Choosing Which Metal To Use: Part 3

Last week we asked if there were any other issues with metal that we should consider. Well, two things come to mind immediately: metals other than bronze and lead, and knowing your metal source.

Metals were not carefully assayed in the past they way they can be today. The people who created the various pure metals and alloys were knowledgeable, and there is a considerable amount of pre-1600 written material about creating various alloys, but metal purity could not be tested with the same level of precision that we have modernly. Many alchemy texts have information on metallurgy.

When you are reading museum data base entries, the actual metal content of a piece is rarely listed. “Copper alloy” is often used to refer to any sort of bronze metal and the actually purity of precious metals is rarely noted. Until recently it has been much too expensive to test each piece to determine exactly the metal content. Larger organizations, like the British Museum, will sometimes reevaluate pieces as they clean them, and they sometimes test the metal content. Testing content has helped to reveal frauds, and modifications of artifacts, many of which were done in antiquity.

For anyone who has ever followed the types of silver that are available modernly, the two most common would be Sterling Silver (also designated as .925) and Fine Silver (.999).  Those numbers simply indicate the percentage of silver that is included in the alloy. There are other designations, including coin silver (which varies in silver content depending on the date of manufacture and the country), and Argentium Silver (which is a tarnish resistant form of Sterling Silver with special properties). The terms Bali Silver, Thai Silver, and Mexican Silver may be used in a retail setting, but have no legal meanings. Nickel Silver, or German Silver is silver colored, and does not actually contain any silver at all. It is a copper alloy.

There were an assortment of silver alloys that were used in period that are not usually used modernly. Billon has been used since at least ancient Greece. It is a silver colored alloy which usually contains silver and other metals (usually copper), and may sometimes contain mercury. It was commonly used for making coins and medals. Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold, which has been used since at least 3,000BC by the ancient Egyptians. It was used widely in coinage and jewelry manufacture by cultures as varied as the Egyptians and the Vikings. There are major deposits of natural electrum in Anatolia (Turkey).

All of the silver pieces that I currently make for sale in my shop is classified as Sterling Silver. My cast pieces are solid sterling, and the wire and plate that I use in my toiletry sets, needles cases and chains (both knit and link) are all solid Sterling Silver.  I do not currently work with Argentium silver. Sterling Silver alloy was used during Medieval times.

Next time: What about silver plate, silver filled, vermeil, and gold filled metals, and sources of metal?

Plague Remedy of Nostradamus

Have you ever thought about what sort of remedies and preventative measures were considered effective against the plague? A few years ago my husband did a bunch of research on this topic, and here are some of the results.

Nostradamus is modernly best known as a prognosticator – a person who has predicted major political and physical events. However, he was first known as an alchemist, apothecary and physician due in large part to his association with Louis Serre. Although Nostradamus is credited with a recipe for a cure for the plague, it’s quite likely that the “cure” was part of Serre’s work. Part 1 Chapter VIII of Nostradamus’ Traite des fardemens et des confitures, 1555, 1556, 1557 — gives his plague remedy (formatting added for clarity):

“To make the basis for a perfectly good and excellent aromatic powder whose perfume is not strange, but confers an agreeable and long-lasting sweetness, though it can only be prepared once a year: Take one ounce of the sawdust or shavings of cypress-wood, as green as you can find, six ounces of Florentine violet-root, three ounces of cloves, three drams of sweet calamus, and six drams of aloes-wood.

Reduce the whole to powder before it spoils.

Next, take three or four hundred in-folded red roses, fresh and perfectly clean, and gathered before dewfall.

Pound them vigorously in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle.

When you are half through pounding them, add to them the above mentioned powder and immediately pound it all vigorously, while sprinkling on it a little rose-juice.
When everything is well mixed together, form it into little flat lozenges, as you would pills, and let them dry in the shade, for they will smell good.
And note that from this mixture may also be made aromatic soaps, cypress powder, violet root powder, aromatic balls, perfumes, ‘Cyprus birds’ and perfumed waters.
And in order to make the mixture even more excellent, add as much musk and ambergris as you either can or wish.

If these two are added I do not doubt that you will produce a superbly pleasant perfume. Pulverize the said musk and ambergris, dissolving it with rose-juice, then mix it in and dry in the shade.

Quite apart from the goodness and scent that this mixture lends to the items and mixtures mentioned above, you only have to keep it in the mouth a little to make your breath smell wonderful all day…

And in time of Plague, keep it often in the mouth, for there is no smell better for keeping away the bad and pestiferous air.”

My Interpretation:

1 part green cedar sawdust (cypress was not available to me except in dried form)

6 parts Orris root (Florentine violet root)

3 parts cloves

¼ parts calamus

½ part aloes

6 roses

Rose water as needed

All of the first five ingredients were crushed together to form a powder. As I did not have a wooden pestle, I used a marble pestle and ground the ingredients finely. The roses were crushed to a powder and the aromatic mixture was added. Next rose water was added to form a paste. The paste was formed into lozenges and dried.

The lozenges should be held in the mouth and NOT chewed or sucked. Since the ingredients were NOT made of known food safe products I advise AGAINST putting the lozenges in your mouth.

This was an interesting experiment in Medieval alchemy. The lozenges actually taste fairly nasty to most people because of the modern association of the rose scent with soap. They do smell good though, and smell was believed in Medieval times to keep away the bad essences that cause illness.

Picture of a potpourri

Picture of a potpourri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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