Bernard of Trèves (1406–1490) Alchemist also known as Bernard Trèvisan, who spent a fortune and endured a life of hardship and poverty in search of the Philosopher's Stone. According to lore, Bernard of Trèves finally succeeded in his last years, though he acknowledged that he had wasted much of his life pursuing fruitless experiments. Many of the experiments were bizarre; Bernard was credulous and easily swayed by others. Popular lore held that he had a “devil’s bird” as a Familiar. His story is one of the strangest in Alchemy, and Demonstrates the absurd measures undertaken by many alchemists in their obsession to fi nd the Stone.
Accounts of his life differ. Bernard was born in 1406 in Trèves; some sources say Padua, Italy. His father was distinguished and wealthy and may have been a physician; some accounts say he was a nobleman, the count of the Marches of Trèves, a title inherited by Bernard. His father died and left Bernard with a large estate, which he applied to alchemy.
Bernard was 14 years old when he began his serious studies of alchemy. With the consent of his family and a grandfather’s help, he immersed himself in Arabic alchemical works and was especially enamored with a book written by razi, through which he believed he could make gold. Bernard set up an alchemical laboratory and followed Razi’s work in his efforts. After four years, he had produced nothing and had spent the large sum of 800 crowns (another account claims the cost was 3,000 crowns). He turned next to the works of Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber) and spent another two years in his laboratory. Meanwhile, other alchemists and pretenders, attracted to his fortune, insinuated themselves in his good graces to obtain funds. Bernard was generous to a fault, earning the nickname “the good Trèvisan.”
Bernard next turned to the dubious works of john de rupecissa and Archelaus Sacrobosco. One of his followers was a Franciscan monk, whose name is not known. The monk cultivated a close friendship with him and shared in the reading of alchemical works. The two became convinced that highly rectified spirits of wine were the ultimate al kahest (dissolvent) needed for the process of transmutation. They set about rectifying alcohol 30 times, until the liquor was so strong that it broke the glass vessels in the laboratory. The effort cost them 300 crowns, took three years, and resulted in nothing. The two then worked with human excrement, spending two years mixing it with various ingredients such as mercury, salt , and lead. This effort also failed.
The monk became disillusioned and drifted away. Bernard took up with a magistrate of the city of Trèves, who was as obsessed as he about finding the Stone. This man assured Bernard that the ocean was the mother of all gold and that sea salt would change base metals into gold and silver. Bernard, ever credulous, moved his alchemical laboratory to a house on the Baltic Sea, where he worked for more than a year with salt in various forms and drank salty concoctions. He rectified a sea-salt concoction 15 times during the course of a single year and found no alteration in its substance. None of the experiments succeeded, but the magistrate never became discouraged.
The magistrate then advised dissolving silver and mercury in aquafortis. The dissolutions were performed separately and left for a year; then they were combined and reduced to two-thirds over hot ashes. Twenty-two vials of the concentrated remains were exposed to the sun and then air in the hopes that they would crystalize. They did not. In all, five years were wasted.
Bernard was not completely disillusioned but pulled back from the work. He was by then 46 years old and desired to travel around Europe. Still, he contacted alchemists wherever he went. In Citeaux, France, he met a monk named Geoffrey Leuvier (also given as Master Geoffrey de Lemorier) who was convinced that the essence of eggshells was crucial to the Great Work. Bernard launched himself into another round of experiments. The two men purchased 2,000 chicken eggs, hard boiled them in water, removed the shells and burned them in a fire, and removed the yolks, which they putrified in horse manure. The putrified yolks were distilled 30 times in an effort to obtain a white and red water. The efforts were unsuccessful, but the two men kept trying variations, giving up after eight years of effort.
Bernard then was persuaded by an attorney from Bergheim (or Bruges), Flanders, that there was a better idea: use vinegar to extract the Stone from copperas (sulphate of iron). Bernard duly proceeded and nearly poisoned himself in the process. The experiments began with three months of calcining the copperas and then soaking it in vinegar that had been distilled eight times. This mixture was poured into an alembic and distilled 15 times a day for a year. Bernard’s handling of this resulted in a severe quartan fever that lasted for 14 months, nearly killing him.
But his brush with death did not deter him. Upon recovery, Bernard heard that a Master Henry, the confessor to Emperor Frederic III of Germany, had discovered the secret of the Stone. He set off for Vienna, accompanied by five of his acolytes. When he arrived, he invited Master Henry to meet him, and the man came with nearly all the alchemists of the city. Bernard lavishly entertained them all, after which Master Henry confessed that he did not possess the secret, though he had searched for it all of his life and would do so until he died. Bernard immediately saw him as a kindred soul and vowed eternal friendship with him.
The alchemists present agreed to raise 42 marks of gold, which Master Henry said he could increase fivefold in his alchemical laboratory. Bernard, being the richest among them, would of course contribute the most, 10 marks of gold. Master Henry would contribute five, and the others one or two marks each. Bernard’s acolytes, who were poor and dependent upon him, would have to borrow their share from Bernard.
The 42 marks of gold were put into Master Henry’s furnace along with salt, copperas, aquafortis, eggshells, mercury, lead, and dung. But after three weeks nothing happened, and they gave up. The gold that remained was worth only 16 marks.
Another account says that the alchemists attempted to multiply 42 marks of silver, with Bernard putting up the lion’s share of 10 marks. Master Henry assured that the silver would be increased by at leastone-third. The silver, along with mercury, olive oil, and sulphur, were dissolved together over a fire while being continually stirred. After two months, the mixture was placed in a glass vial and covered with clay and hot ashes. After three weeks, lead was dissolved in a crucible and added on top, and the entire mixture was refined. But the final results were disappointing, for the silver had not increased at all; it was reduced to one-fourth of its original mass.
Regardless of whether it was gold or silver, Bernard finally became disillusioned. He left Vienna, vowing to give up his alchemical pursuits, but like a gambler addicted to the game, he could not stay away from them for more than two months. He resolved to fi nd an adept who had truly found the secret and would be willing to give it to him.
For eight years, Bernard wandered through Europe, northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. He went to England for four years. His travels cost him most of his remaining inheritance—13,000 crowns. He was forced to sell an estate which provided him with an income of 8,000 florins a year. Besides his travel expenses, he shoveled more money into his furnaces, and he continued to lavish money on alchemists who claimed to have the secret but did not.
Bernard was about 62 by the time he returned home to Trèves, exhausted and nearly penniless. His relatives avoided him, and he was regarded as a madman. Though Bernard had generously given away much of his money, he was too proud to ask for help. He still entertained the dream that someday he would fi nd the Stone and be rich beyond imagination.
He decided to retire to Rhodes and live in anonymity, concealing his poverty. There he met a poor monk. They could afford no equipment, but together they read alchemical treatises. After a year, Bernard met a wealthy man who lent him 8,000 florins, provided he put up as collateral the last remaining property in his estate. This Bernard happily did and resumed once again his alchemical experiments. So obsessed was he that for three years he lived and worked in his laboratory, rarely leaving it and rarely taking the time to keep himself clean. He burned away all of his money but persisted to the end, dying in 1490 in Rhodes.
According to lore, he was 82 (some accounts say 73) when he at last discovered the Stone and spent his remaining years enjoying his wealth. More likely, he died in poverty.
Bernard is credited with writing La Philosophie Naturelle des Metaux, his major work, and Book of Chemistry, Verbum dimissum, and De Natura Ovi. He advocated that alchemists spend much time in meditation and have great patience. Gold, he said, is quicksilver coagulated by sulphur. The secret of the Great Work is dissolution accomplished with the help of mercury.
- Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1932.
- Waite, Arthur Edward. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1970.