Category Archives: Secrets

How to establish trust

By Agnieszka Rec

How do you make a recipe look effective? How do you convince a reader that your recipe will work before they’ve even tried it? One solution, as discussed by Sietske Fransen for medical recipes, was to include the names of noblemen and women, validating the recipe by showing who it was effective for. Early modern alchemists were even more concerned with these questions since they continually faced accusations of fraud. This led to meticulous, even overscrupulous, records of how recipes were acquired.

Georg Mymer – whom you met in my previous post on his family’s part in a vast network of Central European practitioners – included such details in his recipe collection. Written between 1568 and 1571, the manuscript contains alchemical texts and recipes, laboratory expenses, and narrative accounts of his exploits. In today’s post, we’ll consider one such account in which George explains at length how he got a recipe for the coagulation of mercury. (The story is abridged and in my own translation.)

Image 1: Breslau (now Wrocław) main square to the south.]
Image 1: Breslau (now Wrocław) main square to the south.]


Georg writes:

In the year 1570 on 21 August, Lorenz Sehehaufer of Magdeburg came to me in the marketplace in Breslau and told me that in the land of the Poles there was a tincture about which his master, Paul Gese, the town piper of Breslau, had learned so much that in eight weeks he was able to make it himself. Then I asked him where it was. He answered, “In Poland.” But I knew nothing about it. And he wanted to know whether I wanted to know anything about it. Shortly, in just a few hours, I knew about it too.

Image 2: Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.81v-82r.
Image 2: Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.81v-82r.


Following this meeting, Georg leaves the marketplace and returns to the home of Wolf Freyberger, the Imperial Münzmeister (mint master), with whom he has been staying. Freyberger greets him and says,

Mr. Georg, two apprentices came to see me on the market square. They said they were goldsmiths and both brothers. And they were your countrymen, they said, from your homeland. If you please, they wanted to see you as soon as they could. They also wanted to tell you something of your father. They will wait for you for two more hours at the most and no longer. So you must go immediately.

Georg continues:

As I had already had my midday meal, I soon went to them and asked who they were and what they wanted. They were Joachim Wimmer and Christoff, his brother; both journeymen goldsmiths who were known to me.

They spoke to me thusly: “Listen, my dear Georg Mymer. As you well know we are well-versed in the art, and we have a recipe for the coagulation of mercury. We wanted to give it to you rather than Paul Gese and Lorenz, who cheated me once. I will not believe him anymore,” said Joachim Wimmer. “So I will tell you how I came to the art and discovered it in Posen.

“So here’s the thing: There is a voivode in Poland, who has had a learned man for seven years now and has spent 8,000 florins on him.[1] The voivode recently found this tincture in the Greek tongue. Then he had the learned man translate it into the Latin and German languages, and also the Polish.

“He immediately set to work to discover the truth of the recipe in Posen with the Count of Gurk[?].

Georg picks up the story once more:

The learned man, however, sought Joachim Wimmer out, saying that because he was a goldsmith, he might know how to work the recipe correctly.

The learned man let Joachim Wimmer copy the recipe, and Wimmer proceeded to copy one for him as well. Then, when Joachim Wimmer left, he came directly to me and left quickly again.

So I acquired the tincture from him in the manner I have described above. He also left his signature next to it as proof. There is much more to say about this, but it is not so important, and I will leave the story here.

Image 3: Copy of Joachim Wimmer’s confirmation and signature. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.77v-78r.
Image 3: Copy of Joachim Wimmer’s confirmation and signature. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.77v-78r.


Georg is obsessed with the specifics. He tells his reader who gave him the recipe, how he found them, how they found the recipe, and so on, going back to a Greek original. He cites the involvement of a voivode and a count. He collects witnesses – Paul Gese signs this account, while Joachim Wimmer writes his own confirmation, copied elsewhere in the manuscript. He praises Joachim Wimmer’s technical skills as a goldsmith and thus his ability to judge a recipe. This reflects well on Georg and by extension his own story, as Georg was himself a goldsmith. Georg finishes his tale promising that there is more that could be told if need be. Anyone reading the account in Georg’s presence could presumably ask him to supply information not available in the written copy. One wonders, however, what Georg left out of his account, given that he already notes that he had lunch on the day in question.

Georg brought together this overwhelming collection of details to establish the truth of recipe among his fellow alchemists. The stakes of reliability were high. He risked losing access to future recipes, as did Lorenz Sehehaufer, if his good reputation were called into question.

Whether Georg and his recipe were, in fact, trustworthy is another question. A modern reader might be excused in wondering whether Georg Mymer protests too much.



Agnieszka Rec is the 2016-2017 Herdegen Postdoctoral Fellow at the Beckman Center of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. She will receive her PhD in Medieval History from Yale University in December 2016. Her thesis, titled “Transmutation in a Golden Age: Reading Alchemy in Late Medieval and Early Modern Cracow,” uses the biography of an alchemical manuscript to reconstruct the community of practitioners in the Polish royal city and their ties to wider European traditions of alchemy.


I am grateful to Anna-Maria Balbach, Center for Language Study, Yale University, for her assistance with the early modern German. The archival trip behind this project was made possible by a SHAC New Scholars Award and a Scaliger Fellowship from the Leiden University Library.

[1] This is an extraordinary amount of money for the period. Jan Zamojski (1542-1605), royal chancellor and the richest man in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was worth about 30,000 florins. Olbracht Łaski (1536-1605), the famed patron of alchemy and eighth richest man in the Commonwealth, was worth 4 or 5,000 florins. Rafał T. Prinke, “Beyond Patronage: Michael Sendivogius and the Meanings of Success in Alchemy,” in Chymia: Science and Nature in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Miguel López Pérez, Didier Kahn, and Mar Rey Bueno (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 205.

How to Make an Inca Mummy

Christopher Heaney


As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.


[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].

Creating and integrating a database – work in progress

By Marieke Hendriksen

As mentioned in the post introducing the ARTECHNE project at Utrecht University last month, we are in the process of creating a database containing recipes, artist handbooks, and art theoretical texts that can clarify the development of the use of the term ‘technique’, as well as related terms referring to processes of making and doing. The database is linked to Geographical Information Software (GIS), thus creating an online historical semantic map of ‘technique’. Such maps are more than merely nice illustrations; they can reveal connections that remain hidden otherwise.

We are in the fortunate position where we can build the database on an existing one, namely the excellent Colour ConText database. However, we do not simply want to offer a copy of the Colour ConText database, we want to integrate it with other sources on artisanal practices and theories, such as recipes, books of secrets, art theoretical texts, and artist handbooks, from the period 1500-1900, in Latin, Dutch, German, English, French, Italian and Spanish. The entire database has to be searchable with advance searches, allowing users to search full text for occurrences of terms, in particular geographical or linguistic areas and periods, or to trace the changing uses and meanings of particular terms over time, linking various forms of terms and different terms with a similar meaning in relational tables and glossaries.

Sneak preview of the new database website
Preview of the new database website

For example, if we want to know how instructions for making paint have changed in the low countries between 1600 and 1900, we want to be able to select all available sources from that period and area and search them for imperatives, nouns, measurements, and particular ingredients. We also want to be able to distinguish between printed and manuscript sources, artist handbooks and household recipes books, and ideally we want to be able to search annotations and marginalia too, as well as differences between various editions of the same work. That means a lot of different parameters have to be specified for each source, and everything we include must be carefully checked before it is added.

One of the problems we encountered when selecting the first sources we wanted to add was the low reliability of Optical Character Recognition software when used on early modern printed sources – a problem I have written about on my own blog before. We do not just want to combine existing digitized sources in our database, but also to add texts that have not been digitized and made searchable thus far. However, that often involves lengthy correction processes. One of the solutions we are considering is crowd sourcing such corrections. Fortunately, we can also add many digitized sources that are available under Creative Commons licenses (i.e. from the Digital Library of the Netherlands), and various researchers have contacted us to discuss adding their own datasets to the database.

The first edition of the database is now online – have a look at!  Please note that this is a first version, and that the database will be improved and continue to grow for the duration of the project. Over the next few months, we will focus on increasing searchability and adding new sources. If you have any questions or suggestions, please contact us at artechne[at]

Finally, we will also explore the options of maintaining the database after the end of the ARTECHNE project, for example by depositing the datasets or even the entire infrastructure with an archival institution.

The ERC ARTECHNE project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718) and is a cooperation of Utrecht University and University of Amsterdam.

A medicine for the Archduchess of Innsbruck

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk.

Two months ago Saskia Klerk discussed a recipe for the breaking of a bladder stone. It seems that the author of manuscript BPL3603 included this recipe into his collection because of the wonderful curative properties it proved to possess according to the eyewitness accounts documented in the text.

On pages 117 and 118 of the same manuscript we find an ‘Excellent recipe against all ailments and diseases that have their origin in corrupt blood and bad humours’. At the top of the page we find the word ‘Helmont’ written under the heading, leading us once more to my favourite medical author. However, at the bottom of page 118 we can find an interesting note pointing not to Jan Baptista van Helmont, but rather to his son, Franciscus Mercurius (1614-1698). The note reads:

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3606, p. 118 (selection): mentioning the oral transmission by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 118 (selection): mentioning the oral transmission by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont

“Thus written after the oral teachings of Sir Helmondt, on the 22nd of September 1676.”

Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont styled himself as a ‘wandering hermit’ and travelled through Europe ever since his father’s death on the penultimate day of the year in 1644. He spent time in the Northern Netherlands and lived for many years in England as well as in Germany. He must have been a charismatic figure and most certainly a beloved guest of many European noble households. He was notorious for not writing down his own thoughts and ideas. It is therefore not surprising to find a note saying that a recipe has been transmitted by oral communication; it actually fits the picture of Franciscus Mercurius very well.

Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, 1670-1, by Sir Peter Lely. ©Tate Photographic Rights ©Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, 1670-1, by Sir Peter Lely. ©Tate Photographic Rights ©Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Although Franciscus Mercurius never went to university, he seems to have been able to sell himself as a physician. Most likely this was a result of his father’s fame. Franciscus Mercurius was for example the personal physician of Anne Conway for a decade until her death in 1679, trying (but failing) to cure her from her terrible headaches. Most of these ten years he lived as part of her household in Warwickshire. However, during the same period, he also travelled regularly to the continent, and must have been able to communicate this ‘excellent recipe’ to the Dutch context, potentially directly to the author of the manuscript. Let’s turn to the recipe to see what kind of treatments Franciscus Mercurius was sharing.

The basic ingredient for the recipe is red coral. This should be ground and dissolved in alcohol (‘sterk water’), mixed with a solution of tartar in alcohol, and subsequently slowly boiled down to dry powder. The dry powder is mixed with liquid saltpetre and dry cooked in an oven. Once the dry mixture is cooled down it needs to be stored in a humid cellar for about 5 to 6 days. After grinding the powder once more, it should be put in a glass bottle with half a pint of good brandy. The red coloured brandy should then be poured into another glass bottle’ while leaving the red powder at the bottom of the first bottle; this procedure should be repeated until the brandy does not colour red any more. A glass of beer or wine with about 50 drops of this brandy should be drunk twice a day as the first drink at the table in the afternoon and the evening.

Cabinet of Curiosities, 1690s, by Domenico Remps, Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietro Dure, Florence. Source: WikiCommons. Red coral is depicted at the top of the right door.
Cabinet of Curiosities, 1690s, by Domenico Remps, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietro Dure, Florence. Source: WikiCommons. Red coral is depicted at the top of the right door.

The compiler of the manuscript added a note, presumably referring to Franciscus Mercurius, saying that he has helped with this recipe many old and seemingly infertile women, as well as those who had miscarried previously, to deliver healthy children. However, with which authority is Franciscus Mercurius speaking? His father mentions a medicine ‘Arcanum corallinum’, in both his Dutch and Latin medical works as a very effective drug against all sorts of fevers. However, he does not give the recipe or method of preparation. I would not be surprised if Franciscus Mercurius had become popular as a doctor by disclosing the recipes of medicines mentioned in his father’s (hugely popular) medical publications. Whether these recipes were originally his father’s is hard to prove.

Typical for both father and son Van Helmont is the inclusion of a particular case in which a recipe has been effective. In this case we find Franciscus Mercurius referring to an anecdote from 1650:

University Library Leiden, MS BPL3606, p. 118 (selection): the anecdote about the Archduchess.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL3603, p. 118 (selection): the anecdote about the Archduchess.

“The mother of the last-deceased Empress and Archduchess of Innsbruck, had me arrested in Innsbruck in the year 1650. She asked for advice to have children. I had her make and take the above-mentioned recipe herself, and afterwards she gave birth to two children. And she told me and has written me several times, that she has been lucky also with other women, who have tried the same.”

It is absolutely possible that Franciscus Mercurius was in Innsbruck in 1650; however the identity of Archduchess remains an unsolved riddle. I have my thoughts, but look forward to reading your suggestions!