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Title page of a printed lapidary by Conrad Gessner of 1565

A lapidary is a text, often a whole book, giving "information about the properties and virtues of precious and semi-precious stones", that is to say a work on gemology.[1] Lapidaries were very popular in the Middle Ages, when belief in the inherent power of gems for various purposes was widely held, and among the wealthy collecting jewels was often an obsession, as well as a popular way to store and transport capital.[2]

The medieval world had little systematic geological knowledge, and found it difficult to distinguish between many stones with similar colours, or the same stone found in a variety of colours.[3] Lapidaries are often found in conjunction with herbals, and as part of larger encyclopedic works. Belief in the powers of particular types of jewel to achieve effects such as protecting the wearer against diseases or other kinds of harm was strong in the Middle Ages, and explaining these formed much of the material in lapidaries. In the Middle Ages, scholars often distinguish "three different kinds of lapidaries: 1. the scientific lapidary 2. the magical or astrological lapidary and 3. the Christian symbolic lapidary", although contemporary readers would have regarded both the first two categories as representing scientific treatments.[4]

The objects regarded as "stones" in the classical, medieval Renaissance periods included many now classified as metallic compounds such as cinnabar, haemetite, calamine, or organic or fossil substances including pearl, coral, amber, and the mythical lyngurium described below.[5]

There were traditions of lapidary texts outside Europe, in the Islamic world as well as East Asia. The Chinese tradition was for long essentially concerned with the aesthetic qualities of stones, but by the later Middle Ages were influenced by the classical Western tradition, as transmitted through Islamic texts.[6]


Main sourcesEdit

The tradition goes back to ancient Mesopotamia with books like Abnu šikinšu. Theophrastus (died c. 287 BC) treated rocks and other minerals as well as gems, and remained a significant indirect source for the scientific tradition; he was all but unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages, and not translated into Latin until the 15th century.[7] He attempted to fill out with specifics the general remarks on minerals of Aristotle, and took an approach more compatible with modern concepts of mineralogy than any other writer of a full-length treatise on the subject until Georgius Agricola in the 16th century, widely recognised as the "father" of modern mineralogy. Both concentrated on the appearance of a wide range of minerals, where they came from, and how they were extracted and used.[8] While Pliny and others wrote on how to detect fake or imitation gems, some, like Jean d'Outremeuse (d. 1400), described how to make them in coloured glass, which by the Late Middle Ages was recommended for use in church metalwork.[9]

Most classical lapidaries are lost; of the 38 works listed by Pliny (in Book XXXVII), only Theophrastus' text survives.[10] There are hundreds of different medieval texts, but most are mainly based on a number of large works which were redacted, translated and adapted in various ways to suit the needs of the individual manuscript. The oldest of these sources was Pliny the Elder's Natural History from the 1st century AD, Book 37 of which covered gems, drawing on Theophrastus and other classical predecessors. Solinus was another ancient source, and Isidore of Seville an early medieval one. Later works, which also drew on Arabic sources (Avicenna's work was available in Latin), included the verse De Gemmis (or De Lapidibus) by Bishop Marbode of Rennes (d. 1123), the most popular late medieval lapidary, describing 60 stones, and works by Arnold of Saxony, Vincent of Beauvais and that traditionally attributed (probably wrongly) to Albertus Magnus.[11] Versions of Marbode's work were translated into eight languages, including Hebrew and Irish, and 33 manuscripts survive of the English version alone.[12]

As in other areas, medieval scholarship was highly conservative. Theophrastus had described lyngurium, a gemstone supposedly formed of the solidified urine of the lynx (the best ones coming from wild males), which was included in "almost every medieval lapidary" until it gradually disappeared from view in the 17th century.[13]


Just as drugs derived from plants were and are important in medicine, it seemed natural to the ancient and medieval mind that minerals also had medical properties (and indeed many mineral-derived chemicals are still in medical use). Saint Thomas Aquinas, the dominant theologian of the Late Middle Ages, propounded the view that the whole of the natural world had ultimately been created by God for the benefit of man, leading medieval Christians to expect to find beneficial uses for all materials.[14] Lapidaries listed the medical benefits of particular gems, with "the most common method of medical application" being wearing the stone on one's person in a jewellery setting, for example in a ring. Open-backed settings allowing direct contact between the skin and stone were encouraged; otherwise the stone might simply be held against the skin.[15] Other forms of application included ointments containing ground stones or taking the stone internally in ground form, often as part of a cocktail of several different herbal, mineral and other ingredients; this seems to have become especially often mentioned in the 16th and 17th centuries.[16] There were other methods of application; Theophrastus is much less concerned with medical aspects of his subject than the writers of later lapidaries, but he notes that smaragus is good for the eyes, and operates by being looked at.[17]

Stones were covered in other general medical books, ranging from the 1st century Greek De Materia Medica by Dioscurides to a wide range of Early Modern medical self-help books.[18]

Christian symbolismEdit

A school of lapidaries expounded the symbolism of gems mentioned in the Bible, especially two sets of precious and semi-precious stones listed there. The first of these were the twelve jewels, in engraved gem form, on the Priestly breastplate described in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 28:15–19), and the second the twelve stones mentioned in the Book of Revelation as forming the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:18–20)—eight of these are the same (or were in the Vulgate translation). The late Anglo-Saxon Old English Lapidary took the latter group as its subject. The symbolism of these sets had been explored by theologians since Saints Jerome and Augustine.[19] Various other schemes were developed, linking stones to particular saints, classes of angels, and other areas of Christianity.[20]


Another type of lapidary dealt with the astrological relationships and significance of gems; one of the largest was the Lapidary of Alfonso X or "Alfonso the Learned", King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), which was compiled for him by other authors, mostly Muslim. This was in several parts and set out the relationships between the Signs of the Zodiac, with each degree of each sign relating to a stone, and the astrological planets and other bodies, again related to particular stones. The strength of the medical and magical properties of stones was said to vary with the movements of the heavenly bodies that controlled them.[21]


  1. ^ Glick et al, 306; Vauchez, 821
  2. ^ Wheaton
  3. ^ Harris, 15–17
  4. ^ Wheaton, quoted; Harris, 11 note 15, 35–39. Harris, 11–15 gives her own classification into six types.
  5. ^ Harris, 14–16, 48–49
  6. ^ Harris, 21–22
  7. ^ Walton, 359–360; Wheaton
  8. ^ Harris, 45–50
  9. ^ Vauchez, 822; Harris, 17
  10. ^ Harris, 55
  11. ^ Glick et al, 306; Vauchez, 821–822; Harris, 19–20
  12. ^ Walton, 362
  13. ^ Walton, 365, quoted
  14. ^ Harris, 1–2, 41–42, 45
  15. ^ Harris, 8–9, 8 quoted
  16. ^ Harris, 9–10
  17. ^ Harris, 49
  18. ^ Harris, 50–55, 13–14, 30–34, 42–44
  19. ^ Vauchez, 821; Walton, 362
  20. ^ Wheaton
  21. ^ Evans, 424–426; Nunemaker, 103


  • Cherry, John, Medieval Goldsmiths, The British Museum Press, 2011 (2nd edn.), ISBN 9780714128238
  • Evans, Joan, "The 'Lapidary' of Alfonso the Learned", The Modern Language Review, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Oct., 1919), pp. 424–426, Modern Humanities Research Association, JSTOR
  • Glick, Thomas F., Livesey, Steven John, Wallis, Faith, eds., "Lapidary" in Medieval Science, Technology And Medicine: An Encyclopedia, Volume 11 of The Routledge encyclopedias of the Middle Ages, 2005, Routledge, ISBN 0415969301, 9780415969307, google books
  • Harris, Nichola Erin, The idea of lapidary medicine, 2009, Rutgers University, PhD dissertation (book forthcoming), available online as PDF
  • Nunemaker, J. Horace, "The Madrid Manuscript of the Alfonsine Lapidaries", Modern Philology, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Aug., 1931), pp. 101–104, University of Chicago Press, JSTOR
  • Riley, Denise (May 2017). "On the Lapidary Style". differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. Duke University Press. 28 (1): 17–36. doi:10.1215/10407391-3821676.
  • Thorndike, Lynn, "Some Unpublished Minor Works Bordering on Science Written in the Late Fifteenth Century", Speculum, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 85–95, Medieval Academy of America, JSTOR
  • Vauchez, André, Lapidge, Michael (eds), Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages: A–J, Volume 1 of Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, 2000, Routledge, ISBN 1579582826, 9781579582821, google books
  • Walton, S.A., Theophrastus on Lyngurium: medieval and early modern lore from the classical lapidary tradition, 2001, Annals of Science, 2001 Oct;58(4):357-79, PDF on
  • "Wheaton": "Medieval Lit Bibliography – Stones", Wheaton College, Illinois

Further readingEdit

  • Evans, Joan, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Particularly in England, 1922, Oxford (often reprinted)
  • Riddle, John M., Marbode of Rennes' De lapidibus: considered as a medical treatise, 1977, Wiesbaden