Alchemical illustrations, colours and an odd vessel


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A friend linked to a short online collection of pictures of alchemical manuscripts, which included a 15th century Germany/ Austrian Donum Dei of pseudo-Arnaldian type, or at least it refers to him a few times.

Now the interesting thing is the vessel, which is unlike any I have seen elsewhere. It is like an upside down alembic, but sealed except for the spout. How precisely it is supposed to work is unclear. So that is the first mystery, although it might be based more on my lack of knowledge of alchemical vessels, and of course the lack of any real broad study of them despite their widespread existence throughout many hundreds of surviving manuscripts.

The second interesting point is the colours used in the pictures. There is of course a red king inside it, a white queen, as usual for 15th century alchemy, and one picture has this:

Which is the same odd sort of flask with lower half labelled aqua, the captions saying something to do with philosophical sulphur and whitening and cleaning the black and white.

But note the three red circles, three white, two green and two blue. Is this an accident that they are probably the four elements, red being fire, blue perhaps air, or what? Colours turn up frequently within alchemical illustrations and descriptions, but the only ones people have really noticed are the red and white. Of course the four elements correspond to specific colours too, but not always the same ones. Which is where it gets tricky, because previous research I have done couldn’t reach a decent conclusion about the use of colours within one alchemical manuscript, and if they had a definite purpose and meaning to them in the specific situation. In general, alchemists seemed to have different ideas of what each colour meant, or when it was supposed to appear in the alchemical work. Red, white and black are important, but not generally blue, which is associated more with one of the elements, air or water.

So if I were being adventurous, I would suggest that it means you need equal amounts of red and white and lesser of green and blue, and they might correspond to the four elements. But that is just speculation at this stage and it is more likely that they don’t mean anything. More research required as usual.

Buy my e-book

Over 2 years ago I wrote a little ebook:

Alchemy in Medieval and Tudor England

which those who have read it rather enjoyed.  It was the fruit of several years of research into alchemy, focusing especially on England in the medieval and Tudor times.  I drew together lots of research by other people into a nice simple time line that I think shows most of what you need to know about alchemy in that period, in England, and I made sure to give pointers if you wanted to go further into the matter.

However the wee company that was set up to publish these ebooks isn’t doing so well, so it’s more of a buy it now while you can moment, and we’d all like it if you did.


The bigger book I am working on will have 4 times the words, and lots of experiments, but is a pan-european book, with less local information and colour.


A practical alchemy mystery


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Whilst distilling at the weekend using a long glass worm to ensure good condensation, I started wondering about the practicality of it all. What I just have not seen in alchemical images showing furnaces and distillation and sublimation and the like is a way of holding all the equipment in it’s proper place. Nor has this been mentioned much if at all in the texts.

For someone interested in the practical side of alchemy, that is an immediate red flag. Maybe all the images I used to think were based in practical reality weren’t!

For instance, here you can see a clamp holding my condensing worm in place:

New serpent in action

So I had a look through various sources.

Continue reading

Why I’ve not been posting so much recently


I’m afraid I haven’t been posting as much as I would like. This is due to several things. Firstly I have the bad habit of having multiple projects on the go, so each individual one takes longer to complete than if I did them one after another, although it does mean I approach each one refreshed on a regular basis. Secondly, I have a full time job, so between that and the commuting and such, I don’t have the time and energy to do experiments and research that I did 3 or 5 years ago. I can at least afford to buy some new equipment.

Having said that, I am almost back to normal with regards to energy and fitness, the problem there being that I have to regularly exercise to maintain it, including climbing mountains and suchlike, which of course takes up time that could also be occupied by experiments.

Finally, the most important reason is that I am getting on with the long mooted book on alchemy that I started at the end of 2010. Had I known then what I know now about how complex alchemy is and how tricky the experiments can be, I’m not entirely sure I would have started writing it. Nevertheless, it is at least half complete, with every chapter at least roughed out. The only thing is, I need to do more experiments, and because they are going in the book I can’t put them online, otherwise why would you buy the book?

I also need to find a publishers. All suggestions welcome, but bear in mind this is a popular introduction to alchemy with lots of colour pictures, which will somewhat limit the interested or indeed capable companies.

I’m also pushing on with my experimental history of alchemy research, for which I have already done some test work reported on here, now I just need to repeat it all, with better equipment than I had last time, and write it up. Research for the write up stage is ongoing, but of course takes time to do as well.

Finally, it can be hard to find actual alchemical experiments and related topics that I can do, because either they involve really nasty chemicals, or else I’ve already done them. So as usual all suggestions welcome.

And another one bites the dust


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The cucurbit I used a couple of weeks ago for a distillation broke when I held it by the neck. Being pyrex I thought it would be a bit stronger, but obviously the weight of lute around the bottom and some sort of flaw in the glass, perhaps brought on by too much heat or the time I heated it without lute and it changed shape slightly, meant it could only do a few more high temp distillations.

When I picked it up by the neck, the base dropped off onto the floor and the lute was cracked off it:

broken luted cucurbit

When I looked closer at the break point there was some copper on the outside of the glass, stuck in the lute, suggesting that a hole had opened up at some point in the distillation.

Broken edge of cucurbit

Ah well, I shall have to buy a new one, or make that several, because it seems they don’t last long enough. This time I shall know to be even more careful with it. It actually make the 3rd pyrex cucurbit I’ve broken over the last 9 years, but then I’m not doing as many distillations as I would like.

This kind of breakage was a common problem for alchemists, which is both why they luted cucurbits and complained about the fragility of glass and stuff. Well, having written that, I can’t immediately find any nice and relevant quotes; if you can think of any please let me know.

Actually, sometimes I think I’m engaged in making broken stuff for beginner archaeologists to study. Maybe I need to find someone willing to pay for real soda glass equipment and we can study how well it survives being used.


The importance of good lute


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Once again whilst distilling I was reminded of the importance of a good lute. That is, the stuff that serves to hold the glassware together, forming a strong and impervious seal. Various recipes are given, depending on the circumstances and author. John of Rupescissa suggested paper, egg white and fine flour, which works nicely, especially with modern ground glass joints when making the quintessence of alcohol.

I wrote about lute a couple of years ago:

The obvious point is that the lute for glassware involves egg whites and stuff to hold them together, usually a mix of organic and sometimes inorganic stuff. The net result can be like this:



Lute at alembic and serpent

Which is egg white, fine flour and fine linen. It is not exposed to any temperature above 100C, but that is certainly enough to start cooking the egg and flour, which just so happens to make something a bit bready that expands slightly and seals any gaps. It also has the advantage of being easy to put in place, because it is soft and squishy. It certainly works and prevents the dangerous and irritating loss of the substances being distilled.

In fact that makes me wonder when it went out of use. So, off to the old chemistry textbooks!

(Fortunately I collected a lot of scanned ones from a few years ago when researching a few things)

In the 10th edition of Griffin’s Chemical Recreations, from 1860, mention is made on page 180 of the old use of cork and cement, prior to the invention of cork borers and caoutchouc-tubes.

Various other textbooks don’t really go into practical chemistry at all.

So a question that will take a lot longer to answer than I had hoped.

Anyway, here’s another picture, this time showing my new serpent in action:

New serpent in action

There’s over 3 feet of glass tubing here, which is just enough for the distillate to cool down and drip out of the end rather than rushing out as vapour, which was always a problem I had before. Note the coloured fabric, which is offcuts from my various re-enactment clothings, which are soaked with water. These hold the water close to the warm glass, which then heats them up and the water evaporates, helping cool the glass and then the vapour within it. You can even see steam rising from the cloths, although not in this photo.




Alchemical texts written and copied in 15th century England – how many survive?



A simple question, with a full answer beyond the scope of a mere blog post. Nevertheless I find the question interesting as a way of roughly gauging the popularity of alchemy in that period and the activities of the alchemists. The century was certainly one in which it became more widely known and translation from Latin to English got going. By at least knowing how many MS have survived, we know that more have been destroyed or lost in the meantime, and therefore can make vague estimates of the production of them. Moreover if some expert were to examine them all and compare the handwriting we could tell how many people were copying manuscripts, either for their own use or for whoever was paying them.

I have already noticed that medieval University library catalogues were rather short on alchemical works:

That and what I have read about manuscripts suggests that they were copied and circulated privately. So unless you could afford a scribe, or were concerned with secrecy, you would do the work yourself. Which naturally limits the copies you could personally make, and does raise questions about how much the works were passed around.

The difficulty in estimating numbers of surviving MS is of course how many places have MS. To start with, there is the British Library. Then there are the various university libraries, with Cambridge and Glasgow having good collections. Not to mention libraries abroad as well. All of which makes this a very partial summary.

Continue reading

In search of orange



It occurred to me that it would be nice to be able to dye cloth orange. So, looking in “Colours from nature” by Jenny Dean, I found a number of methods.

Here is the first one, on the left is a red made as normal with no mordant piece of wool, and on the right of it the same stuff, no mordant, but heated for a while in a madder solution with vinegar added to it:

dyeing orange photo1

You can see that the result is very red for the original madder, showing it can dye without a mordant, albeit it is a darker red because I heated it strongly. Making the solution more acidic made it kind of orange, but unevenly and it looks rather odd.

Two other uses of madder were tried. One was unheated, no vinegar solution, no mordant, left to soak for some days. The other was the left over solution of madder and vinegar. The first one on the left was in the solution for half an hour to an hour with some agitation now and then. The second was left in overnight for at least 12 hours, both being from the left over solution.

dyeing orange photo2

The third one on the right was from the unheated solution, and spent 2 days in it, no vinegar used.

The result is that the unheated soak for a few days gave a very light, not very good orange, not acceptable really. The best result was from the slightly warm older solution of madder and vinegar, the colour is deep, and what we think of as orange. The long soak was just too long and the colour isn’t right.

Thus the best madder one was a long soak in the cool acidised solution. If I’ve remember the order I did things in properly….

It seems that using brazilwood with an acidic modifier gives an orange as well. Again, using vinegar as the modifier, I put some brazilwood into a beaker and heated it with the same wool as before. The result was somewhat poor. I heated and nearly simmered the brazilwood for nearly 45 mins as it said, then put hastily alum mordanted wool into it, and boiled it for another 45 mins, left it to soak for 2 or 3 hours, and the result was the fabric on the far right of this photo:

dyeing orange photo3

Pretty bad really, it was a lot easier to get a red with the brazilwood than orange.

Of course the slight problem is that I am not really sure what the medieval method of getting orange was. Just to add to the difficulty, the word “Orange” was quite new to the language, appearing in the late 15th/ early 16th centuries, and what the Tudor Tailor people sell as something approximating orange is called tawny:—fabric-sold-by-the-half-yard

(Ref. For orange is page 159 of “The senses in late medieval England” by C. M. Woolgar)

Said book by Woolgar also says that tawny was a mottled cloth of orange, brown and yellow colour, which I assume means it was dyed in the skein, i.e. the threads that were to be woven were dyed, not the finished cloth.

So I feel happy enough dyeing cloth this colour, although perhaps only for late medieval use onwards.

What I have had trouble finding is actual period recipes online. I am not aware of many books on medieval dyeing that look at the topic as a whole, rather there are scholarly papers on specific aspects, and many books on using plants to dye with, and not so much that links them together. If anyone knows of any I would be grateful, otherwise will be reduced to badgering dyers I know to write such a book.

Here’s one colleciton of links:

unfortunately many are broken.

There is also this scholarly set of links, which looks interesting:

Oh yeas, a quick note on the chemistry. The Alizarine molecule (see here: which is the main constituent of the redness changes colour depending on the pH of the solution, or so wikipedia says. Once again though I find the major problem is that according to the internet, the only source for this information is a paywalled paper from 40 years ago, and nobody else at all knows what actually happens with it all. Or rather, they all repeat the same information picked up from somewhere years ago, which is no use at all to me. The closest I can find to useful information is from 19th century scientific papers, which are all paywalled. Naturally not being part of a university is a handicap.

Naturally they didn’t know about the chemistry back then (I must try and see if there were any medieval theories of how dyeing worked) but they would have experimented with different additives and mordants and used what worked for them. Some towns had good water for dyeing, and became famous in part because of that. Others had hard water with lots of calcium and that tends to make dyeing poor.





The part medieval alchemy played in the scientific revolution




There have been a lot of books and articles discussing the scientific revolution that took place in the 17th century. However, even after 9 years reading and research, I’m still uncertain about the precise place of alchemy in the scientific revolution, meaning what part alchemical ideas, knowledge, experience and technology played in it.
Which is silly, but there you go. Part of my problem seems to be that the closest thing to such a discussion that is easily available is in the book “Alchemy tried in the fire” by Principe and Newman, which is about George Starkey and his alchemy in the 17th century, and how (quoted from the back cover of said book) “… that many of the principles and practises characteristic of modern chemistry were already present in alchemy.”

The problem for my understanding being that the book is focused on Starkey’s work and ideas of other alchemists near in time to him, and that it is written in an academic style with a great deal of supporting detail. Moreover, the main link to medieval alchemy being the works of pseudo-Geber, (which Newman identifies as being Paul of Taranto) and specifically the interest in testing and use of the balance, which he traces back to Arabic sources, but, there is a much wider world of alchemy out there which Newman doesn’t bring in as relevant, whereas I think a lot of it is. Whilst it is good practise to be specific and narrow about exactly what you are are saying and the evidence you use to support it, Newman has this tendency concentrate only on the specific few sources that he knows in detail, and appear amazingly confident about his sometimes broad statements, which just rubs me up the wrong way even if he is correct.

(More information about the place of alchemy in the scientific revolution is undoubtedly available in academic papers, but they are harder to get hold of and are rather a jungle, so I just don’t have them)

It turns out that I considered this topic 3 years ago, when this blog was young:

Re-reading it, I find that it is rather short and lacking in detail. I still stand by the conclusion at the end: Continue reading

Trying to work out practical recipes from 15th century English Alchemical poetry



This post brought to you courtesy of Anke Timmerman and the Knowledge unlatched consortium (

The tweet:

was obviously a challenge.

Her book can be found here, and can be read online for free:

Now, onto the recipes, or at least some of those in English that I can read:

The prose text “Lead”, found on page 313, starts with the simple manufacture of lead acetate, and the distillation thereof, which produces the usual red liquid that is a weird mixture of organic substances. This is no different from the Ripley method suggested by Jennifer Rampling, and I think also that which is produced from John of Rupescissa’s quintessence of alchemy recipe.

It even says to put the stilled liquid upon the stuff left behind in the alembick, which Ripley recommends, but then you put it onto silver and make it brittle.

At this point I start to wonder if it really means lead, and doesn’t mean some other thing. The description of thin plates, vinegar and the resulting white powder is clearly of lead acetate though, I’ve not heard or seen anything else give such a result.

More specifically, the instructions say to put the distilled liquid back onto the white product of calcination of the stuff left after the distillation. Why it would be white is unclear to me, since if it is lead it should be blackish after calcination. So perhaps something unusual is happening here.

Or of course the poem is not meant to be taken practically.

The Thomas Hend text on page 317 is also clearly a lead and vinegar one. It has suddenly become clear to me how variations in the concept were all the rage in late 15th/ early 16th century England. You see this a lot in alchemical recipes, new fashions in activity and substance that sweep across Europe or countries and hold sway for decades, until something else comes along. That vinegar had been used in earlier recipes is not in doubt, but what happened in the later 15th and early 16th centuries was the codification and spread of specific series of actions which we could dub Ripleyan. These recipes continue to turn up in alchemical literature into the 17th century, in the works of Basil Valentine, as explored by Lawrence Principe.

I define them specifically as ones that on the surface use vinegar and have metals, oxide or carbonate, dissolved in the vinegar. It is then distilled, and a red liquid produced. You can get a reddish liquid from such a process, as I have proved myself ( and as modern esotericists have also shown. The only slight problem is that things start to diverge from what you would expect given modern chemistry and it all gets a bit complicated and the best thing to do is stop and do something else for a while.
Or do more experiments and read more sources, both of which I am planning on doing this year.


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