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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.

Medieval Fertility and Pregnancy Tests

By Catherine Rider

Tests are a familiar part of modern pregnancy.  There are tests to show if a woman is pregnant and track the progress of the pregnancy, often revealing in the process whether she is expecting a boy or a girl.  If a woman does not conceive after several months of unprotected sex, there are also tests which aim to find out if anything is wrong.  These tests are based on modern technological advances and medical understandings of how the body works, but the desire to understand, predict and test matters concerning pregnancy and fertility is not new and tests for many of the same purposes appear frequently in medieval and early modern recipe books.

Recipe books contain numerous tests to show whether a pregnant woman is expecting a boy or a girl – for example, place a drop of milk from her breasts in water, and if it sinks then the child is a boy, but if it floats, the child is a girl.[1]  However, the majority of tests were for when pregnancy did not happen.  They claimed to tell the reader whether a woman could conceive, or whether the ‘fault’ lay with the man or the woman.   The most popular was a test that had to be performed by both partners.  As one anonymous fifteenth-century English recipe collection explained:

Knowing the default of conception, whether it belong to the man or the woman. Take two new earthen pots, each by itself; and let the woman make water in the one, and the man in the other; and put in each of them a quantity of wheat-bran, and not too much, that it be not thick, but be liquid or running; and mark well the pots for identification, and let them stand ten days and ten nights, and thou shalt see in the water that is in default small live worms; and if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.[2]

M0007080 A monk-physician examining a flask of urine

Physician examining a flask of a woman’s urine, c. 1300, © Wellcome Library, London

This test had a long history.  It can be found as early as the twelfth century, in a southern Italian gynaecological treatise that was attributed to a female physician named Trota.[3]  Along with other fertility tests, it continued to appear in medical textbooks throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and was often copied into recipe books.

I’m interested in what this and similar fertility tests can tell us about medieval understandings of infertility.  For example, the bran-and-urine test shows medieval and early modern medicine recognised that men as well as women could be infertile.  This was certainly true in longer, more academic medical texts which often contained numerous recipes for medicines to cure infertility in either sex. In the recipe books, remedies for male infertility are much rarer, but the fertility tests show that many recipe collectors acknowledged it as a possibility – in theory at least.

But how exactly were these tests intended to be used?  It is very difficult to know.  The recipe collections do not tell us who used these tests, or under what circumstances, or even if they were used at all.  So far I haven’t found any references to them in other sources that might shed light on these questions.  In theory it is possible that they were used to test the fertility of a prospective husband or wife before marriage.  This would be an attractive (and logical!) idea because in pre-modern society having children was important for both men and women, but infertility was not recognised as a ground for divorce.  Once you were married to an infertile partner, you were stuck with him or her.  However, if the tests were used in this way it has left no trace in the sources.

Another possibility is suggested by the last line of the recipe: ‘if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.’ An alternative version of the same recipe, copied in the fifteenth century by an educated layman named Robert Thornton, gave a different interpretation: if no worms appeared in the water, ‘then may men help them to have children with medicines.’[4]  It was possible that the test would show neither partner to be infertile. In these cases, the tests may have been designed not primarily to lay blame, but to offer reassurance that conception was possible and that the couple would conceive in time. It was worthwhile seeking medical treatment or praying in the hope of attracting God’s favour.

A final reason why pregnancy and fertility tests may have been so popular in medieval and early modern recipe books is perhaps the simplest of all.  They promised clear answers about the mysteries of conception and pregnancy for men and women going through a process which was – and still is – fraught with as much uncertainty and anxiety as excitement.


[1] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series. 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[2] Warren R. Dawson, ed., A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the 15th Century (London: Macmillan, 1934), p. 171.

[3] The Trotula: a Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, ed. and trans. Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 76-7.

[4] Liber de diversis medicinis, ed. Ogden, p. 56.

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Elusive Compiler

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

Up until now, Hillary Nunn and I have been conducting our explorations (20/06/2013, 21/05/2013, 09/04/2013, 12/03/2013, 20/02/2013) under the working hypothesis that one of the compilers of the College of Physicians manuscript 10a214 was a mid-17th century divine named Calybute Downing (1606–1644).  This hypothesis mainly grew from a simple phrase “probatum per me Cal. Downing” (24) at the end of one of the early recipes in the collection and the inclusion of many recipes attributed to one Elizabeth Downing, the name of Calybute’s mother. There was also a reference to Hackney (20/06/2013), where Downing was once minister.  A recent all-too-brief research trip to London has complicated this hypothesis and raised several questions…

With our working hypothesis in mind, I conducted a preliminary search in the online catalogs for autograph evidence of Calybute Downing and was excited to find that the British Library did indeed hold a letter from the minister to a Mrs Barkley.[1] With only two days for library research, I immediately called up the collection in which it was held–and was thankful to find it available.

Imagine my anticipation of its arrival from the vault.  Imagine my disappointment when neither hand (the signature being different than the body) in the letter, which was an extended assurance of grace from a minister to one of the faithful in doubt, matched the hand of the Downing recipes in the manuscript.

A few scholars of recipes may recognize this disappointment.  Many a mention of historically significant figures are confounded by the presence of secretaries and the accommodation of one collection of recipes into another through copying and gifting.[2]  I have come up with two possibilities (and would welcome other suggestions) that explain these non-matching hands:

  1. The Calybute Downing of the recipes is not the divine, but instead his father of the same name, who would have been married to Elizabeth and who was alive in 1640, the one date in the manuscript.  This hypothesis could mean an earlier compilation, but would face some difficulties in explaining the Hackney reference.
  2. The recipe book and the letter could have been compiled by two different secretaries. The Downing signature in the letter is markedly different than the body, which is a very difficult secretary hand, whereas the recipe book is in an incredibly clear italic.If the Downing recipes were copied out in anticipation of making them a gift for use, their relative legibility would be essential. As a correspondence to be considered closely and slowly, the letter’s cramped hand would not be as much of an issue.

Clearly, as I write this, I am becoming more convinced of the second hypothesis, but:

  • if Calybute Downing was prone to hiring secretaries, in whose hand were the original recipes that the secretary then copied out?
  • was the original manuscript made by Elizabeth herself, or by yet another member of the household?

Given the proximity of some of the entries to print sources (18/10/2012, 21/05/2013), it seems unlikely that all of these were transmitted orally. However, the inclusion of a “by me” in the recipes implies Calybute’s presence, if not in the immediate transcription, at least in one of the earlier written record of the recipes.

Obviously, further research is needed!

[1] British Library Add MS 28558 A-R

 [2] See Elaine Leong’s essay on “starter” manuscripts, “Collecting Knowledge for the Family:  Recipes, Gender, and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household,” Centaurus 55.2 (May 2013): 81–103.

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

Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

By Colleen Kennedy

The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.

Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:

To Make Syrup of Flowers:

Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)

Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

So, what does the violet smell like?  English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.

For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like?  Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad.  Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”

Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad  and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625),  links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.

The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it that, surfeiting

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.

‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)

Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets,  especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”

The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”

The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine.  As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:

[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)

Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.

Viola odorata

References (in order of appearance)

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).

Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).

Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.

Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).

Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).

Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).