In a previous blog post, I had argued that the Special Collections Library holds one book from the library of Isaac Newton: Pseudo Ramon Llull's Tractatus brevis et eruditus, de conservatione vitae; Liber secretorum seu quintae essentiae (Straßburg: Lazarus Zetnerus, 1616). However, when doing research to describe our Le Roy Crummer Collection, I casually learned that in fact we hold another book that was also once in Newton's possession. I discovered that our copy of Arthur Dee's treatise on alchemy, Fasciculus chemicus [Paris: 1631], had been included in a Special Collections exhibit curated by David Whitesell in 1987: "The Transit of Genius: The Life of Sir Isaac Newton." This book, Whitesell argued, was formerly owned by Newton.
Indeed, written in ink on the verso of the front endpaper are two old, and familiar, shelf marks. The first, E1-20, is the type of shelf mark used by James Musgrave for his books, including those purchased from Newton's library. Therefore, this book was shelved in bookcase E, first shelf, and it was number 20 within that shelf. Next, we have the shelf mark employed by Musgrave's son, James Musgrave, who had inherited Barnsley Park. The system is similar: book case, shelf, location of book on the shelf, and the main location. Case B. B. Barnsley. B. 4. Thus, our copy was in bookcase BB, in the library of Barnsley Park, on a shelf marked as B, being book number 4 in that shelf. And more importantly, our copy includes clear evidence of Newton's practice to mark his favorite passages by dog-earing the pages. Additionally, the spine of our copy has been inscribed with the last name of the author of the book and a date, 1631. Was it inscribed by Newton himself?
A previous owner, certainly not in love with alchemy, added a Latin poem on the endpaper of our copy. They are charming, rather playful and satirical verses, of which I have provided an English translation below:
Alchymia est ars sine arte
cuius scire est part cum parte
medium est strenue mentiri
finis mendicatum iri.
Alchemy is an art without art
whose knowledge is to mix part with part
its means is to lie strenuously
and its end is to became a beggar.
The lines are not in Newton's handwriting and, obviously, he would not have written satirical verses against a subject he utterly respected, as evidenced in the content of his own library. But any researcher should raise the following questions about this inscription: is this an original poem? Or, are these verses just an overused quote derived from a long-established tradition of criticizing alchemy?
It is not surprising that the increasing success of the new scientific method as advocated by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), heavily based on experimental proof, had begun to erode the foundations of a discipline, alchemy, whose ultimate goal was the creation of the philosopher's stone: a legendary substance able to convert inexpensive metals into gold. Critics openly asked: is alchemy really a science? A new type of narrative was then born: the biographies of real or fictional people who had convinced wealthy patrons to sponsor their alchemical endeavors, but, unable to show a tangible result, eventually ended in financial ruin, as alcoholics, or even being tortured and executed at the hands of their own patrons.For instance, Thomas Moresinus (ca. 1558-ca.1603) published a strong attack against the "science" of alchemy: Liber novus de metallorum causis et transsubstantione (Frankfurt: Johan Wechel, 1593). Andreas Libavius, a doctor and firm believer in the virtues of alchemy, counter-attacked with his treatise, Singularium (Frankfurt: Peter Kopff, 1599), where he included what is likely the earliest recorded reference to the verses that would be later quoted in the inscription of our copy. In brief, Libavius said that Moresinus's criticism was "little different form that facetious and playful poem which I remember having read somewhere as being composed against impostors":
Parum hoc abest a faceto illo & ludicro
carmine quod memini me in impostores
fabrefactum alicubi legere:
Alchymia est scientia sine arte
cuius scire est pars cum parte
medium est strenue mentiri
finis mendicatum ire.
Next, Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656) again echoed these verses in Mundus alter et idem sive Terra Australis ante hac semper incognita longis itineribus peregrini academici nuperrime lustrata (London: Humphrey Lownes, 1605), which is essentially a satirical description of travels in the mysterious lands south of Tierra del Fuego. Hall says that in a country populated by fools there are those who search for the transmutation of metals, adding a note with the verses now wrongly attributed to Libavius. Moreover, there is a mistake in the quote: Hall says "Alchymia est ars sine arte". By using "ars", actually the version in our inscription, instead of the original "scientia", it seems to me that much of the original meaning and aim of the poem is actually lost. And finally, within a similar tradition, we should mention the German physician and scientist, Werner Rolfinck (1599-1673). In his Chimia in artis formam redacta, sex libris comprehensa (Jena: Samuel Krebs, 1661), he again brings up these verses, adding a level of misery for the already ruined alchemist in the form of a new, and literally final, verse: "vel in patibulo superbire": or to ascend to the gallows.
 Prinke, Rafal T. "Beyond Patronage: Michael Sendivogius and the Meanings of Success in Alchemy", in Chymia: Science and Nature in Medieval and Early Europe, ed. López-Pérez, Miguel; Didier Kahn, and Mar Rey-Bueno. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010, 175-231. For the sources for this poem, see Newman, William R. and Lawrence M. Principe. "Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake". Early Science and Medicine, vol. 3, no. 1 (1998), 32-65.