Newton's alchemical notes

Newton, Isaac, English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author (1642-1727). "Sententiae notabiles expositae". Autograph manuscript.

No place, end of the 1670s or 1680s.

4to (204 x 154 mm). 8 pp., of which 4 are written. 1 folded leaf (watermark: cor de postillon HG / MC), the 4 last leaves blank and uncut.


Interesting compilation of alchemical notes in Latin. It was the sale of Newton’s archives in 1936 that revealed the extent of his interest in alchemy, hermetics and unorthodox theology. Sources and quotes are indicated with great precision and denote an attentive reader. Many are taken from the "Septimana philosophica" of Michael Maier (Frankfurt, 1620), of which we know that Newton owned a copy (John Harrison, The Library of Isaac Newton, 1046). The "Symbola aureaea mensae duodecim nationum" by the same author (Frankfurt, 1617) are also a source (Harrison 1048; National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, coll. S. M. Edelstein), as well as the "Hieroglyphica aegyptio-graeca" (London, ca. 1614?). Michael Maier (1568-1622) was a German physician and alchemist who travelled to the court of Rudolf II in Prague and became his personal advisor. Upon Rudolf's death in 1612, Maier made his way to England, where he published a number of alchemical works and hermetic philosophy.

Newton's present "Sententiae" were composed with great care, and the writer corrected his work himself (note a few erasures). The first quote is taken from the "Turba philosophorum" (likely from the text published in "Artis auriferae", Basel 1610: Harrison 90; Trinity College, Cambridge), with an additional reference to the "Liber lilium tanquam de spinis evulsum" by G. Tecenensis, as found in volume IV of the celebrated "Theatrum chemicum" (published 1659-61): "Aes [corpus mortuum] non lingit nisi [spiritu tenui abstracto] lingatur [per extractionem animae et imbibitionem septenam] sed si lingitur lingit" (Turba p. 14, 25; Lilium de spinis p. 902, 903).

"Sulphura sulphuribus continentur, [i.e. condensa humidis, seu corpora spiritibus suis per imbibitionem septenam conjuncta]" (Turba p. 14, 22, 30).

An entry in the present manuscript found on page 3 reads: "Infantis philosophici parentes et nutrix [...]". This is actually a string of references from "Tab[ula] Smaragd[ina]", Grasshoff, "El Raymund in Theorica Testamenti" (Raymond Lull), the "Hierogl[yphica]" of Maier, and Laurentius Ventura. The difference in the colour of ink suggests that these references were added at a later date.

Other quotes are taken from Artephius and Nicolas Flamel (Newton spells the name "Flammel"), as found in the "Philosophie naturelle de trois anciens philosophes renommez", Paris 1682, that Newton owned in two copies (Harrison 1309-1310, Trinity College); from Rosinus (as found in "Artis auriferae", tom. I, pp. 158-204); and from the "Liber Abre" (p. 334 of the "Musaeum hermeticum", Frankfurt 1677: Harrison 1131, Trinity College). This reference allows for a terminus post quem date for the present manuscript of after 1677, likely in the 1680s.

Provenance: The Newton Papers (Sotheby’s, London 13 July 1936, part of lot 103), bought by Emmanuel Fabius; later sold again at Sotheby’s, Sir Isaac Newton. Highly Important Manuscripts (Sotheby’s, New York, 3 December 2004, no 502).

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