For a long time now I’ve been interested by the 14th century text “On the consideration of the Quintessence” by John of Rupescissa, in the form of the shortened and edited version in 15th century English, “The book of the Quintessence”.
Of course I wasn’t sure that the Rupescissa book was the origins of the English text until the end of last year, such are the vagaries of library access and the frequent opaqueness of writings about medieval alchemy.
But where does Basil Valentine come in? He was a pseudonym of a writer writing at the end of the 16th century/ early 17th, pretending to be a medieval monk.
What joins John of Rupescissa and Basil Valentine is the belief in the powers of medicine made from Stibnite, that is, antimony sulphide. (Valentine’s work is “The triumphal Chariot of Alchemy”. He wasn’t a modest man)
Both had similar recipes, for grinding it small and boiling it up in a solution of strong vinegar, i.e. acetic acid, although Valentines involved making a glass from it with silica and then grinding it and boiling it in vinegar. Valentine probably got the idea of extracting stuff from Stibnite from John who was the one who really kickstarted medical alchemy in the medieval period.
So of course I tried this, boiling up antimony with acetic acid solution, and what do you know, it didn’t work.
I also tried boiling up lead sulphide with vinegar, just in case there was a mislabelling of the tuff to use, nothing happened.
(I tried that because antimony sulphide was also known as ‘marcasite of lead’ and antimony often mistaken for lead)
What was wrong?
It turned out that back in the late 80’s Lawrence Principe had cracked it, working on the Valentine method. It turned out that with a very specific sample of antimony from Eastern Europe, he was able to get a red liquid when he boiled it with acetic acid after making it into a glass.
Analysis found that it was Iron acetate….
Not antimony at all.
He had previously tried using other, coincidentally cleaner samples of stibnite, but to no avail. What was necessary for the alchemical reactions which were recorded over 400 years ago was in fact an impurity!
This is almost certainly the case in a lot of alchemical recipes, but because we can’t be sure of the recipes, re-creating them is difficult.
Now as a medicine it wouldn’t be too bad, since there would be some antimony dissolved in the vinegar anyway, acting as an emetic.
However Valentine distils the acetate off and adds spirits of wine, i.e. ethanol to it, which extracts the iron acetate, leaving the antimony acetate behind. John of Rupescissa however just says to distill your red solution taken from the antimony ore, no alcohol involved.
So the first step to making the red droplets which make good medicine (allegedly, not that I’m going to try tasting it) is to get hold of the red stuff, iron acetate.
Take some steel wool, put into acetic acid solution, I used pure acetic acid diluted with water. It then looks like this:
Which shows it all falling apart, as the acid eats away at the iron.
Finally it is a red solution like my previous photo of it.
The trick of a lot of weird stuff in alchemy is that the dissolution, reaction or suchlike will take place well enough at room temp or a bit above, if you leave it for long enough. We are too used to chemical reactions taking a second or less, encouraged by the science popularisation stuff that relies on explosions and our own experiences at school with bunsen burners and the like. Instead, the alchemist is more cautious and careful, nurturing even. Hence all the allegories of the Hermetic vessel being like a womb.
Anyway, now I have my iron acetate, there’s things I need to do to it to test a hypothesis or two drawn from the descriptions of the processes in “The book of the Quintessence”, and I even have a PDF of a printed edition of “On the consideration of the Quintessence”. So stay tuned.
Principe’s paper is “CHEMICAL TRANSLATION” AND THE ROLE OF IMPURITIES IN ALCHEMY: EXAMPLES FROM BASIL VALENTINE’S TRIUMPH-WAGEN” AMBIX,Vol. 34, Part I, March 1987, page 21-30.