The Book of the Composition of Alchemy

The Book of the Composition of Alchemy (Latin: Liber de compositione alchemiae) is generally considered to be the first translation of an Arabic work on alchemy into Latin, completed on 11 February 1144 by the English Arabist Robert of Chester. It contains a dialogue between the semi-legendary Byzantine monk Morienus (Arabic: مريانس‎, Maryānus, perhaps from Greek Μαριανός, Marianos) and the Umayyad prince Khalid ibn Yazid (c. 668 – c. 704). The popularity of the work among later alchemists is shown by the fact that it has been preserved in many manuscripts and that it has been printed and translated into vernacular languages several times since the sixteenth century.

The Latin translation is for the most part based on an Arabic source called The Epistle of the Wise Monk Maryanos to the Prince Khālid ibn Yazīd (Risālat Maryānus al-rāhib al-ḥakīm li-l-amīr Khālid ibn Yazīd), though both the Arabic and the Latin texts contain sections not present in the other. The Arabic text belongs to the alchemical works associated with Khalid ibn Yazid, which are widely regarded as ninth century forgeries, although it has also been argued that they may go back to the eighth century.

The Latin word alchemia in the title does not yet refer to alchemy, but rather to the elixir (i.e., the agent of transmutation), the actual meaning of the title thus being "the book on the composition of the elixir". As the Latin translator states in his preface:

This book styles itself the composition of alchemy. And as your Latin world does not yet know what alchemy is and what its composition is, I will clarify it in the present text. [...] Alchemy is a material substance taken from one and composed by one, joining between them the most precious substances by affinity and effect, and by the same natural mixture, naturally transforming them into better substances.

It has been noted that the part "taken from one and composed by one" (Latin: ex uno et per unum composita) is reminiscent of the Emerald Tablet.

Bibliography

Editions of the Latin text:

Manget, Jean-Jacques 1702. Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa. 2 vols., Geneva, vol. 1, pp. 509–519.

Stavenhagen, Lee 1974. A Testament of Alchemy. Being the Revelations of Morienus to Khālid ibn Yazīd. Hanover: Brandeis University Press. (also contains an English translation)

Editions of the Arabic source text:

al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. 2004. “The Arabic Original of the Liber de compositione alchemiae: The Epistle of Maryānus, the Hermit and Philosopher, to Prince Khālid ibn Yazīd” in: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, 14(2), pp. 213–231. (same content also available online) (partial edition and English translation)

Literature:

Bacchi, Eleonora and Martelli, Matteo 2009. “Il Principe Halid b. Yazid e le origini dell'alchimia araba” in: Cevenini, Daniele and D'Onofrio, Svevo. Conflitti e Dissensi Nell'Islam. Bologna: Il Ponte Editrice, pp. 85–119. (contains a systematic comparison of the Arabic and the Latin text)

Dapsens, Marion 2016. “De la Risālat Maryānus au De Compositione alchemiae: Quelques réflexions sur la tradition d’un traité d’alchimie” in: Studia graeco-arabica, 6, pp. 121–140.

Halleux, Robert 1996. “The reception of Arabic alchemy in the West” in: Rashed, Roshdi (ed.). Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science. Vol. I-III. London & New York: Routledge, vol. III, pp. 886–902.

Lory, Pierre 1989. Alchimie et mystique en terre d’Islam. Lagrasse: Verdier.

Moureau, Sébastien 2020. “Min al-kīmiyāʾ ad alchimiam. The Transmission of Alchemy from the Arab-Muslim World to the Latin West in the Middle Ages” in: Micrologus, 28, pp. 87–141. (a survey of all Latin alchemical texts known to have been translated from the Arabic)

Ruska, Julius 1924. Arabische Alchemisten I. Chālid ibn Jazīd ibn Muʿāwija. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Stavenhagen, Lee 1970. “The Original Text of the Latin Morienus” in: Ambix, 17(1), pp. 1–12.

Ullmann, Manfred 1978. “Ḫālid Ibn Yazīd und die Alchemie: Eine Legende” in: Der Islam, 55(2), pp. 181–218.


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