Category Archives: Apothecaries

‘Mercurialia are worrisome’: dangerous recipes

By Marieke Hendriksen

To anyone familiar with the practices of Thomas Dover (1662-1742), alias the Quicksilver Doctor, it may seem like mercury and mercury-based drugs were prescribed and taken rather indiscriminately by physicians, apothecaries and patients in the eighteenth century.[i] However, pharmaceutical handbooks, often written by experienced pharmacists under the auspices of university professors of medicine, give an entirely different view. These handbooks, some of which were reprinted in great numbers for decades, were aimed at professional apothecaries and other medical men. Although virtually every pharmaceutical handbook listed mercurial drugs, they all warn against using them too liberally.

Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.
Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.

A good example can be found in the four Dutch editions of the Medicina pharmaceutica, or Great general treasury of pharmaceutical medicine, which appeared between 1681 and 1741.[ii] In the first edition, at least nine different recipes involving mercury in some form are listed. Because of mercury’s alleged cleansing and purging properties, these cures were recommended for ailments as diverse as intestinal worms, venereal disease, and skin infections.[iii]

However, in the fifth book of that same edition, the volume on ‘Shop Compositions’ (drugs composed to sell ready made in the apothecaries’ shop), over half a page is spend on a warning about antimonial and mercurial drugs, summarized in the index as ‘Mercurialia zyn sorghelyck,’ which translates as ‘Mercurialia are worrisome.’ Following a list of drugs prepared from a variety of minerals, metals and stones, the author warns that it is not his intention to give the ‘Masters of medicine’ the idea that they should prescribe these dangerous cures often; only when there were no other options left should they revert to them.[iv] The other options, it appears, were mainly traditional herbal remedies, as the author writes:

God almighty has blessed us with some common or native herbs and remedies, that have such a power invested in them, that these can be used in general and without vicissitudes or thinking twice to cure the ill, so one should always use these first, before one turns to some dangerous and strange medicaments from chemistry; so it would be a great deception and recklessness to apply prepared Antimony or Quicksilver, if one is provided with other harmless and powerful remedies, as the former often needlessly do great damage, or could even cause death.[v]

Only if a disease did not respond to the herbal remedies could ‘dangerous chemical preparations’ be applied. As this was the first edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica from 1681, and the first decades of the eighteenth century saw an increasing incorporation of chemistry in the academy, one might expect that the last edition from 1741 was less tentative about the prescription of chemical remedies.[vi] Previous editions had been printed in Brussels, but the 1741 edition was printed in Leiden–a city with one of the leading medical faculties of Europe at the time. The reprint even had a preface written by the Leiden professor of chemistry Hieronymus Gaub. Although the spelling of the 1741 edition was updated to modern standards, the same old warning was once again repeated.

This raises questions about the extent to which early chemical research and teaching at universities was changing professional medical men’s understanding and application of mercurial, or other chemically-based, remedies. Moreover, the apparent contrast between the cautions and warnings in professional handbooks like these and popular culture on the one hand, and the ostensible popularity of mercury remedies on the other, makes this a fascinating research topic.

[i] Also see Kenneth Dewhurst, The Quicksilver Doctor. The Life and Times of Thomas Dover Physician and Adventurer (Bristol: John Wright & Sons Ltd., 1957).

[ii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst (Leiden: Isaak Severinus, 1741). De Farvacques, the personal physician of Charles II, was not really the author of this book. His name was used by the actual author, the Brussels friar Peter Gilles, to lend it more authority. See L.J. Vanderwiele, “Broeder Petrus Gillis S.J. (1620-1697), Auteur van Medicina Pharmaceutica of Drogbereidende Geneeskonst”, Kring voor de geschiedenis van de pharmacie in de Benelux. Bulletin. 69 (maart 1986): 8–16.

[iii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst. (Brussels, Francois Foppens, 1681), Vol. V, 932-5, 951-5.

[iv] Ibid., 967.

[v] Ibid.: ‘Want aengesien Godt almachtigh ons met eenighe ghemeynsaeme, oft inlandtsche heylsaeme kruyden ende drôghen heeft ghejont, die met sulcken kracht zyn begaeft, dat-men ghemeynelyck met de selve sonder peryckel oft achterdencken de siecken kan ghenesen, soo behoort-men altoos eerst de selve the ghebruycken, eer men sich begheeft om eenighe ghevaerlycke ende vremde middelen uyt de schey-konst te nemen; soo dat het een groot bedrogh oft reuckeloosheydt soude wesen, achter den bereyden Antimonie oft Quick in ‘t werck te stellen, soo wanneer men versien is van andere schadeloose ende krachtighe remedien, door dien men also dickmaels sonder noot aen onsen evenaesten groote schade, jae de doodt selfs soude konnen aen-brenghen.’ (Translation mine)

[vi] On the formation of chemistry as an academic discipline in the early eighteenth century see Bruce Moran, Distilling Knowledge. Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), chapter 4.

Of Porridge, Poetry and the Philosophers’ Stone

By Anke Timmermann

Wer ain guot Muess wil machen
[Es] kompt von siben sachen
Aijr und salz
Milch vnd Schmaltz
gewurtz vnd Mell
von Saffran wirdt es gell
(ÖNB MS 11410, f. 186r, s. xvi)[1]

 [He who wants to make a good porridge needs seven items: eggs and salt, milk and suet, spice (elsewhere: sugar) and flour; saffron gives a yellow colouring.]

These rhymes will seem very familiar to anyone who grew up in a German-speaking family: unbeknownst to many, the children’s song “Backe, backe Kuchen” can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. Perhaps understandably it is commonly accepted that this is a piece of folklore for toddlers rather than a recipe proper.[2] Even the original recipe for porridge–or cake, in the children’s rhyme–is simple and elliptic. No measurements or methods are provided, and the phrasing and listing of exactly seven ingredients seems formulaic. But the environment that brought forth this recipe is much more complex, bringing together medieval poetry, recipes and scientific communication.

To see the connection between science and porridge we need to look at the manuscripts in which the text was originally written. The earliest documented copy of the poem can be found among jottings on the inner cover of a fifteenth-century manuscript, beside medical notes and recipes.[3] The cited sixteenth-century version appears in a medical recipe book owned by a physician-apothecary near Vienna, Wolfgang Kappler. This pharmacological reference work contains hundreds of recipes, some of them traditional instructions for the manufacture of pills and salves, many explicitly using alchemical methods and ingredients, others covering diet and regimen, and all of them intended to be useful in his professional practice. The rhymed parts of both manuscripts are comparatively few. But beyond the confines of their covers, they form part of a medieval and early modern written tradition in which scientific verse spread across Europe. To Kappler and his contemporaries, these rhymes would not have conjured up the image of chanting children. Rather, they would have recognised the rhymes as an accepted medium of communicating knowledge.

Why would anyone choose to write a recipe in rhyme rather than in plain instructive prose? Answers to this question are many and varied. In late medieval England, for example, the hope of attracting royal funds for a future project certainly inspired some alchemical practitioners to compose couplets.[4] Medical recipes, much less often subject to versification, might sometimes cross over into the realms of charms, cookery and general Middle English poetry. Incidentally, John Lydgate’s (author of the Fall of Princes) most popular poem during his lifetime was a medical one, his Dietary.[5]

Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Scientific poems on botany, the stars and their movements joined longer learned treatises (‘encyclopaedic poetry’) on the make-up of man and God’s creation. Particularly in alchemy, rhyme served as a vehicle for preserving practical instructions, making it easier for a copyist to transport the text from one manuscript into another or for the practitioner to memorise important steps in the laboratory. With ancient didactic poetry as ancestor and current concerns about techne, craft and knowledge at its heart, scientific poetry was a working genre for those who wrote, read and used it.[6]

When English antiquarian Elias Ashmole published Middle English alchemical poetry in his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum he focused on the poem’s role in English language and literature, not in the laboratory.[7] Since then the connection between poetry and science or craft has been lost. It is this discrepancy between the nature of modern scientific publications and that of their historical ancestors that makes scientific poetic recipes so intriguing and yet so difficult to research. While it may not be child’s play it tells us much about how historical experts transformed experience into knowledge as they turned prescriptions into rhyme.


[1] On the manuscript, see the Austrian National Library’s catalogue HANNA, s.v. 11410.

[2] C.M. Blaas, “Ein Kinderspruch aus dem XV. Jahrhundert” in Germania 23 (1878), 343.

[3] HANNA, s.v. 12503. On recipes in German Fachliteratur see also J. Telle, “Das Rezept als literarische Form” in Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 26 (2003), 251-74.

[4] For example, see: P. J. Grund, ‘Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite’: An Edition of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy (2011).

[5] K. Bühler, “Lydgate’s Rules of Health in MS Lansdowne 699” in Medium Ævum 3 (1934), 51-6.

[6] On the history and functions of scientific, especially alchemical, poetry see e.g. R. M. Schuler, Alchemical Poetry, 1575-1700 (1995), D. Kahn, “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis” in Ambix, 57-58 (2010/11), 249-74/62-77, and my forthcoming article in the Companion to Fifteenth Century Verse. Note also J. Telle’s forthcoming monograph on German alchemical poetry, Alchemie und Poesie.

[7] E. Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652).

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Compiler and the Countess

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

Last month, Rebecca Laroche (12/03/2013) examined the first recipe in a manuscript owned by Anne Layfielde and dated 1640, housed at the Medical Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  The section of the manuscript compiled by one “Cal: Downing” contains a remarkable number of attributions, many to Elizabeth Downing – a woman who, Rebecca suggested, could be the “Mistress Downing” whose recipes appear in the printed Natura Exenterata: Or Nature Unbowelled (1655).

I’d like to consider another woman whose name appears repeatedly in the Layfielde manuscript as well as in printed medical manuals: the Countess of Exeter.  Seven references to the Countess of Exeter appear in CPP 10a214.  While the manuscript never says so specifically, this is most likely Frances Cecil (1580-1663), who married Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter in 1610.[1]  The Countess’s reputation in matters of health proved weighty enough that she is named in the dedications to a number of early modern printed books, though, curiously, her recipes are not part of those books (and male physicians’ are). Thomas Bonham dedicates The Chyrurgians Closet to the Countess because he finds “amongst men (to me known) none so much affecting this noble Science as I could wish.”[2] Her reputation as a model household manager led Gervase Markham to dedicate the 1623 edition of Country Contentments, or The English Huswife to her; his assertion that the Countess’s endorsement could make his “weak and disable[d]” book “strong in the world” underscores her long-standing reputation as a practitioner of household medicine.[3]  Thus, even though the Countess’s recipes themselves are not included, or at least not credited, in these books, their authors rely on her popular reputation as a medical practitioner to situate their writings.

Downing’s manuscript section calls on the Countess’s authority as well, naming her as a source for recipes for ailments ranging from “looseness of the body” to sudden swellings.  And even more interestingly, the manuscript labels four recipes as “probatum per Countess of Exeter.”  A recipe for “the Ulcer or stone in the bladder” goes so far as to specify that the medicine was “made by Mr Whatton apothecary of Stamford, probatum per Countess Exeter.” This endorsement carries a personal ring, suggesting that the compiler’s contact with the Countess is more immediate than with the apothecary.  The manuscript, as a result, conjures images of the compiler and the Countess in personal conversation about their medical work.

While written testimonials could certainly follow along with well-travelled recipes, the Layfielde manuscript’s many references to the Countess raise tantalizing questions about the compiler’s medical connections.  How closely did the compiler know the Countess?  Did they exchange recipes in person?  If not, how did her recipes end up in the CPP manuscript?  The answers to these tantalizing questions could offer us a greater understanding not just of how recipes travel, but of how manuscript and print worked together to lend practitioners like the Countess a reputation for medical prowess.

[1] Alastair Bellany, ‘Cecil , Frances, countess of Exeter (1580–1663)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [, accessed 23 March 2013]

[2]  Thomas Bonhman, The Chyrurgians Closet (London, 1630).

[3]  Gervase Markham, Country Contentments, or The English Huswife (London, 1623).

This is the third in a series of monthly posts on this topic.

Distilling Vernacular Medicine

By Tillmann Taape

As Katherine Allen has pointed out in her post, distillation was regarded as a powerful way of separating and purifying earthly matter, and was central to the alchemical pursuit of the philosophers’ stone. And, yes, the odd gallon of whisky was also a much-welcomed product. This view of distillation is reflected in the textual processes that charaterise the Western alchemical tradition. Beginning with twelfth-century translations of Arabic texts into Latin, scholars constantly excerpted, compiled, translated, and digested all available knowledge, identified what was useful, and then compounded it to suit different tastes and purposes.

This double importance of distillation – techical and textual – is highlighted in the first distillation handbook ever printed, the Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus, also known as the Small book of distillation, which was published in 1500 by the Alsatian surgeon and apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–1512). While this book contains numerous recipes for distilled waters, it can also be seen as representing in itself a recipe for acquiring and presenting medical knowledge. Despite its Latin title, it was written in German, and quickly became a best seller, no doubt cashing in on the growing popularity of distilled medicinal waters. To teach his readers the art of distilling, Brunschwig drew on his wide reading (over three thousand books, according to him) and practical experience to concoct ingredients from different traditions of knowledge.

Brunschwig was well-versed in the alchemical literature, which at the time mainly circulated in manuscript form. Publishing his book in print, Brunschwig introduces a broad public to an  alchemical understanding of matter, and how it can be transformed and purified. In fact, the process of distillation itself is defined in these terms, as “nothing but to separate the subtle from the gross and the gross from the subtle, […] to make the physical more spiritual, [so that it] may more easily penetrate the human body with its secret powers and virtues” (SB 1509, fol. 6r.). This extraction of the useful from the superfluous is also an important process in vernacular medical literature, and Brunschwig extracts not only from alchemical sources, but also boils down the essence of the learned medical tradition.

With reference to ancient textual authorities such as Galen and Dioscorides, he briefly explains the workings of the human body in terms of the four humours which govern an individual’s ‘complexion’, with diseases representing a deviation from this humoural balance. This can be readjusted by administering medicines distilled from plants, or even animals, with the appropriate qualities.[1] This precarious balancing act means that a sound knowledge of medical ingredients was essential, which is why a large portion of the Small book  is taken up by a herbal section. It offers some of the best botanical woodcuts produced at the time, paired with encyclopaedic entries listing each plant’s appearance, medicinal qualities, and the distillation process by which these might best be extracted.

The third major source for Brunschwig’s distillation project, artisanry, has closer links with alchemy than one might at first suspect: as historian Pamela Smith has shown, early modern craftsmen subscribed to an alchemical worldview, and were confident that their personal observation and direct physical engagement with natural material was a reliable source of knowledge.[2] Brunschwig shared this view: based on his own experience with distillation procedures, he is able to anticipate pitfalls (e.g. don’t let a heated glass vessel cool down too quickly, or it will crack!), and to dispense practical advice on the quality and proper manipulation of different stills and vessels. This technical know-how boiled down into an easy-to-follow series of short chapters, which really starts from scratch. There is even a life-sized picture of a mould which should be used to shape the curved bricks needed for building a round furnace, and set in its centre, was a poem summarising the key points to remember.

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

A mould for shaping bricks from Brunschwig’s distillation manual. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

Brunschwig’s manual, then, not only contains valuable recipes for harnessing nature’s healing powers through distillation, it also represents in itself a recipe for the production of a best-selling and highly usable book: he compounds his knowledge of texts with his own experience and observation. He digests, extracts, and purifies his intellectual and technical ingredients, and where other compilers often produce turgid mixtures of jumbled-up recipes, Brunschwig manages to distill clear and useful knowledge from learned medical, alchemical and artisanal traditions. His example was followed by many early modern compilers of medical printed books, and the Small book itself went through an intriguing series of transformations in its various editions, including an English translation which appeared as early as 1527. But we certainly shouldn’t think that the story of textual digestion and excerption stops there: as Katherine Allen discussed, and as I have seen in the Small book, readers were assiduously annotating their copies. They highlighted what was most useful for them, added to the information, and cross-referenced entries, thus achieving another level of distilling textual knowledge.

[1.] For more on humoral theory and the logic behind materia medica, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case” and Alun Withey’s post on “‘Weird’ Remedies and the Problem of ‘Folklore‘”.

[2.] P. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Idem., “In a Sixteenth-Century Goldsmith’s workshop”, in L. Roberts, S. Schaffer and P. Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007), pp. 33–57; Idem., “What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”, in E. Leong and A. Rankin (eds.) Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 47–66.