Lemery presents the common salt Spirits preparation. Basilius Valentinus often recommends the common salt, defining it as a wonderful balsam to open matter.
Alone or in association with other matters. Has it not been said that an accomplished alchemist can achieve Mercurius even from a seawater bucket? Set apart for the very skilled.
What I want to point out here are not only the operations per se, even if they are important and peculiar not only for the iatrochemists but for everyone running vessels in that period, but also for the matters used by Lemery. The following combinations may indeed seem rather physical than chemical. At least in comparison to what we nowadays intend as chemistry: the science of matter purity. But, as we know, the purity of matter doesn’t lead to our Mercurius Philosophorum.
The spirits mentioned by Lemery may be recognized as containing the acid of common salt or hydrochloric acid since the french chemist puts on display a very difficult distillation process with the presence of rainwater. A kind of distillation even more than difficult, quite impossible indeed, is the one without any addition attributed to monsieur Seignette. This miraculous dry extraction of gaseous hydrogen chloride is performed by Seignette up to nine times from the same matter. Not so far from the seven to nine reiterated salts volatilizations needed to extract Secret Fire/Mercurius. A spirit, chemical or alchemical, is the final product of a series of distillations. But at the end of Lemery’s description, the introduction of wine and the spirit of wine, so common in ancient chemistry, may seem so close to some methods of salts volatilization made employing alcoholic substances. A method not neglected by alchemists. An interesting reading.
My translation from the original french. Nicolas Lemery, Cours de la Chimie, Paris 1675 (an introduction for this book can be found at Lemery & Aqua Regia First Step, Sal Armoniac) :
“ON COMMON SALT: There are three kinds of common salt: fossil salt, fountain salt, and sea salt; the first one is called rock salt, for it is shining and clean like a gem, which we can find entire mountains in Poland, and somewhere else, filled with this salt. The second is obtained from some fountain waters evaporation, and the last is obtained by sea water crystallization after its humidity evaporation. These three salts are of the same nature and produce a simile effect. They are not used only as food but sometimes also as a medicine when for example, one wants to turn them into strong carminatives.
It is to point out that the rock salt is just a bit more penetrating than the sea salt retreating by crystallization and that the sea salt retreating by crystallization is more penetrating than that made from the evaporation of the contained waters.
The reason causing rock salt is formed because it has never been dissolved in water, and consequently, it has not lost any of its points (point in original french), while the other kinds of common salts tend to miss the most subtle parts in the water, mainly when this is greatly rough such as sea waters.
The sea salt made in Normandy, by sea water evaporation on fire, is less strong than that one processed in Rochelle by crystallization because during evaporation, the salt’s most subtle parts have been evaporated, and this is evidenced when distilling the seawater at whatever degree of fire: it will always be able to raise some volatile salt with it, which will make the evaporating sea water unable to remain saltless, and this from experience.
The crystallized sea salt cannot be achieved in the same way since it froze when the sea waters rested sometime in places that have been set to receive them.
I thoroughly described my concept concerning the origin of these three salt forms in my notes on Principles, so it will be useless to repeat it. ( Cours de la Chimie page 13: … I could say that the sea and fountain waters have taken their salinity from the rock salt they have encountered and dissolved). To be purified, the salt should be melted in water: the dissolution has to be filtered through a grey paper, then all the humidity has to be evaporated in a bowl; the remaining will be a white salt.
COMMON SALT CALCINATION: take a bowl without any enamel applied and get it hot red, throw inside one ounce of sea salt, and then cover it: the salt will crackle and reduce in powder. This cracking noise is called decrepitation. You will put salt into the pot again when it stops and keep on until you have enough. The pot must be hot red all the time. When it does not crackle, you will put it into a well-stoppered bottle to prevent humidity from entering.
NOTES: When the cracking salt is put into the fire, it releases its inner humidity, which, feeling scarce, pushes impetuously and finds too much-closed pores to exert force to make its way. Things with too many closed pores, like glass and shells, make such a noise when calcinating.
When one wants to use the decrepitated salt again, it is good to get it calcinated anew because the air humidity will add to what fire has already discharged. When this salt is deprived of humidity, it will be better absorbed as a transpiration medicine. A bit of Salt Tartar will improve it.
SPIRIT OF SALT: Dry some salt on a little fire or under the sun, then reduce two pounds in a subtle powder, and mix it exactly with six pounds of clay or powdery bole. Make from this mixture a solid paste with the necessary quantity of rainwater, then make out of it some nut size pellets which must be exposed to the sun, and when they are completely dry, put them in a clay or glass horn, provide it will be well closed and must be empty for a third, place the horn on reverberation fire and fit a recipient or ball on it without luting the joints. At the start, give a very light fire to heat the horn and let out drop by drop of insipid water; when you see some white vapors following these drops, throw what it will be in the recipient and have it well closed, exactly lute the joints. Increase the fire little by little till the ultimate violence. And keep on the condition for about fifteen hours; meanwhile, the ball will heat and fill with white clouds. But by the time it cools down, those white clouds will disappear, and the operation will be finally achieved. Then free the joints from luting, and you will find the Spirit of salt in the recipient. Pour it into a clay or glass well wax stoppered bottle. This Spirit is aperitif (1) and used till a pleasant acidity into juleps for those subjected to kidney stones. If diluted in a little water, it is also used to clean teeth and eat bones. To make the Basilius Valentinus Sweetened Spirit of Salt, you must mix equal parts of the Spirit of salt and wine and put them to digest for about three or four days in a meeting vessel with a very light sand fire. It is thought to be more suitable than the previous Spirit for the inner parts, for it is accounted for less corrosivity being adjusted with the Spirit of Wine; the dosage is from four up to twelve drops in liquors suitable for the disease.”
Here Lemery mentions the spirit of the sweetened sea salt of Basilius Valentinus. Of course, we don’t have to forget that the benedictine monk of Erfurt ( but in my opinion, very unlikely he has ever been stepping a cloister) was an apothecary, and sometimes he too was compelled to do his job. Surely wine can “sweeten” a too-harsh spirit of sea salt to be used as a medicine to drink. Not only, but it was used as a medical helper too: up to the beginning of the twentieth century in Venice, physicians used to prescribe one daily liter of wine to remove pneumonia (don’t ask, please). Had something alchemical been hidden inside Lemery’s statement, he probably would recommend a rectified spirit of wine, much more volatile, instead of too less alcoholic wine. But can a well-rectified spirit of wine “digest”, hydrochloric acid in crystallized form, as it is when frozen, before raising it? So could here “to sweeten” also be intended as digesting? Pay attention, because sometimes a chemical digestion
is not so far from alchemical digestion.
“Notes: One has to mix the earth or the bole with the salt to divide it into particles which in this way are easier to be rarefied since the parts composing the salt are so tightly closed that all the firepower cannot open if they are not made wider by some intermediary.”
The preparation we give to salt before putting it in the horn is longer than usual. Still, I have already observed that the escaping spirit will emerge more easily after setting the matter in a certain system.
One has to make some wide inside the horn and fit a recipient for the spirit to move around before settling. Otherwise, it may break the whole apparatus. The fire has to be increased little by little because the first spirits can exert a great force when pushed.
Someone has researched a method to obtain the spirit of salt without addition, but this is still unknown. It is fair to say that monsieur Seignette, an apothecary in la Rochelle, among other remarkable discoveries he made on salts, whose study seems to be the natural ability for him, in 1672 he brought about a sea salt which we were able to distill without any addition and in two hours we obtained three ounces and a half of a very good spirit, and that out of six ounces of salt which we had previously put into the horn. Before we broke the horn and having reduced in powder the remained salt, which was two ponces and a half, we put it to be exposed to air inside a bowl for fifteen days, and then we found it saturated with Spirits; we put it to distill, and with the same former easiness, we obtained half the weight of salt spirit. The matter remained inside the horn and, having been exposed to air, retakes Spirits. Monsieur Seignette assured us that he had extracted some Spirit out of the same matter up to nine times; that’s worthy of admiration and demonstrates that air contains a Spirit which forms different things according to the different disposition of the matters in which it enters. This salt, peculiar to him who showed us, has been prepared in a way we ignore.”
“We have to point out that the acids extracted utilizing a violent fire are differently powerful than those naturally extracted, as the sour of beer, wine, cider, lemon, and others. The Spirit of Salt, when compared to those, has some particular differences since it precipitates what the Aqua Fortis Strong Water has dissolved. This acid, conforming to what one can judge from the effects, is composed of stronger and more penetrating points than the others. For this very reason, it can agitate those of Strong Water loaded by some dissolved bodies and make them loose by shaking them.
It is also to point out that the effervescence caused when the Spirit of Salt is poured on the dissolution of a body inside the Strong Water is not the same as when one pours some Alkali. The first one is much slower producing than the last one.
The Spirit of Salt dissolves foiled gold, which Aqua Fortis Strong Water cannot perform.”
Aqua Regia was, and is, a combination of Hydrochloric Acid and Nitric Acid 3:1 (2). But Lemery here doesn’t mention any source for Ammonium. And additionally, the french chemist cannot believe that an acid/Spirit could form different things according to the different disposition of the matters in which it enters. Lemery here seems to describe the alchemical Mercurius or seed of the matter. If common hydrochloric acid could so easily dissolve foiled gold, why use Aqua Regia, a product achieved after a very long process back then? Only our Alkahest/Universal Dissolvent/Mercurius, out of salts volatilization, can point so high.
“When this Spirit is sweetened, it gets mixed with the Spirit of Wine, which is a Sulfur that impedes the movement of the acid points and restrains a part of their movement; this cause this Spirit to be more temperate by this addition, than if water has been put in the place of the spirit of wine.
Spirit of Salt may also be produced with decrepitated salt, in the same way.”
When Lemery mentions the “Spirit of Wine impeding the movement of the acid points,” it simply means that acidity is getting mitigated since, back then, an acid was thought of as a matter packed with sharp spikes. But, more interesting, we learned another meaning for the Sulphur term: what can raise ( ancient chemistry shared these nomenclatures with Alchemy). So the spirit of wine is sulfur in the sense it can rise. What is done by wine cannot be done by the spirit of wine. And conversely, what is done by the spirit of wine cannot be done by wine. Nevertheless, they could, and sometimes should, work jointly but in separate phases to first digest and then raise a not-so-volatile common salt (3).
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- From latin aperire or open;
- See also Aqua Regia & Fulminating Gold , but ancient proceedings were slightly different, as we will see in next posts on Lemery;
- See also Starkey, Pyrotechnie & Volatilization of Alkalis 2;