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alchemical fun

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Here in Adelaide, a show called The Illusionists has recently started a 2 week season at the Festival Centre. On this morning’s ABC breakfast news show, we were informed that, after a ten-year doldrum period, magic is back in fashion. Great!

So it was with some amusement that I happened to come across, today, in my holiday reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the tale of a dastardly magical trick, which involved a priest, a canon, and that most riveting of medieval delusions, the alchemical philosopher’s stone.

The tale is called ‘The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale’, and it describes the trick in masterly detail. The yeoman begins though, by describing at length, and at the same time cursing, for he’s a thorough sceptic, the various ingredients and utensils employed in the black art of ‘the transmutation of metals’. The ingredients included arsenic trisulphide, burnt bones, iron flakes, quicksilver, sublimated mercury, lead monoxide, Armenian red clay, borax, verdigris, reddening waters, sal ammoniac, brimstone, bull’s gall, unslaked lime, chalk, egg-white, various powders, ashes, dung, clay, urine, wax-sealed bags, vitriol, saltpeter, horse’s or human hair, alkali, oil of tartar, alum glass, yeast, unfermented beer, crude tartar, disulphide of arsenic, and of course a pinch of salt and pepper. There were also essential herbs such as agrimony, valerian, moonwort and others. The vessels and utensils included molds, assaying vessels, alembics, vials, crucibles, sublimation vessels, urinals, flasks and such, in which the ingredients underwent such processes as sublimation, amalgamation, coagulation, calcination, albification, cementing, fermenting, absorption and citronation, to name but a few.

And on top of all that was the vital ingredient, element, catalyst or whatever, the philosopher’s stone, or elixir, which was, of course, ever-elusive. And these ‘scientists’ were always recognisable by the burn marks over their bodies, the ever-present stench of brimstone, and their threadbare clothes, for none of them ever found what they were looking for.

Thus our canon’s yeoman sets the scene, then he introduces a peripatetic canon, far more subtle and tricky in his wickedness than the canon of the title. The canon comes to London, where he pays a visit to a wealthy but popular priest, begging him for a small loan which he promises to repay within 3 days – ‘And if you find me unreliable, have me hanged by the neck  the next time’.

The kindly priest agrees, and the wily canon fulfils his part of the bargain 3 days later. Thus having cemented a bond, the fast talker promises to show the priest the secrets of the alchemical trade, and the great advances he himself has made in creating silver out of base metal. Of course the priest is more than eager to be acquainted with such developments, so, upon instruction, he fetches 3 ounces of quicksilver and a heap of coals, and they begin forthwith. Chattering all the while about the years it cost him to perfect his technique, and the expense of the powders he has obtained to do the job, he pulls a crucible from beneath his robe, sets the priest to firing it up with hot coals, and adding an ounce of quicksilver:

And the canon threw a powder into the crucible to deceive this priest. I don’t know what it was made of, but whether it was chalk, or glass, or something else, it wasn’t worth a fly.

Some coals were placed on top of the crucible to add to the heat, and, while distracting the priest with the supposed action of the powder, the canon slipped an imitation coal, made of beechwood, among the others. This false coal had a hole gouged into it, into which the crafty canon had placed an ounce of silver filings, ‘and the opening sealed tight with wax to keep the filings in’. The false coal was of course so placed that the filings soon found their way into the crucible mixture.

The canon then suggested to the priest that they go out together and get some chalkstone to fashion into a mold, and a pan of wate. He said he’d go with the priest, to assure him that he’d be up to no monkey business in the priest’s absence. So off they went, locking the door behind them.

Now, the canon had hidden in his sleeve a sheet of silver, weighing only an ounce, and he slyly made a mold from it without the priest noticing. When they returned, he picked up the materials from the fire, put them into the mold, and then threw the whole into the pan of water. When things were sufficiently cooled he asked the priest to rummage about in the pan for there surely must be some silver in there.

In short, the priest found the silver, and was beside himself with excitement. Not content with this trickery however, the canon took him on another ride. They went through the whole rigmarole again, with the quicksilver and the magic powder and the coals, but this time for variation, the canon stirred the concoction with a stick which was actually hollowed out and sealed with wax at the tip, and no guesses for what was secreted inside. Things continued on in this way, with the canon producing different variations on the theme, all of them completely hoodwinking the poor priest. They took the precious metal to a goldsmith, who confirmed that, yes, they’d produced the finest, purest silver. The priest begged to know the canon’s secret, and after much palaver, the canon agreed to sell the formula for the princely sum of ‘forty pounds in nobles’, no doubt a fortune in those days. The priest bought it good and proper, and the canon slipped away, never to be seen again.

So let’s not under-estimate the power of magic! Plus ça change…

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm