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

Week 3.  Structuring Lives

excerpts from
The Letter of Roger Bacon Concerning the Marvelous Power of Art and of Nature and Concerning the Nullity of Magic (1252)
by Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294)
translated from Latin by Tenney L. Davis (1923)

Chapter 6
Incendiary Compositions
...We can prepare from saltpeter and other materials an artificial fire which will burn at whatever distance we please.  The same may be made from red petroleum and other things, and from amber, and naphtha, and white petroleum, and from similar materials.  Pliny reports in his second book that he defended a certain city against the Roman Army, and, by throwing down many incendaries, burned the soldiers in spite of their armor. Greek Fire [an incendiary material developed by the Byzantines in the 7th century, who fired it from copper tubes at enemy ships] and many other combustibles are closely akin to these mixtures.
"Greek fire" was a deadly secret weapon made of sulfur, naphtha, quick-lime and saltpeter which burned all the more fiercely when its victims tried to douse the flames with water.
Further:  perpetual lamps may be made, and baths which retain their heat forever, for we know of substances which are not burned by fire but which are purified.

Beyond these are still other stupendous things in Nature.  For the sound of thunder may be artificially produced in the air with greater resulting horror than if it had been produced by natural causes.  A moderate amount of proper material, of the size of the thumb, will make a horrible sound and violent coruscation [a sudden flash of light].  Such material may be used in a variety of ways, as, for instance, in a case similar to that in which a whole army and city were destroyed by means of the strategy of Gideon who, with broken jugs and torches, and with fire leaping forth with ineffable thunder, routed the army of the Midianites with three hundred men.  These are miracles, if accepted according to their account in size and in substance....

Chapter 8
The Wisdom of Keeping Secrets

Now that some few examples of the power of Nature and of Art have been enumerated--in order that we may infer many from few, all from parts, universals from particulars, in order that we may see that it is unnecessary for us to aspire to magic since Nature and Art suffice--I wish to pursue certain singulars in their order and causes and to give their method in particular.  But I recall that secrets of Nature are not committed to the skins of goats and of sheep that anyone may understand them, as Socrates and Aristotle have pointed out, and as the latter says in his liber Secretorum, "He is a breaker of the heavenly seal who communicates the secrets of Nature and of Art," adding that "Many evils follow the man who reveals secrets."  And again in the book Noctium Atticarum de collatione sapientium, "It is stupid to offer lettuces to an ass since he is content with his thistles," and in lib. Lapidum it is written that "The man who divulges mysteries diminishes the majesty of things, and a secret loses its value if the common crowd knows about it."....

Seven Ways of Concealing Secrets

The cause of the obscurity in the writings of all wise men has been that the crowd derides and neglects the secrets of wisdom and knows nothing of the use of these exceedingly important matters.  And, if by chance, any magnificent truth falls to its notice, it seizes upon it and abuses it to the manifold disadvantage of persons and of the community.  A man is crazy who writes a secret unless he conceals it from the crowd and leaves it so that it can be understood only by effort of the studious and wise.  Accordingly, the life of wise men is conducted after this principle, and secrets of wisdom are hidden by a variety of methods.  some are hidden under characters and symbols, others in enigmatical and figurative expressions, as in the case where Aristotle says in his liber Secretorum, "O, Alexander, I wish to show you the greatest of secrets, and it behooves you to conceal this arcanum and to perfect the proposed work of this stone of art which is no stone [the Philosopher's stone, or fundamental and pure stuff of metals], which is in every man, and in every place, and in every time, and which is called the goal of all philosophers."  such expressions are found in many books and sciences, and innumerable writings are obscured in this fashion, so that no one may understand them without his teacher.  Others hide their secrets in a third manner by their method of writing, as by writing with consonants only like the Hebrews, Chaldeans, Syrians, and Arabians, and as the Greeks do, for there is much among them which is obscured in this way.  And there is especially much among the Hebrews, for Aristotle says in the above mentioned book, "God gave then all wisdom long before they were philosophers, and all nations get their principles of philosophy from the Hebrews," and Albumasar in his book Introductorii maloris, and other philosophers, and Josephus in the eighth book Antiquitatum, teach the same thing plainly enough.  Fourthly, the obscuring is produced by intermixing various kinds of letters, for so Ethicus the Astronomer hides his wisdom by writing Hebrew, Greek, and Latin letters in the same word.  Fifthly, authors hide their secrets by means of special letters, devised by their own ingenuity and will, and different from those which are anywhere in use.  This is a most serious impediment, and was used by Artephius in his book de Secretis naturae.  Sixthly, actual letters are not used but other geomantic figures which function as letters according to the arrangement of points and marks--and this method also Artephius used in his science.  Seventhly, there is still a better way of obscuring which is comprehended in the ars notaria which is the art of noting and writing with whatever brevity we wish and with whatever rapidity we desire--and by this means many secrets are hidden in the books of the Latins.

I have judged it necessary to touch upon these ways of concealment in order that I may help you as much as I can.  Perhaps I shall make use of certain of them because of the magnitude of our secrets.

Chapter 9
Preparation of the Philosophers' Egg

I say to you therefore that I wish to set forth in an orderly manner the things which I have narrated above.  I wish to describe the egg of the Philosophers [egg-shaped alchemical vessel used in attempts to produce the Philosopher's Stone; in this case Bacon uses the phrase to indicate to the adept reader that what follows is a container of secrets] and to investigate the parts of Philosophic man, for thereby is an initiation to other things.

I. Grind the salt diligently with waters and purify it with other grindings with water rub it vigorously in various contritions with the salt, and burn it with many blasts so that a pure earth shall be made free from other elements which I hold worthy for your purpose by the stature of my height.  Understand this if you can; for without a doubt there will be a composition from the elements and so there will be a part of the stone which is not a stone, which is in every man and which you will find in its proper place in every season of the year.  Then you take oil which is like a salve or a viscous cheese not to be broken asunder by the first thrust.  Let its whole fiery virtue be divided, and let it be separated by dissolution.  Let it then be dissolved in acute water of moderate acuteness with gentle heating, and let it be boiled until its scum has separated as the scum or fatness of flesh is separated by distillation so that the black virtue in which urine is distilled shall not issue forth to the liquid from its unctuosity.  Afterward let it be boiled in vinegar.  Then let it be dried among the coals (which is the cause of adustion [burning]), and the black virtue may be obtained.  But if it is not cured by this treatment, let the process be repeated.  Watch and wait.

II.  The discourse is difficult at this point.  The oil truly dissolves both in acute waters, and in common oil as is done more expressly,  and in acute oil of almonds over the fire, with the result that the oil is separated and the spirit remains hidden both in its animal parts, and in its sulphur, and in its arsenic.  For stones in which oil of humidity is in excess have a purpose for their own humors, partly because there is no vehement union when one can be dissolved away from the other on account of the nature of water which is fundamental for liquefaction in the spirit and is the medium between their own parts and the oil.  When the solution has been made there will remain to us a pure humidity vehemently mixed in spirit with the dry parts which are moved in it when the fire resolves it.  It is sometimes called the fusile sulphur of the Philosophers, sometimes oil, sometimes aerial humor, sometimes the conjunctive substance which fire does not separate, and sometimes camphor--and, in short, it is the Philosophers' Egg, or rather the goal and purpose of the egg.  And this which comes to us from these oils, but is reputed to be among the sinapica, is separated from the water or the oil in which it is purged.

III.  Further, the oil is corrupted as you know by triturating [grinding] it with desiccating [drying] substances such as salt or atrament [sulfate of a metal such as copper, iron, or zinc], and by assation [sublimation or volitalization], notwithstanding its passion to the contrary.  Then it is sublimed, by which means it is deprived of its oleogineity and becomes like sulphur or arsenic in mineral preparations; and it is good as it is.

IV.  It is better that it should be boiled in waters of temperate acuteness until it is purged and whitened, and the salutary concoction may be in a moist or in a dry fire.  The distillation is repeated in order that it may sufficiently take on the right degree of goodness until it is rectified--and the newest signs of the rectification are candor and crystalline serenity.  When other things are blackened by the fire, this is whitened, and is purified, and shines with serenity and marvelous splendor.  From this water and earth quicksilver is generated, because it is like the quicksilver in minerals.  When the substance has been whitened in this way, it is frozen--the true aerial stone, which is not a stone, and it is placed in a pyramid in a warm place, or, if you wish, it is put away in the belly of a horse or ox in acute fever [a moderately heated oven].  From this in ten and from that in twenty-one it sometimes results that the feces of the oils are dissolved in their own water; they are afterwards separated, and the solution and distillation are repeated many times until the product is rectified.  This is the end of this intention.  You know indeed that when you shall have consummated this operation it will behoove you to begin another.

V.  There is a another secret which I wish to conceal for you.  Prepare quicksilver by mortifying it with the vapor of tin for pearls and with the vapor of lead for the Iberian stone.  Then let it be ground up with desiccating substances like atrament or others which have been named, and let it be digested. Then let it be sublimed, if for union ten times, if for redness twenty-one times, until the humidity in it is corrupted.  It is not possible that its humidity should be separated by vapor like the before-said oil, because it is vehemently mixed with its dry parts, nor does this constitute any object as has been said in the case of the metals above-mentioned.  You will not decipher anything in this paragraph unless you understand the proper signification of the words.

VI.  It is time to involve the third chapter in order that you may understand the key of the work that you seek.  A calcined substance also is to be added at some time, and this of such sort that the humor in it is corrupted by salt and sal ammoniac and vinegar, and that it is consumed by quicksilver and is sublimed from it until a powder remains.  The keys of the art are therefore congelation, resolution, inceration, and projection, and this is the end and principle.  But purification, distillation, separation, sublimation, calcination, and inquisition are also used--and then you may rest.

Chapter 10
The Philosophers' Egg Described in Another Way

VIII.  In the six hundred and second Arabian year [after the Hejira, or 622 CE + 602 = 1224 CE] you asked me about certain secrets.  Take then the stone and calcine it with gentle assation and with strong contrition, but however without using acute things.  In the end mix it with a little sweet water and compound a laxative medicine from seven things if you wish, or from six, or from five, or from however many you wish.  But my mind rests in two things the proportions of which are in six or thereabouts better than in some other proportion, as experiment can teach you.  Resolve the gold at the fire nevertheless, and strain it better.  If you believe me, take one thing which is the secret of secrets of Nature, able to do miracles.  Mix it from two or from many or from the Phoenix [residue after a material is crystallized] (which is a singular animal) at the fire and incorporate with a strong motion.  If, to this, the hot liquor be added four or five times, you will have finally the proposed material.  Afterwards its celestial nature is weakened, if you infuse warm water three or four times.  Therefore divide the weak from the strong in various vessels, if you believe me--and let that which is good be emptied out.  Then bring together the powder and the residual water, and squeeze it out thoroughly--for the unsubstantial water of a certainty will produce a further amount of powder.  For this reason, collect the water by itself, for the powder exsiccated from it is suitable to be incorporated in the laxative medicine.

VIII.  Proceed therefore as before until you distinguish the strong from the weak.  Bring together the powder three or four times, or more; and work always in the same way.  And if you are not able to work with warm water, do it by violence.  If however it is broken by the acuteness and gentleness of the medicine, add more of the hard and the soft when the powder is at hand.  If it is broken by the abundance of the powder, add more of the medicine; if by the strength of the water, stir it with a pestle, bring the material together as well as you can, separate the water little by little--and it will return to its state.  Dry out this water, for it contains both the powder and the water of the medicine which are to be incorporated in the same manner as the original powder.

IX.  Here you must not sleep; for, herein is contained a useful great secret.  If you know how properly to make use of certain parts of burned shrubs or of willow [charcoal] or of many other things, they will hold natural union.  And do not deliver this secret to oblivion, for it is valuable in many ways.  You must mix Trinity with the liquefied union and there will arise, as I believe, a thing similar to the Iberian stone, and it must without doubt be mortified by the vapor of lead.  You will find lead if you express it from the dead and if you inter the dead in a twig-burning furnace.  Keep this secret, for there is nothing of greater usefulness.  And you must do these things with the vapor of Pearl [sulfur] and with the stone of Tagus [saltpeter]--and you must bury the dead as I have said.

Chapter 11
The Philosophers' Egg Described in a Third way

X.  In the six hundred and thirtieth Arabian year [1252 CE] I respond to your request in this fashion.  You must have the medicine which dissolves in that which has been liquefied and is anointed by it, which penetrates to the second end of it and is thoroughly mixed with it, and which, since it may not be a fugitive servant, really transmutes it.  Let it combine with the root of the spirit, and let it be fixed by the calx of the metal.  It is understood, moreover, that fixion occurs when body and spirit are disposed each in its own place and are sublimed, and everything so happens that body becomes spirit and spirit becomes body.

XI.  Take then of the bones of Adam [charcoal] and of the Calx [sulfur], the same weight of each; and there are six of the Petral Stone [saltpeter] and five of the Stone of Union.  Let them be ground up together with aqua vitae [alcohol] (whose property it is to dissolve all things) until they are dissolved and assated, and the sign of the inceration is that the mixture melts when it is placed upon strongly heated iron.  Then it is placed in the same water in a moist place or suspended in the vapor of hot water or some other liquid, and finally it is congealed in the sun.

XII.  Afterwards take saltpeter and convert quicksilver into lead.  And you will again wash the lead in it, and you will purify it so that it will be near-silver.  Then you will operate as formerly.  Likewise you will drink all there may be of it.

XIII.  However of saltpeter LVRV VO PO VIR CAN VTRI  [possibly an anagram for "R. VI. PART. V. NOV. CORVLI. V. ET" standing for "recipe VI partes, V novi coruli, V"] and of sulphur:  and so you will make thunder and lightning, and so you will make the artifice.  But you must take note whether I am speaking in an enigma or according to the truth.

XIV.  Some men have thought otherwise, for it has been told me that you ought to resolve all to the first matter.  Concerning this you will find that Aristotle speaks in well-known and famous places, and for that reason I am silent about it.  When you have this you have many things simple and equal, and you may accomplish it by means of the three contraries [Knowledge, Power, and Will] and the several operations that I have earlier called the Keys of Art.  Aristotle says that "Equality of power confines the action and passion of substances," and Averrhoes affirms the same thing in reproof of Galen.  This medicine is thought to be simpler and purer than others which may be found, and it is of value in the treatment of fevers and of passions of the mind and body.

Whoever will rewrite this, will have a key which opens and no man shuts:  and when he will shut, no man opens.

Apparatus, from The Art of Distillation (1651) by John French

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