Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 3.  Generation

excerpts from
On Subtility (1550)
by Girolamo Cardan (1501-1576)
trans. [albeit loosely] (2006) by B. J. Becker
from De la Subtilité trans. (1566) by Richard Le Blanc


BOOK VI.  On Mixtio and Metallic Substances.

All motionless mixed substances that are hidden under the earth and waters, are divided into four categories:  earths, essences, stones, and metals....

[Cardan goes on to provide a list of ingredients (clay, oil, vinegar...) that can be mixed into a paste and then put away in a damp place for several years that will, for a long time, prevent worms and poisons.]

Someone will ask, perhaps, What is the benefit to life of such long burial and concealment?  Certainly it is the same as that which helps to generate metallic substances in mountains.  Yet that process is more active in mountains for many reasons:  for mountains have some sort of life....  We teach that stones and rocks are alive:  and where there is life, all natural generation is more active.  To this we add that the force and power of mountains are not consumed by hoes, rakes and plows, and they're not in any way limited by an evaporation of their strength.

The substance of mountains is solid, thus heat is better contained and retained in them than it is by soft earth that disperses it into the air.  I have said that this heat is celestial, because the heat of fire and of putrefaction is not useful for generation.  Also because we see that the most excellent precious stones and the most perfect gold are generated in the East and in the Midi.  If one brings precious stones like the ones generated in these regions together with those produced in Germany, he will recognize that they are very different in their hardness and splendor.  In fact, they are so completely different that he will suppose that they are not of the same kind.  The cause is that the East is warmer and moister, and oilier [plus gras; greasier; Cardan speaks of two liquid humors:  one watery and the other greasy or oily.  In his view, water hinders the generation of metal and stone while oil enhances it].

If precious stones and gold were able to be generated from seeds where heat is provided by fire or putrefaction, then consider the case of Island [Iceland], an isle in the North, where the mountains are burning [volcanic] -- what would prevent the development there of the most precious stones of all and the production of gold in abundance?

Likewise, snow and ice remain on mountains for long times, and hold in the heat below.  Because of this mountains are fertile [with respect to mineral production], unlike open fields, where the heat is dissipated by warming the external air.  Mountains are the best suited to generating metallic substances.  Their power to do this is not spent on forests or plants.  Because mountains are more sterile [with respect to plant life] than the plains, they are truly the most fertile [with respect to mineral life] of all.

Because water and the moisture in mountains are on sloped land, they run down to the mountain's base [into the fields below].  Because of the abundance of water, the generation of metals is hindered on the surface and plain of the fields.  You will say, You have now listed among the reasons why fields and plains do not generate metallic substances, that moisture is used up.  Now you suggest it is the abundance of this fluid in the fields that hinders the generation of metallic substances.

To be certain, both of these are true:  because the oilier the soil, the more fertile the earth, not only with metals, but also with plants, while moisture hinders their fertility.  The reason for this is that the humor that aids generation is heat:  water is cold, and prevents concoction.  Throughout warm regions, when there is an abundance of water, they are very fertile because the water easily converts itself into oiliness by the heat of the sun.  But in cold places, an abundance of water engenders sterility and freezing of the fields.  Another reason is the weather.  In summer, the prairies are filled with water.  In winter, severe conditions make plants grow more slowly.  For this reason it appears that if fields are near mountains, they will have more moisture and less oiliness.  Because of this you will rarely see mountains fertile with trees and vines that also have an abundance of metallic substances, unless they are deep underground, because the oily humor [near the surface] is consumed by the plants.  On very rare occasions, where large and solid stones are located, the oily humor is retained for a long time under rocks distilling precious stones from them.  For this reason, often the most splendid precious stones are found between the hardest and largest rocks.

Likewise add the following to all the advantages mountains have for generating metallic substances:  namely, that when you dig into the mountains two or three hundred paces, you are still above the surface of the earth, and so you can more easily drain the water and transport the earth you have dug there.  On a plain this requires half again more labor because you cannot shore up cave-ins the way you can in mountains.  Neither can you easily determine the layer which contains the metallic substances, nor extract them once you find them like you can in a higher place because you have no signs to go by [e.g., the exposed layers in the sides of the mountains].  For these and more great reasons, few people work in the plains.  Most stay of necessity near mountain quarries to excavate them because of all the metallic materials that are there.... 

One can see [oil, water and wine] separate in a glass:  the wine will be under the oil and the water under the wine.  By this you can see directly which of these -- the wine, the oil or the water -- is the most subtle.  For if one of these is lighter, it will be on top of the others, thus oil is lighter than wine and wine is lighter than water....  There is nothing better for prolonging life than oil because it is subtle, oily and free of waste matter, therefore it happens that because of its fineness and its inclinations it provides great nourishment to natural heat:  and because of its sincerity, it neither interferes with the human body's warmth, nor produces any obstructions in it....  Oil is beneficial to human life....

Mixtio* is the work of nature, not of art, or of fire.  All things that are truly mixed, exhibit only one form of the elements, though unrefined, and show only the virtues of the others.  For if all the elements were to be found throughout a mixed thing, that which is mixed would be simply a pile or heap, not a generated thing.... 

*Mixtio is the Latin term used by Aristotelean scholars and disciples to describe one process by which two or more substances can be combined.  The product of mixtio is essentially what modern day chemists would call a compound -- the original ingredients are chemically and physically altered upon being put into contact with one another.  The other process results in a simple combination in which the individual ingredients and their original properties can still be identified.

[I]t is necessary that all mixed things live, or that they have lived for the following reason:  because they are nourished and their nutriment is only made by the soul, and whatever has a soul lives.  And if you deny that it is nourished, at least you will agree they are generated:  for, indeed, nothing is generated if not by the soul, because it only, as I have said, is entirely blended.... 

If man, animals and plants are alive, consider that it is the same celestial heat that blends all these things, nothing less....  [As] Hippocrates has said, the soul is nothing other than celestial heat.  This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle who claims that the heat of the soul is proportional to that of the stars.  For either the celestial heat is soul or the first instrument of it, or the heat will be what the soul needs it to be -- and thus what life needs it to be -- for life is nothing other than the work of the soul.

This is made clearer by experience, for when lead is converted into white lead, and is burned, it increases in weight by one third.  This happens because the celestial heat [that was in it] disappears, for it is certain that nothing has been added and yet its weight is increased.  The same seems true with animals which become heavier after death when the soul and body heat leave, and all that was a product of that heat disappears.  It is manifest that the metallic bodies and stones also live.

...[M]etallic substances live because they are born in mountains, just as plants are, with their large branches, roots, trunks, and with flowers and fruits.  Other than plants, metal or metallic substances are the only things that are buried and hidden.  All metals are born under the earth and are unable to grow above the earth, because they are crumbly like couperose, called vitriol [copper sulfate], ... or very heavy like lead.  Also we see that moles, among the animals, and worms and toads are generated under the earth.  But it isn't convenient to generate animals under the ground in large numbers like plants because while life and the nutrition of which the metals have need are able to be produced under the earth, air for respiration, which the perfect animals require, is difficult to provide for there.  Genres of metallic materials are generated by nature under the earth in such great numbers that I dare say no one could count them.  For if nature adorns the earth with more than five hundred species of plants, and has also placed the animals over the plants, it is very likely that it is the same situation under the ground -- even more so.  But many things are hidden under the surface and we must refer by analogy to genres that are closer to hand, that are similar in color or substance....

We have said that metallic substances -- the metals and the stones -- are alive.  Because substances that ripen, turn sour, and grow old, also have a life.  Some immature stones have little color and contain unripe substance.  Likewise, a portion of these are pure, others impure, just as one sees in fruits of the same tree.  Moreover, they have veins and instruments of nutrition, and ducts and little passages like those we know that nourish plants and the bones of animals.  For if stones grow by addition [i.e., by simple combination], they have no need of veins.  And stones that only grow by heat, which we commonly call tuff [a porous consolidation of volcanic ash and dust], and likewise those that grow only by cold have neither veins nor organized substance, as do true stones and those that have life, because tuff has no life.  And the true stones suffer death because they have life. 

Where I live, the stone of Hercules called aimant, or magnes in Latin [magnetite], perishes in time.  At first it attracts iron actively, but over time it no longer attracts it.  Indeed, what other thing is life than the function of the soul.  I have shown in my treatise on Medicine that only living things function.  The elements do not live at all, strictly speaking, considering that by their own wont, they are produced [and, if left to follow their own inclinations, remain] in their own regions.  But mixed things seek the very best life, because nature pushes itself always to make something better than it was when it was first made....

Therefore, considering that force and virtue are by law properties only of the living, it is necessary that stones which have force have soul.  You will say, This philosopher denies that.  Well, those who agree that stones are generated or grow, necessarily agree that they live because it is known that the following actions are common to the vegetative faculty, according to the testimony of Galen:  to be generated, to be nourished, to grow.  It seems also that nature little by little goes from one extreme to another and that she links things with distinct characteristics by other things that have characteristics midway between them.  For example between things that are unnourished and non-living and those that are nourished and alive, something could be found in between that is so constituted that it lives, but does not require nourishment or is nourished but not alive....

Metallic substances come from the mountains, like trees they have roots, trunks, branches, and many leaves:  some parts of them are subtle and slender sometimes having flowers and fruits:  while others have neither fruits nor flowers.  This likewise we see in herbs and plants that are born on the wayside, in the shade or in places that are very arid....  It is obvious that the fruits and flowers indicate a tree that is abundant and fertile, and this fertility is owing in part to the availability of humor and in part to the heat of the sun.  For this reason, it's no marvel if metallic substances sometimes don't have flowers or fruits considering they aren't in the sun every day and often they lack access to abundant humor.

Indeed, if you want to know where the metallic substances are in abundance, several specific guidelines are needed. 

First, a fertile area exhibits metallic substances -- like Germany today, which is fertile in silver.  In Italy one would have difficulty finding silver mines, and there are none of gold. 

In a fertile [agriculturally] region, many fields are fertile, thus in an area that is fertile with metals, many mountains there offer hope of finding metals....

Likewise, mountains in warm regions are the most fertile in precious stones because in the Midi, the humor is drier and more subdued, and because stones are generated by dryness, precious stones by fineness and rarity; and most metals are made by humor of this type.

All sterile [in vegetation] mountains are metallic for two reasons.  The first, that the humor is consumed inside, thus plants are unable to be generated, and foul exhalations kill the plants that have grown there....

BOOK VII.  On Stones

To this is added that the generation of stones takes place over a long time, while that of plants and animals is brief:  nevertheless Nature, aided by this length of time, is able to make something more excellent....

Go to:
  • works of Paracelsus (1493-1541)
  • The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague (c. 1916) by Chayim Bloch (1881-1973)
  • The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) by John Gerard (1545-1612)
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