Glasgow Incunabula Project update (7/6/13)

Two copies of a popular medieval text on alchemy feature in this batch.

Diagrams of alchemical apparatus

Diagrams of alchemical apparatus

The Summa perfectionis magisterii (The Height of the Perfection of Mastery) is by the 13th century author known as Pseudo-Geber, although now tentatively assigned to Paul of Taranto. Described as being one of the clearest accounts of the rather obscure science of alchemy, the work circulated widely in manuscript before being printed in this edition of 1486-90.  Not suprisingly, both our copies of this book are to be found in the collection of Professor John Ferguson.

One of the copies (Ferguson An-y.10), in particular, is fascinating for its extensive annotations. These include marginal diagrams of alchemical equipment and apparatus. Perhaps the book’s early owner sought to understand (and possibly dreamt even to recreate) the alchemical process of the transmutation of base metals into gold – certainly, there are copious marginal annotations, nota marks and underlinings throughout the text in more than one 16th century hand, indicating close study of the volume. Furthermore, for ease of rerference, an early reader has also foliated the book and then created an index referring to that foliation. This strongly suggests a practical use of the text.

Early manuscript index

Early manuscript index

Unusually (for our books anyway), this copy survives in a contemporary blind tooled binding. And although we do not know who originally owned it, we can trace one provenance prior to Ferguson: a book label on the front pastedown shows that it belonged to Jean Antoine Colladon-Martin (1755-1830), who was a Swiss pharmacist and chemist.  Perhaps he had a semi-professional interest in the volume – just like Ferguson, our 19th century Chemistry Professor (who incidentally acquired it via the Munich bookseller Jacques Rosenthal in 1893).

15th/16th century blind tooled binding

15th/16th century blind tooled binding

Meanwhile, a clue to an earlier owner perhaps lies in a motto found on the front free endpaper. This is “In vitiu[m] ducit culpae fuga”, a quote from the ‘De arte poetica’ by Horace: avoidance of error leads to fault – or as Hugh Moore perhaps more helpfully translates in ‘A dictionary of quotations from various authors in ancient and modern languages …’ (1831) “In avoiding one fault, we sometimes run into another”. Is this a remark on the text (perhaps a frustrated reflection on the difficulty of forming the elixir of the philosopher’s stone??) or the motto adopted by a particular person? If anyone can enlighten us, please get in touch!

Of course, it was fairly common for early (and even later) readers to add their mottos to books as a sign of ownership. For more examples,  see our annotations index.

The latest ten books to be added to the project website are:



Categories: Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on Cardmon's Blog and commented:
    Normally I would say that annotations are generally not welcome, but were they add to the history of the book in question & pertain to the subject matter like the book described here, then I’m more than happy to see them.

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