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


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

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

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

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

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

Mountains and alchemy

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

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

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

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

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

Touchstones and streak testing


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

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

lead pewter and silver streak test
Continue reading

How old is hydrochloric acid?


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

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

It is translated by Mrs Merrifield as saying:

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

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

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

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

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

alembic nitric acid distillation oct2013 alembic in quintessence distillation nov2013

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


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

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

An early examination of Damien’s career is found in The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, April 12, 1875, where John Small wrote:

“… and continued during the rest of his reign to expend considerable sums of money in attempts to make “Quinta Essentia”, which should convert other metals into pure gold, heal all diseases, ….”

Thus we see it stated plainly that Damien was unsuccessful and that quintessences, i.e. fifth essences, a fifth element that was thought to be incorruptible, are a form of the philosophers’ stone. This is indeed the conflation made by the group of English alchemists and medicinars who were attempting to cure King Henry VI of England of his madness, some 45 years earlier.

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

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

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

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

This describes the use of seven times distilled wine to make the quintessence by means of re-circulation of the high proof alcohol for a long period, as well as the extraction of quintessences of gold and of antimony.

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

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

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

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

Immediately we see that Damien was using quite a lot of aqua vitae, that is, spirits made from wine or ale.

But that was not all he was up to. The Soc Ant Scot. paper says that one of the earliest mentions is in March 1501-2, of “4 hary nobles being sent to the Leich for the multiply”, the leich being Damien.

Yet all this proves is that his first appearance is as a multiplier of precious metals, someone attempting to make more gold from a little of it. Not making the quintessence.

This first makes an appearance in 1502-3, with the purchase of quicksilver for the making of quintessence. Mercury is actually used in “The book of quintessence” for the making of the quintessence of gold, by making an amalgam of mercury and gold which is then distilled and sundry other operations are carried out. All the recipes in the book are for medicines, so a medicine made of gold, the perfect incorruptible metal would be a valuable thing indeed and at the time it was entirely respectable to make and use such a substance. More connections are found in later years, such as in 1507-8 we find sal ammoniac being purchased for the quintessence. It is used in “The book of the Quintessence” to help dissolve the gold when separating it from silver.

So we have a further correlation between Damien’s work and “The Book of the Quintessence”.

Interestingly, in 1503, “pottis of lame” are purchased, and later on for coals for quinta essencia, i.e. for heating the furnace, and also charcoal for the same. Pottis of lame means earthenware pottery, according to the Dictionary of the Scottish language, and is found several times around 1500. Unfortunately that does not say anything about what shape they were, but it is likely they were small pots for holding ingredients and finished medicines. The actual distillation was done using a silver alembic, also purchased, and some glass flasks. Or perhaps the flasks or pots were cucurbits for carrying out distillation, but we simply cannot tell from the scanty evidence and lack of relevant finds.

Annoyingly I can’t find any mention of the specific apparatus, called a Pelican, for making quintessence from aqua vitae, but the accounts, such as in volume four covering 1507-1513, list a huge number of other things, some of which have already been mentioned, and others being caldrons, pitchers, wood and coles, cakes of glass and urinals and great flasks. The last ones likely include the actual pelican; the purchase was made in 1507-8, page 94 of the ALHT, and cost 28 shillings for 11 ‘urynales’ and two great ‘flacatis’, which frankly isn’t a lot, given that it could cost the same amount to pay for someone to travel to Edinburgh, or five shillings to two fishermen for a pike brought to the king. They were likely imported, since I’ve never read about the manufacture of glass objects in Scotland at this time.

The repeated mentions of the purchase of aqua vitae at a variety of dates, such as in 1507, indicate that someone else was carrying out distillations and productions of whisky, suggesting that the knowledge was more widespread than people might have expected.

Even better, Damien crops up in the accounts books regarding the manufacture of gunpowder and the employment of foreign gunners, such as, in the Accounts of the Lord High treasurer volume 4, Page 132, for about May 1508, money is given to the abbot of ‘Tungland’ to ‘pay the laif of the Franch gunnaris and other servandis’. Which suggests that he was a handy person to have around to act as an interface between foreigners whose language he spoke and other people in Scotland who may not be able to speak French.  (Damien had been made abott of Tongland in 1504 by James as a way of keeping him on the payroll without directly costing the King money, instead the abbey had to pay for him)

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

Further notes:

The only difficulty is that we’ve no evidence exactly what medicines he made and who consumed it, which is annoying. If James hadn’t died at Flodden we might have been able to exhume his body and test it for gold and mercury (The mistress of Henry II of France died from too much gold and mercury containing medicine

As for pictures, I had a pelican but it died in an accident. I’m thinking of getting one made more like that you can see in some pictures such as Heironymous Braunschweig’s distillation book.

Here’s a link to a short discussion about pelicans:

A pelican is seen in the top left of this set of pictures, the earliest I have heard of so far that are indisputably of a pelican:

Purification of Saltpetre, part one


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

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

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

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

Medieval treatments for sore joints



My latest, temporary work, apart from leaving me little time or energy to research or write, has also given me some sore finger joints.

So I thought I’d look up historical treatments for them.

The main source I have available is “A leechbook or collection of medical recipes of the fifteenth century”, which is an early 15th century English text transcribed and edited by Warren R. Dawson back in 1934.

Anything like relevant treatments seem to be classified under “Aches” rather than anything to do with joints or rheumatism.

Number 41 on page 28-29 of the Kessler paperback edition, says:

“Ache of the shoulder-joint. Take five drachms of gall of an ox and a drachm of honey, and seethe them till they are thick; and anoint the joint that acheth therewith till it be whole. A drachm is the weight of three pennies.”

I’ve never heard of ox gall having any components which would actually be skin absorbable, but I suspect that putting a warm mass of stuff onto the joint would help.

I couldn’t see anything specifically for the fingers or any other joints, but there are plenty of recipes for headache treatments.

This being an early 15th century work based on the 14th century medical tradition, there’s nothing much about distillation, that is more a late 15th century innovation in England, although books about the healing powers of distilled wine were in circulation from the late 13th century onwards.

I had a look through the mid 15th century English translation of “The book of Quintessence” by John de Roquetaillade or Rupescissa, and there isn’t anything quite like what I am after. There is a recipe for treatment of cramp though, which recofnises that “for as muche as wise men seyn that the craumpe cometh of the hurtynge and the febilness of the seneewis, …” which is accurate enough. All you have to do is drink some quintessence or burning water, which is a nice simple solution and may fuddle your mind enough to relax and take away the feeling of the pain.

The place of bellows in alchemy



Whilst researching a post for my other blog (, I remembered that I had seen bellows in alchemical illustrations.
However in refreshing my memory I find that they feature only infrequently.

Breughel’s famous drawing of an alchemist and his family shows the use of them to encourage a small fire:


Yet I have been unable to find many examples of the use of bellows to blow a furnace in alchemical texts or illustrations definitely associated with alchemists. The ones I checked seem to assume the use of a draft furnace.

I wonder why?

Continue reading

Dyeing silk and wool with brazilwood that isn’t from Brazil


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Dyeing is part of alchemy, just that the subject of it varies. Besides, the Physika et Mystika (Or rather “On the making of Purple and Gold: Natural and Secret Questions”, as translated by Matteo Martelli) had a chapter on dyeing cloth, as well as on those on making silver and gold.

As a dyestuff it seems to have been fairly rare in medieval Europe, but more common in the post-medieval period, for very good reason. The reason being that in the medieval period, it came from India or Ceylon and similar places in the far east. Thus it had an expensive long trip through several sets of merchants, raising the price each time. But when the Portugese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral was blown off course in 1500, he landed in Brazil and had his crew sample the local

flora and fauna for useful products. These included the red wood of a hardwood, Caesalpinia echinata as it is described today, which could be shipped back across the Atlantic straight to Portugal.

The word brasil is said to come from the Portugese brasa for ember, because of the flaming red hue you can make with it. Unfortunately the Brazilian tree is now on the endangered list, but modern brazilwood comes from Ceasalpina Sappan, grown in managed plantations in south east Asia. In fact it seems that the plant gave the name to the country as a whole, certainly an unusual occurence.

Thus we have two different yet related plants on opposite sides of the world sharing the same general name and the man in the street or at least the dyer not being able to distinguish them, not that it mattered because he got the correct result anyway. I don’t however recall any brazil wood dye being detected in cloth from medieval or Tudor Britain, but I could be wrong about that.

So, on to the practical stuff. Continue reading


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