Ever wonder where the word comes from? In English it generally refers to harsh language and behavior, occasionally to the “sal vitriol” once used in chemistry and medicine. I got to see where the original vitriol came from, and inadvertently learned more about medieval hazmat than I’d planned. You see, vitriol is a substance that was used for dyes. It is iron, zinc, or copper sulfate hydrate. And it looks really cool when it is behind glass, or turning mine galleries and shafts different colors. Just don’t touch it. It can be poisonous, and makes sulfuric acid before you precipitate it.

I had not planned on learning nearly as much as I did. *waits for giggles to subside* I started by trying to translate some tour options on a brochure for the Rammelsberg Mine museum. MomRed wanted to go, and it looked at first as if we would be too far away. They only have one official English-language tour, on Tuesdays at 0900, and the commute would require leaving where we’d planned to stay by 0800. So I got one of the brochures and was trying to translate it, with a few technical stumbling blocks. The English version had the same stumbling block. What was Vitriole?

Turns out the Rammelsberg and other mines in the Harz produced lots of vitriol, blue, white, and green, and German. The ores are very complicated, chemically, and have a number of sub-products besides the lead, copper, iron, zinc, and silver that made the region so important for so long.

Copper Vitriol after purification. Pretty, but don’t play with it.

A little of this, a little of that, all mixed together.

Vitriol was the Latin name given to sulfates that could be used either as raw ores to be refined into the metals desired (copper, zinc, iron) or for the sulfate and water solution used to dye leather. When you process the minerals into the dye-stuff, it produces strong sulfuric acid along the way. Anyone who has survived chemistry knows that you do not mess with sulfuric acid without taking a lot of care and being ready to douse your lab partner or self with lots and lots of water should something go “gush.”

You can still find recipes for making vitriol at home, although you probably don’t want to. Inside the mine, the guide pointed out flowstone of vitriol’s basic [OK, acidic] components, and warned us not to touch it and certainly not to touch it then lick our fingers.

Please do not touch, pet, or lick the mine walls. Copper sulfate hydrate in situ.

The easiest way to make vitriol, according to ancient and medieval authors, was to collect acid mine run off, let it evaporate, and then use pebbles suspended in the solution on strings to collect the crystals. The acidic solution also served as the starting point for making pure sulfuric acid for industrial and medicinal use. Which makes me curious how the materials were shipped from the mines to the dyers without causing major headaches for the merchants, or if crushed minerals traveled in barrels and then the dyers did the dangerous part. After the “old” adit was dug from Rammelsberg to Goslar in the 1500s, the adit water was used to turn mills, then allowed to settle so that the iron “ocher” could be collected in pits and used for paint or sold elsewhere.

If you are curious about making vitriol, I highly recommend this source:

And now you know how pretty blue, yellow, and white rocks became intemperate language!




3 thoughts on “Vitriolic?

  1. “…other mines in the Harz produced lots of vitriol, blue, white, and green, and German.”

    So I had to follow the rock4brains link to find out what color “German” vitriol is. “yuck-green plus ick-ochre colored.” Good to know!

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