Tag Archives: Alchemy

Spirituals and Spirits

I recently read a novel set in England in the mid-fourteenth century in which one of the characters routinely gets drunk on brandy and Madeira. I sighed. It’s not the first time I’ve come across this, the brandy, that is. I haven’t read a book in which Madeira has been drunk before. Madeira wasn’t permanently settled until the 1420s, so no one would have been drinking Madeira wine seventy years earlier.

Brandy is a slightly different matter, though. I’ve had characters drink brandy in one of my novels, The Mercenary’s Tale, set in 1366. It’s not referred to as brandy, though, and it’s distilled by an alchemist. Yes, what (much) later became known as brandy wasn’t a drink but a medicine.

Wine was first distilled towards the end of the thirteenth century and was certainly being distilled on a regular and competent basis in Avignon in the 1320s. It was believed to have medicinal properties, but no one quite knew how to make the best use of it. John of Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar and an alchemist. He was a Spiritual Franciscan, which meant that he embraced the ideals of poverty set out by St. Francis. The Spirituals thought that the order was moving away from its roots and wanted to return to them. In some, more powerful, quarters they were viewed almost as heretics. If you’ve read Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose or Stephen O’Shea’s The Friar of Carcassonne, you’ll know that sometimes there really was very little difference between the Spirituals and the heretical Cathars.

By 1344 John was in prison in Avignon. The early years of the fourteenth century were not a good time to be a Spiritual Franciscan. He was allowed to continue with his alchemical experiments, though, and it was probably here that he learned about distillation. He was almost certainly the first alchemist to think about alchemy in terms of health. Alchemy was originally about turning substances considered impure, such as lead, into pure substances, such as gold. John thought about how his alchemical skills could help people to live longer. Along with many others he was expecting the Antichrist to arrive at any moment and he thought Christians would need to be in the best of health to deal with him, so he was searching for a medicine that would achieve that. In the “burning water” or the “water of life” (acqua vitae) created by distilling wine he found something that he thought could protect the body from illness and, for a while, aging.

He thought he had discovered something different from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth that were believed to inhabit all substances, and described it as the fifth essence of the wine, or quinta essentia in Latin. We still consider the quintessence of something to be its purest and most concentrated form.

His belief that alcohol could prolong life was not without foundation. He noticed that meat placed in the liquid didn’t rot. Wine would turn into vinegar fairly quickly, but distilled wine continued unchanged for a very long time. Something that seemed to be incorruptible also appeared to be capable of sharing that property with other substances.

John was also the first to discover that alcohol extracts the useful compounds from plants more effectively than water, which made them more useful in medicines. Somewhat more controversially, he developed medicines using metals such as gold, mercury and antimony.

Brandy didn’t properly become a drink until the fifteenth century. Is it possible that it was appreciated as an alcoholic drink in fourteenth-century England? Of course, but distillation was a fiddly and dangerous process and an alchemist who knew how to make the precious liquid would not have made it in large enough quantities for it to be used for anything other than to continue his experiments for the improvement of mankind and for medicines for a few local people. There certainly would not have been a ready supply to allow people to get drunk on it.

In my own novel, the female protagonist is the daughter of an alchemist and she has learned how to distil wine and how to use it as a medicine, but, like the philosopher’s stone before it, the water of life had a reputation that made it sound extremely powerful and it became an object of desire for those who wanted its power rather than its alcoholic pleasures and she finds herself in trouble as a result.

The Secrets of Alchemy by Lawrence M. Principe

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Heresy, Medieval Medicine, Medieval Monks, Medieval Science

Alchemy: Science or magic?


One of the characters in a current work in progress is an alchemist, which is a shame, as I know next to nothing about alchemy. I have been doing some reading, however, and it is, as you would expect, a fascinating, if complicated, subject.

Until the eighteenth century only seven substances were recognised as metals: gold and silver (the noble metals) and copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury (the base metals). Gold and silver were noble because they resisted corrosion, whereas the other metals changed, for the worse, over time. Much of the theory of alchemy was about ‘healing’ the base metals from their corrosive bodies.

There were various thoughts about how this might be achieved. Some thought that each metal had a body and a spirit and, if the sprits of two metals could be drawn off and the spirit of one added to the body of the other, the other would take on the substance of the original. Other alchemists adapted the ideas of Aristotle. He had identified four primary qualities: hot, cold, wet and dry. There were also four elements; fire, air, water and earth. Aristotle thought of them as abstract principles, but an alchemist called Jabir thought they might have physical existence. One of his theories was that gold is hot and wet, and lead is cold and dry, therefore turning lead into gold should just be a matter of introducing more hot and wet or reducing the cold and dry. Others again thought that combining mercury and sulphur in some special way would produce the Philosophers’ Stone, which would achieve the transmutation.

Alchemy can be traced back to Hellenistic Egypt in the third century AD.  The first great practitioner was Zosimos of Panopolis. He was one among many, but some of his work has survived, whereas that of his rivals, or colleagues, has not. He was a methodical researcher and was particularly interested in the action of vapours on solids. Theory was important to him, as well as practical research.

The first references to the Philosophers’ Stone, a substance which could turn base metals to gold, occurred in the seventh century.

From around 750 to 1400 alchemy developed in the Islamic world. Here the premise was developed that the Philosophers’ Stone was made up of two parts: a white agent for making silver and a red one for gold.

Somewhere between the sixth and eighth centuries the best known text relating to alchemy appeared. Although is attributed to Hermes or Trismagestus, the Emerald Tablet was probably an Arab work.

In the twelfth century alchemy came to Europe when Arab works, including the Emerald Tablet, began to be translated into Latin, but this declined in the twelfth century and more original works were written in Latin. A surprisingly large number of writers about alchemy in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries were Franciscan friars. These included Paul of Taranto, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon and John of Rupescissa. Not all of them thought it was a good idea, or even believed that it was acceptable to try to change metals into gold.

John of Rupescissa was influenced by the Spirituals in the Franciscan Order and was expecting the Antichrist to appear at any moment. He thought that any weapon that could be used against him should be investigated. Gold would be useful, he thought, and so would something that could prolong people’s lives. He was probably the first alchemist to consider using the healing properties of the Philosophers’ Stone on people, not, as popularly believed, to bestow immortality, but to extend life for a time. He was imprisoned in 1344 and spent the rest of his life in captivity, but he was permitted to carry out his experiments and to write. It was not his alchemy which worried the authorities, but his prophetic activities and his denunciation of clerical abuses.  In 1351 he learned how to distil alcohol from wine when he was imprisoned in Avignon, where they had been doing this for medicinal purposes since the 1320s.  He made tinctures by adding herbs to the alcohol and these tended to be more effective than those made using water. When he noticed that alcohol did not decay and that meat immersed in alcohol was preserved indefinitely, he thought he had discovered the elixir that would preserve life.

Alchemists became associated with counterfeiters and Pope John XXII condemned them in 1317. Edward II banned their efforts in England, but his son, Edward III, ever short of money, encouraged them.

Apart from its connection with counterfeiters and tricksters in general, alchemy was serious science.  Its practitioners were not usually inspired by greed, but by curiosity. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that chemistry began to be seen as separate from alchemy.




Filed under Fourteenth Century