Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Distilling Ancient Greek Alchemy from the Manuscripts

Posted by Darin Hayton on 04/28 at 10:01 PM

Matteo Martelli’s Brown Bag Lecture Tuesday was a wonderful treat for historians of pre-modern science. Through a careful study of Byzantine and Syriac alchemical manuscripts he began to trace the contours of ancient Greek alchemy. He focused on the corpus of pseudo-Democritus alchemical texts, which he is currently assembling into a critical edition. He illustrated his talk with slides from these manuscripts, as well as drafts of his critical edition.

Matteo Martelli illustrated his talk with slides of Byzantine alchemical manuscripts.

He built his talk around five early Greek manuscripts—dating from the 10th to the 15th century—as well as some early Syriac sources. After a short history of ancient alchemy, which identified its origins in 3rd/4th-century Egypt, its spread into Byzantium by the 7th century, and its translation into Syriac and Arabic around the 7th/8th century, Martelli turned his attention to the corpus of pseudo-Democritus. He identified two sections of these texts that are central to recovering the ancient alchemical literature:“Democritus, On the making of Purple and Gold: Natural and Secret Things” and “On the Making of Silver.” By comparing the manuscript copies of these recipes with the indirect evidence in the Syriac and Arabic traditions, Martelli suggested that one part of original ps.-Democritus corpus contained four books on gold, silver, precious stones, and making purple dyes. This interpretation was supported (guided, perhaps) by a comment in Synesius’s commentary on a pseudo-Democitean work that refers to Democritus’s four books on dyeing.

Martelli wanted, on the one hand, to demonstrate that the texts attributed to Democritus could not have been written by him and, on the other, to show why Democritus might have been an important author for these texts. Martelli claimed that it was not Democritus’s atomist philosophy, but rather his texts on technical and craft subjects—e.g., medicine, painting, and agriculture—that made him a useful authority on alchemical matters.

If the questions—both their number and nature—are any indication, most of the audience didn’t seem to know what to do with Martelli’s talk. Perhaps because it dealt with such an early period, perhaps because it was based in manuscripts and drew on relevant, traditional methodologies (which are considerably different from most other BBL presentations). One person asked about the purple dye described in the texts. Another person asked about the relationship between ancient alchemy and ancient medicine, and whether either practice would have benefitted from association with the other. A third question asked about who preserved these manuscripts. All interesting questions, but distinct from the point the paper was trying to present.

Martelli’s point was, in many ways, a traditional textual studies one. He offered a close study of a finite number of manuscripts in an effort to reconstruct a text that is now lost (and perhaps never existed). It drew on historical context in order to establish dates for the text, and to elucidate certain references in the text. Martelli accomplished this aspect of his work admirably. But his approach did not ask broader questions, such as Why were these texts preserved? or What does it tell us about the authority of Democritus? or How were various craft traditions related, such as medicine, dyeing, cooking, etc? Who would have been reading these texts, and why? or even, How do these texts challenge our notion of what alchemy in the ancient world looked like? Certainly the limited number of sources limits what he could say, but it seems he could have taken a step back from the texts themselves and pressed a bit more on some of these broader questions.

Tags: alchemy, brown bag lecture, byzantium, chemical heritage foundation, matteo martelli, public lecture