As many of you know, I do medieval and Tudor re-enactment, where I demonstrate a variety of historical technologies and knowledge. One being alchemy. I have done all sorts of things:
Comparing various salts and how they react to heat as described in a medieval alchemical text
Making nitric and sulphuric acids
Trying to make various quintessences
Turning copper into silver
Burning stuff, such as sulphur
Making salt of urine
Making a candidate for George Ripley’s philosopher’s stone (http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/magazine/articles/30-3-trial-by-fire.aspx?page=1)
Making caustic waters
Making the Divine water
And some other things which I can’t remember. During these procedures various other things have happened, such as a potash glass vessel breaking due to the heat being too strong on it, flooding the furnace with water and putting it out. Or discovering that the fumes of the divine water turn copper silver.
Actually I haven’t done any alchemical demos for nearly 2 years now, because of the hassle of setting up and taking down and the preparations necessary. I am not sure I’ll manage any this year, it depends on what events I attend.
Now, here are some photos of stuff:
My furnace, from the back.
Note that the base is squared wooden logs; not exactly historical, but people object when I ask to arrive two days early and dig up their lawn. The base on them is a sheet of stone, which accidentaly split in half because it got a bit warm one event and the blocks of wood weren’t as flat as they should have been. It actually makes it easier to deal with though because the slab as a whole weighs maybe 15kg.
Anyway, between that, the squared wood and the weight of the tiles you can see above, the furnace is nice and stable and you’d have to deliberately throw it over to cause a problem.
The modern furnace bricks that act as an insulating base are also clearly visible, as is the insulation board I use. The board can be cut with a knife but isn’t very durable, heat making it more rigid over time so you only get a couple of events out of it. I am going to buy some more durable insulation later this year. Note also the tongs, useful for moving crucibles and wood and stuff. A good rake is very useful as well, mine is copied from one in Biringuccio I think.
Front view of furnace. Note the way the tiles interlock, as I intended them to, but handmade tiles can be tricky to deal with, and I found a slab of stone of the right size.
Now, here are various bits of equipment. From the pole of a fire shelter, essential to keeping the rain from things, you can also see pottery alembics, pottery vessels used for heating and boiling liquids, and some small pottery dishes for storing stuff in. You can also see my alchemical notebook at the left near the pole. And an essential bucket of water for cooling things off and in case the grass catches fire or something.
The small table has proven to be invaluable, for keeping stuff off wet grass and keeping it in view of people. On it you can see a hammer for bashing metal, a crucible, some samples of all the medieval metals and mercury. An axe for chopping wood. Several glass bottles. Remember, although in many countries it is illegal to distill alcohol there is nothing wrong with putting some whisky or such into a bottle and pretending you made it and getting people to drink it. I did that at Linlithgow Palace in 2009. The King got one of his retainers to try it and the retainer choked a little on it but rather enjoyed it. A stool is important too for something to sit on during the event, being on your feet for 3 or 4 hours without a break is tiring.
The problem is of course that if you want to do this at all accurately, you either need to be really good with your hands and have a handy furnace and wheel and equipment for making pottery and glassware, as well as bricks and suchlike, or else you have to buy most of it. Which is where it gets expensive.
But spread over a number of years, and certainly no less than many people spend on their nice shiny armour. I am sure that I have opened a wider understanding of medieval life and technology in people’s minds with my demonstrations which is nice and a spur to keep doing it and get better at it.
Another fascinating post.
For the reasons you note, (i.e. cost and time to acquire), plus reasons of fire safety, I’ve tended to stick with explanations of Spagyrics and herbal elixirs rather than multiple demonstrations of ‘metallic alchemy’ at re-enactments and shows that I’ve attended.
I do have a question on your earlier post covering astrology – in later periods, astrology seems to be quite well represented as a part of herbal alchemy (Culpepper notes both astrological and alchemical methods in his texts), and the astrological significance of both gathering reagents (not just herbal ones) and the auspicious timing of the processes also feature prominently in many of the books on this subject – I was surprised to hear that so many of the original texts that you cite do not appear to cover these aspects. What are your thoughts on the alchemical relevance of astrological timing on the various procedures?
It is certainly a rich vein of enquiry to tap, but I am concerned that having worked mainly from more modern summaries I may have been getting the wrong information…
Oh, what shows have you demonstrated at?
Re. astrology, there seems to have been a broad mixing together of astrology and alchemy in the post-medieval period. Although I find Newman paints with rather a broad brush, he is essentially correct that many medieval alchemical works (certainly those I have read) don’t make a big thing about astrology. In some ways it seems more a hangover from Arabic alchemy and before, rather than something important in its own right, at least in medieval Europe. I’ve certainly not read any which properly explain astrological matters in relation to alchemy.
Certainly many modern summaries are horribly flawed and wrong and often rely on Jung and his school, which might have started as an honest attempt to understand alchemy by way of Jung’s ideas, but went horribly wrong along the way. There is no substitute for reading the last 30 years of academic research into alchemy, but it takes a long time for what they have written to percolate into common knowledge.
I still meet lots of people who think alchemy is about gunpowder and explosions, when there’s no evidence that I am aware of that they were linked. Sure some alchemists made gunpowder, but not for alchemical purposes.
Thanks for your answer – I wonder to what degree the early and mid mediaeval periods avoided astrological influences due to inherent difficulties in calculations and predictions of planetary movements? Mathematics and astronomy were certainly stronger in the Arabic world to begin with, and the information and methods possibly took a little longer to percolate out to the West? Just a theory, since the use of Astrolabes and similar equipment seems to date to around the 13th Century, I understand?
I agree that gunpowder making, although popular with the general public and useful as a tool for an exciting demonstration at events, doesn’t appear to play a part in the real history of alchemy – (although I’d be astonished to find that alchemists weren’t involved in its production as a sideline or a crowd-pleaser. One has to drum up support and sponsorship after all…)
To answer your question, I’ve re-enacted at Shuttleworth (Bedfordshire), Aston Hall in Birmingham (a number of times), at Prior Pursglove College in Northumbria (with Jack Green, one of my first events), King’s Lynn (just this weekend, and previously at other Hanseatic events), Sudely Castle and numerous others.
Perhaps you;d agree that the main difficulty in demonstrating and explaining anything astrological or having to do with ancient medical matters and the four humours appears to be explaining to folks that it is not real, or accurate in any way and that they should not take it all as literally true.
It would be a pleasure to meet you at an event, or at TORM or similar markets, where my wife (Izabela of Prior Attire) and I attend as traders.
Oh, you know Jack? I’ll be on the foundry with him at Kentwell this year.
Ah ha, found you. I am now wondering if you look familiar or not. It would definitely be good to meet at an event and/ or Torm. Mind you a gathering of alchemists would also be fun, but might be harder to organise. I should be at Tatton, Tewkesbury and not sure what else. My group is a member of the Wars of the roses federation, so might make it to Bolsover.
You might be right that comparative lack of mathematical knowledge would hold some people back. On the other hand given the number of MS with astrological stuff in them, it’s harder to say that by the 15th century.
THen we Norton’s Ordinal, which has astrological figures that don’t match reality.
Ultimately people need to read more MS, so many of them haven’t been read properly for centuries.
I’m pretty sure that a lot of alchemists were not full time alchemists, being anything from apothecaries to thieves as their main job.
Actually, I’ve not noticed any issues with the public thinking that the 4 humours etc are real, rather that they end up taking a patronising view, ho ho, look what nonsense our ancestors thought, don’t we know better.
I know little about the timings of alchemical events with regards to astrology, however the two are very much intertwined. Look at the alchemical heirarchy of metals i.e. Lead, Tin, Iron, Copper, Mercury, Silver, Gold …. then look at the coresponding planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, The Moon, The Sun. Following the Zodiac from bottom to top (both sides at once) i.e starting from Aquarius / Capricorn and going round to Cancer/Leo, one starts at Lead and follows the hieracrchy reaching Silver / Gold at the top ….. transmutation is an astrological journey (or vice versa)
A very interesting read, thanks very much. It’s of special interest to me as I’m about to start demonstrating alchemy at some historical events later this year. I want to show a mixture of some real procedures that show alchemical theory in action, and how it is historically related to modern chemistry. I’m also going to do a few showmanship demos that, perhaps, alchemists would not have done, using the marvels of modern chemistry. Although I will, of course, explain the difference and do it in the style of one of the old charlatans who were trying to fleece the gullible public (shouldn’t be too hard, even today).
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. While I want to try and break some of the old stereotypes, I also want to make it entertaining to capture audiences of all ages with a mixture of spectacle for the youngsters and more in-depth for the older audience.
Also, for economy of fuel and safety I’m thinking of using a clay rocket stove rather than your older style furnace. I should still be able to get all four degrees of heat and it should be much more economical and easy to transport. It seems you realise the necessary compromises needed in a public re-enactment, but I’d still be interested in your thoughts.
PS. There’ll be no gunpowder in my demonstrations. I want to explode myths, not people.
Tis good that there is no gunpowder in your shows. Not only does it bump up the insurance costs, I’ve seen a video of someone at I think Hapmton court palace titled the alchemist, and all he was doing was a bit of gunpowder stuff. A travesty in other words.
The fun thing about alchemy is that you have so many different views of it and approaches to it in the later medieval/ early modern period.
The difficult bit is the entertaining, insofar as I think most children of primary school level and below don’t quite get it and don’t know enough to get it. I’ve had a couple of teenagers though hang about my show for an hour, talking about chemistry and history and stuff. I think it also depends on the parents, some take an interest and encourage their children, others don’t. But if you can do things that show fire and colour changes (But not pH indicator and acid and alkali stuff, that’s really not on for medieval) it’s enough that the children have something to gape at.
Mad Jack used to grind up Dragonsblood and have that change colour. He also liked the hold a candle and throw some spores into it creating a big harmless fireball. Which isn’t quite alchemical, but certainly fits into the books of secrets and natural magic side of things.
My turning copper into silver always seemed popular, even if not everyone understood what I was doing, and I’ve had a family be very insistent about asking how it was done. Given that they were standing at the side in the perfect position to see what i was doing, that they didn’t work it out was somewhat odd.
If you’ve not read a book on magic and sleight of hand you should, it can help give ideas.
A clay rocket stove? I don’t quite know what you mean; certainly you could buy/ make a small stove out of clay or bricks on a smaller scale than my furnace that would be accurate enough.
What I actually want is a circular distillation furnace as seen in 15th century onwards illustrations, about 10 inches across on the insider, which means I’d need more circular bricks for the outside and a thin liner of modern insulation.
I would be interested to know which shows/ where, since I know people who are likely to say “I saw an alchemist at X last week” and it would be nice to say “yes, I know who that is”.
Science Viking said:
I did my first Alchemy demonstrations at the Muncaster Castle living history week in August (sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you). There I met Wesley Perriman and Alison Sauer of the Red Wyverns. I was part of their encampment. They are a good bunch and we had lots of fun. They said they knew you, so I was very interested.
The weekend went well. I tried a bit of sublimation using Sal ammoniac and made some malachite pigment, but all everyone wanted me to do was turn copper into silver then gold. The easiest way to do that was for them to give me pennies.
I must admit that I used a modern process, using soduim zincate solution, but over a charcoal fire, and I got some good results. I must admit that, for me, it got boring very quickly, as I wanted to do some other stuff, but the public (and the Red Wyverns) loved it. Still, while they were waiting for their coins to be transmuted they were a captive audience for 10 minutes, or more, of the history of chemistry and the workings of alchemy. Many people stayed for quite a while. Some people stayed for up to an hour (at least that’s what it felt like) until I ran out of stuff to say. I’m still a rank beginner.
I think I’m definitely going to develop Albert Harvey as a charlatan, for the entertainment value (i.e. some of the transmuted coins got too hot and corroded. But I was able to explain this as a further transmutation from gold into Purest Green, which got some good laughs), while also showing and discussing the real alchemical techniques and theories for those who are interested, which are a lot of people. I think I’m well on the way to producing an act based upon some real, but simple, alchemy, especially the relationship between alchemists and artists, a lot of whom, it seems, got their pigments from alchemists.
Anyway, it would be great to meet up some when. Hopefully we may be at the same show one day and can swap notes, and we can insult each other and call each other puffers 😉
Muncaster looks like it was good, but I had to call off going, good that you had a good time. I know Wes et al, Wes from the group I started re-enacting with back in 2001.
How did the sal ammoniac go?
Yes, the public are annoying, they mostly want flashes and bangs, but as you found, they will wait, and you can lecture them when they are waiting. That’s true though it gets a bit dull doing the same thing every hour or less. I usually try and line up several experiments to be getting on with so the weekend is more entertaining.
If they hang around until you run out of stuff to say that’s a good thing. It took me 2 or 3 years to really get the depth of knowledge and experience to be able to answer question etc.
It would be good to meet up at an event, there’s a lot of arguments that we could have that would sound interesting to the public, and we can of course draw them into them as well. “This man thinks that ????, what do you think about it?”
I see from your website that you’ve been patronising Trinity Court potteries!
Yes, Jim’s stuff is rather good 🙂
By a rocket stove I’m thinking something similar to this:
This year I’m going to be at the Muncaster Castle Living History Festival in August and the Furness Abbey Medieval Fair in September. I’m feeling rather nervous about it when I look at the high quality people out there like yourself and Jack Greene. I’m still trying to get equipment together with almost no money, and I’m useless at making stuff.
Don’t worry I won’t be using indicator solutions or anything like that, but burning salts gives lovely colours. Although I do plan to “transmute” copper pennies given to me by the audience into “silver” then “gold” using sodium zincate solution and a hot plate and something flashy to make it look even better. (Charlatans have much better success if the thing looks as impressive as possible to the gullible. Oops, I mean public.)
I shall also have a go at making malachite and verdigris pigments, which is nice and simple and quite impressive with all the fizzing. I can then use that to make some artificial emeralds. I’m also thinking of making oil of eggs, although that produces an awful lot of smoke. Plus other stuff that I’m still researching.
One thing I don’t do is stick to a period during the display. My dress is Tudor but I will present stuff from before and after the period and talk about Boyle and Newton and others as part of the discussion, mainly because I like to talk about the whole of history.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on that but, as a Viking talking about sunstones, for example, I also mention the twilight compass from the 1950’s, as what I’m interested in is getting people to see how history informs the events of the modern day.
Nothing wrong with nice colours, or indeed smells from sulphur. Oil of eggs? That’ll smell too, but you can use the yellow stuff to make silver look gold-ish.
I personally have no problem with people dressing one period and talking about another as long as it is made clear. You’ll always have people who will misunderstand completely, you can’t escape that, but as long as you are honest about it there’s surely/ usually no problem. (Unless the organiser is paying for a first person 15th century apothecary and gets a 3rd person time traveller 😉 )
Obviously I have a lot to learn so, even though I will be doing some not-really-alchemy stuff to start with, I hope that over time, as I learn more, I can ditch some of the modern tricks and slowly increase my repertoire of authentic demonstrations that are safe to display. I’ve already had a go at making Divine Water and will be doing that. I’ll also do some straight distillation of water while discussing the Archaeus of Water, etc. I’ll be blogging about my alchemy demos as I prefect them. I hope you’ll have a read if you get time when I’ve written some. And correct the glaring (and not so glaring) errors I make 🙂
Pingback: Whewell's Ghost
Theophrastus von Oberstockstall said:
Hey! I too present at medieval festivals on science stuff.
I regularly present lectures in the ‘University Tent’ at the Abbey Medieval Festival.
It’s in Australia!
I’ve transcribed and translated to modern English and printed a pamphlet version of The Virtuous Art of Distillation. I’d gladly post copies of it, except I don’t know where email contact details are?
Also give lectures on Ergot and Urine diagnosis. The Urine talk also has an accompanying pamphlet of “The seeing of Urine” 1500’s text.
The festival preferences crowd pleaser lectures, so am steered by that.
Ah ha, another one. I’d be interested in the Virtuous art of distillation, you could send a copy to guthrie_stewart at yahoo dot com . Obviously change it to make it an address.
The BL has a few scans up of urine textbook pictures.
Science Viking said:
Yes please! I’m very new to this and just starting historical alchemy displays. My email address is terryhc at btinternet dot com
Rick Hamelin said:
I am a potter in the U.S. Recently, several folks, inspired by the Green Valley, episode 5, had me make for them alembics as used in that program. My request is for your advice as to a book, article, website or other that will assist in their (and my) use of the alembic for distilling oils from herbs, flowers and other plantsI have been looking now since November and as you noted, there is scant information to be found. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this blog and for helping me. Best regards, Rick Hamelin
welcome to my blog and all that.
The issues with information re. distilling oils and suchlike is, how period you want to be and how much you want to take random internet people’s words for things.
There are various 16th century and onwards books of distilled remedies, see for instance “Distilling knowledge – alchemy, chemistry and the scientific revolution” by Bruce Moran. I think you can find some transcriptions or scanned versions of period texts online.
Then there is the field of ‘spagyrics’, as the modern name for what were often Paracelsian remedied (He in turn borrowed a lot from others). If you earch for that term you will find modern practitioners who make up their own things.
I do not know anything about that book or what it says, but that should give you an idea of what is out there.
Or you need to see if you can get access to Early English Books Online through a library, college or University, which has scans and transcriptions of pretty much every book published in England and English in the 16th and 17th centuries. This includes a large number of medical textbooks with instructions on distilling aqua vitae with various herbs and the like.
Oh yes, I’m pretty sure that Heironymous Brauschweig’s “Great book of distillation” is online, and possibly even an English translation.
Rick Hamelin said:
Thank you for answering so quickly. With this, we may progress towards success. Best regards, Rick Hamelin
Speaking about Brunschwig: Has anyone been able to locate a copy of the following article?:
The title sounds interesting. It might be an examination of what is the composition and actual medical value of some of the distillates in his book. I asked this expert on Brunschwig about the article but not even he had heard of it before!
Yes, I did a couple of months ago, had to use interlibrary loan. I thought the same as you, but it’s a disappointment. It only translates bits of it, interspersed with genuinely useful comments and snark based on how crazy those old folk were. I can’t even recall where I came across the reference to it originally. E.g.:
“In which the author of the book of Distillation reveals his failure entirely to emancipate himself from alchemy’s acceptance of astrology and superstition:
chapter CCXII water of peach leaves, leaves stripped off in the cressynge of the mone, whan she is almoste full/ dystylled in the ened of the may”
From my notes:
“The transcription though is of Laurence Andrew’s English translation of circa 1530, “The vertuose boke of the dystyllacyon of all maner of waters of the herbes … translated into Englysshe out of Duche by Laurence Andrew, London.”
So if you have library access, try and get into EEBO, which has a copy or two of this.
I get the impression a lot of those involved on the Recipes project are at the start of their careers, so not yet experts.
Thanks for the report on the general tone of the article. I was hoping it was a more serious and in depth treatment of the subject suggested in its title. No matter what Brunschwig believed about planetary influences, the distillates he produced were very real nonetheless. So in my opinion attention would be better invested on assessing what exactly were his distillations producing, and what would their actual therapeutic/medicinal values be from a modern standpoint.
That guy I asked the question to in the Recipes Project specializes in Brunschwig and is writing a thesis on some of his books. So though not technically an “expert” yet, if anyone would be familiar with everything that has been written on the subject so far it would be someone like him. Yet he had never heard of this article. Seems like a very obscure piece. I have not found any reference to it so far in any book or article either.
Ah yes, I found it by means of google scholar, which is a useful and generally effective way of searching for relevant papers and books.
There is surely room for a proper series of research into both the recipes and products from the recipes, following them through their earliest manuscript occurences to the most recent incarnation. I expect some were still in use in the 19th century.