Gout and the Golden Fleece: Experimentation on Recipes through Chymical Correspondence

Michael Döring’s (d. 1641) gout and arthritis* pains were sometimes so severe that he could not leave his house on foot to visit patients throughout the city of Breslau (a.k.a. Wroclaw). Desperate to find a cure, or at least some respite from his miserable condition, he spent his adult life searching for a recipe that he could use to make a medicine.

Daniel Sennert. Line engraving by S. Furck, 1650.

Fig. 1: Line engraving of Daniel Sennert by S. Furck, 1650. Image from Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Licence.

We know this because Döring was a tireless writer of letters, and a large number of the epistles he exchanged with his brother in law, the Wittenberg professor of medicine Daniel Sennert (1572-1637; see Fig. 1), were saved for posterity and published in the 1666 Lyon edition of Sennert’s complete works (see fig. 2), nearly a quarter century after both Döring and Sennert had died. Sennert is remembered by historians for his experimentalist atomism and his philosophy of generation, but Döring has been largely forgotten, save the occasional mention that he and Sennert were the first to accurately describe the symptoms of scarlet fever.

Nevertheless, over the two decades from which letters have survived, the two physicians candidly discussed a variety of topics, including medical observations, noteworthy case histories, questions about religion and natural philosophy, and even the movements of troops during the Thirty Years’ War. Among such issues, however, the search to find a cure for gout and arthritis was paramount, for Sennert also suffered from a similar affliction, although apparently less so than Döring.

Title page of 'Tomus Quintus' of Sennert's 1666 Opera Omnia

Fig. 2: Title page of ‘Tomus Quintus’ of Sennert’s 1666 complete works, which contained his letters with Döring. Image from Google Books, used under Creative Commons Licence.

Like most academically trained physicians of their day, Sennert and Döring understood pathology and therapy in a Galenic framework; that is, diseases were caused by an imbalance of the body’s four humors, and treatment involved the balancing of these humors through diet, bloodletting, and the administration of purgatives. Even so, Sennert and Döring also promoted the use of new chymical drugs made from minerals and metals, and they believed that diseases could have causes besides the humors. In the case of gout and arthritis, one of the causes lay in the excess consumption of tartar, which they believed was found throughout the vegetable world, but in especially large amounts in wine. The iconoclastic Paracelsus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) had popularized this understanding of tartar in the sixteenth century, but Sennert and Döring were hardly alone among learned physicians who had adopted such ideas.

So, what is one to do with a gouty body riddled with tartar? In short, you have to expel the tartar, and Döring wrote that this could be done by combating the weakness of the “natural faculty,” that is, the body’s ability to rid itself of excrements and disease-causing agents like tartar. The medicines that he and Sennert hoped might accomplish this, which they discussed in letters, most often included gold in their ingredients, and were thought to work against almost all maladies.

Sennert noted in a letter from 1619 that he wanted to synthesize the famous ‘potable gold’ of the Englishman Francis Anthony (1550-1623), but had not yet had success. Döring responded that they ought to attempt to create a similar compound called the “Golden Fleece,” for he had found a recipe for the substance which promised that the drug had freed one Johann Weidner from excruciating gout pains. As Döring put it, “if that Golden Fleece carries away the feebleness of the natural faculties, it would not undeservedly be had for a panacea.”

In short, the recipe and protocol called for the dissolution of twelve sheets of gold leaf in a preparation of May dew over the course of nine months, and in 1621, Döring wrote to Sennert that he and an apothecary had acquired enough gold to begin the synthesis.

In May of 1622 Döring reported to Sennert that the Golden Fleece had apparently failed, for the gold had not gone into solution. Sennert consoled him, writing, “What has happened to you in the production of the Golden Fleece has happened to many others in chymical labors: when you make a trial, what was predicted from most certain things does not succeed.”

What is especially striking about this episode is that the interpretation of and experimentation upon recipes was done collaboratively through the undoubtedly tedious process of sending letters between Breslau and Wittenberg – a 350 km trip. It is similarly notable that physicians – working during a period in which recipes for universal remedies and promises of their effectiveness were ubiquitous – actually tested recipes for the synthesis of medicines, occasionally found them wanting, and reported failures to one another. Such experimentalism and candid communication represent archetypal values and ideals that would later be codified as hallmarks of modern science and medicine.

* Physicians often believed that gout and arthritis were the same disease or at least had the same root cause.

The Colour ConText Database

By Sylvie Neven

neven fig 1

Fig. 1: screenshot of the starting page of Colour ConText database

Artisanal recipes are considered to be primary sources in the historical study of artistic practices and materials. Prominent examples of such documents include the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus and the Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. However, hundreds of other such examples exist and were still largely unknown. In his 2001 publication The Art of All Colours, Mark Clarke compiled an inventory of 400 source documents, dating from the production of the first artists’ recipe collections up to 1500. Since then, dozens of other surviving writings containing artisanal recipes have been discovered. Many more recipes were written down in manuscript and print in the period after 1500.

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Fig. 2: screenshot of the ‘Sources’ page in the database

The initial goal of the Colour ConText database is to facilitate the consultation and exploitation of a large corpus of recipes. The core data consists of medieval and early modern manuscripts and printed books.

The ‘Sources’ page

To date, more than 500 sources (including manuscripts and printed texts) have been entered into the database, specifically located on the ‘Sources‘ page (fig. 2). In the ‘List view’, the entries are tabulated optionally by place of conservation or edition, or by title, author or date. Detailed information such as the source’s title, language, location, provenance and circulation of these manuscripts and books (place and date of origin/publication), scribes or authors, previous owners, and a description of their technical and/or general content can all be viewed on this first interface, on the ‘detailed view’.

From now, these sources can be searched by title, or by place of conservation or edition.The database also allows access to digital images of these sources via European Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO), or via digital collections made available by external institutes.

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Fig. 3: screenshot of the ‘Recipes’ page in the database


The ‘Recipes’ page

The database also makes the content of the recipe collections accessible at the level of the individual recipes. To date, more than 6,500 recipes—some consisting of only a few lines, others covering several folios—have been transcribed and recorded on another specific page within the database. The ‘Recipes‘ page allows users to consult the transcription of a particular recipe, and sometimes also provides an English translation. This translation may either have been done in the framework of this project or be reproduced directly from existing edition. In such a case references to secondary sources, together with the related bibliographical data, are specified. Finally, this layout also gives access to the specific image of the original recipe text (fig. 3).

Users can search for a specific request by library, source, title or ID number—a consecutive and unique number assigned to each individual source. It is also possible to search for specific words that appear either in the transcription or the translation of the recipe.

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Fig. 4: screenshot of the results for combinated search

Thanks to subject classification, keywords can be used when researching specific recipes, methods or materials. The general search button – situated on top of each page – allow users to combine an ingredient with a specific technique, mentioned in a limited geographical/chronological framework, when making their search.

For example, the combined search for ‘alum’ (an potassium aluminium sulphate notably used in the art of dyeing and for the producing of lake pigment) and the colour ‘red’ shows a number of entries, which can be further filtered by glossary, artistic technique or content type. We can read that 305 recipes are concerned with the substance alum and with the production of the colour red. These recipes are more specifically related to painting, illuminating, writing, dyeing, gilding and metalwork (fig. 4).

The Colour Context database can also help to identify specific, datable practices and materials. For example, we have observed that a significant number of procedures involving anthocyanin colourants (obtained from the juice of flowers and berries, such as poppies, cornflowers or blueberries) are specifically described within a certain group of manuscripts. More precisely these texts were written in the south of Germany and the north of France between 1400 and 1560.

The ‘Glossary’ page

The database also includes a complete list of the ingredients and substances mentioned in the recipes, indexed both by their current scientific name (‘Current names’) and by the ‘historical’ terms precisely as they are written in the source texts (‘Historical names’). Objects and materials are linked by relational tables that allow the retrieval of all the different historical names used for one particular material—detailing the historical written context—as well as enabling the user to see the various materials that may be related to a specific name.

These lists notably shed light on the diversity of colour names and the complexity of the varied colour terminology used in artisanal recipes. For example, the puzzling denomination ‘red of Paris’ relates to several different substances. In the Illuminier Buch von Valentin Boltz von Ruffach (first edition dated of 1549), it is used to designate a red pigment obtained from brazil wood (Caesalpinia sappan Linn. or Caesalpinia echinata Lamarck). However, other sources make a distinction between Paris red and the red pigment obtained from brazil wood by recommending the use of either the former substance or the latter (‘Ein guot röselin oder pfirsÿg bluot Nu nim presilgen oder paris rot’, Colmarer Kunstbuch, pp. 124-125, recipe 35). In Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. Germ. 489 [252], ‘Paris rot’ is a colour made from brazil wood and an unspecified lake called ‘Lacta’. Within this same manuscript, recipe [391] describes the preparation of ‘Rotenn Paris’ from a lake. It has therefore been hypothesized that this appellation was used as a way to distinguish a specific hue.

For more information on the Colour ConText database, see my recent MPIWG feature story, Colours and Their Context.

Of recipes, collectors, compilers and contributors

By Karin Zimmermann

In my recent First Monday Library Chat interview, I described the wonderful collections within the Bibliotheca Palatina at the Heidelberg University Library. As you might recall, one third of the German manuscripts within the Bibliotheca Palatina are recipe books. In fact, many of the Electors Palatine – the rulers of the Palatinate – were especially interested in medical prescriptions. They were eager to get information wherever they could and so they even collected single recipes. This kind of medical ‘small texts’ are revealing of social networks and the relationships which existed between the compilers and collectors. With a few exceptions the single recipes were handed down anonymously and so we know almost nothing about the authors of these small texts. However, in the larger collections, the names of the contributors are often mentioned either in the title of a whole manuscript or in the heading of a recipe.

The cited recipe contributors consist of not only professional physicians and surgeons but also of a large group of ‘layman or amateur doctors’. Some of the Electors Palatine were particularly known as collectors and compilers of medical literature. For example, over his life time, Louis V (reigned: 1508-1544) compiled and wrote in his own hand, a ‘Book of Medicine’ which spans 13 volumes (c. 3200 leaves of parchment) (Cod. Pal. germ. 244, 261-272)

Fig.1_HUL_Pal.germ.261.f.40r Fig. 1: Recipes from one of the volumes of Louis V ‘Book of Medicine’ for the medical and magic use of carrots.

In order to save space, Louis V developed a system of scribal abbreviation. Often, a single recipe was supplied by various persons to him, that means up to ten people or even more gave him the same recipe. The mentioned ‘layman doctors’ are mostly members of the court, like a valet, a court organist, a scribe at the chancellery, a secretary or a bailiff. The example (Fig. 2) shows you the following abbreviations (you find the real name in parenthesis): P (Elector Palatine), C bar (Christoffel Federlein, barber of Louis), Hensell (Hensel von Schifferstadt, official), Jilge (Walter Gilg, barber), Cal (Wilhelm Kal, a court physician), Hurlewegin (Regina Hurleweg, a female physician), Has (Heinrich Has, court counsellor), Hanaw (Count Philipp III or IV of Hanau-Lichtenberg).

Fig.2_HUL_Pal.germ.262.f.152vFig. 2: A recipe against lice (Fur die leus) with the abbreviated names of eight contributors.

One of Louis V’s successors, Elector Palatine Louis VI (reigned: 1576–1583), was also an enthusiastic collector and compiler of recipes and medical texts. The Bibliotheca Palatina includes around 70 medical manuscripts connected to Louis VI. While many of the manuscripts were created for Louis VI by scribes, some of them include entries written in his own hand. Louis VI often rearranged the same recipes into different groups depending on what kind of collection he wanted to create. So we find collections where the recipes are ordered by indication, by different kinds of confection or even by the time when the main ingredient of the recipe can be harvested or the month when the medication should be used.

Fig.3_HUL_Pal.germ.192.f.2rFig. 3: The ‘Kunst-Buch’ (Book of arts) of Louis VI, his most elaborate collection, written down on more than 300 folios of parchment it contains more than 2.100 recipes and prescriptions.

When we begin to look at the kinds of diseases treated, we find that they reflect contemporary life at court. The eating habits, the high consumption particularly of wine and meat was not exactly conducive to health. So it is no surprise that there are many prescriptions for gout. Consequences of malnutrition and sexual debauchery can certainly to be seen in the recipes for haemorrhoids and genital warts. Much space is given to the field of gynaecology with recipes for the elimination of menstrual disorders, on obstetrics, or to regain lost fertility (for both men and women). Veterinary medicine is also well represented, though mainly in the area of ‘Roßarzneien’ (horse medicine). A phenomenon which may be explained by the preference for keeping horses at the court. Between the medical recipes there are often interspersed some cosmetic recipes or recipes for ‘beauty treatment’ like dying hair or brightening teeth. You can also learn something about disinfestations of fleas, lice, mice and so on; how to dye clothes and how to remove stains and other household recipes. In these cases the term ‘recipe’ is not exclusively based on the medical use. We might conclude by mentioning the cookbooks in the collection. It is interesting to note that the cooking recipes and the medical recipes are not often mixed together. Finally, of course, there is no lack of ‘varia et curiosa’. There are numerous magic and fun recipes, which are present in surprisingly large numbers and usually quite abruptly next to ‘normal’ medical recipes. The variation goes from love-spells to magic that should cause severe damage. Perhaps an indication of changing beliefs, it seems many contemporaries were suspicious of these practices and we often find notes like “who knows if that is useful” or in the margin.

Fig.4_HUL_Pal.germ.222.f.51rFig. 4: One of the readers made a note to a treatise with verveine (Verbena officinalis): “Zauberej so vorr gott ein greuell” (“Beware, that’s magic and an atrocity to god”).

If you want to explore the collection of medical manuscripts at HUL you are welcome. You can easily browse the codices online. As of late you can leave qualified annotations to the digitized manuscripts or folios. You only have to register (cf. Fig. 5). If you have any questions, feel free to contact me @ Zimmermann@ub.uni-heidelberg.de.

“Take Good Syrup of Violets”: Robert Boyle and Historical Recipes

By Rebecca Laroche, in consultation with Steven Turner

Some time ago, Steven Turner of the National Museum of American History and I published our discovery that Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664) reflected knowledge held in historical recipes.[1] In particular, one experiment began with the observation, also recorded in recipes attributed to women, that syrup of violets and syrup of roses changed color when an acid, e.g. lemon juice, was added to it. The juxtaposition of this experiment with historical recipes has led to a second line of questioning, as Boyle begins the experiment with the direction to “take good Syrrup of Violets.” This phrase, coupled with the observations that there were many different recipes for the syrup (two manuscripts at the Wellcome Library have four separate entries),[2] led us to ask what constituted “good syrup of violets” among the many kinds.

Indeed, the basic ingredients—violets, sugar, and water—show very little variation (excepting the addition of acid). One could argue that the recipes differ most notably in the amount of sugar relative to the violets, but the recipe texts also vary in the ordering of the process and the time of boiling the water (sometimes with the sugar). Many pointedly say to “make itt into syrup without boyling.”[3] For example, this recipe held by Elizabeth Jacob (1654-c. 1685) repeats that it is the “best way not to boile the sirup at all,” ending with the direction “leting them come at the fire, w[ith] the flowers in spoiles the colour quite . . . if you will boile it be sure to leaue noe flowers in the Sirrup and boile it a little, though it is not the best way.”[4]

Wellcome MS 3009, image 215.

Wellcome MS 3009, image 215.

Other recipes set flower juices, water, and sugar either in the sun, over low charcoals, or in a waterbath/double boiler, or they add boiling water to the flowers. These are all gentler ways of dissolving the sugar, while boiling the ingredients together would lessen the quality of the syrup.

In looking at the larger record, we observe a tension between preserving efficacy and color and the desire for a longer shelf-life for the syrup. Thus some recipes may attest for it lasting a whole year, but they also require the boiling of the sugar, water, and violet juice together. Two recipes juxtaposed, therefore, may on the left call for boiling all ingredients together, while on the right admonish to “be sure it doe not boyle.”[5] Given an abundance of violets, the recipe maker is left with a choice: to boil or not to boil the flowers.

To anyone who has made preserves, this variation would make sense. Without refrigeration, a solution made with fresh flowers, sugar, and water would have lasted only a month or so,[6] whereas the boiling together of all of the syrup’s ingredients meant a longer shelf-life (if sealed adequately). The downside of this shelf-life, however, would be the loss of freshness, and with that freshness the full medicinal and aesthetic benefits. Syrups infused with fresh flowers tasted better and had a more vibrant hue, i.e. more medically efficacious, thus not boiling the flowers was perceived as “the best way.” Clearly, the unboiled syrup was seen to have qualities special enough to sacrifice longevity. This may not be overtly articulated in every record, but it may be implicit in the juxtaposition of more than one recipe.

When we re-read Boyle’s experiment in this light, we see that it reflects these discernments. In specifying that it is “good Syrrup of Violets,” Boyle points to the syrup made “the best way.” Steve Turner puts the effect this way:

Above 212 degrees (F) some of the liquid inside the cells actually turns into a gas [and] this ruptures the cell walls. The process produces more juice than mashing them in a bowl, . . . But there is also a corresponding loss of flavor, color and chemical sensitivity the longer the Syrup is boiled. The Syrup lasts longer but isn’t as delicious or as sensitive. . . . The Syrup [doesn’t lose] all chemical sensitivity if it is boiled . . . but certainly the longer and more vigorously it is boiled, the more is lost.[7]

The idea that a pre-scientific version of this knowledge is behind Boyle’s experiment is what led us to this juxtaposition in the first place. There are collective observations made in recipe-making that may not be attributed to any one individual but are rather shared in the transmission of one recipe by men and women alike.

[1] This entry builds upon Steven Turner and Rebecca Laroche, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets.” Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390­–91. The research was in part made possible through a short-term fellowship from the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

[2] Wellcome MS 7818.

[3] Wellcome MS 7849/0032.

[4] Wellcome MS 3009/215. My thanks to Pamela Spangler for her help in sorting through the Wellcome online database in a timely manner.

[5] See, for example, Wellcome 7892/175.

[6] One non-boiling recipe at the Wellcome states that after “one month, or 6 week,” mold may start to grow. Wellcome MS 2330/4.

[7] Steve Turner, e-mail to Rebecca Laroche, February 6, 2011.