Lawrence Principe takes Basilius Valentinus to the laboratory 2

The current exhibition in the BPH, Alchemy on the Amstel, shows a number of works by Basil Valentine, and to some extent traces the influence of the writings that appeared under this wonderfully named adept.
I have noticed that Professor Lawrence Principe in his latest book ‘The Secrets of Alchemy’, University of Chicago Press, 2013, devotes almost a whole chapter to Valentine. In place of presenting yet another textual analysis, Principe instead took to the laboratory and tried to repeat some of the alchemical experiments in Valentine’s texts.
Being not only a historian of science but a teacher of chemistry at John Hopkins University, Principe had access to a good laboratory. He began with a puzzling experiment in Valentine’s classic The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, some copies of which are in the exhibition. This experiment involved removing the poison from antimony to produce a safe medicine. When Principe looked at the written description he thought it “unlikely in the extreme” that the toxicity of antimony could have been removed through this simple process, but unlike others he decided to put it to the test, by repeating the experiment.

The process involved making a glass of antimony by high temperature fusion, then extracting a red liquid using vinegar, and finally producing a red oil, the Sulphur of Antimony. Principe’s attempt to repeat this immediately fell at the first stage when despite his best efforts he could never achieve the “beautiful, yellow, transparent glass”, but only a dirty grey lump. Not giving up, he read the text more carefully and realised that Valentine had specified the use of Hungarian antimony ore, and having obtained some, this time was delighted to see the resulting yellow glass. Apparently this came about because the Hungarian ore contained a significant quantity of quartz.


Basilius Valentinus, Practica cum duodecim clavibus. Frankfurt 1677: an alchemist at work in his laboratory.


No doubt, being enthused up by his success, he proceeded to the next stage, grinding the glass to a powder and extracting it with vinegar. Again he met with defeat. The vinegar did not produce a red extract, even after days of dissolving. He examined the text again, and saw that Valentine suggested stirring the roasting Hungarian ore mixture with an iron rod. So he did this and almost magically (well by chemical magic) the vinegar became a strong red. This he evaporated to a gummy residue which when extracted with alcohol gave rise to a sweet tasting oil. Principe realised that the process of stirring the molten antimony ore with an iron rod had resulted in the melt absorbing iron from the stirring rod, and the subsequent part of the process precipitated the antimony and extracted iron acetate, which, indeed, was non toxic.

Principe then repeated some further alchemical experiments. One of the conclusions to his book is that today we should read these alchemical works as coded practical experiments. When these are repeated sensitively then one may find that something that appears nonsensical to the present day chemist may in fact produce real observable results. He takes the view that the purely allegorical interpretation of such alchemical texts as the Twelve keys of Basil Valentine may miss the real chemistry hidden in the text, which requires a diligent and tenacious experimenter to reveal.

Adam McLean

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2 thoughts on “Lawrence Principe takes Basilius Valentinus to the laboratory

  • Ed Conroy

    I very much appreciate this note from Adam McLean highlighting Professor Principe’s tests of Valentine’s instructions for making the Oil of Sulphur.

    In addition, I think it is highly laudable that Professor Principe took Valentine seriously and took the time to recreate Valentine’s process from his reading of the text of “The Triumphant Chariot of Antimpony.” I will make a point of reading his book!

    My appreciation has a personal reason. As a young man, I was a student of the late Albert Riedel, who wrote under the pen name “Frater Albertus.” at the Paracelsus College in Salt Lake City, Utah. (“The Alchemist’s Handbook,” “Alchemist of the Rocky Mountains” and other books.)

    Frater Albertus taught his second-year students the process of making the Oil of Sulphur as their introduction to working with the mineral kingdom. First year students were instructed in the making of spagyric tinctures from the plant kingdom.

    I participated in the process of making the red glass out of antimony ore, and other laboratory processes toward the production of the oil. I cannot say I succeeded in creating the oil, but our teacher reassured us that with “prayer and work” we would in time succeed. Frater Albertus did assure us as well that the oil was quite non-toxic and a great tonic for the heart–and that he had taken it personally for his own heart.

    Many years have passed since I took those lessons (and the earlier ones on the plant kingdom–including the necessary additional instruction in cabala and astrology–and I have in the meantime had the great joys of family life. I still harbor the desire to get back into the lab, and appreciate this news as encouragement to do so.

    I would suggest that there are no doubt others who studied with Frater Albertus who succeeded in making the Oil of Sulphur as per his instructions. And it would be interesting to know if Laboratorum Soluna or other leading spagyric remedy makers might be interested in pursuing the Oil of Sulphur for general distribution some day.

    Again, many thanks to Adam McLean for this note (and his lifetime devotion to alchemy) and to Professor Principe for suggesting there is far more to some alchemical texts than psychological allegories.