Tag Archives: Jan Baptista van Helmont

The Order of Things

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk

Today I want to go back to the first post in my series with Saskia Klerk (last post here) to consider in more depth the order in which recipes were written down in manuscript BPL3603. We initially mentioned that the recipes are initially ordered in alphabetical sequence. That, combined with the limited open space left in the book, made us think that the manuscript was carefully designed as a more or less final record of recipes. After a closer look, however, it seems that the manuscript is not as “neat” as it appeared at first.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 77, the first page of section 2.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 77, the first page of section 2.

Most of the recipes and texts that Saskia and I have been discussing in this series come from the second part of the manuscript, which starts on page 77. Unlike the first part, there is no longer an alphabetical order. This section starts with a recipe for the preparation of Flores sulphurous, a strong powder.

It continues with several other waters, and powders, mostly made through chemical processes. There are also recipes for the preparation of colour paints, made from saffron and red coral respectively. It describes recipes for different types of oils, and it contains the recipes and text about the plague by Van Helmont and discussed here, as well as the text taken from Van Beverwijck discussed here and here.

I am starting to suspect that the second part of the manuscript (pp. 77-122) consists of text passages copied out of other books. While the first part of the manuscript might be taken from other books as well, it is organised on the level of the recipe, whereas the second half consists of longer text fragments on certain topics, such as oils, or colour making, or even the plague and stones.

This calls for a more precise study into the quire binding of the manuscript, to see whether it was bound in this way, or whether it was a later organisation of the papers. I doubt it, especially since the page numbering seems contemporary, and is continuous.

The first part of the manuscript completes a full alphabetical series from A to Z. Was this part finished earlier? And were the recipes of part 2 added later without specific order because the alphabetized papers were full? Possibly, but from the handwriting it is not clear that there might be a time gap between part 1 and 2. Part 1 might have been an earlier collection of the scribe, collected in a notebook or on paper slips, and copied into this manuscript, which would then have formed the basis for further collecting.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 76, the last page os part 1, discussing Zee-ziekte.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 76, the last page os part 1, discussing Zee-ziekte.

The manuscript starts the ‘A’ for “amborstigheit” (shortness of breath) and finishes with the last entry on p. 76 under ‘Z’ “Zee-varende luijden voor zee-ziekte te behouden” (to protect sea-farers from seasickness). Within the order, we nevertheless find unexpected recipes. Most of them are ordered according to the illness they are supposed to cure, but under ‘D’ we find drunkenness, drinks, and the art of distilling (“distileer-konst”). And even though beer was sometimes used as medicine (see for example this blog post), in this case it is purely mentioned for its ‘pleasant taste’ (“zeer aangenaam van smaak”).

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 12, with the final F-recipe (Fenijnige lucht) and two H-recipes
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 12, with the final F-recipe (Fenijnige lucht) and two J-recipes (jicht).

Every now and then there seems to be a small glitch in the order, such as the recipe for gout (“jicht”), which is placed after ‘F’ and before ‘G’ on a page with quite some space left. Surprisingly we find exactly the same recipe again at the end of ‘J’, even with the same reference to Mrs de Wit who is apparently the author or source of the recipe. It seems that the restriction of space on the J-page made the scribe go back to the almost empty F-page.

Sometimes the reader also needs to use his or her imagination to understand the alphabetical order, such as with the recipe to improve the memory (“memorie”). It can be found in the middle of the K-section, and features brandy (“brandewijn”) as the main ingredient. However the title of the page (which is not always similar to the titles of the recipe(s)) reads The Power and Virtue of Brandewijn (“Kracht en Deugd des Brandewijns”), which is where we have found the ‘K’.

We have not fully understood the composition of this manuscript yet, but our study of its construction, order, and content continues…

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) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03583
Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, 1670-1, by Sir Peter Lely. ©Tate Photographic Rights ©Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03583

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!

Van Helmont on the Plague, Again!

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk

A few weeks ago Saskia Klerk introduced the Leiden manuscript BPL 3603 to the readers of this blog. This recently acquired manuscript has a pencil-written remark on the flyleaf by a modern cataloguer with the inscription ‘Van Helmond’s Recepten’.  We can safely assume that this refers to the seventeenth-century physician Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644) and/or his son Franciscus Mercurius (1614-1698).

Father and Son van Helmont, frontispiece in Dageraed, Amsterdam 1659.
Father and Son van Helmont, frontispiece in Dageraed, Amsterdam 1659.

When Saskia told me about it for the first time, I was very curious to learn more. As there is very little known about the reception of Jan Baptista van Helmont’s Dutch work Dageraed (‘Daybreak’, Amsterdam 1659), this recipe book in Dutch might well shed more light on this part of the Helmontian story. And secondly, I had the faint hope that Saskia might have found some of the now lost manuscripts by Van Helmont himself. [1] Unfortunately the latter is not the case, but I am very sure that the manuscript will tell us more about the reception of Van Helmont’s Dageraed, as well as about medical practices in the Low Countries in general.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, fol. 103 (selection)
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 103 (selection)

In two previous blog posts (see here and here) I wrote about Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague and his recipes for sweat potions. These recipes were good examples to show the differences in translation practices between the ingredients (heavily based on Latin terminology) and the performative parts of the recipes (firmly grounded in the vernacular tradition). Not unsurprisingly – since these are the only recipes in Van Helmont’s texts that were published as visually recognisable recipes (with lists of ingredients, followed by the actions)  – these recipes are copied into BPL 3603. The picture here shows how the compiler of the manuscript ordered the ingredients in such a way that we find the Latin names in the left column and the Dutch equivalences on the right. All terms and additions are taken verbatim from Van Helmont’s Dageraed, which implies that the compiler had seen a copy of this book. At this point it is unclear to us whether this Dutch recipe collector was a physician, or an apothecary, or whether BPL 3606 was a household book, or perhaps it was a combination of all of this. We hope to find out more in the future.

The compiler did not only copy the recipe, but also several other passages from the plague treatise. Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague forms the second part of the Dageraed. The first part of the book gives an overview of his medical philosophy, from the influence of the heavenly bodies to his theory of disease, whereas the second part concentrates on one disease (the plague) and its history, causes, and treatments. The compiler of BPL 3603 seems especially interested in copying passages in which Van Helmont displays his experience. The compiler quotes Van Helmont, for example, as a proof for his understanding that only sulphur (‘swavel’) can protect one from the plague. Van Helmont tells of the example of a regiment of soldiers which he observed nearby Sas van Gent. The regiment consisting of Neapolitans, as well as Walloons and Germans died almost entirely from the plague, apart from the Germans. According to van Helmont, the Germans had used gun powder (‘bospoeder’) on their clothes to protect themselves from lice. Subsequently, very few of them died, which Van Helmont saw as a result of the qualities of sulphur.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p, 104: the author quotes Van Helmont.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 104: the author quotes Van Helmont.

The compiler uses the extracts from the Dageraed here to prove the effectiveness of sulphur as a treatment. This resonates with  extracts and quotes of Van Helmont that the compiler adds two pages later. Also here the main concern seems proof for the usefulness and effectiveness of the discussed drugs: ‘Van Helmont says he has seen it been used effectively’, ‘Van Helmont says that no one will die from using these drugs’, etc. Van Helmont’s comments and the way the compiler is quoting and naming Van Helmont make clear that Van Helmont is used as an authority. The compiler seems to be very interested in the practical applications of the drugs, much in contrast to Van Helmont, who always embeds his practices into a theoretical framework. This might point to the motifs of collecting for the compiler.    

In the next blog post Saskia will start to look into the references to Johan van Beverwijck in the BPL 3603. Will she find a similar interest in proof and personal experience by the compiler when quoting Van Beverwijck or does his interest lie somewhere else?

[1] For a brief account on the lost Helmontian manuscripts, see Antonio Clericuzio, ‘From van Helmont to Boyle. A Study of the Transmission of Helmontian Chemical and Medical Theories in Seventeenth-Century England’, The British Journal for the History of Science 26, p. 311-12.

Van Helmont´s Recipes

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen

Five years ago the Special collections of the University Library Leiden acquired the book and manuscript collection from the estate of J.M.H. van de Sande (d. 2010), a Dutch pharmacist. As part of the ERC-project on the writing practices of physicians, led by Volker Hess and Andrew Mendelsohn at the Charité in Berlin, I examined one of these manuscripts, now catalogued as BPL 3603. One of Van de Sande´s special interests was Paracelsus and Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644). This interest would explain how this Dutch language manuscript of seventy folios came into his possession. Indeed, on the ex libris of Van de Sande´s Bibliotheca Pharmacia, the note “612.8 Helm”, suggests that Van den Sande catalogued the manuscript with other works by Van Helmont. More pencil writing on the same page reads “Van Helmond´s recepten” or Van Helmond´s recipes.

Sietske Fransen, who has researched Van Helmont and his son Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-1699) (see for example (16/10/2014) and (30/12/ 2014 ), and I decided to contribute a new series on this Dutch recipe book to The Recipe Project. It will be a great way to continue our research on this manuscript and share our discoveries, similarly to the way Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche have done here. Our starting point will be to ask what the manuscript can tell us about its anonymous author or authors and their reading and writing practices.

Taking a closer look at the manuscript it is clear that it contains material from Van Helmont’s publications besides recipes. It also contains recipes from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) and Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647), amongst others. Its dating of ca. 1677 is based on the appearance of this date on the first page of the manuscript and correlates to the latest dates noted with the recipes.

Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 fol.2r
Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 fol.2r. The first recipe is for “amborstigheit”, or shortness of breath.

The recipes themselves are at first arranged alphabetically according to the affliction they are directed at. From about halfway through the manuscript, however, they are also grouped together according to the product of the recipe or its main ingredient. They are evenly and uniformly distributed over the page and leave only limited space for additions. All of the recipes are in Dutch. The initial alphabetical order as well as the little annotation space suggests that the manuscript was carefully  designed as a more or less final record of recipes.

Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 (n.p.) fol.1r
Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden BPL 3603 (n.p.) fol.1r. The date “1677” can be seen at the bottom of the third table.

A few things immediately intrigued us about the manuscript. Instead of a title page, the first page contains three very basic tables: that of pharmaceutical signs; of astrological signs; and a list of conversions of Arabic to Roman numerals. On the final page we find a table entitled “explanation of characters in general use of alchemists” and one of “characters and weights of medics and apothecaries”. A question we would like to raise for further discussion is what the inclusion of such tables, says about the intention behind the compilation of the manuscript.

Furthermore, those few sources for the recipes that are named, appear to be printed books. The sources show that the compiler of the collection was a keen reader of medical works in Dutch. The popularity of these publications can be gauged from their increasing number on the market in the decades before and following the composition of the manuscript. Much less is known however about how and by whom these books were read. This manuscript promises to tell us a great deal about the practices of a reader of these publications.

Finally, it is very exciting to see texts by two contemporary physicians from the Northern and Southern Netherlands together in the manuscript. Although Van Beverwijck from Dordrecht and Van Helmont from Brussels both wrote in Dutch, they are rarely discussed together in the historical literature. This is understandable from the character of their writings.

An engraving and the beginning of a poem by Cats, illustrating the chapter "What life consists of and by what means it is maintained in health". Johan van Beverwijck, Schat der Gesont heyt (Amsterdam 1643) p. 60.
An engraving and the beginning of a poem by Cats, illustrating the chapter “What life consists of and by what means it is maintained in health”. Johan van Beverwijck, Schat der Gesont heyt (Amsterdam 1643) p. 60.

Van Beverwijck published several medical books in Dutch, most notably Schat der Gesontheyt (Treasure of Health) and Schat der Ongesontheyt (Treasure of Unhealth iness), which became very popular and appeared in many editions from the 1630’s onwards. In these publications his medical writings were alternated with poems by the famous Dutch poet Jacob Cats (1577-1660) and illustrated with engravings. The fame of these books made Van Beverwijck a household name. Van Beverwijck thus effectively adapted the medicine he was taught at university to a non-academic audience.

Van Helmont on the other hand is best known for his Latin works, such as Ortus Medicinae (The Rise of Medicine, 1648), while his Dutch medical publication Dageraed (1659) is much less known. And despite the vernacular language, this book is not as accessible as Van Bever- wijck’s publications with its poems and pictures, and was not read widely by the seventeenth-century Dutch audience.

Despite their contrasting reputations, the compiler of BPL 3603 apparently considered both authors to be valuable resources for his recipe book. The manuscript provides us therefore with an exciting example of seventeenth-century comparative reading of two authors that were thought to be read by different audiences.

We look forward to finding out more about the assembler of the manuscript as well as the way in which he used his sources. Next month, Sietske will discuss the material from Van Helmont further.