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Understanding the Language of Alchemy

Understanding the Language of Alchemy: The Medieval Arabic Alchemical Lexicon in Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms Sprenger 1908∗

By Gabriele Ferrario

Digital Proceedings of the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, Vol.1 (2009)

Abstract: The editing of medieval alchemical texts poses a number of challenges to the modern scholar. Problems such as the lack of source identification, complicated compositional structures, and a tendency toward intentionally obfuscatory language make the task of reconstructing the original letter of text a practical impossibility. This paper will argue that an alternative approach toward editing alchemical texts must be considered. This approach will be determined by focusing on issues related to the technical lexicon of practical alchemy, and in particular, to the problems related to the understanding of the words used by the alchemists for describing the substances used in their operations.

Introduction: Only recently has a renewed scholarly interest in the history of alchemy begun to shed a new light on the discipline, which has been neglected and relegated – together with astrology, magic and the knowledge of talismans – to the field of the so-called “pseudo-sciences” since ancient times. Alchemy has gained its own place in the history of science, and the increasing number of publications and international conferences on this subject stand as a proof of the liveliness of this field of research and of its relevance.

In spite of the increased interest in this subject, the scholar interested in working with alchemical manuscripts still has to face a number of obstacles not otherwise met by scholars dealing with more traditional texts. For example, questions of authorship and the true nature of the contents of these texts are often difficult to determine. Since the status of alchemy together with its validity as a science and its compatibility with a religious view of the world have always been debated, authors of alchemical treatises often attempt to elevate the significance of the work by falsely attributing their writings to recognized authorities.

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