Review of “The experimental Fire” by Jennifer Rampling


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I am afraid that this review is 18 months late, due to running out of spoons in 2021 after moving house whilst also work being very busy and the ongoing pandemic running as a stressful backdrop.

I have been waiting for this book for a number of years and I am glad to see it in print at the end of 2021. It is an important new book for the field of alchemical studies, covering as it does around 400 years and following individuals and ideas across Europe. (So important that I pre-ordered it 3 or 4 months before it came out) It is also the kind of book we have been needing for a while, because it ties together individual alchemists, their written and practical works and the theories they read, thought about, argued, tested and the wider medieval society and culture. The series of University of Chicago Press books that this is one of, is called “Synthesis” which is entirely appropriate.

Having said that, I personally do not think it is the kind of book for a complete novice. The terms, concepts and individuals introduced are not given the kind of explanation required if this was aimed at total newbies to alchemy, or rather what I mean is that there are so many people, terms and concepts that the book is quite bewildering even for someone like me who knows a lot about the field.

So it would be best read after reading Principe’s book on alchemy or if you have become interested in the works of George Ripley and read various things about him in the past. It has clearly been written to encourage people who are fairly new to alchemy to learn more but without compromising on the information given. At times the information comes thick and fast; although explained clearly, there is a lot to take in.

George Ripley and his pseudo-Lullian inspired alchemy is the central plank of this book, starting with the various sources of alchemy in medieval England, moving onto Ripley and his works, their sources of alchemy and following what became of theseworks after his death. Anyone hoping to find confirmation of any of the legends about him in this book will be mistaken. Rampling clearly lays out what we do and do not know about him, which is not a lot. There is then the matter of where he got his ideas from and this is explained in detail.

To be honest, the ins and outs of pseudo-Lullian alchemy can be a bit dull, but Rampling does lay things out clearly in my opinion, with copious references to original manuscripts.

From Ripley, we get the Sericonian alchemy, written about by Rampling in several previous papers and for many alchemists based on lead oxide but as is shown in later chapters, some 17th century ones thought it might mean antimony. This is one of the important take home concepts from the book, that alchemists read the same texts but argued that previous alchemists had misunderstood things thinking that the same name meant a different substance. Decknamen galore, causing confusion, which Rampling navigates carefully between to the benefit of the reader. I found a lot of this be easier to read than Principe’s “The Secrets of Alchemy”.

This is one of the most important points in the book, that the meanings were changed over the years. I had come to that conclusion myself after a lot of studying, but to see it laid out clearly is great.

Rampling has unearthed more information about the existence of alchemists in Henrician England, which has heretofore been something of a blank spot with almost no alchemy known about (I had noted this in my own researches in 2013 but Rampling has the knowledge and skills to fill in this blank area). For instance, more is revealed about Blomfild and his blossoms, with his imprisonment and decades long interest in alchemy. It seems though that the only warrant to practise alchemy which has been associated with Henry VIII has been misdated and probably dates from Henry VI. It seems at least one man petitioned Henry VIII to be allowed to practise alchemy, but unfortunately little information survives.

Another example of alchemy being around at the time is that of Richard Jones, arrested in 1532, for magical practises, but he was also into alchemy and attempted to use his knowledge as a get out of jail free card, by writing to Cromwell, hoping to influence him. There was also a man called Giles du Wes who was keeper of Henry VIII’s library who was interested in alchemical books and collected copies. Rampling goes into some detail about what we know about Du Wes and the others he knew such as Robert Greene, who were also actively collecting alchemical manuscripts but doing so outside the older structure of monasteries. Her investigation into these men and their works opens up a new avenue to greater understanding of alchemy in early 16th century England.

On the continent things were somewhat different, with the Ripleyan works of the Compound of Alchemy, the Marrow of Alchemy, etc, moving from the Tudor dynasty to eastern European alchemists. This came about in part because John Dee and Edward Kelley took the works of George Ripley with them when they went to Eastern Europe, especially Bohemia. Edward Kelley found his own patron, Vilem of Rozmberk, a Bohemian nobleman, followed by interactions with Rudolph II, the king of Bohemia. In this book we see Kelley as an alchemist in his own right, not just Dee’s scryer, with his own complete understanding of alchemy and it’s sources. It is clear how English alchemical works and their authors became known to central and eastern Europe through Dee and Kelley.

Near the end of the book, our old acquaintances Ashmole and Starkey are introduced, as each interacted with the Ripleyan corpus in their own way before the book ends with a couple of pages titled “The ends of English alchemy” which summarise how alchemy was used by people and are worth reading in their own right.

I was hoping there would be more practical re-creations in this book than the now 10 years old sericon one, but it seems Rampling has been working on some in the USA which will be published in due course. These have been held up by covid, but there will be more in her next book on alchemical imagery.

An important point is made at least once, and I think implied throughout much of the book, on page 243, about alchemical practitioners of the 1540’s to 1570’s or so:

It is important to note that, while acknowledging the divine origin of alchemical “cunning”, none of our petitioners treats the actual practise of alchemy as involving anything other than material processes. The religious dimension of their work relates explicitly to the superior level of insight required to construe philosophical texts, and the care and skill needed to reconstruct their contents successfully. These practitioners do not claim that the stone itself possesses any kind of supernatural power; in fact, Blomfild’s most religiously imbued work, the Regimen, does not even describe the tone, but offers a set of medicinal recipes based on the quintessence”

What I always do when reading and reviewing a book is check the references. In this case there is a satisfying variety of references but they are also comprehensive, in the form of footnotes so easily checkable. So many are to primary sources that it is hard to check them, but some manuscripts are available online to check and of the secondary sources I have many of them. However, unlike other books, I can’t see any errors or choice of unusual reference work which would cause me to disbelieve what is written so really I think this book is fine.

One of the other useful things is that it has been priced low enough that fairly normal people can buy it, not just libraries. This has necessitated the lack of colour plates within; a couple would have been good but it is also a good thing that it is more affordable and many colour illustrations are available freely online with the improvements in digitisation.

In terms of it’s place in the genre, I recently stumbled on an old essay by Tara Nummedal

Words and Works in the History of Alchemy

Author(s): Tara E. Nummedal

Source: Isis, Vol. 102, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 330-337

In which the abstract says:

This essay considers the implications of a shift in focus from ideas to practices in the

history of alchemy. On the one hand, it is argued, this new attention to practice highlights

the diversity of ways that early modern Europeans engaged alchemy, ranging from the

literary to the entrepreneurial and artisanal, as well as the broad range of social and

cultural spaces that alchemists inhabited. At the same time, however, recent work has

demonstrated what most alchemists shared—namely, a penchant for reading, writing,

making, and doing, all at the same time. Any history of early modern alchemy, therefore,

must attend to all of these practices, as well as the interplay among them. In this sense,

alchemy offers a model for thinking and writing about early modern science more

generally, particularly in light of recent work that has explored the intersection of

scholarly, artisanal, and entrepreneurial forms of knowledge in the early modern period.

I consider that this book has indeed attended to the reading, writing, textual interpretation, communications as well as the social and cultural spaces and the practise of alchemy, indeed just about everything that is relevant has been addressed in a huge sweep of intellectual endeavour. Rampling, who had finished her PhD not long before Nummedal was writing, knows well the state of research of alchemy and the various strands of thought and action that make it all up and this is seen clearly here.

So in summary, if you have any interest in alchemy you should buy this book.

Other reviews are:

The Experimental Fire


A dyeing recipe that parallels an alchemical quintessence recipe



At the weekend I was browsing page 298 of Clarke’s The crafte of Lymming etc.. published by the Early English Text Society a few years ago and found this interesting recipe.

From BL MS Add 12195, f126, it has to be quoted in full.

Forto make a water wyche as sadelers gylden with. Take a pownde of vetriol and than grynd hym smal on a marbyl ston, and then put in an erthene pot with a lydde as just as thu canst with vclay and than bake it til it be red as sangweyn tylle, and than take iii pyntes of venegre wel stylled in the secunde degre, and than grynd hem on a ston and labure hem wel togedere and sore, and than lete hem stondyn an owre or tweyn tyl the vetriol hath dronkyn the venegre, than distille yt, than distill yt ageyn; the furst colowre xal scheweyn whyth but reseyve not that but aftyre it schal apere yelwe, and reseve that and kete it clos in a glas. And towche what metal that thou wyl therwith, be yt swerd or] knyf: stryke ths watyr thereon, and it xal shewyn as gold.

The MS in question

seems to be 15th century and has a treatise on wills, various sorts of testamentary documents, forms of notices of marriage banns, grammatical tracts, religious notes etc, and most importantly for us, medical receipts and charms. So once again it is not likely to have been written by a practising dyer/ painter or suchlike, much more likely to have been put together by a learned man who was interesting in various semi secret things. It would be interesting to see it in full context but the MS is not yet digitised.

The important thing here is that you are distilling an iron/ sulphuric acid-vinegar solution. Which is not dissimilar to possible readings of two alchemical recipes discussed here on my blog previously:

I am interested in this recipe as well because it suggests that the liquid is yellow and will make iron turn somewhat yellow. Is this because if you heat it high enough you will get sulphuric acid coming over with various complex acetate derivatives? i.e. combining the products of the two distillations I mentioned above.

Quintessence of vinegar iron solution
Sulphuric acid from vitriol

Or perhaps it is acting more like a layer of varnish; some of the old Egyptian craft recipes do the same thing by effectively varnishing silver to look like gold. Most likely though is that it is putting a layer of sulphides on the metal although that would surely be black.

Use of the word ‘stryke’ is odd to me though, is some violence involved? Or do you use a pen or other instrument to put it on it?

Either way it would be interesting to try. I am a sucker for recipes which appear to have definite practicality about them and do not appear at first glance to be badly copied out. In this case, mention of white stuff coming over first then yellow is very like what would be expected from this kind of distillation yet the application of the substance is not explained well, as if the copyist didn’t quite grasp it.

The next question the text raise is, is it automatically assumed when doing distillations that you should always be raising the heat? It does feel like it in this and other recipes, keep heating it until something important happens, but there is often not proper instruction that you should heat it hotter. But if it was just an aide memoire then maybe you would not care, then it gets copied out by someone who doesn’t know better and the specific technical nuances are not known.

So back again to the limits of recipes and the hidden experiences and knowledge which people had and never recorded.

On what alchemy was and the gap in public knowledge of alchemy


My friend Ted put up a bit of a mischeivous twitter poll before Christmas, that asked:

Let’s settle this once and for all. Alchemy was a 1. Vain pursuit of lead into gold with no science value 2. Spiritual metaphor never connected to real lab work 3. Psychological projection of psyche onto flask 4. Form of knowledge with applications in metallurgy, mining, medicine

I tend to think that it is all four, at different times with different people, for instance you can see points 1 and 4 in 16th century England at the same time, and who knows, perhaps some 2 as well, with point 3 being the 20th century Jungian idea about it.

But apparently a lot of people don’t know that point 4 is a major thing, Ted meets people like that all the time. In fact the last 40 odd years of historical research has dug into that area in a major way and shown a lot of connections, both in people involved in the various areas of technical knowledge and how they overlap with alchemy. So this is a post showing some of the evidence for it being a form of knowledge with applications in metallurgy, mining and medicine. Of course the caveat is that item 4 is, much more complex than can be summarised in a single short sentence in a tweet.

Some of our understanding of alchemy and medicine goes back a long way, insofar as historians in the 19th century recognised the links, but they have been explored in more depth more recently. Leaving aside concepts in Arabic alchemy or Chinese alchemy, in western Europe one of the earliest to link alchemy and medicine was, Roger Bacon. He reckoned that the philosopher’s stone could extend life (Not make you immortal), because the stone was a perfect thing capable of perfecting you too, i.e. balancing your 4 humours which would enable you to live your maximum natural lifespan. Other people thought so too apart from Roger, but the next big kick along was from John of Rupescissa in the 1350’s who wrote about making the quintessence and how it was a great medicine. Now there were various ways of making quintessences, but they relied upon equipment that was not well known, such as a pelican, and the physical knowledge of how to do it all came from alchemists and physicians.

So this led to the conflation of quintessences and various possible medicines with alchemical work, as you can see in the licence granted to multiply gold/ practise alchemy to a group of English physicians and intellectuals in 1456, with the avowed aim of making medicine to cure the mad king, but the terminology used covers medicine and metallurgy:

The King to all unto whom &c. Greeting. Know ye, that the sages and most famous philosophers of ancient times have taught, and recorded in their writings and books under signs and symbols, that many glorious and noteworthy medicines can be made from wine, precious stones, oils, vegetables, animals, metals, and certain minerals; and especially a most precious medicine which some have called the mother of philosophers and Empress of medicines; others have named it the inestimable gloty; others, indeed, have named it the quintessence, the philosophers’ stone, and the elixir of life; a medicine whose virtue would be so efficacious and admirable that all curable infirmities would be easily cured by it … But also many other benefits, most useful to us and the well-being of our kingdom, could result from the same, such as the transmutation of metals into true gold and very fine silver; and when by much frequent cognition, have considered how delectable and useful it would be, both for ourselves and the well-being of the of our kingdom, could result from the same, such as the transmutation of metals into true gold and very fine silver;…”

Interestingly enough the word alchemy does not appear in the licence, which was concerned instead with the ‘tincturing of metals’. (From “A licence of Henry VI to practise alchemy”, Ambix vol. 6, 1957, 10-17. D Geoghega.

By the 16th century, this lead to Paracelsus and his alchemically made medicines using antimony. The fact that antimony was also an ingredient in many alchemical tinctures is entirely the point, I think. Not to mention all the other recipes which cropped up in books of secrets and

Bruce Moran wrote a book about alchemy, chemistry and distillation, including medicines, called “Distilling knowledge: alchemy, chemistry and the scientific revolution”, which I find a dull book yet lots of people like it.

Moving on from medicine, we enter the art world, where we find the late 14th century work on doing artistic works by Cennino Cennini, a Florentine craftsman, who explains that vermilion “is made by alchemy, prepared in a retort” and this suggests that at least in popular culture, changing metals into other substances was thought of as alchemy, and that the techniques from alchemy were of use in real crafts.

The next really important area is metallurgy, in which alchemy again played a role, in part because many goldsmiths seem to have been alchemists too, and alchemically produced innovations such as the mineral acids were absorbed into craft practises.

Moreover, Biringuccio, an Italian foundryman and craftsman pointed out in his 1540 book, that alchemy, distilling, goldsmithing and metal working were all kindred arts due to the use of fire.

Metallurgy and mining were of great importance by the 16th century, as technology developed, old mines were worked out and new ones dug. Many central and east European princes tried to increase their income by improving their mines or starting new ones. Therefore we have more evidence from 16th century Germany and eastern Europe, showing that alchemists were expected to have knowledge of minerals and matter in general, so they could advise Princes and artisans about their attempts to mine and make more money.

Tara Nummedal, in her book “Alchemy and Authority in the holy Roman empire”, page 33 of the paperback version, explains the career of Leonhard Thurneisser, who was born in 1531, trained as a goldsmith, worked in mining by 1559, and drew the attention of Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, who hired him and sent him to research mining and suchlike around central Europe. On these trips he learnt about Paracelsian medicine as well, and left mining to become a physician.

Nummedal also quotes Lazarus Ercker and Agricola, who wrote about mining and assaying, with Agricola writing “The alchemists have shown us a way of separating silver from gold by which neither of them is lost”, and Ercker that “assaying is a very excellent, useful and ancient art, which, like all the other arts that work with fire, originated very long ago as an outgrowth of alchemy.”

That latter point is almost certainly wrong, but indicative of what people thought in 16th century Europe about the early days of alchemy.

Another example of the use of substances and techniques that originated with alchemy is the production of colouring agents for glass, as explained by Antonio Neri in his book “The art of glass”, published in the early 17th century. Distillation of acids and other chemicals was clearly derived from alchemical practises, even if it was not so admitted.

Finally, the 17th century alchemist and general chymist, Becher, wrote, regarding alchemists, “If they have found no gold, they have meanwhile discovered good medicaments and other admirable arts, not to mention gunpowder, glassmaking, enamel, dyes, medicines and now the rediscovered eternally burning material [i.e. phosphorous]” (From page 200 of “The Business of Alchemy – Science and Culture in the Holy Roman empire”, by Pamela Smith.

The thing I find interesting is that so many practises and techniques were clearly developed by alchemists, yet not always acknowledged as such. The simple answer why is that alchemy was not a sufficiently respectable practise that it was good to say you were an alchemist or that you got the idea from them. Both Agricola and Ercker doubted transmutation of metals into gold or silver, and there were of course many arguments about the new medicines based on alchemical techniques. Put simply, alchemy was an important way of looking at the world and of interrogating it and trying to manipulate it, but it could never achieve mainstream popularity and respect, for a variety of reasons which would need their own post. Suffice to say, compared to smelting of metals, distillation of wine, etc, alchemy was a more secretive practise that could not clearly deliver on demand.

Moreover due to the secrecy involved in practising alchemy, there is a lack of good evidence of the development of technical procedures, quite apart from the confusion in alchemical texts.

The hidden or simply not acknowledged influences of alchemy are many, and not fully explored. Hmmmmm, that’s an idea for future work.

Aqua Lunaris and Oleum Solis – by Richard Stanihurst

I was recently given a copy of a transcription and translation of the above named MS, done by Conleth Loonan. The work is probably by Stanihurst, but it hasn’t exactly been signed by him, and this version is from a French copy of the original work. It is preserved in a compendium previously owned by John Evelyn the English diarist. It seems to have been written after 1581, and perhaps by 1587.

It comes from BL ADD. MS 78417, ff 252-82, and is being published in the Irish Manuscripts commission.

Stanihurst was born in Ireland in 1547, then had an interesting career, travelling from Ireland to the continent and Spain, getting mixed up with alchemy at various times and places including the Spanish court. He died in 1618 and is better known nowadays for his writings and translations than for alchemy. See wikipedia for more information:

The instructions themselves are worryingly straightforwards. It has made me wonder again how we know about cover names and their application. The use of silver, vinegar, salt of tartar, etc, without any other term being used to hide the names suggests to me that the work is supposed to be read as plainly as it is. Usually cover names are fanciful or obvious, such as the moon for silver or wolf for stibnite, but if you use real substance names to cover real substances nobody will know what you mean. Therefore I think it best to test the words by carrying out practical operations to see if the results match what the words say will happen. Mr Loonan, the transcriber, has outlined what seems likely chemically in the introduction, and looks accurate enough. The trick will be to test it next year some time.
So, onto the activities.

Loonan’s introduction to the general chemistry involved describes the use of gold, silver, vinegar, strong acids, tartar and copper.

As such it seems disturbingly practical, much more so than most works of the late 16th century. However I am pretty sure that there remain many more practical manuals and works to be read and found which have not been properly explicated or brought out into the light of publicity. This seems to be one such work.

The first thing to do is make a ‘good, clear solution of silver in ordinary strong water.” which usually means nitric acid or a mixture of nitric and sulphuric distilled from alum and saltpetre, and Loonan suggests as much. No mention is made of whether the silver should be very pure. You can carry out the dissolution over a fire, but it is best done in a water bath, since it is claimed that this makes the spirits circulate slowly and it gives a better colour later.

Which is a bit odd, chemically speaking it makes no difference that I am aware of. Anyway, this is one way to start the process.

After that you put the solution in a terrine with cold water and a sheet of red copper, leaving it for several days until the silver calx has fallen to the bottom ‘in the form of ashes or sand, which is called calx of silver.’

This is definitely something I can try out.

You proceed to repeat the dissolution and then it should have sal ammoniac added, mixed with it until it is in the form of a curd, then add some salt of tartar, which seems to provoke the emission of fumes which means you should do this in an open cucurbit because otherwise it would get broken by the force of the fumes.

This bit can be done in a water bath, and then the bath used to boil all remaining liquid from the cucurbit. Which is interesting, because that will get rid of a lot of liquids but not necessarily all the acid stuff.

Then you should add distilled vinegar and sal ammoniac, sal nitre.

A step by step series of instructions would be dull and irritating.

Suffice to say that it seems to rely upon both vinegar and a number of salts, and mixes both vinegar and corrosive acids, therefore uses all possible solvents, rather than eschewing one or the other as tends to happen with the Sericonian method. This one as well at least uses silver straight away, rather than lead oxide or similar substance. Some distillation of acetic acid compounds also seems to occur, which will produce the usual organic chemicals.

Unfortunately the later parts of the recipes use mercury, which seems de riguer for many of the interesting colour changes you see in alchemy, but limits how far I can take the work. I have not see a series of operations that is done in quite this way, although the ingredients and how they are used are common enough. We simply don’t have that many sets of instructions in how to make an elixir or the stone that are clear enough to read this well. Or rather, we don’t have many such instructions which are available to the public or even scholars. The SHAC sources of chemistry series was partly supposed to address this, I think, but has stalled with only one work being produced in 6 or 7 years.

Nevertheless, it looks to be well worth trying next year when the weather improves. I have all the equipment and some silver scrap, copper and suchlike, even a pyrex tureen.

A review and expansion upon “Holy Alchemists, metallurgists and pharmacists: The material evidence for British Monastic Chemistry”


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On twitter recently a new article with the above self explanatory title was mentioned, written by Christopher Booth and published in The Journal of medieval Monastic studies, Volume 6, 2017.

The starting point for his paper is the venerable but still interesting paper on “Medieval distilling apparatus of Pottery and Glass” in 1972 by Stephen Moorhouse. This brought together a number of sites on which evidence for distillation had been found and as such was intended to spur more research. Booth points out that unfortunately not a lot has been done since then, so his paper tries to carry things further. He deliberately brings alchemy into the discussion from the start, but I think we can skip over his explanation of early alchemy and get into expanding and discussing the rest of it.

He points out that “The two most significant distillates of later centuries, mineral acids and alcohols, were likely only discovered within Western Europe in the twelfth century, as recipes for their production only became common by the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries”

His references are to Anderson in “Instruments and Apparatus”, Forbes, “A short history of the art of distillation and Multhauf “the origins of Chemistry”

The latter two are ancient works, very out of date. It is a sad fact that there hasn’t been a work pulling together all the research done since Forbes wrote his book. If anyone wants to give me money to write it I’d be happy to do so, but what a history of distillation in Europe and the middle east needs is a multi-lingual team and 5 years.

Continue reading

Distillation by alchemists and for medicine

A commenter on this blog called aem was asking about distillation. I reckoned it was hard to come up with a few sentences in answer, much easier to ramble on.

So, the central question is:

“By “not alchemical” do you mean that alchemical distillation is different from ordinary? From looking at alchemical texts they don’t seem to specify a difference, e.g. Paracelsus (cf. Hermetic and alchemical writings) lists one of the prerequisites of becoming an alchemist as knowing “distillation” and then goes on to describe the different apparatus one needs (pelican etc). “

And the short answer is, it isn’t much. At this point I have to say that the “not alchemical” I mean with regards to Heironmous Braunschweig is that he was distilling plants for medical reasons. At the time, this wasn’t really alchemical; it certainly wasn’t transmutational.

The interplay between medicine for the body and alchemical work was long an issue, insofar as John of Rupescissa with his “Book of the quintessence” is taken as being the modern starting place of the merger between alchemy and medicine. It was written in the mid-14th century, 150 years before Heironymous.

Before that, distillation was used on wine to make spirits, which were then used for medical purposes, including distillations with plants in them. The real Arnold of Villanova was keen on that sort of thing. So the distillation tradition of Heironymous is separate but parallel to that of the alchemists.

The actual mechanics of distillation aren’t different between alchemy and medicine. Or rather it depends what want to do with it. The differences are usually driven by the difference substances to be distilled. So, alchemists use glass as much as possible because it is unreactive, whereas medical distillation works fine in copper or pottery vessels. Pottery vessels can’t cope with high temperature distillation so aren’t much use for alchemical high temperature work. Yet Vannoccio Biringuccio (1542 book De Pyrotechnia) describes in detail how to carry out distillation using glass vessels for making acid, an activity seemingly invented and used by alchemists over 300 years earlier.

Vannoccio says you can use lutum sapientiae to cover your cucurbits for distillation, and attributes that name to it. Heironymous attributes it to Arnold of Villanova, but I wonder whether the original Arnold used that term, perhaps he did. Study of the early stages of non-alchemical distillation is difficult because of lack of evidence and also lack of transcription of the works of the real Arnold of Villanova and other experts in the 13th century.

Now, useful introductory links to this sort of thing include this:

It mentions the English translation of the book of distillation, but I can’t find it again, I am sure I saw a scanned copy of it somewhere online.

Alchemists certainly distill a wider variety of stuff, often including mercury and arsenic and various dissolved substances. Then there are the metal acetates, which don’t crop up much in medical chemistry but do in the works of Ripley and suchlike.

If you want more on the alchemy/ medicine distillation crossover, an earlier period of it was that of Ar Rhazi, in Iraq in the 8/9th centuries AD. At that point they were basically throwing anything and everything into a cucurbit and distilling it, getting all sorts of waters of dubious use. The waters could then be used to do alchemy. I understand that a lot of medical waters were also made using distillation, but am not aware of any sources or papers discussing it, at least in English.

So, short summary is that distillation became widespread in western europe, but the alchemists had played a major part in knowledge transfer and also pushing the boundaries of what was possible in terms of equipment and what to distill. Methods were very similar, but with different aims and thus different recipes.

Whoops, it really has been a long time since I last posted on here. Ah well.

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.