‘Tis the season when I don’t work outside. Anything below about 8C simply isn’t comfortable to stand around outside in, even with the heat of a fire. The lack of sunshine hardly helps either, and working in the dark is more likely to lead to accidents.
So what do alchemists say about the best environment to carry out your work in?
Thomas Norton issues some sage advice:
The iiijth concorde is full notable
Bitwene this arte & placis convenable
Some placis most nede be euermore drie,
Close from airys no wyse wyndye;
Som most be derke or dym of lyght
In which sonbemys noon may light’
But for som placis the trouth so is
Thei can not haue to moche brightness;
Som placis most nedly be moist & colde,
For some werkis, as auctuors tolde.
But in oure werkis in euery place
Wynde will hurte in euery case.
Therfore for euery werke in seson
Ye moste ordeyne placis bi reson.
(From Chapter 6, lines 2903-2916 of the EETS edition by Reidy)
Unsurprisingly, he says wind is a problem. The wind swirling about your furnace can cause it to burn hotter or colder, which is an issue for alchemical workings which require a specific constant temperature. I would like to know what alchemical processes actually require the dark though.
Certainly some recipes require cold and dampness in order to create a moist salt, and those places are usually dark, but still, you have to wonder sometimes if there’s more going on behind the words than the author ever lets on.
It should not then surprise that one of the illuminations in the early manuscript of the Ordinal show a room with a door and several glazed windows letting in light, straight onto a table on which is a balance in a glass case. Further from the windows and door are people distilling on two furnaces.
Moreover, another picture, showing 7 furnaces in use, clearly has 4 chimneys above the roof of the room in which the furnaces are, and there appear to be vents at the roofline, thus allowing air in to replace that used by the furnaces.
The third practical picture, showing grinding of substances and two operations of unclear working and purpose, portrays no windows or chimneys. This might be due to the fact that there isn’t room for them, with what had been the roof in the previous illustration occupied by a block of text, and any space for windows occupied by the 4 heads of ancient alchemists, being Rhases, Geber, Arnald of Villanova and Hermes.
Anyway, in the history of science there has been a lot of discussion of laboratory designs in the 17th century; I think there is enough evidence to suggest that medieval alchemists had a good idea what they wanted (hint- not a dark and smoky room as seen in all too many pictures drawn by modern artists) in order to practise the art, even if they hadn’t quite reached the stage of reccomending laboratory design.
I suppose one reason for this would be the fact that alchemy was still a secretive profession, operating in a different way than the world querying post-medieval/ early-modern chymists were. Thus a laboratory design can be disseminated to the world at large, for the betterment of all humans, whereas to Norton the philosopher’s stone is something to be kept secret and not spread about.