Secretum Secretorum

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Two charts for determining whether a person will live or die based on the numerical value of the patient's name. From copy of a portion of Kitab Sirr al-asrar

Secretum secretorum is a medieval treatise also known as Secret of Secrets, or The Book of the Secret of Secrets, or in Arabic: كتاب سر الأسرار‎ (Kitab sirr al-asrar), or the Book of the science of government: on the good ordering of statecraft. It is a mid-12th century Latin translation of a 10th-century Arabic encyclopedic treatise on a wide range of topics, including statecraft, ethics, physiognomy, astrology, alchemy, magic and medicine. It was influential in Europe during the High Middle Ages.


The origins of the treatise are uncertain. No Greek original exists, though there are claims in the Arabic treatise that it was translated from the Greek into Syriac and from Syriac into Arabic by a well-known 9th century translator, Abu Yahya Ibn al-Batriq. It appears, however, that the treatise was actually composed originally in Arabic. The treatise also contains supposed letters from Aristotle to Alexander the Great; this may be related to the identification of Alexander the Great in the Quran and the wider range of Middle Eastern Alexander romance literature.

As for its date of origin, it cannot be said with certainty whether the section on physiognomy was circulating in Arabic before AD 940: A manuscript now in the British Library (OIOC, MS Or. 12070) supposed to have been copied in 941 by Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn Durustawayh of Isfahan which contains a physiognomy similar to the one in the Sirr al-Asrar (Secret of Secrets) is probably a 20th-century forgery. More safely, it may be assumed a form of the text must have existed after the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity were composed and before the time Ibn Juljul was writing, quite surely in the late 10th century AD.

The Arabic version was translated into Persian (at least twice), Ottoman Turkish (twice), Hebrew (and from Hebrew into Russian), Spanish and Latin.

There are two Latin translations from the Arabic, the first one dating from around 1120 by John of Seville for the a Portuguese queen (preserved today in some 150 copies), the second one from circa 1232 by Philippus Tripolitanus (preserved in more than 350 copies), made in the Near East (Antiochia). It is this second Latin version that was translated into English by Robert Copland and printed in 1528.

The Latin Secretum secretorum was eventually translated into Czech, Russian, Croatian, Dutch, German, Icelandic, English, Aragonese,[1] Català, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Welsh.[2]

There is another book called "Kitab al-asrar" "Book of Secrets" on practical technical recipes, classification of mineral substances, description of the alchemical laboratory, etc. by Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi. A Latin translation appears in Europe as Liber secretorum. This is a completely separate book entirely and is a common source of confusion because of the same names and similar subject matter and time period. In addition it is distinctly different from a treatise on physiognomy with the title Kitab fi al-firasah attributed to Aristotle and said to have been translated into Arabic in the 9th century by Hunayn ibn Ishaq.

The Secrets[edit]

Secret of Secrets takes the form of a pseudoepigraphical letter supposedly from Aristotle to Alexander the Great during his campaigns in Seleucid Persia. The text ranged from ethical questions that faced a ruler to astrology and magical/medical properties of plants, gems, numbers, and a strange account of a unified science, of which only a person with the proper moral and intellectual background could discover. An enlarged version appearing in the 13th century includes some alchemical references and an early version of the Emerald Tablet or tabula smaragdina. The Arabic treatise is preserved in two forms: a long version of 10 books and a short version of 7 or 8 books, preserved in a total of about fifty copies.


It was one of the most widely read texts of the High Middle Ages, or even "the" most-read.[3] Medieval readers took the ascription to Aristotle as authentic and treated this work among Aristotle's genuine works. Roger Bacon cited the Secretum in his own works more often than his contemporaries, and even produced one manuscript with his own introduction and notes, something rather unusual for him to do with others' works. Although it is generally accepted that the Secretum held a special place in Bacon's world, more dashing proposals like that of early 20th century medievalist Robert Steele—claiming that Bacon's contact with Secretum was the key event pushing Bacon towards experimentalism—have been regarded with skepticism in more recent reevaluations.[4]

Scholarly attention to the Secretum waned around 1550 but lay interest has continued to this day in particular with devotées of the Occult. Scholars today see it as a window onto medieval intellectual life: it was used in a variety of scholarly contexts, and had some part to play in the scholarly controversies of the day.


This article incorporates text derived from NLM Microfilm Reel: FILM 48-123 no. 4; online version.
  1. ^ (Spanish) Vicente de Vera, Eduardo: El aragonés: Historiografía y Literatura, Zaragoza, Mira editores, 1992. p 83
  2. ^ Kyfrinach y Kyfrinachoedd, Chandler, Kirstie (2002). "Patriarchy and Power in Medieval Welsh Literature". Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 22: 80–95. Retrieved 5 April 2014. 
  3. ^ ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Badawī (1987), La transmission de la philosophie grecque au monde arabe, Paris, Librairie Philosophique Vrin, p. 11
  4. ^ Steven J. Williams (1997). "Roger Bacon and the Secret of Secrets". In Jeremiah Hackett. Roger Bacon and the sciences: commemorative essays. BRILL. pp. 365–374. ISBN 978-90-04-10015-2. 
  • Regula Forster, Das Geheimnis der Geheimnisse: die arabischen und deutschen Fassungen des pseudo-aristotelischen Sirr al-asrar / Secretum Secretorum, Wiesbaden, Reichert, 2006, ISBN 3-89500-495-2.
  • Mahmoud Manzalaoui, "The pseudo-Aristotelian Kitab Sirr al-asrar: facts and problems", Oriens, vol. 23-24 (1974), pp. 146–257.
  • Steven J. Williams, The Secret of Secrets: the scholarly career of a pseudo-Aristotelian text in the Latin Middle Ages, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003, ISBN 0-472-11308-9.
  • Steven J. Williams, "The early circulation of the pseudo-Aristotelian 'Secret of Secrets' in the west", in Micrologus, n°2 (1994), pp. 127–144.

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