On twitter recently a new article with the above self explanatory title was mentioned, written by Christopher Booth and published in The Journal of medieval Monastic studies, Volume 6, 2017.
The starting point for his paper is the venerable but still interesting paper on “Medieval distilling apparatus of Pottery and Glass” in 1972 by Stephen Moorhouse. This brought together a number of sites on which evidence for distillation had been found and as such was intended to spur more research. Booth points out that unfortunately not a lot has been done since then, so his paper tries to carry things further. He deliberately brings alchemy into the discussion from the start, but I think we can skip over his explanation of early alchemy and get into expanding and discussing the rest of it.
He points out that “The two most significant distillates of later centuries, mineral acids and alcohols, were likely only discovered within Western Europe in the twelfth century, as recipes for their production only became common by the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries”
His references are to Anderson in “Instruments and Apparatus”, Forbes, “A short history of the art of distillation and Multhauf “the origins of Chemistry”
The latter two are ancient works, very out of date. It is a sad fact that there hasn’t been a work pulling together all the research done since Forbes wrote his book. If anyone wants to give me money to write it I’d be happy to do so, but what a history of distillation in Europe and the middle east needs is a multi-lingual team and 5 years.
A blog post from the useful and interesting Recipes project. It discusses a book called Tabula Medicine, which has various distillation recipes, and, importantly from my point of view, was written between 1416 and 1425, by English friars, drawing upon older recipes.
A perennially interesting question regards the transmission of knowledge across Europe, and in my case especially that of techniques and recipes related to alchemy and allied activities such as distillation. A related problem is that there is a mass of material which has not been fully studied. Therefore all we can say about some recipes is that they are first written about over there, in say 1340, and next seen copied out near here in 1400. So what has happened to them in the meantime?
In the case of the recipes used by the friars, since they include ones from John of Rupescissa’s Book of the quintessence, we can say securely that copies of his work were in England by the early 15th century. Moreover, given that some recipes are attributed to older friars in the period 1370 – 1420, that also indicates that distilled recipes were in England by that time, although the article doesn’t go into enough detail for me to be totally sure. This therefore pushers my understanding of the transmission of the text back by several decades. It seems therefore too that it first arrived in Latin, being translated into English later in the centuries.
Moreover, it provides documentary evidence to back up the archaeological evidence, that distillation was well known amongst the educated sections of society. Having said that, I think we are still lacking widespread evidence of distillation from firaries etc, but certainly by mid-15th century the remains of alembics are found in various secular sites, as the practise moved from the religious people to the secular medical men. (Not that they were all secular as such, but having taken minor orders at university few kept up such stations in life)
As an aside, an apothecary or medical man carrying out distillations is entirely period, but not very well represented in the re-enactment world, due probably to the difficulties inherent in carrying out distillations in a field.
So I thought I’d do a partial book review, covering my area of expertise. The victim this time is Toni Mount. Don’t worry, she is far superior to Jonathan Hughes, and her book is worth having a look at.
The book itself is pitched at a general audience, and is therefore differently written than if for a more advanced one. The author has been a history teacher for 15 years and has an MA in research in medieval manuscripts. As a modern book it takes more seriously the actual practicality and results that medieval medical recipes give, and also covers all aspects of medieval medicine in a readable fashion.
There is a goodly lot of notes and references, including to primary sources, indicating she has done a lot of research.
So, nice stuff aside, onto the difficult bits that spoil my enjoyment somewhat. Firstly, on page 79 she claims that colourless lead crystal glass was invented in 1674, so before that spectacles, prisms and lenses were made of polished rock crystal. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence for this whatsoever. A few medieval and many more 16th century lenses survive, and many are of clear glass, or else of slightly tinted glass since it was hard to get proper pure clear glass. If lenses were made of rock crystal alone that would be rather a brake on their becoming so cheap in the 15th century.
Unfortunately for this page she seems to have relied upon a number of online resources assembled by enthusiasts, rather than properly vetted historical works, which is a shame.
Now, onto the alchemy.
This is in chapter 12, titled “Progress in Medicine”, which begins with a more revisionary modern approach to the knowledge and practises of medieval medical people, since the old approach of basically rubbishing all practise and theory of the time is ahistorical and wrong.
So far so good.
The start of the alchemical studies bit is good, mentioning Paracelsus dissolving opium in alcohol rather than water, and distillation remedies. Unfortunately it then on page 228 goes onto George Ripley, and repeats the usual nonsense about him, despite there being no real evidence that it is correct, and it isn’t phrased clearly either, so the reader might think it is all actual historical fact. She then compounds the crime by stating
“He wrote books on the alchemical arts: On the Philosopher’s stone and the Phoenix was a rewriting of earlier authors from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so wasn’t too controversial.”
At this point you should imagine me stroking my imaginary beard and saying “reaallllyyy” in a disbelieving tone of voice. Rampling’s magisterial and award winning “Catalogue of Ripley Manuscripts” has it spelt as Phoenice, in Sloane MS 1842, and a 17th century title for the well known late 15th century “Cantilena”, i.e. Song.
Sloane Ms 1842: (17th c) Ripley, George, Terra terrae philosophicae (ff2-4)
Ripley, George, Medulla Philosophiae Chemicae (ff7v-10)
Pearce the Black Monk, Verses on the elixir (ff11-13)
Ripley, George, Philosophical verses and on the philosopher’s stone and the phoenix (ff20-27)
Bacon, Roger: Verbum abbreviatum (ff32-36)
Ripley, George, The great work and other writings (ff43-49, 57-61, 78-101)
Unfortunately, I’m not impressed by taking a 17th century title for a work when there is a perfectly good medieval title. The full version can be found here:
Now, if I am reading Rampling aright, the Cantilena is in the Corthop group of manuscripts, and as such is a core Ripleyan work, but I do wonder why she used a more recent title for it. I also find her assertion that it was simply a rewriting of earlier authors unsettling; it isn’t exactly a wrong statement, but it isn’t exactly linked directly to a reference, it’s more one of those too general to be accurate statements. The nearest is on the next page after a quote from the 1994 book “The mirror of alchemy- Alchemical ideas and images in manuscripts and books from antiquity to the seventeenth century”, by G. Roberts, published by the British Library. I’ve yet to get a copy, it’s a bit pricey.
Then she states that the green lion is apparently mercury, which is news to me. To some authors maybe, but certainly not all of them, and not during much of the medieval period. She does admit that she doesn’t know why the mercuric lion is green. Well, that’s because it isn’t mercury. I suspect she has been misled by Mr Roberts.
This is an example of an area where wider reading in the topic is necessary. Relying on secondary sources of good pedigree does mean I won’t get annoyed at you, after all we all have to rely on them at various times in our research and writing, since it is impossible to become expert at everything. But it certainly shows here.
She then moves onto Thomas Norton. She gives the usual, but actually historically accurate information about Norton, since a lot more is known about his life, and he has written a book after all which mentions some incidents during it. But including Norton here is a mistake, because he is not particularly relevant. To alchemy yes, to medicine not really. It would be much better to mention the petition to the King by the physicians seeking to heal Henry VI.
Then it’s onto William Harvey, who isn’t medieval really, even if he was born in 1578 (In many ways the 16th century was medieval in thought and deed). What would have been much better would have been to dwell more on the distillation books and use of alcohol as medicine, and the quintessence, which was popular in England in the 15th century. So popular that it was translated into English, and copied out quite a few times, and even better, straddled the line between medicine and alchemy. I can’t find mention of quintessence in the index.
So, a reasonable enough book let down by lack of research into the alchemy of the period, which is a shame.
This is a short blog post covering an interesting but rather deep topic which would require a great deal more research to make a full on really interesting post. So instead you have to make do with this. Maybe in a few years I’ll write something more.
Right from the start, alchemy was related to other areas of endeavour or crafts. The recipes in the Physika et Mystika are similar to and sometimes the same as those found in the manuscripts recording various craft recipes, the Leyden and Stockholm papyri. Basically the early alchemists took ideas from Hermetic and gnostic religion and mixed them with physical workshop practises.
It seems clear to me that early alchemy was actually a form of philosophy and mysticism and religion; I use all of those words because although an expert could probably make specific distinctions, it is beyond me in the case of the Physika et Mystika and many of the other texts written by Cleopatra or that refer to Isis.
And this stayed with it into the Byzantine Christian era, with explicitly Christian imagery and metaphor added to Hermetic texts such as Zosimos “On the Letter Omega”. Some of the later alchemists surely enlarge the natural philosophical side of alchemy as well, making it less specifically religious, more an explanation of how the world works. The making of gold is treated as a specific work that can be done, not with religious implications, but rather due to knowledge of how the world actually works. This can also be seen in the works of Zosimos of course. Continue reading →
Following on from the previous post, it turns out that Henry of Kirkestede mentions 674 authors, but I cannot find any others related to alchemy.
Maybe Henry didn’t count alchemical books? Certainly there are a lot of scholarly works in his catalogue, including Thomas Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste and many others less well known. But it is interesting that he mentions Hermes but not alchemy, which was certainly known about in the country in his time; Robert Bacon knew about it, and from the little he knew it seems that knowledge about alchemy was newly arrived in England in his time, a century before Henry.
So I needed some more evidence to really start thinking about the availability of alchemical texts. Fortunately, other library catalogues have been preserved and brought out in modern editions! The Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues is listed here:
Which leads nicely onto the next question, how widespread were alchemical books?
Firstly though a few caveats are in order. Most of the catalogues cover religious institutions, or secular ones with a specific purpose (e.g. almshouses) and so their book choice is likely to be somewhat restricted, and likely would not include many on alchemy. Especially because an interest in it and practise of had been specifically banned in most orders of monks and friars since the late 13th century!
An exception would likely be university college libraries, which given the subjects taught and debated, might well contain more alchemically related works than otherwise expected, on the basis that they were part of natural philosophy. So if it turns out as I expect and recall reading in various academic papers, then the locus of alchemical investigation was circles and groups of private individuals.
(The following is written in a more note-taking style, because that’s simpler than trying to turn notes into a long winded explanation)
Now, regarding smaller secular institutions, we have volume 14, Hospitals, towns and the Professions. A search of the index finds mention of Bartholomew the Englishman and his De proprietatibus Rerum. Also of an astrological work being written in the same village as an alsmhouse. Index V mentions bestiaria, a couple of editions of the Secreta Secretorum and a copy of the Seneschaucie, but they are anonymous works. One of the Secreta is in the London Hospital of St Mary Elsing in the 7th October 1448 index of books. Another in the 1489 bequest to the Hospital of St Giles in Norwich. The index of authors has no Albertus Magnus, one volume about medicine by Avicenna, no mention of Hermes, one of Robert Grosseteste as translator of Aristotle’s Ethics. Other works cover legal matters, historical ones (e.g. the Scalacronica) and of course theological or religious matters.
So the more secular institutions really don’t seem to have had a great interest in Natural History.
Now, volume 12, on Scottish Libraries, which covers both royal ones and religious houses and the Universities.
Searching the index, no mention of alchemy. The index of authors at least has Albertus Magnus, mainly his commentaries on various authors and his summa theologiae; a full selection of Aristotle, Agustine, Averroes, Bartholomew Anglicus, Bocaccio, Cicero (In Queen Mary’s library at Holyroodhouse) in 1569. Or see works by Galen in St Mary’s college, St Andrews, circa 1574.
There is one mention of Hermes, but it is the Poemander translated by Marsilius Ficinus, in Queen Mary’s library.
Finally, found Khalid ibn Yazid, Liber Secretorum Alchemiae, in a 1531 printed edition of alchemical works, which contains the speculum alchemiae, and Geber de alchemia. Printed at Strasbourg? It is in St Leonards college in St Andrews, the list made in 1597 or 99. The interesting and clear point is that by the later 16th century there were lots of books, thanks to printing. The list for this college reaches 262 books, many more than in Cathedrals and suchlike two centuries earlier.
Ultimately thought it is a bit disappointing. However given the upheavals in Scotland in the early and mid-16th centuries, I think it likely that a fair number of books were lost, destroyed or sold, and thus we do not have a proper accounting of the books present in medieval Scotland. Having said that, there really isn’t any evidence for alchemy in Scotland before James IV and his alchemist in 1501 or 03 or whenever.
Now, onto volume 10, the University and College libraries of Cambridge, which should be much more interesting.
Starting again with the index of authors, we immediately find many copies of Albertus Magnus, including the Mineralia. Also works by Alhazen, Al-Kindi, Alphidius on De lapide Philosophorum, which is found in a 1418 catalogue of Peterhouse college, as part of the Magnus liber Alkymye!
Which contains works by Geber, pseudo-Michael Scott, secretum secretorum, speculum alchimiae, Democritus Secretum super corpus, spiritum et animam, and so on.
Pseudo-Avicenna’s De Anima comes up at least once.
Lots of stuff related to normal natural philosphy, eg Aristotle, Gilbertus etc etc.
Hermes, several works, eg Aqua uitae perhennis, and others, in the Peterhouse volume already mentioned. A dialogus de nat ura deorum of Hermes Trismegistus, is in the university common library in 1473. Also contains De spiritu et anima, (Bloomfield 935) whatever that is.
A de Quinta essentia of Ioannes de Rvpescissa, in a 1457 King’s college inventory of the library.
Michael Scott, Physiognomia siue De secretis naturae, a 1477 edition donated in 1539 to Jesus college.
There are quite a few books attributed to Rhazi, not all surely alchemical, but there’s a Flores Secretorum, in the Peterhouse MS, and various others. Also medical works by Richard the Englishman. Lots of books by Grosseteste and Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and the usual texts one would expect in a university related to the Trivium and Quadrivium.
So, in summary, there do seem to be more alchemical books in university colleges, but not as many as you might have thought; one volume in particular had a large number of shorter treatises within it. I think it likely that this is partly down to lack of official approval; alchemy is well known for not managing to make the leap to respectability, but there should also be considered the many injunctions to secrecy made by alchemists over the years, that would not permit making the books publicly available. Yet one or two such books were donated to the colleges over the years by former students.
It therefore instructive to look at a non-university alchemist. Thomas Norton is famous for his Ordinal of Alchemy, in which he mentions many authors. It was written in the 1470’s, based on the previous 20 years of his alchemical experience. Thus it is later than Kirkstede, and some of the university catalogues. It seems to me, on the evidence available, that there was a flourishing of alchemical knowledge in England in the 1440’s and 50’s, and as such Norton would have more texts available for study.
So, alchemists and philosophers he mentions include Albertus Magnus, Arnalde of Villanova, Robert Bacon, Arisleus, Avicenna, Democritus, Dalton, Gilbert Kimere, Hermes, Kalide, Maria, Ortolane, Plato, Raymond Lull, John of Rupescissa, Geber. Which indicates that he had at least heard of, or was familiar with the most famous and popular alchemical authors of the time. In turn that argues that he had or had read a fair number of alchemical manuscripts. Yet only one volume in the list in Cambridge had many of the works by these authors, and some of them didn’t appear at all.
I would like to think that a generation or two of Cambridge scholars copied out parts or all of the Magnus liber Alkymye and spread it about the country, but of course proving that would be rather hard.
Certainly it seems that a non-academic had access to a great many texts (If of course they could afford to buy them or made the right friends), and there is some confirmation of this if you look at the history of the Libellus de Alchimia or the Semita Recta and the career of Gilbert Kymer and others of his generation in mid-15th century England. These texts and their English copies of them indicate the presence of networks of alchemists and philosophers outwith universities and other seats of learning. Although some of the members held positions within such institutions, the actual alchemical work and manuscripts appears to have been held separate from the official libraries.
Certainly I could refine things by looking at the other volumes of the Corpus of British medieval library catalogues, such as no. 1, The Friars Libraries, or no. 5, Dover Priory. That would require more visits to the NLS and time spent on research, which I can’t really do right now.
The interesting thing is if anyone knows of specific evidence for personal private books? Such as in wills, e.g. the necromancer’s I blogged about back in July.
Sorry for taking so long between posts; my main computer stopped working and it took a while to work out what to replace it with, which then of course meant work to get it working the way I wanted it to. Plus I was feeling a little tired after turning out so many regular blog posts. Fortunately the weather has improved and I can now do some work outside.
Something that has been bugging me for a while now is the mismatch between my own distillation equipment and that shown in period pictures. Some is down simply to it being hard to get anything resembling what is shown, e.g. the metal helms seen in Heironymous Braunschweig’s Book of Distillation. In this case it is because I hadn’t really seen the need to get it, so this experiment and post will serve as something of a test of the new equipment.
My latest, temporary work, apart from leaving me little time or energy to research or write, has also given me some sore finger joints.
So I thought I’d look up historical treatments for them.
The main source I have available is “A leechbook or collection of medical recipes of the fifteenth century”, which is an early 15th century English text transcribed and edited by Warren R. Dawson back in 1934.
Anything like relevant treatments seem to be classified under “Aches” rather than anything to do with joints or rheumatism.
Number 41 on page 28-29 of the Kessler paperback edition, says:
“Ache of the shoulder-joint. Take five drachms of gall of an ox and a drachm of honey, and seethe them till they are thick; and anoint the joint that acheth therewith till it be whole. A drachm is the weight of three pennies.”
I’ve never heard of ox gall having any components which would actually be skin absorbable, but I suspect that putting a warm mass of stuff onto the joint would help.
I couldn’t see anything specifically for the fingers or any other joints, but there are plenty of recipes for headache treatments.
This being an early 15th century work based on the 14th century medical tradition, there’s nothing much about distillation, that is more a late 15th century innovation in England, although books about the healing powers of distilled wine were in circulation from the late 13th century onwards.
I had a look through the mid 15th century English translation of “The book of Quintessence” by John de Roquetaillade or Rupescissa, and there isn’t anything quite like what I am after. There is a recipe for treatment of cramp though, which recofnises that “for as muche as wise men seyn that the craumpe cometh of the hurtynge and the febilness of the seneewis, …” which is accurate enough. All you have to do is drink some quintessence or burning water, which is a nice simple solution and may fuddle your mind enough to relax and take away the feeling of the pain.
What I think is also clear is that a lot of these substances are imported not for alchemical use but for the use of physicians and painters. Both of their requirements, and in the case of physicians, understanding of the world, overlap.
In fact there are frequent mentions of plants, plant extracts and preparations all the way through, which at least shows that physicians were importing a great deal of their medicines, as should be clear from the recipes of the period. A herb garden wasn’t enough, people wanted treated with the best medicine you could get, which often meant foreign ones because of their mystique and expense.
Anyway, if we turn to the letter A, we find Argentum sublime, i.e. mercuric chloride, by the pound and hundredweight. A pound of course nowadays is 0.45kg, and a hundredweight about 50kg, although I think the pound in the 16th century was a little different, I can’t find my source book on weights and measures to check.
Antimonium is also imported by the hundredweight, although as usual it is unclear whether they mean the metal or the sulphide.
Also under A is argall, i.e. potassium tartrate, and ashes in barrels. And Armoniacum, which the modern editor thinks means Gum Ammoniac, I think means more ammonium chloride, since it is often called ‘sal armoniacum’. I think this is confirmed by a later mention of “Gum Armoniack”; although there are mistakes in the list, why call one armoniacum and the other gum armoniacum?
There’s arsenic, the hundredeight and by the pound.
And alome, of course, by the hundredweight.
And Azarum, by the pound, which the notes think is a midicament obtained from the asarum plant. In fact there’s quite a few products from plants all the way through, used in medicine or as herbs and spices in food.
Under B we find Brimstone, by the hundredweight.
Also Bedelum, which is apparently a gum-resin used in medicine.
In C, we find green and white copperas, and plain old copperas. These are sulphates, the green probably being the iron sulphate, often calcined and then treated to give a red liquid. The others would be blue copperas and white, the latter zinc based, the former copper.
Under L there is mention of Lapis Calaminaris, which is suggested to be calamine, a zinc ore. By the hundredweight you could certainly do something with it, and brass making has been known on and off by this time, although not on a large scale. Either way it would be useful for alchemists.
There;s also lead, but it helpfully says “Lead, look white leade or red”, which takes us to white or red lead, both of which are in demand for painters and the red is used on iron work.
Mercury sublime makes another appearance, by the pound.
On the other hand I might be wrong about the sal armoniac, given that it is mentioned under S, Sal armoniack, by the pound, and also sal gemma, white salt of various kinds, and most importantly for the alchemist, salpeter by the hundredweight.
There’s also Serusa by the pound, under S, which is most likley cerussa, another kind of white lead, the notes say used for medicine.
Most interestingly, we find mention of ‘spoons of alcumine, the groce’, which the notes suggest means Alcamyne or Alchemy, a metallic composition imitating gold” which is actually something I have noted from 14th and 15th century legal documents pertaining to alchemy. In some the term alcamyne means the actualy activity of alchemy, but in this case, it seems likely to be a gold like alloy.
Sulphur vivum is listed, by the pound. So what is the difference between brimstone and sulphur? None nowadays, but it is likely that back then the brimstone would be powder or adulterated or just not pure, wheras the sulphur vivum is pure yellow lumps straight from the volcano (A lot was gathered from Italian volcanoes).
Interestingly Tin Glass comes into it, by the hundredweight, the notes suggesting they mean bismuth, which is possible at this late date.
Tutia, meaning probably a zinc oxide also is mentioned, by the pound.
Vermillion by the hundredweight appears, as you would expect given its importance as a scarlet pigment, and there’s also verdegrese and Verditer, bother green pigments.
Vitolum might mean vitriol, which has already been covered under copperas, but the 1604 book apparently has ‘vitriolum Romanum’.
The obvious conclusion here is that customs officials use the common understanding of what things are, and if people think there are different varieties of copperas and sulphur and vitriol distinguished by colour and shape, then those are the names they’ll use. This is a continuance of names and perceived properties from the medieval period, and although alchemists and proto-chemists were busy identifying and labelling substances, it often took until the 17th and 18th centuries before they settled upon names linked to definite physical properties that was accurate in a modern sense. But the names and properties recognised then were pretty good and importantly, useful, and it is important to remember this.
I also think it clear that those items by the hundredweight were in widespread industrial level use, such as alum, brimstone, vermillion, ashes etc. Those by the pound were more specialised, often more pure. What sort of physician would use a hundredweight of arsenic? Not many, but a pound or two would be useful. Sulphur is of course for gunpowder, as is saltpetre. The various pigments are by the hundredweight, as you would expect with acres of canvas, wood and plaster to be painted.
The next question of course is who would handle and then subdivide it into parcels for selling to the people who needed it. Of course the Merchant venturers probably imported it, many of them were grocers, and it would be shifted by them to a network of middle men who would transport it to their preferred market towns and customers. Or if you were rich you just sent your servant to buy it in London directly from the importers. Now if I can only find a good book on the topic of internal trade.
At least it shows that by this time every substance required by alchemists would be available through importation.
This is a big topic, that requires a lot more research. Nevertheless, I have made some observations as a starting point.
It should of course be born in mind that medieval and Tudor people simply didn’t have the same ideas of hazard and risk that we do today, and that knowledge was not written down in manuals but something passed on through experience or verbally from the more skilled artisans.
Firstly though, all three jobs mentioned in the title are related in some way or another, and also to alchemy. Doctors see to sick miners, foundryworkers, alchemists and use substances produced by miners. Miners and alchemists deal with molten metals and thus would have been exposed to metal fume and carbon monoxide and anything else that was given off e.g. sulphur fumes.
Texts consulted include “On Divers Arts” by the 12th century Monk Theophilus, “De Re Metallica” by Georgious Agricola, “The Pirotechnia” by Biringuccio. The latter two are 16th century works.
So my searches for period mentions of hazards has found the following risks and attempts at reducing them.
Heat and sparks – you see aprons in illustrations in Biringuccio, Agricola and of medieval smiths and miners. This is one of the most basic protections, along with gloves.
Theophilus says not to suck when glassblowing at the wrong moment or the flame will come into your mouth.
Agricola writes, about smelting iron on an open fire, “In order that the heat of the fire should not burn his face, he covers it entirely with a cap, in which however there are holes through which he may see and breathe.”
Biringuccio wrote that you have to bake moulds well so that the bronze doesn’t splash out and the mould survives, so as to protect oneself from accidents.
Dangerous fumes and vapours:
Biringuccio reckons that a poisonous exhalation comes from arsenic, and that miners close their mouths and nose with a sponge wettened with vinegar. Orpiment and realgar are also dangerous. You should also avoid the smoke of brass whem melting it because it is a deadly poison that leaves men stunned, paralysed or stupid and gives them more diseases than he can name. This would be the zinc fume that rises from it as the zinc burns out of it. He certainly shows an awareness of the dangers of bad vcapours and metal fume.
Theophilus writes that you shouldn’t mill or apply gilding when hungry because the fumes of mercury (that’s the translation obviously, I don’t know what the original Latin says) are very dangerous on an empty stomach and give rise to sickness which can be treated with zedoary and bayberry, pepper, garlic and wine.
Agricola mentions pestilential air and the importance of good ventilation in mining shafts. The air is stagnant or rots the lungs. He also writes that when refining lead the foreman should eat butter so “… that the poison which the crucible exhales may not harm him, for this is a special remedy against that poison.” Oddly enough I have found a paper claiming that eating butter reduces people’s lead absorption by blocking the calcium channels in the gut through which it was absorved. Unfortunately I also found one that disagreed with that idea, so I am not yet sure if this remedy actually works.
Cellini (16th century goldsmith and bronze caster) wrote about gilding that “But none the less I saw that great masters aught not to practise this themselves, for he quicksilver that has to be used for it is a deadly poison, and so wears out the men that practise in it that they live but a few years.”
Relatedly, Cennini (15th century Italian artist) wrote that orpiment used as a pigment was dangerous to you, if you put it in your mouth from your paintbrushes.
Trip and physical hazards:
Theophilus mentions that workmen can get in each others ways when casting bells and removing stones from the mould furnace. You need agile workmen “… less someone’s carelessness should lead to a mould being bropken or one workman getting in the way of another or hurting him or provoking him to anger, contingencies which must be avoided at all cost.”
On the other hand, Cellini, when describing problems he had with inexperienced assistants during the making of a complex large statue, didn’t seem too bothered by such issues, but then he was well known for a cavalier attitude to danger.
So, what we can clearly see is that artisans and the people who doctored them knew about hazards and knew that what we call metal fume was in fact dangerous, and that mercury was poisonous. It is not always clear how they knew all this, but personal experience is important, as would surely be word of mouth. In the cases mentioned above, (and more in my notes) there is a concern with the dangers that you experience whilst doing your work, from the very materials you are using. In this way it is clear that they were not such ingoramuses as people might think.
One of the areas in which modern esoteric alchemy actually does overlap with medieval alchemy is in the distillation of acetates. It appears to have been the case that for centuries that many processes used acetic acid rather than mineral acids; vinegar is used in the first alchemical text, the Physika et Mystika of pseudo-Democritus and in many recipes since then. With the invention of distillation various processes involving it continued in use, and our starting point here is a recipe which caught my eye 4 or 5 years ago when I started researching alchemy.
It is in the ‘Book of the quintessence’, by John of Rupescissa, (a 15th century translation of it published by the Early English Text Society) where it says:
Take the myn of antimony aforesaid, and make thereof al so sotil a powder as you can then take the best vinegar distilled, and let it sont upon a soft fire til it be coloured red, and so do many times, and when you have gathered all your vinegar coloured, put it then in a distillatorie, and first the vinegar will ascend, then after you shall see marvels, for you see as it were a thousand drops of blessid wiyn discende down in manner of reed drops, as it were blood, by the pipe of the lymbike, the which liquor gather together in a rotumbe”
This is a very distinctive description, and I formulated a hypothesis about it quite rapidly, although it has taken a long time to get round to the associated experiment. Because the red drops are so distinctive, I thought it would be easy enough to observe and replicate.
The problem was how to get a red liquid in the first place? Since vinegar is specified, it had to be mixed with something that gives a red solution in vinegar. Now it turned out that well known historian of science, Lawrence Principe, had a related problem with the works of Basil Valentine, a pseudonymous early 17th century alchemical author. His book ‘The triumphal chariot of alchemy’ included using vinegar to get a red extract from a glass of antimony, something which did not seem possible when it was tried by other people using what antimony was available to them. But Principe showed that the solution was to use iron rich antimony ore from Eastern Europe, as Valentine had specified Hungarian Antinomy, as opposed to other antimony ores which did not contain significant amounts of iron.
When I met him at a conference I asked if anything else gave a red vinegar solution, and he assured me that nothing else did. I haven’t found any other information that disagrees with that either. By the way, antimony in this context means antimony sulphide, the sulphur rich ore. Definitely not the metal itself, which was known of a century after Rupescissa, but probably not at his time. And if, as some have suggested, it actually means lead sulphide, you’ll still dissolve some of that, and any iron present in the lead ore, into the acetic acid solution that distilled vinegar actually is.
So, the first thing is getting a red iron rich solution, which I did by dissolving steel wool in acetic acid: Continue reading →