John Lydgate and Benedict Burgh, Secrets of the Old Philosophers

Here followeth the second epistle that King Alexander sent to his master Aristotle.

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When Alexander as is rehearsed here 
This philosopher, for virtues many-fold, 
Sent unto him a secret messenger, 
Without Excuse to come to his household; 
But he again for he was feeble and old,
And impotent on the tother side,
And unwieldy for to goon or ride. 

But chief cause why Alexander sent 
A purpose take and a fantasy 
To declare plainly what he meant: 
He wist in sooth that in Philosophy,
With other secrets of Astronomy, 
He was expert and most could understond, 
This was in chief cause of the kinges sonde.

Power of planets, and moving of all stars, 
And of every heavenly intelligence, 
Disposition of peace and eek of wars,
And of each other strange hid science 
As the seven gods by their influence,
Dispose the order of incantations, 
Or of seven metals the transmutations, 

With other Crafts which that be secret, 
Calculation and Geomancye, 
Deformations of Circes and Medea,
Looking of faces and piromancy,
On land and water craft of Geometry, 
Height and deepness with all experience, 
Therefore the king desired his presence. 

But for all this within himself a thing, 
There was a secret he kept not do disclose,
Nor to publish openly to the king, 
Taking example by two things in a rose; 
First how the flower greet sweetness doth dispose, 
Yet in the thorn men find greet sharpness; 
And thus in cunning there may been a likeness. 

In herb and flower, in writing, word and stone, 
Each hath his virtue of God and of Nature, 
But the knowing is hid from many one, 
And not declared to every creature; 
Wherefore he cast 'tween Reason and Measure
To shape a way both the king to please, 
Somewhat to unloose and set his heart at ease. 

There is of right a greet difference 
'Tween a Prince's royal dignity 
And between Commons' rude intelligence, 
To whom not longeth to meddle in no degree
Of cunnings that should be kept secret
For to a king's famous magnificence, 
And to clerks which have experience, 

It accordeth well to search out scripture, 
Mysteries hid of fowls, beast, and tree, 
And of Angels most subtle of nature, 
Of mineral and fishes in the see, 
And of stones specially of three -- 
One mineral, another vegetative, 
Parted on four to lengthen a man's life. 

Of which I read, among other stones 
There was one was called Animal, 
Four Elements wrought out for the nones -- 
Earth, Water, and Air and in especial 
Joined with fire, proportion made Equal; 
And I dare say briefly, and not tarry, 
Is none such stone found in the lapidary.

I read once in a philosopher, 
Against each sickness of value doth most cure; 
Al the treasure and gold in Croesus' coffer, 
Nor all the stones that grow by nature, 
Wrought by craft, or forged by picture, 
Lapis et non lapis stone of greatest fame, 
Aristotiles gave it the same name. 

And for I have but little read or seen, 
To write or meddle of so high matters, 
For presumption some would have disdain 
To be so bold or climb in my desires, 
To scale the ladder above the nine spheres, 
Or meddle of rubies that give so clear a light 
On holy shrines in the dark night. 

I was never no expert jeweler, 
In such matters to put myself in press
With philosophers mine eyes were not clear, 
Neither with Plato nor with Socrates, 
Except the Prince Aristoteles, 
Of philosophers to Alexander king 
Wrote of this stone the marvel in working, 

In privy wise, like to his intents, 
Secrets hid close in philosophy;
First departing of the four Elements, 
And afterward as he doth specify 
Every one of them for to rectify; 
And after this, like his opinion, 
Of these four make a conjunction. 

And in such wise perform up this stone; 
See in the joining there be none outrage; 
But the false erring hath fooled many one,
And brought them after in full greet arrears, 
By expenses and outrageous costage;
For lack of brain they were made so wood 
Thing to begin which they not understood. 

For he that list put in experience,
Forbidden secrets I hold him but a fool, 
Like him that attempteth of willful negligence, 
To stand upright on a three foot stool, 
Or spareth a stew and fisheth a barren pool:
When all is done he gets none other grace, 
Men will scorn him and mock his foolish face. 

It is no craft poor men to assay,
It causeth coffers and chests to be bare, 
Marreth wits, and brains doth affray;
Yet by writing this book doth declare, 
And by Reasons list not for to spare,
With golden Reasons in taste most likerous,
Thing per ignotum proved per ignocius

Title of this book labor philosophorum,
Named also de Regimine pricipium,
Of philosophers secreta seretorum,
Treasure compiled omnium virtutum,,
Rule directory set up in a summa
As complexions in health and sickness, 
Dispose themselves to mourning or to gladnesse. 

The which book direct to the king 
Alexander both in war and peace, 
Like his request and royal commanding, 
Fully accomplished by Aristotiles, 
Feeble for Age and impotent doubtless, 
Whole of corage and true in his intent,
To obey his bidding; this book he to him sent. 

again = wrote back 




i.e. seven planets 

magical changes 
divination by fire 

did not want to make known 


it is not suitable 

Treatise on precious stones 

put forth myself 




desires to 

neglects a fish pond 

for poor men to attempt 


does not desire 
desirous of pleasure 

work of the philosophers 
Of the rule of princes 
secret of all secrets 
of all virtues (powers) 
exhaustive compilation 

inner being 

 How Aristotle declareth to King Alexander of the stones:

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Touching the stone of philosophers old, 
Of which they make most sovereign mention, 
But there is one as Aristotle told, 
Which all excelleth in comparison, 
Stone of stones, most sovereign of renown; 
Touching the virtue of this rich thing, 
Thus he wrote to the most sovereign king, 

O Alexander greatest of dignity, 
Of all this world Monarch and Regent, 
And of all nations hast the sovereignty, 
Each one to obey and been obedient; 
And to conclude the fin of our intent,
All worldly treasure briefly shut in one, 
Is declared in virtue of this stone. 

Thou must first conceive in substance, 
By a manner of uncouth divisioun,
Water from Air by a disseveraunce,
And Fire from Air by a departisoun 
Each one preserved from corruptioun, 
As philosophers before have specified, 
Which by Reason may not be denied. 

Water from Air departed prudently, 
Air from Fire And Fire from Earth down, 
The Craft conceived, divided truly, 
Without error or deception: 
Pure every Element in his complexion, 
As it pertainteth plainly to his part, 
As is remembered perfectly in this Art. 

This stone of color is sometime citronade
Like the sun streamed in his kind, 
Gold tressed, maketh hearts full glade, 
With more treasure than hath the king of India, 
Of precious stones wrought in their due kind: 
The citron color for the Sun bright, 
White for the Moon that shineth all the night. 

This philosopher brought forth in Paris 
Which of these stones wrote fully the nature, 
All the division set by greet avise,
And thereupon did his busy care, 
That the perfection long should endure 
Like the intent of Aristotle's sonde,
Which none but he could well bring on hand. 

For though the matter openly not told 
Of this stones what philosophers meant, 
Aristotle that was expert and old, 
And he of Paris that forth this present sent, 
And in all his best faithful true intent, 
With circumstances of Arabia, India, and Persia,
Touching the stones that clerks can rehearse; 

Hermogines had himself alone, 
With said Philip that with him was secree,
Knew the virtue of every privy stone, 
And taught as they were disposed of degree; 
From him was hid none uncouth privity; 
This Hermogenes and he knew every thing 
Of all such virtues as belong to a king. 


unusual, rare 


thought, planning 


attendant details 



Trans. from Lydgate and Burgh's Secrees of the old Philosophers, ed. Robert Steele, EETS e. s. 66. Oxford. 1894.