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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Medieval alchemy and weapon making

Medieval alchemy and weapon making

photo by Ania Mendrek

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Since many consider medieval alchemy to be the forerunner of modern chemistry and metallurgy, it shouldn’t be surprising that alchemists had a great influence on the development of steel.   Indeed, both Middle Eastern (Gerber, aka Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan) and Indian (Nagarjuna) alchemists are credited with great developments in the state and quality steel forging.

The works of both Jabir ihn Hayyan and Najarjuna influenced the development and practice of alchemy in Europe.

The experiments and developments of European alchemists had influence on other medieval specialists, including weapon-smiths, who continually sought to produce better steel for their weaponry.  While alchemical theories often seem outre and mystical, there is evidence that at least some of them actually aided in the production of better tempered, higher-quality weapons (Fight-book Clues to Quality and Build of Knightly Weapons, page 5).

Alchemy imageJust how much influence alchemy had on weapon forging can be seen from the Döbringer Hausbuch |  Codex Döbringer (MS 3227a), a 14th century “common book”, consisting of a number of treatises dealing with various weapon and fighting techniques (including the longsword and unarmed combat), along with a goodly number of sections on mystical, magical and alchemical formula, mainly relating to steel / weapon production and the curing of illnesses.

While this sounds quite impressive, It must be remembered that alchemy contained large elements of mysticism and superstition, often relying on sympathetic magic.

Thus, at times, the processes recommended to create harder or better tempered steels can make very entertaining reading, as you’ll see below, taken from the Döbringer Hausbuch |  Codex Döbringer (MS 3227a) Treatise 11r – 12r (translation via: Fight-book Clues to Quality and Build of Knightly Weapons, pages 6-7).


Regarding Hardening

§1 Now speaks Master Alchemy, that the first hardening is most always in cold water—and that is common. And recognise the hardening thusly—when the edge is blue, then it has rightly hardened.

§2 In glue-water the edges becomes annealed.

§3 Scythes—those one shall differentially temper.

§4 Files—one shall harden those in urine or in linseed oil or in buck’s blood/ram’s blood.

§5 The Hammers—wherewith one smites the files or all weaponry from billets and wherewith one smites scrap into steel billets those will harden thusly: Take one part white radish, and one part horse-radish, and one part earthworms, one part cockchafer-grubs, and one part buck’s blood from when that buck goes to rutting. That hardening has the Four Elements indeed. So mash that together and squeeze out the liquid, and then what you would harden therein, rough-grind it and then harden it in that liquid.

§6 Whatever then you indeed would have tempered, that then indeed will become tempered with two parts refined sand and with one part refined resin turpentine.

§7 Would you then indeed make a great hardening of steel? Then take dragon wort with herbs and with ale/eels and likewise much vervain and sow that into lukewarm water and when that is well-boiled, then put it aside and let it lower, indeed, become cold, and then harden therein what you will. And that hardening is good for all hand-weapons.

§8 Also, you may harden things in mustard. And for vining of steel—do it with good vinegar.

§9 Would you harden steel and make really good edges? Then take borage—its leafless roots—with ale/eels, and sow that into cold water, and harden what you will.

§10 Would you harden hammers, wherewith one hews heaps of stone? So take grub-juice and quench the glowing hammer therein.

§11 One other good hardening: Take the worms—two parts cockchafer-grubs and three parts earthworms and squish those and press the juice through cloth. Thereto add juice of rock-fern roots. Then thrust a glowing iron therein, or whatever else you would harden.

§12 Thus cook human hair in water until it has a bloody colour—if iron be quenched therein, then it mutates it to a good hardness.

§13 Thus to harden iron: Take mashed radish and vervain and earthworms, and distill that, let the stuff thereby mix equally, pour in equal part of donkey-mare’s milk and quench glowing iron in that confection.

§14 Thus a recipe: Mash equal parts radish and turpentine and vinegar and wild celery and extract therefrom, and quench fiery iron and copper, so that each becomes as hard as stone.

§15 Take buck’s tallow, from when he is rutting lustily, and quench glowing iron therein, and it becomes maximally hardened.

§16 Would you anneal the hardness of steel? Then take human blood and let that stand until the water becomes evaporated, thus reduced. Then put that liquid/slurry into a glass and hold that and when you then would anneal hardness. So then take the hardened weapon and put that to the fire until that is become so hot that it gulps water when quenched. Then brush the water with a feather, thus the edge releases its hardness and becomes annealed.

§17 Thus you would make steel pliable and malleable: So take one part chamomile blooms, and one part cranesbill that has blue blossoms, and one part Mary’s thistle, and put all that together into hot water. So do it in a pot. and cover it so that the steam may not get out, and let it simmer well. Quench glowing steel therein -that becomes quite pliable and malleable.

§18 Thus you would make steel pliable: So take horn and scrape off the leather, and mix that with sal ammoniac, and piss thereupon, and wind that around the steel, and so let that chemical-soaked leather scorch the steel, thus it becomes pliable.



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