site logo

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


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


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


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


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


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.