1. Alchemical Magic
Picture the scene: a sunny day in July; Aberdonian architecture; a packed audience; and four alchemists. All right, all right, four historians of alchemy, then. A series of talks discussing the connections between alchemical texts and practice; the idea of forgery and fraud relating to alchemically produced gold coins; the future of research on the history of alchemy-cum-medicine; and desiderata of research from an archaeologist-chemist's point of view. If you weren't there, believe me: this year's BSHS conference was sparkling with possibilities, enthusiasm, ideas and laughter. A warm thank-you to the organiser, the audience, and the participants, who discussed alchemical matters with the perfect balance of serious thought, blue skying and humour. Here's to the future of the history of alchemy.
(If you love the history of science as much as I do, check out the BSHS's travel wiki, which lists scientifically historical sites around the UK. Do I need to say more than Camera Obscura, or Lepers? Um... better check it out for yourselves, methinks).
From Antiquity, December 2003
2. What I (re)Learned This Weekend, or: how alchemists separated metals and made their own vessels for that purpose which would be quite yucky but I cannot wait to try sometime...
Long title, short story: Marcos Martinon-Torres, abovementioned archaeologist-chemist, a dear colleague and someone who has snatched a job and research topic that makes us all go green in the face with envy, has been working on the remains of medieval and early modern alchemical laboratory equipment at UCL for some time now. His insights into what alchemists actually did in the workshop (something often barely accessible to those of us who read those rather obscure manuscripts) are constantly evolving. And given my blogging activities, I could not help listening very carefully when Marcos explained the gadget that is the bone ash cupel.
The idea is pretty simple: you have a composite metal or metal ore, in other words a substance that is made of two parts, one of which you want to extract from the other, but they are difficult to separate. Think oil film on gravy - but then someone invented those bi-level spoony things to solve that problem. Well, alchemists had their own solution for separating silver from dirty useless metal bits: bone ash cupels. These are vessels (see above) made from ground bones (or wood ash), and bound with water or urine. They are porous like a hard sponge in dish form. Actually, a pumice comes to mind. When a composite metal is heated up in such a cupel, one component sinks into the dish, never to see the light of day again; the other remains as a nugget at the top. The cupel can now be thrown out, and the silver or what-have-you retrieved. Nifty, no?
The really cool thing is that alchemists made those cupels themselves. They were much too brittle to be transported and really rather easy to make, so home production was the thing to do. Here's hoping I'll see the whole process from bone to stone in an interdisciplinary workshop sometime!
3. The Baking Connection: Drunken Cake
In the absence of bone grinding, the principle behind the bone ash cupel can be observed in the species of drunken cakes (and I do not mean the above, taken from the always fabulous Cakewrecks, but rather cakes soaked with booze). I won't post a recipe just now, because I am all abuzz with alchemical goodness and eager to do some work before the week starts - but consider one (or more?) of the following:
- sponge cake
- pound cake
- orange juice mixed with cointreau
- some liqueur of your choice
- lemon juice
- (you get the drift without further superfluous variations)
- fruit zest
- granulated sugar
- make the cake
- let cool a little
- meanwhile, mix the booze/liquid with the chosen floaty bits
- consider whether the combination is a good one; if not, return to 1)
- pour 3) slowly but with flourish over the cake
- marvel at the floaty bits staying at the top of the cake, while the cake itself gets saturated with boozy fluids
- eat cake
- sense how everything gets absorbed in a cakey booze fest inside your body.
That's it for today! But soon this blog will be sent from a shiny new kitchen, with many more recipes and the usual zest for bad puns and alchemicality. Cheerio for now!