Valentine, Basil, or Basilius Valentinus

views updated Jun 27 2018


Chemistry, alchemy, iatrochemistry.

Supposedly a German Benedictine monk born at Mainz in 1394, Basil Valentine is said to have been a member of St. Peter’s in Erfurt in 1413 and to have been elected prior of the same monastery the following year. Other accounts mention that he traveled widely in Europe and that he made a journey to Egypt late in life.

There is no contemporary evidence for any of the facts relating to Basil Valentine and, indeed, the works attributed to him refer to events that occurred after his death (for example, the discovery of America). Although a number of different individuals have been suggested, the authorship of these texts is most commonly attributed to Johann Thölde, a councillor and salt boiler of Frankenhausen in Thuringia, whose Haligraphia (1603 and 1612) closely resembles the Letztes Testament (1626), one of the principal works ascribed to Basil Valentine.

The actual author was clearly familiar both with laboratory procedures and mining techniques, and he refers to mines located in Central Europe and elsewhere frequently in the Letztes Testament. There are long lists of chemical recipes to be found throughout the Basilian corpus, and it is evident that the author was well aware of methods for the preparation of the three mineral acids. He discussed all of the then known metals as well as preparations that might be made from them, and he gave special attention to the precious metals that he believed could be produced through the transmutation of the less perfect metals. he described the precipitation of copper from solution by iron as an example of natural transmutation. Should it be thought that Basil Valentine need be read primarily for his succinct laboratory directions and observations in nature, one need only refer to his Zwölff Schlüssel (1602), a traditional book of alchemical symbolism that was to become one of the most frequently reprinted chemical-alchemical treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Another work attributed to Basil Valentine, the Triumph Wagen Antimonii (1604), has a special significance for several reasons. This work contains a wealth of information on antimony, its ores, and other related metals and minerals, as well as on laboratory procedures in general. In addition, the work is important as the primary source for the many controversial antimonial compounds employed as medicines by seventeenth-century chemical physicians.

Indeed, although the chemical compounds described by Basil Valentine have been the subject of considerable research, their medical influence has not been adequately assessed to date. The Triumph Wagen Antimonii and other works by this author are clearly related to the Paracelsian treatise of the period. Here may be found a rather typical call for a new investigation of nature so that we might uncover and better understand the secrets of God’s creation. The origin of the metals is described in terms of the three principles (mercury, sulfur, and salt), and the origin of these, in turn, is discussed through reference to a macrocosmic distillation. The emphasis is clearly on an understanding of nature as a whole through chemical operations in the laboratory or through chemical analogies. The macrocosm-microcosm analogy is employed throughout and the significance of medicine is sought on both these levels. The true physician is told to seek out the vital spirits in all things with his knowledge of chemistry. Above all, the different preparations of metals are to be found and their effects are to be determined. It is the chemist who can eliminate the poisonous nature of antimony and make it into fit medicines for human ailments. Again in a fashion reminiscent of Paracelsus, Basil Valentine insisted that the physician may utilize these potent chemical medicines only in union with his knowledge of weights; that is, he must pay attention to proper dosage.

Thus, although Basil Valentine may be properly discussed as one of the more significant chemists of the early seventeenth century, he may also be judged in the context of the contemporary iatro-chemical literature. In the latter case he emerges as a rather typical Paracelsian who emphasized the macrocosm-microcosm universe with all of its implications. Nevertheless, this corpus of writings, along with those supposedly written by Isaac and John Isaac Hollandus (also then ascribed to the fifteenth century), was employed by chemists of the seventeenth century who sought to destroy the reputation of Paracelsus. Accepting a fifteenth-century date for Basil Valentine, van Helmont and others were able to accuse Paracelsus of having plagiarized the views of his predecessors. It was partially for this reason, partially for their alchemical appeal, and partially for their genuine chemical value that the works attributed to Basil Valentine were frequently published and translated throughout the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.


I. Origianl Works. The most thorough bibliography of the various editions of the works of Basil Valentine is found in James R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (New York-London, 1961), 190–195. The standard collected edition is the Chymische Schriften, which appeared first in two volumes at Hamburg in 1677. Corrected editions appeared in 1694, 1700, and 1717, while the fifth edition of 1740 added a 3rd vol. containing additional tracts. The final editions of 1769 and 1775 were essentially reprints of the fifth edition. In addition to the above, the Latin Basilii Valentini scripta chymica appeared in Hamburg in 1700.

Of the specific works mentioned, the Letztes Testament appeared first at Jena in two parts in 1626. As a five-part work it appeared first at Strasbourg in 1651. An English version by an anonymous translator appeared at London in 1657 and a new translation by J(ohn) W(ebster) was printed in London in 1671. The Zwölff Schlüssel was first printed by Johann Thölde in 1599, and it appeared frequently throughout the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. It was translated into Latin in Michael Maier’s Tripus Aureus in 1618, and it was one of the four texts by Basil Valentine to be included in Jean-Jacques Manget, Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa, II (Geneva. 1702), 409–423. This work appeared in French as Les douze clefs de philosophie (Paris, 1624), and in a new translation by Eugène Canseliet (Paris, 1956). The Twelve Keys appeared in English as the third part of The Last Will and Testament of Basil Valentine (London. 1671), and also in A. E. Waite’s translation of The Hermetic Museum, I (London, 1993; repr. London, 1953), 315–357.

Johann Thölde’s edition of the Triumph Wagen Antimonii appeared first at Leipzig in 1604 with a forward by Joachim Tanckius. Many separate German editions appeared throughout the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries until 1770. The first Latin edition was that made by John Fabre (Toulouse, 1646), but the most important is that with the commentary by Theodor Kerckring (Amsterdam, 1671; 1685). The Triumphant Chariot of Antimony was translated first into English by I.H. Oxon. (London, 1660), and again by Richard Russell (London, 1678). A third English translation was made by A. E. Waite (London, 1893; repr. London, 1963).

Additional information on these and other works in the Basilian corups will be found in the Partington bibliography.

II. Secondary Literature. By far the most important survey of the chemistry of Basil valentine will be found in J.R. Partington, op. cit., 183–203, with a surveery of the secondary literature, 183, note 1. Those interested in a traditional alchemical life of Basil Valentine may turn to the final leaves (fols. Ccc i and Ccc ii of the 1700 edition) of the Chymische Schriften or, in far more detail (and with a bibliography), in Karl Christoph Schmieder’s Geschichte der Alchemie (Halle, 1832), repr. with an introduction by Franz Strunz (1927), 197–210. The arguments against the fifteenth-century date of the texts were marshaled by Hermann Kopp in his various publications, but see especially his Beiträge zur Geschichte der Chemie, 3 pts. (Brunswick, 1869–1875).

Both the references in Partington and in the recently published ISIS Cumulative Bibliography. A Bibliography of the History of Science formed from ISIS Critical Bibliographies 1–90. 1913–1965, Magda Whitrow, ed., 2 vols. (London, 1971), testify to the very limited attention given by scholars to the works attributed to Basil Valentine in this century.

Allen G. Debus

Valentine, Basil

views updated Jun 08 2018

Valentine, Basil

This German adept in alchemical philosophy is commonly supposed to have been born at Mayence toward the close of the fourteenth century. As a young man he became a Roman Catholic priest and entered the Abbey of St. Peter, at Erfurt. He eventually became its prior, but otherwise very little is known concerning him, and even the date of his death is not known. His very existence is believed to be mythical by some authorities.

He appears to have been a very modest person, for according to Olaus Borrichius, the author of De Ortu et Progressu Chemioe, Valentine hid all the manuscripts of his writings inside one of the pillars of the Abbey Church where they might have remained for an indefinite period, but they were discovered during a thunderstorm, when a flash of lightning dislodged them from their curious hiding place. Valentine's reluctance for his work to be known may have been prompted by fear of the Inquisition discovering his researches in alchemy.

Valentine's works in alchemy certainly mark him as a very shrewd man and a capable scientist. Unlike much other medieval literature, his treatises were not all in Latin, some of them being in high Dutch and others in German. Prominent among those in his own language is The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, first published at Leipzig in 1624. In this work, Valentine extolled antimony as an excellent medicine. The volume also embodies a lengthy metrical treatise on the philosophers' stone, the writer contending that whoever should discover and use this must do charitable deeds, mortify the flesh, and pray without ceasing. Among the alchemist's further writings are Apocalypsis Chymica, De Microcosmo degue Magno Mundi Mysterio et Medecina Hominis and Practica unà cum duodecim Clavibus et Appendice. All these were originally published in Germany at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and various passages in them demonstrate that the author understood the distillation of brandy and was acquainted with the method of obtaining hydrochloric acid from saltwater. Reverting to his faith in antimony, he has been credited with having been the first to extract this from sulphuret.