I am to lecture, for the first time in some years, on Ben Jonson. Starting to think about The Alchemist made me think of one of the coins I would dearly love to own, but could never afford, an Edward III rose noble.
William Camden mentions this about the reputation of this wonderful medieval coin in the early modern period:
“The first gold that K(ing) Edw. 3. coyned, was in the yeare 1343, and the peeces were called Florences, because Florentines were the coyners, as Easterlings of Sterling money: Shortly after he coyned Nobles, of noble, faire & fine gold, the penny of gold; afterward the Rose Noble then current for 6, shillings 8. pence, & which our Alchimists do affirme (as an unwritten verity) was made by projection or multiplication Alchimicall of Raymond Lully in the Tower of London, who wold prove it as Alchmically, beside the tradition of the Rabbies in that faculty, by the inscription; for as upon the one side there is the kings image, in a shippe to notifie that he was Lord of the seas, with his titles, set upon the reverse a crosse floury with Lioneux, inscribed Jeus autem transiens per medium eorum ibat. Which they profoundly expound, as Jesus passed invisible & in most secret manner by the middest of Pharisees, so that gold was made by invisible and secret art amidst the ignorant. But other say that text was the onely Amulet used in that credulous warfaring age to escape dangers in battailes.”
The inscription on the edge of the reverse does indeed spell out:
“IhC . AVTEm . TRAIICIEIIS . P . mEDIVm . ILLORVm . IBAT”
which is from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
28. And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath. 29. And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. 30. But he passing through the midst of them went his way.
No wonder this mysterious inscription caused the coin to acquire a magical aura, as amulet or product of transmutation. Thomas Warton in his The History of English Poetry touches on the alchemical poetry of the period, and mentions Lully as having used false promises to Edward III: “Norton's heroes in the occult sciences are Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Raymond Lully, to whose specious promises of supplying the coinage of England with inexhaustible mines of philosophical gold, king Edward the third became an illustrious dupe.”
Jonson knows about Lully: Nano’s song in Volpone contains an allusion to his ownership of the elixir (though nothing compared to Scoto’s oil):
Had old Hippocrates, or Galen,
That to their books put med'cines all in,
But known this secret, they had never
(Of which they will be guilty ever)
Been murderers of so much paper,
Or wasted many a hurtless taper;
No Indian drug had e'er been famed,
Tabacco, sassafras not named;
Ne yet, of guacum one small stick, sir,
Nor Raymund Lully's great elixir.