Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/December 1912/Basil Valentine: A Seventeenth-Century Hoax

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ALL who are at all familiar with the early history of chemistry will recall the prominent place given to a writer who wrote under the name of Basil Valentine and in the early history of the sciences was generally assigned to the fifteenth century. His knowledge of chemistry was for that time remarkably advanced, falling chronologically, as it appeared, between the writings of the medieval alchemists, Albertus Magnus, Arnoldus de Villanova, Raimundus Lullus and Roger Bacon, and those of the later authors Paracelsus and Agricola. The histories of chemistry by Ferdinand Hoefer in France 1842-3 and by Hermann Kopp of Germany 1843-7, which have served largely as the basis for later histories of that period, both accepted from earlier sources the works of Basil Valentine as of the latter part of the fifteenth century, though with some evident uncertainty as to this period. Both Kopp and Hoefer mark the work of Basil Valentine as closing the alchemical period, and ascribe to Paracelsus the inauguration of the medical chemical or iatrochemical period.

Examination of the writings of the so-called Basil Valentine and of the writings ascribed to Paracelsus made it apparent that many of the most important facts of chemistry as well as many of the theoretical ideas which Paracelsus announced and made the basis of his revolutionary influence upon chemistry and medicine were contained in the works of Basil Valentine.

Thus to Basilius was awarded the priority of the announcement of many chemical observations and experiments and their applications to the uses of medicine, and to Paracelsus was credited the making of these ideas influential for progress.

Paracelsus was born in 1493 and died in 1541. The chemical literature extant previous to his time and which may claim to be of importance, apart from the slight contributions of the ancients, was comprised in manuscripts or printed books attributed to Gheber, Albertus Magnus, Raimundus Lullus (or Lully), Roger Bacon and Arnoldus de Villanova, though many of these writings are known to be forgeries of much later date than are the genuine writings of these men.

The works of Paracelsus were published, some few during his life time, but most of them from twenty to fifty years after his death. They were collected and published by Huser in Basel in 1589-91, excluding however his surgical books, which were already, however, in print at that time, or at least the important ones. Many of the writings included in Huser's collected works of Paracelsus are in the opinion of modern scholars not genuine. Huser himself included some which he thought were not genuine. The important point here, however, is that the body of the writings ascribed to Paracelsus was in print by 1591.

There exists no evidence that up to this time any one had ever heard of Basil Valentine. No known reference has been found in any author before 1600, no original manuscript nor copy of probably prior date has been known to exist.

The writings of Paracelsus, or attributed to him, give evidence that he possessed a familiar and extensive knowledge of the chemical facts and experimental methods of his time. He mentions the names of those from whom he learned the art and they are names that are known as students or practical chemists of the period, such as Trithemius, and Sigmund Füger, the miner and mine owner. Paracelsus published many chemical facts and observations which were new to the literature of chemistry. The names of zinc and bismuth appeared to have been first mentioned by him. He characterized these as resembling the metals (that is, the seven ancient metals) and called them bastards' of the metals, because they lacked malleability and ductility. He recognized a basis of discrimination between alum and the vitriols, in that while the latter have metals as bases alum has an earth for base, a good distinction for that time. He showed how an amalgam of copper might be obtained by precipitating copper from its "vitriol" (or sulphate) by means of iron and then rubbing the precipitated metal with mercury. He describes the action of oil of vitriol upon iron and notes that "air rises and breaks forth like a wind."[1] He notes the bleaching action of the fumes of sulphur upon red roses, notes the preparation of metallic arsenic "prepared like a metal," and the formation of "fixed arsenic" (non-volatile arsenic acid) by the action of niter upon white arsenic. He first uses the term "reduction" for the preparation of the metals. He mentions the use of an infusion of nut galls for detecting iron in mineral waters and describes the separation of muriatic acid from mixture with nitric acid by the use of silver.

In Paracelsus first appears the theory of the chemical elements which dominated chemical thought until the rise of the phlogiston theory, viz., the notion that all substances are composed of the three elements mercury, sulphur and salt. From Gheber, Lullus and others of his predecessors he was familiar with the notion that mercury and sulphur were constituents of the metals, but he extended the theory and gave it a more consistent form by interpreting the mercury as the element which gives volatility, sulphur as that which burns, and salt as that which neither burns nor volatilizes in the heat.

Paracelsus also used and advocated the use of many metallic preparations for medicines, as preparations of mercury, antimony, lead and arsenic. He recognized the poisonous character of them when used in excess, but emphasizes that poisons may be used to advantage in medicine in proper doses.

These and similar announcements scattered through his writings marked Paracelsus as a chemist of importance, if they were derived from his own experience, and not borrowed from some other source.

But Paracelsus was a physician who had incurred the antagonism and enmity of the great majority of the orthodox medical profession. He had repudiated the doctrines of Galen and Avicenna, their almost sacred authorities. He held their knowledge up to contempt in lecture and in writings and savagely attacked the practises and the ethics of the profession. Their opposition he met with arrogant defiance. As his following increased, the warfare between the Galenists and the Paracelsists increased in bitterness, and for a century after his death the contest continued with bitterness. The result was a partial victory for the chemical medicines introduced by Paracelsus, but there also resulted a gradual discrediting of Paracelsus by the growth of a mass of legends derogatory of his ability and character, most of which have since been shown to be baseless, but which his faults and weaknesses served to make credible. While this warfare was still at its height, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there appeared a number of printed books, published by Johann Thölde, purporting to be from old manuscripts and to be written by a monk of the Benedictine order—Basilius Valentinus. By far the most important of these was the "Triumph-wagen des Antimons," or "Triumphal Chariot of Antimony," (1604), which contained, with much that was mystical and obscure, as was the fashion of most chemical literature of the time, nevertheless a remarkably clear treatment of the preparation and properties of many compounds of antimony, and of their application to medicine. This work attracted deserved attention, and other works which appeared under the same author's name about the same time and later shared in this popularity. That all of these were by the same hand as the "Chariot" is certainly not true, especially the later publications.

It was soon noticed that nearly all the above mentioned contributions of Paracelsus to chemistry were contained in the work of the newly discovered author, and often more thoroughly explained and more comprehensively treated than in Paracelsus, though sometimes the opposite was the case.

Basil Valentine had also spoken of zinc and bismuth and called them bastards of the metals. He had also noted the action of oil of vitriol upon iron, though he made no mention of the escape of "air" in the process. And so with most of the above mentioned experimental data of Paracelsus. Basil Valentine had also announced the doctrine of the three elements—mercury, sulphur and salt—though he had not made the interpretation of their significance as qualities of bodies as had Paracelsus. Basil Valentine had also advocated the use of metallic preparations of antimony, mercury, etc., in medicine, and he also had abused and ridiculed the physicians of his time.

Indeed, to any one who compares the many similar data and ideas in the two collected writings the conclusion seems unavoidable that one of these authors drew from the other, or else that both drew from the same common third source. But no such common source was known or is yet known. If then the writings of Basil Valentine were authentic and of the fifteenth century as assumed, then assuredly Paracelsus must have had access to a copy of the manuscripts and have freely utilized the contents without reference to the author. As he freely refers to other authors in approval or disapproval, this omission was notable. If the writings of Basilius were forgeries of the time of the publication, then they were written some sixty years after the death of Paracelsus and were borrowed not only from him, but presumably also from Agricola and minor writers whose works appeared in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

In favor of the genuine character of the newly published author spoke the real value of the contributions in the "Triumphal Chariot." Why should any one who could write such a work conceal his identity and lose the credit for it by attributing it to another? It was not probable. This conclusion was doubtless also encouraged by the disrepute in which the name of Paracelsus was held by the medical profession and the scholarly classes of the time. Here was an explanation for the apparently profound knowledge of chemistry which Paracelsus seemed to possess, but to whom they gave no credit for scholarship of any kind.

Doubtless also the name and standing of the editor and presumptive possessor of the original manuscript, Johann Thölde, a chemist, owner in the salt-works at Franckenhausen in Thuringia, and member of the Chamber of Councilors (Rathskämmerer), gave additional presumption of the genuineness of the find.

Against the originality of the writings in so far as they were to be assigned to an earlier century, was in the first place the fact that previous to their publication by Thölde no knowledge existed of any such person as Basilius Valentinus. No writer of the fifteenth or sixteenth century had referred to any such author.

Examination of the records of the order of St. Benedict in Germany or at Borne failed to discover any such name on the rolls. No original manuscript was preserved or placed in evidence at any time.

Thölde explained in his preface to one of the early publications that it was from a very old manuscript which he had great difficulty in deciphering and translating from the original Latin script. From the evidence of the books themselves little could be learned. The author claimed to be of German nationality from the region of the Rhine, and to be an inmate of a Benedictine monastery and a brother of that order. They contained no reference to any contemporary persons or events which might serve to locate their exact time.

From allusions to the use of antimony in the making of types for printing, it became evident that the date of the writing was not earlier than the latter half of the fifteenth century, and from several allusions to the application of chemical medicines to the cure of the "Morbus Gallicus" (or "French Disease") which was known to have made its appearance in Europe about the end of that century (1493 is the date usually quoted) it was evident that the writing could not have been earlier than about the close of the fifteenth century. While this internal evidence established the end of the fifteenth century as the earliest possible date no internal evidence indicated that the date of the authorship was necessarily earlier than the date of publication. Though there have apparently always been critics who have disputed the genuineness of the find,[2] yet the general opinion gained credence and authority that Basil Valentine was the assumed name of an unknown writer of the end of the fifteenth century, and that to him, therefore, was to be credited the priority of announcement of a large part of the more prominent facts and theories of chemistry which already existed in print in the works of Paracelsus. It was taken for granted and asserted that Paracelsus had had access to a copy of his works or of some of them, and therefore had appropriated his ideas without acknowledgment. No less an authority than van Helmont (1577-1644) states that Paracelsus lived more than a hundred years after Basil Valentine and had appropriated his knowledge without due credit.[3]

In time also certain legends grew up and became adopted into current literature which seemed to give a greater definiteness to the existence of the assumed author. Gudenus in his history of Erfurt (1675) stated that a monk of that name was a member of the Benedictine order in that city in 1413. Though Gudenus cited no authority for this statement, and the records of the monastery gave no confirmation, and though, for reasons above mentioned, the works of Basil Valentine could not have been written before the end of the century, yet this statement added in time a certain weight to the belief in his reality. Still later apparently arose a tradition that in 1515 the Emperor Maximilian I. had instituted a search to establish the identity or existence of the alleged Basil Valentine, though with negative results.[4] This statement found its way into most of the histories of chemistry and is still frequently met with. The importance of the acceptance of the statement lies in the fact that it assumes that at that early date Basil Valentine was known and an object of interest, instead of a century later. Kopp, who in his "History" (1843) repeats and credits the statement, in his "Beiträge" (1875) calls attention to the baselessness of the rumor.[5] It may be that there is confusion here between the Emperor Maximilian I. (1459-1519), and Duke Maximilian I. of Bavaria (1573-1651). (This explanation has been suggested, though the writer can not now locate the source of the suggestion.)

The question of priority in important contributions to the history of chemistry and the question as to plagiarism by Paracelsus or imposture by Thölde both hinge upon the fact as to whether the Basilius writings were written about 1500 or about 1600, and from what has preceded it would seem that the presumption is in favor of the latter date and that the burden of proof lies with the supporters of Basil Valentine.

But the evidence is not closed with the above-mentioned considerations. Though in his "History of Chemistry," Kopp had accepted the prevalent view that the writings of Basil Valentine were of earlier date than those of Paracelsus, his researches did not cease with the publication of that work. In 1875 in his above quoted "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Chemie" he entered anew and in great detail into the problem. One by one he traces back through the literature the sources of the traditional statements upon which are founded the supposed identification of the period of Basil Valentine. His continued investigations of the manuscripts in the libraries had failed to develop any originals or copies of apparently earlier date than the printed works. He announces his opinion that the evidence favors the judgment that the works of the supposed Basil Valentine are of later date than Paracelsus rather than earlier. He hesitates, however, to accuse Thölde himself of intentional deception, as nothing was known against his reputation, and it could hardly be supposed that he would not have published such a work as the antimony monograph under his own name if he really wrote it.

Eleven years later (1886) in his latest work, "Die Alchemie," and as the result of failure in the meantime to obtain from any source any evidence favoring the prevalent theory, he reiterates more decidedly his belief in the fraudulent character of the work and that Thölde himself was the writer as well as the editor of the alleged Basil Valentine works. With reference to this Thölde, Professor John Ferguson, of the University of Glasgow, the first of British students of chemical literature of this period, in his "Bibliotheca Chemica" (1906), gives some pertinent information and ideas.

Ferguson calls attention to the fact that Thölde published a work in his own name "Haliographia," on salts, salt works, etc. (1603). It consists of four parts. Ferguson says:

This fourth part, it is said, appeared in 1618[6] with the name of Basilius Valentinus. It was certainly published at Bologna, 1644, "Ex manuscriptis et originalibus Fratri Basilii Valentini ordinis S. Benedict! collecta," without any mention of Thölde. This may be all quite straight, but somehow it needs explanation. Especially when we remember that the works of Basil Valentine are said to have been not merely edited by Thölde but actually written by him. It is a dilemma; either Thölde had appropriated the work of Basil Valentine without acknowledgment, or else he has put out or allowed to be put out, a work of his own under the name of Basil Valentine. In his discussion of this subject in the "Beiträge z. Gesch. d. Chemie," Kopp has occasion to consider the connection between Basil Valentine and his reputed editor, and he is inclined to regard Thölde as editor merely, on the ground that as the works contain a good deal of chemistry that was new for the period, he can not see why Thölde should have ascribed that knowledge to one to whom it did not really appertain. He considers that there is nothing in Thölde's life otherwise which would give occasion to believe him untrustworthy. Well, he may have been quite an honest man, but appearances are rather against him and one can sympathize with Dr. Caius: "What shall de honest man do in my closet? Dere is no honest man dat shall come in my closet!" It makes one suspicious that if Thölde could tacitly absorb into his "Haliographia" without acknowledgment a tract which afterwards appeared under Basil Valentine's name, there is no reason why he should not have used the name of Basil Valentine all along as a stalking horse and under presentation of that shot his alchemy. But on this occasion he had forgotten his pseudonymity.

Subsequently ("Die Alchemie," 1886, I., pp. 29-33) Kopp changed his views regarding Thölde and Basil Valentine, and said that there is reason to think that the writings of the latter were composed about the end of the sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century instead of a hundred years earlier; that Basil Valentine's name is fictitious; that the publication of these writings was an intentional literary deception; and in that case that the responsibility must rest with Thölde. It is very remarkable that in this view, so decidedly, uncompromisingly, different from that enunciated by him eleven years earlier he should have come to exactly the same result as that elaborated one hundred years earlier and expressed with emphasis by the author of "Beytrag," a work which, so far as I have observed, was unknown to Kopp, as I do not think that he ever refers to it.

Professor Ferguson in his comments on Kopp's change of views between 1875 and 1886 seems to have overlooked or forgotten that even in 1875, while he was disposed to acquit Thölde of the authorship, he nevertheless clearly expressed his opinion that the authorship followed rather than preceded the time of Paracelsus.[7] Eleven years later, however, after failing to find new evidence from any source, he comes to the conclusion that the most reasonable assumption is that Thölde himself was the author. There is therefore nothing "uncompromisingly" different in his views at the two periods rather is it a case of the carefully guarded expression of a gradually maturing conviction. It is not without significance in connection with this Thölde to note that he also published (1605) an alleged "Kleine Hand-Bibel, etc.," of Paracelsus, claimed by Thölde to have been reproduced from a long-hidden manuscript of Paracelsus. Sudhoff in his bibliography of Paracelsus[8] pronounces this an undoubted imposture, reserving for another place the discussion as to whether Thölde were himself the author. This discussion, however, I have not met with.

Since Kopp's time other competent students of the science of that period have come to similar conclusions. Thus M. Berthelot[9] referring to "antimony," says that this name is far earlier than the mythical personage called Basil Valentine, to whom has sometimes been attributed the discovery of this substance, and under whose name have appeared various works which did not appear previous to the sixteenth century.

Dr. Karl Sudhoff, the eminent student of the early history of medicine and author of the monumental bibliography of the literature of Paracelsus, and whose researches into the books and manuscripts of the period in question have been most exhaustive, covering many years of labor, has recently[10] unquestionably assigned Basil Valentine's writings to the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Dr. Franz Strunz, another well-known scholar in the history of chemistry and natural philosophy of the medieval and renaissance periods, asserts with similar conviction:[11]

The writings of the so-called Basil Valentine, who never existed at all, are by Joh. Thölde. He, however, was in post-Paracelsan time.

Mention may also be made of Lasswitz[12] and Lehmann,[13] amongst modern students of the period who have expressed themselves as accepting the post-Paracelsus origin of the Basil Valentine literature.

It would seem, therefore, in the light of this evidence and in the absence of any support but tradition for the reality of a fifteenth-century writer under the name or pseudonym of Basil Valentine, that we are not only justified, but in justice obliged to conclude that the works in question were written at or about the period of their production; that in all probability Joh. Thölde was the author of the more important and earlier ones; that Paracelsus was not guilty of stealing his chemical knowledge from a unique copy of some unknown original, and that not Basil Valentine nor Thölde, but Paracelsus, was the first recorder, if not the first discoverer, of a considerable series of chemical facts, and the originator of some influential theories and applications, which appeared for the first time in his publications.

But the established channels of three centuries of chemical tradition are hard to divert. Despite the verdict of modern scholarship, recent text-books and manuals of the history of chemical science are slow to accept and assimilate the changes involved.

Thus, in the "History of Chemistry," by P. P. Armitage (1906), it is still assumed that Basil Valentine or some one writing under that name lived at the end of the fifteenth century, and consequently such statements occur as the following:

With Valentine's successor, Paracelsus, there begins a new school of chemistry.

Accepting Valentine's philosophy of the three elements, mercury, sulphur and salt and like him reading this into all matter indiscriminately, Paracelsus was able to give a theoretic basis to his sense of pathologic phenomena.

So also Hugo Bauer (translation of P. V. Stanford, "History of Chemistry," 1907), while stating that "new life was brought into this ruinous state of affairs in the second half of the seventeenth century[14] by Basil Valentine," yet says:

The most decisive influence upon chemical thought in this period proceeded from the physician Paracelsus, and his successors Van Helmont and de Boe Sylvius. Basil Valentine had already put forth the view that all substances consisted of the three elements sulphur, mercury and salt.

Bauer also gives much space to the chemical work of Basil Valentine and overlooks the similar work of Paracelsus.

Sir Edward Thorpe[15] refrains from assigning any definite period to Basil Valentine, saying:

He was supposed to be a Benedictine monk who lived in Saxony during the latter half of the fifteenth century: but there are grounds for the belief that the numerous writings ascribed to him are in reality the work of various hands. The attempt made by Maxmilian I. to discover the identity of the author was unavailing, nor have subsequent inquiries had any better result.

Thorpe, however, gives a summary of the more important chemical facts from these writings, and in the later references to Paracelsus, which are in line with the judgments of earlier rather than of recent scholarship, no reference is made to the similar contributions of Paracelsus, thus conveying the inference of the priority of the works of the pseudo-Basilius.

Even Ernst von Meyer,[16] whose text-book is deservedly the most popular of recent histories, has not broken loose from the traditional mode of treatment. Referring to the writings in question, he recognizes that "their genuineness has become more and more questioned, and rightly so." But perhaps misled by the alleged "investigations, which were carried out at the command of the Emperor Maximilian I.," he still assumes that "a large number of facts were recorded by the writer, who lived about a hundred years before the books were published."

This rumor of the investigations by the Emperor Maximilian I. (who died 1519) which, as above stated, Kopp has pronounced without substantiation, is the most persistent of the traditions which have served to give the impression that the Basil Valentine literature is antecedent to Paracelsus. Naturally enough, accepting the truth of this statement, Meyer omits from his treatment of Paracelsus the enumeration of chemical data previously noted in Basil Valentine, and in referring, for instance, to the doctrine of the three elements, which to the best of our knowledge was original with Paracelsus he says:

With respect to the constituents of organic bodies Paracelsus adhered to the old assumption that the latter were composed of the three elementary substance forming qualities (elements) mercury (Mercurius), sulphur and salt.

In view of the results of the scholarly researches into the history of this period during the past thirty years by Kopp, Berthelot, Sudhoff, Strunz, Lasswitz and others, it is time that the Basil Valentine literature should be assigned to its proper and subordinate place in history. There is indeed great need of a thorough revision of the history of chemical discoveries and theories from the earliest times up to the rise of the phlogistic theory. The task will be no easy one, but the value of the work thoroughly done will well repay the labor.

  1. Hoefer, "Histoire de la Chimie," 2d ed., II., p. 12.
  2. Ferguson, "Bibliotheca Chemica," 1906, mentions Stolle, 1731, Kestner, 1740, the author of "Beytrag zur Gesehichte d. Höheren Chemie," 1785. Waite ("The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony," London, 1893) quotes Placcius, 1708, as skeptical of B. Valentine.
  3. Cf. Van Helmont, "Opera Omnia." Francofurti, 1682. "Tria Prima Chym.," p. 386.
  4. Schmieder ("Geschichte d. Alchimie," 1832), who refers to Motschmann,"Erfordia literata," Erfurt, 1729-32.
  5. Kopp, "Beiträge," III., p. 112.
  6. Schmieder, "Geschichte der Alchemie," in his bibliography of Basil Valentine gives 1612 and 1644 as dates of these editions.
  7. "Beiträge z. Ges. d. Chemie," III., pp. 117-119.
  8. "Versuch einer Kritik der Echtheit der Paracelsichen Schriften," I., 465.
  9. "Introdn. a l'étude de la Chimie," p. 279.
  10. "Beiträge aus der Geschichte der Chemie, dem Gedächtniss von G. W. A. Kahlbaum," 1909, p. 254.
  11. In his "Paracelsus, Leben und Personlichkeit," 1903, p. 30.
  12. Geschichte der Atomistik," etc., 1896.
  13. "Aberglaube und Zauberei," 1908.
  14. This may be a misprint for the fifteenth. The subsequent method and order of treatment would bear out such a supposition.
  15. "History of Chemistry," 1909.
  16. "History of Chemistry," 3d edition, translated by McGowan, 1906.