All posts by Anke Timmermann

Anke Timmermann is a historian of medieval and early modern alchemy, medicine and science, and Munby Fellow at Cambridge University Library. She was previously Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in the group ‘Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe’/Sven Dupré. She recently published an article on scientific poetry, as well as her first monograph on Middle English alchemical poetry. Her current work concerns visual elements in alchemical manuscripts.

The Adventure of the Vanished Recipes

By Anke Timmermann

One of the great perks of a fellowship relating to specific manuscript collections is dedicated archive time. One is at leisure to look at manuscripts from cover to cover, stroll through the pages and discover new things – an experience akin to an unguided walk through a foreign city, as opposed to an organised guided tour of its best features. So I keep coming across scores of little or unknown alchemical recipes on a daily basis!

But no good research experience goes unpunished.

My journey through Cambridge manuscripts is goal-oriented; in addition to case studies, I am drawing up a catalogue of alchemy in Cambridge collections. Most of the recipes I now find myself in the need of documenting have never been recorded before. Like those who have gone before me,[1] I find that recipes in particular slow down my progress… And though comprehensiveness and sanity seem to be incompatible, one fact remains: if the bibliography is to be both consistent and useful, it must be based on the complex task of simplification.

A model for the cataloguing of recipes is difficult to identify. Many existing catalogues do not capture recipes at all, while others record them collectively and generically (e.g. as ‘ff. 50r-76v: Recipes’), but do not recognise or describe them individually. On their journey from manuscript to catalogue, recipes often perform a disappearing act. Many await scholarly rescue from obscurity. Who knows what recipes we will find in the manuscripts themselves? One is almost (almost!) reminded of the now-famous fourteenth century cookbook rediscovered in the British Library (Geoffrey Fule’s cookbook, England, mid-14th century), from which the following image is taken.

London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, here f. 138r: The remains of a grilled unicorn. Click the image to get to the related BL Medieval Manuscripts Blog post. Republished with the permission of the British Library.
London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, here f. 138r: The remains of a grilled unicorn, a reminder of the fate of lost recipes? Click on the image to get to the related BL Medieval Manuscripts Blog post (mind the date…).
Republished with the permission of the British Library.

It would be easy to criticise the mentioned type of bibliographies for their treatment of recipes, but that would be both historically insensitive and uncharitable. Their practices often developed in a bibliographical tradition focused on names and titles (and thus oblivious to texts perceived to be minor, including recipes), or were born out of common sense in service of the reader. Given the constraints of time, money and space that apply to most cataloguing projects, it is by far better to produce a wide-ranging resource on time than to spend the same amount of time to describe selected items in much detail, perhaps even risking the appearance of the resource altogether.

For new bibliographies there is always scope for reflection and improvement. As a historian of alchemy working on Cambridge manuscripts I may look towards some excellent recent developments. Several bibliographies in the history of science in print and digital form have made successful attempts to grasp recipes and other anonymous, practical texts.[2] There have also been fresh bibliographical accounts of Cambridge manuscript collections, with different foci on individual repositories, collections or aspects of manuscripts.[3]

And finally, this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of a seminal article on the cataloguing of recipes by one of the editors of the Index of Middle English Prose, Kari Anne Rand.[4] Rand mentions that, due to the editorial procedure enforced for the IMEP, Elredge’s 1992 volume on the Bodleian Library’s Ashmole Collection[5] was unable to record approximately 4,480 recipes. The implications of this large number of silent recipe witnesses for unknown material in other archives are staggering. I refer the interested reader to the article for further information. For finishing today’s post, however, I will borrow from its conclusion, with a hopeful outlook for the future as pertinent today as it was two decades ago:

On the basis of the experience of the last fifteen years and given all the possibilities inherent in electronic publishing, it should be possible to produce an even better […] [bibliography] – one which is more inclusive and caters for more needs.[6]


[1] See bibliographies relating to Cambridge University Library manuscript collections are introduced here; further noteworthy are M.R. James’s catalogues for college libraries e.g. for St Johns’s and Trinity College.

[2] A fairly recent example in this subject area is the expanded and revised version of Linda Ehrsam Voigts and Patricia Deery Kurtz, Scientific and Medical Writings in Old and Middle English (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000) (eVK2).

[3] Most notable in recent years for images in Cambridge manuscripts are P. Binski, P N. R. Zutshi, and S. Panayotova, Western Illuminated Manuscripts: A Catalogue of the Collection in Cambridge University Library (Cambridge: CUP, 2011); K.L. Scott, and A.E. Nichols, An Index of Images in English Manuscripts from the Time of Chaucer to Henry Viii, C. 1380-C. 1509: I (London: Miller, 2008).

[4] K.A. Rand Schmidt, ‘The index of Middle English prose and late medieval English recipes’, English Studies, 75:5 (1994): 423-429.

[5] L.M. Eldredge, A Handlist of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Prose in the Ashmole Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).

[6] Rand, p. 429.

Of Dirty Books and Bread

By Anke Timmermann

There are certain things that even the most innocent manuscript scholar cannot avoid, among them dirty books. This post will discuss the traces that careless readers have left on manuscript pages since they were first filled with writing: smudges and splodges created through physical contact between books and readers. Blemishes and damaged manuscripts have occurred to me recently in different guises as I was tracing alchemy across Cambridge manuscript collections. The following three observations may amuse and inspire the current audience – not least because they connect codices with bread, cheese and other foodstuffs.

Bad And Good Dirt

Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons)
Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons) 

Richard de Bury, cleric, bibliophile of the early fourteenth century and author of a book-lover’s guide to books, wrote passionately about the correct handling of codices. Books were meant to be seen but not touched. In the appropriately entitled Philobiblon, de Bury exemplifies readers’ common if damaging behaviour in the figure of ‘some headstrong youth’:

He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.

Many modern users of libraries observing fellow-readers will find this scenario familiar.

But in recent years scholarship has made visible previously hidden signs of historical book usage. An excellent article of 2010 demonstrates the use of a densitometer, ‘a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface’, e.g. for revealing traces of medieval readers’ kisses of saints’ images.[1] One can only imagine, and deduce from obvious stains, what a similar analysis of recipe books would uncover.

Medieval Bread and Books

Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.
Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.

Dirt on book pages did not need to wait for modern technology to be noted. Late medieval book owners remarked upon and tried to find solutions for the appearance of unwanted substances on their manuscript pages. Recently discovered examples include paw prints and bodily fluids left by cats in manuscripts, but after the fact, at a stage when these manuscripts were beyond hope of cleaning.[2]

I was, therefore, delighted to find the following instruction for cleaning books in a manuscript at Cambridge University Library (CUL MS Ee.1.13, f. 141r).

ffor to make clene thy boke yf yt be defouled or squaged[3]

Take a schevyr of old broun bred of þe crummys and rub thy boke þerwith sore vp and downe and yt shal clense yt

Formally a recipe text, this advice relies on just a single ‘ingredient’: bread. And while bread features widely in culinary and religious texts, in the proverbial diet of prisons (bread and water) and the pairing of ‘bread and salt’, this early mention of bread in cleaning instructions deserves more consideration. It bridges the recipe genre, bread as a culinary product of the kitchens and its alienated, secondary use that relies on its texture and other material qualities. Moreover, this text draws silent parallels with contemporary instructions for the cleaning of pots and pans, tools and instruments. I wonder whether the abovementioned technology might discover trails of bread across manuscript pages?

Modern Books and Wonder Bread

An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum
An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum

Bread as a cleaning device for books continues until today, and may be familiar to some readers of this blog, especially those dealing with books or paintings in a professional or otherwise intense capacity. The American loaf known by the modest name of Wonder Bread is said to have particularly good cleansing power. Pertinently, the V&A, however, includes this practice in its category ‘What not to do…’:

Don’t use old fashioned cleaning remedies

Bread is a traditional dry cleaning material used to remove dirt from paper. If you rub a piece of fresh white bread between your fingers, you will see that it is quite effective in picking up dirt. The slight stickiness of bread is the reason why it works and also why it can be a problem. It can leave a sticky residue behind that will attract more dirt. Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth and encourage pest attack.[4]

This piece of advice forms the antidote to the abovementioned instruction for cleaning books: conflicting advice across the centuries.

Undecided on the issue I will, however, continue to make sure my hands are clean as I continue through manuscripts with recipes, especially the alchemical ones. You never know what may have left that stain in the margin.

I would like to extend my thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia for the kind permission to use an image from their collections in this blog post.

The Tenement Museum’s blog post on the history of bread (whence the second image above originates) is not directly connected to this particular post’s themes but an interesting read for different reasons: Judy Levin, ‘From the Staff of Life to the Fluffy White Wonder: A Short History of Bread’ (19 Jan 2012).


[1] Kathryn M. Rudy, ‘Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer’, Journal of Historians of Netherlendish Art 2:1-2 (2010).

[2] See this guest post by Thijs Porck at medievalfragments: ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’.

[3] ‘squagen (v.) [Origin unknown; ?= squachen v.] To make a stain, smudge; also, dirty (sth.), smudge, stain.’ MED.

[4] V&A, ‘Caring for Your Books & Papers’ (accessed 25/11/2013).

William Hunter: Recipe Collector

By Anke Timmermann

Historical collections provide wonderful glimpses into the minds of exceptional individuals. Objects, once placed into collection contexts, silently embody the interests and personalities of their collectors. Their organisation within a collection demonstrates a certain, historical way of navigating the world of knowledge. And taken individually, each object taunts us with questions about its raison d’être: how did this get here, and what does it mean?

The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.
The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.

I recently decided to trace the ‘collective’ history of an alchemical manuscript featured in my previous blog post. GUL MS Hunter 110 escaped the fate of damage by water, fire or other destructive, if not alchemical, elements, thanks to William Hunter (1718-1783), Scottish anatomist and founder of what is now The Hunterian at Glasgow University. During a lifetime spent mostly in London (eventually eclipsed by his younger brother, surgeon John Hunter), with strong connections to Glasgow and Paris, Hunter became famous in medical circles for his work on the gravid (pregnant) uterus. He was also a teacher both brilliant and popular with medical students. Alongside his research, practice and teaching Hunter gathered thousands of books and objects relating to anatomy, natural history and art, from familiar and far-away lands, and dating from various periods of time. The mentioned alchemical volume is only one of ca. 650 Hunterian manuscripts.[1]

Despite their humble appearance, Hunter’s manuscripts may be the most intriguing part of his collections. Acquired at a time when manuscripts were cheap and generally unappreciated, they include Western and oriental items, medieval, Renaissance and contemporary treatises, and cover medical and chymical, historical and theological and linguistic themes. Some of them are likely to have come to him as part of bulk acquisitions at auctions. But what motivated Hunter’s hunt for manuscripts in general, and how did they merge with his other collections, a material lexicon of world knowledge?[2] The recipes in Hunter’s manuscripts throw some light onto these questions, especially those situated between the disciplines of medicine and chemistry.[3]

Among the various items related to materia medica, pharmacy and prescriptions in Hunter’s collections, those written by his mentor, anatomist and accoucheur (‘man-midwife’) James Douglas are noteworthy. In addition to treatises on surgical procedures Douglas also produced notes on medicinal plants including tea, a history of chocolate and bibliographical notes on authors on saffron, and a very interesting record of ‘Chymical potions made by my order at Mr Durhams Laboratory in Cheesewell Street London. 1723’.[4] All of these would have been of interest to Hunter on the page, in his professional life in London, and as a legacy of a beloved teacher and friend – they were in his possession before his thirtieth birthday, seven years after Douglas’s death.

William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)
William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)

In some ways, Douglas’s medico-pharmacological writings, then, represent the logical core of Hunter’s more wide-ranging interests in recipes, which extended back to the twelfth century.[5] Hunter’s fragmentary copy of the ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis’ of 1650 (and thus predating Hunter’s medical practice by a century and by several reviewed versions of the edict), may be considered within this context: it shows a merging of Douglas’s contemporary interests and Hunter’s investigation of the history of pharmacy and its practices.[6]

In this light Hunter’s copy of the ‘Cursus Chemicus’ of Christopher White, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford (d. 1696), too, emerges as more than a noteworthy excursion into medico-chemistry. Continued by White’s son or later descendant (up to 1755), it contains generations of recipe reception: ‘sets of receipts, medical and culinary’, ‘receipts for Cattle Distemper’ with newspaper clippings, an advertisement for the cinnabar/quicksilver mines of Almadén and for a cure ‘for the bite of a mad dog’, among other things.[7] This accumulation of materials appears as wondrous as that of Hunter’s collected objects.

Here and elsewhere, it seems that Hunter’s books and things, recipes and materials intersect in various ways. Indeed, the thought of a history of collections written through the history of recipes seems positively gravid with possibilities. Might an interdisciplinary study of Hunter’s collections give birth to a more integrated history of science?


[1] Hunter’s DNB biography was written by Helen Brock, who has also published extensively on the man and his collections. Information on Hunter’s life mentioned throughout this blog post is based on the DNB article.

[2] See e.g. this recent talk on Hunter’s book collections: Francesca Mackay, ‘Hunter’s Book Collection: The man and his time’. Manuscripts from the library of William Hunter are listed with the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.

[3] Recipes have not been researched in detail for Hunter’s collections to date: Neil R. Ker, William Hunter as a collector of medieval manuscripts (Glasgow: 1983), which I was not able to access, does not seem to consider the recipe genre in itself. This older but more inclusive article merely mentions ‘some medical prescriptions’ among sundry items within the collections: Charles Illingworth, ‘William Hunter’s manuscripts and letters: the Glasgow collection’, Med Hist. 15 (1971), 181–186.

[4] Presumably Chiswell St. GUL MS Hunter 624.

[5] Early relevant items are, in roughly chronological order, GUL MSS Hunter 64, 435, 190, 95, 117, and others.

[6] GUL MS Hunter 243 (Pharmacopoeia Londinensis and anonymous medical notes). See also, for example, GUL MS Hunter 626, for which one of Douglas’s children is listed as an amanuensis, entitled Catalogus Pharmacorum (with a section dedicated to a Catalogus Chymicum).

Now you see it? No you don’t! Images in Alchemical Manuscripts

By Anke Timmermann

The scene seems almost idyllic: a stone basin in a green landscape, a stylised cloud floating above with the heads of three blond, chubby cherubs. But then we realise that the sweet, angelic faces are spitting a greenish-blue liquid into the tub, from whence it flows through a spout into a glass vessel. This means business!

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

The business at hand is the manufacture of the philosophers’ stone as outlined in the Rosarium Philosophorum, a popular alchemical tractate first printed in 1550. It represents one of the increasing number of illustrated alchemica that emerged from the fifteenth century onwards. Manuscript pages came to life with pictures of alchemical metaphors previously confined to descriptions. Colourful animals or humanoid figures (representing substances) were now shown engaged in activities (chemical processes and reactions), from knowing each other in the Biblical sense to mutual ingestion, in fiery or watery environments alike.

But, as exciting as this development was, alchemical practitioners still needed to translate imagery into practical terms to make sense of these ‘visual recipes’. Like the interpretation of recipe texts, and especially in combination with verbal recipes, this proved to be a difficult task. Today it is historians who try to find a recipe for the meaningful description and analysis of alchemical images.[1] Here the little flask above, gathering the angelic fluids so faithfully, demonstrates how complex the business of alchemical history can be.

Glass vessels feature prominently in alchemical images from the late medieval and early modern period. The image above might indicate the use of an actual glass flask in this step of the manufacturing process, or, more likely, simply be intended to conjure up the mental image of gathering liquids with any appropriate vessel. However, in many visual alchemical scenes such as the Splendor Solis series or the Ripley Scrolls, drawn glass containers were clearly not intended to represent actual equipment, but rather to provide a visual frame for a process depicted in figurative form.

The translucence of glass benefited the artist aiming to reveal alchemical processes within a conceptual, as opposed to actual, space. By contrast, in actual laboratory practice, glass vessels were generally only used for distillation “where they may be used without fear of breaking or melting”.[2] What we see, and what contemporary readers saw, in these ‘visual recipes’ is not an object, but a concept.

Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

A much more pragmatic depiction of a similar flask may be found alongside Albertus Magnus’s appropriately-named Straight Path in the Art of Alchemy in GUL MS Hunter 110. This manuscript is roughly two hundred years older than the copy of the Rosarium Philosophorum above. Instantly recognisable as a receiver for distilled liquid, drawn complete with the entire apparatus, this flask nevertheless surprises in comparison with the previous image: this illustration does not show any liquid either before or after distillation. Such detail would have been realistic, but perhaps unnecessary for contemporary readers to understand the experimental setup.

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

Our final image could be mistaken for a regular kitchen if it weren’t for the distilling apparatus shown in the foreground[3]. This piece of equipment was familiar to readers who had an alchemical background from practical manuscripts (like the previous one), but also to those employing distillation for medicinal or other purposes. This image reminds us of the intersection of alchemical recipes with those of other recipe literatures, in word and image.

What is particularly wonderful about this image is a detail that might be overlooked when considered in isolation from the other illustrations: the liquid in the receiving vessel is shown to stand at an even, calm level, while the liquid in the heated vessel is boiling, bubbles clearly visible. The present, nervous reader of this manuscript cannot help but worry about the stability of the glass, which could melt or break at any moment. It is only in comparison with other flask depictions that this detail emerges.

Questions about different purposes of illustration as well as local, temporal and individual preferences in visualising different aspects of the alchemical work come to mind. But is this a detail contemporary readers would have picked up on?

Well, now I see it. But maybe I shouldn’t.


My focus on the flask, just for the purposes of this blog post, was inspired by Tillmann Taape’s excellent recent post on distillation.

[1] Two seminal articles in this area are Barbara Obrist, ‘Visualization in Medieval Alchemy’, HYLE-International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 9 (2003), 131-70; see also Obrist’s earlier oeuvre on alchemical images. And Christoph Lüthy and Alexis Smets, ‘Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery,’ Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009 ), 398-439.

[2] John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1651), Book I. See also Tillmann Taape’s posts on this blog.

[3] This manuscript is described and analysed in Paul Engle, “Depicting Alchemy: Illustrations from Antonio Neri’s 1599 Manuscript”, in Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, ed., Glass of the Alchemists (New York, NY, 2008), 48-61.