I was recently given a copy of a transcription and translation of the above named MS, done by Conleth Loonan. The work is probably by Stanihurst, but it hasn’t exactly been signed by him, and this version is from a French copy of the original work. It is preserved in a compendium previously owned by John Evelyn the English diarist. It seems to have been written after 1581, and perhaps by 1587.

It comes from BL ADD. MS 78417, ff 252-82, and is being published in the Irish Manuscripts commission.

Stanihurst was born in Ireland in 1547, then had an interesting career, travelling from Ireland to the continent and Spain, getting mixed up with alchemy at various times and places including the Spanish court. He died in 1618 and is better known nowadays for his writings and translations than for alchemy. See wikipedia for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Stanihurst

The instructions themselves are worryingly straightforwards. It has made me wonder again how we know about cover names and their application. The use of silver, vinegar, salt of tartar, etc, without any other term being used to hide the names suggests to me that the work is supposed to be read as plainly as it is. Usually cover names are fanciful or obvious, such as the moon for silver or wolf for stibnite, but if you use real substance names to cover real substances nobody will know what you mean. Therefore I think it best to test the words by carrying out practical operations to see if the results match what the words say will happen. Mr Loonan, the transcriber, has outlined what seems likely chemically in the introduction, and looks accurate enough. The trick will be to test it next year some time.
So, onto the activities.

Loonan’s introduction to the general chemistry involved describes the use of gold, silver, vinegar, strong acids, tartar and copper.

As such it seems disturbingly practical, much more so than most works of the late 16th century. However I am pretty sure that there remain many more practical manuals and works to be read and found which have not been properly explicated or brought out into the light of publicity. This seems to be one such work.

The first thing to do is make a ‘good, clear solution of silver in ordinary strong water.” which usually means nitric acid or a mixture of nitric and sulphuric distilled from alum and saltpetre, and Loonan suggests as much. No mention is made of whether the silver should be very pure. You can carry out the dissolution over a fire, but it is best done in a water bath, since it is claimed that this makes the spirits circulate slowly and it gives a better colour later.

Which is a bit odd, chemically speaking it makes no difference that I am aware of. Anyway, this is one way to start the process.

After that you put the solution in a terrine with cold water and a sheet of red copper, leaving it for several days until the silver calx has fallen to the bottom ‘in the form of ashes or sand, which is called calx of silver.’

This is definitely something I can try out.

You proceed to repeat the dissolution and then it should have sal ammoniac added, mixed with it until it is in the form of a curd, then add some salt of tartar, which seems to provoke the emission of fumes which means you should do this in an open cucurbit because otherwise it would get broken by the force of the fumes.

This bit can be done in a water bath, and then the bath used to boil all remaining liquid from the cucurbit. Which is interesting, because that will get rid of a lot of liquids but not necessarily all the acid stuff.

Then you should add distilled vinegar and sal ammoniac, sal nitre.

A step by step series of instructions would be dull and irritating.

Suffice to say that it seems to rely upon both vinegar and a number of salts, and mixes both vinegar and corrosive acids, therefore uses all possible solvents, rather than eschewing one or the other as tends to happen with the Sericonian method. This one as well at least uses silver straight away, rather than lead oxide or similar substance. Some distillation of acetic acid compounds also seems to occur, which will produce the usual organic chemicals.

Unfortunately the later parts of the recipes use mercury, which seems de riguer for many of the interesting colour changes you see in alchemy, but limits how far I can take the work. I have not see a series of operations that is done in quite this way, although the ingredients and how they are used are common enough. We simply don’t have that many sets of instructions in how to make an elixir or the stone that are clear enough to read this well. Or rather, we don’t have many such instructions which are available to the public or even scholars. The SHAC sources of chemistry series was partly supposed to address this, I think, but has stalled with only one work being produced in 6 or 7 years.

Nevertheless, it looks to be well worth trying next year when the weather improves. I have all the equipment and some silver scrap, copper and suchlike, even a pyrex tureen.

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