Category Archives: Medicine

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).

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.

Secrets of the Medici Granducal Pharmacy

By Ashley Buchanan

The last line of a recipe for a nerve ointment within Anna Maria Luisa’s (1667 – 1743) collection of culinary, alchemical, and medicinal recipes reads: “this being a balm, and particular secret, which is made only in the S.A.R. fonderia, and not in another location, even if others say they have the same recipe.” Five of Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes—two fever waters, one ointment for nerves and another for burns, and a powder to control epilepsy—are attributed to the fonderia of the most serine royal highness, the grand duke of Tuscany. Of these five, three are printed on small sheets of paper and prominently emblazoned with the Medici crest. The printed recipe for fever water stated that this particular water was useful for reoccurring fevers, both malignant and acute. The directions praised the water’s success in moderating the heat of fevers in patients of all ages. It advised giving the water four or five times in the morning, but suggested reducing the dosage based on age.  Of all the recipes in Anna Maria Luisa’s collection, this is the only printed text with multiple copies. The fact that this recipe was printed, and three copies remain in her collection, suggest that this particular fever water was widely used and produced by the Medici palace fonderia, or pharmacy.

Established by Cosimo I in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Granducal fonderia was a laboratory where naturalists, alchemists, herbalists, pharmacists, and distillers experimented with recipes and techniques for medicinal therapeutics in addition to other metallurgical pursuits. Cosimo’s son, Francesco I, moved the fonderia to the Casino di San Marco, and again in 1586 when a new fonderia opened in the Uffizi. In 1643, Grand Duke Ferdinando II donated an additional room in the Uffizi dedicated to curiosities like stuffed exotic animals and even an Egyptian mummy, which also served in the production of medicines.

Il laboratorio dell'alchimista, Giovanni Stradano, studiolo di Francesco I
The studiolo or alchemical laboratory of Francesco I de Medici inside the Palazzo Vecchio (via wikimedia commons)

By the seventeenth century, and continuing well into the eighteenth century, the Uffizi fonderia was famous for its pharmaceutical production. The remedies produced in the Medici fonderia were gifted by the Grand Dukes and Duchesses in precious caskets to nobles and kings of Europe, the Middle East, and even the Americas. Numerous letters within the Medici archive (now available online, thanks to the Medici archive project) attest to the value of Medici medicines as diplomatic gifts. In 1630, Anna Maria Luisa’s great-grandmother, the Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena (Von Hapsburg), sent oils from the fonderia as a diplomatic gift to the Crown Prince of Spain.[1] In 1637 military captain and diplomat Piero della Rena, who at the time of writing was being held captive by the Pasha of Tripoli, wrote Grand Duke Ferdinando II and proposed a plan to negotiate his ransom.  In order to expedite his release, Rena suggested that in addition to money, Ferdinando send an amicable letter, a tent made of damask cloth, and a box of medicinal oils (una cassetta di olii di fonderia).[2] Clearly the products produced by the palace pharmacy were held in high esteem and as such possessed great value—value that could be used for the promotion of the Medici personally and politically.

Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes attest to the avid pursuit of alchemical and technical “secrets” at the Medici court. Later male and female Medici family members set up their own fonderie for the production of medicinal oils and therapeutics. The courtly patronage of science not only highlighted the Medici’s splendor and command of nature, it also produced tangible products, like fever waters. As a member of the Medici family, Anna Maria Luisa had access to these recipes to add to her own collection, to gift for diplomatic relationships, or to exchange for other recipes. The inclusion of the Medici crest and attribution to the Medici palace pharmacy was a way in which Anna Maria Luisa could increase the value of her recipe collection. As I continue my research, I am interested in investigating Anna Maria Luisa’s interaction with the granducal fonderia. Like other Medici dukes and duchesses, did she set up her own fonderia or did she patronize the existing granducal fonderia? Understanding Anna Maria Luisa’s affiliation with the granducal fonderia will reveal whether she was a patient who used and circulated Medici therapies, or if she was also a patron and practitioner of medicine.

[1] ASF, Mediceo del Principato 4962. (Entry 11641 in the Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources database.)

[2] ASF, Mediceo del Principato 4274 folio 196. (Entry 22136 in the Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources database.)



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.