RECORDS of the life of Basilius Valentinus, the Benedictine monk who for his achievements in the chemical sphere has been given the title of Father of Modern Chemistry, are a mass of conflicting evidence. Many and varied are the accounts of his life, and historians seem quite unable to agree as to his exact identity, or even as to the century in which he lived. It is generally believed, however, that 1394 was the year of his birth, and that he did actually join the Benedictine Brotherhood, eventually becoming Canon of the Priory of St. Peter at Erfurt, near Strasburg, although even these facts cannot be proved.
Whatever his identity, Basil Valentine was undoubtedly a great chemist, and the originator of many chemical preparations of the first importance. Amongst these are
the preparation of spirit of salt, or hydrochloric acid from marine salt and oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid)
the extraction of copper from its pyrites (sulphur) by transforming it firstly into copper sulphate, and then plunging a bar of iron in the watery dissolution of this product:
the method of producing sulpho-ether by the distillation of a mixture of spirit of wine and oil of vitriol:
the method of obtaining brandy by the distillation of wine and beer, rectifying the distillation on carbonate of potassium.
In his writings he has placed on record many valuable facts, and whether Basil Valentine is the correct name of the author or an assumed one matters little, since it detracts nothing from the value of his works, or the calibre of his practical experiments. From his writings one gathers that he was indeed a monk, and also the possessor of a mind and understanding superior to that of the average thinker of his day. The ultimate intent and aim of his studies was undoubtedly to prove that perfect health in the human body is attainable, and that the perfection of all metallic substance is also possible. He believed that the physician should regard his calling in the nature of a sacred trust, and was appalled by the ignorance of the medical faculty of the day whose members pursued their appointed way in smug complacency, showing little concern for the fate of their patients once they had prescribed their pet panacea.
The following quotation from Basil Valentine's 'Triumphal Chariot of Antimony' is from the Latin version published at Amsterdam in 1685, and translated into English and published by James Elliott & Co., Falcon Court, Fleet Street, E.C., in 1893.
'. . . this quality of doctor,' he writes, 'cannot prepare his own medicines (such as they are) but must leave that work to another. He does not even know
the colour of the remedies which he prescribes. He has not the slightest idea whether they are white or black, red or grey, blue or yellow, or whether the medicament is hot, cold, dry, or humid. He only knows one thing--that he has found the name of that medicine in his books, and pluming himself on the antiquity of his hoary knowledge, he claims the right of prior possession.
'Here again I am tempted to cry woe upon these foolish doctors whose consciences are seared with a hot iron, who do not care in the least for their patients, and will be called to a terrible account for their criminal folly on the day of judgment. Then they will behold Him whom they have pierced by neglecting their neighbour's welfare, while pocketing his money, and will see at last that they ought to have laboured night and day, in order to acquire greater skill in the healing of disease. Instead of this they complacently go on trusting to chance, prescribing the first medicine they happen to find in their books, and leaving the patient and the disease to fight it out as best they can. They do not even trouble to enquire in what way the medicines they prescribe are prepared. Their laboratory, their furnace, their drugs are at the Apothecary's, to whom they rarely or never go. They inscribe upon a sheet of paper, under the magic word "Recipe," the names of certain medicines, whereupon the Apothecary's assistant takes his mortar and pounds out of the wretched patient whatever health may still be left in him.
'Change these evil times, oh. God! Cut down these trees, lest they grow up to the sky! Overthrow these overweening giants, lest they pile mountain upon mountain and attempt to storm heaven! Protect the conscientious few who quietly strive to discover the mysteries of Thy creation!
'I will ask all my brothers in our Monastery to unite with me in earnest prayer, by day and by night, that God may enlighten the ignorance of these pseudo-doctors, that they may understand the virtues which he has implanted in created things, and may learn also that they can become manifest and operative only by means of that preparation which removes all harmful and poisonous impurities. I trust that God will answer our prayer, and that some of my brothers at least will survive to witness the blessed change which shall then take place on earth, when the thick veil of ignorance shall have been removed from the eyes of our opponents, and their minds shall have been enlightened to find the lost piece of silver. May God, who overrules the destinies of men, in His goodness and mercy bring about this consummation.'
On the subject of the perfection of metallic bodies, as in his reference to the Spagyric Art, the Grand Magistrum, the Universal Medicine, the Tinctures to transmute metals and other mysteries of the alchemist's art, he has completely mystified not only the lay reader, but the learned chemists of his own and later times. In all his works the important key to a laboratory process is apparently omitted. Actually, however, such a key is invariably to be found in some other part of the writings, probably in the midst of one of the mysterious theological discourses which he was wont to insert among his practical instructions, so that it is only by intensive study that the mystery can be unravelled.
His most famous work is his 'Currus Triumphalis Antimonii' ('The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony')
[paragraph continues] It has been translated into German, French, and English, and has done more to establish his reputation as a chemist than any other. The best edition is undoubtedly that published at Amsterdam in 1671 with a commentary by Theodorus Kerckringius. In his preface Kerckringius states that he had actually spoken with Valentine besides studying his works. He speaks of Basil as 'the prince of all chemists, and the most learned, upright, and lucid of all alchemistic writers. He tells the careful student everything that can be known in alchemy; of this I can most positively assure you.' A perusal of this book makes it quite evident that Valentine had investigated very thoroughly the properties of antimony, and the findings on his experimental work with this metal have been brought forward as recent discoveries by chemists of our day.
His other works are 'The Medicine of Metals,' 'Of Things Natural and Supernatural,' 'Of the First Tincture, Root and Spirit of Metals,' 'The Twelve Keys,' and his 'Last Will and Testament.' It is alleged that this last work remained concealed for a number of years within the High Altar of the church belonging to the Priory. Such a story is quite feasible, since alchemists both before and after this era, deeming their works unfit for the age in which they were written, are known to have buried or otherwise secreted their writings for the discovery and benefit, as they doubtless hoped, of a more deserving and more enlightened age. Such manuscripts would very often not be discovered for several generations after the death of the author.
In view of his other outstanding achievements as a chemist of great ability, it seems not illogical to suppose that Valentine's Universal Method of Medicine should be capable of achieving as great a measure of success as his other somewhat more prosaic discoveries.