Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 45.djvu/121

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109
ANCIENT AND MEDIÆVAL CHEMISTRY.
ANCIENT AND MEDIÆVAL CHEMISTRY.

By M. P. E. BERTHELOT.

CHEMISTRY is a modern science, constituted hardly a century ago; but its theoretical problems were discussed and its practices put in operation during all the middle ages. The nations of antiquity were already acquainted with them, and their origin is lost in the night of primitive religions and prehistoric civilizations. I have described elsewhere the first rational attempts to explain the chemical transformations of matter, and purpose now to speak of the chemical industries of the ancient world, and their transmission to the Latins of the middle ages. The story is of interest as showing how the cultivation of the sciences has been perpetuated in the material line by the necessities of their adaptations, through the catastrophes of invasions and the ruin of civilization. Only the total extermination of populations, such as was at times practiced by the Mongols and the Tartars, could completely destroy this cultivation. But such horrors as those perpetrated by Tamerlane have been of rare occurrence.

From the most remote times man has applied chemical operations to his necessities, performing them for metallurgy, ceramics, dyeing, painting, the preservation of food, medicine, and the art of war. While gold and sometimes silver and copper existed in the native state, and required only mechanical preparation, lead, tin, iron, and often copper and silver, had to be extracted from their usual minerals by very complicated artifices. The production of alloys necessary for the fabrication of arms, money, and jewels is also an essentially chemical art. The study of the alloys used in goldsmiths' work gave rise to the prejudices and frauds of alchemy, as is proved by the testimony of an Egyptian papyrus preserved in the Leyden Museum, and of the writings of the Grecian alchemists.

The art of preparing cement, pottery, and glass likewise depends on chemical operations. The workmen who dyed cloths, clothing, and tapestries in purple or other colors, an industry practiced first in Egypt and Syria and then in all the Grecian, Roman, and Persian world, not to speak of the extreme East, employed highly developed chemical manipulations; and the cloths found on the mummies and in the sarcophagi attest their perfection. Pliny and Vitruvius describe in detail the production of colors, such as cinnabar or vermilion, minium, red chalk, indigo, black, green, and blue colors, vegetable as well as mineral, performed by painters. The chemistry of alimentation, fruitful in . resources and in frauds, was next practiced. The art was known