Chapter 16. Adelard (Alcohol)


Since I possess many wonderful books written on these matters I became anxious to produce a commentary, not that I may appear to be encroaching upon the sacred books and [therefore] despite much labor accomplishing nothing, but that, avoiding that mortal heresy, I will disclose to those who wish to understand these things what the actual processes are that are used in painting and other kinds of work. I call the title of this compilation Mappae Clavicula, so that everyone who lays hands on it and often tries it out will think that a kind of key is contained in it. For just as access to [the contents of] locked houses is impossible without a key, though it is easy for those who are inside, so also, without this commentary, all that appears in the sacred writings will give the reader a feeling of exclusion and darkness. I swear further by the great God who has disclosed these things, to hand this book down to no one except to my son, when he has first judged his character and decided whether he can have a pious and just feeling about these things and can keep them secure.

212. From a mixture of pure and very strong xjnf with 3 qbsut of tbmu, cooked in the vessels used for this business, there comes a liquid, which when set on fire and while still flaming leaves the material [underneath] unburnt.

 Mappae Clavicula, ca. 1130 AD [1]


This flaming liquid is one of the most remarkable substances ever discovered and so you will understand that I have endeavoured to hide it among my secrets. It is nothing less than the vegetable mercury, which rises from the earth to heaven and descends again to the earth. It is the strong power of all powers for it overcomes everything fine and penetrates everything solid. In Latin it is called Aqua Vitae, in Gaelic Uisce Beatha, both names meaning "water of life." The English alcohol is derived from the Arabic al-Kuhl. My child, are ye prepared to preserve this immortal fire, to protect it from the ignorant rabble, to keep in its heat and withstand it?

Hey, I was sitting there.

You are probably wondering what is going on. I will tell you. I was minding my own business, preparing to tell you about alcohol, it being my turn to speak. I stepped out to answer the memetic equivalent of the call of Nature and returned to find Lucifer in the driver's seat preparing to make off with my chapter. Now I admit that my subject touches on heat and temperature and winds up with a fondue; still, if Lucifer were a chicken she would not belong in every pot. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Of course, alcoholic beverages have been around since God was a child. The earliest written records speak of mead, wine and beer as part of everyday life. But the isolation of alcohol from these sources is of much more recent invention. You see, while any old devil can heat the bejeezus out of something, it is quite another matter to catch this bejeezus and put it in a bottle. Catching a spirit requires a kinder, gentler kind of fire, and once the bejeezus has been coaxed from its lair it must be herded like a cat, not summoned like a dog.

People will argue about who was the first to succeed in distilling alcohol. I can only tell you that I myself inhabited a painter of the twelfth century when I discovered it. Now, a painter had to be a jack of all trades in those days. One day you might be painting with oils on canvas, another dyeing yarn for a tapestry, another gilding letters in a book, and yet another preparing plaster from gypsum. And because there was quite a bit of variation in the quality and purity of the various metals, dyes, pigments, binders and solvents an artist really had to be something of a chemist if he was not to be taken to the cleaners.

Even more-so, an artist had to be on the lookout for new combinations of colors and textures to provide for the endless struggle of queens and kings to out-dress call-girls and clowns. In the dog-eat-dog world of high fashion, a successful painter had to jealously guard his recipes from theft by his competitors. Now in those days there were many solvents for painting and dyeing; water for some, oil for others, wine, vinegar or urine for still others, and so on. It was difficult enough finding a solvent for one pigment, let alone trying to mix a water-soluble pigment with an oil-soluble one. What was needed was a universal solvent, one that would dissolve just about anything.

Metallurgy had such a solvent in mercury. You see, quicksilver will dissolve most any metal, particularly the valuable ones like silver and gold. In fact, one method for recovering gold from it ore is to mix it with mercury, which dissolves the elemental gold but not the oxides, sulfides, and carbonates of the other metals. This mercury, laden with dissolved gold, is then placed in a furnace in which the bejeezus is heated from it, that is, the mercury is boiled away leaving gold behind. Now it had been noted in antiquity that when mercury is boiled it disappears from the pot, but, amazingly, beads of mercury collect on any cool surfaces which may happen to be nearby. Because mercury does not grow on trees, it was advantageous to arrange matters so that there was always a cool surface nearby so that the mercury might be recovered. Such an arrangement came to be known as a still.

So the idea was instilled in me that mercury, the universal metallic solvent, was a kind of spirit which could be driven out of a metal by heating and collected by cooling. The same was true of another very good solvent, water. It became my habit, then, in the odd moment when nothing else was cooking, to distill whatever leftovers happened to be lying about to see what might come of them. Many people had the same notion and wine, in particular, was a popular choice for distillation. The resulting "spirits" provided an enhanced kick, but were not qualitatively better solvents than wine.

One day I happened to throw some salt into the pot for no particular reason. The resulting distillate was stronger than any spirit I had ever seen. Now, taste is an important tool for chemical analysis when you have nothing else and so I had a little shot of my new spirit, purely in the spirit of scientific inquiry you understand. It literally knocked me off my feet, with the result that I lost my balance and dropped my beaker near the furnace. Whoosh! The whole place erupted in flames and I thought sure I had fallen in the clutches of the fellow with the horns. Fortunately the fire burned out as quickly as it started and I was left a little singed but a lot wiser.

I suppose that the lesson most people would have taken from this experience is never to mix salt with wine. But I was not most people. No, the lesson I learned was to sit before sipping solvent. Eventually my attention returned to matters artistic and I found that this new spirit was an almost universal solvent for pigments, dyes and medicines. When I wrote down the recipe for this phenomenal potion, I did so in code, lest I lose my competitive advantage. You are probably wondering about the secret of this code. I would tell you but then it would no longer be a secret.

As it turned out, my code was soon broken. You see, it is in the interest of the mortal to keep secrets, but it is not in the interest of secrets to be kept. Memes which do not get out much are apt to go extinct and so having wriggled my way out of my medieval painter, it is I, the un-kept secret, who remain to write this chapter. So I am now prepared to let the alcoholic cat out of the bag, so to speak.



Reference [25].