Of alchemy and dogears

Behind this link you will find scans of a book. In a sense it is just a book, a copy of John Marsham’s Canon Chronicus Aegypticus to be precise, which is now in Linda Hall Library in Kansas City. There are many extant copies of this book, but the librarians at Linda Hall did a superb job in digitizing this particularly copy. As you can see while leafing through the pages, the owner of this book was not very careful with it, or so it seems. There are dog-ears on virtually every page, and not just minor ones. Sometimes the entire page seems to have been folded over.

One might wonder: why?

As the more perceptive of you will have noticed by now, this book once belonged to Isaac Newton. And so does this practice of dog-earing. Where others would have used a pencil and underline a particular passage, Newton simply folded the page in such a way that the tip pointed at a particular word, or passage. And because most of these dog-ears are still left, we can actually see what Newton was interested in. Take for instance the following passage,

[H]e pulled out of his Pocket an Ivory Box, in which he had three ponderous Fragments, in magnitude scarcely equalizing a small Walnut; these were {} Glass-like, of the colour of pale Sulphur…

This is taken from Newton’s copy of a book by Johann Friedrich Helvetius, the short title of which reads The golden calf which the world adores, and desires. The reader would be forgiven to think that this is theological book. However, the title continues with …in which is handled the most rare and incomparable wonder of nature, in transmuting metals… , showing that this book is about alchemy. The ‘he’ in the above quote is the adept, he who has gained an understanding of the hidden knowledge that God put into the world. The {} indicates where Newton placed his dog-ear, not surprisingly pointing at a material description: glass-like, of the colour of pale sulphur.

I was able to examine this book in the Memorial Library of Wisconsin-Madison a few months back, and almost all of its ten dog-ears point at material descriptions, as a few other quotes from the same copy will show:

For the invincible Astrum of Metals overcomes all things, and changeth into a Nature like it self, &c. This Gold and Silver is more noble, and better, than those, which are dug out of Metallick Mines; for Medicinal Arcanums to be prepared therefrom.

… of the colour of Saffron, but in the intire Mass, like a blushing Rubie; (which Redness is a sign of perfect Fixation, and fixed Perfection)

… the whole Mass of Lead was transmuted into the best Gold.

… there are only two Metals and Minerals, of which it is prepared.

But there is one other type of dog-ear to be found, not pointing at material instances and descriptions, but at the role of the alchemist himself. Who is he? When is he worthy to receive the secret, arcane knowledge? In his copy of Sanguis naturæ, or, A manifest declaration of the sanguine and solar congealed liquor of nature, published anonymously, Newton folded a page in such a way that it points at these lines:

These are but a few things which I have said of the matter; which tho’ it be very secret, yet the Operation of it is more secret which nevertheless in my following Discourse I will reveal, so that its occult may be made manifest only to {} Men Elected by God.

Men Elected by God, that much have struck a chord with our Puritan raised Isaac…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s