Field of Science

Oure termes so lerned and queynte

Whan we be ther where we shul exercise
Oure elvish craft, we seme wondrous wyse,
Yet wil I telle them, as they come to mynde,
Though I can not them set right in their kind;
As sal armoniak, verdegres, boras;

Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales

Protein chemistry seems like a hot area, but the name given to the basic building blocks of proteins - amino acids - is in fact quite "queynte".

Chaucer's junior alchemist tries to impress the other pilgrims on the road with his knowledge of the terms of his "elvish craft", treating fellow-travelers to a free-associating litany of chemical names, herbs and equipment. Some terms remain familiar to modern chemists, who still ply their trade with vials and crucibles and can pull potassium carbonate off their shelves, others have left their traces in the learned terms of today. Traditionally, the earliest known production of what Chaucer calls "sal armoniak", or ammonium chloride, was from the burning of camel dung in the temple of Jupiter Ammon in what is now Libya – hence "sal ammoniac" or salt of Ammon. This term is the root for "amine" and eventually "amino acid".

See the whole Chaucerian litany in either Middle English or Modern English here. Want the full medieval experience? Images of the full text of two 15th century versions can be found here. You can read the Canon's Yeoman's Tale in (almost) it's original form thanks to the British Library.

1 comment:

  1. Chemists are definitely turning molecules (if not base metals) into gold!

    The whole section is a great read for chemists, you will recognize a lot of common equipment and chemicals!


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