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20.11.05 Dumas, Ymage de vie

20.11.05 Dumas, Ymage de vie

London, Wellcome Library MS 446, which can be explored in its entirety online at, consists almost entirely of a unique Middle French alchemical manual produced at the end of the fifteenth century by an anonymous author--or, as Geneviève Dumas calls him, "présentateur" [presenter] (13). The term is an apt choice, given that perhaps the most striking thing about this previously unedited work are the many images of alchemical instruments that appear in its folios and for which it has been, until now, best known. Dumas' clearly presented edition (complete with a black-and-white photographic facsimile) and her informative commentary promise to change that; they make theYmage de vie (so titled because of an earlier erroneous assumption that it translates a Latin work, the pseudo-Lullian Imago vitae) easily accessible to those not wishing to work through the manuscript's fifteenth-century script, while also situating it within the broader context of alchemical history and practice. While readers will likely be drawn more to either the edition or commentary depending on their background knowledge and interests, this review will focus on the commentary, which--in addition to thoroughly introducing the Ymage de Vie--could potentially serve as something of an introduction to alchemy itself for those coming to it for the first time.

Between a brief opening and short conclusion, the commentary is divided into three substantial main sections, each of which is divided into further, clearly delineated sub-sections, neatly if perhaps unconsciously mirroring the careful, workmanlike organization of the Ymage de vie itself. Like the very short preface by Antoine Calvet that precedes it, Dumas' introductory pages focus first on alchemy's location at the intersection of theory and practice, which, as she notes, were "deux sphères d'activités souvent opposées au Moyen Âge" [two spheres of activity often opposed in the Middle Ages] (14). Not so for alchemy, which demanded of its serious practitioners both a knowledge of the long, predominantly theoretical, and written tradition undergirding their efforts--a tradition consisting of "une variété déconcertante de formes et de genres" [a disconcerting variety of forms and genres] (14) ranging from recipes to images to allegorical poems to philosophical, scientific, and even theological treatises--and the practical skills and financial means to pursue their experimental endeavors. For, as Dumas amusingly puts it, "[l]e laboratoire de l'alchimiste ne venait pas en kit, il était à constituer soi-même" [the alchemist's laboratory didn't come in a kit, one had to put it together oneself] (15). Though it is the evidently practical aim of the Ymage de vie that is, as she indicates, its most distinguishing feature, the approach of its author (who Dumas suggests was probably also the manuscript's scribe and illuminator) cannot be understood without knowledge of the alchemical theories upon which he relied. Supplying that knowledge to the reader is the aim of the commentary's first main section, "État de la question" [State of the question], which, pace its title, does not so much review any question in particular as it presents a compact yet thorough history of alchemy's more theoretical side. Dumas here traces the reception and transmission in Europe of this originally Greco-Egyptian science, from the first known translation of an alchemical work from Arabic to Latin (Morienus' De Compositione alkimiae, in 1148) to the appearance of vernacular alchemica in the fifteenth century. Her summaries of the theories of figures such as Vincent de Beauvais, Albertus Magnus, the pseudo-Avicenna, Roger Bacon, pseudo-Geber, John of Rupecissa, John Dastin, and above all (given their importance to the author of the Ymage de vie) pseudo-Arnaud de Villeneuve and the writers of the pseudo-Lullian corpus, will not surprise anyone familiar with the general outline of alchemy's history. But Dumas does a stellar job of situating the possibly less-informed reader in the field, not simply historically but also by way of her use of the work of (among others) Robert Halleux, Didier Kahn, William Newman, Tara Nummedal, Barbara Obrist, Michela Pereira, Lawrence Principe, Jennifer Rampling, and Anke Timmerman. The footnotes in this section as elsewhere are copious and up-to-date, and their attention to not only French but also Anglophone, Italian, and German scholarship impressive.

While reviewing this wealth of historical and historiographic material, Dumas takes pains to indicate which authors and ideas seem to have mattered most to the author of theYmage de vie, an attention that sets the reader up for the second section of the commentary, "Le manuscrit" [The manuscript]. This section pays special attention to the work's most unique aspect: the 170 marginal and thirteen full-page images of over fifty tools and furnaces and some twenty alchemical processes, all carefully labeled to correspond to the text that refers to them; these technical drawings, as Dumas observes, clearly reveal the author's "souci didactique" [didactic concern] for readers hoping to follow in his footsteps in an actual laboratory (51). This seems especially on point considering that the only allegorical images in the work appear in a small section composed in another hand than that of the majority of the work (an oddity the reasons for which Dumas offers several hypotheses, but whose explanation is lost to history). This part of the discussion as well as the following section of the commentary includes a generous number of full-color images from the manuscript, to which Dumas makes useful reference. Also useful in the second section is her discussion of the Ymage de vieauthor's most important sources, including both those he names and those (often more significant, like the pseudo-Arnaud de Villeneuve, pseudo-Lull, and pseudo-Geber) that he does not. Here Dumas makes generous use of comparative textual tables to demonstrate that, when it comes to its content, the Ymage de vie is less an original work than "une compilation, un patchwork de plusieurs œuvres que l'auteur a consultées et auxquelles il appose son propre agencement, ses propres recettes et surtout un programme iconographique très clair" [a compilation, a patchwork of many works that the author consulted and to which he adds his own order, his own recipes, and above all a very clear iconographic program] designed to accompany his own and others' experiments (72).

Those experiments are the focus of the commentary's final main section, "Opérations, procédés et instruments" [Operations, procedures, and instruments]. Here, again, Dumas' review of the steps toward the philosophers' stone as delineated by the Ymage de vie also serves as something of an introduction to the practical side of alchemy tout court, from (to list but a few of the steps) purgation to distillation, from sublimation to calcination, and from solution, dissolution, and resolution through to incineration (as she notes, the manual curiously omits any instruction for projection, the final step to test the success of alchemical endeavor). For many of these steps, as for the following discussions of the multiple furnaces and several of the sequences described in the text, Dumas again includes images from the manuscript to illuminate her discussion both literally and figuratively. Finally, in her short but provocative conclusion she reflects on the possible professional identity of the person who put this "tour de force" of vernacular alchemy together (136).

As I have indicated, Dumas' commentary could easily stand on its own as a valuable introduction to the theory and practice of alchemy as it had developed by the end of the fifteenth century. As the introduction to the text of the Ymage de vie, however, it is also an informative and tantalizing gateway to a singular example of that practice, one clearly deserving of the further study this edition now makes possible. It is worth noting, I think, that the low price of the book--particularly remarkable given its copious images in both color and black-and-white--puts it easily within reach for anyone who prefers to work directly from their own copy; however, as of this writing it can only be purchased directly from the press, and those wishing to acquire it should therefore look under the series title at ​