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John French's preface to his Art of Distillation

John French worked at a time when alchemy was being actively reassessed. The preface to his famous Art of Distillation, London 1651, is particularly interesting in that it gives some good advice on how to investigate alchemy.
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There is a glut of chemical books, but a scarcity of chemical truths. Nature and art afford a variety of spagyrical preparations, but they are as yet partially undiscovered, partially dispersed in many books, and those of diverse languages, and partially reserved in private men's hands. When therefore I considered what need there is of, and how acceptable a general treatise on distillation might be, especially to our English nation (and the rather since Baker upon distillations is by reason of the description of a few furnaces and vessels therein, besides which there is small variety either of preparations or curiosities sold at such a high rate) I thought I could do them no better service than to present them with such a treatise of that subject which should contain in it the choicest preparations of the most select authors, both ancient and modern, and those of several languages, and which I have attained by my own long and manual experience, together with such as I have by way of exchange purchased out of the hands of private men which they had monopolized as great secrets.

But on the other hand, when I considered what a multitude of artists there is in this nation, from many of which more and better things might be expected than from myself, I was at a nonplus in my resolutions, fearing it might be accounted an unpardonable presumption in me to undertake that which might be better performed by others. But for the avoiding of this aspersion, be pleased to understand that I present not this to the world under any other notion than of a rough draft (which indeed is the work of the more unskillful and, therefore, of myself without exception) to be polished by the more expert artist.

I rejoice as at the break of day after a long and tedious night to see how this solary art of alchemy begins to shine forth out of the clouds of reproach which it has for a long time undeservedly laid under. There are two things which have eclipsed it for a long time, viz., the mists of ignorance and the specious lunary body of deceit.

Arise, O Sun of truth, and dispel these interposed fogs, that the Queen of arts may triumph in splendor! If men did believe what the art could effect, and what variety there is in it, they would be no longer straightened by, nor bound up to or lurare in verba Galeni, vel Aristotelis, but would now subscribe a new engagement to be true and faithful to the principles of Hermes and Paracelsus, as they stand established without Aristotle, their prince, and Galen and Hippocrates, their lords and masters. They would no longer stand dreaming forth, Sic dicit Galenus, but Ipse dixit Hermes. I desire not to be mistaken as if I did deny Galen his due, or Hippocrates what is his right for, indeed, they wrote excellently in many things, and deserve well thereby. That which I cannot allow of in them is their strict observation of the quadruplicity of humours (which in the school of Paracelsus and writings of Helmont, where the anatomy of humours has been most rationally and fully discussed, has been sufficiently confuted) and their confining themselves to such crude medicines which are more fit to be put into spagyrical vessels for a further digestion than into men's bodies to be fermented therein.

Certainly, if men were less ignorant, they would prefer cordial essences before crude juices, balsamical elixirs before phlegmatic waters, and mercury of philosophers before common quicksilver. But many men have so little insight in this art that they scarce believe anything beyond the distilling of waters and oil, and extracting of salts; nay, many that pretend to philosophy, and would be accounted philosophers, are so unbelieving that, as says Sendivogius, although he would have intimated the true art to them word by word, yet they would by no means understand or believe that there was any water in the philosophers sea. And, as he in this case, so I in another know diverse that will not believe that common quicksilver can of itself be turned wholly into a transparent water, or that glass can be reduced into sand and salt of which it was made, saying "fusio vitrificatoria est ultima fusio", or that an herb may be made to grow in two hours, and the idea of a plant to appear in a glass, as if the very plant itself were there, and this from the essence thereof, and such like preparations as these: the two former whereof may be done in half an hour, but the latter requiring a longer time, but yet possible. And for the possibility of the elixir, you shall as soon persuade them to believe they know nothing (which is very hard, if not an impossible thing to do ) than to believe the possibility thereof. If there be any such thing (they say) why are not the possessors thereof infinitely rich, famous, doing miracles and cures and living long? These objections, especially some of them, scarce deserve an answer; yet I shall show the vanity of them and make some reply thereunto. Did not Artefius by the help of this medicine live to 1000 years? Did not Flamel build fourteen hospitals in Paris, besides as many in Boleigne, besides churches and chapels with large revenues to them all? Did not Bacon do many miracles? And Paracelsus many miraculous cures? Besides, what says Sendivogius? I have, he says, incurred more dangers and difficulties by discovering myself to have this secret than ever I had profit by it, and when I would discover myself to the great ones, it always redounded to my prejudice and danger. Can a man that carries always about him 10,000 pounds worth of jewels and gold travel everywhere up and down, safe, and not be robbed? Have not many rich money mongers been tortured into a confession where their money was concealed? Did you never hear of a vapouring fellow in London that, pretending to the knowledge of this mystery, was on a sudden caught aside by money-thirsters and by them tormented with tortures little less than those of hell, being forced thereby (if he had known it) into a discovery of it? To say nothing of being in danger of being subjected and enslaved to the pleasure of princes and of becoming instrumental to their to their luxury and tyranny, as also being deprived of all liberty, as was once Raimundus Lullius. The truth is, the greatest matter that philosophers aim at is the enjoyment of themselves, for which cause they have sequestered themselves from the world and become hermits. Well, therefore, and like a philosopher spoke Sendivogius when he said, "Believe me, if I were not a man of that state and condition that I am of, nothing would be more pleasant to me than a solitary life, or with Diogenes to live hid under a tub. For I see all things in this world to be but vanity and that deceit and covetousness prevails much, that all things are vendible, and that vice does excell virtue. I see the better things of the life to come before mine eyes and I rejoice in these. Now I do not wonder, as I did before, why philosophers, when they have attained this medicine, have not cared to have their days shortened (although by the virtue of their medicine they could have prolonged them) for every philosopher has the life to come so clearly set before his eyes, as your face is seen in a glass. Thus much by way of reply to the frivolous objections of those that believe not the verity of this art, and not only so, but will not believe it. If you should discover to them the process of the Philosopher's Stone, they would laugh at your simplicity, and I will warrant you never make use of it. Nay, if you should make projection before them, they would think that even in that there was a fallacy, so unbelieving are they. So I find them, and so I leave them, and shall forever find them the same.

There is another sort of man by whom this art has been much scandalized, and they indeed have brought a great odium upon it by carrying about, and vending their whites and reds, their sophisticated oils and salts, their dangerous and ill-prepared turbithes and aurum vitaes. And indeed it were worthwhile, and I might do good service for the nation, to discover their cheats, as their sophisticating of chemical oils with spirit of turpentine, and salts with salt extracted out of any wood-ashes and such like, but here is not place for so large a discourse as this would amount to. I shall only at this time relate to how Penotus was cheated with a sophisticated oil of gold, for he said he gave 24 ducats for the process of an aurum potabile which was much cried up and magnified at Prague, but at last it proved to be nothing but a mixture of oil of camphor, cloves, fennel-seed and of vitriol tinged with the leaves of gold. I know I shall incur the displeasure of some, but they are sophisticating, cheating mountebanks who indeed deserve to be bound to the peace, because many men, I dare swear, through their means go in danger of their lives. Better it is that their knavery should be detected, than a noble art through their villany be clouded and aspersed.

Now we must consider that there are degrees in this art, for there is the accomplishment of the elixir, itself, and there is the discovery of many excellent essences, magisteries, and spirits, etc., which abundantly recompence the discoverers thereof with profit, health, and delight. Is not Paracelsus, his Ludus that dissolves the stone and all tartarous matter in the body into a liquor, worth finding out? Is not his Tinea Scatura a most noble medicine, that extinguishes all preternatural heat in the body in a moment? Is not his alkahest a famous dissolvement that can in an instant dissolve all things into their first principles, and withall is a specificum against all distempers of the liver? Who would not take pains to make the quintessence of honey and the philosophical spirit of wine which are cordial and balsamical even to admiration? A whole day would fail to reckon up all the excellent, admirable rarities that by this spagyrical art might be brought to light, in the searching out of which, why may not the elixir, itself, at last be attained unto? Is it not possible for them that pass through many philosophical preparations to unfold at last the riddles and hieroglyphics of the philosophers? Or were they all mere phantoms? Is there no fundamentum in re for this secret? Is there no sperm in gold? Is it not possible to exalt it for multiplication? Is there no universal spirit in the world? Is it not possible to find that collected in one thing which is dispersed in all things? What is that which makes gold incorruptible? What induced the philosophers to examine gold for the matter of their medicine? Was not all gold once living? Is there none of this living gold, the matter of philosophers, to be had? Did Sendivogius, the last of known philosophers, spend it all? Surely, there is matter enough for philosophers, and also some philosophers at this day for the matter, although they are unknown to us. There are, says Sendivogius, without doubt many men of a good conscience both of high and low degree (I speak knowingly) that have this medicine and keep it secretly. if so, let no man be discouraged in the prosecution of it, especially if he takes along with him the five keys which Nollius sets down which indeed all philosophers with one consent enjoin the use and observation of.

1. Seeing it is a divine and celestial thing, it must be sought for from above, and that not without a full resolution for a pious and charitable improvement of it.

2. Before you take yourself to the work, propound to yourself what you seek, and enter not upon the practice until you are first well versed in the theory. For it is much better to learn with your brain and imagination than with your hands and costs, and especially study nature well, and see if your proposals are agreeable to the possibility thereof.

3. Diligently read the sayings of true philosophers, read them over again and again and meditate on them, and take heed that you do not read the writings of imposters instead of the books of the true philosophers. Compare their sayings with the possibility of nature, and obscure places clear ones, and where philosophers say they have erred, do beware, and consider well the general axioms of philosophers, and read so long until you see a sweet harmony, and consent in the sayings of them.

4. Imagine not high things, but in all things imitate nature, viz. in matter, in removing what is heterogeneous, in weight, in color, in fire, in working, in slowness of working, and let the operations not be vulgar, nor your vessels. Work diligently and constantly.

5. If it is possible, acquaint your self thoroughly with some true philosophers. Although they will not directly discover themselves that they have this secret, yet by one circumstance or another it may be concluded how near they are to it. Would not any rational man that had been conversant with Bacon, and seeing him do such miraculous things, or with Sendivogius who did intimate the art to some word by word, have concluded that they were not ignorant of it? There have been philosophers, and perhaps still are, that although they will not discover how it is made, yet may certify you, to the saving of a great deal of costs, pains, and time, how it is made. And to be convinced of an error is a great step to the truth. If Ripley had been by any tutor convinced of those many errors before he had bought his knowledge at so dear a rate, he had long before, with less charges attained to his blessed desire.

And as a friendly tutor in this, so in all spagyrical preparations whatsoever, is of all things most necessary. A faithful well experienced master will teach you more in the mysteries of alchemy in a quarter of a year than by your own studies and chargeable operations you will learn in seven years. In the first place, therefore, and above all things apply yourself to an expert, faithful, and communicative artist, and account it a great gain if you can purchase his favor, though with a good gratuity, to lead you through the manual practice of the chiefest and choicest preparations. I said apply yourself to an artist, for there is scarce any process in all of chemistry so easy that he who never saw it done will be to seek, and commit some errors in the doing of it. I said expert that he may be able to instruct you aright; faithful, that as he is able, so may faithfully perform what he promises; and communicative, that he may be free in discovering himself and his art to you. The truth is, most artists reserve that to themselves, which they know, either out of a desire to be admired the more for their undiscovered secrets or out of envy to others' knowledge. But how far this humor is approvable in them, I leave it to others to judge; and as for my part, I have here communicated upon the account of a bare acceptance only what I have with many years of pains, much reading, and great costs known. There is but one thing which I desire to be silent in, as touching the process thereof. As for the thing itself to be prepared, what it is I have elsewhere in this treatise expressed. And the preparing of that is indeed a thing worth of anyone's knowing, and which perhaps hereafter I may make known to some. I am of the same mind with Sendivogius that the fourth monarchy which is northern is dawning, in which (as the ancient philosophers did divine) all arts and sciences shall flourish, and greater and more things shall be discovered than in the three former. These monarchies the philosophers reckon not according to the more potent, but according to the corners of the world, whereof the northern is the last and, indeed, is no other than the Golden Age in which all tyranny, oppression, envy, and covetousness shall cease, when there shall be one prince and one people abounding with love and mercy, and flourishing in peace, which day I earnestly expect.

In the meantime, if what I know may add to your experience, you may have it freely. And if I shall see that this treatise of distillation passes with acceptance among the artists of this nation, I shall hereafter gratify them for their good will with two other parts of chemistry, viz. sublimation and calcination. And I hope this will be occasion to set the more expert artist on work, for the communicating their experiences to the world. One thing (courteous reader) let me desire you to take notice of, viz. whereas every process is set down plain, yet all of them must be proceeded in secundum artem alchymistae (which art indeed is obtained by experience) and therefore many that work according to the bare process effect not what they intend, and the reason is this, because there was some art of the alchemist wanting. To conclude, if you know more or better things than these, be candid and impart them (considering that I wrote these for them that know them not); if not, accept the endeavors of your friend,

John French.


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