A commenter on this blog called aem was asking about distillation. I reckoned it was hard to come up with a few sentences in answer, much easier to ramble on.

So, the central question is:

“By “not alchemical” do you mean that alchemical distillation is different from ordinary? From looking at alchemical texts they don’t seem to specify a difference, e.g. Paracelsus (cf. Hermetic and alchemical writings) lists one of the prerequisites of becoming an alchemist as knowing “distillation” and then goes on to describe the different apparatus one needs (pelican etc). “

And the short answer is, it isn’t much. At this point I have to say that the “not alchemical” I mean with regards to Heironmous Braunschweig is that he was distilling plants for medical reasons. At the time, this wasn’t really alchemical; it certainly wasn’t transmutational.

The interplay between medicine for the body and alchemical work was long an issue, insofar as John of Rupescissa with his “Book of the quintessence” is taken as being the modern starting place of the merger between alchemy and medicine. It was written in the mid-14th century, 150 years before Heironymous.

Before that, distillation was used on wine to make spirits, which were then used for medical purposes, including distillations with plants in them. The real Arnold of Villanova was keen on that sort of thing. So the distillation tradition of Heironymous is separate but parallel to that of the alchemists.

The actual mechanics of distillation aren’t different between alchemy and medicine. Or rather it depends what want to do with it. The differences are usually driven by the difference substances to be distilled. So, alchemists use glass as much as possible because it is unreactive, whereas medical distillation works fine in copper or pottery vessels. Pottery vessels can’t cope with high temperature distillation so aren’t much use for alchemical high temperature work. Yet Vannoccio Biringuccio (1542 book De Pyrotechnia) describes in detail how to carry out distillation using glass vessels for making acid, an activity seemingly invented and used by alchemists over 300 years earlier.

Vannoccio says you can use lutum sapientiae to cover your cucurbits for distillation, and attributes that name to it. Heironymous attributes it to Arnold of Villanova, but I wonder whether the original Arnold used that term, perhaps he did. Study of the early stages of non-alchemical distillation is difficult because of lack of evidence and also lack of transcription of the works of the real Arnold of Villanova and other experts in the 13th century.

Now, useful introductory links to this sort of thing include this:


It mentions the English translation of the book of distillation, but I can’t find it again, I am sure I saw a scanned copy of it somewhere online.

Alchemists certainly distill a wider variety of stuff, often including mercury and arsenic and various dissolved substances. Then there are the metal acetates, which don’t crop up much in medical chemistry but do in the works of Ripley and suchlike.

If you want more on the alchemy/ medicine distillation crossover, an earlier period of it was that of Ar Rhazi, in Iraq in the 8/9th centuries AD. At that point they were basically throwing anything and everything into a cucurbit and distilling it, getting all sorts of waters of dubious use. The waters could then be used to do alchemy. I understand that a lot of medical waters were also made using distillation, but am not aware of any sources or papers discussing it, at least in English.

So, short summary is that distillation became widespread in western europe, but the alchemists had played a major part in knowledge transfer and also pushing the boundaries of what was possible in terms of equipment and what to distill. Methods were very similar, but with different aims and thus different recipes.

Whoops, it really has been a long time since I last posted on here. Ah well.