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Denis Zacaire's account of his alchemical work

In Denis Zacaire's Opuscule tres-eccellent de la vraye Philosophie naturelle des metaulx first published in 1567, there is an autobiographical account of his alchemical quest, which seems modelled on Bernard of Treviso's.
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Having arrived at the age of 20 years or thereabouts and having received the rudiments of education at home, I was sent by my parents to Bordeaux, to undertake the college curriculum, and I was there for four years, chiefly studying philosophy. I made such progress - by the grace of God and the pains of a certain master - that it was decided for me to proceed to Toulouse, in the charge of the same instructor, for a course of law. There I made acquaintance, however, with other students who had numbers of Alchemical books, my preceptor himself having meddled in these workings. In fact when I went to Toulouse I carried with me a thick volume of processes, collected from all the texts which I had been able to discover... It seemed to me - being thus fortified - if I could undertake the practice, perhaps even with the least of the processes, I should prove the most fortunate of beings...

Before the end of the first year my two hundred crowns had gone up in smoke, and my master died of a lingering fever that he contracted during the summer, largely because he rarely left his room, in which the atmosphere was terribly hot and unhealthy. I was the more troubled by his death since my parents would only send me the money for my keep instead of the amount I wanted to carry on my Work.

To overcome these difficulties, I went home in 1535, so as to avoid being under a tutor, and aggregated three years income, which came to four hundred crowns. I needed this amount of capital because I wanted to work out a recipe which had been given me at Toulouse by an Italian who said he had actually been present at the experiment. I kept him with me so that he might see the end of his process. I calcined gold and silver in aqua fortis, but this was no use because the gold and silver I used melted away to less than half the original quantity, and my four hundred crowns were soon reduced to two hundred and thirty. I gave twenty of these to my Italian to go and sort out the matter with the man who had given him the recipe and who lived, so he said, in Milan. I waited at Toulouse all through the winter expecting his return; but it might still be there if I had been prepared to go on waiting, for I never saw him again.

Then came the summer, and with it an outbreak of plague, so I left the town. But I did not lose sight of my work. I went to Cahors where I made the acquaintance of an old man who was commonly known as the Philosopher - though this is a title easily bestowed in the provinces on anyone less ignorant that the rest. I told him what I had been doing and asked his opinion. All he did was to suggest ten or a dozen processes that he thought were better than most. The plague ran its course, and I returned to Toulouse. I resumed my work and did so well that my four hundred crowns were reduced to a hundred and seventy!

Hoping to continue my operations with greater success, I made the acquaintance in 1537 of an Abbe who lived near the town. He was as enthusiastic about the Work as I was, and told me that one of his friends, a member of Cardinal d'Armagnac's suite, had sent him a recipe from Rome, which he believd was really effective, but which was likely to cost some two hundred crowns. We provided half each of this sum, and set to work, using our capital as a common purse. As we needed some alcohol for the process, I bought a cask of excellent Gaillac wine. I rectified it several times to obtain the spirit we required; and we then put one gold mark that we had calcinated for a month into four times the quantity of spirit. This was poured into a retort as the Art requires, with another one to balance it, and deposited on a furnace to coagulate. We left it for a year; but, so as not to be idle, we amused ourselves by carrying out various less important experiments, which were just as profitable as our Great Work!

The whole of 1537 passed without any change, and we might have waited for the rest of our lives for our brew to congeal, because spirits of wine are clearly not the diluent for gold. Still, we did recover all the gold, the only alteration it had undergone being that the metal powder was a shade finer than when we had put it to soak. We scattered it over some hot quicksilver, but in vain. You may imagine how disappointed we were, especially the Abbe, who had already told his monks that all they need do was melt down a large leaden fountain that stood in their cloisters and it would be turned into gold as soon as our operations were completed. This failure did not prevent our continuing.

Once more I aggregated my income, and drew another four hundred crowns. The Abbe added an equal amount, and I went to Paris, the best place in the world to meet practitioners of the Art. Having these eight hundred crowns, I was quite determined not to leave until either I had spent the lot or had discovered something worth while. My parents were not at all pleased about my undertaking this journey, and my friends expostulated with me for not buying a legal practice, as they thought I was a skillful lawyer. I made them believe that I was only taking this trip in order to do that very thing.

I reached Paris on the 9th January 1539, after a fortnight's journey. For a month I hardly spoke to a soul, but as soon as I came in contact with other enthusiasts, some of whom even owned furnaces, I found that I was acquainted with over a hundred of them, each with his own particular system - some believed in precipitation, others in dissolution, others in using an essay of emery. Then there were those who first extracted mercury from their metals, in order to fix it afterwards. Not a day passed without our meeting at the lodging of one or another of us, to tell each other how we were getting on; we did so even on Sundays and feast days, when we foregathered at Notre Dame, the most popular church in Paris. Then some would say: if only we had the means to start over again we'd get somewhere! Others: if our vessels had been strong enough we'd have done it by now! Or: if I'd had a good, round copper pot with a lid, I could have fixed the mercury with silver. There was not a single one who had not got a plausible excuse; but I was deaf to them all, having learnt by experience how badly one can be let down by such expectations.

A Greek turned up and I worked unsuccessfully with him on lumps of cinnabar. Almost at the same time I made the acquaintance of a foreign gentleman who had just arrived in Paris, and who used to sell the fruits of his operations to goldsmiths. I accompanied him, and got to know him quite well, although he would never tell me his secret. In the end he did tell me, but it proved to be simply another fraud, though rather more ingenious than most. I never failed to tell the Abbe in Toulouse all about everything, and even sent him a copy of this gentleman's process. He evidently thought that I was on the track of something at last, and exhorted me to stay another year in Paris, since I had made such a good beginning. Yet despite all my efforts. I made no more progress in the three years I spent there than I had done before.

I had spent almost all my money, when the Abbe sent to ask me to come and see him immediately. I did so, and found that he had had letters from the King of Navarre, who was greatly interested in Philosophy, requesting him to send me to meet him at Pau in Bearn, so as to teach him the secret I had learnt from the foreign gentleman. He said he would pay me three or four thousand crowns for it. The sound of those four thousand crowns was so sweet in the Abbe's ears that he felt as if they were already in his purse, and he gave me no peace until I agreed to go and see the King. I got to Pau in May 1542, and successfully carried out the operation, as I had been shown it. When I had done all the King wished, I got the reward I expected - which was nothing. Although the King himself was willing enough to do the right thing by me, he was deterred by his courtiers, even by those who had encouraged him to send for me. So I was packed off with a big thank you, and told to try and find something in his realm that I would care to accept, something that might be confiscated, for example, which hw would gladly give me. This offer, which still meant precisely nothing, gave me the impetus to go back to go back to the Abbe at Toulouse.

However, I had heard that there was a cleric who lived somewhere along the route I would be travelling, and who was well skilled in natural philosophy. So I called on him, and found him very sympathetic about my difficulties. He advised me most kindly and earnestly not to go on wasting my time over unsystematic experiments, none of which led anywhere, but to read the works of the older philosophers, both to recover what was the true substance and to find out exactly the right method of prosecuting the Work.

I greatly appreciated his wise counsel, but before putting it into practice I went to see my Abbe at Toulouse, to account for the eight hundred crowns in our common purse and also to share with him what I had received from the King of Navarre!

Although he was not very happy about what I had to tell, he seemed even less pleased with my determination not to continue our joint work, because he believed me to be a good Artist. Of our eight hundred crowns there now remained only ninety for each of us.I left him and went home, planning that I would go to Paris as soon as possible and stay there unless my reading of the Philosophers made me change my mind, I got there on the morning after All Saint's Day in the year 1546, with enough money to live on. I spent a year studying the works of the great writers, such as the Assembly of Philosophers, the Good Trevisan, works on Natural Philosophy, and other useful books. As I had no guiding lines to direct me, I did not know which to choose among the many.

At last I emerged from my seclusion, not in order to meet my old friends the experimenters again, but to get to know some genuine philosophers. Unfortunately my confusion became even greater, because their works were so various and their methods so diverse. Nevertheless, I was stimulated, and I immersed myself in the books of Raymond Lully and in Arnold of Villanova's Grand Rosaire. My meditations and my researches continued for another year, and then I came to a decision; but in order to carry it out I had to make some arrangements about my property. I reached home at the beginning of Lent 1549, determined to put into practice all I had learnt. So, after some preliminaries, I bought everything I needed and began to work on the day after Easter. All this did not go off without some discomforts and vexation. Every now and then someone would say: "But what are you going to do? Haven't you wasted enough on this nonsense?" And someone else told me that if I went on buying such quantities of charcoal people would suspect me of being a coiner, of which he had in fact already heard rumours. As I had a degree in Law, they pressed me again to buy a legal practice. But the worst came from my parents, who reproached me bitterly for the life I was leading, and actually threatened to send the police to destroy my equipment.

You can imagine how tiresome and harassing all this was. The only comfort I had was in my Work, in carrying out the operations which from day to day were becoming more successful, and to which I gave my whole mind. The interruption of all communications by another outbreak of the plague brought me into greater isolation and gave me the opportunity of concentrating wholly on my process and of realising the succession of the three colours that philosophers require before the Work is perfected. I saw them, one after the other, and I made the great attempt in the following year, on Easter Day 1550. Some ordinary quicksilver that I put in a crucible over a fire was in less than an hour turned into pure gold. You may imagine my joy. But I took care not to boast, I thanked God for His grace and I prayed that He would not allow me to use it except to His glory.

On the following day I went to see my Abbe, faithful to the mutual promise we had made to tell each other of our discoveries. I also went to visit the religious philosopher who had given me such helpful advice. But to my regret I learnt that both of them had died about six months previously. I did not return home, but retired to another place to wait for one of my relatives whom I had put in charge of my affairs. I sent him a power of attorney to sell everything I possessed, whether in goods and buildings; I told him to use the money to pay my debts and to distribute what remained to any who had need of it, and especially to my family, so that they might have at least some share in the great gift that God had bestowed on me. Everyone gossiped about my precipitate departure. The clever ones surmised that I was so overcome by my foolish extravagance that I was selling everything so as to be able to hide my shame in some place where I was not known. My cousin joined me on 1st July, and we went off to find somewhere where we could be untroubled. First we went to Switzerland, to Lausanne, and then decided that we would pass the remained of our days in peace and quite in one of the large German cities.