The Mysterious Alchemist Named Basil Valentine

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, March 12, 2016
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“If by fire / Of sooty coal th’ empiric alchymist / Can turn, or holds it possible to turn, / Metals of drossiest ore to perfect gold.” β€”John Milton, “Paradise Lost”

In A Nutshell

Basil Valentine was supposedly a Benedictine monk born in 1394. He wrote a number of works on the medical properties of antimony (which undoubtedly killed more people than it cured) and the keys to discovering the Philosopher’s Stone, but no one’s sure who he was or if he even existed. It’s been suggested that the name is a pseudonym for other scientists and chemists of the 14th and 15th centuries, but that’s debated, too. Some of his works mention things like tobacco and the land that would become America, so we’re not even sure when these enigmatic works were written.

The Whole Bushel

Alchemy might have a reputation as a fringe science, but numerous alchemists have made undeniable contributions to today’s world. They developed new ways of testing and exploring the world, they were the trusted advisers of royalty, and their studies gave us things like gunpowder and the still. But there’s one alchemist who—in spite of his influence, his books, and his work—we know surprisingly little about.

We don’t even know where he was from, what century he lived in, or if he was real.

He went by the name Basilius Valentinus, or Basil Valentine. There are many accounts of his life and times, but most of them contradict each other. By the 17th century, stories of him had already passed into the realm of at least somewhat distant history, and some of the most frequently cited information has him being born in 1394. A Benedictine monk, Valentine is also often said to have been the Canon of the Priory of St. Peter in Erfurt (near Strasburg, Germany), although there’s no concrete evidence to support any of that.

In addition to his monastic duties, he was also a chemist and alchemist. He’s been given credit for some major discoveries, including the creation of hydrochloric acid.

He also figured out how to make brandy from beer and wine, as he pursued his ultimate goal: proving that it was possible to attain a human body that was in perfect health.

He was also incredibly outspoken in his condemnation of the doctors of his day, writing again and again on how doctors did nothing but look up symptoms in books, prescribe the first medicine they came across (without knowing anything about it), and leave the rest up to chance.

That makes it more than a little ironic that one of his major medical treatises—The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony—probably killed more people than not. Valentine wrote that God had given mankind all it needed to be healthy and saying it’s all within the plants, roots, herbs, seeds, and even metals that were put on this Earth with us. Chief among those was, as the title suggests, antimony.

Today, we know that antimony and its compounds are extremely toxic. Best known as the brittle metal used to mix the eye makeup of the ancient Egyptians, antimony was briefly lauded by Valentine as a miracle cure.

He specifies that it’s a certain type of antimony—the one that contains a lot of gold—that’s best suited to medicinal uses, and lists a number of preparations for it, including one that requires the combination of antimony and borax in a copper dish.

Valentine claimed that the various mixtures could be used to heal wounds, stop infection, relieve inflammation, heal ulcers, and even cure the plague. But the medicines Valentine was prescribing were more likely to kill than cure, and that’s only added to the mystery of just who this person supposedly was.

One suggestion is that he’s not even a single person, but a pseudonym that was adopted by anyone wanting to write something they weren’t comfortable publishing under their own name.

While he’s generally said to have been born in 1394, some of his writings include references to things that he couldn’t possibly have known about—like tobacco and the new land that would become America. His name doesn’t appear in Rome’s General Register of the Benedictines, and evidence (like portraits, more texts, and even his laboratory) are conveniently missing, all with various excuses as to why they were destroyed, moved or lost.

Show Me The Proof

Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored, by Archibald Cockren
io9.com: Basil Valentine’s Home Remedies Killed A Lot Of People. But Who Was He?
Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, by Basil Valentine
Keys to the Kingdom of Alchemy
Royal Society of Chemistry: Antimony