TOWARDS the end of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, Chaucer includes an extended discussion of the distillation of mercury which he claims to have drawn from the ‘Rosarie’ of ‘Arnold of the Newe Toun’ (ll. 1428–1447).1 The Rosarium, an alchemical treatise falsely attributed to the thirteenth-century physician Arnald of Villanova, serves as one of Chaucer’s few named sources for the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, yet the passage contains a number of problems. In a 1913 letter to the editors of Modern Language Notes, John Livingston Lowes noted that the lines in question were taken, not from the Rosarium, but from another, shorter tract printed in Arnald’s 1532 Opera under the title De lapide philosophorum (also a false attribution).2 Lowes’ observation was later substantiated by Edgar Hill Duncan, who pointed out that the title De lapide philosophorum was itself a sixteenth-century misidentification of a fourteenth-century text more properly titled De secretis naturae.3 Although Duncan published his discussion more than forty years ago, the misleading citation in the original text, lingering confusion surrounding its disambiguation, and the absence of an English edition of the alchemical works attributed to Arnald have led scholars to incorrectly identify Chaucer’s source even in recent publications.4 Moreover, because De secretis—like many similar texts—circulated in multiple, often widely differing, versions, it remains unclear which version of the text Chaucer used and why he mistook it for the Rosarium. Accordingly, the purpose of this note is to clarify Chaucer’s source for the De secretis naturae and, in so doing, suggest a possible reason why he misidentified it when writing the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. The De secretis naturae was likely composed sometime between 1280 and 1340, although its provenance and the circumstances that led to its composition are unknown.5 The attribution to Arnald of Villanova occurred early in its history—it may even have been a conscious decision by the text’s author—and reflected a common tendency to associate alchemical texts with such well-known philosophers and theologians as Raymond Lull, Roger Bacon, and Albertus Magnus.6 Consisting of a prologue followed by six chapters, De secretis is structured as a dialogue between a teacher and student concerning the production and properties of the Philosopher’s Stone. Thirty-nine witnesses to the De secretis survive, preserved in thirty-eight manuscripts (the text occurs twice in London, British Library, Sloane 1118), of which three are early enough to reflect versions available to Chaucer when composing the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 1384, ff. 79v–82v (O); Chantilly, Musée Condé, 327, pp. 207–10 (C); and Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, fondo antico 324, ff. 11–13 (V).7 Although the differences are relatively minor, these witnesses nonetheless reflect what Calvet has identified as two distinct recensions of the text, one of which (V) is characterized by a more consistent use of alchemical vocabulary while the latter (O and C) both translates certain instances of alchemical terminology into more conventional language—periodically replacing ‘sol’ and ‘luna’ with ‘aurum’ and ‘argentum’, for example—and adds several passages making clear the distinction between speakers.8 The consistency with which such variations recur throughout the texts suggests that the differences are more than merely the result of scribal error; rather, they reflect differing views of how accessible the abstract language of De secretis ought to be to a lay reader. This distinction between recensions becomes significant within the context of the ongoing debate over the extent of Chaucer’s alchemical knowledge as he likely would have required a more extensive background in the specialized language of alchemy were he drawing on the V recension of De secretis than he would if the OC recension were his source.9 The presence of an English manuscript would seem to favour the OC recension as Chaucer’s text; yet, taken by itself, the provenance of MS. O does not necessarily indicate that this particular witness or recension informed the relevant passage in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.10 There is no reason to suppose that Chaucer knew MS. O—or, indeed, any other surviving manuscript of the De secretis—and the fact that it does not contain the Rosarium makes it unlikely that Chaucer would have confused the two texts when writing the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. Moreover, Chaucer explicitly identifies ‘Arnold of the Newe Toun’ as his source, and the earliest surviving ascription of De secretis to Arnald occurs, not in MS. O (which does not identify the text’s author), but in the slightly later MS. V.11 Likewise, given the extent of Chaucer’s travels on the continent, we cannot assume either that he necessarily first encountered the De secretis in England or relied on an English manuscript for his source.12 Yet if the manuscripts themselves offer little help in determining which recension Chaucer used, the variations within the text are more revealing. The quotations attributed to Arnald by the Canon’s Yeoman are drawn from two contiguous sections of the De secretis: ll. 1431–1440 are a loose translation of the final question in cap. IV and ll. 1441–1447 are an extract from the first question of cap. V. Although the quoted passage from cap. V is nearly identical in each recension, the versions of the final question of cap. IV in OC and V contain several significant variations, two of which are relevant to an understanding of Chaucer’s source. First, in the student’s question that opens the exchange, he asks (in the V recension) why alchemists say that ‘draco nunquam moritur nisi cum fratre suo interficiatur’ (‘the dragon never dies unless he is killed with his brother’), a phrase that the master then repeats verbatim, attributing it to Hermes Trismegistus. In the OC recension, however, the student’s use of the alchemical term ‘draco’ is replaced by ‘mercurius’. Notably, when Chaucer translates this passage for the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, his translation follows the language in OC: ‘Ther may no man mercurie mortifie/But it be with his brother knowlechyng.’ (ll. 1431–1432) The second variation occurs in the master’s response to the student: in the V recension, the master says that ‘mercurius nunquam moritur, id est congelatur nisi cum fratre suo, id est sole’ (‘mercury never dies, that is solidifies, except with his brother, that is with sol’), but the OC recension modifies the end of this response to read ‘id est sole vel luna’ (‘that is with sol and luna’). As in the previous lines, Chaucer’s rendering of this passage again follows the OC recension, specifying that mercury and his brother (sulfur) ‘out of Sol and Luna were ydrawe’ (l. 1440). Individually, the wording of either passage might simply be explained merely as Chaucer’s poetic discretion; however, taken together, they suggest that Chaucer more likely drew on a witness to the De secretis derived from the OC rather than the V recension of the text. If the recension of Chaucer’s source text for the De secretis can be identified relatively easily, the reason why he misidentified it as the Rosarium is less clear. Duncan suggests that Chaucer preferred to reference the ‘best known’ of the treatises associated with Arnald and that the ‘bleary-eyed and bleary-brained’ Yeoman cannot have been expected to keep the two straight.13 Neither Chaucer nor the Yeoman show any such confusion elsewhere in the tale, however, and it is unclear why Chaucer might have preferred to misidentify a well-known text rather than correctly cite a lesser-known one, even assuming that this accurately reflects the two texts’ reputations: the number of fourteenth-century witnesses to De secretis exceeds those to the Rosarium and both texts seem to have been cited with similar frequency by later authors. A more plausible—if still speculative—solution to this problem is suggested by the circumstances of the two texts’ transmission. In his recent study of the Voigts–Sloane manuscript group, Alpo Honkapohja demonstrated that alchemical treatises typically circulated, not in codices, but in smaller booklets that could then be gathered together into larger collections.14 As Honkapohja points out, this mode of textual transmission closely resembles that of the Canterbury Tales itself.15 Evidence for Honkapohja’s argument survives in the collation of manuscripts such as London, British Library, Sloane 1118 (one of the manuscripts containing the De secretis), in which the pattern of gatherings and blank leaves illustrates how such booklets were joined into single codices.16 In light of Honkapohja’s analysis, it seems reasonable to suggest that Chaucer may have encountered the Rosarium and De secretis as contiguous texts in a booklet of this sort, and that he mistakenly took the heading Rosarium—which often served as the title for alchemical florilegia17—to apply to the collection as a whole. Two pieces of circumstantial evidence survive to support this theory: first, of the seventeen alchemical texts attributed to Arnald, the Rosarium and De secretis occur in the same manuscript more frequently than any other pairing, suggesting that the two texts may have travelled together;18 second, and more suggestively, evidence for a booklet of the type that Chaucer might have known survives in the collation of the early fifteenth-century manuscript, Bernkastel-Kues Bibliothek des St Nikolaus-Hospitals 201. Here, the Rosarium, De secretis (in the OC recension), and a third treatise sometimes attributed to Arnald, the Speculum alchemiae, occur as the first three texts in the manuscript (fols. 1–43), and they are then followed by a series of (now excised) blank leaves separating them from the rest of the codex in a manner similar to the booklets analysed by Honkapohja.19 The grouping of these texts thus appears to indicate either that they originally circulated as a booklet that was later sewn into the manuscript or, more likely, that they were copied together from such a booklet when the manuscript was first compiled.20 Although no direct evidence survives to indicate that Chaucer necessarily utilized a booklet of this sort, this scenario provides a more plausible explanation for how he encountered these texts and why he misidentified them than any previously suggested. Identifying the recension and likely mode of transmission for Chaucer’s version of the De secretis helps clarify the textual circumstances in which the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale came to be written. Of equal importance, it helps us better understand the variety of ways in which alchemical texts circulated in the late fourteenth century. In so doing, it sheds light on the reading habits, not just of expert practitioners of the ‘Noble Art’ but also of those educated amateurs for whom alchemy was a source of curiosity, interest, or in the case of Chaucer, gentle mockery. Footnotes 1 Quotations from the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale are taken from Larry D. Benson, The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987). There is a small library of scholarship on Chaucer’s knowledge and use of alchemical texts. Among the most significant discussions are Stanton J. Linden, Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Reformation (Lexington, 1996), 37–61; Ann W. Astell, Chaucer and the Universe of Learning (Ithaca, NY, 1996), 119–44; Lee Patterson, Temporal Circumstances: Form and History in the Canterbury Tales, New Middle Ages Series (New York, 2006), 159–76; Pauline Aiken, ‘Vincent of Beauvais and Chaucer’s Knowledge of Alchemy’, Studies in Philology, xli.3 (1944), 371–89; Jane Hillberry, ‘And in Oure Madnesse Everemoore We Rave: Technical Language in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale’, The Chaucer Review, xxi.4 (1987), 435–43; Robert Epstein, ‘Dismal Science: Chaucer and Gower on Alchemy and Economy’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, xxxvi (2014), 209–48; Edgar Hill Duncan, ‘The Yeoman’s Canon’s “Silver Citrinacioun”’, Modern Philology, xxxvii.3 (1940), 241–62; ‘The Literature of Alchemy in Chaucer’s Canon's Yeoman’s Tale: Framework, Theme, and Characters’, Speculum, xliii.4 (1968), 633–56; Mark J. Bruhn, ‘Art, Anxiety, and Alchemy in the Canon’s Yeoman's Tale’, The Chaucer Review, xxxiii.3 (1999), 288–315; Carolyn P. Colette and Vincent DiMarco, ‘The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale’, in Robert Correale and Mary Hamel (eds), Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales II (Woodbridge, 2005), 715–47; Frederick M. Biggs, Chaucer's Decameron and the Origin of the Canterbury Tales (Woodbridge, 2017), 32–42; Dorothee Metlitzki, ‘Scientific Imagery in Chaucer [the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale]’, in Kathryn L. Lynch (ed.), Chaucer's Cultural Geographyed (New York: Routledge, 2002), 135–51. 2 John Livingston Lowes, ‘The Dragon and His Brother’, Modern Language Notes, xxviii.7 (1913), 229. 3 Edgar Hill Duncan, ‘Chaucer and “Arnold of the Newe Toun”’, Modern Language Notes, lvii.1 (1942), 31–3. A revised version of this essay was later published as ‘Chaucer and “Arnald of the Newe Town”: A Reprise’, Interpretations, ix.1 (1977), 7–11. De secretis naturae has been edited in Antoine Calvet, ‘Le De secretis naturae du pseudo-Arnaud de Villeneuve’, Chrysopoeia, vi (1999), 155–206, later revised in Les œuvres alchimiques attribuées à Arnaud de Villeneuve (Paris: S.E.H.A., 2011), 485–523. Duncan had been preparing an English edition prior to his death in 1980. The authors of this article are currently revising Duncan’s edition for publication in light of more recent scholarship. 4 See, for instance, Metlitzki, ‘Scientific Imagery’, 137, which refers to De secretis naturae and De lapide philosophorum as separate texts. De secretis is misidentified in Colette and DiMarco, ‘Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale’, 738–40 as well as in John W. Spargo, ‘The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, in W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (eds) Sources and Analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Chicago, 1941), 685–95, both of which rely on Arnald’s 1532 Opera. Subsequent scholars, drawing on these volumes, have likewise mistaken the text, as in V. A. Kolve, Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II (Stanford, CA, 2009), 323. 5 On the alchemical texts ascribed to Arnald of Villanova, see especially Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science: Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, 8 vols (New York, 1923–58), 52–84; Leah DeVun, Prophecy, Alchemy, and the End of Time: John of Rupescissa in the Late Middle Ages (New York, 2014), 89–95; Michela Pereira, ‘Arnaldo da Villanova e l’alchimia: un’indagine preliminare’, Arxiu de textos catalans antics, xiv (1995), 95–174; Sebastià Giralt, ‘Un alquimista medieval per als temps modern: les edicions del corpus alquímic atribuït a Arnau de Vilanova en llur context (c. 1477–1754)’, in J. Perarnau (ed.), Actes de la II trobada internacional d'estudis sobre Arnau de Vilanova (Barcelona, 2005), 61–128; Antoine Calvet, ‘Qu’est que le corpus alchimique attribué à Maître Arnaud de Villeneuve?’, Arxiu de textos catalans antics, xxiii/xxiv (2004–05), 435–56; Antoine Calvet, ‘La tradition alchimique Latine (XIIIe–XVe siècle) et le corpus alchimique du pseudo-Arnaud de Villeneuve’, Médiévales, lii (2007), 39–54; Antoine Calvet, ‘Le médecin Arnau de Vilanova et l’alchimie: dernières mises au point (œuvres et doctrines)’, Arxiu de textos catalans antics, xxx (2011), 171–90; Calvet, ‘Le De secretis naturae’, 155–206; Calvet, Œuvres. 6 At least fifty-seven alchemical treatises circulated under the name of Arnald of Villanova. For a list, see Robert Halleux, Les Textes Alchimiques, Typologie des sources du moyen ȃge occidental fasc. 33 (Turnhout, 1979), 105. 7 For a partial list of manuscripts, see Calvet, ‘Le De secretis naturae’, 157–63; Calvet, Œuvres, 209–16. The manuscript sigla are taken from Calvet, Œuvres, 209–11. The manuscripts omitted from Calvet’s list are Copenhagen, Det kongelige bibliotek MS. GKS 1717; Prague, Národní knihovna České republiky, MS. I.C.50; London, British Library, Sloane 3687; Cambridge, Trinity College, MS. 0.2.47; and Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, MS. HB XI 48. 8 See Calvet, Œuvres, 216–17. 9 For a useful summary of the differing views of Chaucer’s knowledge of alchemy, see Patterson, Temporal Circumstances, 159–61. 10 The possibility that MS. O may have been known to Chaucer’s circle has been suggested by several editors of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis since the manuscript contains the earliest English witness to the Summa perfectionis of pseudo-Geber, whom Gower mentions at bk. IV, l. 2608. However, Gower’s passing mention (‘Geber thereof was magnefied’) is not enough to indicate that he had in fact read the Summa perfectionis nor does it suggest a familiarity with this manuscript in particular. See G. C. Macauley, The English Works of John Gower, vol. 1, Early English Text Society v. 81 (London, 1900), 510; Russell A. Peck, John Gower: The Confessio Amantis, vol. 2, TEAMS (Kalamazoo, MI, 2003), 403. 11 Calvet, Œuvres, 219. 12 For a survey of the texts Chaucer encountered in Italy and the influence of this trip on his writings, see K. P. Hunter, ‘Chaucer and Italy: Contexts and/of Sources’, Literature Compass, viii.8 (2011), 526–33. 13 Duncan also went on to criticize those he saw as overly concerned with Chaucer’s misidentification, writing ‘No one but a purist of the deepest dye could carp at his combining the title of one treatise with a quotation from another in order to get the advantages, for the artistry of his story, of both.’ Duncan, ‘Chaucer and “Arnold”’, 33; Duncan, ‘Reprise’, 11. 14 Alpo Honkapohja, Alchemy, Medicine, and Commercial Book Production: A Codicological and Linguistic Study of the Voigts–Sloane Manuscript Group (Turnhout, 2017), 65–100. 15 Honkapohja, Book Production, 27–8. 16 Honkapohja, Book Production, 215–24. 17 Arnald’s Rosarium itself would later be incorporated in abbreviated form into a longer fifteenth-century alchemical compilation also entitled, appropriately, the Rosarium. See Joachim Telle, Rosarium philosophorum: ein alchemisches Florilegium des Spätmittelalters, 2 vols (Weinheim, 1992). 18 See Bernkastel-Kues Bibliothek des St Nikolaus-Hospitals, 201; Bologna Biblioteca Universitaria 104 (lat. 138); New Haven, CT Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, P. Mellon Collection 5; and Salamanca Universidad de Salamanca. Biblioteca General Histórica, Ms. 2108. 19 For descriptions of the Bernkastel manuscript, see Calvet, Œuvres, 214; Jacob Marx, Verzeichnis der Handschriften-Sammlung des Hospitals zu Cues bei Bernkastel a./Mosel (Trier, 1905), 186–8. 20 It may be significant in this context that De secretis naturae and the Speculum alchemiae (here attributed to Roger Bacon) also occur as paired texts in one of the booklets that make up Sloane 118. See Honkapohja, Book Production, 220. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 4, 2018
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