The newly donated Bibliotheca Hermetica series: Alchemical Texts in the University Library

As part of a large donation from emeritus Art History Professor Jean Michel Massing, Cambridge University Library now possesses 13 works from the collection Bibliotheca Hermetica, an illustrated, encyclopedic collection of works on alchemy, astrology, and magic, dating across the Medieval to the late Renaissance period. Directed by René Alleau, with translations into Modern French, this collection, published in the 1970s, hoped to contribute to a greater understanding of traditional hermetic teachings.

Hermeticism is a branch of philosophy based on the reported teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, a fictional combination of Hermes, the Greek herald of the Gods, and Thoth, the Egyptian God of wisdom. Many later expansions on this religio-philosophy were based on texts dating from the beginning of the 2nd century: a series of 17 Kione Greek writings where Hermes Trismegistus instructs his disciples about (among other things) rituals and practices to purify a soul. These texts were collectively known as the Corpus Hermeticum.

Alchemy (often referred to as the Hermetic Art) is one of the three parts of wisdom which was supposedly taught by Trismegistus. Although the study of alchemy is more widely known as a pursuit for the Philosopher’s Stone, many alchemists were more concerned with investigating the spiritual connections of material objects through various chemical distillation processes, the purpose of which was to perfect or ‘purify’ a natural body, and thus allow it to unite with a higher power. This achievement of perfection was the “Great Work”, or Magnum Opus, widely mentioned across alchemical texts. After a long period of scholarly indifference, Hermeticism was reintroduced to Europe in 1640, which lead to hermetic and platonic foundations being once more incorporated into alchemical study, as in most of the 13 Bibliotheca Hermetica titles.

Plate 4 is an allegorical image in Mutus Liber.One particularly interesting title is Mutus Liber (9004.d.7933), or the Silent Book, a hermetic philosophical work, first published in 1677 in La Rochelle. Much like many alchemical works of the time, the stated authors have since proved to be invented, thus the authorship of Mutus Liber has long been in doubt. However, Mutus Liber is unique in that it consists primarily of allegorical illustrated plates; the meanings of which are still a source of debate. An example of this symbolic controversy is the frequent appearance of the ram and the bull, as seen in Plate 4. This image depicts a procedure to collect ‘heavenly dew’ (flos coeli) in the morning, by stretching sheets on poles and then pressing them to wring out the divine liquor. It is often assumed that the two animals represent their astrological counterparts in the zodiac, implying to the reader when the ideal time is to perform this process. However, Magophon, whose commentary accompanies this edition, suggests that instead they represent Greek Gods; the ram symbolising Hermes and the bull, Diana, as the bull’s horns also connote the crescent moon.

The Comte de Saint-GermainAnother alchemical text whose authorship is widely disputed is La Très Sainte Trinosophie (9004.d.7924), supposedly written by the Comte de Saint-Germain, an 18th century European adventurer with an interest in the scientific arts, who travelled around the continent under a variety of names. To deflect unwanted investigation into his origins, Saint-Germain regularly made wildly absurd claims, such as being the son of a Transylvanian Prince, or being over 500 years old, leading Voltaire to call him a ‘wonderman’; ‘un homme qui ne meurt point, et qui sait tout’ (Correspondance avec la Roi de la Prusse, Voltaire 1694-1778, Paris 1822). Such was his renown that several mimics earned a living impersonating Saint-Germain, many of whose outlandish stories mingled with reality to further expand the growing legend. However, the Comte’s intelligence was never in doubt; this text, an esoteric 96-page book, purportedly refers to Kabbalistic, alchemical, and masonic spiritual initiation practices, which are so cleverly coded with a variety of languages, that the text’s true meaning is hard to identify.

Flamel's Livre des Figures HieroglyphiquesFor readers aware of Harry Potter, the author of Le Livre des Figures Hiéroglyphiques (9004.d.7929) might be familiar. Nicolas Flamel may have played a cameo-role in J. K. Rowling’s first book, but his historical life is almost as interesting as his work. Although a medieval French scribe and manuscript salesman by the name of Nicolas Flamel did exist in the late 14th to early 15th century, the alchemic texts written under his name did not appear until 1612 (a discrepancy that was explained at the time by the fact that Flamel had successfully created the Philosopher’s Stone, and thus achieved immortality). This text is a semi-autobiographical account describing Flamel’s quest to translate and understand a mysterious 21-page book, which is later revealed to be a copy of “The Book of Abremelin the Mage”, which lead Flamel to reproduce the recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone. Flamel’s other two treatises contained in the Bibliotheca Hermetica edition, Le Désir Désiré and Le Sommaire Philosophique, (9004.d.7929)  are equally concerned with this speculative creation.

Nuysement's Visions hermétiques, followed by Traittez de l’harmonie et constitution generalle du vray sel secret des philosophes de l’esprit universel du monde.Towards the end of the 16th century, French medicine was divided between academic theorists and medical practitioners. One aspect of this divide was over emerging understanding of anatomical and social gender roles, especially as with regards to conception. The theorists continued to follow Aristotelian teachings of the woman as an imperfect man, whereas the practitioners replaced this notion with accounts that suggested women held an equal role in generation. An offshoot of this debate was Philosophical Alchemy; a proto-scientific system which challenged Catholicism and flourished from 1550 onwards. It was taken up by Nuysement in his Visions Hermétiques (9004.d.7923). Nuysement was a court poet and alchemist under the patronage of Henri III, whose Traittez de l’harmonie et constitution generalle du vray sel secret des philosoophes de l’esprit universel du monde (also included in the Bibliotheca Hermetica series) explored a hermaphroditic model of self-generation.

A future blogpost will examine other titles in this collection, with reference to other alchemical texts already in the University Library’s catalogue.


Eleanor Chapman-Drake

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