The use of distilled medicine in England in the early 15th century



Twitter is useful for finding out what others are researching.

This is a good example:

A blog post from the useful and interesting Recipes project. It discusses a book called Tabula Medicine, which has various distillation recipes, and, importantly from my point of view, was written between 1416 and 1425, by English friars, drawing upon older recipes.

A perennially interesting question regards the transmission of knowledge across Europe, and in my case especially that of techniques and recipes related to alchemy and allied activities such as distillation. A related problem is that there is a mass of material which has not been fully studied. Therefore all we can say about some recipes is that they are first written about over there, in say 1340, and next seen copied out near here in 1400. So what has happened to them in the meantime?

In the case of the recipes used by the friars, since they include ones from John of Rupescissa’s Book of the quintessence, we can say securely that copies of his work were in England by the early 15th century. Moreover, given that some recipes are attributed to older friars in the period 1370 – 1420, that also indicates that distilled recipes were in England by that time, although the article doesn’t go into enough detail for me to be totally sure. This therefore pushers my understanding of the transmission of the text back by several decades. It seems therefore too that it first arrived in Latin, being translated into English later in the centuries.

Moreover, it provides documentary evidence to back up the archaeological evidence, that distillation was well known amongst the educated sections of society. Having said that, I think we are still lacking widespread evidence of distillation from firaries etc, but certainly by mid-15th century the remains of alembics are found in various secular sites, as the practise moved from the religious people to the secular medical men. (Not that they were all secular as such, but having taken minor orders at university few kept up such stations in life)

As an aside, an apothecary or medical man carrying out distillations is entirely period, but not very well represented in the re-enactment world, due probably to the difficulties inherent in carrying out distillations in a field.

Turning lead into silver, part 1



Searching through the Ferguson Collection in Glasgow has been interesting, and turned up a variety of manuscripts related to my interests. Okay, some are in Italian, or are illegible, but still they are worth a look, and others, like the version of Norton’s Ordinal, have nice pictures.

One especially useful is a 15th century one that has many alchemical recipes written in English. Thus I can understand them quite well. It is MS 205, and the catalogue says it is a liber de consideratione quinte esentie ervici rerum transmutabili in latin, Xvth century, but it is so much more than that. There is some Lull of course, Albertus and Dekyngstone, the latter which proves it is of English origin.

There are also marginal notes, not always of any use but interesting to see what a later reader was interested in.

It turns out that someone else has already studied it:

I shall endeavour to get a copy of her thesis. It would save a lot of work, and the wear and tear from me reading the original copy enough times to actually understand it. Meanwhile, I am still learning to read the handwriting, although I am much better at it than I was 8 years ago when I first started looking at original manuscripts. The spelling doesn’t help too.

The recipe I am trying out, from f81v, goes: Continue reading

Alchemy related book review – Dragon’s blood and Willow Bark by Toni Mount


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So I thought I’d do a partial book review, covering my area of expertise. The victim this time is Toni Mount. Don’t worry, she is far superior to Jonathan Hughes, and her book is worth having a look at.

The book itself is pitched at a general audience, and is therefore differently written than if for a more advanced one. The author has been a history teacher for 15 years and has an MA in research in medieval manuscripts. As a modern book it takes more seriously the actual practicality and results that medieval medical recipes give, and also covers all aspects of medieval medicine in a readable fashion.

There is a goodly lot of notes and references, including to primary sources, indicating she has done a lot of research.

So, nice stuff aside, onto the difficult bits that spoil my enjoyment somewhat. Firstly, on page 79 she claims that colourless lead crystal glass was invented in 1674, so before that spectacles, prisms and lenses were made of polished rock crystal. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence for this whatsoever. A few medieval and many more 16th century lenses survive, and many are of clear glass, or else of slightly tinted glass since it was hard to get proper pure clear glass. If lenses were made of rock crystal alone that would be rather a brake on their becoming so cheap in the 15th century.

Unfortunately for this page she seems to have relied upon a number of online resources assembled by enthusiasts, rather than properly vetted historical works, which is a shame.

Now, onto the alchemy.

This is in chapter 12, titled “Progress in Medicine”, which begins with a more revisionary modern approach to the knowledge and practises of medieval medical people, since the old approach of basically rubbishing all practise and theory of the time is ahistorical and wrong.

So far so good.

The start of the alchemical studies bit is good, mentioning Paracelsus dissolving opium in alcohol rather than water, and distillation remedies. Unfortunately it then on page 228 goes onto George Ripley, and repeats the usual nonsense about him, despite there being no real evidence that it is correct, and it isn’t phrased clearly either, so the reader might think it is all actual historical fact. She then compounds the crime by stating

“He wrote books on the alchemical arts: On the Philosopher’s stone and the Phoenix was a rewriting of earlier authors from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so wasn’t too controversial.”

At this point you should imagine me stroking my imaginary beard and saying “reaallllyyy” in a disbelieving tone of voice. Rampling’s magisterial and award winning “Catalogue of Ripley Manuscripts” has it spelt as Phoenice, in Sloane MS 1842, and a 17th century title for the well known late 15th century “Cantilena”, i.e. Song.

The internet has the full listing of it, here:

that it is a 17th century work:

Sloane Ms 1842: (17th c)
Ripley, George, Terra terrae philosophicae (ff2-4)
Ripley, George, Medulla Philosophiae Chemicae (ff7v-10)
Pearce the Black Monk, Verses on the elixir (ff11-13)
Ripley, George, Philosophical verses and on the philosopher’s stone and the phoenix (ff20-27)
Bacon, Roger: Verbum abbreviatum (ff32-36)
Ripley, George, The great work and other writings (ff43-49, 57-61, 78-101)

Unfortunately, I’m not impressed by taking a 17th century title for a work when there is a perfectly good medieval title. The full version can be found here:

Now, if I am reading Rampling aright, the Cantilena is in the Corthop group of manuscripts, and as such is a core Ripleyan work, but I do wonder why she used a more recent title for it. I also find her assertion that it was simply a rewriting of earlier authors unsettling; it isn’t exactly a wrong statement, but it isn’t exactly linked directly to a reference, it’s more one of those too general to be accurate statements. The nearest is on the next page after a quote from the 1994 book “The mirror of alchemy- Alchemical ideas and images in manuscripts and books from antiquity to the seventeenth century”, by G. Roberts, published by the British Library. I’ve yet to get a copy, it’s a bit pricey.

Then she states that the green lion is apparently mercury, which is news to me. To some authors maybe, but certainly not all of them, and not during much of the medieval period. She does admit that she doesn’t know why the mercuric lion is green. Well, that’s because it isn’t mercury. I suspect she has been misled by Mr Roberts.

This is an example of an area where wider reading in the topic is necessary. Relying on secondary sources of good pedigree does mean I won’t get annoyed at you, after all we all have to rely on them at various times in our research and writing, since it is impossible to become expert at everything. But it certainly shows here.

She then moves onto Thomas Norton. She gives the usual, but actually historically accurate information about Norton, since a lot more is known about his life, and he has written a book after all which mentions some incidents during it. But including Norton here is a mistake, because he is not particularly relevant. To alchemy yes, to medicine not really. It would be much better to mention the petition to the King by the physicians seeking to heal Henry VI.

Then it’s onto William Harvey, who isn’t medieval really, even if he was born in 1578 (In many ways the 16th century was medieval in thought and deed). What would have been much better would have been to dwell more on the distillation books and use of alcohol as medicine, and the quintessence, which was popular in England in the 15th century. So popular that it was translated into English, and copied out quite a few times, and even better, straddled the line between medicine and alchemy. I can’t find mention of quintessence in the index.

So, a reasonable enough book let down by lack of research into the alchemy of the period, which is a shame.

To practise your observational skills – The differences between a medieval original picture and a 17th century copy


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A while ago Chem Heritage Foundation tweeted a picture of one of the drawings from Elias Ashmole’s 17th century copy of Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of the 1470’s. This reminded me that there are some differences between the original illustrations and the copies, as I noticed years ago. But good quality colour copies of the medieval pictures are hard to find.

Fortunately I have tif files of the originals that I purchased from the British library for study purposes, so I can tell you about them but not put them up here. Instead you’ll have to do with low quality pictures.

Now, the picture in question is this one, in the 17th century Ashmole edition of Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum:


Note that Norton seems to be about to kiss the book proffered to his lips. The original picture has two books being offered by the wise man, and the upper one is approaching the kneeling mans lips, it isn’t that definite that he is intending to kiss it, in my opinion; maybe it is being proffered to his close lips for the symbolism with the wording in the picture. Moreover this Ashmole edition is in black and white, missing the bright colours of the original.

The texts from the angels seem to match at least,

Expecta Dominum, viriliter age : et confortetur cor tuum, et sustine Dominum (Psalms 27.14) = Expect the Lord, do manfully, and let your heart take courage, and wait for the Lord.

Bottom left:
Secreta Alkymiae secrete servabo = I shall keep secret the secrets of Alchemy.

Bottom right:
Accipe donum Dei sub sigillo sacrato = Accept the gift of God under the sacred seal.

(From the ever helpful Paul Ferguson, here: )

Oddly, someone seems to have made a coloured version too, in Ashmole 971 in the Bodleian library, which has made copies of the images available online.


This one appears to match that of the original more generally in colour, but seems to be even more crudely drawn. It doesn’t have the naked women on pillars that the black and white printed version has. It also has an angled tiled floor, unlike the printed one and the original.  The original has proper mediveal gothic pillars, but no lions heads at the top, unlike the later copies.  I do wonder if the coloured version is based on the black and white one, or is it the other way around?  There are white birds with halo’s in all of the illustrations.

In the original the supplicant is kneeling on a blue cushion which has the usual fluffy bits at the corner of it.  In neither of these is the case, and the supplicant seems to be wearing a gown more suited to the 17th century.  Despite copying a lot of the original illustration, the clothes are rather different, although the master has  hat in them all, and the supplicant is bareheaded.

There is a fourth variation of the illustration, that found in the Ferguson collection one, which dates to the 16th century and thus only 30 or a hundred years after the original was produced.  It is also crudely drawn, and appears not to have been finished, insofar as the margin of the page is blank, where in the Ashmole black and white drawing it is full of plants and animals, which mimicks the original which has somewhat abstract plants around it.

But it does more closely match the original picture, in ouline, in the clothes the men are wearing, in the architecture about them, in the two books, one red and  one blue being presented to the supplicant.

Now, the bigger question is of course why bother copying the original so nearly yet not quite? One less book, showing even more reverence to it and the seated man, and did all the colours mean anything?

I suspect that Ashmole was consciously updating a lot of the real and perceived symbolism in the pictures, hence the changes in fashion.  Perhaps too him or his illustrator had not really had a chance to look much at the original picture.  The fact that they have tiled floors and very similar presentations of the angels holding texts in the Ashmole copies suggests to me that the illustrators had seen the original one; if they had been working from the Ferguson collection one they wouldn’t have put the tiling in since it is missing in that one.

In fact what is missing completely in our undestanding of it all, or at least in mine, is how Ashmole got to see the original manuscript in the first place!  So I turn to Reidy, who states that nothing is known of it before it was owned by Richard Heber, who lived from 1773- 1833, and after his death the British Museum purchased it from the sale of his library in 1836.  Apparently Ashmole describes a similar manuscript lent to him by a gentleman which he used as the basis for his text in the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum of 1652.  I think it worth quoting Reidy in full here:

“A slight difference existed, however, for Ashmole speaks of ornamentation of ‘Flowers, biurds and beasts’, and of the Nevilles’ coats of arms; the present manuscriopt has only flowers and no coats of arms.  Neither can this manuscript be Hendry VII’s own book, or we should know more of its history.  None the less we habve the interesting case of three almost contemporary presentation copies with almost identical illuminations.”

Weirdly, Reidy seems to have missed the Ferguson copy, and he lists only 31 manuscript editions in his transcription and explication of the Ordinal.

The Ferguson MS is a generation or two later than the original illustrated ones he mentions.

In fact, thinking about the illustrated versions that were around at the time, Norton’s Ordinal has to be one of the earliest expensive presentation alchemical works in England, if not Europe.  There was a great flourishing of them in the 16th century, but not so much in the 15th.  And what did Norton gain by such expensive acts?  A modicum of fame, certainly, within some circle of people, but it is unclear now how much that circle was courtly, noble, scholarly or what.  So many possible answers, but we don’t have the evidence to tell the wheat from the chaff.




The Alchemical testament of John Gibbs of Exeter, and other 16th century English alchemists


This is a peculiar little text, apparently from the 16th century. The original MS is apparently Ashmole 1423 in the Bodleian library, yet I can’t find it in their catalogue, it seems because it isnt properly digitised yet and they have multiple catalogues. Mind you I wonder maybe it doesn’t exist and the attribution is wrong.…

The Alchemy website has a listing of all works within the book, and it seems to date from the end of the 16th century.

It’s yet another book whose individual importance is low but as one of many such books around at the time can give a much broader and informed picture of the state of knowledge and public interest in alchemy, chymistry and related topics at the time. The more I have learnt the more I have realised that the public histories of alchemy give a very simple idea of it, necessarily so in many cases, but in others I think the research hasn’t been done, especially amongst all the surviving manuscripts.

So of course it probably won’t get digitised, he typed cynically.

Anyway, the 19th century transcription can be found here online:

It starts very seriously, introducing John Gybbys of Exeter, who on his deathbed, wants to communicate his ‘great secret’ he has. He does so “ and ye wyll, shall have a cause to pray for my sowle and for the good deyd ye may do be my informacyn.” which to me sounds rather Catholic, i.e. pre-reformation. In the notes accompanying the transcription, the MS apparently belonged to John Dee in 1563.

There follows an odd text, clearly somewhat cut and pasted in from other sources, which starts with instructions to melt lead and hold a stick in it when it cools, so as to leave a hole. Then take mercury, “true and good; see he be strained and clarified well through a piece of leather white…” (modernised spellings)

This mercury is to be put to the metal, seemingly into the hole you have, whilst it is still hot even if solid, and a cucurbit of glass luted above the hole, over the crucible, and anything that appears in it is collected.

Eventually, you proceed to the usual gentle heating of your hermetically sealed vessel, which isn’t usually as well described as here. The mercury spirit that is distilled from it all is put back to the body, “… and iff the body reseave the spyritt againe, itt is perfytte, iff he wyll, not prove hym again.”

The stone you get is called lapis adamantis, or in English a ‘Shypman stone’ or a ‘lood stone’.

That is certainly a good way to confuse names.

The second step is to take the stone, put it in a glass pot, and mortified mercury, lute it shut, heat it, on and off, for 40 days! Which should cause the mercury to dissolve into a crystall clear water.

After for 24 hours burning with a great fire, it will turn black, when it should be taken out the pot. This is rather a departure from the norm. Black is supposed to change to white, and then red, often via a rainbow colour step.

I can fantasise about a poorly educated, country based alchemist gulling less sophisticated people, but it isn’t even clear if Gybbys really existed and was an alchemist!

When added to liquid mercury it will mortify it and it will harden, often shaking the crucible as it does so. When heated it will all melt and dissolve again, and it can be cast into an ingot.

An ingot of what, I hear you ask. To which I can only say, this sounds like a method of making a silver analogue. Not gold. Of course, Saturn usually means lead, the trick is how to make the lead harder and shinier.

Note the way it combines common forms of language and action yet in a slightly different way from normal. I’m sure that as historians dig deeper into the many different manuscripts, they will find many such variations, due to the many different people that have written them.

Here’s a photo of a somewhat weathered lead cauldron casting at Kentwell, done maybe 20 years ago now:


Note the colour and dullness, which has to be overcome in order to make it look like silver.

As for other alchemists, every now and then I stumble across mention of others, there really were quite a lot of them. For instance, in “Alchemical poetry 1575- 1700” (the title is a lie, there is earlier stuff in it in translation) there is a work by Edward Cradock.

He attended Oxford University, and lived from around 1536- 1594, i.e. through the various religious upheavals and political change. He was a doctor of theology at Oxford and lectured on the topic, and according to a bibliographical entry on him, spent a lot of time on alchemy. He produced 3 alchemical works, the third being a poem “A treatise touching the Philosopher’s stone” which is therefore in the book above.

The book also features two verse works by Simon forman, and three verse translations from middle french by William Backhouses, in 1644. The texts are from 1413 and 1500, the latter being by pseudo- Jean de meun and titled “The complaint of Nature against the Erronious Alchymist” and ”The Alchymyst’s Answere to Nature”

I find it interesting that someone would translated older French alchemical poetry into English in the mid-17th century, and think it’s all part of the broader cultural importance of alchemy, which is something I just don’t think has been adequately covered, especially in a more public friendly fashion. It’s easy enough to state that alchemy was widely known of and popular amongst learned people, much harder to explain it in both breadth and depth.

The complicated braid of alchemical thought and practise


A few years ago now, when I got into alchemy, the more I read, the more confused I got. At first it seemed fairly simple, but after a few years I managed to find more sources and information and it all got very complicated. After a few more years, with more thinking, reading and experimenting it made more sense again.

So, the complexity and difficulties I have had were in part due to the different streams, or threads, of alchemical thought. It can be thought of a little like this, showing the start of alchemy:


ime is going down the page, and at the top we have two streams of thought and practise, i.e. philosophy and practical workshop recipes, joining together. At this juncture is a circle with dots in, the dots being people, the individuals who imbibed the knowledge and discussed and wrote and used it. Out of these people came the splits up into schools of alchemy, each with their own approach. 200 or 300 years later, Zosimos, himself a gnostic, is referring to Maria the Jewess and her alchemical school, and there are also works that seem to be from schools of thought related to both of them. Each has it’s own recipes and specific philosophical approach, and favour some terms over others, but they are definitely all alchemy.

Continue reading

So what did people think about the purity of gold in medieval times?


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Talking with a re-enactment friend about reproduction medieval jewellery, the subject of the purity of gold naturally came up.

This is of course of great interest to moneyers, Kings, alchemists and jewellers. The latter were expected to produce jewellery of a specific purity of gold, and if they did not, they would be fined. In general in medieval Europe, the products of goldsmiths were tested, usually with a touchstone, and a mark stamped upon them to certify this purity. This method is still in use today, except that sometimes the mark is applied with a laser rather than by hand. Hand punching requires a lot of skill, since you are basically hitting a small metal object with a heavy hammer on a narrow headed punch, so there is great potential for distortion in the object.

Anyway, back to the purity levels of gold.

My usual starting place for this sort of thing, “English Medieval Industries” has a lot about the social history part of being a goldsmith, the marks used (including that quite a lot of pieces don’t have a proper set of marks on them at all, which seems odd unless you reckon the law wasn’t followed as well as it should be) and not a lot on the purity.

In one place they do mention that modern gold foil is 23 and a quarter carat with 3/4 of a carat of silver and copper. You can’t make gold foil much less pure than that because the alloy doesn’t beat out flat enough.

However this book was published in 1991, and is well due a new edition.

Another book, “Goldsmiths”, by John Cherry, is from the British museum and has many very nice photographs of objects. It also has a chapter on the product, i.e. gold items. Fortunately the next one on the organisation of the craft includes information that

“In the fifteenth century there was a great change in the standard of gold purity and also in the marking arrangements. Since 1300, the minimum standard for wares of gold had been 19.2 carats. In 1478 it was lowered to 18 carats at which it was to remain until raised in 1576 to 22 carats.”

At this point it should be made clear that a carat was a proportion, with there being 24 carats in total, so 12 carats would be half gold.

The final place to look would of course be works on coinage, since the purity of coins went up and down depending on circumstances, but I don’t have much about that.

Theophilus’ 12th century work “on Divers arts”, instructs in the use of gold a lot, and on method of cementation, but is remarkably quiet, from my skimming through it, about exactly how pure your gold should be. The only exception is with regard to making gold leaf, which requires pure gold. Which you could make using cementation of course.

Certainly people found higher gold alloys to be more valuable, but from memory, most mention of gold in alchemical works specifies “good” gold, whatever that is. There is much more concern with the methods of testing gold and how your alchemically made gold will withstand them. Yet if you consider the false alchemists, the swindlers such as in Chaucer, there must have been some concern with the purity of gold, because some methods do require gold alloys, or make gold alloys, which when treated properly will appear to be pure gold and thus have multiplied the original gold 3 or 4 fold.

From alchemical texts that I have, e.g. the Libellus de Alchimia, chapter 57, “Take of it one part to a hundred parts of any purified and calcined metal, and it will be good for all time.”

The Book of the quintessence, mentions “fine gold”.

John Dastin’s Letter to Pope John XXII mentions “…the most genuine gold…”

Now some authors talk about making pure gold and it being better than normal non-alchemical gold, but that is more a thing of perfection than of the modern ideas of purity.

It seems to be assumed that everyone knows good quality gold and will recognise it. Of course sight alone is not a good indicator of the proportions of metals present.

In Chaucer’s Cannon’s yeoman’s tale, the intent is to make “fine and good” silver, which presumably means pure; there seems a lack of definite medieval information, but nowadays fine silver means 999 parts per thousand, i.e. nearly pure.

From the “Goldsmiths” book we have a number of examples of bad goldsmithing such as the 1441 case in which the Prior of Lewes sent a gilt ship to the Goldsmiths company in London. It was tested and found that 9 of the turrets were stuffed with tin and lead, i.e. not all properly gold. The Lewes goldsmith was noted in the register of the company as making a bad piece.

In 1478 an assayer was appointed to test and mark all gold and silver objects at Goldsmiths’ hall. At this time the standard of gold purity was 18 carats, so obviously they were testing against that standard.

The records of the Goldsmiths’ company in London have examples of how customers were defrauded. They include plating base metal with gold or silver and pretending it was all that metal; rings and buckles made hollow but passed off as solid; false glass stones were used or real ones in copper or latten.

There was also concern with weights in use to weigh gold and silver objects. Obviously, if the weights were wrong, someone would be defrauded. E.g. if you had weights that were slightly too light, you might weigh someone’s gold object as being 3.5 ounces instead of 4, give them money on that basis, then sell it on again as a proper 4 ounce weight object.

So in summary, the purity of gold objects did matter, but obviously being a real industry, goldsmiths in medieval times were concerned with specific percentages of gold. From what I’ve read, the exact composition didn’t matter so much, and the colour of the gold probably varied somewhat from object to object. But all were gold.

Just to show how different colours can be, here’s a piece of 9 carat red gold I have:


It looks not dissimilar to the copper plated coin beside it. Red gold has a lot of copper in it, but of course will be somewhat more corrosion resistant than non-gold alloys. I don’t think medieval people liked this sort of shade much though, because why waste gold in a not very gold coloured item, when it could be in a proper gold coloured item instead?

Testing modern pewter for lead



So, we bought a small pewter flagon for use with my re-enactment group. Second or fourth or tenth hand, it was made in Holland by Daalderop, according to the stamp on the bottom. Apparently a respectable company who had been in business making pewterware since 1880. Nevertheless, I reckoned it was a good idea to test it for lead. The easiest way I could think of to do that was to put some vinegar inside it and see what happened. Just normal kitchen vinegar, nothing special, maybe 2 or 4% acetic acid, at room temperature then a while at 50C in a water bath.

This is the inside before, note some sort of staining corrosion:



And after:

Given the white stains, I have to say this probably does contain some lead, because lead acetate/ carbonate is white, formed by the vinegar reacting with lead and carbon dioxide and suchlike, see page 910 of Partington’s Textbook of Inorganic Chemistry for more information. A lot of countries are less strict about it all than we are here. The company itself has metamorphosed a lot, the 1980’s being lethal to it’s original pewterware business and instead it moved into water heaters! There’s no point therefore in contacting them to check about the metal used.

Identification of a substance by how it looks is of course something done by alchemists, chymists and indeed modern chemists to at least get an idea of what they are dealing with. I remember when I was analysing metals in a laboratory, after a while you could identify the Aluminium alloy by the odd colour highlights it had in it. Mind you that still didn’t stop people sending the wrong bit of alloy to be analysed and us from processing them, thus confusing us when it wouldn’t dissolve in the acids it was supposed to dissolve in. I’d like an analytical instrument or two such as an atomic absorptions spectrometer, but finding 2nd hand ones can be tricky and I don’t have anywhere to put it.

So this flagon will be polished up and set on display, rather than being used, which is a shame.

Update time

So, it turns out that working full time, keeping your re-enactment group going, having a holiday or two, catching up with friends, helping your dad in the garden, practising fighting and hillwalking in order to keep fit, all impact on your ability to actually do blog posts.

Which is annoying.  But then being unemployed is also annoying and tends to mean a lack of money for experiments and books and suchlike.

So I’m afraid I haven’t actually done much in the way of blog post related stuff.  I am of course slowly working on the alchemy book, and it’s shape is improving somewhat, but I need to now find a publisher.

Experiments too are tricky, in that it’s late in the year and there isn’t always enough light or good weather for them.  And I have run out of simple experiments to do.  Complex ones take more than just an afternoon, and often quite a few hours.

Just writing a simple blog post can take a couple of hours of research and writing, after all I don’t like putting up rubbish.

So I’m afraid I shall be adding slowly and not very often to this blog over the winter time, and we shall see how the spring goes.


Making quills for writing with


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For years I have had trouble finding quills for writing with. I’ve asked people about finding them, but some are stupid and think you can magically find good feathers for quills anywhere in the countryside. Of course I have walked a lot in the countryside, and not found any suitable feathers. Except last weekend I might have done. So this post is about trying to prepare them for use as quills.

I expect that as an alchemist you could probably afford to buy ready made quills, until of course you ran out of money, but you would certainly have to be able to sharpen them for use. Who made the quills I haven’t be able to find, perhaps professional scribes produced lots for sale. Anyway, onto the research into how they were prepared.

“Scribes and Illuminators” by Christopher de Hamel is a good place to start. It describes trimming the feathers so that you are just left with the top thicker inches of the main stem. Then you harden it by plunging it into hot sand when damp. This is to harden it and yet make it more flexible. You then need to remove any remaining outer skin and pith within the barrel of it.

You can also find instructions here online:

Cennini, in his “Craftsman’s handbook” of the 15th century, describes how to cut the quill for drawing, and says that goose feathers are best, and emphasises the importance of a sharp penknife.

Unfortunately he doesn’t mention heating it in sand to toughen it.

This all seems far too simple. Unfortunately there isn’t an obvious source of information about how hot the sand should be. Therefore I am reduced to heating a pot with sand in it in the oven.

First, the pot with sand in, fine grained sand:


Pot by Jim (, probably the best historical potter at work in the UK just now.

I used my ordinary kitchen oven, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have had much to play with in heating the pot. The question is why they used a pot with sand in the first place. Probably it was the most controllable way of doing it without exposing the feather to a naked flame.

First attempt with feather 1 was 2 minutes at around 50C, cooling. No apparent difference in the feather.

Next same quill dampened, 80C straight from oven, for 5 minutes. Temp at thermometer reached 82 after 90 seconds, indicating pulse of oven heat still travelling through sand. Also clear that sand acts as a temperature moderator, like with Alchemists and their sand bath, smooths out pulses in heating that might burn things. Thermometer at 85 by end. The tip of the feather was starting to look brown.

Now, feather 2, dampened under tap, at 108C for 5 minutes, dropped to 103 or 104 by end. No clear change in the feather at all really.

So dampened it again and put pot back in oven to 140C. No thermometer this time, it doesn’t go that high, so temperature is approximate. After 5 minutes, quill looks okay, no obvious physical change to it. The outer skin comes off easily as can be seen here:


Higher temperature again – 180C for 7 minutes was enough to cause the quill to go brown. Clearly too hot. Perhaps could be done again with much less time in the sand, but that would be a bit iffy and I don’t have spare feathers.


Now for the cutting test. I use a penknife from Tod’s Stuff (, one of my more expensive early purchases, but worth it. Unfortunately sharpening it is tricky, so it doesn’t cut as well as it should. Most of you will know about cutting pens already, even if you don’t have any skill at it. I don’t have much, it’s a bit fiddly, but I have managed to make usable pens before.

Feather 1 was irritatingly plastic and flexible, and to find decent material I had to cut off nearly a cm of it.

Feather 2 was stronger, and less flexible. The obvious explanation is that the two different feathers, with slightly different diameters of tube and length were of different wall thickness and strength. Obviously I’d need to compare a lot of feathers from specific wing positions to get a scientific answer.

Anyway, feather 2 was generally easier to deal with when cutting it, but I don’t have any ink handy to do a writing test.

So in conclusion, you can probably heat your damp feather to anywhere between 90 and 140 degrees C (but no higher) and get a usable feather out of it. Whether this is precisely what medieval people did, we can’t tell. I also need to test cut a non-treated feather, to see what it feels like. So as usual I end with more questions than answers, but have hopefully narrowed the available possibilities for experiment and helped someone who might do it themselves at some point.