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Basil Valentine Last Of The Alchemists First Of The Chemists






Fieri enim potest ut operator erret et a via regia deflectat,
sed ut erret natura quando recte tractatur fieri non potest.

For it is quite possible that the physician should err and be
turned aside from the straight (royal) road, but that nature
when she is rightly treated should err is quite impossible.

This is one of the preliminary maxims of a treatise on medicine written
by a physician born not later than the first half of the fifteenth
century, and who may have lived even somewhat earlier. We are so prone
to think of the men of that time as utterly dependent on authority, not
daring to follow their own observation, suspecting nature, and almost
sure to be convinced that only by going counter to her could success in
the treatment of disease be obtained, that it is a surprise to most
people to find how completely the attitude of mind, that is supposed to
be so typically modern in this regard, was anticipated full four
centuries ago. There are other expressions of this same great physician
and medical writer, Basil Valentine, which serve to show how faithfully
he strove with the lights that he had to work out the treatment of
patients, just as we do now, by trying to find out nature's way, so as
to imitate her beneficent processes and purposes. It is quite clear
that he is but one of many faithful, patient observers and
experimenters--true scientists in the best sense of the word--who lived
in all the centuries of the Middle Ages.

Speculations and experiments with regard to the elixir of life, the
philosopher's stone, and the transmutation of metals, are presumed to
have filled up all the serious interests of the alchemists, supposed to
be almost the only scientists of those days. As a matter of fact,
however, men were making original observations of profound significance,
and these were considered so valuable by their contemporaries that,
though printing had not yet been invented, even the immense labor
involved in the manifold copying of large folio volumes by the slow hand
process did not suffice to deter them from multiplying the writings of
these men so numerously that they were preserved in many copies for
future generations, until the printing press came to perpetuate them.

Of this there is abundant evidence in the preceding pages as regards
medicine, and, above all, surgery, while a summary of accomplishments of
workers in other departments will be found in Appendix II, Science at
the Medieval Universities.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with some of the supposed
foundations of modern chemistry crumbling to pieces under the influence
of the peculiarly active light thrown upon our nineteenth century
chemical theories by the discovery of radium, and our observations on
radio-active elements generally, there is a reawakening of interest in
some of the old-time chemical observers, whose work used to be laughed
at as so unscientific, or, at most, but a caricature of real science,
and whose theory of the transmutation of elements into one another was
considered so absurd. It is interesting in the light of this to recall
that the idea that the elementary substances were essentially distinct
from each other, and that it would be impossible under any circumstances
to convert one element into another, belongs entirely to the nineteenth
century. Even so deeply scientific a mind as that of Newton, in the
preceding century, could not bring itself to acknowledge the tradition,
that came to be accepted subsequent to his time, of the absurdity of
metallic transformation. On the contrary, he believed quite formally in
transmutation as a basic chemical principle, and declared that it might
be expected to occur at any time. He had seen specimens of gold ores in
connection with metallic copper, and concluded that this was a
manifestation of the natural transformation of one of these yellow
metals into the other.

With the discovery that radium transforms itself into helium, and that,
indeed, all the so-called radioactivities of the heavy metals are
probably due to a natural transmutation process constantly at work, the
ideas of the older chemists cease entirely to be a subject for
amusement. The physical chemists of the present day are very ready to
admit that the old teaching of the absolute independence of something
over seventy elements is no longer tenable, except as a working
hypothesis. The doctrine of matter and form, taught for so many
centuries by the scholastic philosophers, which proclaimed that all
matter is composed of two principles, an underlying material substratum,
and a dynamic or informing principle, has now more acknowledged
verisimilitude, or lies at least closer to the generally accepted ideas
of the most progressive scientists, than it has at any time for the last
two or three centuries. Not only the great physicists, but also the
great chemists, are speculating along lines that suggest the existence
of but one form of matter, modified according to the energies that it
possesses under a varying physical and chemical environment. This is,
after all, only a restatement in modern times of the teaching of St.
Thomas of Aquin, in the thirteenth century.

It is not surprising, then, that there should be a reawakening of
interest in the lives of some of the men, who, dominated by some of the
earlier scholastic ideas, by the tradition of the possibility of finding
the philosopher's stone, which would transmute the baser metals into the
precious metals, devoted themselves with quite as much zeal as any
modern chemist to the observation of chemical phenomena. One of the most
interesting of these--indeed, he might well be said to be the greatest
of the alchemists--is the man whose only name that we know is that which
appears on a series of manuscripts written in the High German dialect of
the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century.
That name is Basil Valentine, and the writer, according to the best
historical traditions, was a Benedictine monk. The name Basil Valentine
may only have been a pseudonym, for it has been impossible to trace it
among the records of the monasteries of the time. That the writer was a
monk, however, there seems to be no room for doubt, for his writings
give abundant evidence of it, and, besides, in printed form they began
to have their vogue at a time when there was little likelihood of their
being attributed to a monastic source, unless an indubitable tradition
connected them with some monastery.

This Basil Valentine (to accept the only name we have) did so much for
the science of the composition of substances that he eminently deserves
the designation that has been given him of the last of the alchemists
and the first of the chemists. There is practically a universal
recognition of the fact now that he deserves also the title of the
Founder of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, not only because of the value of
the observations contained in his writings, but also because of the fact
that they proved so suggestive to certain scientific geniuses during the
century succeeding Valentine's life. Almost more than to have added to
the precious heritage of knowledge for mankind, it is a boon for a
scientific observer to have awakened the spirit of observation in
others, and to be the founder of a new school of thought. This Basil
Valentine undoubtedly did, and, in the Renaissance, the incentive from
his writings for such men as Paracelsus is easy to appreciate.

Besides, his work furnishes evidence that the investigating spirit was
abroad just when it is usually supposed not to have been, for the
Thuringian monk surely did not do all his investigation alone, but must
have owed, as well as given, many a suggestion to his contemporaries.

Some ten years ago, when Sir Michael Foster, professor of physiology in
the University of Cambridge, England, was invited to deliver the Lane
Lectures at the Cooper Medical College in San Francisco, he took for his
subject The History of Physiology. In the course of his lecture on
The Rise of Chemical Physiology he began with the name of Basil
Valentine, who first attracted men's attention to the many chemical
substances around them that might be used in the treatment of disease,
and said of him:

He was one of the alchemists, but in addition to his
inquiries into the properties of metals and his search for the
philosopher's stone, he busied himself with the nature of
drugs, vegetable and mineral, and with their action as
remedies for disease. He was no anatomist, no physiologist,
but rather what nowadays we should call a pharmacologist. He
did not care for the problem of the body, all he sought to
understand was how the constituents of the soil and of plants
might be treated so as to be available for healing the sick
and how they produced their effects. We apparently owe to him
the introduction of many chemical substances, for instance of
hydrochloric acid, which he prepared from oil and vitriol of
salt, and of many vegetable drugs. And he was apparently the
author of certain conceptions which, as we shall see, played
an important part in the development of chemistry and of
physiology. To him, it seems, we owe the idea of the three
'elements,' as they were and have been called, replacing the
old idea of the ancients of the four elements--earth, air,
fire, and water. It must be remembered, however, that both in
the ancient and the new idea the word 'element' was not
intended to mean that which it means to us now, a fundamental
unit of matter, but a general quality or property of matter.
The three elements of Valentine were: (1) sulphur, or that
which is combustible, which is changed or destroyed, or which
at all events disappears during burning or combustion; (2)
mercury, that which temporarily disappears during burning or
combustion, which is dissociated in the burning from the body
burnt, but which may be recovered, that is to say, that which
is volatile, and (3) salt, that which is fixed, the residue or
ash which remains after burning.

It is a little bit hard in our time for most people to understand just
how such a development of thoroughly scientific chemical notions, with
investigations for their practical application, should have come before
the end of the Middle Ages. This difficulty of understanding, however,
we are coming to realize in recent years, is entirely due to our
ignorance of the period. We have known little or nothing about the
science of the Middle Ages, because it was hidden away in rare old
books, in rather difficult Latin, not easy to get at, and still less
easy to understand always, and we have been prone to conclude that since
we knew nothing about it, there must have been nothing. Just inasmuch as
we have learned something definite about the medieval scholars, our
admiration has increased. Professor Clifford Allbutt, the Regius
Professor of Medicine at the University of Cambridge, in his Harveian
Oration, delivered before the Royal College of Physicians in 1900, on
Science and Medieval Thought (London, 1901), declared that the
schoolmen, in digging for treasure, cultivated the field of knowledge
even for Galileo and Harvey, for Newton and Darwin. He might have added
that they had laid foundations in all our modern sciences, in chemistry
quite as well as in astronomy, physiology, and the medical sciences, in
mathematics and botany.

In chemistry the advances made during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and
fifteenth centuries were, perhaps, even more noteworthy than those in
any other department of science. Albertus Magnus, who taught at Paris,
wrote no less than sixteen treatises on chemical subjects, and,
notwithstanding the fact that he was a theologian as well as a
scientist, and that his printed works fill some fifteen folio volumes,
he somehow found the time to make many observations for himself, and
performed numberless experiments in order to clear up doubts. The larger
histories of chemistry accord him his proper place, and hail him as a
great founder in chemistry, and a pioneer in original investigation.

Even St. Thomas of Aquin, much as he was occupied with theology and
philosophy, found some time to devote to chemical questions. After all,
this is only what might have been expected of the favorite pupil of
Albertus Magnus. Three treatises on chemical subjects from Aquinas' pen
have been preserved for us, and it is to him that we are said to owe the
use, in the Western world at least, of the word amalgam, which he first
employed in describing various chemical methods of metallic combination
with mercury that were discovered in the search for the genuine
transmutation of metals.

Albertus Magnus' other great scientific pupil, Roger Bacon, the English
Franciscan friar, followed more closely in the scientific ways of his
great master, devoting himself almost entirely to the physical
sciences. Altogether he wrote some eighteen treatises on chemical
subjects. For a long time it was considered that he was the inventor of
gunpowder, though this is now known to have been introduced into Europe
by the Arabs. Roger Bacon studied gunpowder and various other explosive
combinations in considerable detail, and it is for this reason that he
obtained the undeserved reputation of being an original discoverer in
this line. How well he realized how much might be accomplished by means
of the energy stored up in explosives, can, perhaps, be best appreciated
from the fact that he suggested that boats would go along the rivers and
across seas without either sails or oars, and that carriages would go
along the streets without horse or man power. He considered that man
would eventually invent a method of harnessing these explosive mixtures,
and of utilizing their energies for his purposes without danger. It is
curiously interesting to find, as we begin the twentieth century, and
gasolene is so commonly used for the driving of automobiles and motor
boats, and is being introduced even into heavier transportation as the
most available source of energy for suburban traffic, at least, that
this generation should only be fulfilling the idea of the old Franciscan
friar of the thirteenth century, who prophesied that in explosives there
was the secret of eventually manageable energy for transportation
purposes.

Succeeding centuries were not as fruitful in great scientists as the
thirteenth, and yet, in the second half of the thirteenth, there was a
Pope, John XXI, who had been a physician and professor of medicine
before his election to the Papacy, three of whose scientific
treatises--one on the transmutation of metals, which he considers an
impossibility, at least as far as the manufacture of gold and silver was
concerned; a treatise on diseases of the eyes, to which good authorities
have not hesitated to give lavish praise for its practical value,
considering the conditions in which it was written; and, finally, his
treatise on the preservation of the health, written when he was himself
over eighty years of age--are all considered by good authorities as
worthy of the best scientific spirit of the time.

During the fourteenth century, Arnold of Villanova, the inventor of
nitric acid, and the two Hollanduses, kept up the tradition of original
investigation in chemistry. Altogether there are some dozen treatises
from these three men on chemical subjects. The Hollanduses particularly
did their work in a spirit of thoroughly frank, original investigation.
They were more interested in minerals than in any other class of
substances, but did not waste much time on the question of transmutation
of metals. Professor Thompson, the professor of chemistry at Edinburgh,
said, in his History of Chemistry, many years ago, that the
Hollanduses give very clear descriptions of their processes of treating
minerals in investigating their composition, and these serve to show
that their knowledge was by no means entirely theoretical, or acquired
only from books.

It is not surprising, then, to have a great investigating pharmacologist
come along sometime about the beginning of the fifteenth century, when,
according to the best authorities, Basil Valentine was born. From
traditions he seems to have had a rather long life, and his years run
nearly parallel with his century. His career is a typical example of the
personally obscure and intellectually brilliant lives which the old
monks lived. Probably in nothing have recent generations been more
deceived in historical matters than in their estimation of the
intellectual attainments and accomplishment of the old monks. The more
that we know of them, not from second-hand authorities, but from their
own books and from what they accomplished in art and architecture, in
agriculture, in science of all kinds, the more do we realize what busy
men they were, and appreciate what genius they often brought to the
solution of great problems. We have had much negative pseudo-information
brought together with the definite purpose of discrediting monasticism,
and now that positive information is gradually being accumulated, it is
almost a shock to find how different are the realities of the story of
the intellectual life during the Middle Ages from what many writers had
pictured them.

To those who may be surprised that a man who did great things in
medicine should have lived during the fifteenth century, it may be well
to recall the names and a little of the accomplishment of the men of
this period, who were Basil Valentine's contemporaries, at least in the
sense that some portion of their lives and influence was coeval with
his. Before the end of this century Columbus had discovered America, and
by no happy accident, for many men of his generation did
correspondingly great work. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa had developed
mathematics and applied mathematical ideas to the heavens, so that he
could announce the conclusion that the earth was a star, like the other
stars, and moved in the heavens as they do. Contemporary with Cusanus
was Regiomontanus, who has been proclaimed the father of modern
astronomy, and a distinguished mathematician. Toscanelli, the Florentine
astronomer, whose years run almost parallel with those of the fifteenth
century, did fine scholarly work, which deeply influenced Columbus and
the great navigators of the time. The universities in Italy were
attracting students from all over Europe, and such men as Linacre and
Dr. Caius went down there from England. Raphael was but a young man at
the end of the century, but he had done some noteworthy painting before
it closed. Leonardo da Vinci was born just about the middle of the
century, and did some marvellous work before the end of that century.
Michael Angelo was only twenty-five at the close of the century, but he,
too, did fine work, even at this early age. Among the other great
Italian painters of this century are Fra Angelico, Perugino, Raphael's
master, Pinturicchio, Signorelli, the pupil of his uncle, Vasari, almost
as distinguished, Botticelli, Titian, and very many others, who would
have been famous leaders in art in any other but this supremely great
period.

It was not only in Italy, however, that there was a wonderful outburst
of genius at this time, for Germany also saw the rise of a number of
great men during this period. Jacob Wimpheling, the Schoolmaster of
Germany, as he has been called, whose educational work did much to
determine the character of German education for two centuries, was born
in 1450. Rudolph Agricola, who influenced the intellectual Europe of
this time deeply, was born in 1443. Erasmus, one of the greatest of
scholars, of teachers, and of controversialists, was born in 1467.
Johann Reuchlin, the great linguist, who, next to Erasmus, is the most
important character in the German Renaissance, was born in 1455. Then
there was Sebastian Brant, the author of The Ship of Fools, and
Alexander Hegius, both of this same period. The most influential of them
all, Thomas a Kempis, who died in 1471, and whose little book, The
Following of Christ, has influenced every generation deeply ever since,
was probably a close contemporary of Basil Valentine. When one knows
what European, and especially German scholars, were accomplishing at
this time, no room is left for surprise that Basil Valentine should have
lived and done work in medicine at this period that was to influence
deeply the after history of medicine.

Most of what Basil Valentine did was accomplished in the first half of
the fifteenth century. Coming, as he did, before the invention of
printing, when the spirit of tradition was more rife and dominating than
it has been since, it is almost needless to say that there are many
curious legends associated with his name. Two centuries before his time,
Roger Bacon, doing his work in England, had succeeded in attracting so
much attention even from the common people, because of his wonderful
scientific discoveries, that his name became a byword, and many strange
magical feats were attributed to him. Friar Bacon was the great wizard,
even in the plays of the Elizabethan period. A number of the same sort
of myths attached themselves to the Benedictine monk of the fifteenth
century. He was proclaimed in popular story to have been a wonderful
magician. Even his manuscript, it was said, had not been published
directly, but had been hidden in a pillar in the church attached to his
monastery, and had been discovered there after the splitting open of the
pillar by a bolt of lightning from heaven. It is the extension of this
tradition that has sometimes led to the assumption that Valentine lived
in an earlier century, some even going so far as to say that he, too,
like Roger Bacon, was a product of the thirteenth century. It seems
reasonably possible, however, to separate the traditional from what is
actual in his existence, and thus to obtain some idea at least of his
work, if not of the details of his life. The internal evidence from his
works enables the historian of science to place his writing within half
a century of the discovery of America.

One of the myths that have gathered around the name of Basil Valentine,
because it has become a commonplace in philology, has probably made him
more generally known than any of his actual discoveries. In one of the
most popular of the old-fashioned text-books of chemistry in use about
half a century ago, in the chapter on antimony, there was a story that
students, if I may judge from my own experience, never forgot. It was
said that Basil Valentine, a monk of the Middle Ages, was the discoverer
of this substance. After having experimented with it in a number of
ways, he threw some of it out of his laboratory one day when the swine
of the monastery, finding it, proceeded to gobble it up, together with
some other refuse. Just when they were finishing it, the monk discovered
what they were doing. He feared the worst from it, but took the occasion
to observe the effect upon the swine very carefully. He found that,
after a preliminary period of digestive disturbance, these swine
developed an enormous appetite, and became fatter than any of the
others. This seemed a rather desirable result, and Basil Valentine, ever
on the search for the practical, thought that he might use the remedy to
good purpose on the members of the community. Some of the monks in the
monastery were of rather frail health and delicate constitution, and
most of them were rather thin, and he thought that the putting on of a
little fat, provided it could be accomplished without infringement of
the rule, might be a good thing for them. Accordingly, he administered,
surreptitiously, some of the salts of antimony, with which he was
experimenting, in the food served to these monks. The result, however,
was not so favorable as in the case of the hogs. Indeed, according to
one, though less authentic, version of the story, some of the poor
monks, the unconscious subjects of the experiment, perished as the
result of the ingestion of the antimonial compounds. According to the
better version, they suffered only the usual unpleasant consequences of
taking antimony, which are, however, quite enough for a fitting climax
to the story. Basil Valentine called the new substance which he had
discovered antimony, that is, opposed to monks. It might be good for
hogs, but it was a form of monks' bane, as it were.[30]

Unfortunately for most of the good stories of history, modern criticism
has nearly always failed to find any authentic basis for them, and they
have had to go the way of the legends of Washington's hatchet and Tell's
apple. We are sorry to say that that seems to be true also of this
particular story. Antimony, the word, is very probably derived from
certain dialectic forms of the Greek word for the metal, and the name is
no more derived from anti and monachus than it is from anti and
monos (opposed to single existence), another fictitious derivation
that has been suggested, and one whose etymological value is supposed to
consist in the fact that antimony is practically never found alone in
nature.

Notwithstanding the apparent cloud of unfounded traditions that are
associated with his name, there can be no doubt at all of the fact that
Valentinus--to give him the Latin name by which he is commonly
designated in foreign literatures--was one of the great geniuses, who,
working in obscurity, make precious steps into the unknown that enable
humanity after them to see things more clearly than ever before. There
are definite historical grounds for placing Basil Valentine as the first
of the series of careful observers who differentiated chemistry from the
old alchemy and applied its precious treasures of information to the
uses of medicine. It is said to have been because of the study of Basil
Valentine's work that Paracelsus broke away from the Galenic traditions,
so supreme in medicine up to his time, and began our modern
pharmaceutics. Following Paracelsus came Van Helmont, the father of
modern medical chemistry, and these three did more than any others to
enlarge the scope of medication and to make observation rather than
authority the most important criterion of truth in medicine. Indeed, the
work of this trio of men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries--the
Renaissance in medicine as in art--dominated medical treatment, or at
least the department of pharmaceutics, down almost to our own day, and
their influence is still felt in drug-giving.

While we do not know the absolute data of either the birth or the death
of Basil Valentine and are not sure of the exact period even in which he
lived and did his work, we are sure that a great original observer about
the time of the invention of printing studied mercury and sulphur and
various salts of the metals, and above all introduced antimony to the
notice of the scientific world, and especially to the favor of
practitioners of medicine. His book, The Triumphal Chariot of
Antimony, is full of conclusions not quite justified by his premises
nor by his observations. There is no doubt, however, that the
observational method which he employed furnished an immense amount of
knowledge, and formed the basis of the method of investigation by which
the chemical side of medicine was to develop during the next two or
three centuries. Great harm was done by the abuse of antimony, but then
great harm is done by the abuse of anything, no matter how good it may
be. For a time it came to be the most important drug in medicine and was
only replaced by venesection.

The fact of the matter is that doctors were looking for effects from
their drugs, and antimony is, above all things, effective. Patients,
too, wished to see the effect of the medicines they took. They do so
even yet, and when antimony was administered there was no doubt about
its working.

The most interesting of Basil Valentine's books, and the one which has
had the most enduring influence, is undoubtedly The Triumphal Chariot
of Antimony.[31] It has been translated and has had a wide vogue in
every language of modern Europe. Its recommendation of antimony had such
an effect upon medical practice that it continued to be the most
important drug in the pharmacopoeia down almost to the middle of the
nineteenth century. If any proof were needed that Basil Valentine or
that the author of the books that go under the name was a monk it would
be found in the introduction to this volume, which not only states that
fact very clearly, but also in doing so makes use of language that shows
the writer to have been deeply imbued with the old monastic spirit. I
quote the first paragraph of this introduction because it emphasizes
this. The quotation is taken from the English translation of the work as
published in London in 1678. Curiously enough, seeing the obscurity
surrounding Valentine himself, we do not know for sure who made the
translation. The translator apologizes somewhat for the deeply religious
spirit of the book, but considers that he was not justified in
eliminating any of this. The paragraph is left in the quaint,
old-fashioned form so eminently suited to the thoughts of the old
master, and the spelling and use of capitals is not changed.

Basil Valentine: His Triumphant Chariot of Antimony.--Since
I, Basil Valentine, by Religious Vows am bound to live
according to the order of St. Benedict and that requires
another manner of Spirit of Holiness than the common state of
Mortals exercised in the profane business of this World; I
thought it my duty before all things, in the beginning of this
little book, to declare what is necessary to be known by the
pious Spagyrist [old-time name for medical chemist], inflamed
with an ardent desire of this Art, as what he ought to do, and
whereunto to direct his striving, that he may lay such
foundations of the whole matter as may be stable; lest his
Building, shaken with the Winds, happen to fall, and the whole
Edifice to be involved in shameful Ruine which otherwise being
founded on more firm and solid principles, might have
continued for a long series of time. Which Admonition I judged
was, is and always will be a necessary part of my religious
Office; especially since we must all die, and no one of us
which are now, whether high or low, shall long be seen among
the number of men. For it concerns me to recommend these
Meditations of Mortality to Posterity, leaving them behind me,
not only that honor may be given to the Divine Majesty, but
also that men may obey him sincerely in all things.

In this my meditation I found that there were five principal
heads, chiefly to be considered by the wise and prudent
spectators of our Wisdom and Art. The first of which is
Invocation of God. The second, Contemplation of Nature. The
third, True Preparation. The fourth, the Way of Using. The
fifth, Utility and Fruit. For he who regards not these, shall
never obtain place among true Chymists, or fill up the number
of perfect Spagyrists. Therefore, touching these five heads,
we shall here following treat and so far declare them, as that
the general Work may be brought to light and perfected by an
intent and studious Operator.

This book, though the title might seem to indicate it, is not devoted
entirely to the study of antimony, but contains many important additions
to the chemistry of the time. For instance, Basil Valentine explains in
this work how what he calls the spirit of salt might be obtained. He
succeeded in manufacturing this material by treating common salt with
oil of vitriol and heat. From the description of the uses to which he
put the end product of his chemical manipulation, it is evident that
under the name of spirit of salt he is describing what we now know as
hydrochloric acid. This is said to be the first definite mention of it
in the history of science, and the method suggested for its preparation
is not very different from that employed even at the present time. He
also suggests in his volume how alcohol may be obtained in high
strengths. He distilled the spirit obtained from wine over carbonate of
potassium, and thus succeeded in depriving it of a great proportion of
its water. We have said that he was deeply interested in the
philosopher's stone. Naturally this turned his attention to the study of
metals, and so it is not surprising to find that he succeeded in
formulating a method by which metallic copper could be obtained. The
material used for the purpose was copper pyrites, which was changed to
an impure sulphate of copper by the action of oil of vitriol and moist
air. The sulphate of copper occurred in solution, and the copper could
be precipitated from it by plunging an iron bar into it. Basil Valentine
recognized the presence of this peculiar yellow metal, and studied some
of its qualities. He does not seem to have been quite sure, however,
whether the phenomenon that he witnessed was not really a transmutation
of at least some of the iron into copper as a consequence of the other
chemicals present. There are some observations on chemical physiology,
and especially with regard to respiration, in the book on antimony which
show their author to have anticipated the true explanation of the theory
of respiration. He states that animals breathe because air is needed to
support their life, and that all the animals exhibit the phenomenon of
respiration. He even insists that the fishes, though living in water,
breathe air, and he adduces in support of this idea the fact that
whenever a river is entirely frozen the fishes die. The reason for this
being, according to this old-time physiological chemist, not that the
fishes are frozen to death, but that they are not able to obtain air in
the ice as they did in the water, and consequently perish.

There are many testimonials to the practical character of all his
knowledge and his desire to apply it for the benefit of humanity. The
old monk could not repress the expression of his impatience with
physicians who gave to patients for diseases of which they knew little,
remedies of which they knew less. For him it was an unpardonable sin
for a physician not to have faithfully studied the various mixtures
that he prescribed for his patients, and not to know not only their
appearance and taste and effect, but also the limits of their
application. Considering that at the present time it is a frequent
source of complaint that physicians often prescribe remedies with even
whose physical appearance they are not familiar and whose composition is
often quite unknown to them, this complaint of the old-time chemist
alchemist will be all the more interesting for the modern physician. It
is evident that when Basil Valentine allows his ire to get the better of
him it is because of his indignation over the quacks who were abusing
medicine and patients in his time, as they have ever since. There is a
curious bit of aspersion on mere book learning in the passage that has a
distinctly modern ring, and one feels the truth of Russell Lowell's
expression that to read a classic, no matter how antique, is like
reading a commentary on the morning paper, so up-to-date does genius
ever remain:

And whensoever I shall have occasion to contend in the School
with such a Doctor, who knows not how himself to prepare his
own medicines, but commits that business to another, I am sure
I shall obtain the Palm from him; For indeed that good man
knows not what medicines he prescribes to the sick; whether
the color of them be white, black, gray, or blew (sic), he
cannot tell; nor doth this wretched man know whether the
medicine he gives be dry or hot, cold or humid; but he only
knows that he found it so written in his books, and then
pretends to knowledge or as it were Possession by Prescription
of a very long time; yet he desires to further information.
Here again let it be lawful to exclaim, Good God, to what a
state is the matter brought! what Goodness of Minde is in
these men! what care do they take of the sick! Wo, wo to them!
in the day of Judgement they will find the fruit of their
Ignorance and Rashness, then they will see him whom they
pierced, when they neglected their Neighbor, sought after
money and nothing else; whereas were they cordial in their
profession, they would spend Nights and Days in Labour that
they might become more learned in their Art, whence more
certain health would accrew to the sick with their estimation
and greater glory to themselves. But since Labour is tedious
to them they commit the matter to chance, and being secure of
their Honour, and content with their Fame, they (like
Brawlers) defend themselves with a certain garrulity, without
any respect had to Confidence or Truth.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Valentine's book has been of such
enduring interest is that it is written in an eminently human vein and
out of a lively imagination. It is full of figures relating to many
other things besides chemistry, which serve to show how deeply this
investigating observer was attentive to all the problems of life around
him. For instance, when he wants to describe the affinity that exists
between many substances in chemistry, and which makes it impossible for
them not to be attracted to one another, he takes a figure from the
attractions that he sees exist among men and women. It is curious to
find affinities discussed in our modern sense so long ago. There are
some paragraphs with regard to the influence of the passion of love that
one might think rather a quotation from an old-time sermon than from a
great ground-breaking book in the science of chemistry.

Love leaves nothing entire or sound in man; it impedes his
sleep, he cannot rest either day or night; it takes off his
appetite that he hath no disposition either to meat or drink
by reason of the continual torments of his heart and mind. It
deprives him of all Providence, hence he neglects his affairs,
vocation, and business. He minds neither study, labor, nor
prayer; casts away all thoughts of anything but the body
beloved; this is his study, this his most vain occupation. If
to lovers the success be not answerable to their wish, or so
soon and prosperously as they desire, how many melancholies
henceforth arise, with griefs and sadness, with which they
pine away and wax so lean as they have scarcely any flesh
cleaving to the bones. Yea, at last they lose the life itself,
as may be proved by many examples! for such men (which is an
horrible thing to think of) slight and neglect all perils and
detriments, both of the body and life, and of the soul and
eternal salvation.

It is evident that human nature is not different in our sophisticated
twentieth century from that which this observant old monk saw around him
in the fifteenth. He continues:

How many testimonies of this violence which is in love, are
daily found? for it not only inflames the younger sort, but it
so far exaggerates some persons far gone in years as through
the burning heat thereof, they are almost mad. Natural
diseases are for the most part governed by the complexion of
man and therefore invade some more fiercely, others more
gently; but Love, without distinction of poor or rich, young
or old, seizeth all, and having seized so blinds them as
forgetting all rules of reason, they neither see nor hear any
snare.

But then the old monk thinks that he has said enough about this rather
foreign subject, and apologizes for his digression in another paragraph
that should remove any lingering doubt there might be with regard to the
genuineness of his monastic character. At the end of the passage he
makes the application in a very few words. The personal element in his
confession is so naive and so simply straightforward that instead of
seeming to be the result of conceit, which would surely have repelled
the reader, it rather attracts and enhances his kindly feeling for its
author. The paragraph would remind one in certain ways of that personal
element that was to become more popular in literature after Montaigne in
the next century made it rather the fashion.

But of these enough; for it becomes not a religious man to
insist too long upon these cogitations, or to give place to
such a flame in his heart. Hitherto (without boasting I speak
it) I have throughout the whole course of my life kept myself
safe and free from it, and I pray and invoke God to vouchsafe
me his Grace that I may keep holy and inviolate the faith
which I have sworn, and live contented with my spiritual
spouse, the Holy Catholick Church. For no other reason have I
alleged these than that I might express the love with which
all tinctures ought to be moved towards metals, if ever they
be admitted by them into true friendship, and by love, which
permeates the inmost parts, be converted into a better state.

The application of the figure at the end of his long digression is
characteristic of the period in which he wrote, as also to a
considerable extent of the German literary methods of the time.

In this volume on the use of antimony there are in most of the editions
certain biographical notes which have sometimes been accepted as
authentic, but oftener rejected. According to these, Basil Valentine was
born in a town in Alsace, on the southern bank of the Rhine. As a
consequence of this, there are several towns that have laid claim to
being his birthplace. M. Jean Reynaud, the distinguished French
philosophical writer of the first half of the nineteenth century, once
said that Basil Valentine, like Ossian and Homer, had many towns claim
him years after his death. He also suggested that, like those old poets,
it was possible that the writings sometimes attributed to Basil
Valentine were really the work not of one man, but of several
individuals. There are, however, many objections to this theory, the
most forcible of which is the internal evidence derived from the books
themselves showing similarities of style and method of treating subjects
too great for us to admit non-identity in the writers. M. Reynaud lived
at a time when it was all the fashion to suggest that old works that had
come down to us, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, and even such national
epics as the Cid and the Arthur Legends and the Nibelungenlied were to
be attributed to several writers rather than to one. We have passed that
period of criticism, however, and have reverted to the idea of single
authorship for these works, and the same conclusion has been generally
come to with regard to the writings attributed to Basil Valentine.

Other biographic details contained in The Triumphal Chariot of
Antimony are undoubtedly more correct. According to them Basil
Valentine travelled in England and Holland on missions for his order,
and went through France and Spain on a pilgrimage to St. James of
Compostella.

Besides this work, there is a number of other books of Basil
Valentine's, printed during the first half of the sixteenth century,
that are well known and copies of which may be found in most of the
important libraries. The United States Surgeon General's Library at
Washington contains not a few of the works on medical subjects, and the
New York Academy of Medicine Library has some valuable editions of
certain of his works. Some of his other well-known books, each of which
is a good-sized octavo volume, bear the following descriptive titles (I
give them in English, though as they are usually found, they are in
Latin, sixteenth-century translations of the original German): The
World in Miniature: or, The Mystery of the World and of Human Medical
Science, published at Mayburg, 1609; The Chemical Apocalypse: or, The
Manifestation of Artificial Chemical Compounds, published in Erfurt in
1624; A Chemico-Philosophic Treatise Concerning Things Natural and
Preternatural, Especially Relating to the Metals and the Minerals,
published at Frankfurt in 1676; Haliography: or, The Science of Salts:
A Treatise on the Preparation, Use, and Chemical Properties of All the
Mineral, Animal, and Vegetable Salts, published at Bologna in 1644;
The Twelve Keys of Philosophy, Leipsic, 1630. These are of interest to
the chemist and physicist rather than to the physician, and it is as a
Maker of Medicine that we are concerned with Valentine here.

The great attention aroused in Basil Valentine's work at the
Renaissance period can be best realized from the number of manuscript
copies and their wide distribution. His books were not all printed at
one place, but, on the contrary, in different portions of Europe. The
original edition of The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony was published in
Leipsic in the early part of the sixteenth century. The first editions
of the other books, however, appeared at places so distant from Leipsic
as Amsterdam and Bologna, while various cities of Germany, as Erfurt and
Frankfurt, claim the original editions of still other works. Many of the
manuscript copies still exist in various libraries in Europe; and while
there is no doubt that some unimportant additions to the supposed works
of Basil Valentine have come from the attribution to him of scientific
treatises of other German writers, the style and the method of the
principal works mentioned is entirely too similar not to have been the
fruit of a single mind and that possessed of a distinct investigating
genius, setting it far above any of its contemporaries in scientific
speculation and observation.

The most interesting feature of all of Basil Valentine's writings that
are extant is the distinctive tendency to make his observations of
special practical utility. His studies in antimony were made mainly with
the idea of showing how that substance might be used in medicine. He did
not neglect to point out other possible uses, however, and knew the
secret of the employment of antimony in order to give sharpness and
definition to the impression produced by metal types. It would seem as
though he was the first scientist who discussed this subject, and there
is even some question of whether printers and typefounders did not
derive their ideas in this matter from our chemist.

Interested though he was in the transmutation of metals, he never failed
to try to find and suggest some medicinal use for all of the substances
that he investigated. His was no greedy search for gold and no
cumulation of investigations with the idea of benefiting only himself.
Mankind was always in his mind, and perhaps there is no better
demonstration of his fulfilment of the character of the monk than this
constant solicitude to benefit others by every bit of investigation that
he carried out. For him, with medieval nobleness of spirit, the first
part of every work must be the invocation of God, and the last, though
no less important than the first, must be the utility and fruit for
mankind that can be derived from it.

The career of the last of the Makers of Medicine in the Middle Ages may
be summed up briefly in a few sentences that show how thoroughly this
old Benedictine was possessed of the spirit of modern science. He
believed in observation as the most important source of medical
knowledge. He valued clinical experience far above book information. He
insisted on personal acquaintanceship on the part of the physician with
the drugs he used, and thought nothing more unworthy of a practitioner
of medicine,--indeed he sets it down as almost criminal--than to give
remedies of whose composition he was not well aware and whose effect he
did not thoroughly understand. He thought that nature was the most
important aid to the physician, much more important than drugs, though
he was the first to realize the significance of chemical affinities, and
he seems to have understood rather well how individual often were the
effects obtained from drugs. He was a patient student, a faithful
observer, a writer who did not begrudge time and care to the composition
of large books on medicine, yet withal he was no dry-as-dust scholar,
but eminently human in his sympathies with ailing humanity, and a
strenuous upholder of the dignity of the profession to which he
belonged. Scarcely more can be said of anyone in the history of
medicine, at least so far as good intentions go; though many
accomplished more, none deserve more honor than the Thuringian monk whom
we know as Basil Valentine.

There are many other of these old-time Makers of Medicine of whom nearly
the same thing can be said. Basil Valentine is only one of a number of
men who worked faithfully and did much both for medical science and
professional life during the thousand years from the fall of Rome to the
fall of Constantinople, when, according to what used to be commonly
accepted opinion, men were not animated by the spirit of research and of
fine incentive to do good to men that we are so likely to think of as
belonging exclusively to more modern times. A man whom he greatly
influenced, Paracelsus, took up the tradition of scientific
investigation where Basil Valentine had left it. His work, though more
successfully revolutionary, was not done in such a fine spirit of
sympathy with humanity nor with that simplicity of life and purity of
intention that characterized the old monk's work. Paracelsus' birth in
the year of the discovery of America places him among the makers of the
foundations of our modern medicine, and he will be treated of in a
volume on The Forefathers in Medicine.






Next: St Luke The Physician

Previous: Cusanus And The First Suggestion Of Laboratory Methods In Medicine



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