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.