Distilling and Deflowering

A friar in an apothecary
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By Peter Murray Jones

Between 1416 and 1425, English friars put together a Latin medical handbook. This handbook, called the Tabula Medicine (‘Table of Medicine’), mostly consisted of remedies, arranged alphabetically by name of ailment, instead of the head to toe order of the standard medical Practica. The friars seem to have assembled the text by accumulating remedies in a sort of medieval Wikipedia. Some copies preserve the ‘open’ format by leaving room for additional remedies under each heading.[1]

Many remedies are medicinal recipes culled from books. Most often they cite the works of Avicenna, Galen and native authorities, Gilbertus Anglicus, Bernard de Gordon, John of Gaddesden, and John Arderne. But a lot of other remedies are attributed to English friars who flourished c.1370-1420.[2] The friars mentioned were identified as authorities (expressed as “per fratrem Peter Russell”, for example) for recipes of all kinds. But they had a particular fondness for distillations. Under the heading “Gutta arthetica” (Gout of the joints), we find:

King’s MS 16, fol.1. The opening of the Tabula medicine

“According to brother William Holme, for cold gout take the dregs of a pottle (two quarts) of beer; boil down a pennyweight of boar’s flesh for a day, stirring it with a ladle; and take a handful each of chamomile, pellitory, cowslip, lavender, honeysuckle, and marjoram. Cut up the cooked meat and the herbs into tiny pieces and distill together with the dregs in an alembic. The water collected in a glass can be kept and used as wanted.  Apply it warm, and it is called flesh-water.”

Holme, like Hieronymus Brunschwig, held that distillation ensured your remedy did not go off.

More ambitious distillations aimed at producing the heavenly quintessence, or at the very least aqua ardens (burning water). The friars must have had a copy of John of Rupescissa, Liber de consideratione quintae essentie to hand, for they quote from it accurately under headings for “Cor” (Heart), “Demon,” “Facies” (Face), “Frenesis” (Frenzy), “Melancholia,” “Spasmum” [Convulsion] and “Venenum” (Poison). They never identify him by name, although Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar, writing from prison in France c.1350. Under the heading “Facies”, they tell us that wild strawberries are a hundred times more powerful against outbreaks of pustules on the face if administered as a quintessence. Rupescissa uses exactly the same words at two points in his text. We are not told in the ‘Table of Medicine’ how to extract a water from wild strawberries and combine it with quintessence, although Rupescissa does give a recipe.

The only heading in the ‘Table of Medicine’ that names a remedy instead of an ailment is “Balsamum” (Balsam). Native balsam was extraordinarily rare and expensive in late medieval Europe, in all its three forms, and friar William Holme is credited with two different recipes for making an ‘Artificial Balsam.’ One simply requires powdered exotic spices to be put successively into hot but not boiling oil. The second requires small quantities of natural balsam, as well as twenty-five other ingredients. They are mixed and pulped in a mortar before distillation. This distillate comes in three degrees of strength, and is said to be just as effective as the native kinds in treating a long list of ailments. Holme is the only one of the friars mentioned in the ‘Table of Medicine’ who can now be identified as author of a surviving text, De simplicibus medicinis (‘On medicinal simples’) of 1415. This was “deflowered” as the bibliographer John Bale later put it, by Holme “from twelve doctors of medicine”. The ‘Table of Medicine’ itself went in for “deflowering”, though it also credited experienced friar practitioners.

King’s MS 16, fol. 144. Wistanton’s recipe for distilling blood and Forman’s hand in the margin.

Friar Robert Wistanton gives a recipe to make use of distilled human blood in surgery. The blood is kept for forty days in a glass vessel under dung, then cooked in a copper pot for a day, cooled, then skimmed. Afterwards it is distilled with a filter, mixed with aqua ardens, then distilled again with an alembic, and that distillate is the best of all waters. It will consolidate a wounded limb within three days and heal the sick. What remains in the bottom of the vessel should be kept, cooled and dried, and the resultant powder is best for fractured bones. Friars were not supposed to dabble in alchemy and surgery, but that does not seem to have stopped Wistanton and his brothers.

King’s MS 16, fol. 8b. Insert in Forman’s hand on Catalepsis.

In 1574 Simon Forman, astrologer and alchemist, purchased a manuscript of the ‘Table of Medicine’ in Oxford. He added recipes drawn from his own experience, or from Andrew Boorde’s Breviary of Healthe (1557), in the margin opposite the entries for particular illnesses. He also interleaved the manuscript to add remedies for illnesses not covered in the ‘Table of Medicine’. In this enhanced form the text continued in use into the seventeenth century.[3]

[1] Peter Murray Jones, “The ‘Tabula medicine’: an Evolving Encyclopedia,” English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, vol. 14, Regional Manuscripts 1200-1700, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (2008), 60-85.

[2] Peter Murray Jones, “Mediating Collective Experience: the Tabula Medicine (1416–1425) as a Handbook for Medical Practice,” in Between Text and Patient: The Medical Enterprise in Medieval & Early Modern Europe, ed. Florence Eliza Glaze and Brian K. Nance (Florence: SISMEL-Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011), 279-307.

[3] Cambridge, King’s College MS 16. See Lauren Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London. Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist and Physician (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

Peter Murray Jones: I am Fellow Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge and a historian of medieval medicine. I have a particular interest in relations between knowledge and practice as expressed through recipes. My current project is on the contribution of friars to practical medicine and science in late medieval England.


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