Early Modern Nitpicking

By Lisa Smith

Robert Burns was inspired to write an ode “To a Louse” (1786) when he observed a cheeky louse running over a woman’s bonnet during a church service.

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly.

Robert Hooke, Micrographia or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665). Image of a louse under a microscope.

The ode reflects on the social meanings of lice, a great leveler that might affect beggars and beauties alike. And once those “ugly, creepin, blastit wonners” arrive, they are dashed difficult to destroy–as Laurence Totelin made clear earlier this month. Like Laurence, I was inspired to investigate the treatment of early modern lice after the crowlin ferlies dared to take up residence on my family. The lived experience of suffering from lice today has many parallels with our early modern counterparts: the social stigma of living with vermin, the desperate methods of trying to kill them, and the physical intimacy of catching and removing them.

After catching lice, my little one described feeling ashamed and dirty, despite the lice spreading like wildfire through the entire class and our reassurances that it was normal. An internalised message of dirtiness is potent indeed—and it is an old message, as Lisa Sarasohn discusses. The Bible, for example, indicates that lice were among the ten plagues sent by God to punish the Egyptians for not letting the Israelites go. The metaphor of lice was also often used in early modern society to describe any group that threatened the social order or to represent internal moral degeneration. Lousy people were akin to the vermin who inhabited their bodies.

Of course, as Karen Raber points out, lice sometimes had positive meanings. In the Renaissance, suffering from lice could be an aid to religious contemplation, offering a chance to reflect on social status and vanity, or a form of penance. By the seventeenth century, however, lice were associated with a moral failing. If cleanliness was next to godliness, the presence of lice suggested that one was neither clean nor godly.

Medical explanations for lice also emphasised a connection with dirt. Lice, which could infest the head or the pubic region, were seen as transmissable through sexual intimacy (Sarasohn); they were filthy critters in more ways than one! Early modern medicine drew on ideas from Antiquity (Fornociari et al.). Aristotle, for example, considered lice to be creatures spontaneously generated from decaying matter on animals, while Galen explained that lice were created through warmth and excess humidity below the skin. By the late eighteenth century, moreover, army physicians increasingly understood that there was a connection between typhus and lice (Willingham).

Early modern remedies were based on humoral theory or methods of suffocation, poisoning, and containment. All six lice treatments in The Vermin Killer (1680) included ingredients such as hog lard, butter, smashed apple, olive oil, or wax; these would have suffocated or immobilised the lice. Vinegar and salt water, with their drying qualities, also appeared, as did the poisonous sandarac (sulphide of arsenic) and quicksilver (29-31). The twelve remedies in The Compleat English and French Vermin-Killer (1710) were similar, but also introduced a common herb for treating lice: stavesacre (also known as lousewort or Delphinium staphisagria). This could be put into hair powder or mixed with other ingredients. The 1710 edition also recommended containment, whether by ensuring that the patient wore a cap during treatment or had a hair cut (20-22). By 1777, the fourteen remedies of The Complete Vermin-Killer (1777) remained the same. But the new presence of a recipe that included oil of mustard suggests that humoral explanations for lice still underpinned treatments (5). Culpeper, for example, indicated that mustard was good for resisting poison and drawing out bad humors.

In looking for early modern remedies, I was surprised to find so few (digitally searchable) manuscript recipe books in the Wellcome Library or the Folger Shakespeare Library that had lice treatments. Perhaps this is explained by the wide range of published remedies, which were included in books such as Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physician or The Vermin Killer—both reprinted many times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The manuscript remedies reflect both the familiar, domestic location of treatments and the growing use of global commodities—sometimes in the same book. There are two lice-related recipes in Elizabeth Jacob’s “Physicall and chyrurgicall receipts” (c. 1654-1685). One “To Quite your selfe of Lice” recommends taking a piece of linen cloth, used by a goldsmith to wipe an object during gilding, then placing it under one’s arm pits and neck. Jacob explained the logic: the goldsmiths used quicksilver in the gilding process, which was a very effective lice killer (143). Quite clearly, this was a thrifty remedy that recycled a trade-related material rather than purchasing new ingredients from the apothecary. Significantly, it also suggests that this was an urban household with easy access to the tools of goldsmithing.

From Elizabeth Jacob (Wellcome MS 3009). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Jacob family must have been well-connected to global trade, too. Another “receipt to kill lice” used “Endicockle berys from the Apothecarys”, which were to be powdered and strewn in the head (fol. 56).

From Elizabeth Jacob (Wellcome MS 3009). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Endicockle berries do not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any books in the Historical Texts database. It was only when I looked up “fish berries,” mentioned in another remedy “For Scabs & lice in ye head” (Wellcome MS 635, 94), that I discovered they also went by the name Cocculus Indicus; endicockle, then, is a phonetic version of India Cockle berries. John Hill described the berry in A History of the Materia Medica (1751) noting that it was highly poisonous and came from Asia. It had been known for anti-lice properties in England since the late seventeenth century (504). The Jacob family benefited from their urban location in another way: an opportunity to learn about newly-imported global remedies.

John Hill, A History of the Materia Medica (1751) , p. 504.

The most effective remedy, both then and now, however, is the time-consuming process of combing and nitpicking; if catching lice is a mark of intimate relations, so too is this remedy. But it is not one found in a recipe book. The first time I discovered lice in my child’s hair, I combed and searched for over two hours. This was no mean feat with a wriggly small child. Subsequent combings have been shorter, but they take longer than a regular hair-brush. Often, she watches TV, but other times we chat.

Bartolomeo Pinelli, La famiglia dei pedochiosi. Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Early modern images of nitpicking suggest a similar intimacy—the family grooming each other that Pinelli depicts or Piloty’s old woman examining the child’s head. During a lice infestation, it is, quite literally, all hands on deck (as Pinelli shows). The casual intimacy in the images is striking; the child leans against the woman’s legs, the husband places his head in his wife’s lap. Lice removal might be time-consuming, but the physical intimacy brings a pleasure of its own.

An old woman picking fleas from a young boy’s hair. Lithograph by F. Piloty after B.E. Murillo. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Or is that intimacy animal-like? Dogs often appear in images of delousing, blurring the animal and human worlds; indeed, lice itself blurred the two worlds. The natural rambunctiousness of small children is also, perhaps, animal-like. Piloty’s young boy plays with the puppy and eats a chunk of bread; the smallest child in Pinelli’s picture is chained to the wall, straining against confinement. This reflects a reality: small children have little patience for the process of nitpicking and need to be entertained or constrained. But it also places the children and their families close to the animal world.

A nitpicking monkey — a handy labour-saving solution, though it brings the animal world even closer. Image Credit: Arthur Pond (eighteenth century), British Museum U,1.215.

The co-existence of lice and humans is intimate indeed—no wonder Burns’ louse was so bold. The experience of lice historically and today has many similarities. Sufferers still feel embarrassed, despite the commonness of the complaint, and we still try a range of remedies to poison or suffocate the vermin. Above all, the most effective method remains the same: physical removal of the crowlin ferlies. Family closeness is nice, but even nicer when the lice are gone.

Further Itchy Reading

Evans, Jennifer. “Feeling ‘Louzy’”. Early Modern Medicine, 24 September 2014 (https://earlymodernmedicine.com/creepy-crawlies/).

Fornaciari, Gino, et al. “The Use of Mercury against Pediculosis in the Renaissance: The Case of Ferdinand II of Aragon, King of Naples, 1467–96.” Medical History 55, 1 (2011): 109-115. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3037217/)

Raber, Karen. Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Sarasohn, Lisa. “The Microscopist & Voyeur: Margaret Cavendish’s Critique of Experimental Philosopy,” pp. 77-100 in Sigrun Haude and Melinda Zook (eds) Challenging Orthodoxies: The Social and Cultural Worlds of Early Modern Women. Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2014.

Willingham, Emily. “Of Lice and Men: An Itchy History.” Scientific American, 14 February 2011 (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/of-lice-and-men-an-itchy-history/).

Wolfe, Heather. “Early Modern Head Lice Remedies.” The Collation, 15 May 2018 (https://collation.folger.edu/2018/05/early-modern-head-lice-remedies/) .

Colonizing Condiments: A (Very) Short History of Ketchup

Ketchup.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ketchup. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

ByAmanda E. Herbert

Today we imagine ketchup as the ultimate modern American food (and it is true that we like to put ketchup on…well, a lot of things).  But ketchup’s origins are found in Asia, and its adaptation into the thing that resembles our thick, modern-day ketchup began in early modern Britain.

The word “ketchup” is borrowed either from the Chinese language (kôe-chiap, a brine of pickled fish or shellfish, with “kôe” as a kind of fish, and “chiap” as juice or sauce), and/or from Malay (with “kecap” or “kicap,” soy sauce).  It’s likely that Britons encountered this tasty sauce – a thin, black-brown liquid that was either a type of fish sauce or a type of soy sauce – during acts of travel and colonization. 

Ketchup (which early modern Britons spelled a lot of different ways: ketchup, katchup, ketchop, katchop, kitchup, ketsup, catchup, cachup, catchop, and even catshup) began to appear in British texts at the end of the seventeenth century.[1] These were sometimes travelogues and books about colonization, with a description of the sauce – and how good it tasted – but without any instructions on how to make it.  When ketchup did start to show up in recipe books, it was often listed as an ingredient, but again, without providing readers with a guide on how to produce it themselves.  This might mean that the recipe book authors trusted that their readers would be able to purchase ready-made, imported ketchup. 

Eighteenth-century ketchup bottle. Blue glass and gilt cruet bottle and stopper, ca. 1790-ca. 1800, 117&A-1907, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Eighteenth-century ketchup bottle. Blue glass and gilt cruet bottle and stopper, ca. 1790-ca. 1800, 117&A-1907, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Thanks to Angela McShane for this reference.

But ketchup was either so popular, so hard to get, or so expensive, that early modern British people soon started trying to make their own.  Evidence for these early ketchup experiments can be found in manuscript recipe books from the period.  In their quest to replicate the umami flavor found in soy- or fish-based Chinese or Malay sauces, Britons turned to a variety of ingredients: mushrooms, anchovies, oysters, walnuts, and even horseradish.  One 1693 recipe for “Cucumber Catchup” called for cooks to “put a handful of scraped horseradish” to “every quart of the Liquor” in the dish.[2] 

Like that cucumber ketchup, most early modern British ketchups were heavily flavored, seasoned, and spiced.  Mrs. Marshall’s “white Catchup,” found in Jane Staveley’s 1693/4 handwritten recipe book, called for “a pound of shallots…a quart of Madira, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, [and] a quarter of an Ounce of whole white pepper.”  Staveley – or someone in her household – clearly liked ketchups, because her book also contained receipts for oyster ketchup, made with lemon peel, a quarter of an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and one sliced nutmeg.[3] Spices were also added to a recipe “to make catchup of Wallnut [from] Mrs Richmond” which is found in an anonymous recipe book from c. 1720.  This recipe author included a quarter of an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of nutmeg, and a little bit of pepper to their ketchup, which was supposed to be cooked until “it’s the Couler of Clarett.”  Another recipe in the same anonymous book claimed that ketchup could be made spicy by using Dianthus caryophyllus, the clove gillyflower – also known as the clove carnation – as a base.  This Carnation Ketchup called for the “top of three clove gilly flowers” along with one nutmeg, half an ounce of cloves, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of cinnamon, and one shallot.  This combination of botanicals created a mixture so potent, the author warned, that “a little of this goes a great way.”[4]

Longevity was another important factor.  One of Mrs. Knight’s 1740 recipes for ketchup was entitled “to make catchup to keep 20 years.”  This effect was apparently achieved by using “strong stale bear [beer]…the stronger and staler the bear [beer] the better.”[5]

"To make White Catchup." Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.
“To make White Catchup.” Detail from Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Flavor, spice, and shelf-life were clearly important to early modern British ketchup-makers as they attempted to replicate the soy and fish sauces that had come to them via acts of travel, conquest, and colonization.  But just as these Britons worked to use and enjoy Chinese and/or Malay sauces, they simultaneously adapted them, changing the recipes to suit their own tastes, needs, expectations, and palates.

Recent works by scholars of early America and the Atlantic world have traced how white Europeans appropriated, gleaned, bought, and stole knowledge and knowledge-systems from indigenous Americans and enslaved people of African descent in acts of colonization; two Recipes Project posts by Claire Gherini describe these acts via cures for poison. These frameworks can be exceptionally useful for anyone analyzing culinary adaptations made by British recipe authors.  Jane Staveley explained to her friends and family members that, if “you wish” her “white Catchup” could be “thicken’d with flour and butter,” using a technique that was “the same as if you were melting butter.” In her aim to produce a sauce that, she believed, was a good accompaniment “for [the] Turkey Fowls & Veal” that often appeared on British tables, she worked to turn southeast Asian ketchup (in its place of origin a thin, salty, vinegary sauce) into British ketchup (now a dense, creamy sauce). These instructions, for making ketchup into something it wasn’t – thick, not thin; buttery, not astringent; white, not brown – were an admittedly minute act of colonization, but they were a symbolic one nonetheless.[6] 

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Anglo-Americans began to incorporate tomatoes into their ketchup, making antecedents of the thick, red paste that we slather on fries, burgers, and hotdogs today.  But as we have seen, as early as the seventeenth century, early modern British women were colonizing condiments in the pages of their manuscript recipe books.


[1] “Ketchup, n.,” OED Online, March 2019, Oxford University Press, accessed April 10, 2019, http://www.oed.com.proxy.wm.edu/view/Entry/103080?rskey=SEQwHQ&result=2&isAdvanced=false.

[2] Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[3] Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[4] Anon., Cookbook, c. 1720, W.b.653, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[5] Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Knight’s receipt book, c. 1740, W.b.79, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[6] Jane Staveley, Receipt book of Jane Staveley, 1693-1694, V.a.401, Folger Shakespeare Library. For some recent studies of the ways that European scientists and natural philosophers (both amateur and traditionally-trained) appropriated, stole, managed, and bought information from indigenous Americans and African-descended people, many of whom were enslaved, see Christopher Parsons, “The Natural History of Colonial Science: Joseph-François Lafitau’s Discovery of Ginseng and Its Afterlives,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1 (January 2016); Kathleen S. Murphy, “Collecting Slave Traders: James Petiver, Natural History, and the British Slave Trade,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4 (October 2013), 637-670; Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, Daniela Bleichmar, Paula De Vos, Kristin Huffine, and Kevin Sheehan, eds. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Around the Table: Museum Exhibitions

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Museums have increasingly been highlighting food, culinary, and dining history in their exhibition schedules. The upcoming months prove to be very exciting for those of us interested in such topics, as museums internationally have planned a wonderful array of exhibits. If your conference, research, or personal travel plans take you to any of the cities below, consider stopping by an exhibit. Be sure to check the websites for full exhibit descriptions, as well as visitor information such as hours, fees, and directions. We also welcome readers to share your trips to any museums and exhibits of interest to the Recipes Project community on Twitter or Facebook!

Current Exhibitions

Feeding History: The Politics of Food

British Museum (London, UK), through 27 May 2019

Wooden model group of a butcher’s shop, Deir el-Bersha, Egypt, Middle Kingdom period. (London, British Museum)

The exhibition “Feeding History” at the British Museum focuses on five objects, exploring the relationship between food, power, and control. The display juxtaposes ancient and contemporary objects to explore issues surrounding food production and control of food resources. The focus of the display is a contemporary sculpture, Anti Social Wild West Weaving (c. 2000), by Native American artist Pat Courtney Gold. Her work represents the barbed-wire fences used on the North American prairies, simultaneously allowing settlers to claim the land for ranching and farming and restricting Native Americans from accessing their ancestral land. The four ancient objects include an Egyptian wooden plough handle (1550–1069 BC), an Egyptian model of butchers preparing meat (c. 1850 BC), a gilded silver vase with a grape harvesting scene (possibly from Iran, 500–700), and a Ming dynasty porcelain serving dish decorated with grapes (1403–1424). Through this combination of works, the exhibition explores the origins of farming and the inequality between the wealthy landowning minority and the impoverished working majority. Furthermore, the exhibition stresses that feeding the world is closely connected to issues of power, politics, and economics.

Feasting and Fasting: The Great Kitchen at Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral (Durham, UK), through 1 June 2019

Durham Cathedral’s museum experience, Open Treasure, currently features an exhibition, “Feasting and Fasting,” exploring the history of the Cathedral’s fourteenth-century Great Kitchen. The octagonal kitchen, completed in 1370, was active for over 570 years. It was the site of food preparations for everyone who lived and worked at the Cathedral; daily meals and grand feasts alike were prepared here. Visitors can learn about the food consumed by Benedictine monks of Durham Priory and discover what was eaten at the Cathedral’s lavish banquets. The highlights of “Feasting and Fasting” are the recipe collections on display, including the The Art of Cookery by John Thacker, cook to the Dean and Chapter from 1739–1758. After exploring the exhibit, visitors can continue through the museum into the Great Kitchen, which now houses the Anglo-Saxon Treasures of St. Cuthbert.

Feast of Fools: Bruegel Rediscovered

Gaasbeek Castle (Lennik, Belgium), through 28 July 2019

Feast of Fools: Bruegel Rediscovered

Nestled in the idyllic Belgian countryside, Gaasbeek Castle is home to a museum, park, and gardens. The Museum Garden alone may be of interest to Recipes Project readers: it contains many traditional and rare fruit and vegetable varietals, featuring espaliered fruits. The museum inside Gaasbeek Castle, however, is currently hosting an exhibition rooted in the work of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. In “Feast of Fools,” visitors experience a series of contemporary and modern inspired by Bruegel. Among many other works, the exhibition presents a virtual reality installation by the Berlin-based theatre company, Rimini Protokoll, focused on the contemporary food industry titled “Feast of Food.” In his works, Bruegel depicted the farmers who fed local consumers. In the twenty-first century, Bruegel’s farmers have been replaced by high-tech agro-industries and most consumers now ignore the origins of their food. Rimini Protokoll helps visitors explore what farming and food production look like today. Through virtual reality, visitors are immersed in modern sites of food production, including Rungis, the biggest food market in the world, located near Paris, a gigantic slaughterhouse in Bavaria, and plantations in Almería.

Future Exhibitions

FOOD: Bigger than the Plate

Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK), 19 May–20 October 2019

FOOD: Bigger than the Plate is poised to be a significant exhibition at the V&A on a variety of food topics (including food history). It will feature over seventy contemporary projects, new commissions and creative collaborations by artists, designers, chefs, farmers, scientists and local communities. The exhibition will explore how individuals, communities and organizations are re-inventing how we experience food. FOOD leads visitors through the food cycle, from “Compost” to “Farming” to “Trading” to “Eating.” Visitors will even experience several installations physically growing in the gallery space. These projects will sit alongside thirty objects from the V&A collections, including early food advertisements, illustrations, and ceramics, providing historical context to the contemporary exhibits. The V&A has also released information about a number of early events related to the exhibit, including a Curators’ Talk and a Food Styling and Photography Workshop. Readers can receive an early bird offer of 40% off individual advance tickets using promo code FOOD40 at check out. Note that this offer is available for a limited time only and please review the terms and conditions.

Last Supper in Pompeii

Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology (Oxford, UK), 25 July 2019–12 January 2020

The Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford has scheduled an exhibition delving into a story of the foods loved and consumed by the people of the ancient Roman town of Pompeii. This southern Italian resort town was located between vineyards, orchards, and the Bay of Naples; its people produced wine, olive oil, and garum (a fish sauce) for consumers around the Mediterranean. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in the first century, people in Pompeii were eating, drinking, and producing food, like any other day. Much evidence has been preserved about the food in this town, such as mosaics in villas and the remains found in kitchen drains. The exhibition will feature many objects on loan from Naples and Pompeii which have never left Italy. The items range from the luxury furnishings of Roman dining rooms to the carbonized food that was on the table when the volcano erupted. Accompanying the exhibition is the forthcoming publication of Last Supper in Pompeii (Ashmolean Museum, 2019) by Paul Roberts, the Sackler Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean. Included in the book is new research based on the excavation of drains and rubbish pits and the excavation of a Roman vineyard between Vesuvius and Pompeii.

Café Europe: Food Ties

Museum of European Cultures (Berlin, Germany), 1 August–1 September 2019

The Museum of European Cultures, one of the Berlin State Museums, hosts a permanent exhibition “Cultural Contacts: Living in Europe” which examines discussions on social movements and boundaries. Tied to the permanent exhibition, “Café Europe: Food Ties,” is a temporary exhibition with accompanying special events exploring trans-regional and international influences on the culinary arts. As mobility has continued to increase across Europe, so too has culinary migration. Diets have both assimilated many influences and changed significantly in recent decades. Be sure to check the website as “Café Europe” approaches for more information about cooperating partners and scheduled special events.

If you’d like to feature a museum exhibition or collection on the Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!


Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.