Dysert (2012 Congress)

Anna Dysert (McGill University, Montreal)
In hoc antiquo libro: A Study of Osler Library MS 480 (De anima in arte alchemiae)”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 47th International Medieval Congress (Kalamazoo, 2012)

Session on “Medieval Manuscript Discoveries in North America:  Texts, Illuminations, Collections”
Co-sponsored by King Alfred’s Notebook LLC and the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence

Organized by Scott Gwara ( and King Alfred’s Notebook LLC)

Sessions at the 2012 Congress

[First published on our first website on 21 May 2012.]

Among the treasures of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University is a copy of De anima in arte alchemiae, a treatise falsely attributed to Avicenna.  The Latin text is believed to have been translated in Spain from a lost Arabic original in the year 1226 or 1236, according to colophons found in other manuscript witnesses.  The text is significant, as noted by Sébastien Moreau, for the medico-alchemical principles it introduces to the West, that is, a theory of elixir alchemy based on the four elements.  In a larger sense, the text is part of the process of replacement of Latin medical and scientific ideas and texts with Arabic natural philosophy.  This paper seeks to explore what manuscript evidence can tell us about the context and culture of this transformation and its continuation throughout the late medieval period.

I begin by arguing on the basis of paleographical evidence that the Osler MS 480 is chronologically and geographically closer to the supposed date and place of creation of the Latin treatise than previously believed.  As such, it is a physical artifact of the scientific culture of late 13th century convivencia which foregrounds the medical and alchemical principles found in the text.  The manuscript exhibits continued usage and relevance through the 15th century through an owner’s Latin inscription, likely by a practicing alchemist, as well as considerable marginalia.  Hebrew and Arabic marginalia likewise give clues as to the cultural milieu in which the manuscript continued to be used and studied.  Working outward from artifactual evidence, this study provides new information about a manuscript containing an important alchemical text, with the aim of resituating it within its cultural context.