The canterbury tales, p.127
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.127

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  Having ‘sublimed’ either or both of these materials twenty times or so, to ensure that his ‘medicine’ was pure, the alchemist would then have dissolved the resultant powder in liquid and mixed the solution with part of the dissolved silver, ‘coagulated them, and projected the coagulate mass upon the remainder of the silver in flux, that is, molten’ (Duncan, p. 258). The silver would then take on a ‘citrine’ colour and the experiment would be complete.

  The alchemist’s final task would be to test that the metal he had produced was really gold; Duncan (pp. 258–9), still following Geber, describes various tests of this sort which require the use of ashes (807), burned bones (759), urine (807) and bull’s gall (797). See Geber, pp. 183, 186, 208.

  762 According to Duncan (p. 251), there is no obvious reason why pepper should have been added to the pot, and it seems to owe its presence to the fact that ‘the mention of salt inevitably calls up pepper’. Maybe this is a private joke on Chaucer’s part.

  768 See n. to CY 922–9.

  775 The porphyry stone was used as a hard surface on which materials could be ground with a pestle (Grant, Source Book, pp. 594, 597).

  778–9 On the ‘spirites’, see n. to CY 820–24. The Yeoman is referring to the process of sublimation (see n. to CY 750 ff.); the spirits vaporize and then form crystals on the upper part of the sublimatory as they cool, while the impure, non-volatile elements remain in the lower part of the vessel.

  790 These are metallic salts; for examples of their alchemical uses, see Geber, p. 209 (‘bole armoniak’), pp. 191, 213, 221, 224 (‘vertgrees’), and pp. 7, 72 (‘boras’).

  792 The urinals presumably held the urine which was used in various alchemical processes; cf. CY 807 and n. A descensory was an iron or earthenware funnel with a grid at the top on which the material to be treated was placed; it was covered with a lid and placed in the furnace. The liquid products of the heating process then flowed down the funnel into a receiver (see Holmyard, Alchemy, p. 47; Geber, pp. 94–5 and illustration on p. 97).

  794 Cucurbites … alembikes: These are the two parts of the vessel used for distillation. The ‘cucurbite’ was a gourd-shaped flask into which the material to be distilled was placed; on top was the ‘alembike’ or still-head, with a delivery spout down which the distilled liquid would run off into a waiting receiver. See Holmyard, Alchemy, pp. 47–8, and Figures 2 and 4.

  797 Watres rubifying: Reddening and whitening inferior metals, so that they took on the colours of gold or silver (see n. to CY 750 ff.) was an important part of alchemical procedure. The ‘reddening waters’ were made by dissolving a calx (a powder produced by calcination of a metal or mineral) in water; the solution was then fused with the metal to be transmuted. See Geber, p. 168.

  800 Geber (p. 55) dismisses the use of herbs in alchemy, but Arnold of Villanova (see n. to CY 1428–9) speaks (albeit sceptically) of a juice made from three herbs (one of which is ‘lunary’ or moonwort) which will transform quicksilver into gold (Duncan, p. 260). The other two herbs are not mentioned by Geber or Arnold.

  804 For calcination, see n. to CY 750 ff. Geber says that a calcinatory furnace should be three feet by four feet, with walls six inches thick. The materials to be calcined were placed in clay dishes or pans and set in the furnace (see Geber, p. 229, and for an illustration, p. 241).

  805 The whitening of waters makes no sense in alchemical terms, and this phrase must refer to whitening by waters (see n. to CY 797, and for an account of methods for whitening copper and iron, see Geber, pp. 163–6). Possibly Chaucer had encountered the phrase ‘waters albifying’, and mistook the present participle for a verbal noun (see Riverside n.)

  806 Egg whites were used to prepare an oil (Geber, p. 224).

  807 donge: Hot horse-dung was piled around a glass vessel to give a gentle but steady heat; see Geber, pp. 14, 109, 263). Dried dung was also used to make the clay with which alchemical vessels were cemented together (Holmyard, Alchemy, p. 49).

  pisse: As well as being used in ‘cementing’ (see n. to CY 817), urine was calcined to produce a salt (Geber, p. 206).

  808 poketz*] pottes El. It is not immediately obvious what alchemical function might be served either by waxed bags (‘poket’ is the diminutive of ‘poke’, a bag) or by waxed pots, but ‘poketz’ seems likely to be the ‘harder’ reading (on which see n. to Cl 508).

  808–13 In these lines the Yeoman lists numerous metallic salts discussed by Geber in the chapter on ‘middle minerals’ in his treatise Of the Invention of Verity: saltpetre, vitriol, salt tartar, salt alkali (made from ‘unslaked lime’), glass alum (Geber, pp. 205–7). Their various uses in preparing metals for transmutation are described in chs. 6–23 of this short treatise (ibid., pp. 209–24).

  812–13 On the clay, see n. to CY 750 ff. Oil of tartar is mentioned by Geber, p. 213.

  813 berm, wort: Yeast and unfermented beer are surprising items in the list, since neither makes an appearance in Geber or in Arnold of Villanova (Duncan, p. 261).

  814 embibing: Imbibing is the process of moistening or soaking a calx (a powder produced by calcination) with a chemical solution (see Geber, p. 216).

  817 cementing: A process used in testing the quality of metals produced by transmutation; the ‘cement’ is ‘a pasty mixture’ placed over the sheets of metal, which are then heated in the furnace for three days; if the plates are ‘cleansed from all Impurity’ at the end of this time, they are to be deemed genuine (Geber, pp. 186, 262).

  fermentacioun: According to A. J. Pernety, an eighteenth-century student of alchemy, fermentation is properly ‘the rarefaction of a dense body by the interspersion of air in its pores; other writers regarded it as an animating or resuscitating process. The Philosopher’s Stone was often pictured as a “ferment” which could insinuate itself between the particles of imperfect matter, thereby attracting to itself all the particles of its own nature’ (Read, Prelude to Chemistry, pp. 139–40).

  820–24 foure spirites: Quicksilver, trisulphide of arsenic (orpiment), sal ammoniac and sulphur (brimstone). Arnold of Villanova explains that they are called spirits ‘because they flee from the fire and fly away in smoke’ (Duncan, p. 245); that is, they vaporize easily.

  bodies sevene: See next n.

  825–9 The idea that each of the planets was connected with a metal goes back to Greek astrology; alchemists habitually used the planetary names to denote metals (Holmyard, Alchemy, p. 21).

  837–8 Riverside punctuates with a full stop at the end of line 837 and a question-mark at the end of line 838, but they are best taken together: ‘if that craft is so easy to learn, anyone who has some cash can become an alchemist’. See the quotation of these lines in MED, s.v. ascaunce 1b, punctuated as here.

  853 On the use of the corrosive waters, see n. to CY 856.

  854–5 Geber gives instructions for ‘the Ingenious Mollification of Hard Bodies, and … the Induration (or Hardening) of the Soft, by way of Calcination’ (Geber, p. 156; see also p. 119).

  856 abluciouns: Geber explains that once a calx has been produced, it must be cleansed with ‘Corrosive, Acute, or Harsh Things … by Grinding, Imbibing and Washing’ (p. 10; cf. p. 167). He also gives instructions for the ‘washing’ of quicksilver in vinegar, to cleanse it of ‘earthiness’ (pp. 157–8).

  863 Elixir: The effective agent in the alchemical production of gold and silver, the ‘philosopher’s stone’; see Headnote.

  907 Duncan (pp. 253–4) suggests that the breaking of the pot might have been caused by the ground litharge (oxide of lead; line 775). If the canon had added this to the pot, and if the salt (762) had happened to be saltpetre (prescribed by Geber in a recipe for the ‘citrination’ of silver), bringing these two substances together ‘in a closed vessel and exposed to heat would have resulted in the liberation of such quantities of heat by oxidation that an explosion would have occurred’.

  922–9 Alchemical treatises laid great stress on the composition and regulation of the fire; see Duncan, p. 252.

nbsp; 961 Solomon’s wisdom was proverbial; see Whiting S460.

  962–5 These lines quote two familiar proverbs (see Whiting A155, G282, and cf. HF 272), but the immediate source is the Liber Parabolarum (‘Book of Proverbs’) of Alan of Lille (c. 1125–1202), a proverb-collection which was well known through its use as a school-text, in which they are found side by side (ed. O. Limone (Lecce, 1993), III.217–18): ‘Non teneas aurum totum quod splendet ut aurum | nec pulchrum pomum quodlibet esse bonum’ (‘Don’t think that everything that shines like gold is gold, and don’t think that every beautiful apple is a good one’). A Latin gloss in the margin of El quotes the first few words of each of these lines. The Latin source supports the emendation of El’s ‘seineth’ (presumably a misreading of ‘semeth’) to ‘shineth’.

  1048 in good time: Riverside explains this ‘as a formula to avert evil consequences, similar to “touch wood”’. Cf. MED s.v. time 13a. The canon, that is, is expressing the hope that future events will not contradict his claim to be a reliable borrower.

  1056 Riverside reads ‘and if’; El’s ‘if that’ is preferable, since the second half of the sentence is not a second offer but a substantiation of the first.

  1066–7 Proverbial; see Whiting S167, and cf. PF 518.

  1148 A poudre: The powder is, purportedly, the ‘Elixir’ or Philosopher’s Stone by which the transmutation is to be effected (see Headnote to CYT). Even supposing it to be genuine, a medieval alchemist would have found ridiculous the idea that the transmutation of mercury could be achieved in one straightforward operation; it was precisely the multiplicity of operations involved that postponed the recognition of ultimate failure.

  1160 ff. Chaucer does not describe the crucible or the fire in any detail, but since the coal is arranged ‘above’ the crucible as well as below it (CY 1152–3), we may assume that the crucible is closed with some kind of a cover or lid; since the trick depends on the silver enclosed in the hollow piece of beech-wood charcoal melting and dropping down into the crucible, we may assume that the lid had an opening in it. The replacement of the quicksilver by real silver depends on the fact that ‘the melting point of silver is 962°C … whereas at 375°C (the boiling point of mercury) the mercury in the crucible would be volatilized, leaving only the silver to be poured into the mould’ (P. F. Baum, MLN, 40 (1925), 152–4, at p. 154).

  1185 Seint Gile: It is tempting to suppose that there is a pun on the ME word gile (modern English ‘guile’), but the saint’s name would have been pronounced with a soft ‘g’ and ‘gile’ with a hard one.

  1207 Goth walketh: See n. to Mk 2194.

  1224 ff. It is by no means clear why the canon has to make his mould the exact shape and size of an ounce of silver (presumably he could have poured the molten silver into a larger ‘ingot’), and in doing so he runs the risk of detection by the priest. Perhaps it is meant to underline the exactness of the equivalence between the silver and the mercury it has replaced.

  1234 The molten silver in the mould is put in a water-bath to cool and solidify it.

  1238–9 These lines are omitted in El, but sound authentically Chaucerian.

  1266–73 The second trick, like the first, depends on the volatilization of mercury at a lower temperature than the melting-point of silver; see n. to CY 1160 ff.

  1308 ff. Disappointingly, instead of demonstrating even greater ingenuity than the first two tricks, the third depends on a simple sleight of hand. Presumably by now the priest is so convinced of the canon’s powers that ingenuity is no longer required.

  1342 Proverbial; see Whiting B292, F561 and 566, and cf. Kn 2437, Sh 38, 51.

  1361 fourty pound: £40 was a huge sum of money; see n. to Sh 181.

  1368–74 This combination of an insistence on secrecy with a willingness to reveal the secrets to a privileged elect is characteristic of alchemical treatises; the obscurity of their discourse is explained as due to the need to hide these weighty truths from the foolish and ignorant (see Grennen, Classica et Mediaevalia, 26 (1965), 309–11, and Patterson, SAC, 15 (1993), 39–42; cf. also n. to CY 1441–7).

  1407–8 Proverbial; see Whiting C201, H53, M160.

  1410 Proverbial; see Whiting L89, T211.

  1411 Proverbial; though the examples given in Whiting T256 are post-medieval.

  1413 Bayard: A traditional name for a horse (see Rv 4115). ‘Blind Bayard’ was a proverbial expression apparently denoting blundering pig-headedness (see MED s.v. baiard n (1), Whiting B71–3 and Rowland, Blind Beasts, pp. 127–8).

  1428–9 Arnold of Villanova (1240–1311), a Catalan who taught at Montpellier in France, was the author of numerous medical and alchemical treatises. The ‘Rosarye’ is his Rosarium philosophorum (‘Rosary of the Philosophers’), but the source for what follows is another treatise, entitled De lapide philosophorum (‘On the Philosophers’ Stone’); see J. L. Lowes, MLN, 28 (1913), 229, and next n.).

  1431–40 The passage of Arnold of Villanova’s De lapide philosophorum (ch. 4) quoted in CY 1431–2 appears at f. 304r of the edition of his works published at Lyons in 1532; it is reproduced in Lowes, MLN, 28 (1913), 229, and in SA, p. 698 (where ‘sol’ is a misprint for ‘sole’). In translation, it runs:

  The pupil said, ‘Why do the philosophers say that mercury does not die, unless he is killed by his brother?’ The master said, ‘The first of them who said so was Hermes, who said that the dragon never dies unless he is killed by his brother; he means that mercury never dies – that is, hardens – unless through his brother, that is, through Sol [gold] and Luna [silver].

  As CY 1439 makes clear, mercury’s ‘brother’ is sulphur; for the representation of metals in terms of family relations, see D. Finkelstein, Archiv, 207 (1970), 260–76, at pp. 265–7. The substance of this article is conveniently accessible in D. Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (New Haven, CT, and London, 1977), pp. 80–92. E. H. Duncan (MLN, 57 (1942), 31–3) glosses the last sentence of the passage in Arnold by reference to the Rosarium, where Arnold says that Sol is the father of sulphur and Luna its mother, but the Latin reads ‘id est’, not ‘quod est’. In any case, in Chaucer’s rendering, the plural ‘were’ makes line 1440 refer to mercury and sulphur equally, and its meaning is even less clear.

  ‘The symbolic designation of mercury as “dragon” … is only one of over sixty code words for quicksilver by which it was known to Arab alchemical writers’ (Finkelstein, p. 263; see also Holmyard, Alchemy, p. 27 and ch. 7). The metaphor of ‘killing’ mercury derives from the etymological sense of the word ‘mortify’ (1431; cf. CY 1126), which in alchemy has the technical sense ‘harden’; ‘a widespread belief of the time was that mercury (argentum vivum) or quicksilver differed from silver (argentum) only in that the mercury was alive, i.e., in fluid state. Hence, if you could kill mercury by stopping its fluidity or life, you would get ordinary silver’ (J. W. Spargo, SA, pp. 688–9, n. 2).

  1434 Hermes: Hermes Trismegistus (‘Thrice-great Hermes’) is the Greek name for Thoth, the Egpytian god of wisdom. A large corpus of texts, embodying occult teachings on religion, astrology and magic, circulated under his name. The work known as the Tabula Smaragdina (The Emerald Table, ed. R. Steele and D. W. Singer (London, 1928)), which consisted of a set of oracular utterances on natural principles, was referred to as an authority by medieval alchemists (see Holmyard, Alchemy, pp. 97–100).

  1441–7 Chaucer is still quoting the De lapide philosophorum of Arnold of Villanova; see Duncan, MLN, 57 (1942), p. 32. The phrase ‘the secree of secretes’ is not a reference to the pseudo Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum (which is not an alchemical treatise but a ‘mirror for princes’); as used by Arnold, it merely means ‘the greatest of secrets’ (see K. Young, MLN, 58 (1943), 98–105). It represents ‘the ritual injunction to secrecy from master to pupil and author to reader that characterizes all Arabic alchemical treatises’ (Finkelstein, Archiv, 207 (1970), 271; see also 272–6. Cf. n. to CY 1368–74).

  1448–71 The ‘book Senior’ is a Latin version of ‘a
n Arabic alchemical treatise of the tenth century by “Sheikh” Muhammad ibn Umail at-Tamimi as-Sadiq, known to the West as “Senior Zadith filius Hamuel”’ (Finkelstein, Archiv, 207 (1970), 268). In the Arabic original, the speakers in the dialogue are called Qalimus and Runus (J. Ruska, Anglia, 61 (1937), 136–7); in the Latin version they are King Solomon and an unidentified sage. As Finkelstein points out, Chaucer’s substitution of Plato for Solomon is probably to be explained by the fact that the phrase ‘and Plato said’ (‘Et dixit Plato … Item dixit Plato’) occurs twice, both in the Arabic source and in its Latin translation, immediately after the dialogue between Solomon and the sage (see below). ‘The association of alchemical teaching with Plato is a common feature of alchemical literature’ (Finkelstein, 269–70). In addition, annotations in a fourteenth-century MS (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS 112, ff. 39r and 40r) equate ‘Senior’ with ‘Plato’, and so indicate why Chaucer speaks of ‘his [i.e., Plato’s] book Senior’ (Riverside, n. to CY 1448–71).

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