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Berthold Schwarz (sometimes spelled Schwartz), also known as Berthold the Black and der Schwartzer, was a legendary German (or in some accounts Danish or Greek) alchemist of the late 14th century, credited with the invention of gunpowder by 15th- through 19th-century European literature.
The purported period of Schwarz' activity (late 14th century) thus falls between the first reports of gunpowder in Europe (late 13th century) and the development of effective applications in artillery (mid 15th century).
It is unclear whether Schwarz is a historical person. It has been suggested that he was a historical alchemist who had developed gunpowder in Germany, but other scholars consider him purely legendary.(Partington, 1960)
It is also possible that Schwarz is not a historical person at all, but a symbolic inventor figure taking his name from that of Schwarzpulver "black powder", the German term for gunpowder (Gartz 2007).
The first reference to Schwarz is found in an anonymous manual of pyrotechnics of ca. 1410, preserved in various 15th century copies. The relevant passage credits an alchemist and master of arts "Master Berthold" (maister perchtold) with the accidental discovery of gunpowder, without giving any further details as to time or place.
Such details are first reported by Franz Helm, an author active in Landshut during the 1520s to 1530s, who is also the first to introduce the epithet "the Black" (in Latinized form, as niger). According to Helm,
- Item hir ist zu wissen wer dz puluer vnd dz geschitz erdacht vnd erfunden hat, der ist gewessen ain Bernhardinerminch mit namen Bartoldus nigersten [...] Da man zelt 1380 Jar. [...] Der bartoldus nigger ist vonn wegen der kunst die er erfunden vnd erdacht hat gerichtet worden vom leben zum todt Im 1388. Jar.
- "Here is told who first invented powder and guns, this was a Bernhardian monk called Bartoldus nigersten ... in the year 1380 ... bartoldus nigger was executed for the art he had invented in the year 1388."
Feldhaus (1910) thinks that reports of a "Master Berthold" in the early 15th century, barely 25 years after this master's death, should be taken seriously as historical testimony of an alchemist Berthold, called "the Black", member of the Order of St. Bernhard, who developed a recipe for effective gunpowder in ca. 1380, and who was possibly executed as a magician some years later. The recipes given in the 15th-century German manuals for pyrotechnics would then be directly derived from the recipe as developed by Berthold.
This historical Master Berthold, who would not have invented gunpowder ex nihilo, but who would rather have developed an effective recipe which opened technological possibilities and initiated the development of gunpowder warfare during the 15th century, is likened by Feldhaus to James Watt who did not so much "invent" the steam engine as improve the invention of Denis Papin to a point where its application became worthwhile.
In 1853, a monument to Berthold Schwarz was erected in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.
- Kelly (2005), 23
- Kelly, Jack (2005). Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World (Paperback ed.). New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-03722-4.
- Franz Maria Feldhaus, Berthold (Erfinder des Schießpulvers) in: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, vol. 55 (1910), 617–619.
- Partington, J. R. (1960). A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (Hardback ed.). Cambridge: W. Hefer and Sons, Ltd. (ISBN 978-0801859540 for the paperback reprint, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)
The Great Didactic, Comenius, John Amos, Adam & Charles Black, London, 1633/1907, p. 83
- Photo and drawing of monument in Freiburg (in German)
- Texts on Wikisource:
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