1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 04

April 1607

Phillip had been an apprentice for nearly a year, and his mother hadn’t written to him once. He had hoped that she would at least remember his birthday, but that had been and gone without a word. He kicked out at a stone on the road and idly watched it careen down the road as he continued to plod along beside the Fuggerei’s new apothecary.

The Fuggerei was a social housing complex founded by and supported by the Fugger family for the needy citizens of Augsburg and Herr Reihing had ordered him to assist Thomas Schmidt while he collected various materials — herbs, fungi, and bits of plants, including a lot of willow branches — to be used in the preparation of remedies for the residents of the Fuggerei. It had turned out much more interesting than he’d expected, because Herr Schmidt was a bit of a natural teacher. Either that or he liked the sound of his own voice so much he was happy to talk about anything. Whatever, deliberately or otherwise, Phillip had learned a lot about the various plants they’d collected and what they were used for. And maybe, if he was lucky, Phillip hoped he’d be asked to help prepare the various treatments Herr Schmidt intended to make.

“I hear that your stepfather was an apothecary in Bad Ãœberkingen,” Thomas said as they walked back to the assay office facility. “With that and your own interest in materia medica I’m surprised you didn’t apprentice to an apothecary.”

Phillip turned to look at Thomas. “My great grandfather was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus, and I want to be the world’s greatest alchemist, just like he was.”

“Paracelsus?” Thomas asked.

Phillip nodded.

“Are you sure he’s your great grandfather?” Thomas asked.

Phillip realized Herr Schmidt had obviously heard that Paracelsus never married and supposedly never had any children. “Mama says that her father, my maternal grandfather, is the illegitimate son of Paracelsus, and that the family passed him off as the son of Paracelsus’ cousin in order to secure an inheritance.”

“That’s an interesting story,” Thomas said.

“It’s not a story. It’s the truth. My mama wouldn’t lie,” Phillip protested.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure your mother wouldn’t lie to you,” Thomas said. “So you want to be like Paracelsus? Are you planning on going to university?”

“One day,” Phillip muttered. “But I need to improve my Latin first. My stepfather insisted that I help him in his shop rather than go to a specialist Latin school.”

“Well, if you like, I can have a word with Master Paler. Maybe he can arrange for you to take lessons.”

Phillip’s eyes lit up. “Oh, thank you, Herr Schmidt.”

That evening

Thomas Schmidt placed his glass carefully on the little table beside the chair before collapsing into the chair opposite the assay office’s senior chemist. Once there he picked up his glass of wine and sipped it. “That Phillip Gribbleflotz is an interesting character. Did you know he wants to learn Latin so he can go to university one day?”

Paul Paler looked over his wineglass. “Why would he want to go to university?”

Thomas sniggered. “He wants to follow in his great grandfather’s footsteps.”

“What’s so funny about that? Lots of boys Gribbleflotz’ age want to follow in the footsteps of a famous ancestor. Who’s he hoping to emulate?”

“Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.”

Paul was caught with a mouthful of wine, which he managed to spray everywhere as he tried vainly to smother a laugh. While he mopped up the wine he looked at Thomas. “Paracelsus never married.”

Thomas nodded. “But that doesn’t mean he never had any children.”

“I don’t remember ever reading about any bastard children.”

Again Thomas nodded. “But just because you didn’t hear about them doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.”

“Come off it, Thomas. Paracelsus himself was the bastard son of a bastard son. It’s not likely the Bombastus family would let a little thing like illegitimacy stop them laying claim to Paracelsus’ son.”

“Unless they had a better reason to keep it quiet.”

“What possible reason could the Bombastus family have for keeping yet another bastard a secret?”

“What if they wanted to pass off the child as the son of Paracelsus’ childless cousin in order to secure an inheritance?”

Paul whistled. From everything he’d ever heard about the family he could see them doing that. “Is that what young Gribbleflotz claims happened?”

“That’s the gist of the story his mother told him, and just in case there is an element of truth to it, we should keep it between ourselves. His grandfather is still alive, and you know what families are like when it comes to inheritances.”

Paul nodded his agreement, but such a story just begged to be told to one’s trusted confidants — on the strict understanding that it wasn’t to be passed on. In less than a week everyone at the assay office knew that Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz believed himself to be the great grandson of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus, one of the renaissance’s greatest scientists.

A lot of people hearing the story didn’t believe it, and a few of the apprentices expressed the intention of confronting Phillip over the issue. However, they were actively discouraged from doing this when Bernhard Bimmel stood up. He didn’t say he believed Phillip’s story, but he made it clear in his own inimitable way that he supported Phillip’s right to believe that he was the great grandson of Paracelsus.

June 1608

At least one of the apprentices in the little classroom listened attentively as the teacher went over the lesson. Phillip had been attending Latin classes ever since that plant gathering expedition with Thomas Schmidt and he was sure he was making progress. The teacher left the homework on the blackboard for the students to copy down in their books and then they were free to report to their supervising journeymen.

Phillip was intercepted by Wilhelm Neuffer the moment he appeared outside Jakob Reihing’s laboratory. “Ah, good. You’re here. How’s the Latin going?” Wilhelm asked as he walked with Phillip to the local equivalent of a cloakroom.

“Very well, Herr Neuffer.”

“Good. Well, put your books away and grab your apron. We’ll be doing something new today.”

“What?” Phillip asked eagerly as he hastily donned his heavy leather protective apron.

“Today we start you making Oil of Vitriol.”

Phillip didn’t miss a step even as the words generated an image of Martin Brenner being enveloped in a cloud of acidic vapor in his mind. “I used to help my stepfather make Oil of Vitriol.”

“And do you think that means you’re qualified to make Oil of Vitriol?” Wilhelm asked.

Phillip shook his head. “No, Herr Neuffer.”

“Good. There are only two ways to make anything here — the way I teach you to do it and the wrong way. Remember, that. Now, are you ready to start?”

“Yes, Herr Neuffer.”

Wilhelm took Phillip through the whole process, from heating the ground green vitriol, or copperas as it was also called, until it lost its green and blue color, to the roasting in a glass retort and collecting the vapors — although as the laboratory was still experiencing a period of safety consciousness after the accident that killed Martin Brenner Phillip’s role was mostly limited to watching and keeping the fire stoked so that it burned as hot as possible.

The resulting condensate had a slightly yellow color. Of course, the roasting of the green vitriol took a long time, so it was sometime the next day before he got to watch Wilhelm test the strength of the acid they’d produced. The way the hole appeared in the rag where he’d dripped a little Oil of Vitriol was suitably impressive. It was as if he’d held a flame to the rag, although it didn’t catch alight. It was certainly a timely reminder to always wear his heavy leather apron to protect not only his clothes, but also his skin.

Over the next few months Phillip learned to make Oil of Vitriol, aqua fortis, aqua regia, acidum salis, and even high strength aqua vitae — which were not intended for human consumption, not even if diluted with fruit juice.

December 1608

“Come on, Gribbleflotz. Everyone knows you’re virtually left to run the distilling furnace on your own,” Bernhard Bimmel said.

Phillip had been quietly sitting on his bed sewing lime green cuffs to a shirt when the deputation of senior apprentices appeared with their simple request.