1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 29

“Now that’s a good question,” Tobias said.

“And deserving of a good answer,” Kuntz added.

“So?” Johann asked.

“Herr Ackermann threw a flask of Oil of Vitriol at him,” Tobias said.

“Missed him of course, but it sure scared Young Fritz,” Kuntz said. “He’s probably still running.”

Johann could well imagine Young Fritz running. Oil of Vitriol was a very strong acid. If the youth had been hit by it he would have, at best been horribly scared. At the worst, it could have killed him. “Why did Herr Ackermann throw a flask of Oil of Vitriol at this Fritz?” he asked.

“He was probably upset that his Oil of Vitriol isn’t as good as the new guy’s,” Tobias said.

“What new guy?” Johann asked.

“Dr. Gribbleflotz,” Kuntz said. “He leased Old Man Steiner’s laboratory from his widow back in July and he’s been showing up the local alchemists ever since.”

“Seriously?” Johann demanded. “The guards at the north gate suggested that Dr. Gribbleflotz might be suitable, but they also said he was giving an anatomy course. What would such a man know about alchemy?”

“Quite a lot,” Tobias said. “He’s an iatrochemist in the Paracelsian mold. He makes a lot of his own medicines, and his acids sell at a premium because they’re so much better than anyone else’s.”

“The Paracelsian mold?” That wasn’t the kind of thing Johann would expect a paper maker to say. “What do you know of Paracelsus?”

Kuntz and Tobias exchanged grins. “More than you’re likely to believe. Dr. Gribbleflotz will talk about his great ancestor and his school of thought at the drop of a hat,” Kuntz said.

“He really doesn’t think much of the Galenists,” Tobias added.

This was so much in line with Johann’s own beliefs that he knew he was going to have to at least talk to the man. “How might I find Dr. Gribbleflotz?”

“His laboratory is just down the road.” Tobias pointed in the general direction of some buildings opposite the St Alban’s cloister. “Of course, you might do better to wait until tomorrow, because I don’t know when he’ll be getting home tonight.”

Next day

Johann presented himself at the door of Dr. Gribbleflotz’ laboratory at the crack of dawn. He knocked on the door, and waited. Five minutes later he knocked again, only harder. He knew there was someone awake inside because he could see the light of a candle through the window.

“Coming!” a voice from within called.

The door opened to reveal a man in his late twenties with a candlestick in his hand. “I’m looking for Dr. Gribbleflotz,” Johann said.

“You’ve found him,” Phillip said as he held up the candle to get a better look at Johann. “How can I help you?”

Johann stared at Dr. Gribbleflotz. He’d always imagined alchemists as being wizened old men.

“Well? I don’t have all day,” Phillip said.

Johann recovered himself. “I have heard that you are a noted iatrochemist and alchemist, and I am hoping that you will take me on as a student.”

“Are you looking to take up an apprenticeship? Because I can tell you here and now, I don’t expect to be in Basel long enough to train an apprentice.”

Johann held up his hands. “Oh, no, Dr. Gribbleflotz, I am traveling around learning new techniques from different alchemists.”

Phillip glanced back over his shoulder into his laboratory. “I do have need of an assistant. Are you willing to commit to working for me for the next two years?”

“Two years?” That was a little more than Johann had planned. “I was thinking more along the lines of a year,” he said.

“A year’s not worth my time,” Philip pointed out. “I’ll have just got you trained and you’ll be off.”

“But I’m trained,” Johann protested. “I’ve worked for alchemists before. Could we have a trial, of say, a week in which I can prove myself?” Johann asked.

“Only if you can start now. I have orders to fill and an able assistant might be useful.”

“I can start now, Dr. Gribbleflotz.”

“Good, come on in.” Phillip shut the door after Johann and led the way into his laboratory. “There should be a spare apron over there.”

Johann followed Philip’s pointing hand to a number of leather aprons hanging from a peg in the wall. He hurried over to them, dropped his bag in the corner, and grabbed the top apron and put it on. “Now what?” he asked.

Phillip pointed to a shelf full of carboys in wickerwork. “I want two of those bottles on the bottom shelf carried over to the bench where I’m working.”

Johann walked towards the large carboys. In passing he noticed a large clear crystal on a higher shelf and paused to examine it. “What’s this” he asked, pointing at the crystal.

“Just something a grateful officer gave me many years ago after I saved his leg, and probably his life, using maggot therapy.”

“What’s maggot therapy?” Johann asked.

“It’s nothing you need to worry yourself about unless you want to study surgery.”

“I don’t want to study surgery,” Johann said. The crystal still fascinated him. He leaned closer for a better look.

“Are you going to bring me those bottles any time soon?” Phillip asked.

Johann looked up guiltily. “I’m sorry, Herr Doctor Gribbleflotz.” He used the wicker handles to pull the first Carboy off the shelf. It was surprisingly heavy. “What’s in it?” he asked as he lifted the first carboy.

From the other side of the laboratory Phillip answered. “Just how much alchemy did you say you’ve learned?”

That put Johann on his mettle. He considered the possibilities as he carried the carboy over to the bench where Phillip was working. The way it sloshed around when he moved suggested it definitely wasn’t water, or even aqua vitae. The weight of the full carboy, being nearly twice what he’d expected, was another clue. “Is it Oil of Vitriol?” he asked as he put it down.

“Yes. Now, get the other bottle.”

Johann did as he was told. “What are you making?” he asked as he lowered the second carboy of acid onto the bench.

“I have an order for acidum salis,” Phillip said as he measured what looked like salt into a retort.

“But you don’t make acidum salis with Oil of Vitriol,” Johann protested.

“Are you sure about that?” Phillip smiled. Anybody who’d attended his recent anatomy course would have recognized the look on Phillip’s face. He was entering his teaching mode.

“You make acidum salis by distilling a mixture of salt and green vitriol,” Johann insisted.

“That is one way,” Phillip agreed. “However, think just a moment. How do we make Oil of Vitriol?”

“You distil green vitriol.”

“And how do we make aqua fortis?” Phillip asked.

Johann had no idea where this was leading, but he answered anyway. “You distil a mixture of saltpetre and green vitriol.”

“Correct,” Phillip said. “Now, do you see a pattern here?”

Johann stared blankly at Phillip and shook his head.

“What is common to the production of all three acids?”

Johann’s eyes widened as slowly he started to understand. “The green vitriol,” he said. “But alchemists have been making the acids by distilling salt or saltpetre with green vitriol for centuries. Surely if there were an easier way, someone would have discovered it before now?”

“Maybe they did,” Phillip said. “And maybe somehow their knowledge was lost. Of course, it’s not just a simple matter of mixing Oil of Vitriol with salt and suddenly your Oil of Vitriol is turned into acidum salis. If that was all it took, everyone would be doing it.”

Johann surveyed the retorts Phillip had arranged. “It seems a lot of work for something that could just as easily be done the old fashioned way. All you’re doing is adding an extra step to the production of acidum salis and aqua fortis.”

“It makes sound economic sense,” Phillip said. “Oil of Vitriol is obviously the quinta essentia of acids. And as long as you have a supply of Oil of Vitriol, you can make any acid you like.”

“But the quinta essentia only applies to distillates of living things,” Johann protested.

“That is quite true, but in the case of Oil of Vitriol, it’s a good analogy,” Philip said as he loaded a number of retorts with a mixture of salt and Oil of Vitriol. With the last of a dozen retorts loaded he stretched his back and turned to Johann. “Now you can help me set these up on the furnace.”

Johann helped set the retorts up on the furnace and then he watched in surprise as Phillip carefully weighed some wood before adding it to the furnace. “Why are you doing that?” he asked.

“Being an alchemist is a business. By keeping track of how much fuel I use, I can accurately price my products.” Phillip waved his notebook at the furnace. “I have to be very careful. This furnace is one of the least efficient I’ve ever used. It’s because of the distressing economics of distilling green vitriol on this furnace that I first explored using Oil of Vitriol to make acidum salis and aqua fortis.”

Johann hoped he didn’t look half as confused as he felt. “I’m sorry, Dr. Gribbleflotz, but I don’t see the connection.”