Salt: The Spice of Life

In 1985 Elizabeth Ward made a generous donation to the Rare Book Collection on behalf of her father, Walter Lucius Badger, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. This donation consists of 112 books, newspaper clippings, pictures, and engravings concerning the mining, purification, and general production of salt throughout history. The books were published in either Europe or the U.S. and have publishing dates ranging from 1553 to 1952. This is an exclusively unique assortment of books all pertaining to salt production. The collection contains many volumes that are both exceedingly rare and very interesting. A select few are presented, in brief, here.

Olaus Borrichius’s Hermetis, Aegyptiorum, et chemicorum sapientia ab Hermanni Conringii animadversionibus vindicata (1674) is an important source on the early history of alchemy. This first edition copy is one of few that possess a folding leaf of plates. The plate shown is a copy from a manuscript by Zosimus, one of the most famous alchemists of his time (ca 300 A.D.).1 It depicts one of the earliest known illustrations of a distilling apparatus. Distillation is used to purify a liquid by first volatilizing it to remove impurities, then cooling the vapor, and collecting the resulting liquid.

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Ole Borch, Hermetis, Aegyptiorum, et chemicorum sapientia ab Hermanni Conringii animadversionibus vindicata (Hafniae: Sumptibus Petri Hauboldi, 1674) | QD25 .B73

Another book on alchemy is the RBC’s copy of Limojon de Saint Didier’s and Alexandre Toussaint’s, Le Triomphe hermetique; ou, La pierre philosophale victorieuse (1689). It contains an engraving showing the preparation of the “La pierre philosophale” (the philosopher’s stone), via alchemical processes. The philosopher’s stone is a legendary alchemical substance that was believed to turn abundant and inexpensive metals such as mercury or lead into precious metals like gold or silver. It was also known as the elixir of life for its foretold ability to extend one’s life, rejuvenate, and ultimately provide immortality. The philosopher’s stone was considered the alchemist’s ultimate goal and is often presented as a central symbol of alchemy.

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Extraction of the Philosopher’s Stone. Le triomphe hermetique (Amsterdam: Chez Henry Wetstein, 1689) | QD25 .T75 1689

Finally, the collection includes two books by the mysterious and popular 15th century alchemist Basilius Valentinus: Fratris Basilii Valentini Benedicter Ordens Tractat von dem grossen Stein der Uhralten, daran so viel tausendt Meister Anfangs der Welt hero gemacht haben… (1612) and Basilii Valentini Tractatus chymico-philosophicus De rebus naturalibus & supernaturalibus metallorum & mineralium (1676). These books deal with metals, minerals, and other elements of the natural world as well as the supernatural. In particular, the first outlines the “Twelve Keys” required to open the doors of knowledge of the most ancient stone (philosopher’s stone), thereby unlocking the secret of the fountain of health. In addition to the twelve keys, Valentinus demonstrated considerable chemical knowledge and is well-known for mastering the acquisition of ammonia from ammonium chloride (a salt). Some believe he may have belonged to the Benedictine Priory of Saint Peter in Erfurt, Germany; however, the name “Basilius Valentinus” does not appear on any records until 1600 and is not present on any rolls in Rome or Germany. Modern scholars believe salt manufacturer Johann Thölde may have been a contributing author publishing under the Valentinus alias, but why he chose to do so is unknown.2

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“Synthesis of Alchemy” or the “Hermetic Seal.” Basilius Valentinus, Fratris Basilii Valentini Benedicter Ordens Tractat… ([Leipzig]: Verlegung Jacob Apels Buchhändl, 1612) | QD25 .B37 1612

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“Der Vierste Schlüssel,” meaning “the fourth key”, details the necessity of human flesh, which came from the earth, to be returned to it. From the flesh, the earthly salt will produce a new generation via “celestial resuscitation.”

 

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Basilius Valentinus, Tractatus chymico-philosophicus… (Francofurti ad Moenum: Sumptibus Jacobi Gothofredi Seyler, 1676) | QD25 .B38 1676

1. Source: H. S. El Khadem, “A Translation of Zosimos’ Text in an Arabic Alchemy Book,” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 84 (1996): 168–178.

2. Source: John Maxson Stillman, “Basil Valentine: A Seventeenth-Century Hoax,” Popular Science, December, 1912. See also: Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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