Galen’s Simple Drugs in the Syriac Alchemical Tradition

Paper delivered by Matteo Martelli at the international conference Exploring the Syriac Galen Palimpsest (British Academy Conference 2019)

My paper will explore the Galenic material incorporated in alchemical lexica that are included in various two alchemical manuscripts kept at the British Library and at the Cambridge University Library. These lexica, which seem to be based on earlier (both medical and alchemical) sources, provide us with useful information on the identification of vegetal and mineral substances in a technical context, on their varied nomenclature, and even on the symbols or signs that were used to refer to them in manuscripts. This material will be presented and analyzed by providing a new, fresh examination of the manuscript tradition; in addition, their contents will be compared both with Galen’s Byzantine tradition and with other significant Syriac sources, such as the Lexicon by the Christian scholar Bar Bahlul (10th century CE).

31 October – 1 November 2019 – Manchester (The John Rylands Library)


How did the Ancients Decode Alchemical Recipes?

Paper delivered by Matteo Martelli in the framework of the panel “Encoding Technical Knowledge in the Pre-Modern World “, SHOT Annual meeting, 2019.

Graeco-Egyptian alchemical writings exhibit different degrees of opacity. Along with the use of code-names (or Decknamen), other elements can make alchemical recipes difficul to understand: the fluid and rich vocabulary used to refer to the ingredients, the lack of any indication of their quantities, or gaps in the explanation of the different steps in the described techniques. All these difficulties make modern interpreters struggle to fully understand even ‘simple’ alchemical procedures that have not been put into practice since centuries. Similar problems already arose in Late Antiquity, when alchemists such as Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century CE) or Synesius (4th century CE) tried to interpret and explain the writings of the founders of alchemy (Ostanes, Democritus, or Hermes Trismegistus). In alchemical texts, the original teaching of these sages is always described as a written ‘revelation,’ that is, a form of knowledge encapsulated in ancient books, whose contents and structure were to be interpreted and commented on by later practitioners. In my paper, I will explore the strategies used by these ancient readers of alchemical recipes to decode the instructions they discovered in the foundational books of their art.

26 October 2019 – Milano



Reading Seminar on Babylonian Proto-Chemistry

This meeting represents a fresh attempt to look at possible paths of transmission of Babylonian chemical arts into the later development of alchemy, with special focus on Graeco-Egyptian alchemical texts and their reception/transformation in the Syriac and Arabic traditions.

Guest scholars
Eduardo Escobar (Chicago)
Cale Johnson (Birmingham)
Maddalena Rumor (Cleveland)

16-18 July 2019
Department of Philosophy and Communication Studies
via Zamboni 38
CIS – Seminar room


Exempla Trahunt – Specimens of Alchemical and Scientific Manuscripts (Arabic&Syriac)

AlchemEast workshop
A specimen is an individual example endowed with a number of characteristics that make it representative of a whole species or type. This concept, commonly used in natural sciences, has become relevant in several other fields, whenever the need to define a standard arises. Manuscript studies are not new to this idea, especially when it comes to palaeography. This approach, however, could be productive in exploring other aspects of the manuscript tradition as well. The working idea of specimen, in fact, may bridge the gap between the unpredictable unicity of a single manuscript artefact and the aspiration to fix an ideal standard that surpasses the complexity of the empirical data. Even within the frame of more defined fields ― scientific manuscripts, in particular those related to alchemy and related disciplines ― it is hard to set parameters that can capture and, at the same time, systematize this fluidity. The idea of this workshop is to use the specimen to open a window onto some specific features that may define typologies or groups of Arabic or Syriac scientific manuscripts. In this sense, the specimen does not stand in isolation, but its relevance is proportional to the constellation of witnesses that gravitate around it. That is to say that a specimen, on the one hand, has to define a recognizable typology and, on the other, it must be structured in such a way to tolerate a degree of variance within it. Alongside with palaeography, the challenge to define specimens involves other aspects as well. Aspects to be explored include, but are not limited to, the layout and the organization of the contents (e.g. tabular manuscripts, marginal annotations and comments, table of contents), the use of images (e.g. illustrations of alchemical equipment and diagrams), stylistic features (e.g. secret alphabets, cryptography and symbols) and the possible multilingual dimension of a text (e.g. Judeo-Arabic or Garshuni manuscripts).

8-9 July 2019, Bologna
Sala Rossa, via Azzo Gardino 23