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Transmutation of Matter in Byzantium: The Case of Michael Psellos, the Alchemist
Published online: 31 October 2007 Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007
Abstract There is thus nothing paradoxical about the inclusion of alchemy in the ensemble of the physical sciences nor in the preoccupation with it on the part of learned men engaged in scientiﬁc study. In the context of the Medieval model, where discourse on the physical world was ambiguous, often unclear, and lacking the support of experimental veriﬁcation, the transmutation of matter, which was the subject of alchemy, even if not attended by a host of occult features, was a process that was thought to have a probable basis in reality. What is interesting in this connection is the utilization of the scientiﬁc categories of the day for discussion of transmutation of matter and the attempt to avoid, in most instances in the texts that survive, of methods reminiscent of magic. Keywords Alchemy Á Byzantine era Á History of science Á Michael Psellus
1 The Physical Sciences in Byzantium When one speaks of views on science, i.e. systems of thought pertaining to the physical world, in previous historical periods, one should bear in mind that there are dangers lurking: particular care should be taken not to bring contemporary data into our interpretation of scientiﬁc discussions of a bygone age, so as to avoid a posteriori judgments and evaluations in terms of present-day knowledge. Not only is such an anachronistic approach not conducive to comprehension of the period in question; it can introduce an added element of confusion and make the landscape of the past even murkier. Thus, when examining views of nature as formulated in the Byzantine period, we must remember a number of basic facts: First, scientiﬁc observation of nature, precise description of what is observed and experiment in accordance with a strict methodology,
G. Katsiampoura (&) Byzantine Studies, Foundation of the Hellenic World, Mavromihali 49, Athens 10680, Greece e-mail: email@example.com
student of Hypatia. with a decree by Diocletian in approximately 290 (Lafont 2000). 123 . The occultism that today constitutes a criterion for distinguishing between science and pseudo-science was in the Byzantine period an integral element in studies of the physical world (Stefanidis 1923). Lemerle 1979). who converted to Christianity (Katsiampoura 2004). 2 Alchemy in the Byzantine Period There is thus nothing paradoxical about the inclusion of alchemy in the ensemble of the physical sciences nor in the preoccupation with it on the part of learned men engaged in scientiﬁc study. it was transferred to Constantinople.664 G. material—world. Katsiampoura were unknown to the Byzantines. was a process that was thought to have a probable basis in reality. However. The sublunary—i. in all probability for legitimizing this speciﬁc ﬁeld. With main objective the transmutation of metals into gold and silver alchemy continued to interest the scholars. as a magical art but as a science (Lafont 2000). The third element that must be taken into account is the close link between the sciences and what would today be called pseudo-sciences (Katsiampoura 2004). With Alexandria as a centre. In spite of all these. from Late Antiquity a body of texts was composed and their study didn’t stop throughout the thousand years of the Byzantine Period. where discourse on the physical world was ambiguous. Second. during the Byzantine Period involvement with alchemy remained one of the scholars’ interests. It embodied the wisdom of the Creator. Besides. What is worth mentioning is that in Byzantine manuscripts many philosophers of Antiquity were included among the alchemists (Lafont 2000). In the context of the Medieval model. a characteristic text was the one by Synesios of Cyrene. the transmutation of matter. often unclear. as we have already said. even if not attended by a host of occult features. was not what primarily attracted the learned. like Synesios of Cyrene. being seen as imperishable and eternal (sempiternal) was immutable and so could be interpreted through deployment of mathematic principles. alchemy was perceived as an involvement with magic and this is evident by its prohibition even at a very early stage. precisely because of its perishable nature and amenability to change. at times as an acceptable occupation and at times entailing the risk of accusations or even prosecutions (possibly this was the case with the Iconoclast John VII the Grammarian. when the scholarly world began to concern itself with such questions. the physical sciences were of secondary signiﬁcance in Byzantine thought. The text of Synesios of Cyrene deals with gold and silver making based on the principles and materials of nature (Synesius 1888). above all from the 12th century onwards. and representatives a lot of scholars. What is interesting in this connection is the utilization of the scientiﬁc categories of the day for discussion of transmutation of matter and the attempt to avoid. not. in most instances in the texts that survive. even of church ofﬁcials. of methods reminiscent of magic (Hunger 1978). something true later also of the West.e. In this framework. who is mainly known as a historian and philosopher. which was the subject of alchemy. Following the Aristotelian division of the world into superlunary and sublunary. and lacking the support of experimental veriﬁcation. In consequence the physical sciences were separated entirely from the mathematical and accorded much less respect (Hunger 1978). emphasis was placed—in accordance with Christian dogma— on the superlunary which.
water. it should in other words. alia. the particular powers of physical bodies and their transformations are to be found throughout the works of Michael Psellos. Opuscula logica. earth. Psellos includes in the ensemble of physical science investigations a number of sectors as presented in his most extensive relevant work. it is nevertheless considered essential. which are used in interpreting the superlunary world. rapidly drawn into disrepute (Lemerle 1971). at the second the study of mathematical sciences. leading to a yet higher stage. air) are removed. A scholar in the imperial court. The ﬁrst chapter of ‘‘Didaskalia Pantodapi’’ is devoted to an examination of the nature of matter. Duffy 1992): from physical phenomena such as earthquakes and wind. Even if the study of the physical world is assigned a lower place in the hierarchy of value. so as to proceed to the next stage of mathematical sciences. In the same work he devotes a chapter to the processes of fusion 123 . Following the inherited scholarly models. Knowledge must therefore commence from the perceptible. in his work ‘‘Didaskalia Pantodapi’’ (published as Omnifaria Doctrina) he attempted to bring together in its chapters the hitherto scattered and fragmentary knowledge of the physical world (Westerink 1948). This is a view that in the 12th century was also to be posited as an objective by Albert the Great. Although as early as the 9th century there had been some isolated attempts to investigate the physical world. Thus evaluated. O’Meara 1981–1992. Michael Psellos also favoured a speciﬁc hierarchical ordering of studies. concluding that it is what remains if the special characteristics of Aristotle’s four elements of nature (ﬁre. thunder. because it leads to discovery of the ‘‘apocrypha’’. follow a course of investigating what has caused something to come into existence. the secrets of nature. teaching about the physical world according to Psellos should aim at highlighting the causes of phenomena. in accordance with Aristotelian principles (Sofroniou 1967).Transmutation of Matter in Byzantium 665 3 Michael Psellos and Study of the Physical World Precisely because of their object of investigation and the evaluative rank to which they had been assigned in the ﬁeld of knowledge. 4 Michael Psellos: On Gold Making References to matter. from the objects of the physical world. One of the scholars who attached particular importance to study of the physical world. and the structure of the heavens to questions pertaining to matter and its transformations. Philosophica minora. hail. head of the philosophy school under Constantine IX Monomachos (1042–1055) with the rank of supreme philolosopher. and indeed as a subject for teaching. was Michael Psellos. allegorica. that of philosophy (Sofroniou 1967). Interest in the physical world essentially made its appearance in the mid-11th century (Kazhdan and Warton Epstein 1985) and was associated with a more general secularization of Byzantine thought and ideology. etc. the physical sciences in Byzantium were slow to attract the interest of scholars. one of the ﬁrst in the West to become engaged with the study of physical phenomena (Thuiller 2005).g. ‘‘polyhistor’’ on account of his multiplicity of interests. and proceed through seeking out the general principles that inform it. and were. the victory of the supporters of icon worship and the fact that such activities were associated with the ancient Greek past and thus with paganism meant that they could be. through the application of a speciﬁc method. placing at a ﬁrst and foremost level the physical—sublunary—world. at the third theology and metaphysics. the Omnifaria Doctrina (Westernink 1948) as well as in other smaller works (e. Duffy. as was mentioned before. physica.
improvement of its quality. He explains this phenomenon through change in proportions of the four elements that comprise it as a result of the action of a lightning bolt that has minimized the presence of the elements of water and air. he goes on to present and analyze the methods for producing gold. which when mixed together and heated are transmuted into gold. with the use of silver and sulphur. In his letter Psellos for a start insists that the basic principle for approaching the physical world. Pyrite: ‘‘fool’s gold’’ 123 . is that of attempting to discover the reasons for things. and in Philosophica minora he was to attribute special powers to stones.g. owing to the particular interest of the patriarch in production of gold (from love of learning. things mutate for physical reasons and not on account of ‘‘monstrous or other unmentionable factors’’. the method proposed is to mix it with pyrite3 and ebony scrapings while to add lustre the suggestion is to use pyrite. It is interesting to note the detailed instructions for heating. in which the writer. he hastens to clarify. Stypteria: a sulphurous salt of aluminium and potassium. one of the aforementioned secrets of nature. in accordance with traditional alchemical endeavours (Hunger 1978). up until the Renaissance and perhaps later. sulphur. with particular emphasis on the time required by the process. is not unrelated to these matters which preoccupy him. discusses the production of gold. was the principal goal of the alchemist tradition. there is nothing arcane or godlike about the methods he employs. arsenic and sulphur. Psellos’ interest in alchemy. iron. They are based on the use of elements of nature and the corresponding knowledge. She ﬁrst method he proposes is the production of gold from sea sand. in his opinion. or lead. outlining a number of possible methods. through transmutation of other baser metals. O’Meara 1989). it is known that he was a student of the arithmology of Iamblichos (Hunger 1978) and of a series of mystic prophecies called the ‘‘Chaldaean Oracles’’. Katsiampoura and constitution of bodies. he cites the example of the roots of an oak tree. And to prove the soundness of this interpretation of transformations in things.666 G. iron and vinegar. as is indeed appropriate for the physical sciences. will ﬁnally yield gold. The following methods are based on the use of magnesia1 and oil. emphasizing that for him himself the question of transmutation of stones is of equal interest. For his remuneration he requests that the patriarch should show him the sublime blessings of heaven upon the earth. he explains that he searches out the reasons for transformation of material things in changes of proportion of the four basic elements that comprise them. theologica. as previously indicated. According to Psellos. on the other to directions for doubling of its existing quantity. daemonologica. still relatively young. For doubling of the existing quantity of gold. The second method is based on the use of minerals such as sandarac and cinnabar. However. Through heating and then cooling. and to a number of other subjects perceived as occult on the basis of contemporary scientiﬁc classiﬁcation (e. which has been transformed into stone. 1 2 3 Magnesia: magnesium oxide. The production of gold. Thus. Opuscula psychologica. on the basis of the principle that the cause of transformations in things must be sought in nature. in any case. then. In this framework. The text ‘‘On gold making’’ (Bidez 1928) is a letter by Psellos to the Patriarch Michael Kerullarios. stypteria2 and cinnabar. not from avarice) he limits discussion on the one hand to methods for production of gold. According to Psellos himself. sand according to Psellos. and heightening of its lustre.
as they emerge from the ‘‘On gold making’’ text. This latter is of particular interest for the history of science. The authority that is attributed to reason. University of California Press. the relationship between cause and effect. 2. claims universal validity insofar as hermeneutic approaches to the physical world are concerned. London ´ ` Lafont O (2000) De l’alchimie a la chimie. The answer to any such question is obvious. Athens (Perception. to the content of the letter and its legitimacy. based on a search for the natural causes of things. that serve to highlight certain aspects of the thinking of the Byzantine period. transmission and function of science in middle Byzantine era and the Quadrivium of 1008) (in Greek) Kazhdan AP. into gold. Leipzig Sofroniou SA (1967) Michael Psellos’ theory of science. which is directly linked to the history of that speciﬁc political formation. addresses the letter to him. Munchen Katsiampoura G (2004) Proslipsi. irrespective of the later evolution of that ﬁrst attempt. PUF. is obvious if one takes into account the identities both of the sender and the recipient of the letter. Psellos himself. Nevertheless it is worth noting some elements. De Operatione Daemonum. alia. as previously indicated. Athena 29:78–90 123 . allegorica. physica. Teubner. Los Angeles. Ellipses Edition Marketing S. Paris O’Meara DJ (1989) Michael Psellus. which warrant further analysis. Univerity of Ioannina. and in any case experimental veriﬁcation. Wharton Epstein A (1985) Change in the Byzantine culture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. was not presupposed in the thinking of Byzantine scholars. References ˆ ´ Bidez J (1928) Michel Psellus. Philosophica minora. 3.Transmutation of Matter in Byzantium 667 We do not intend to address the matter of the power or futility of the alchemical methods proposed by Psellos for transmutation of ‘‘stones and grasses’’. Leibzig ¨ Hunger H (1978) Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner. as mentioned before. daemonologica. 1. which cannot be metaphysical. Ioannina (in Greek) Duffy JM (1992) Michael Psellus. as he writes. vol.A Lemerle P (1971) Le premier humanisme byzantin. To begin with it is impressive to observe the attempt at demystifying older methods and citing a new framework: that of scientiﬁc method for interpretation of the physical world. Precisely this insistence on defending the relation between cause and effect in the physical world is what really impresses. Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences. but also by the standards of the past. Leipzig Duffy JM. Opuscula psychologica. metadosi kai leitourgia ton epistimon sti mesi byzantini periodo kai to Quadrivium tou 1008. L’Epitre sur la Chrysopee. Beck. Catalogue des Manuscrits Alchimiques Grecs. The mystagogy that accompanied the alchemists’ methods in their quest to produce gold retreats before the stance that all phenomena in nature have a speciﬁc cause. Bruxelles ¨ Boissonade JF (1838) Michael Psellos. Presentation and interpretation of the issues is transparently secular. Teubner. O’Meara D (1989–1991) Michael Psellus. highlighting an entire framework of scientiﬁc rhetoric and thought in its complexity and in its social and spiritual commitments and side-effects. VI. We are thus confronted by a period in which the endeavour to achieve a rationalistic and secular interpretation of experience is extended into what are quintessentially irrationalistic areas by present-day standards. It is signiﬁcant that a patriarch took an interest in aspects of the issue pertaining to the physical world and scientiﬁc interpretation of it. Teubner. At no point in text are there to be found references to the divine will. Berkeley. theologica. Nurnberg Bokaris EP (2000) Epistemology and history of chemistry. PHD dissertation. Opuscula logica. The basic interpretative device. emphasizing his love of learning.
Ruelle CE (eds) Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs. history of education and the relation between history of science and political and economic history of Byzantium. 123 . Dissertation is about Perception. Nijmegen Author Biography Gianna Katsiampoura is researcher of History and History of Science in the Byzantine Era and she has taught at the University of Crete.V. Steinheil. Transmission and Function of Science in Middle Byzantine Era and the Quadrivium of 1008. Athens 2004. Department of Sociology. Her Ph. Greece. Irrationality and scientiﬁc thought) (in Greek) Westerink LG (1948) Michael Psellus. 1963) Thuillier P (2005) I ekdikisi ton magisson. Katsiampoura Stefanidis MK (1923) The mathematics of the Byzantines. She has published papers in referred journals on History and Philosophy of Science in Byzantium. pp 56–69 (repr.. In: Berthelot M. De omnifaria doctrina. vol. 2. Athens (The revenge of the witches.D. Panteion University of Social and Political Science. Leader Books. Paris. Centrale Drukkerij N. Her research interests include history and philosophy of science. Athena 35:206–218 (in Greek) ´ Synesius (1888) Sunesiou ﬁlosofou pros Dioskoron eis tin Biblon Dimokritou.668 G.
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