Category Archives: distillation

‘Thus it prevails against its time’: distillation and cycles of nature in early modern pharmacy

By Tillmann Taape

In past centuries, devoid of freezers and heated greenhouses, the seasons affected medicines as well as foodstuffs. In addition to pickled vegetables and stored grain, early modern people worried about their provisions of healing plants and animal substances. These, too, had their season: many herbs were considered most powerful when picked in May, and ‘May dew’ collected from fragrant meadows at this time of year was said to have many healing properties. In his Destillierbücher (distillation manuals), published in the early sixteenth century, the Strasbourg surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig addresses the challenges which arise in pharmacy from nature’s cyclical changes. He explains that most preparations of fresh medicinal herbs are ‘unkeepable’. For example, ‘if you pound herbs, roots or other substances and squeeze the juice from it, then it becomes unpleasant, does not last, […] and soon putrid corruption ensues’.[1] Even with dried materia medica and compound drugs, their medicinal virtues faded over time.

Brunschwig knew this all too well from personal experience. As an apothecary running his own shop near the fish market, maintaining a stock of efficacious remedies was his chief responsibility and expertise. The issue of pharmaceutical provisioning was taken very seriously by Strasbourg’s magistrates. Twice a year, they would send round a committee of medical experts to all apothecary shops, to ensure that no perished goods were stocked, and to throw away any that had gone off.

An apothecary pounding medicines. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strasbourg, 1512), fol. 6v. © Wellcome Library, London

Brunschwig’s understanding of the material world was shaped by his experience as a pharmacist and shopkeeper, but also by the cosmology and medical theory of his day. While the heavenly spheres were characterised by material perfection and changelessness, all matter on earth was made up of the four elements (air, water,fire, earth) and subject to their constant permutations. They were doomed to endless cycles of generation, change, and decay. Material stability was only possible where the elements were in perfect balance, ‘as you can see in May when it is neither too dry nor too humid, neither too warm nor too cold’.[2]

Brunschwig’s seasonal simile is revealing: a perfect balance of elements is just as rare and fleeting as those precious few balmy weeks in May. As well as pointing to the instability of all earthly matter, the language of seasons and their cold, hot, dry or moist qualities was associated with early modern ideas about the stages of human life. Youth, health, reproduction, decline and death were analogous with the annual cycle of flourishing and decay in nature – a relationship which is richly illustrated in a set of anonymous seventeenth-century engravings (see here for an interactive digital reproduction). The idea of changing seasons was emblematic of an early modern view of the material world which was characterised by instability. Human bodies fluctuated with the shifting balance of their humours, and the very substances which could be used to cure the resulting ailments were themselves fleeting and, in Brunschwig’s words, ‘unkeepable’.

Faced with such difficulties, Brunschwig and others turned to a branch of knowledge with a longstanding commitment to imitating and manipulating natural processes underlying the transformations of matter: alchemy. In particular, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful artisanal technique to ‘keep the unkeepable’.[3] Distillation was the art of separation, and in the case of medicinal simples, Brunschwig claimed, their ‘soul’ or healing virtue could be separated from their ‘body’, that is to say the material dross made up of the problematic four elements. Thus liberated, the healing ‘spirit’ of a plant in the form of a distilled water could be bottled and neatly stored on Brunschwig’s alphabetically ordered shelf, where they would keep well beyond their harvest season, for up to three years. Later Destillierbücher echo the idea that one can ‘keep these waters over the year’ as a major selling point of distilled remedies.[4]

While distillation in theory had the power to produce pure and incorruptible ‘quintessences’, this was far too laborious for everyday pharmaceutical practice. Brunschwig wrote for an audience of ‘common men’ as well as artisan colleagues, and most of the distilled remedies he discusses are much more pedestrian. They still have some of the elemental qualities of the original herb, and are ultimately perishable. Compared to ‘unkeepable’ plant juice, however, their decay is slower and more predictable. Brunschwig confidently charts the decline and change in a water’s healing powers over the years, and even gives instructions for ‘recharging’ them. A water can be saved by infusing it with fresh herbs and distilling it once more – thus, Brunschwig reassures his readers, a distilled remedy can ‘prevail against its time’ for another year.[5]

In the early modern world of matter, the seasons symbolised cycles of change and decay which spelled trouble for healers and makers of medicines. In some of the earliest vernacular works on pharmacy, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful tool for defying the material corruption of seasonal changes.

[1] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[2] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 36v.

[3] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[4] Eucharius Röslin, Kreutterbuoch von allem Erdtgewaechs… (Frankfurt, 1533), title page verso.

[5] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 18v.

 

Seasonality @ The Recipes Project

By Elaine Leong

Franconian asparagus at farmer’s market of Bamberg (Image courtesy of Wiki Commons)

Happy May Day everyone! I am very excited to be on-point editor for the 2017 May edition of The Recipes Project. Living in Germany, where there is a ‘saison’ or a ‘- zeit’ for almost everything – Spargel (asparagus), Erdbeerkuchen (strawberry cake), Kurbis (pumpkin), Pflaumen (plums), Balkon (balconies – meaning party time!), I have grown accustomed to anticipating and welcoming the changing of seasons. Further inspired by the official first day of summer, I decided to invite a group of like-minded contributors to explore the theme of seasonality in this month’s edition.

In fact, both the joys and constraints of seasonality have been on my mind in this academic year. In the fall, through reading the letters between Johanna St. John and her steward Thomas Hardyman, I gained insight into the complex planning strategies used by early modern householders to ensure a table laden with enticing food and drink. Johanna’s frank instructions offered a glimpse into the everyday pressures faced by mistresses and servants to guarantee turkeys at Christmas, uninterrupted supplies of fresh butter, cheese, bacon all year round and a beautiful show garden in the spring and summer months. The letters very quickly revealed that whilst the St. John household was busy all year round, certain times of the year were particularly task-filled as the household collective strove to seed, cultivate and harvest and to preserve foodstuffs and produce medicines by sugaring, candying, distilling and brewing. The profound impact of the changing seasons on food and medicine preparation does not come as a surprise to those of us who spend time in recipe archives and, indeed, in the recent years there have also been contemporary calls to return to the land. For example, Johanna’s struggle with raising turkeys prompted me to revisit Barbara Kingsolver’s thoughtful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where the author writes engagingly about her adventures in rearing heritage turkeys. As I cycle past the asparagus stands (soon to be strawberry stands) on my way to work, I relish the fleeting joy of spring produce and concurrently breathe a sigh of relief that, thankfully, I can rely on Germany’s specialist strawberry grower Karl’s to pick and make the delicious Erdbeer Traum (strawberry dream) jam which my family so loves in our Victoria Sponge Cake.

Commissioned during the ‘hungry gap’, this month’s posts work together to interrogate notions of seasonality in historical recipes across a range of geographical and temporal contexts and knowledge spheres. Food historians Rachel Snell and Molly Taylor-Polensky examine the technologies and methods used to preserve seasonal produce for year-round consumption and the various cultural reasons driving this work. Taking a slightly less sunny stance and drawing upon the recipe notebook of Rebeckah Winche, literary scholar and ecofeminist Jennifer Munroe prompts us to re-examine our interdependent relationship with other animals, plants, soil and climate on our planet.

Of course, notions of seasonality extended well beyond food and medicine, as art historian Jenny BoulBoullé  shows that artisans and craftsmen were also keenly aware of the effects of changing seasons. Representing the flourishing Artechne project, Jenny’s post reminds us of the importance placed upon season by both pre-modern artisans and 19th and 20th century scholars who so eagerly attempted to reconstruct historical recipes. Taking us into the realm of alchemy, Tillmann Taape discusses how distillation processes were used to make medicines and human bodies prevail against seasonal cycles of generation and decay.

Turning to the Chinese context, He Bian explores a late 14th century guide to living seasonally and introduces readers to the various recipes for food and medicines included within. Examining later readings and discussions of the guide, He questions whether seasonality, a classic theme in ancient Chinese medicine, came under critical scrutiny of early modern scholars. Our edition closes with a post by Caroline Petit who, taking us back in time to the ancient world, examines an intriguing story told by Galen. Taken together, these posts highlight the continued role played by seasonality in recipe practices and knowledge.

I hope that you all enjoy this special issue of The Recipes Project!

 

 

Dyeing to Be Cured

By Ashley Buchanan

Slipped within Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe collection is a small bound pamphlet that instructs the user how to tint or dye white marble various colors. In just sixteen pages, the unknown author details the ingredients, processes, and necessary apparatuses needed to create three different reds, two blues, three yellows, three greens, and even fake the signature black or grey veining of “pavonazzo” marble. While the secret to tinting natural looking marble was certainly valuable artisanal knowledge, it is the last three pages of the booklet that are particularly interesting. Without explanation, the pamphlet suddenly shifts topics and details “a particular secret for a styptic water that quickly stops bleeding wounds and torn guts.” The descriptive title continues by suggesting that you can “try it on a rooster by piercing its head with a sharp needle, and the rooster will heal in fifteen minutes.”

Title page of the pamphlet

The first step of the recipe instructs to dissolve a quarter of an ounce of rock alum in one ounce of “acqua rosa” (rose water), which was then added to a quart of “allume bruciato,” or calcined aluminum sulfate. This mixture was then placed in a “digestione,” which was an alchemical apparatus for distillation that dissolved a body in water or alcohol over mild heat. The recipe calls for the mixture to be heated for an hour and until clear. The second step in the recipe is to dissolve a quarter of an ounce of lead acetate in an ounce of distilled vinegar with one forth of pulverized candied sugar. For the third step, a fourth of pulverized copper sulfate from Cyprus is added to an ounce of “acqua di piantagine.” The fourth step calls for calcined red, or Roman vitriol (sulphuric acid) to be boiled with two ounces of urine from a healthy creature. The fifth and final step is to combine an ounce of strong lime into an eight of sublimated and pulverized mercury, which is “digested” to a clear heat for an hour. Once these five steps are completed, everything is to be mixed together in a flask for sublimation and to “digest” for twelve hours.

When I first came across this recipe I was unsure what to make of it, and its inclusion in a pamphlet dedicated to the act of tinting marble perplexed me. But as it turned out, this funny little pamphlet held the key to better understanding Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe collection as a whole. Recipes collected by women are traditionally viewed as domestic manuals used to safeguard the health of the home and treat commonplace illnesses. In general, and as previously discussed here on the Recipes Project, recipes were “repositories for useful knowledge” and share a desired goal to unlock nature’s secrets.[1] In the case of Anna Maria Luisa, however, useful knowledge extended beyond the preparation of simples and household medicines. Her recipe collection reveals an interest in collecting and amassing experiential alchemical knowledge. The creation of styptic water used the same ingredients, apparatuses, and alchemical processes detailed and drawn in the recipes for marble dyes that preceded it.

Detailed illustration showing how to set up the necessary alchemical apparatuses to create the marble dyes and styptic water.

In addition to highlighting one Princess’s interest in alchemy, this pamphlet also speaks to two important issues when studying early modern recipes from a modern perspective. First, science, medicine, and technology at the late Medici court existed in a world in which our modern categories of knowledge simply did not apply. In eighteenth century Florence, artisanal practices, science (or natural history), and medicine were closely connected thanks to alchemy. For the late Medici court, alchemy was not associated with the mysterious or the occult. Alchemy was an applied science that used experimental activities to investigate and transform nature. These practices produced experimental activities in metallurgy, refining salts, producing dyes and pigments, the manufacturing of man-made gemstones and stones, glass and ceramics, and the creation of chemical medicines. Each of these seemingly disparate pursuits were united by process rather than the specific product produced.

tThis early modern emphasis on process over product brings me to the second issue concerning the studying early modern recipes. While recipes are certainly important historical objects, they are often closely associated with or celebrated for the product they produce. This emphasis on product over process, however, can belie the true value of many recipes. As is in the case of the styptic water. Was Anna Maria Luisa interested in tinting marble or was she interested in better understanding complex alchemical processes that could transform nature and the human body? Thanks to this pamphlet, I now argue the latter.

 

[1] I am borrowing a working definition of early modern recipes from the Recipes Project post, “What is a Recipe?”

Meeting Madam Geneva

By Emma Major

Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The Government’s decision in 1736 to make gin prohibitively expensive through levying hefty licensing fees was met by a flurry of prints, poems and tracts lamenting the government’s cruelty in depriving the poor ‘of a chirruping Glass’.[i] ‘No more can I seat me to Study/ Than a Fish can swim without Fin,’ cried Timothy Scrubb; ‘My Brains are confus’d and quite muddy/ By losing my Comforter Gin.’[ii] Other writers complained of how all levels of society would suffer from the loss of gin: from poet to oyster-woman, whatever your role in the division of labour, gin, it seemed, ensured success and happiness.

Gin, or genever, or Geneva as it was first known when it was popularized in England, had become so popular in the few decades following the accession of William and Mary in 1688 that it had taken on the character of a boozy old lady, a familiar, friendly face who could be relied upon to help celebrate or commiserate in everyday life. She emerges as a demotic, alcoholic counterpart to the more sedate Britannia who also flourished in high and low culture during these years. Madam Gin, Queen Gin, Mother Gin: whatever her title, she came from impeccable Protestant lineage and offered a patriotic alternative to French brandy.  According to her eighteenth-century historian and panegyrist Stephen Buck, Gin had first aided the Protestant cause in general and England in particular by providing the troops in the Thirty Years’ War with the alcoholic fire or Dutch courage to triumph over the Roman Catholic opposition. (Indeed, he claimed English military success was not due to the famous national taste for ‘Beef and Pudding’, but to its adoption of gin.)[iii] The OED notes the folk-etymological connection historically made between genever and Geneva, that most Protestant of cities, though Buck dismisses any connection to foreign religious fanaticism, and praises it as a home-grown native beverage, scorning the snobbery and disloyalty of those who drink gin in secret and prefer Holland Gin to the British variety.

Madam Geneva’s demise by legislation in September 1736 was marked by mock mourning processions in the streets of London, Bristol and elsewhere.[iv] The authorities were concerned about riots when the act came into force, but although protests were vociferous, civil war did not break out. Lavish encomiums were published about Gin, though as you can see from the two commemorative prints I’ve included here, depictions did not glamorize or flatter. Indeed, ‘Mother’ and ‘Madam’ Gin may also be in the sense of ‘bawd’; this meaning of ‘mother’ was popularized during the eighteenth century as it drew on the anti-Roman Catholic slang that equated mothers, abbesses and nuns with brothel-keepers and prostitutes.[v] There are many visual similarities between William Hogarth’s depiction of the drunken mother in his 1751 print of Gin Lane and his depiction of bawds elsewhere in his work. Yet despite her general depiction by admirers as well as critics as a figure lacking in youth, beauty, or visible power, Gin was popularly regarded with affection, as offering a sociable tonic you could purchase from street-sellers and gin shops, or even via the world’s first vending machine, the ‘puss-and-mew’ mechanism that was devised to dodge licensing fees. Designs varied but the customer would address the cat shaped device with a ‘Puss’, and if gin was available would be told ‘Mew’; money would be put in a drawer and the gin dispensed either through a pipe connected to the cat’s tail, or via a filled container in the drawer. (Thomas Pink recreated this for a publicity event in 2014, using pink gin: see http://www.thomaspink.com/london-collection/content/fcp-content .)

Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

What was actually dispensed? The noun ‘genever’ or ‘Geneva’ came from the Dutch drink jenever, which came from the word for juniper. But juniper was not always present in the substances sold as gin, whereas turpentine, lime oil, and sulphuric acid, often were. Gin was also often watered down, so it is difficult to know the alcoholic strength or actual flavor of what was sold as gin, especially at the lower end of the market. The moonshine versions of gin sound foul-tasting, but the idea of gin, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century, possessed magical properties for many, representing cheerful sociability, curative powers, aphrodisiac properties, and simply the promise of ‘best’ dispelling ‘all human Woe’. [vi](Buck, 10) For many, it seemed, gin, whatever its actual composition, was the ‘chirruping glass’ of universal cheer.

[i] Thomas Chaloner, The merriest poet in Christendom (London: for the author, 1732), 23.

[ii] Timothy Scrubb, Desolation: Or, The Fall of Gin (London: J. Roberts, 1736), 16.

[iii] Stephen Buck, Geneva: A Poem in Blank Verse (London: T. Cooper, 1734), 5.

[iv] Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (London: Profile, 2003), 126-30.

[v] Emma Major, Madam Britannia: Women, Church, and Nation 1712-1812 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 145-8.

[vi] Buck, Geneva, 10.

Emma Major is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Department of English and the interdisciplinary Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York UK. She has published on religion, national identity and gender in Britain 1670-1820, and is currently working on a book on faithful citizens 1789-1829. She has a sideline in gin studies.