Research Programs: Fellowships

Period of Performance

6/1/2022 - 5/31/2023

Funding Totals

$60,000.00 (approved)
$60,000.00 (awarded)

Matter Redeemed: Physics and Alchemy in Byzantium and the Islamic World

FAIN: FEL-272918-21

Alexandre Mattos Roberts
University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA 90089-0012)

Research and writing leading to a book on physics and alchemy in the pan-Mediterranean Byzantine world (300-1400).

Theoretical speculation about the laws governing the transformation of matter has a long history in western Eurasia, stretching at least from the first millennium BCE to the present. My project traces the cultural impact of theories about nature by considering how medieval Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Sabian (pagan) intellectuals writing in Greek and Arabic in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East from the fourth to the fifteenth century CE understood and valorized matter and its transformation. The resulting monograph will argue that Byzantine and Middle Eastern scholars cared about matter because it had come to be at the heart of the cosmic drama in which humankind was the protagonist. The authors of these texts and their audiences, I contend, were informed by a shared conception of the mechanisms by which matter could be transformed, and by the shared notion that a redemptive logic structures matter’s transformation.

Associated Products

Translating the Concept of Alchemy from Modern English to Medieval Greek and Arabic and Back Again (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Translating the Concept of Alchemy from Modern English to Medieval Greek and Arabic and Back Again
Author: Alexandre M. Roberts
Abstract: Many early Arabic texts gathered under the modern umbrella-term “alchemy” are translations from Greek. The Arabic technical vocabulary of such texts largely parallels the corresponding Greek vocabulary through loanwords and calques. Did this terminological correspondence translate into a similar concept of the science or art that these texts addressed? In other words, was there a stable concept of “alchemy” (whether by that we mean metallurgical know-how, chemical theory, the textual tradition concerned with gold-making or what it called the Sacred Art, or something else) in the transition from the Greek to the Arabic language and more generally from one cultural context to the other? To answer this question, the present paper will first reconsider the modern term “alchemy” itself and propose a new terminology better suited for answering such diachronic questions. It will then consider how medieval practices and thought that we often call alchemical were conceptualized in a selection of Greek and Arabic texts and manuscripts. The paper will conclude by pointing the way forward to a truly integrated diachronic history of the various practices, theories, and textual traditions grouped by modern scholarship, for better or for worse, under the name of alchemy.
Date: 11/11/2022
Conference Name: “Translating Science: 15th Annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age.” University of Pennsylvannia. Philadelphia

Byzantine Alchemy and the History of Science (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: Byzantine Alchemy and the History of Science
Abstract: Standard narratives about the history of science from Greece to the Arabs to Europe to the Scientific Revolution have many problems. This lecture focuses one such problem, the near-total omission of the Byzantine Empire from these narratives, and considers how our Byzantine sources on what is typically called Greek alchemy can help us revise such narratives. Once we learn to read Byzantine alchemical texts with conceptual tools developed by anthropologists and historians of science over the course of the last century, it becomes clear that such texts are crucial evidence not only for how Byzantines thought about the transformation of matter but also for how we narrate the history of science in western Eurasia from antiquity to the modern era.
Author: Alexandre M. Roberts
Date: 3/2/2023
Location: online (hosted by World History Seminar, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Thinking about Chemistry in Byzantium and the Islamic World (Article)
Title: Thinking about Chemistry in Byzantium and the Islamic World
Author: Alexandre M. Roberts
Abstract: The term “alchemy,” born out of early modern professional polemics among chemists, is problematic as a historical category. The present article shifts away from asking what pre-modern alchemy “really” was, to asking how medieval scholars writing in Greek and Arabic thought about the practice of treating and combining naturally occurring substances to produce apparently quite different substances, and how they interpreted, valorized, or critiqued this practice and its results — in other words, what they thought about chemistry.
Year: 2023
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: DOI link to online published version.
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description: Zenodo record, embargoed for two years.
Access Model: print and subscription
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Journal of the History of Ideas
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press