1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 31

“You could probably use anything that can keep the light out, but the spongy nature of horse manure provides an added measure of protection to the flask, and when one is investing a year in the production of the liquid, you really do want to minimize the chances of accidents breaking the vessels.”

Johann nodded. “So what is this five-fold distilled waters of wine good for?”

Phillip stood up straight and all school mastery. “Five-fold distillate of the waters of wine that has been purified by keeping it buried in horse manure and decanted thrice is no longer mere five-fold distillate of the waters of wine. If it has survived that treatment it has become the Quinta Essentia of the Waters of Wine.”

“And?” Johann prompted.

“If you mix the quinta essentia of any item with the Quinta Essentia of the Waters of Wine you’ll have a medicine that can cure any malady, maybe.”


Phillip gave a self-conscious shrug. “I haven’t been able to test it yet, but that’s what I was told.”

“How does this Quinta Essentia of the Waters of Wine fit in with the Paracelsian school of thought?”

“Ah, well,” Phillip said. “That’s the thing about the quinta essentia of any living thing. It’s what is left when you remove the four elements.” He walked along the racks of flasks and selected two, one in each hand. He showed the flask in his right hand to Johann. “This contains the Quinta Essentia of Plantago major, and this,” He held up the second flask. “Contains the Quinta Essentia of willow bark. If you test either of these you will find no trace of mercury, sulphur, or salt.’

Johann reached out for the flask of the Quinta Essentia of willow bark. “Can I test it?”

“Be my guest,” Phillip said as he passed the flask over.

Johann removed the stopper and sniffed the clear liquid. Then he poured a little into a watch glass and dipped a wooden splint in it and held that over a candle. Finally he turned back to Phillip. “It certainly doesn’t contain sulphur.”

“Of course not, and if you taste it you’ll discover that it doesn’t contain salt either.”

“Is it safe?” Johann asked.

Phillip nodded. “Consider what it is, Johann. It’s merely the result of the destructive distillation of willow bark. Why shouldn’t it be safe?”

Johann dipped a finger into the liquid and licked his finger. “It’s tasteless.”

“It’s as I said, no salt, no sulphur, and no mercury. It’s nothing more than the pure non-putrefying essence of willow bark.”

“But Paracelsus says that all created things consist of sulphur, mercury, and salt. How is it possible that willow bark is deficient in all three?”

“No, no, no!” Phillip shook a finger at Johann. “You misunderstand. Of course the willow bark contains sulphur, mercury, and salt. However, all of that is left behind when we destructively distill the bark to produce its quinta essentia.”

Johann nodded. “And this,” he shook the flask of the Quinta Essentia of willow bark, “when mixed with the Quinta Essentia of the Waters of Wine will give a medicine that can treat any malady?”

Phillip gave a gentle snort as he smiled. “I consider that very doubtful. However, if an infusion of willow bark is made using the Quinta Essentia of willow bark and the Quinta Essentia of the Waters of Wine, you will produce a medicine for the treatment of fevers that is much stronger than mere willow bark tea.”

“You seem very sure of that, Dr. Gribbleflotz.”

“I have run some tests,” Phillip said in a self-complementary way. “From a measured amount of willow bark, an infusion prepared with ordinary water, when filtered and evaporated, leaves less white powder than the same amount of willow bark in an infusion made from a mixture of the Quinta Essentia of willow bark and the Quinta Essentia of the Waters of Wine.”

“What is the white powder?” Johann asked.

“The essence of willow bark, of course.” Phillip smiled. “It’s a very useful powder. When bulked out with wheat flour, gum arabic, and chalk it can be turned into pills.”

“How do the pills compare with willow bark tea?”

“Well, willow bark tea is usually used to cool the heated blood to reduce a fever. An infusion isn’t inherently cooling, so the essence of the willow bark has to work extra hard. Therefore I include a natural substance that turns the pills blue, a naturally cool color, to enhance its performance. Because of this, my blue Sal Vin Betula pills are more effective than the equivalent dose of willow bark tea.

“Do you sell those pills?” Johann asked.

“Not very often,” Phillip said. “The cost of a single Sal Vin Betula pill is greater than the cost of a similar dosage supplied as an infusion of willow bark tea, so few people ask for them.”

“But do people know about your Sal Vin Betula pills, Dr. Gribbleflotz? I’m sure that people who would happily pay extra for the convenience of a pill if only they knew that it was available.”

Phillip wasn’t so sure about that. In his experience people wanted cheap over convenience. “Maybe when fuel prices come down we can look into it.”

Early January, 1623

Johann was happily working on his latest attempt at an improved distillation furnace when there was yet another knock on the door to Dr. Gribbleflotz’ laboratory. With a resentful sigh at yet another interruption he put down the firebricks he’d been carrying and made his way to the door.

“How may I help you,” he said as he opened the door.

“I’m looking for my brother.”

Johann did a double-take. The normal run of people knocking at Dr. Gribbleflotz’ door were older men — either fellow alchemists looking to procure some of his excellent acids, or ordinary men looking to purchase treatments for their various ailments. The few women who’d knocked at his door since Johann had been working for him had been mature women looking to sell Dr. Gribbleflotz various herbs and plant cuttings. Young women, especially attractive young women like the one he was currently staring at, just didn’t knock at the Doctor’s door. “Brother?’ he managed to mumble.

She smiled, and what he’d though merely a pretty face became a beautiful one as the smile lit up her face and brought a sparkle to her eyes. “Peter Hebenstreit. I understand he’s currently working for Dr. Gribbleflotz.”

Johann released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Oh, him. Peter’s your brother?” he asked, just to confirm the relationship.

The girl nodded.

“Do you have a name, Peter’s Sister?”

Again she smiled. “Katrina, and you’ll be Dr. Gribbleflotz’ new laborant, Johann Glauber.”

Johann preened at the thought that such a pretty girl had heard of him. “That’s right.”

“Do you know where Peter is?” she asked.

Johann nodded. He noticed she was still waiting for an answer and quickly provided it. “He’s working all day at the university’s public anatomy theater.”

“Oh.” She nibbled at her lip before looking pleadingly at Johann. “I thought he was just sourcing dead bodies for that.”

“No,” Johann said. “He also runs errands for the audience during the demonstrations.”

“Oh, bother!” She looked appealingly at Johann. “I don’t suppose you could take him a message? I’d do it myself, but I have to get back to work as my mistress is getting married in the spring and we’re extremely busy with preparations.”

Johann sighed regretfully. “I’d like to help, but I can’t leave the laboratory.” He shrugged. “I don’t have a key with which to lock the door.”

Katarina tossed back her head and laughed.

“I don’t see what’s so funny,” Johann said.

“What’s so funny, Young Man, is the idea that anyone with any sense would steal from Dr. Gribbleflotz,” Frau Bader from next door said. “Now, lad, let the young woman give you her message and get back to work. I’ll keep an eye out on the doctor’s laboratory while you’re gone.”

Johann turned to the older woman. She was a laundry woman, with the arms and shoulders of someone used to physical labor. He could easily believe that would be thieves could be scared off by her. “Thank you, Frau Bader.” He turned expectantly to Katarina.

“Tell Peter that Elisabeth Brotbeck died less than an hour ago.”

“That’s it? That’s the message?” Johann asked.

Katarina nodded. “Peter’ll understand. Please hurry. I have to go now.”

Johann stood and watched Katarina hurry away. He was still staring down the street long after she’d turned a corner when something jabbed him under the ribs.

“That’s not getting a message to her brother,” Frau Bader said, a smirk on her face.

Johann took the hint. He removed his leather apron and hung it up before shutting the door and hurrying off towards the public anatomy theater. He arrived in good time — no place in Basel being more than a few minutes’ walk away, and knocked on the door of the theater.

It opened a little and a head poked out. “What do you want?” the guard asked.

“I need to get a message to Peter Hebenstreit. He came with Dr. Gribbleflotz.” Johann wasn’t deliberately name dropping, he was just stating a fact in the hope that it would help the guard identify Peter.