1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 15


Later that day a very impatient Phillip accompanied Giacomo at what he considered a snail’s pace down to the river. Phillip looked around, not sure what he should be looking for. “Are we there yet?” he asked.

“Not far now,” Giacomo said.

Not far turned out to be another half mile — the good people of Padua wanted trades such as the knackers as far away as possible from where they lived. When they stepped into the knacker’s yard Phillip saw a horse strung up on a butcher’s scaffold and a man hard at work disemboweling the carcass.

“Hey, Giovanni. Can you spare a moment?” Giacomo called out as they approached.

Giovanni looked around at the interruption. “Hi, Giacomo. How can I help you?” he asked as he ran his knife a couple of times against a honing steel.

Giacomo tapped Phillip’s shoulder. “Phillip here wants some bones, preferably skulls.”

Giovanni turned to Phillip. “What do you want the bones for?”

“To make cupels.”

Giovanni nodded. “So you’ll want fully rendered ones then, follow me.” He led Phillip to a pile of clean white skull from a wide variety of animals. “How much do you want?”

Phillip told Giovanni how much he wanted to pay and between them they filled a basket with a number of sheep skulls. They returned to the yard to find Giacomo examining the carcass.

“I hope you weren’t intending to use the guts for anything,” Giacomo said.

“Why, what’s wrong,”‘ Giovanni demanded.

“Come and have a look at the mouth. Tell me what you see.” Giovanni had a look and stepped back cursing.

“What’s the problem?” Phillip asked.

“Have you heard of Spanish Fly?” Giacomo asked. Phillip shook his head. “It’s an insect that can be found in hay. It can be poisonous if eaten.”

“And this horse died after eating an insect?” Phillip asked.

“That or its eggs.” Giacomo turned to Giovanni. “Give me your butchering knife for a minute, would you.”

“What’re you planning on doing?” Giovanni asked as he handed Giacomo his knife.

“Teach Phillip why he never wants to try Spanish Fly,” Giacomo said as he carefully cut out a chunk from the horses kidney. With the chunk speared on the knife Giacomo walked towards Phillip.

“What are you going to do with that?” Phillip asked warily.

“Some people think Spanish Fly is an aphrodisiac,” Giacomo said conversationally as he wiped the bit of kidney along Phillip’s forearm. “They don’t realize that it’s really a dangerous poison.

“They will when they start pissing blood the next day,” Giovanni said.

Phillip looked at the smear of blood on his arm and went to wipe it with his right hand.

“No, don’t touch it!”‘ Giacomo said. He turned to Giovanni. “Do you have some soap and water?”

“Over there,” Giovanni said, pointing to a bucket and towel a short distance from the butchering scaffold.

Giacomo scraped the bit of kidney off the knife and stabbed the knife into a wood block before dragging Phillip over to the water and washed his arm with soap and water.

“What was that all about?” Philip asked.

Giacomo smiled at Phillip. “As I said, there are people who would use Spanish Fly as an aphrodisiac. It makes you hard and can keep you hard all night, but the next day, if it hasn’t killed you, you’ll find it painful to piss, and as Giovanni said, sometimes you piss blood.”

“How do you know all this?” Phillip asked.

Giacomo grinned. “I too was young and foolish once. Have you got what we came for?”

Phillip gestured to the basket full of skulls.

“Right, let’s get home.” Giacomo turned to Giovanni. “The red meat should be safe enough, but I don’t want to hear that you sold any of the guts for consumption,” Giacomo warned Giovanni.

“Yes, yes, I understand. I’m not a fool, Giacomo. Now you and your young friend can leave me alone to complete butchering the animal.”


Later that day Phillip was breaking up skulls so they could be reduced to ash on Giacomo’s forge when he noticed there were blisters on his arm. He ran out to find Giacomo to ask what was going on.

“Those blisters are caused by bits of Spanish Fly in the kidney of the dead horse.” Giacomo smiled grimly at Phillip. “Imagine what it would be like inside your body if you were to take some of the crushed beetle as an aphrodisiac?”

Phillip looked at the blisters on his arm and did what Giacomo told him to do, he imagined those same blisters forming inside his body. It wasn’t a pretty picture. “I don’t think I’ll try Spanish Fly.”

“Good. That’s a smart choice.”

“But how will I know if someone is offering me Spanish Fly? They might call it something else. What does it look like?”

Giacomo stared intently at Phillip before coming to a decision. “I’ve got some I can show you.”

“Why do you have it,” Phillip asked.

Giacomo sighed. “Sometimes a client demands that I use it to excite a stallion who they want to breed.”

“But you don’t like doing it?”

“No I don’t,” Giacomo said. “It’s a poison that can so easily kill the horse. But if I don’t do as they ask, the owner will just find someone else who will.”

Phillip understood Giacomo’s position. “You feel it is better that you administer the dose rather than let someone who probably doesn’t know what they are doing does it and ends up poisoning the animal.”


In order to make the best cupels all the impurities have to be removed from the ashes. They can be removed by floating off the lighter impurities such as charcoal dust and anything else that floats, while the heavier impurities such as fine sand and stones will settle in the bottom of the container. It was a relatively easy matter to pour off the light impurities, but the heavy ones needed someone extremely meticulous to remove them all.

Phillip was naturally extremely meticulous in his procedures, so it came as no surprise to him that Leonardo da Vinci proclaimed his satisfaction with his cupels. With somewhere to work Philip was able to start making acids for sale to the local alchemists — acids that were significantly purer than anything anyone else was selling, and therefore could command a premium price. Phillip was well set to continue his studies at Padua.

Friday January 10, 1614, the assay office, Augsburg

Ulrich Hechstetter sipped from the glass of strong liquor and pulled a face. “It’s not as good as last year,” he said.

The other senior staff at the assay office sipped their drinks made from the bottles given to them by the apprentices in a tradition started only five years ago. “It’s not bad,” Wilhelm Neuffer said, “but I can almost taste the base alcohol they made it from.”

“I wonder who made it,” Paul Paler said.

“It can’t be Phillip Gribbleflotz. Not this year,” Jakob Reihing said.

“You think it was Gribbleflotz last year?” Ulrich asked.

Jakob nodded. “And the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that.”

“That’s impossible,” Wilhelm Neuffer said. “I admit he has the skills to do it, but he has never been out of sight long enough to do it? When he wasn’t working he was either sleeping, in the library, or working on his experiments.”

Ulrich studied Jakob. He had the look of a particularly proud teacher who knew one of his students had managed to put one over the school. “How could he do it, Jakob? Wilhelm has said he was always around.”

“That’s when I think he did it.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Wilhelm said, shaking his head.

“I think I understand what Jakob’s getting at,” Paul said. He looked at Jakob. “You think he slipped some extra retorts onto the distilling furnace.”

Jakob nodded. “It’s the only way Gribbleflotz could have pulled it off.”

Wilhelm whistled. “I wouldn’t have thought Gribbleflotz had it in him, at least not four years ago.”

“Remember that as soon as it was obvious Gribbleflotz knew what he was doing on the distillation furnace we virtually left him alone to get on with the task of distilling things?” Jakob asked. “Well, I bet the other apprentices noticed that and suggested he might slip in an extra retort or two.”

In his mind’s eye Ulrich could easily visualize the scene. Phillip Gribbleflotz had quickly gained a well-deserved reputation for the care and attention he put into running the distillation furnace. With plenty of other work to do and other apprentices who really needed to be watched it was no surprise that Gribbleflotz had been left to get on with his tasks. “And he wants to be a doctor,” he complained. “What a waste of talent.”