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Chymical Textbooks

Nicaise Le Fèvre (1610-1669) was professor of chymistry and apothecary-in-ordinary to Charles II following the restoration. Previously he had made a name for himself giving demonstrations of alchemical experiments at the Jardin du Roi. When he travelled to England his sights were on bigger things: Charles II had ordered him to recreate Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous cordial and in effect Le Fèvre became, as Mendelsohn (1992) argues, a type of court alchemist. In Worth’s copy of Le Fèvre’s A compleat body of chymisty (London, 1670) Le Fèvre depicts furnaces used to make ‘Oil of Sulphur’ and explains its method of distillation:

Furnaces to make the Oyle.
Nicaise Le Fèvre, A compleat body of chymistry (London, 1670), 4P3vr.

How the true Oil of Brimstone is to be distilled

Those that are versed in matters of natural Philosophy, know that Minerals are only crude and undigested, because their constitution is such, or because they are prematurely taken off their Matrix as a green and unripe Fruit, pluck’t off before his time from the Tree, and it is want of a due digestion only, that they are uncapable to produce all the noble effects which nature hath made them apt to bring forth: but the intention of that good and kind Monther, aiming still at the best, hath by the mixture of some other matter, been frustrated and disappointed, or by being interrupted in her work which she could bring to perfection by the privation of inward and outward heat which did foment and cherish it, to bring to the highest degree of its natural predestination: wherefore all the Philosophers that have known and followed Nature closely, have ever endeavoured to let Art begin again where Nature had ended and had been interrupted, to digest and bring to maturation unripe subtances, and supply the defects thereof. They have made use of visible fire, and of its heat, to stir up that invisible one which is hidden in the Center of mixt bodies, and constitute the chief part of their Soul, Essence, Efficacy and Vertue: And if this onely way could not bring them to their desired scope, they have sought in other Mixts some analogous substance, which could sympathize and answer with a proportional heat to that which they intend to perfect and multiply. This same way we do intend to hold in the maturation of common Brimstone to correct it, and this way to stir up the faculties and wonderful vertues it hides under the shade of its Body, which is the rind and cover of the light and eternal fire by which it is produced.To this end let the Artist take as much of well chosen common Brimstone as he doth think fitting; then beat it to Pouder, and digest in Ashes with a moderate heat in a Matrass, without any melting at all, the space of 40 days uninterrupted; this digestion will correct the stench and ill smell of the Brimstone, and will encrease the vertues thereof in a quadruple proportion, which immediately he will perceive by dissolving a small portion of this digested Brimstone in some Oil, and doing the like with other not digested and ripned; for the one will yeeld and unpleasant smell as it uses to do, and the other will rather recreate and please the smell then offend it. After this first Operation, a second must be put in practice, which cannot be but by the means of a subtil, aethereal and volatile Oil which may open the body of this Brimstone, and make it capable of being converted it self into a subtil, penetrating and pleasant Oil. This Oil mustbe none else but of Turpentine, drawn after the manner we have taught before. And as we have laid for an infallible and sure Axiom, that the substance which must open and subtilitate, must in many degrees exceed that Body that is opened and subtiliated; so must the Artist put viijp. of this Oil upon j p. of digested Brimstone made into very subtil Pouder, and let them digest togther in B. M. until this Oil hath almost dissolved all the substance of the Brimstone, and be turned as red as an Oriental Ruby; which done, distil the Turpentine Oil, and draw it off again in the slow heat of Ashes, until that which remains in the Retort becomes as thick as a Syrup; then cohobate that which is extracted and digest it together the space of eight dayes, and reiterate the distillation as before, and so continue seven times together digesting, cohobating and distilling; but the seventh time draw off the Oil of Turpentine, as before, to the consistency of a liquid Syrup; then encrease the fire in some small degree, and change the Recipient, and thus proceed in the distillationt thereof, and you shall have a true Oil of Brimstone, red, well smelling, and penetrating, which is a very good Balsam both inwardly and outwardly, the efficacy and vertue whereof cannot sufficiently be exalted. It is a most excellent Vulernary, curing internal Ulcers, resisting mainly corruption, and allaying all irritations and fits of the Mother; It is a wonder of Remedy against the Plague, Cholick, Catarrh’s and Fluxions, Asthma’s or short breath, and Empyema’s, or corrupted Ulcers in the Stomach; It abundantly provokes Sweating and Urine, and doth work also by insensible transpiration….’

Nicaise Le Fèvre, A compleat body of chymistry (London, 1670), pp 304-6.

Nicolas Lemery, A course of chymistry… (London,      1698), Titlepage.

Nicholas Lémery’s Course of Chymical Operations

As Coley (2004) points out, much of Le Fèvre’s approach was later subsumed into one of the most popular chymical textbooks of early modern Europe: Nicholas Lémery’s A Course of Chymistry, containing and easier Method of Preparing those Chymical Medicins which are used in PHYSICK (Paris, 1675). Worth’s copy was the third edition of the English translation of the eighth French edition, an edition which, as Powers (1998) suggests, had significantly re-drawn the relationship between alchimia and chimia by emphasising that alchimia was only a part of chimia. The popularity of Lémery’s text was specifically addressed by the translator of Worth’s London 1698 edition, remarking in the preface how the ‘Two former Editions of Monsieur Lemery’s Course of Chymistry having Sold so very well, the Bookseller was sufficiently encouraged to venture upon a Third, tho’ nothing more had been to be added. But now he has all the reason in the World to expect his Profit and Gains by This, seeing it comes with so many more additional Operations and Remarks.’ The reasons why the book was so popular are not hard to deduce: it is lucidly written and acts as a true textbook for the course of lectures given by Lémery. The translator had himself attended Lémery’s ‘Course of Chymical Operations’ which comprised lectures and experiments three or four days a week for seven to eight weeks. He gives the reader an invaluable summary of the course:

‘In that Course which I was present at, he observed this Order.

First Day

He explained the Principles of Chymistry, shewed his Furnaces, Vessels and Instruments, and gave their Names and Uses.

Second Day

1. The Distillation of Wine into Brandy.
2. Distillation of the Spirit of Wine two several ways.
3. Distillation of Vinegar.
4. Purification of Saltpeter.
5. Purification of Vitriol.
6. Calcination of Vitriol.

Third Day

7. Gilla Vitrioli.
8. A mixture for Aqua fortis.
9. A mixture for the Spirit of Nitre.
10. Preparation for the distillation of Tartar.

Fourth Day

11. Distillation of Aqua fortis.
12. Distillation of the Spirit of Nitre.
13. Crystal Mineral.
14. Sal Polychrestum.
15. Distillation of Tartar.

Fifth Day

16. Spirit and Oil of Tartar.
17. Rectification of the Spirit of Tartar.
18. Calcination of Tartar.

Sixth Day

19. Fixation of Salt-peter by Charcoal.
20. Salt of Tartar and its purification.
21. A mixture for the Spirit of Sal Armoniack.
22. Lapis Infernalis, or the Caustick Stone begun.

Seventh Day

23. Nitre fixt and purified.
24. Distillation of the Spirit of Sal Armoniack.
25. Lapis Infernalis, or the Caustick Stone ended.
26. Oleum Tartari per deliquium.
27. Pulvis Fulminans.

Eighth Day

28. A mixture for Aqua Regia.
29. Tartarum Vitriolatum begun.

Ninth Day

30. Tartarum Vitriolatum ended.
31. Tartar Soluble.
32. Sal febrifugum Silvii.
33. Distillatio of Turpentine.
34. Dissolution of Gold.
35. Styptick water.
36. Lapis Medicamentosus begun.

Tenth Day

37. Spirit and Oil of Turpentine.
38. Lapis Medicamentosus ended.
39. Distillation of Silver.

Eleventh Day

40. Dissolution of Bismuth.
41. Dissolution of  Lead.
42. Dissolution of Copper.
43. A mixture for the Saffron of Mars aperitive.

Twelfth Day

44. Precipation of the Magistery of Bismuth.
45. Magistery of Saturn.
46. Sal Saturni begun.
47. Tincture of Copper.

Thirteenth Day

48. Sal Saturni ended.
49. Crystal of Venus.
50. Calcination of the aperitive Saffron of Mars.
51. Mars astringent begun.
52. Sal Martis begun.

Fourteenth Day

53. Preparation for the distillation of Sal Saturni.
54. Sal Martis ended.
55. Mars astringens ended.
56. Saffron of Mars ended.
57. Tincture of Mars begun.
58. Revivification of Cinnabar into Mercury.

Fifteenth Day

59. Distillation of Sal Saturni.
60. Tincture of Mars continued.
61. Revivification of Mercury.
62. Dissolution of Mercury for making the Sublimate Corrosive.

Sixteenth Day

63. Spirit of Saturn and its Rectification.
64. Revivification of Lead.
65. Tincture of Mars ended.
66. Tartar Martial soluble begun.

Seventeenth Day

67. Spirit of Saturn rectified.
68. Oil of Saturn.
69. Tartar Martial ended.
70. Decrepitation of Salt.
71. A mixture for Sublimate Corrosive.

Eighteenth Day

72. Sublimate Corrosive continued.
73. White Precipitate of Mercury.
74. Red Precipitate begun.
75. A mixture for the Regulus of Antimony.

Nineteenth Day

76. Sublimate Corrosive ended.
77. Another Precipitate of Mercury.
78. Red Precipitate of Mercury ended.

Twentieth Day

79. Mercurius dulcis.
80. Regulus of Antimony continued.
81. Calcination of Antimony for making the Glass.

Twenty first Day

82. Regulus of Antimony ended.
83. Glass of Antimony.
84. The first sublimation of Mercurius dulcis.
85. The second sublimation of Mercurius dulcis.
86. Precipitation of the Golden Sulphur of Antimony.
87. Mixture for the Butter of Antimony.
88. The Liver of Antimony begun.

Twenty third Day

89. The third sublimation of Mercuries dulcis.
90. Panacea Mercurialis begun.
91. Golden Sulphur of Antimony continued.
92. Distillation of the Butter of Antimony.
93. Cinnabar of Antimony.
94. The Liver of Antimony ended.

Twenth fourth Day

95. The first sublimation of the Panacea.
96. Butter of Antimony ended.
97. Cinnabar ended.
98. Precipitation of the powder Algaroth.
99. Bezoar Mineral begun.

Twenty fifth Day

100. The second sublimation of the Panacea.
101. Powder of Algaroth ended.
102. Bezoar Mineral ended.
103. Tartar Emetick begun.
104. Vinum Emeticum.

Twenty sixth Day

105. The third sublimation of the Panacea.
106. Antimony diaphoretick begun.
107. Flowers of Antimony begun.
108. Salt of Mars ended.

Twenty seventh Day

109. The fourth sublimation of Panacea.
110. Tartar Emetick continued.
111. Antimony diaphoretick and the Flowers ended.
112. Golden Sulphur of Antimony ended.

Twenth eighth Day

113. The fifth sublimation of the Panacea.
114. Tartar Emetick ended.
115. Sal Polychrestum stibiale.
116. Lotio Antimonii diaphoretici.
117. The Flowers of Sulphur.

Twenty ninth Day

118. The sixth sublimation of the Panacea.
119. The Balm of Sulphur begun.
120. Lac Sulphuris begun.
121. Spirit of Sulphur begun.

Thirtieth Day

122. The seventh sublimation of the Panacea.
123. Lac Sulphuris ended.
124. Balm of Sulphur ended.
125. Spirit of Sulphur ended.

One and thirtieth Day

126. The eight sublimation of Panacea.
127. The Oil of Cloves per descensum.
128. Preparation for the fixt Salt of Carduus Benedictus.
129. Flowers of Benjamin.

Two and thirtieth Day

130. The ninth and last sublimation of the Panacea.
131. The fixt Salt of Carduus Benedictus ended.
132. The distillation of Roses.
133. Preparation for the distillation of Vipers.

Three and thirtieth Day

134. The volatile Salt of Vipers.
135. Preparation for the distillation of Wax.

Four and thirtieth Day

136. The Oil and Spirit of Vipers.
137. Rectification of the Butter of Wax.

Which was the last Operation he performed.’

Nicolas Lemery, A course of chymistry… (London,      1698), Table II.

George Wilson’s A compleat course of chymistry

George Wilson’s  A compleat course of chymistry  (London, 1721), frontispiece portrait.

George Wilson made a name for himself as a chemist in 1660s at the sign of Hermes Trismegistus in London. His ‘anti-rheumatick tincture’ in particular had led to royal patronage but, as Williams (2004) suggests, the patronage of James II was a mixed blessing. Whether it was because of his identification with this unpopular monarch or whether his laboratory was feared as a fire risk, a London mob destroyed it in 1688. As a result Wilson was forced to earn an alternative living giving courses on chymisty and in 1698 he decided to turn his hand to writing, producing one of the most popular chymical textbooks of the early eighteenth century, his A compleat course of chymistry. Despite Wilson’s criticism of Lémery’s ‘pompous Way of Philosophizing upon the Processes’, his own textbook owed much to Lémery’s 1675 Cours de chymie. Wilson provided the reader with clear definitions of chymical characters and terms, and included a host of engravings of chemical apparatus.

George Wilson, A compleat course of chymistry  (London, 1721), Table 3.

Wilson explains this engraving as follows:

1. A Reverberatory Furnace, to distil, with twenty long Necks.
2. A Pelican, or Circulatory.
3. A Balneum at the end of the digesting Furnace.
4. The Sand-Bath of the digesting Furnace.
5. The Balneum Mariae.
6. A Melting Furnace.

These experiments should not be attempted.


Coley, N. G. (2004) ‘Le Févre, Nicaise (c.1610–1669)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press).

Le Fèvre, Nicaise (1670), A compleat body of chymistry (London).

Lémery, Nicolas (1698), A course of chymistry… (London).

Mendelsohn, J. A. (1992), ‘Alchemy and Politics in England 1649-1665’, Past and Present no. 135, pp 30-78.

Powers, John C. (1998), ‘ ‘Ars sine arte’: Nicholas Lemery and the End of Alchemy in Eighteenth-Century France’, Ambix 45 (30), 163-89.

Williams, Trevor I. (2004), ‘Wilson, George (1630/31?-1711), chemist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Wilson, George (1721), A compleat course of chymistry (London).

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