining to this Art, which you should desire of wise-Men, I believe that the Roots were never so gathered together as they be here, for the which, understand you, and hear it in Memory according to knowledge, and that you do both hide and open according to reason, and as it ought to be, and not to shew it to every Rybald according to the lightness of the Mind, for then that shall be vile which now is precious. In all the aforesaid Articles I will make you Answer, if I have Life and Health, either by Mouth Writings or Words, so that you shall understand it if God will, and thus endeth the true Glass of Alchemy.
Unum continet in se Masculinum & Femininum ergò Hermaphroditum. Duo continet Masculinum, Femininum & Spiritum, trest Corpus, Sol and Luna.’
It is clear that in Bacon’s view the true goal was a medicinal elixir but, though he was far more interested in alchemical theory rather than practice he did, as Singer (1932) suggests, accept the possibility of the transmutation of metals.
Herman Boerhaave (1727), A new method of chemistry (London).
Power, Amanda (2006), ‘A Mirror for Every Age: The Reputation of Roger Bacon’, English Historical Review CXXI, no. 492, 657-92.
Singer, Dorothea Waley (1932), ‘Alchemical Writings attributed to Roger Bacon’, Speculum 7 no.1 (1932), pp 80-6.
Starkey, George (1688) (ed.) Eenige philosophische en medicinale tractaatjes… (Amsterdam). The transcript is from the English original by George Starkey, Collectanea chymica a collection of ten several treatises in chymistry, concerning the liquor alkahest, the mercury of philosophers, and other curiosities worthy the perusal. Written by Eir. Philaletha, Anonymus, Joh. Bapt. Van-Helmont, Dr. Fr. Antonie, Bernhard Earl of Trevisan, Sir Geo. Ripley, Rog. Bacon. Geo. Starkey, Sir Hugh Platt, and the Tomb of Semiramis, see more in the contents (London, 1684), p. 125-33.
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum chemicum Britannicum… (London, 1652), F2v.