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The Art of Distillation

John French

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With 42 woodcut illustrations. This is a detailed handbook of knowledge and practice at the time, said to be possibly the earliest definitive book on distillation, by John French, an English physician who lived in the 17th Century.

This book has 185 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1651.

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Excerpt from 'The Art of Distillation'

There is a glut of chemical books, but a scarcity of chemical truths. Nature and art afford a variety of spagyrical preparations, but they are as yet partially undiscovered, partially dispersed in many books, and those of diverse languages, and partially reserved in private men's hands. When therefore I considered what need there is of, and how acceptable a general treatise on distillation might be, especially to our English nation (and the rather since Baker upon distillations is by reason of the description of a few furnaces and vessels therein, besides which there is small variety either of preparations or curiosities sold at such a high rate) I thought I could do them no better service than to present them with such a treatise of that subject which should contain in it the choicest preparations of the most select authors, both ancient and modern, and those of several languages, and which I have attained by my own long and manual experience, together with such as I have by way of exchange purchased out of the hands of private men which they had monopolized as great secrets.

But on the other hand, when I considered what a multitude of artists there is in this nation, from many of which more and better things might be expected than from myself, I was at a nonplus in my resolutions, fearing it might be accounted an unpardonable presumption in me to undertake that which might be better performed by others. But for the avoiding of this aspersion, be pleased to understand that I present not this to the world under any other notion than of a rough draft (which indeed is the work of the more unskillful and, therefore, of myself without exception) to be polished by the more expert artist.

I rejoice as at the break of day after a long and tedious night to see how this solary art of alchemy begins to shine forth out of the clouds of reproach which it has for a long time undeservedly laid under. There are two things which have eclipsed it for a long time, viz., the mists of ignorance and the specious lunary body of deceit.

Arise, O Sun of truth, and dispel these interposed fogs, that the Queen of arts may triumph in splendor! If men did believe what the art could effect, and what variety there is in it, they would be no longer straightened by, nor bound up to or lurare in verba Galeni, vel Aristotelis, but would now subscribe a new engagement to be true and faithful to the principles of Hermes and Paracelsus, as they stand established without Aristotle, their prince, and Galen and Hippocrates, their lords and masters. They would no longer stand dreaming forth, Sic dicit Galenus, but Ipse dixit Hermes. I desire not to be mistaken as if I did deny Galen his due, or Hippocrates what is his right for, indeed, they wrote excellently in many things, and deserve well thereby. That which I cannot allow of in them is their strict observation of the quadruplicity of humours (which in the school of Paracelsus and writings of Helmont, where the anatomy of humours has been most rationally and fully discussed, has been sufficiently confuted) and their confining themselves to such crude medicines which are more fit to be put into spagyrical vessels for a further digestion than into men's bodies to be fermented therein.

Certainly, if men were less ignorant, they would prefer cordial essences before crude juices, balsamical elixirs before phlegmatic waters, and mercury of philosophers before common quicksilver. But many men have so little insight in this art that they scarce believe anything beyond the distilling of waters and oil, and extracting of salts; nay, many that pretend to philosophy, and would be accounted philosophers, are so unbelieving that, as says Sendivogius, although he would have intimated the true art to them word by word, yet they would by no means understand or believe that there was any water in the philosophers sea. And, as he in this case, so I in another know diverse that will not believe that common quicksilver can of itself be turned wholly into a transparent water, or that glass can be reduced into sand and salt of which it was made, saying "fusio vitrificatoria est ultima fusio", or that an herb may be made to grow in two hours, and the idea of a plant to appear in a glass, as if the very plant itself were there, and this from the essence thereof, and such like preparations as these: the two former whereof may be done in half an hour, but the latter requiring a longer time, but yet possible. And for the possibility of the elixir, you shall as soon persuade them to believe they know nothing (which is very hard, if not an impossible thing to do ) than to believe the possibility thereof. If there be any such thing (they say) why are not the possessors thereof infinitely rich, famous, doing miracles and cures and living long? These objections, especially some of them, scarce deserve an answer; yet I shall show the vanity of them and make some reply thereunto. Did not Artefius by the help of this medicine live to 1000 years? Did not Flamel build fourteen hospitals in Paris, besides as many in Boleigne, besides churches and chapels with large revenues to them all? Did not Bacon do many miracles? And Paracelsus many miraculous cures? Besides, what says Sendivogius? I have, he says, incurred more dangers and difficulties by discovering myself to have this secret than ever I had profit by it, and when I would discover myself to the great ones, it always redounded to my prejudice and danger. Can a man that carries always about him 10,000 pounds worth of jewels and gold travel everywhere up and down, safe, and not be robbed? Have not many rich money mongers been tortured into a confession where their money was concealed? Did you never hear of a vapouring fellow in London that, pretending to the knowledge of this mystery, was on a sudden caught aside by money-thirsters and by them tormented with tortures little less than those of hell, being forced thereby (if he had known it) into a discovery of it? To say nothing of being in danger of being subjected and enslaved to the pleasure of princes and of becoming instrumental to their to their luxury and tyranny, as also being deprived of all liberty, as was once Raimundus Lullius.

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