For starters, there is the change over from mercury to antinomy in the 16th century. At the beginning of the century we have James 4th of Scotland’s pet alchemist buying mercury, and using some gold and other chemicals, but no mention of Antimony. By the beginning of the next century, with the publication of a book called “The triumphal chariot of Alchemy” we have them using Antimony. When and why did that happen?
Moreover we have Newton, (who died in 1727) spending a great deal of time on Alchemy, often locking himself in his room for days at a time and producing copious notes on all the alchemical texts he could find. He produced the Star regulus of Antimony, a crystalline form of antimony. More information can be found here:
The earliest mention I have of Antimony is in the 12 Keyes of Basil Valentine. Now, according to the preface in a reprinted Llanerch edition of selections from “The Hermetic Museum”, (Itself first published in 1625) Basil Valentine was a Benedictine Monk, and various people place him around the 1490’s. However this is clearly wrong, I will explain why shortly, yet the writer of the preface of my Llanerch edition accepts this personage as being genuine. By contrast, John Read (Through alchemy to Chemistry”, published in 1957, and coincidentally a professor of Chemistry at St Andrews) points out that the first copy of any texts by Basil Valentine are dated to 1599.
The text in question runs:
“Take a fierce grey wolf, which, though on account of its name it be subject to the way of warlike Mars, is by birth the offspring of ancient Saturn, and is found in the valleys and mountains of the world, where he roams about savage with hunger. Cast to him the body of the King, and when he has devoured it, burn him entirely to ashes in a great fire. By this process the King will have been liberated; and when it has been performed thrice the Lion has overcome the wolf and will find nothing more to devour in him. Thus our body has been rendered fit for the first stage of our work.”
Read says that the grey wolf is Antimony Sulphide, or Stibnite, an antimony ore, known as the wolf of the metals because of its ability to unite with all the alchemical metals except gold. The repeated fusion of it with gold could be used as a purifying method for the gold.
Now, what makes me sure that Basil vValentine, or rather whoever was writing under that name (Read suggests that a Johann Tholde, a Frankenhausen salt maker was perhaps the author) was writing in the later 16th century is that he insists upon three elements, Mercury, Sulphur and Salt. This is a Paracelsian formulation. Paracelsus, who died in 1541, is famous for his views of alchemy and chemistry, and I am sure that you have all heard something about him. But anyway, as far as I have read, he is the one who introduced the idea of Salt, as well as the other two, whereas before him alchemists used just Mercury and Sulphur. So this Basil Valentine is most likely a late 16th century person.
This is made clearer by the fact that someone, calling themselves Basil Valentine, wrote “The triumphal Chariot of Antimony”, published in 1604. This, according to Read is probably the first monograph on a chemical element.
This still does not explain why Alchemists started using Antimony. It may be that they had been using it for many years, but somehow, amongst all the confusion of alchemical writings, this has not been noticed. Somehow I doubt that though.
“Chemistry of the elements” an otherwise excellent textbook, falls for the claims of Basil Valentine being around in the 15th century, but has some useful information, viz: stibnite was used as a black eye colouring in Biblical times, and it may be that it was isolated by Albertus Magnus in the early 13th century. There is apparently mention of an antimonium by Jabir in ~800.
When I turn to “De Re Metallica” I find that Antimony is mentioned as being something you can smelt, but there is little detail. We can therefore be sure that it was around as a separate element in the 16th century, but there is little evidence to suggest it was widely known and used before that period.
So I think it reasonable that Alchemists noticed the properties of Antimony some time during the 1500’s, and it found its way into their everyday use, but in which country and decade this was done, and who popularized it, is unknown.
By comparison, in Thomas Norton’s treatise on Alchemy, which is also in “The Hermetic Museum”, is definitely dated to 1477, and although I have not read and understood it fully, it seems to lack reference to Antimony, instead talking about the usual Alchemical Sulphur, Mercury, quicklime, Magnesia and others. It does show that by the late 15th century such people were taking a close interest in operations on all sorts of minerals and metals, which can be seen in fruition in Agricola’s “De Re Metallica” 70 years later.
The annoying thing is that my question is likely never to be answered, due simply to lack of evidence.
The second question I am interested in is the change to a fully internal self development method of philosophy by allegory. By the 17th century this was pretty much complete, Alchemy was divorcing itself from chemistry and was almost wholly magical in a way which it had not been before. Before, there was some relationship to the real world. By the end, there was not, it was all allegorical. It is clear that by the later medieval period Alchemy was splitting up into various strands, from the purely spiritual to the practical, (And separate from all that we had the artisans who worked with material stuff all day refining their techniques and understanding of what things did, even if they didn’t write it down or produce an overarching scientific theory)
*Chemical note on Antimony: Antimony is an element in the same group as Nitrogen. Below Nitrogen we have Phosphorous, Arsenic, Antimony and then Bismuth. The last three are poisonous. Antimony is one step along from Tin, and is a silvery coloured metal like Tin, and has an atomic weight of 121.75. It is thus one of the densest metals that they would have had access to, in increasing weight they had- Silver, Tin, Antimony, Gold, Mercury, lead and Bismuth, and apparently they were casting Bismuth to make type up for early printing presses in the 15th century.
Antimony is used in lead batteries to help stabilize the sheets of lead, bearings, ammunition, and some electronics thingies e.g. diodes.