Category Archives: Alisha Rankin

Proprietary Panaceas and Not-So-Secret Recipes

By Alisha Rankin

How did peddlers of proprietary medicines negotiate the craze for recipes in early modern Europe? They offered recipes using their medicines, of course!

There are many examples of recipe books containing remedies for which the main ingredient is a secret cure attached to only one person. The reader would then have to purchase that ingredient before he or she could use the recipe. Famous examples of this phenomenon abound in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, Daffy’s Elixir among them, but many precursors can be found in sixteenth-century continental Europe. The medicines of Italian surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti were perhaps the most prominent, but there were a host of other empirical healers who fit this mold.

One such empiric was a German who called himself Georg am Wald, a noble-sounding name that belied his humble beginnings as the son of a bookseller. Am Wald received a law degree from Basel in 1573, but he never practiced as a lawyer. Instead, he set up practice as a healer, referring to himself a “doctor of both medicines”: a physician and surgeon. He received his medical degree from the Palatine Count in Padua in 1578, but these degrees were famous for being bought and sold–a reasonable assumption in am Wald’s case, considering that he spent less than a year in Padua. Despite being kicked out of Augsburg for failing the city’s medical exam, am Wald practiced as a doctor in Donauwörth for years, before being driven out for inciting religious dissidence. He then bought himself a castle, where he produced and sold alchemical cures.

A boring fellow he was not.

am Wald 1594 frontispiece
Panacea Amwaldina, 1594 edition
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, VD A2432

In the 1590s, am Wald became famous for an alchemical cure-all that he called the Panacea Amwaldina. He published a treatise on the cure-all in 1591, then revised and expanded it in 1594. There are many fascinating aspects of this cure–not least that it may be the first instance of using the word “panacea” to refer to an alchemical remedy–but most relevant to this blog is the way he incorporated the panacea into recipes.The recipe for the panacea itself was secret, of course. Even his closest friends were unable to pry it from him.

Nevertheless, am Wald used recipes aplenty, writing that:

Even though my panacea drives away all illnesses on its own, which the help and cooperation of the Almighty, I am nevertheless including … many recipes, which one can use in many ailments and conditions for a quicker cure.

In longstanding or especially deadly diseases, he recommended a purge before using the panacea. (An interesting recommendation, given that he touted the panacea as a gentle substance that was not a purgative.) He also gave recipes for the panacea’s use in 116 (!!!) different ailments. Am Wald included similar recipes in his letters to patients.

Am Wald 1594 marginalia
Marginal annotations on the recipes for using am Wald’s panacea
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, VD A2432

The reader of one copy of am Wald’s book in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek appears to have taken his directives seriously, as he wrote marginal notations to highlight particular recipes of interest. Even with a supposed cure-all, recipes remained crucial. Patients of course then needed to buy both his book and the panacea to be healed–a double win for am Wald!


am Wald, Georg. Kurtzer Bericht, wie und was gestalt der Panacea Amwaldina als eine einige Medicin … anzuwenden sey. Frankfurt am Main, 1591.

am Wald, Georg. Kurtzer und zum andernmal gemehrter Bericht von der Panacea Amwaldina. 1594

Short Bibliography:

Eamon, William. The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2010. (A fascinating study of Fioravanti.)

Leong, Elaine and Sarah Pennell. “Recipe Collections and the Currency Of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern ‘Medical Marketplace.’” In Medicine and the Market in England and Its Colonies, c. 1450-1850. Edited by Mark J.R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2007.

Haycock, David and Patrick Wallis, “Quackery and Commerce in Seventeenth-Century London: The Proprietary Medical Business of Anthony Daffy,” Medical History, 25 (2005): 1-36.

Müller-Jahnke, Wolf-Dieter. Georg am Wald (1554-1616).” In Analecta Paracelsica: Studien zum Nachleben Theophrast von Hohenheims im deutschen Kulturgebiet der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Joachim Telle, 213-304. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1994.

Rankin, Alisha. “Empirics, Physicians, and Wonder Drugs in Early Modern Germany: The Case of the Panacea Amwaldina.” Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009): 680-710.

Panaceia’s Daughters



Readers take note – Alisha Rankin’s monograph Panaceia’s Daughters. Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany is now out with the University of Chicago Press!

Drawing on rich and fascinating archival sources (including a flurry of recipes), Panaceia’s Daughters is the first major study on noblewomen’s healing activities in early modern Germany. It’s available at all good bookstores including here for US-based readers and here for UK/Europe-based readers.

Happy reading!

Writing Recipes Down

Alisha Rankin, Tufts University

Every time I give an in-class exam, as I did this week, my students complain bitterly about how much their hands ache from all of the writing. In this digital age, they tell me, writing simply is not something they do very often. They’re out of practice. With a keyboard, they could have written twice as much.  It got me thinking about the recipes I work on and the labor involved on behalf of the women who wrote them – although in the case of my ladies, of course, the distinction was between memory and writing rather than writing and typing.

A striking recipe manuscript belonging to the counts of Hohenlohe in southwest Germany illustrates the importance of the act of writing down. Copied into the blank pages at the back of another recipe collection, it begins with the heading, “The old countess of Mansfeld gave these medicines to her son, Count Hans Georg, written in her own hand.” [i]

Scribal Copy of Dorothea of Mansfeld’s Recipe Book, late 16th c.

“The old countess of Mansfeld” referred to Dorothea of Mansfeld (1493-1578), a German noblewoman widely known for her remedies and her charitable healing. Her recipes were prized by aristocrats and commoners alike, and they were even recommended by several physicians. The Hohenlohe recipe book illustrates how much she was respected: so much so that the very fact she had written the book herself was deemed a crucial item of information.  The scribe soon ran out of pages at the back of the volume and had to continue the text in the blank pages between each chapter of the original collection. Every jump in the text reiterated Dorothea of Mansfeld’s act of writing down. The inside back binding explains, “NOTA: In the front of this book, after the twenty-forth folio, continue more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld also wrote down for her son, Count Hans Georg, by herself.” [ii]

Note on the back page of recipe book sending the reader to the blank pages in the middle of the volume: each jump in text emphasizes Dorothea’s “own hand.”

If one flips to the designated folio, the recipes indeed continue under the heading “These are more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.” The reader is led in the same manner through three more breaks in the text, some of them mid-recipe, until it concludes in the (previously blank) pages after folio 65 with the words: “End of the medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.”

Why did the copyist deem it so important that the countess had written the recipes in her own hand (mit Aigner handt) or that she had written them herself (selbsten geschrieben)? I think there are several possible answers. Most obviously, this emphasis underscores the important connection between text and practitioner: the fact that Dorothea had transferred her arts directly into paper and ink tied the document to her considerable reputation. A recipe collection carefully written in the hand of a well-known practitioner was a valuable object indeed.

To return to my students’ complaints about having to write out their exams by hand, their grumbles might highlight a second answer to the question. Writing was difficult. Copying out recipes required much care and a lot of time. To do a meticulous job was a laborious process.  Dorothea of Mansfeld herself indicated that writing down recipes was no simple matter. When an acquaintance, Anna of Saxony, asked Dorothea to copy out some of her memorized recipes in 1561, Dorothea cautioned that it was no easy process. She first needed “empty books in which to write” and thus “humbly” asked Anna to send “three books bound in parchment, one made of large paper, the others of small paper.” Moreover, she warned Anna, “Your Noble Grace must have patience, for such things take time.” [iii] Recipes written in Dorothea’s hand represented the painstaking efforts of a highly respected and highly ranked woman, and as such, they had great value.

A final reason for emphasizing that Dorothea had written the original recipes herself may be a simple matter of penmanship. As anyone who has worked on German court documents can attest, most sixteenth-century aristocrats – and particularly women – did not have stellar handwriting. Anna of Saxony frequently expressed embarrassment about her own writing, which she considered to be clumsy and unsightly.  In contrast, and highly unusually, Dorothea of Mansfeld wrote in a beautiful, neat, even, humanist hand.

A recipe in Dorothea von Mansfeld’s handwriting

Dorothea’s texts were thus valuable both for their outward appearance and for the promise of medical efficacy in their content. As I head off to decipher my students’ exams this weekend, I suspect I will appreciate this respect for good penmanship!

A version of this post appears in my forthcoming book, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.

[i] Hohenlohe Zentralarchiv Neuenstein, Best. GA, U5.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Dorothea of Mansfeld to Anna of Saxony, June 1, 1561, SHStA Dresden, Geheimes Archiv, Loc. 8528/1, fol. 329r.