Category Archives: Tillmann Taape

Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded (see e.g. Lisa Smith’s post on coffee as a cure for plague in eighteenth-century London). One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two cateogories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.


A Recipe for Disaster: How not to Distill Turpentine

By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.  © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.


[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.


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).

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.