Arnold of Villanova

Podcast about him here:

The man who may have discovered carbon monoxide and general anaesthesia… and maybe moonshine.

Arnaldus de Villa Nova (also called Arnau de Vilanova, Arnaldus Villanovanus, Arnaud de Ville-Neuve or Arnaldus de Villanueva, was an alchemist, astrologer and physician.

Very interesting person to look at since he’s mentioned so often by later alchemists. He lived from 1235–1311.

He was born in Valencia, and appears to have been of Catalan origin, and is said to have studied chemistry, medicine, physics, and also Arabic philosophy.

 He also likened the alchemical process to the suffering of Christ. “Torturing” mercury until it changes form. Then comes back.

Also the red phase was equated to the abused body of Christ.

But let’s take a look at his life first:

After having lived at the court of Aragon and taught many years in Montpellier School of Medicine, he went to Paris, where he gained a considerable reputation.

He started to get a reputation as an alchemist; but his abilities were often thought to come from communication with the devil. This reputation caused ecclesiastics to take now and he was forced to flee. A friend of his in Spain was caught by the inquisition. Villanova finally fiound an asylum in Sicily to avoid a potential burning at the stake.

He didn’t help matters by sneering openly at the monastic regime and declaring boldly that works of charity are more acceptable to God than the repetition of paternosters.

Thanks to papal favor, de Villanova remained unscathed by his enemies. However, soon after his death, about the year 1313, the Inquisition decided that they had dealt too leniently with him and ordered certain of his writings burned publicly at Tarragona.

Read more:

About 1311 he was summoned to Avignon by Pope Clement V, who was ill, but Villanova died on the voyage off the coast of Genoa.

Clement V is the guy that killed the Knights Templars with Philip IV, remember?

He is credited with translating a number of medical texts from Arabic, including works by Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Qusta ibn Luqa (Costa ben Luca), and Galen.

Many alchemical writings, including Thesaurus Thesaurorum or Rosarius Philosophorum, Novum Lumen, and Flos Florum, are also ascribed to him, but probably had nothing to do with him. I still mention it because part of his influence on later alchemists also rested partially on these works. Breviarium Practicae is another book attributed to him.

Among his achievements was the discovery of carbon monoxide and pure alcohol.


“To produce sleep so profound that the patient may be cut and will feel nothing, as though he were dead, take of opium, mandragora bark, and henbane root equal parts, pound them together and mix with water. When you want to sew or cut a man, dip a rag in this and put it to his forehead and nostrils. He will soon sleep so deeply that you may do what you will. To wake him up, dip the rag in strong vinegar.”

That’s Arnold describing what would now be known as an anaesthetic. Variations on the spongia somnifera were quite common in the 9th to 14th centuries. Soporific sponges offered a measure of pain-relief. But they did not offer surgeons or their stricken patients controllable general anaesthesia as we would understand the concept in the modern era.

Besides supposedly getting rich by creating gold, Arnold was also a physician, a toxicologist and a proto-chemist. He extracted the active principles of contemporary medicinal remedies with alcohol to make tinctures.

An interesting tale I came across is that before he went to bed every night he would lay wax over his chest. He believed this would increase his life span. He’d mix quality white was with certain quantity of Oriental saffron, red rose-leaves, sandal-wood, aloes, and amber, liquefied in oil of roses. Then in the morning he would wake up take it off and save it for the next night.

He also had a sort of very special diet: he raised his own chickens every 7 years (also to increase his life span.) The chickens themselves got a special diet and Arnold would eat one of his chickens every day.


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