Category Archives: Tillmann Taape

‘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.


Recipes Round-up: Research Presented at Scientiae and SSHM 2016

by Katherine Allen

In early July I attended two conferences: Scientiae (on early modern science), and the Society for the Social History of Medicine (SSHM) conference. Both had an impressive range of scholarship, and it was exciting to see recipes featured so prominently. Included here are some of my thoughts on the research, sources, and challenges currently being tackled by recipe historians.


Scientiae was held at St. Anne’s College (Univ. Oxford) and the theme was disciplines of knowing in the early modern world. This conference was interdisciplinary, and brought together scholars working on more traditional aspects of the history of science, alongside those exploring the histories of magic, alchemy, medicine, music, and religion.

In the panel on medicine in early modern Europe, Tillmann Taape’s presentation on alchemical medical guides in early modern Germany reinforced the idea that printed distillation guides were used by ‘the common man’, and his texts included herbal sections with registers of diseases and medical recipes. I discovered that waters had ‘bad attitudes’, and that distilling was seen as a way of making the water ‘obey’ the craftsman.

I spoke on the continued practice of distilling household medicine in early eighteenth-century England. I stressed the continued importance of printed distillation guides as sources of technical instruction for domestic practitioners, and that distilling medicine was done primarily as a leisure activity with the products used to supplement a family’s medical care.

Distillation figures in Ambrose Cooper's 'The Complete Distiller' (1757)
Distillation figures in Ambrose Cooper’s ‘The Complete Distiller’ (1757)

In a session on ‘understanding the vegetable world’ Rachel Koroloff introduced us to the travnik, a challenging term used to simultaneously describe an herbal manuscript, an herbalist, and an herbal collection in 17th C Muscovy. The term originated in the 1630s with the Tsar ordering apothecaries to source plants for the palace’s medical stores. The travniki as texts included recipes, and balanced Russian folklore and supernatural beliefs with a hybrid version of Galenic medicine. Rachel argued that there was an assumed base knowledge of the plants listed in travniki and that this rested on the presumption of the travnik as an individual with expertise in herbal knowledge.

Medicine in its Place: SSHM 2016

The SSHM conference was held at the University of Kent and had well-balanced temporal scope on spaces within medical history. I found the panels on approaches to research (the place of digital history in medicine and one on social media) particularly thought-provoking and inspiring.

I organised a panel on 17th and 18th C domestic medicine. This panel included my research on the evolving material history of 18th C recipe collections with the commercialisation of medicine, and the incorporation of newsprint and proprietary medicine advertisements into these personalised books. One particular challenge of this research is determining from where recipes were sourced, given that citations referencing print/newsprint were not commonplace.

Newsprint in 18th C Manuscript Recipe Books
Newsprint in 18th C Manuscript Recipe Books

Anne Stobart spoke on Margaret Boscawen’s 17th C plant notebook, and the links between the garden and the kitchen in household healthcare. She challenged the historiographical idea that ingredients were readily and freely collected from the garden and countryside and argued that Boscawen was concerned about the availability of plants in her locality. A question I found interesting for Anne was how she (and contemporaries) distinguishes between ‘wild’ and ‘the garden’.

Culpeper Garden. Post-conference visit to Leeds Castle, Kent.
Culpeper Garden. Post-conference visit to Leeds Castle, Kent.

Sally Osborn highlighted the far-reaching networks used by 18th C recipe collectors to share medical knowledge; these included familial, social, and political networks which were used to build social credit. She suggested that tried and trusted recipes acquired from family and other correspondents may have been valued and chosen over other recipes, like those collected from print sources.

In a panel on landscapes, Sophie Greenway examined the post-war shift of the British garden from a place of production to one of leisure. In 1950s magazines, advertisements encouraged women to purchase efficient kitchen appliances so that they could spend recreational time in their gardens. Paradoxically, this ‘aspirational literature’ featured this message alongside recipes for desserts like blancmange and blackcurrant jelly, which suggests that a woman’s time was best spent in the kitchen. I found this paper valuable for thinking about recipes used alongside advertising, as well as the relationship of print with the domestic space.

The Household in 1950s Magazine Advertising
The Household in 1950s Magazine Advertising

In a roundtable discussion on digital history, Lisa Smith represented the collaborative work being done here at The Recipes Project, as well as the transcription efforts over at EMROC and Shakespeare’s World. Lisa emphasised that in the digital projects, the message board is useful for attracting new transcribers, encouraging discussions, and demonstrating the value placed on close reading and deeper engagement with recipes.

I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘conference holiday’ and these papers represent the range of sources, topics, and temporal contexts with which recipe historians are currently engaging. And, it is on digital platforms like this that we can share our research, collaborate, and explore new avenues of inquiry on recipes.

The wrong trousers? Common folk in striped clothes as readers of early modern recipes.

By Tillmann Taape

 When trying to make historical sense of printed medical recipe collections, one tricky but important question always recurs: who did the author and/or publisher think would be likely to read and benefit from their books? In my own research, which focuses on the works of the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here), this question is particularly intriguing because these books were among the first medical books to be printed in German.

Of course, like many authors of the time, Brunschwig gives us some clues in the text of his works. He often addresses his instructions, especially medical recipes, to the ‘common man’ or the ‘layman’ who might not be able to afford certain remedies, or who might simply live too far away from the next larger town with a pharmacy shop. In addition to these textual hints, I want to take a different approach to the question of readers by making use of the numerous woodcuts illustrating Brunschwig’s works. Commissioned from an unknown artist by Brunschwig’s publisher, Johann Grüninger, these images are a striking element of the books.

Title illustration from Brusnchwig's  Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images
Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation (1500). © Wellcome Images

One thing which immediately strikes the eye when looking at these images is the prevalence of people dressed in striped clothes. Take, for example, the title page of Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation, published in 1500. We see a group of people busily harvesting herbs and stoking furnaces to distill medicinal waters, and both of the men are dressed in conspicuously striped doublets and trousers. In fact, throughout Brunschwig’s works most of the people doing any kind of manual work are shown wearing stripes, for example the person pounding ingredients in an apothecary’s mortar shown below. Surely, I thought, it must be significant that the majority of medicine-makers – Brunschwig’s ‘common men’ – are depicted in this manner.

An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

As it turns out, striped clothing had fairly wide-ranging connotations in the early-modern German lands. The fashion of tight-fitting, striped trousers had been brought to Germany from the Northern Italian courts by the new imperial infantry, the so-called lansquenets, towards the end of the fifteenth century. The striped fashion was particularly popular among the middling sort: citizens of free imperial towns, artisans, and even wealthy farmers and landowners. They constituted a growing and increasingly self-aware middle layer of society, sandwiched between poorer day-labourers who did not own any property, and the wealthy urban patriciate or landed gentry.

In the literature of the time, notably social satire in the tradition of Sebastian Brant’s famous Ship of Fools (1497), this newly significant social group came to be represented by the figure of the ‘striped layman.’ His striped clothing marked him out as being ‘half and half’ or in-between – in terms of wealth, social status, and most importantly, education. Literate in the vernacular but not in Latin, the half-educated ‘striped layman’ was to become a central figure in the visual rhetoric of Protestant pamphlets during the Reformation. Martin Luther wrote for an audience of precisely this kind of person: although not a Latinate scholar of theology, the striped layman sought salvation in his own reading of Scripture in the vernacular, without learned clergy as an intermediate. [1]

A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Brunschwig’s works depict a similarly confident self-educated striped layman in the context of medicine. This is nicely summed up in the large woodcut above, which appears in all of Brunschwig’s works. The teacher, identified by his fur-lined scholar’s robe and seated at a lectern, is lecturing from a large book. It is angled towards him, so that only he can see its contents, demonstrating the scholar’s authority over text-based learned medicine. Among his students, we see a young man dressed in stripes, and while his peers listen demurely with hat in hand, this striped chap is confidently gesticulating as if arguing a point of his own. What is more, he is holding a rolled-up piece of paper in one hand, perhaps a sheet of notes or even a medical recipe. While this striped layman does not command large tomes of medical learning, the picture suggests that he is literate and familiar with some of medicine’s written forms. He even appears capable of holding his own in a discussion with a scholar.

The figure of the striped layman, with its connotations of middling status and education, is thus a very plausible visual cognate to Brunschwig’s readership of middling ‘common men.’ As if to vindicate this choice of intended audience and its visual representation, the physician Lorenz Fries, from the neighbouring town of Colmar, addressed his Mirror of Medicine (1518) specifically to ‘striped laypeople’ who want to learn about medicine – and published it with Grüninger in Strasbourg.

[1] On the visual metaphor of the striped, see Schmid Blumer, Verena. Ikonographie und Sprachbild: Zur reformatorischen Flugschrift “Der gestryfft Schwitzer Baur”. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004.

Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

By Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape

What did it mean to test a drug or try a cure in the early modern world? This was the central question for a group of scholars who gathered for a workshop at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.  Since recipes emerged as one of the key themes throughout the workshop, and because the conference’s location in Berlin made it difficult for scholars outside of Europe to attend, we thought we might share a brief summary of the “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures” papers, in the hopes that we could bring the workshop’s key ideas and discussions to a larger audience.  What emerged from an exhilarating two days of discussion and debate was the conclusion that historians of science and medicine should not privilege experiment and experimentation as fixed categories, but should understand the multiple ways in which physicians, apothecaries, artisans, institutions, and individuals in the early modern world tested, tried, investigated, experienced, modified, observed, and measured medicinal remedies and materiae medicae.

As written forms of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge and practice, recipes played an important part in the testing of drugs and cures, and our discussion raised larger questions surrounding the nature and purpose of an early modern recipe.

A miniature depicting the Schola Medica Salernitana from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Michael McVaugh’s paper opened the discussion by exploring how medieval physicians went about testing drugs. Learned doctors in the Middle Ages might appear helplessly hidebound, and inclined to follow ancient authorities over experimentation. In contrast, McVaugh showed how a group of Montpellier physicians in the fourteenth century established something of an experimental program. Medieval physicians, however, were not testing to find a cure, but to determine the quality, strength, and effectiveness of a drug as it pertained to a particular person’s complexion. McVaugh underscored an important difference in the purpose of medieval drug testing. Physicians tested not for universal effectiveness, but to determine the quality of a drug – was it hot, cold, moist, or dry.

Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675). From

Although it became clear in our roundtable discussion that we should be wary of labeling such practices as obvious precursors to the experimental philosophies of the Scientific Revolution, many of the papers showed that the importance of specific tests resonated throughout the early modern period. Evan Ragland’s paper, for example, traced the use of the phrase periculum facere (‘to make a trial’) in physicians’ writings on medicine, anatomy and chemistry. Similarly, Michael Bycroft showed that French physicians and chemical experts of the Académie des Sciences became increasingly interested in the exact composition of mineral waters. Contrived tests such as color indicators or the analysis of residues after evaporation increasingly became the touchstone of proper inquiry.

McVaugh, Ragland, and Bycroft’s papers all underscored the need to understand the specific nature and purpose of testing in each historical context. Continuing to emphasize the importance of historical context, Francesco Paulo de Ceglia’s paper showed just how different the purpose of testing could be in the context of seventeenth century blood miracles in the Kingdom of Naples. Catholics tested the liquefaction of the blood of their patron saint to explore the limits of nature. By discovering nature’s limits, you could then determine what was truly miraculous. Protestants, on the other hand, tested various materials and recipes to recreate the liquefaction of blood to cast doubt on the alleged miracle.

Reliquary containing a glass ampoule of San Gennaro’s blood. From La Repubblica.

In the context of testing, drugs and cures are often under scrutiny in the form of recipes detailing their production and administration. While recipes emerged from many of the papers as very important forms of knowledge, it proved virtually impossible to define exactly what a recipe was. Recipes can be very short or very detailed, ranging from a mere list of ingredients to careful step-by-step instructions. If there is one thing recipes have in common, it is the need for testing, trying, modifying and adapting to different conditions. While constructing an all-encompassing definition of a recipe proved futile, all agreed that it was fruitful to understand recipes as an important genre in early modern science and medicine.


For her investigation on the testing practices of Venetian apothecaries, Valentina Pugliano emphasized the difference between experiment and experience. Venetian apothecaries were less concerned with testing drugs (in a traditional sense) than they were with the experience or truthfulness of their ingredients. Testing by inspection, smell and taste was also important in this pharmaceutical context, to ensure that the ingredients were what the merchant had promised them to be, and not a cheap substitute with inferior properties. For Pugliano’s apothecaries, the important issue that required testing was the authenticity of the ingredients rather than the efficacy of the finished product; after all, most preparations had proved their worth since antiquity. Like McVaugh, Pugliano questioned traditional “Baconian” understandings of what it meant to experiment and test and argued for more nuanced notions of testing and trying, which included observing, measuring, evaluating, and experiencing.

Title page of Johannes Christophorus Homann’s Dissertatio inauguralis medica de medicinae cum geosophia nexu quam auspice deo prpitio (Hala Madgeburica, Hendelius, 1725). From

With early modern Europeans’ increasing forays into the New World, however, more and more materiae medicae were found which were absent from ancient medical writings. Pliny and Dioscorides were silent on such substances as guaiacum wood, Peruvian bark or New World balsam, so their medicinal properties had to be newly investigated. Antonio Barrera-Osorio and Samir Boumediene’s papers added America, or the New World, into the discussion. Both emphasized the role of new drugs and materia medica in the rise of European experimental practices. New drugs and new medicinal recipes required new ways of testing.

Antonio Barrera-Osorio’s paper argued for an empirical culture in the Spanish empire, which was well suited to respond to these challenges. He showed how his protagonists gathered information about New World remedies from natives or travellers and experimented with ways of preparing them. Some of these drugs and recipes were deemed so important for the economy and health of the empire that the Spanish crown ordered tests in hospitals all over Castile. Samir Boumediene’s paper elaborated on the issue of making workable recipes for newly discovered drugs. Once more, taste and smell were important assays, but drugs such as guaiacum and Peruvian bark were also tested on a larger scale. Dispensing them to the poor inmates of charitable hospitals (as happened in France and Germany) helped to determine their effect, and to establish recipes, which indicated how to adjust the treatment in individual cases.

Andreas Cleyer, Specimen Medicinae Sinicae (Frankfurt, 1682). From

Gianna Pomata and Marta Hanson’s paper showed how recipes also functioned as vehicles of knowledge between different cultures. Recipes, as either formula or prescription, were both found in European and Chinese medical cultures. According to Pomata and Hanson, it was the familiar genre of the recipe that facilitated the transmission of Chinese pharmacology to Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. Similarly, Carla Nappi argued that the Manchu medicinal recipes of the Qing court were spaces of encounter and medical translation in the early modern world. Pomata, Hanson, and Nappi demonstrated how the recipe served as the common ground between European and Chinese medicine and made the translation of Chinese pulse medicine and the transmission of Chinese materia medica possible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although recipes are difficult to characterize as a genre, it is clear that they are fascinating objects of historical study. More often than not, they are fluid rather than fixed forms of knowledge, requiring adaptation at every turn. They bring together ingredients, practices and often practitioners from all over the world, and themselves have a tendency to aggregate into larger collections. As written manifestations of gestures and processes, they play an important part in testing, assessing and modifying drugs and cures.