My alchemical demonstrations at re-enactment events



As many of you know, I do medieval and Tudor re-enactment, where I demonstrate a variety of historical technologies and knowledge. One being alchemy. I have done all sorts of things:

Burning alum

Comparing various salts and how they react to heat as described in a medieval alchemical text

Making nitric and sulphuric acids

Trying to make various quintessences

Turning copper into silver

Burning stuff, such as sulphur

Making salt of urine

Making a candidate for George Ripley’s philosopher’s stone (

Making caustic waters

Making the Divine water

And some other things which I can’t remember. During these procedures various other things have happened, such as a potash glass vessel breaking due to the heat being too strong on it, flooding the furnace with water and putting it out. Or discovering that the fumes of the divine water turn copper silver.

Actually I haven’t done any alchemical demos for nearly 2 years now, because of the hassle of setting up and taking down and the preparations necessary. I am not sure I’ll manage any this year, it depends on what events I attend.

Now, here are some photos of stuff: Continue reading

Alchemy and Astrology – something I read


, ,

I was recently reading Sebastien Moureau’s paper “Elixir atque Fermentum: New investigations about the link between psudo-Avicenna’s Alchemical De Anima and Roger Bacon: alchemical and medical doctrines”, and on page 290 it refers to the importance of the right, propitious time to carry out the work.

The note to it has more information:

“The calculation of the right time (arabic words for it in this space but I don’t have the keyboard for it) for the alchemical work is found in several Jabirian treatises; cf Kraus Jabir ibn Hayyan II, 8. The importance of the astral influence reminds one here of the Arabic magic, as, for example, in the making of talismans, cf. Also “Conclusion”, pp 332-33.”

I think it clear that the idea of propitious times etc goes back a lot farther, given how Zosimos railed against them, so an interesting question is what lines of transmission were there? From what I have read, they were undoubtedly many, parallel and only some of them alchemical.

Now now another interesting question is, how much of this approach actually survived into Medieval Europe? Not much, according to William Newman in “Secrets of Nature”. Or rather, why on earth did it not survive? Europeans imported so much, including astrology and alchemy and medical works, why did this idea not survive?

As usual, I’ll need to read a lot more to have a decent idea of an answer. So don’t wait up, this could take years. Or maybe you have a better answer?

Actually, you can also see the link between astrology and alchemy in “The book of the Treasure of Alexander” which is a mixture of astrology, alchemy, instructions for making talismans and poisons that dates from the 9/10th century AD. It says, for instance:

If you want to purify tutia, do so when Venus is in her sign with the moon making a positive aspect to Venus and Saturn is in his sign of exaltation.”

Clearly prescribing a time to carry out an operation.

Perhaps one reason such information did not carry over into Europe so easily was the association with talismans and astrology; the making of talismans was regarded as magic, often of a bad sort, and generally frowned upon. Yet astrology survived.

I’m sure some will say that the information about astrological timings to carry out the alchemical work was passed on by word of mouth. But that idea doesn’t work, because 1) if the Arabic texts mix it all together, why would Europeans separate it out? I can’t think of a good reason. 2) So many alchemists are on record about how they learnt alchemy from books, there simply wasn’t the unbroken master-pupil relationship that many obsessive people claim there was, so passing it on by word of mouth wouldn’t work. Obviously that leads to the suggestion that that is why it isn’t popular in European alchemy, but I doubt it.

What is much more likely is I think that the works translated were not as many or as often as people sometimes think, and in fact the astrologically related ones were not amongst those that were. It is pointed out that several Jabirian treatises mention an astrological link, but we know for sure that not all Jabirian treatises were translated in the medieval period, and I think some still aren’t available in any language than Arabic.

So a minority part of alchemy gets lost through the vicissitudes of copying and translating.

On footnotes, references and endnotes


It seems to be a commonly held belief that having references1 in your work, or indeed footnotes in the text itself, puts normal people off reading the book you have lovingly written.

I however have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter, and if anyone is actually silly enough to be put off by such things, they probably shouldn’t be reading the book in the first place.

1) exactly what is offputting about having numbers in your text is still unclear to me.

Now, I reckon that one way of gauging the effect of references etc is to look at popular books and seeing what they have. After all, if a book has sold well despite having references and a bibliography etc, then maybe that doesn’t really matter.

“The Time travellers guide to medieval England” by Ian Mortimer– has superscripted numbers referring to notes at the back.

“Britain in the middle ages” by Francis Pryor – Has references inline leading to notes at the back.

Both are well known books, and have sold well.

A little more esoteric, although still a bestseller, “Uriel’s Machine” by Knight and Lomas has references by footnote and a bibliography.

How about something more academic? There’s “Making a living in the Middle ages” by Christopher Dyer. Weirdly, this actually doesn’t have references and notes, rather at the back it has sources for the broad area of information in each chapter. Strange, that a book written by an academic has less academic signs than those written by others and meant as popular books. I have sort of tried this approach in the past, but now think that actually the more direct and specific the links you can put in the better for the reader who wants to know more.

So in conclusion, I say that any ideas about putting people off a work by having references and suchlike is old fashioned, unnecessary and a hindrance to informing people.

Making the oil of vitriol and why I’ve been using the wrong distillation equipment


, ,

Sorry for taking so long between posts; my main computer stopped working and it took a while to work out what to replace it with, which then of course meant work to get it working the way I wanted it to. Plus I was feeling a little tired after turning out so many regular blog posts. Fortunately the weather has improved and I can now do some work outside.

Something that has been bugging me for a while now is the mismatch between my own distillation equipment and that shown in period pictures. Some is down simply to it being hard to get anything resembling what is shown, e.g. the metal helms seen in Heironymous Braunschweig’s Book of Distillation. In this case it is because I hadn’t really seen the need to get it, so this experiment and post will serve as something of a test of the new equipment.

So, onto the oil of vitriol. The recipe I am using is one from the THE JESUATTI BOOK OF REMEDIES or LIBRO DE I SECRETTI CON RICETTI , a prior to 1562 collection of recipes made by the friars of the Order of Saint Jerome, compiled by Giovanni Andrew from Brescia, Italy. The recipe can be found here:;;toc.depth=1;;brand=jesuatti;route=jesuatti;query=vitriol#1
Continue reading

There is a lot more to research in medieval alchemical manuscripts than people know of


, ,

This one is one of my favourites, yet it has hardly been looked at by modern researchers:

The first part of antiquarian studies consists of working out the date and provenance of manuscripts. In this case it was owned by John Dee and looked at by Elias Ashmole, as well as modern people like Dorothea Waley Singer who made a modern catalogue of alchemical manuscripts. Once that is done it might be decades before anyone takes it in hand and examines it properly.

I have held and looked at this MS myself in the British Library; when I am feeling a bit uninspired it really perks me up to look at the original source of information, previously held by such famous people as Dee and Ashmole.  Yes, you too can get to hold something read and thought over by such famous people!

As a 15th century English manuscript it has a number of interesting points which to me broaden our understanding of alchemy. For starters there are several illustations similar in intent to those in the Ripley Scrolls, which are a late 15th/ early 16th invention. (Stolen from the British Library website, they seem to be copyright free)

Harley 2407 toad and snake and sun HArley 2407 1st Continue reading

Mountains and alchemy

I started hillwalking again in 2014 after a gap of 6 years, and at the end of October climbed my first Munro and first new to me Munro since early 2008. A few days later I was recalling how good it felt to get outside and uphill, when I remembered that mountains feature in some alchemical works and ideas.
So the question is where, and what do they mean?

The first obvious point is that mountains are high, lofty palces, closer to God in his heaven, and part way between the earth and the sky. So they are set apart from the earth itself, and of course you can see a long way from the top of them.

The Book of Crates, in the English translation sold by Adam Maclean of the Arabic which in turn was probably translated in the 9th century from the Greek, it says:
“Definition of the stone that is not a stone, nor of the nature of the stone. It is a stone that is generated every year. Its mine is on the summits of the mountains.”

Hmm, well that might be a veiled allusion to distillation and what collects in the alembic.

The third step of the Scala Philosophorum has a section that says, about the body of the work or perhaps the stone: Continue reading

Touchstones and streak testing


, ,

I realised I hadn’t written about this method of knowing what purity of metal you have, despite how important it is in gold and silversmithing, and of course it is relevant to alchemy because it is a simple way of checking if you have made true gold or not.
To put it simply, here is a modern touchstone:

Historic ones were made of dark dense hard stone, such as, according to the note in the Sisco and Smith translation of Lazarus Ercker’s book on assaying, fine grained black rocks such as quartzitic schists or like jasper, or even hard slate.
All you do is drag the piece of metal to be tested across it, and you will get a streak:

lead pewter and silver streak test
Continue reading

How old is hydrochloric acid?


, , , , ,

Asks an old paper by Ladislao Reti. From the journal Chymia, vol. 10, 1965, pages 11-23.

He runs through the usual well known sources of recipes for hydrochloric acid, such as Basil Valentine, De re Metallica etc, and ends up with a mid- 15th century Italian manuscript which is part of a work on dyeing, colours and the decorative arts.

It is translated by Mrs Merrifield as saying:

384. To soften bones. Take common salt and Roman Vitriol in equal quantities, and grind them together well: then distill them through an alembic and keep the distilled water in a vessel well closed. When you wish to soften bones or horn or ivory, put them in the said water for the space of five hours, and it will soften so that you may impress on them what you like, and they will afterwards become hard as before.

On the other hand to me it is not quite so amazing, knowing how much experimentation was going on at the time. Moreover what this recipe lacks is a link to theory and alchemical history. Alchemial works distinguish themselves by reference to an overarcing theory, and to historic experts, from Hermes to Albertus Magnus. This has neither, in a way it is simply a workshop reciept like Theophilus wrote 300 years earlier, lacking in detail since you are expected to already have your own workshop with equipment. I wonder too about the lack of mention of lute, alchemists usually swathed their cucurbic with lute in order to give it a longer life and prevent it breaking at high temperatures. When Lawrence Principe distilled salt he managed to melt a hole in the bottom of his pyrex glassware, but I don’t think he was using lute.

It certainly demonstrates how non-alchemists had distillation well in hand by that period, as we already know from the likes of “The goodman of Paris” and of course older ideas about spirits of wine being healthful, from the likes of Arnold of Villanova (the real one, not the pretend alchemical one) at the end of the 13th century.

More cross bearings on the use of such techniques by non-alchemists is always welcome. This particular recipe is apparently found in at least one more 15th century work from Italy, so it was likely to be well circulated.

Here’s a couple of photos of the alembic during my distillations.  The top one is nitric oxide fumes for making nitric acid, and the bottom is water from distilling some iron acetate.

alembic nitric acid distillation oct2013 alembic in quintessence distillation nov2013

The success of John Damien at the court of King James IV of Scotland


, ,

Very little is known about Damien; it is not clear even whether he was Italian or French, or where he was educated.  He had a long career as a Royal alchemist and sidekick, but he is known to the world as the man who claimed he could fly to France from Stirling castle, and so jumped from the crag with wings made of wood covered with feathers strapped onto his arms. Of course he fell down into a dungheap and broke his leg, but the only evidence we have for that is the potentially malicious story telling of Bishop Lesley and the disgruntled poet Dunbar, neither of whom liked the man.

How much their dislike was due to Damien’s character or behaviour, and how much due to the fact that he managed to stay in Royal favour for years on end is unclear.

An early examination of Damien’s career is found in The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, April 12, 1875, where John Small wrote: “… and continued during the rest of his reign to expend considerable sums of money in attempts to make “Quinta Essentia”, which should convert other metals into pure gold, heal all diseases, ….” Thus we see it stated plainly that Damien was unsuccessful and that quintessences, i.e. fifth essences, a fifth element that was thought to be incorruptible, are a form of the philosophers’ stone. This is indeed the conflation made by the group of English alchemists and medicinars who were attempting to cure King Henry VI of England of his madness, some 45 years earlier.

I on the other hand now think it clear that Damien was successful in making the quintessence and in his career, by the standards of the day. Not only did he maintain himself at the court at the cost to the King, from 1501 onwards, with a short break on the continent, he was even found, after the death of the King at Flodden, to be involved in looking at the mine of Crawford Moor, presumably with a view to getting more precious metals from it.

James IV, as a renaissance king of many virtues, had a great interest in medicine and related topics and is known to have paid someone to allow him to extract teeth from him. At this time medicine and alchemy were related by virtue of medicines made by distillation, which by 1500 were commonplace across Europe, and utilised the practises of alchemists allied to medieval herbal medicine. Many of the cures were based on spirits of wine, often mixed with herbs and other plants, if not some metals or inorganic substances. That James should have had an alchemist at court is no surprise, and John Damien was installed at one of James’ favourite residences, Stirling castle, where he had furnaces built for his work.  Unfortunately as far as I know nothing survives of the furnaces.

E. J. Holmyard, writing about John Damien, wrote “What may be even more significant were the very large amounts of whisky the alchemist found it necessary to employ in his search for the philosophers’ stone, and the occasional puncheon of wine for making the quintessence.” (In his book “Alchemy”, published in 1957)

This brings to mind the idea of a drunken alchemist helping others get drunk, by making high proof beverages, of the sort which it is now illegal to make. However what Holmyard overlooks but was noticed by Small is that Damien was very likely aware of an alchemical text called “The Book of the Quintessence”, by John of Rupescissa, which was very popular in 14 – 15th century Europe. It was translated into English in the 1460’s or so, and a copy is available, published as the Early English Text society Original series number 16. This describes the use of seven times distilled wine to make the quintessence by means of re-circulation of the high proof alcohol for a long period, as well as the extraction of quintessences of gold and of antimony.

So when we turn to the accounts of the Lord High treasurer, volume 3, we find entries such as:

page 122- ‘1 galloun aqua vitae to the abbot of Tongland, 24s’

Page 183, ‘february 1505-6, 28 shillings of aqua vite to the quinta essentia’.

Page 187, to ‘Robert Herwort for aqua vitae taken from him, 14s’.

Immediately we see that Damien was using quite a lot of aqua vitae, that is, spirits made from wine or ale. But that was not all he was up to. The Soc Ant Scot. paper says that one of the earliest mentions is in March 1501-2, of “4 hary nobles being sent to the Leich for the multiply”, the leich being Damien. Yet all this proves is that his first appearance is as a multiplier of precious metals, someone attempting to make more gold from a little of it. Not making the quintessence. This first makes an appearance in 1502-3, with the purchase of quicksilver for the making of quintessence. Mercury is actually used in “The book of the Quintessence” for the making of the quintessence of gold, by making an amalgam of mercury and gold which is then distilled and sundry other operations are carried out. All the recipes in the book are for medicines, so a medicine made of gold, the perfect incorruptible metal would be a valuable thing indeed and at the time it was entirely respectable to make and use such a substance. More connections are found in later years, such as in 1507-8 we find sal ammoniac being purchased for the quintessence. It is used in “The book of the Quintessence” to help dissolve the gold when separating it from silver. So we have a further correlation between Damien’s work and “The Book of the Quintessence”.

Interestingly, in 1503, “pottis of lame” are purchased, and later on for coals for quinta essencia, i.e. for heating the furnace, and also charcoal for the same. Pottis of lame means earthenware pottery, according to the Dictionary of the Scottish language, and is used several times around 1500. Unfortunately that does not say anything about what shape they were, but it is likely they were small pots for holding ingredients and finished medicines. The actual distillation was done using a silver alembic, also purchased, and some glass flasks. Or perhaps the flasks or pots were cucurbits for carrying out distillation, but we simply cannot tell from the scanty evidence and lack of relevant finds. Annoyingly I can’t find any mention of the specific apparatus, called a Pelican, for making quintessence from aqua vitae, but the accounts, such as in volume four covering 1507-1513, list a huge number of other things, some of which have already been mentioned, and others being caldrons, pitchers, wood and coles, cakes of glass and urinals and great flasks. The last ones likely include the actual pelican; the purchase was made in 1507-8, page 94 of the ALHT, and cost 28 shillings for 11 ‘urynales’ and two great ‘flacatis’, which frankly isn’t a lot, given that it could cost the same amount to pay for someone to travel to Edinburgh, or five shillings to two fishermen for a pike brought to the king. They were likely imported, since I’ve never read about the manufacture of glass objects in Scotland at this time.

The repeated mentions of the purchase of aqua vitae at a variety of dates, such as in 1507, indicate that someone else was carrying out distillations and productions of whisky, suggesting that the knowledge was more widespread than people might have expected. Even better, Damien crops up in the accounts books regarding the manufacture of gunpowder and the employment of foreign gunners, such as, in the Accounts of the Lord High treasurer volume 4, Page 132, for about May 1508, money is given to the abbot of ‘Tungland’ to ‘pay the laif of the Franch gunnaris and other servandis’. Which suggests that he was a handy person to have around to act as an interface between foreigners whose language he spoke and other people in Scotland who may not be able to speak French.  (Damien had been made abott of Tongland in 1504 by James as a way of keeping him on the payroll without directly costing the King money, instead the abbey had to pay for him)

So my conclusion is that, contrary to the idea that many have, Damien was a successful alchemist, through his manufacture of the quintessence and probably several quintessence based drugs and cures for the Scottish court. Someone who was expert at medical work and production of the intoxicating quintessence (About which I have a theory requiring some experimentation) would certainly be worth having and retaining at court. Although he first appears as a mere multiplier, perhaps a charlatan, after this failure he kept on making the quintessences for the King and his court, bringing modern medicine to Scotland and thus ensuring his successful career. Unlike many alchemists he apparently knew when to quit.

Further notes: The only difficulty is that we’ve no evidence exactly what medicines he made and who consumed it, which is annoying. If James hadn’t died at Flodden we might have been able to exhume his body and test it for gold and mercury (The mistress of Henry II of France died from too much gold and mercury containing medicine As for pictures, I had a pelican but it died in an accident. I’m thinking of getting one made more like that you can see in some pictures such as Heironymous Braunschweig’s distillation book. Here’s a link to a short discussion about pelicans: A pelican is seen in the top left of this set of pictures, the earliest I have heard of so far that are indisputably of a pelican:

Purification of Saltpetre, part one


, , ,

At last, the experiment you have all been waiting for. Purifying saltpetre.

As we all know, it is one of two critically important ingredients for gunpowder, the other being charcoal. The latter is easy enough to make, but saltpetre is a lot harder. The medieval folks at the Danish Mittelalter centre tried for several years before 2010 to make it and didn’t succeed. More recently, Haileigh Robertson has been working on a PhD related to gunpowder, and has made crude saltpetre at the centre, but there are major problems with the impurities, which render it of very low quality.

Saltpetre is a comparatively recent arrival in Europe. It was almost certainly imported from the middle east in the 12/13th centuries, and in the early 14th we have the evidence for its use in making gunpowder for cannon, but it was very expensive. However over the next century the price dropped greatly, making it much easier to buy and use, helping fuel the use of cannon and bombards, the latter having calibres of a foot and more and requiring several kilograms of blackpowder to fire.

Like anything else though, saltpetre needs to be pretty pure to be useful. So I thought I’d have a go at purifying it myself. Continue reading


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers