A closer look at Harley 2407, thanks to D W Singer

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Don’t say I’m not good to you – I looked up Singer with regards to this MS. It is a complex MS and Singer wrote a very complex network of references to all the alchemical MS she could find in England. Just learning your way about her work is a job in itself, in a way she was trying to make a hyperlinked document long before they were even thought of. Certainly it would be nice to have a modern equivalent, but transcribing and hyperlinking them all together is very far down the list of things to get done, even with all the unemployed people we have.

So, we have entry 803in Singer, from Harley 2407, f29v to 31v. Some of the spelling is bad in the original:

Arnaldus de villa nova. “Now I shal her begynne
to teche the now a conclusion

explc
Now I have taght the how thus schal do
The blys of hevyn god bryng hus to.
Explicit Arnoldis de nova. Deo Gracias
(printed as anonymous Theatrum chemicum brittanicum pages 344-354

The number of entries for Harley 2407 takes up nearly a page on pages 1040 to 1041 of volume 3, so I can’t exactly check them all.
One of the longest is ff 18-29v, and is a running commentary on various well-known alchemical sayings

prol Inc Now to beholde and se transparently…
explct: … as well for mannes body as for metalle.
Explicit Prologusermes.
IncThe begynnying of owre ston ys water inpalpabil…
Explc: … now to teche the begynne and to make a ende by the grace of god almyghty and loke thow don in this manner a wyse.”

In a previous post I mentioned the drawings, including the one on F107, which is part of f106-111v, which Singer says is late 15th or 16th century, probably by the same hand as other parts which she refers to.

56 operations, each figure to end of F110 has an English legend, and “The legends of the figures at first follow more or less the order of the table of operations on F106. They gradually diverge from the Table and on Ff110-111v there are no legends.

On toads and snakes, we have the illustration on f68, which according to Sawyer is more of alchemical allegorical figures, she rather lumps them all together in this work. The text says “Sapo et bufo gradiens super terram et aquila volans.”

Now, since I wrote the above, I have managed to source this:
Singer trilogy

The slight problem is that the pages are not cut! This leads to a dilemma. Do I cut the pages for maximum readbility, or do I keep them whole on the grounds that these appear to be first proof editions that have not been properly read or looked after?

Anyway, here are some photos of relevant pages, including more information on the allegorical figures.
Singer 2407 three

Singer 2407 two

Singer 2401 one
I could look some others up if you like.

A blog post which I find interesting, but also perhaps has a flaw…

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http://alchemyandchemistry.edwardworthlibrary.ie/chymical-experiments/furnaces-and-instruments/

Alright, so it is about the 17th century work of Glauber called Furni novi philosophici.

You can get an immediate idea from the equipment listed how the early modern chymists/ post-alchemists were indebted to alchemists and alchemy in general for their equipment, as well as the non-alchemical artisans of the period who had taken alchemical works and practises and used them solely to manipulate matter in order to make real objects of value, not the philosopher’s stone.

The concerns given too, about making cheap or expensive furnaces, of having the correct alembics for the job, i.e. iron ones for most substances but pottery ones for sulphurous corrosives, is seen in many alchemical works too.

Thus I continue to assert that many alchemical works are practical and have definite physical aims in mind.

Of course many others were mindlessly copied by obsessives and charlatans, but still there is a definite basis to it all.

Amusingly it says at the bottom, “None of the experiments described here should be attempted.”

If we all thought like that, nothing would ever get done! This is of course the biggest flaw in the article…

Also here, on distillation:

http://alchemyandchemistry.edwardworthlibrary.ie/chymical-experiments/distillation/

Which practise described matches the unfortunately rather pointless activities of modern alchemists, with their various salts and oils etc distilled and crystallised from plants.

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So, it seemed sensible to try dipping the brass into alum or potassium nitric solutions instead of sulphuric and nitric acids, as suggested by JDP, in a recipe taken from Della Porta’s “Natural Magic”. The setup was the same as before, a strip of modern brass sheet, probably a bit high in Zinc compared to historical brass, heated by a blowtorch and quenched into solutions.

Here it is before:

2nd dipping brass in liquid brass before

Admire the shininess of the brass, with the small scratches probably imparted during the rolling process to turn bar into sheet.

After I dipped it into alum and potassium nitric solutions, I did find it somewhat whitened. The problem was I did this a couple of weeks ago when I was suffering from bad sinuses and disturbed sleep, so I forgot to write down which solution produced this result, because I was actually going to write it up then not now, but anyway.

2nd dipping brass in liquid before 2nd dipping brass in liquid after

So this time round it does work a bit better, exactly how I have no idea, I’ll have to go and think about it.

There are quite a few more recipes in della Porta, although some are a bit toxic.

I am also working on the bigger alchemy book, which means I might be doing experiments, just not ones I want to put up online, or else what’s the point of the book? Asking you all to contribute to my expenses isn’t going to make me rich, the only way to go is mass media exposure or actually turning lead into gold, which I know isn’t possible, leaving me with the book and whatever else I can get from it.

Re-visiting a previous experiment

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So, it seemed sensible to try dipping the brass into alum or potassium nitric solutions instead of sulphuric and nitric acids, as suggested by JDP, in a recipe taken from Della Porta’s “Natural Magic”. The setup was the same as before, a strip of modern brass sheet, probably a bit high in Zinc compared to historical brass, heated by a blowtorch and quenched into solutions.

Here it is before:

2nd dipping brass in liquid brass before

Admire the shininess of the brass, with the small scratches probably imparted during the rolling process to turn bar into sheet.

After I dipped each end into alum and potassium nitric solutions, I did find it somewhat whitened. The problem was I did this a couple of weeks ago when I was suffering from bad sinuses and disturbed sleep, so I forgot to write down which solution produced this result, because I was actually going to write it up then not now, but anyway.

2nd dipping brass in liquid before 2nd dipping brass in liquid after

So this time round it does work a bit better, exactly how I have no idea, I’ll have to go and think about it.

There are quite a few more recipes in della Porta, although some are a bit toxic.

I am also working on the bigger alchemy book, which means I might be doing experiments, just not ones I want to put up online, or else what’s the point of the book? Asking you all to contribute to my expenses isn’t going to make me rich, the only way to go is mass media exposure or actually turning lead into gold, which I know isn’t possible, leaving me with the book and whatever else I can get from it.

Some notes on “Misticall wordes and Names Infinite” by Humphrey Locke

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Who was an English, Elizabethan alchemist. I have recently gotten a copy of Peter Grund’s edition of the text, based on Simon Forman’s 1590 copy of it. The original was finished about 1572, but it seems various copies and editions were in circulation, with 7 complete manuscripts surviving. Locke himself was a carpenter, craftsman and thus was at the centre of the kind of engineering works of the time, having preiovus worked as the surveyor and chief carpenter for the contrsuciton of Upnor castle.

It is basically an attempt to curry favour with William Cecil, secretary to Queen Elizabeth, because Locke wanted to return to England from Russia, where he wasn’t having a good time. Oddly enough there seems little evidence that he had any knowledge of alchemy before he left England, instead picking it up in Russia – I’m sure there’s some interesting research to be done there if enough evidence survives. It is the only work that Locke ever wrote on the topic. And we know that Cecil had been interested in alchemy, and still was at times, but I suspect he was put off a bit by the affair of De Lannoy, who failed to produce any gold despite promising to do so.

To add to the confusion, it is not clear that Cecil ever actually received the book, instead Locke appears to have escaped Russia before he managed to send a copy of it, but we have no information about Lockes subsequent life. The chapter titled “Sociohistorical Context” has a great deal more information.

Locke’s book is pretty much entirely derivative, with specific chapters of it copied directly from older alchemical works, some of which are famous like Ripley’s Medulla alchemiae. Others of them are less well known, such as ‘Scoller and Master’, which was popular in England but not so much elsewhere. One of the reasons Grund chose to use the Forman edition was because it’s date is known (1590) and it has a good provenance. All too many copies of texts have fake provenances and were poorly copied in the first place, so it makes sense to use one which is known and a good copy.

Grund reckons it draws on:

Chapter 1 – The Mirror of Lights by pseudo- Albertus Magnus (Itself derived from the Semita Recta)

2 – Scoller and Master (anonymous), Perfectum Magisterium (pseudo-Arnald of Villanova); and an unidentified text.

Chapter 3 – Dicta (anonymous), Medulla Alkemiae (George Ripley), Notabilia Guidonis Montaynor (Guido Montanor?), Concordantia Raymundi et Guidonis (George Ripley?)

There are animal, mineral and vegetable stones, mercury sublimed with salt and vitriol; gold and silver are treated with mercury to calcine or remove stuff from them?

The Green lion – page 207, his conception of it seems to involve silver, which with some mercuric substances produces a green liquid. So it is not used on gold, nor is it green to begin with, but only after metals have been added, which seems a bit different from older ideas of the green lion.

Page 173, discussion of the several kinds of mercury, and the ones extracted from silver and gold. In this regard he appears to adhere to the two mercuries theory, dating back to the 14th century.

He is against the use of corrosive waters drawn from vitriol, saltpetre and alum and the like. But interestingly, he uses the older idea of mercury sublimed with salt and vitriol to produce a white substance. He also seems to use the word silver and the symbol for the moon, or indeed gold and the sun, to mean different things, perhaps even different things at different places in the text. But of course different copies use the symbols in differing amounts; either way a full suite of alchemical sigils is used, covering the planets, sulphur, 4 elements, ounce, pound and take or recipe.

The book also comes with a glossary and many pages of explanatory notes which are of great interest if you are carrying out extremely detailed research. Altogether it is a worthy work, it is a shame such rigour and depth of investigation has not been applied to many other works. Anyone interested in 16th century English alchemy should have a copy.

(The full reference is “Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite”: An edition and Study of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Volume 367, published by the Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe Arizona, 2011.)

What makes a negromancer an alchemist?

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This post sparked by a short article in “The Ricardian – journal of the Richard III Society”, volume 13, 2003.

I bought it at Tewkesbury from their stall, because it had some interesting stuff in it including “The inventory of a fifteenth-century Necromancer” by Carole Rawcliffe. She is a researcher on medieval medicine, author of the very useful introductory text:

http://www.amazon.com/Medicine-Society-Later-Medieval-England/dp/184004005X

The article is about a Thomas Nandyke, “Fifth on the list of individuals named in the parliamentary Act of Attainder following the collapse of the 1483 rebellion against Richard III…” and he was “nigromansier” to Henry, duke of Buckingham. It seems that Nandyke was actually a chaplain-Physician, but is alleged to have conspired with the bishop of Ely and Duke Henry’s inner council, to attempt at killing Richard III. He survived involvement in that and a further plot against Richard, and it is unclear if he then fled to France to stay with Henry VII or not. Either way, he spent the last 6 years of his life without any involvement in politics, dying in obscurity in 1491, having been living in London and Cambridge, practising physic and astrology.

Where it all goes wrong is here:

“Had Nandyke abandoned his former life in order to practise alchemy? This seems plausible, given the enthusiasm with which physicians at both universities, and especially Cambridge, pursued alchemical studies. They hoped thereby the recover the perfect humoral balance lost at the fall and thus to achieve lasting health and longevity. A number of entries in the 1491 inventory are, at least, suggestive. The books on astronomy, the two brass astrolabes and the other unspecified ‘instrumentes’ would of course, have been essential for a successful medical practise, although no alchemist could proceed without a sound working knowledge of the heavens. None of the more sophisticated distillation equipment generally associated with alchemy (and relentlessly satirised by authors such as Chaucer) appears on the list of Nandyke’s effects, yet he possessed enough basic equipment and materials to conduct practical experiments. His ownership of fifty-five pound of lead, a ‘meltyng ladyll of yron’, two chalkstones, a handsaw, a ‘fier rake’, hatchets, shovels, charcoal, various basins, pans, glass vessels (also essential for uroscopy) and warming dishes offers the tantalising possibility that he was, indeed, engaged in the search for the elusive quintessence, or elixir of life. Lead and iron were the ‘diseased’ base metals which alchemists most often used in their attempts at transmutation into gold.”

Her reference 40 at the end re. Curing diseased metals is to A. E. White, ed. The Hermetic museum restored and enlarged, 2 vols, London, 1893, volume 2, pp 229-29!!!!!

The more widely read of you will realise that the surname is misspelled, it is A E Waite, the famous occultist, whose work she refers to!

Honestly, could a late 20th/ early 21st century historian not manage to find a more up to date reference? There were books by Read, Sherwood Taylor and Holmyard which had a more rational and broader and more historical view than Waite, who was famously a sucker for occult stuff in his youth. Oddly enough though he seemed to have a change of mind in middle age and rejected his earlier works.

Anyway, back to the article. She admits that there are not the usual distillation equipment, which is certainly a good attempt at being sensible, but the simple matter is that, as an alchemist, I can assure you that there is no way you can try anything alchemical from 55lbs of lead, a ladle to melt it in and a charcoal fire. You need other chemicals for it, simple as that. Vitriols, other metals, mercury and sulphur, those are found in people’s attempts at transmutation.

Even worse, she claims the making of the quintessence, but as you might recall from previous posts, the quintessence methods of the time used a lot of other substances and items, such as alcohol, a pelican, stibnite, crucibles, gold, or if you take a more Lullian approach, mercury again. The lack of any of these indicates that either he was an alchemist and his stuff got nicked or removed before the inventory (Yet the putative thief left some nice clothes, silver, plate and books behind) or, far more likely, he wasn’t an alchemist at all. There is also a total lack of relevant books.

Instead, I suggest that he was still a practising necromancer in a way consistent with his medical knowledge and practise. There still exist medieval instructions for making lead lamella, that is plates of lead with occult symbols inscribed upon them, which then have a magical influence.

There is a short section on them in “Magic in Medieval Manuscripts” by Sophie Page. She mentions two MS in the British library, one lamina is for a charm to be worn around the neck of a woman who is trying to conceive, the other is for anthrax fistulas. The first has some characters on it, the second letters and words. Therefore it is clear that knowledge of lead lamina was abroad in England at the time.
Obviously we don’t have enough details, but it seems clear that the lead could be cast from the ladle into grooves carved in the chalkstones, to make flat sheets. The hatchets and handsaw could be for cutting up wood, or the saw could be for cutting the chalkstone into the proper shapes for casting into. Unfortunately I can’t see mention of knives or other carving implements.

My conclusion therefore is that she is mistaken and Nandyke was still a necromancer, not an alchemist.

On the word “Alchumy”, “Alconamye” and variations thereof in English

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The more I delve into period manuscripts and the like, the more little things I notice. Such as the word “Alchumy“ or variations of it.

In England, this seems to take on it’s own peculiar meaning, being that of a metal that looks like gold, but is not. It was likely not just brass, but like brass and probably contained zinc, perhaps with brass as the base.

Other examples of it include:

The 1586 Book of Rates, i.e. customs rates, mentions “Spoons of Alcumine the groce – Xvis Viiid”

The note for it says “Alcamyne or alchemy, a metallic composition imitating gold.”

The OED says ‘alcamyne’ is “A metal alloy imitating gold”, which is what most people have deduced from the context. It gives several examples:

1463-5 – Harneys for gurdles of iron, of laton, of stele, of tyn or of alkamyn.

Circa 1475 – Machomete made an ydole of auricalke or alkmuyne [read alkumyne] in the brynke of the see of Speyne.

1499 – Alcamyn [1440 Harl. Alkamye] metall, alcanaia.

circa 1529 – To copper, to tyn, To lede, or alcumyn.

1557 – His fete lyke vnto fyne brasse [margin: or alcumyne].

1636 – To John, sonne of the said Francis, two chestes and one alcamyne cupp.

The OED also has it as “A substance produced by alchemy, any of various metal alloys made in imitation of gold or resembling it in colour, as varieties of brass or latten, sometimes containing arsenic compounds.”

Another example being:

“Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) iv. l. 2578 (MED),   He [sc. the philosopher’s stone] doth the werk to be parfit Of thilke Elixer which men calle Alconomie.”

Mind you this seems to confuse the elixir itself with the product. I suspect that is another indication of how confused people were about what it was and what the word meant.

“English Medieval Industries” mentions on page 82 of the paperback edition, that “The word tyngbasse (perhaps tin-brass) is used in one London text of 1417, apparently equated with auricalcum, as is alkamine in the 15th century”. Auricalcum being a good brass that looked rather like gold.

(The OED thinks that ‘alkamine’ is an amino alcohol, I.e .nothing to do with alchemy)

Finally, the OED seems to miss one of the more entertaining uses of the word, from Bristol in 1393:

“”as by name of John Pygas a monk of the priory of St James Bristol, which is a cell of the said abbey, he is indicted for having, on Friday in Easter week 16 Richard II, with others in the high street at Bristol treasonably made sixty groats of a false metal called ‘alconamye’ to the likeness of good money of the realm, and on many other days in that year many other groats of the same metal, and for having delivered them in payment to divers men of the town.” ((Public record office, Close roll, C. 54, no. 235, 17 Richard II. ))”

Apart from showing how spelling varied, it also suggests that plenty of people had a good idea that such a thing as alchemy existed, even if they weren’t sure exactly what it was. Pygas’ offence was made much worse by actually making false coins and seemingly passing them off in payment around the town. Unfortunately the record does not record what happened to him. Cases of alchemists being executed for their crimes are quite rare, and I know of no example in Britain. On the other hand making false coins was often a capital crime and IIRC some alchemists were executed for that in Europe.

Anyway, that’s the story of how a word for a process and practise came to mean an actual substance.

The “Natural Magic” of Giambattista della Porta

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This is a famous book, but an odd one to modern eyes. Wikipedia calls it “… a fine example of pre-Baconian science.”, which might be correct but doesn’t mean much to most people. What it most obviously is is a recipes book, like the then popular books of secrets, on topics such as poisons, magnetism, metallurgy etc. But what it seems to do is align ‘natural magic’ with simply how the world works in and of itself, i.e. it isn’t occult i.e. hidden, in the old sense of the word. How important this was at the time I don’t really know yet.

However, on closer inspection, the term “natural magic” is clearly used as meaning not sorcery, which uses “foul spirits”, but rather knowing how nature works.

I pass over other men of the same temper, who affirm that I am a witch and a Conjurer whereas I never wrote here nor elsewhere, what is not contained within the bounds of nature. Wherefore, studious readers, accept my long labors, that cost me much study, travel, expense, and much inconvenience, with the same mind that I publish them; and remove all blindness and malice, which are wont to dazzle the sight of the mind, and hinder the truth; weigh these things with a right judgment, when you try what I have written, for finding both truth and profit, you will think better of my pains.”

Within the bound of nature = natural magic = pretty much how everything works or how a physician heals his patient. It also says in the introduction:

From the first time it appeared, it is now thirty five years, and (without any derogation from my modesty be it spoken) if ever any man labored earnestly to discover the secrets of Nature, it was I; For with all my mind and power, I have turned over the monuments of our ancestors, and if they wrote anything that was secret and concealed, that I enrolled in my catalogue of rarities. Moreover, as I traveled through France, Italy, and Spain, I consulted with all libraries, learned men, and artificers, that if they knew anything that was curious, I might understand such truths as they had proved by their long experience. Those places and men, I had not the happiness to see, I wrote letters to, frequently, earnestly desiring them to furnish me with those secrets, which they esteemed rare; not failing with my entreaties, gifts, commutations, art and industry. So that whatsoever was notable, and to be desired through the whole world, for curiosities and excellent things, I have abundantly found out, and therewith beatified and augmented these, my endeavors, in “NATURAL MAGICK”, wherefore by earnest study and constant experience, I did both night and day endeavored to know whether what I heard or read, was true or false, that I might leave nothing unassayed; for I have oft thought of that sentence of Cicero, It is fit that they who desire for the good of mankind, to commit to memory things most profitable, well weighted and approved, should make trial of all things.

This obsession with testing things is not new; it is seen in Geber, and Roger Bacon discusses the forms of knowledge including that of testing what has been claimed. However he put a lot of weight on old experts and wise men, as well as on theology.

Porta on the other hand seems very much more modern, being sceptical and open minded.

The next few chapters discuss what magic is and how it works, with chapter 9 being “how to attract and draw forth the virtues of superior bodies”.

This is not new, it is important to emphasise that in the 16th century what we think of as a more modern approach was forming, but it was very clearly based in medieval thought and in turn upon classical thought.

Indeed I suspect that most people and organisations were still rather medieval in their outlook until the Enlightenment in the later 18th century.
Anyway, my main focus is of course on alchemy and metallurgy, and here it has something potentially interesting. Continue reading

Distillation in 15th century England

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This is a big important topic, but one that is not well known at all. The evidence for it is scattered, and so most folk haven’t a clue that it was relatively widely practised for purposes of making medicine as well as for alchemy.

Fortunately a comprehensive gathering together of the strands was made by Linda Voigts, in her paper “The Master of the King’s Stillatories”. Unfortunately the paper languishes in the relatively unknown Harlaxton Medieval Studies, volume 13 from 2001 so it took a while to track it down. I actually have a lot of the sources and find reports that she draws upon, but have not myself carried out the weaving of the information together.

Therefore, in service to the internet at large I shall explain some of the points she makes and summarise the evidence.

The eponymous Master of the Kings Stillatories is one Rober Broke, who was employed during the reign of Henry VI to carry out distillations and the making of various waters. He was in the household from 1432 to 1455, and Voigts states that by the 15th century glass distillation equipment was taking over from the pottery stuff of the previous century. The BL Sloane MS1118 contains texts on distillation and the name of John Kirkeby, chaplain to Henry VI, and another MS from 1461 has glass cucurbits and alembics carefully drawn in it.

She references also Heironymus Brunschwig’s Book of distillation, and the glass alembic fragments documented in Tyson’s “Medieval glass vessels found in England c. AD 1200-1500”. The sites in which such objects have been found include Sandal Castle, St John’s priory Pontefract, Pontefract castle and Kirkstall abbey, Selborne Priory, Winchester castle and Brook street in Winchester. An important review article is here, I have no idea if it is bootlegged or not:

http://alchemypottery.com/articles/Medieval%20Distilling-Apparatus%20of%20Glass.pdf

One of his sources was the Lily of Medycines. Oddly enough the copy owned by Broke is poorly translated, done in the first half of the 15th century, the original being a compilation made in 1305 by Bernard of Gordon. Voigts mentions the distillation of acids, but because Broke was within the spicery and confectionery and the nature of recipes in his own MS and the mention of “excellent waters” she says, correctly in my view, that it is unlikely he was distilling mineral acids. Instead he distilled high proof alcohol, a medical panacea. There is not any evidence to link him to alchemical distillations. He would also have distilled various mixtures of herbs and water, and sugar and suchlike. One of the interesting things about this paper is that it has some small appendices, which are extracts from relevant books.

One of these books is the BL Sloane MS 964m from the first half of the 15th century. To make aqua vitae, you take lees of strong wine, powder of canel, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, gallingale, cubebs, grains of Paris, long pepper, black pepper, caraway, siler mountain, cumin, fennel, smallage, parsely, sage, mints, rue, calamint, origanum ana unciam unam pound them together, put them in a vial, put your glass on the vial, and distill and collect the water that results. (Oddly

This required quite a few expensive spices, as well as herbs which would only be available in certain seasons, albeit grown in the garden of the noblemans residence. This sort of recipe is the origin of the ‘herbal wines’, such as Buckfast, a popular drink in some parts of Scotland.

Another indication of the importance of distillation, is in Sloane MS 3548:

http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=759&CollID=9&NStart=3548

http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2015/04/ointments-and-potions.html

I find this illustration to be very important. It shows not only a serpent linking a cauldron to a glass vessel, but also what appears to be a variety of Turks cap, a glass alembic with a water vessel around it to cool it down. Now the silly thing is that you wouldn’t carry out the distillations using cauldrons; I wonder if the illustrator had actually seen them for real. The problem with distilling from cauldrons is how to do you close the wide mouth? Unless there are vessels within the cauldrons, using it as a water bath. Unfortunately I cannot read the writing well enough to tell what it says, and the BL has not yet digitised the manuscript. Voigts discusses the likes of the serpent in her article and improvements in distillation technology such as the changeover from pottery apparatus in the 14th century to glass in the 15th, but some of it relies on the old “Short history of distillation” by Forbes, which is something like 40 years old by now. I am convinced that it is now superseded in detail, although the general sweep of it will be accurate enough, but people keep referencing it because there isn’t anything better out there.

In a re-enactment context, the evidence suggests that royalty or high nobility could avail themselves of various distilled medicines, mostly through having someone in camp/ their home castle carrying out such distillations. It is still very unclear how much the production of distilled medicines spread down through the social scale. I can imagine that if the King in the 1450’s has it being done for him, at the least the earls and similar will have their own before long. It is clear too by the last decade or two of the 15th century that distilled medicines were widely available in northern Europe, with various illustrations from that time, added to books such as Heironymous Braunschweig’s “Book of Distillation” in the early 16th century, indicating that medical men knew of and used it’s products.

But to return to the opaque area, it is unclear to me at the moment how these remedies fitted in with the wider medical realm and the public at large, in England of the 1440’s- 1490’s. It might be possible to dig up more from MS and more obscure papers, but for comparison, the early 1440’s “A leechbook or collection of medical recipes of the fifteenth century” by Warren R. Dawson, has nothing about distilled medicines, and neither are there any modern additions to the copy of Gilbertus Anglicus pharmaceutical writings, made around 1460 or so. Of course there would be a certain amount of innate conservatism in the official medical profession, but also it takes time for knowledge to spread and become accepted. Clearly some texts were being copied and translated, such as the aforementioned Lily of medicine and the Book of the fifth essence” by John of Rupescissa, which was translated into English in the 1460’s.

I think this is a nice example of how approaching things from a concern with authenticity and what to present to the public can help make historical questions sharper and to the point.

Weirdly though she says that purchases of high proof alcohol for James IV of Scotland, is evidence that there was independence distillers supplying alcohol to alchemists in Britain at the end of the 15th century. Regular readers will know that James was involved in alchemy from about 1501, i.e. not the 15th century, and not Britain, insofar as Scotland was a separate kingdom. What there was at the end of the century, n 1494, was reference to bolls of malt given to a friar to make aquae vitae, meaning a presumably somewhat learned man was tasked with brewing and then distilling whisky. Whether it was for getting drunk on or for medical reasons is not entirely clear.

The apparent lack of evidence for commercial distillation of alcohol is odd, but I suppose not totally surprising if we assume it takes a generation or two for such practises to percolate into society at large.

This assumption is of course rather shoogly, and should be challenged at every opportunity.

So, an interesting and thought provoking paper, just the sort of thing to read.

Is this an unusual and often overlooked piece of alchemical equipment?

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When looking through alchemical works and examining the illustrations, it always pays to ask, is that real equipment and methods I see in use, or are they just making it up?
So ever since I realised there was something odd smack in the middle of one of the illustrations from Thomas Norton’s Ordinal, I have been looking out for more evidence for it, or not.
Here it is, in a free copy of the picture taken from the, IIRC, 16th century copy in the Ferguson collection in Glasgow University: Continue reading

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