Theophilus Presbyter was the pen name of a Germanic polymath, active during the early 12th century. Sometime around 1120 Presbyter published a Latin volume entitled De Diversis Artibus (‘The Diverse Arts’), in which he shared his knowledge of science, metalworking and alchemy. In this extract, contemporarised but otherwise unchanged, Theophilus takes us through some comprehensive instructions for making gold:
1. Locate or prepare an underground house, with “all sides of stone” and “two openings so small that scarcely any [sunlight] is visible”.
2. Into this house place “two cocks of 12 to 15 years old and give them sufficient food”. When the cocks have “become fatted”, allow them to mate with hens until the hens lay eggs.
3. Expel the chickens and replace them with large toads, which are to “keep the eggs warm”.
4. “From the hatched eggs there [shall hatch] male chickens, like hen’s chickens, which after seven days [will] grow serpents’ tails.” These must be kept in a room or cellar lined with stone or they will burrow into the earth.
5. After six months, burn these creatures alive until they are “completely consumed” and burnt to ashes.
6. Gather up the ashes and “pulverise them, adding a third part of the blood of a red-haired man”, mixed with some “sharp vinegar”.
7. Spread this mixture over “the thinnest plates of purest red copper… and place them in the fire”. When they become red hot, take from the fire and cool, then repeat this step until “the preparation penetrates through the copper and takes on the weight and colour of gold.”
Philip Dormer Stanhope (1694-1773) was an English Whig politician and, from his father’s death in 1726, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield. Stanhope was born in Westminster and educated by tutors before studying at Cambridge. After completing a grand tour of Europe he returned to London and, in 1715, won a seat in the House of Commons. Stanhope’s maiden speech was a fiery attack on the Tories; according to an apocryphal legend they responded by threatening to fine him £500 for speaking in the Commons before his 21st birthday, which was still six weeks away. Stanhope survived this early hiccup to serve more than 50 years as a parliamentarian. He also spent several years on the continent as a diplomat and ambassador. Stanhope’s best known literacy legacy was a collection of letters he wrote to his son, also named Philip, during the 1740s and 1750s. Most of Stanhope’s letters are informative, educational and advisory, an attempt to prepare his son for the earldom – however he occasionally lapsed into whimsy.
In October 1753 Stanhope penned a long missive to Philip Junior that explored Jewish culture, Turkish history and how to conduct oneself around women. Stanhope interrupted this lecture to tell his son he had purchased a new dog:
“I have had a barbet [water dog] brought me from France, so exactly like [your dog] Sultan that he has been mistaken for him several times, only his snout is shorter and his ears longer than Sultan’s. [I] have acquired him the name of Loyola… My Loyola, I pretend, is superior to your Sultan… I must not omit too that when he breaks wind, he smells exactly like Sultan.”