The Fluidity of Crystal

Hello Readers,

Apologies for my tardiness in updating the blog, but i’ve been in the process of writing a chapter – eventually destined (hopefully) to take pride of place at the beginning of my thesis – on the element of water in twelfth and thirteenth century cosmological thought.

I’ve also been off fighting the good fight to educate the youth of today on the wonders of medieval thought by going out to schools to talk about the wondrous creatures of the East; and presenting a paper at a graduate conference filled with visually pleasing goodies. The paper was on the fascinating fusion of representation and reality within medieval diagrams and maps, and is described here. It was an experiment in giving a paper to a non-specialist audience using mostly the slides as my prompts. It was well received on the whole, reinforcing my conviction that visual media are the best way to explain fairly complex concepts to an audience.

Today i’d like to muse on crystal, a substance imagined by the medieval mind to have an interesting provenance.

(Image available under Creative Commons from

In the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (XVI.xiii.1), it is written of crystal that it is “glittering and watery in colour”. It was thourght be Isidore to be snow that, once hardened to ice over a period of years, had taken on the nature of a rock.

In De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Order of Things) by the thirteenth century scholar Bartholemaus Anglicus, this opinion is repeated and expanded upon. This is an interesting passage, and tells us a lot about the imagined composition of matter within medieval thought. I make use of the Steele translation available from project Gutenberg , but it is not the best English translation out there (somebody borrowed that from the library just as I wanted it!).

Bartholemaeus characterises the substance of crystal in an illustrative fashion. Described as water made solid and adamant by nature of its interaction with the elemental forces governing matter, crystal was presented as a composite substance caught in an intermediate state somewhere between fluid and rock.

Crystal is a bright stone and clear, with watery colour. Men trowe that it is of snow or ice made hard in space of many years. This stone set in the sun taketh fire, insomuch if dry tow be put thereto, it setteth the tow on fire. That crystal materially is made of water, Gregory on Ezekiel i. saith: water, saith he, is of itself fleeting, but by strength of cold it is turned and made stedfast crystal. And hereof Aristotle telleth the cause in his Meteorics: there he saith that stony things of substance of ore are water in matter.

The form of the crystal can clearly be seen as a composite that alters its nature through exposure to and interaction with the four elements, and their defining traits. Although made of water, we are told that the crystal comes to its current form due to a shift in its defining qualities. Through protracted exposure to the dry earth, the water was though to have lost its fluidity, shifting from a cold and wet element to a cold and dry one, becoming as solid at earth. The mingling of the “coldness of water” and the “dryness of earth” creates a fascinating composite. Despite the earth having “victory and mastery” over the water, the crystal remains water nevertheless. Although an ore and a solid in character, the water “materially is made of water”.

Ricardus Rufus saith: stone ore is of water: but for it hath more of dryness of earth than things that melt, therefore they were not frozen only with coldness of water, but also by dryness of earth that is mingled therewith, when the watery part of the earth and glassy hath mastery on the water, and the aforesaid cold hath the victory and mastery. And so Saint Gregory his reason is true, that saith, that crystal may be gendered of water.

The moral quality of this analysis is also interesting to observe. The changeability and mobility (and thus fickleness) of water in its fluid form is transformed into solidity through the influence of the ground through its watery (cold) and earthly (dry) qualities. The solidification of water into crystal was more than freezing (a result of water becoming less like air and more like earth), resulting in a transmogrification brought on by the dryness of earth below overcoming the moistness of air above.

Thus, once the ‘idea’ of water is shifted from its moist and cold valence into the domain of the earth, it became water in material and yet stone in elemental composition. The traits of water could change its form if brought into greater propinquity with those of its co-elements. Heated, water became air, moist and hot, rising above the cold fluid form below. Cooled and dried, water solidified, and eventually became stone, made a part of the supportive mass of earth below. The transformations of water were reflected within crystal, thought to be the perfect representation of Saint Paul, who likewise transformed from a persecutor of Christians (fickle and liquid) into an Apostle.

That’s all from me today, but there is a really good discussion of stone by Jeffrey Cohen that may interest you in the inaugural issue of Postmedieval. It is available from the Palgrave Macmillan site for free (I love to see generosity from publishers!).

Take Care All,



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