All posts by Jess Clark

Jess Clark is an assistant professor of history at Brock University. She earned her Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University and an M.A. from York University in Toronto. She is currently revising a manuscript on the role of Victorian entrepreneurs in developing England’s early beauty industry. Her new project, “Imperial Beauty,” investigates transnational commodity and cultural flows between London-based beauty brokers and imperial outposts in British India, the West Indies, and Australia. Find her on Twitter @JessicaPClark.

How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!

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Jennifer M. Rampling

When it comes to “how-to” books, alchemy poses particular problems. Medieval alchemical treatises claimed to offer detailed advice on a host of spectacular products and processes, ranging from the Philosophers’ Stone, a transmuting agent capable of turning base metals into gold and silver, to medicinal elixirs that offered cures for otherwise intractable diseases, as well as the prospect of renewed youth and an extended life span. Yet, at least to modern eyes, no amount of “know-how” could teach anyone how to make these things — they are impossible practices, which no alchemist can ever have successfully carried out, nor described in accurate, replicable instructions. What, then, is the function of a “manual” of alchemy?

First, many of the early readers who studied alchemical writings did consider these ends to be obtainable, while recognizing that their sources might not always include complete or accurate information. Even seemingly straightforward processes can be difficult to reproduce in practice. For instance, the Liber de aluminibus et salibus (Book of Alums and Salts), a Latin treatise translated from an Arabic exemplar and pseudonymously attributed to the Persian polymath al-Rāzī, includes a simple procedure for subliming mercury with vitriol (a metal sulphate) and “common” or “general” salt.[1] According to the text, this mixture will sublime to the top of the vessel in the form of “white and shining” crystals, a description that sounds a lot like corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride, in modern parlance).

As it happens, corrosive sublimate was a staple ingredient of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century alchemy, although its manufacture normally requires a nitrous salt, such as saltpeter, rather than common salt. Working with Professor Lawrence Principe at the Johns Hopkins University, I have attempted to solve this puzzle by following al-Rāzī’s laconic instructions in a modern laboratory setting.

Figure 1. Grinding quicksilver, vitriol, and salt with mortar and pestle. Copyright of the author.
Figure 1. Grinding quicksilver, vitriol, and salt with mortar and pestle. Copyright of the author.

The Liber directs us to take as much quicksilver as we want, then grind it with equal quantities of vitriol and salt until the quicksilver “dies” in them — that is, until globules of mercury are no longer visible in the mixture. But does “quantity” refer to weight or volume? Although the recipe does not say, the answer must be weight, since measurement by volume results in an excess of quicksilver, which stubbornly refuses to die:

Figure 2. Excess quicksilver. Copyright of the author.
Figure 2. Excess quicksilver. Copyright of the author.

Once we have killed our quicksilver (the Liber tells us), we should leave the mixture in a bread oven overnight. In the morning, we moisten it with salt solution before returning it to the oven. We repeat the cycle of moistening and overnight heating until the mixture has tarnished to a reddish colour (an effect caused by the rusting of iron in the vitriol). Later recipes refine this process, suggesting different ways of achieving the same result. One Middle English procedure recommends grinding the mixture several times a day for two to three days, with “esy dryynge and moysty[n]g with a lytel vynegre.”[2] Another advises scooping the mixture onto an old potsherd and stirring it over hot embers until no moisture remains.[3] We left ours on a low heat overnight.

Figure 3. The mixture after being left overnight on a low heat. Copyright of the author.
Figure 3. The mixture after being left overnight on a low heat. Copyright of the author.

The mixture is now ready to be sublimed. According to pseudo-Rāzī, it should be placed in an aludel, sealed, and heated (a process that takes longer in winter than in summer). We must use a soft rather than a hasty fire. Otherwise, as one fifteenth-century writer warns, the quicksilver will lose its active power and sublime in its “crude” form — a hazard that can easily be replicated in a modern laboratory. If performed correctly, the mixture sublimes into a substance as “white as milk.”[4]

Figure 4. Sublimation in a glass aludel over gentle heat. Copyright of the author.
Figure 4. Sublimation in a glass aludel over gentle heat. Copyright of the author.

This is the point when our reconstruction foundered. As already noted, corrosive sublimate requires a nitrous salt — common salt, as specified in both the Liber and the Middle English variants, should not work. In fact, our practice based on common salt conspicuously failed to generate any white crystals.

On the other hand, replacing the NaCl with sal niter immediately produced the desired effect:

Figure 5. Lawrence Principe removes corrosive sublimate from the aludel head. Copyright of the author.
Figure 5. Lawrence Principe removes corrosive sublimate from the aludel head. Copyright of the author.

 

Figure 6. White crystals of corrosive sublimate. Copyright of the author.
Figure 6. White crystals of corrosive sublimate. Copyright of the author.

Our initial failure illustrates the difficulty of precisely identifying ingredients from alchemical texts. Making corrosive sublimate seems to rely on an ability to distinguish between the properties of different salts, but can we acquire that knowledge entirely from books? Perhaps lack of technical expertise explains the “transmutation” of sal niter into common salt as a transcription error made by a scribe unversed in chemical procedures. Alternatively, our saline setbacks may result from our own lack of experience with this type of procedure.

We are certainly not the first experimenters to face this dilemma. Medieval and early modern recipe collections contain hundreds of procedures for subliming mercury, involving diverse salts and methods of preparation, and no doubt resulting in a variety of chemical products (even pseudo-Rāzī follows up his common salt recipe with a variant using sal ammoniac [5]). But readers also knew that not all recipes were reliable. As the English alchemist Thomas Norton warned the readers of his Ordinal of Alchemy (1477):

Avoide youre bokis writen of receytis,

For al such receptis be ful of deceytis.[6]

Norton was suspicious of recipes precisely because they offered fixed, literal readings of ingredients — but such readings could be wrong. The writers of alchemical treatises typically chose to present themselves as philosophers rather than artisans, whose knowledge stemmed from a profound understanding of nature gleaned not only from practice, but also from studying the writings of past authorities. These “philosophers” emphasized the privileged nature of alchemical knowledge and the need to preserve its secrets from impious or otherwise undeserving readers: an injunction manifested in their use of cover names, allegories, and other methods of obfuscation. In the hands of a self-identified alchemical philosopher, a term like “mercury” could take on almost as many identities as there are chemical substances.

This strategy placed a burden on readers, who sought to disentangle practical instruction from a web of possible meanings. Take, for instance, the opening procedure in one of the most influential works of Latin alchemy: the Testamentum. This lengthy treatise, probably written in the 1330s by a follower of the Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull (ca. 1232–ca. 1315), uses Lullian style diagrams to express alchemical doctrines and practices.[7] Here the writer plots his ingredients onto an alphabetical wheel:

Figure 7. Pseudo-Lullian wheel from the Practica Testamenti. New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, MS Mellon 12 (mid. 15th cent.), fol. 97v. Courtesy of the Beinecke Library.
Figure 7. Pseudo-Lullian wheel from the Practica Testamenti. New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, MS Mellon 12 (mid. 15th cent.), fol. 97v. Courtesy of the Beinecke Library.

The wheel begins with “A” (Deus), signifying God. The practice starts with B (defined in both text and diagram as quicksilver), C (saltpeter), and D (vitriol azoqueus), a combination that strongly hints at the making of corrosive sublimate. Has the author of the text simply decked a simple procedure in the garb of Lullian philosophy? Or are the terms merely cover names for other substances, as suggested by the fact that vitriol is qualified as “azoqueus”?

A naive reader may have tried to follow the instructions as they stand. A reader more familiar with the conventions of alchemical writing might regard several of the terms with suspicion. Is ordinary mercury intended, for instance, or does B denote some other “mercury”? And if a procedure fails to work, who is to blame — the authority for setting down a faulty procedure or the reader for supplying a faulty interpretation? Under such circumstances, what the novice alchemist really needs is not a manual of chemical practice, but advice on how to read such practices in a philosophical way. It is in this regard that works like the Testamentum truly come into their own.

 

I am grateful to Professor Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins University) and to the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project (Princeton University) for supporting the experimental reconstructions detailed above.

[1] Ps. Razi, Liber de aluminibus et salibus, in Robert Steele, “Practical Chemistry in the Twelfth Century. Rasis de aluminibus et salibus,” Isis 12, 1 (1929): 10-46, on p. 24; see also Julius Ruska, Das Buch der Alaune und Salze. Ein Grundwerk der spätlateinisches Alchimie (Berlin: Verlag Chemie, 1935). The Arabic version of the text is currently being edited by Gabriele Ferrario.

[2] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1451, fol. 5v.

[3] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 759, fol. 42r.

[4] MS Ashmole 759, fol. 42v.

[5] Steele, “Practical Chemistry,” 24.

[6] Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of Alchemy, ed. John Reidy (London: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1975), 7.

[7] On the Testamentum and its author, see Michela Pereira and Barbara Spaggiari, Il Testamentum alchemico attribuito a Raimondo Lullo: Edizione del testo latino e catalano dal manoscritto Oxford, Corpus Christi College, 255 (Florence: SISMEL, 1999).

 

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

A Feast of Rare Material

Elizabeth Ridolfo

Cookbooks, menus, culinary manuscripts, and ephemera have always been part of the collections at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. When we received a large donation of Canadian culinary material from the collection of retired Art Librarian and culinary historian Mary F. Williamson, we were immediately excited about its potential for teaching and outreach. The extensive and diverse collection spans more than 150 years and includes rare first editions of The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (the first English language cookbook to be compiled in Canada)[1] and La Cuisiniére Canadienne (the first French language cookbook to be written in Canada)[2], as well as an intriguing selection of culinary ephemera, early Canadian women’s periodicals, and community cookbooks from most of the Canadian provinces, including a number of Indigenous community cookbooks. Several events and a major exhibition were planned to highlight some of the treasures in the collection and to introduce it to its communities.

“Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada”, running from May 22 to August 17, 2018, will be one of the most collaborative exhibitions ever to take place at the Fisher Library, with academics, librarians, undergraduate, and graduate students working together to explore the topic. My co-curators Irina Mihalache, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information, and Nathalie Cooke, Professor and Associate Dean, McGill Library (Archives & Rare Collections) decided against a fully chronological structure, instead mixing chronology with a number of other themes and threads to explore culinary culture in Canada. Some of our primary goals were to amplify the voices and stories of women in Canadian culinary history and to explore who had agency and who did not in the creation of this shared culture. Since the exhibition is on campus at the University of Toronto and open to the public, we also hoped to convey the research value of the material and encourage the reading of cookbooks and culinary objects beyond their recipes, in order to develop a kind of “culinary objects literacy” in students and exhibition attendees.

Figure 1: a medicinal receipt from MSS 01121, Lucy Ronalds Harris Manuscript cookbook. London, Ontario, 18--? Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
Figure 1: A medicinal receipt from MSS 01121, Lucy Ronalds Harris Manuscript cookbook. London, Ontario, 18–? Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

A range of materials highlight women’s changing roles and their interactions with one another and society as they negotiated their way further into the public sphere in Canada from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. In the upstairs gallery, an elixir made with Anvil dust from the culinary manuscript of Lucy Ronalds Harris of London, Ontario shows the lady of the house as family physician; an early Canadian Jewish community cookbook containing Christmas recipes hints at the complex process of negotiating cultural identity; an army of cooks testing recipes submitted by thousands of readers through national contests show women working collaboratively, opening a form of national dialogue and having their expertise recognized.

Figure 2 Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
Figure 2: Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

The downstairs gallery contains culinary objects and aims to be a more interactive space. Curated by Master of Museum Studies candidates Cassandra Curtis and Sadie MacDonald in conversation with the material in the main gallery, it focuses on flavours and appropriation, changing technology and domestic labour, and the resourcefulness required to handle the myriad expectations put on the homemaker during the period. The space also includes several interactive items to engage the other senses and bring attendees closer to the experiences of the kitchen.

As with any exhibition, especially one based on a new collection, there were many stories that we were not able to tell and items that could not be shown. Undergraduate and graduate students were asked to engage with some of the material not included in the exhibition as part of their course work and research, and they share these additional stories in oral histories, blog posts, and object stories which are presented on the exhibition blog and on iPads in the main gallery area during the exhibition. We hope that Mixed Messages and the accompanying catalogue and digital content provide a thoughtful introduction to the collection and that students and researchers are enticed to continue some of the conversations started in the exhibition.

 

[1] Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: a bibliography of Canadian cookbooks 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, c 2008), xxi.

[2] Ibid., 86.

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!

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Matteo Martelli

Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology — from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE.

In antiquity, medical recipes were easily exchanged among experts. Physicians used to send letters containing recipes to each other, as evident in Graeco-Roman papyri. Moreover, recipes were sold to people interested in specific formulas. And they could be quite pricey! In the second century CE, for example, a friend of famous physician Galen of Pergamum (second-early third century CE) was ready to spend over a hundred gold pieces to purchase highly valued recipes, some of which were preserved in “two folded parchment volumes.”[i] About a century earlier, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus (mid-first century CE) referred to the price of valuable formulas he had included in his Compositiones for a powerful drug against abdominal pains or an antidote made of hyena skin.[ii]

We can safely infer that recipes were collected in Antiquity. They were shifting atoms of knowledge that could be disseminated in a variety of treatises of different genres or simply piled into collections of variable length. The accumulation of technical knowledge could produce recipe books, usually in the form of lists or compilations of (often anonymous) recipes. Papyri offer strong, albeit fragmentary evidence for this process. A telling example is a fourth-century medical book usually referred to as The Michigan Medical Codex, which consists of thirteen leaves containing formulas for different plasters and salves.[iii] In a codex format, the papyrus has been identified as a manual copied for a practicing physician, who in some cases corrected the text or even expanded it by adding personal notes and recipes in the margins. In the alchemical field, two well-known examples of recipe books written in codex form are the so-called Leiden and Stockholm papyri (third-fourth century CE), which have been variously linked to workshop practices (Figure 1). They were defined either as handbooks for ancient craftsmen (e.g. goldsmiths, dyers) or as copies of the workshop notes of an artisan.[iv] The two papyri include more than two hundred recipes on how to dye metals, stones, and textiles (wool in most cases).[v]

Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library: http://www.wdl.org/en/item/14299/
Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library: http://www.wdl.org/en/item/14299/

These kinds of recipe books could be quite difficult to navigate, due to their lack of structure and fluid arrangement of the collected material. Readers often find no guidelines to assist them in the difficult task of locating specific procedures and techniques in a given collection. Moreover, these compilations often provide no information about the criteria for selecting and accumulating recipes. Important questions remain difficult to answer: to what extent does collected information correspond with the state and characteristics of a given discipline? How exhaustive is the selected material? To what extent were these collections used as reference works? Or were they local, produced by a single workshop or a scholar in contact with a small circle of artisans? What kinds of authority did the authors or compilers of ancient recipe books rely upon in selecting instructions to be included in their collections?

The three “manuals” or “handbooks” mentioned so far (the Michigan Medical Codex and the Leiden and Stockholm papyri) date to between the third and the fourth century CE, a moment of transition when “traditional” bodies of knowledge were inherited, selected, and re-organized. This cultural transfer and rearrangement of texts and practices had a strong effect on the ways that recipes were transmitted and organized. This is especially evident in the works of two almost contemporary authors: the so-called medical encyclopedia by Oribasius (fourth century CE), physician of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, and the alchemical books by the Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (third-fourth century CE).

Figure 2. Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right) https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Oribasius-Pergamenus-left-having-a-conversation-with-the-ancient-Greek-physician_fig2_237147821
Figure 2. The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right). Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Oribasius-Pergamenus-left-having-a-conversation-with-the-ancient-Greek-physician_fig2_237147821

On the one hand, these authors had to cope with an already rich and well-established tradition. Oribasius regularly exploited Galen’s huge medical corpus as well as the works of many other (less known) physicians. He extracted passages and quotations from earlier, authoritative writings and re-arranged them to build his own compendia. Even though less systematic, Zosimus’ approach to early authorities is equally dense. He constantly refers back to those figures of the first and second centuries CE who were identified as the founders of the alchemical art: Pseudo-Democritus, Maria the Jewess, and Pebichius, to name but a few.

On the other hand, Oribasius and Zosimus tried to provide as comprehensive a picture as possible of the disciplines they were committed to. In the introduction to his major compilation the Medical Collections, Oribasius spells out his aim “to seek through the most important writings of all the best authors and collect all that is of practical use to the very purpose of medicine.”[vi] Zosimus probably had a similar goal. According to the Byzantine lexicon Suda (Ζ 168 Adler; tenth century CE), he wrote an alchemical oeuvre in twenty-eight books. Regrettably, this work is no longer available in its original form, since only excerpts or kephalaia have been included in Byzantine manuscripts. However, one can get a glimpse of its structure by considering the twelve books preserved in Syriac translation, which I am currently editing and translating into English.[vii]

Both Oribasius and Zosimus shared a similar effort to systematize their fields. They were similarly committed to developing strategies in selecting and legitimizing the technical recipes they re-organized in their own works. A fresh comparison of their writings with the almost contemporary recipe books mentioned above can help to highlight these strategies. In fact, it is possible to track the movement of some recipes from the “manuals” on papyrus to the new, more exhaustive works of Oribasius and Zosimus.

Recipes were attributed to authoritative figures and organized in sections devoted to specific areas of expertise: the treatment of a single disease, for instance, or the description of a particular craft. Explanatory sections introduced the recipes, thus providing critical information for situating the copied procedures in a broader (either technical or theoretical) context. On the one hand, the combination of theoretical parts with bodies of recipes anticipates the structure of Latin alchemical handbooks in the Middle Ages.[viii] On the other hand, the tendency to be as exhaustive as possible could lead these authors to write vast treatises that were difficult to handle for a practicing physician or alchemist. Oribasius was certainly aware of this risk. He wrote a summary (Synopsis) of his Medical Collections for his son Eusthatius: “for when they (i.e. professional physicians) read what I have stated concisely and in outline, they will remember the whole of each field of knowledge, and without having to carry with them a heavy weight it will possible for them to be sufficiently equipped with what is needed in practice.”[ix] Meanwhile, Oribasius’ summary is presented as a kind of “portable” reference book. This perhaps suggests the meaning of modern terms “manual” or “handbook,” given that the Greek word encheiridion (usually translated as “manual, handbook”) never occurs in the texts considered here.

Exhaustiveness, acknowledgment of the authority of earlier authors, and clear organization of the material around key areas represented important goals in Oribasius and Zosimus’ works, which reorganized recipes that we find scattered in “manuals” on papyrus. They tried to secure medical and alchemical practices against the risk of being fragmented and dispersed in a variety of recipe books, thus producing crucial writings in the study and transmission of these disciplines.

 

[i] Galen, On Avoiding Distress (De indolentia), §§ 32-33, trans. Vivian Nutton in Peter N. Singer, Galen: Psychological Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 87.

[ii] Recipes 122 and 172 in Scribonius Largus, Compositiones, ed. Sergio Schonocchia (Leipzig: Teubner, 1983).

[iii] The extant fragments of this codex have been edited by the American papyrologist Louise C. Youtie in a series of articles for ZPE (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik). Later on, these editions were republished in a single volume by Ann Hanson in Lousie C. Yountie, P. Michigan XVII, The Michigan Medical Codex (P. Mich. 758 = P. Mich. Inv. 21), ed. Ann Hanson (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).

[iv] See, for example, Mark Clarke, “The Earliest Technical Recipes. Assyrian Recipes, Greek Chemical Treatises and the Mappae Clavicula Text Family,” in Craft Treatises and Handbooks: The Dissemination of Technical Knowledge in the Middle Ages, ed. Ricardo Córdoba (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), 9-32.

[v] Greek text and French translation in Robert Halleux, Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm, fragments de recettes (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981). Both papyri were translated into English by Earle Radcliffe Caley: “The Leyden Papyrus X: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 3.10 (October 1926): 1149-1166 and “The Stockholm Papyrus: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 4.8 (August 1927): 979-1002. A reprint of both translations (edited by William B. Jensen) is available here.

[vi] Oribasius, Medical Collections, introduction (CMG VI.1,1, p. 4 Raeder). English translation in Philip van der Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation and Abbreviation in the Medical ‘Encyclopaedias’ of Late Antiquity,” in Condensing Texts – Condensed Texts, eds. Marietta Horster and Christiane Reitz (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), 526.

[vii] For a French translation of extensive sections of these Syriac books, see Marcelin Berthelot, Rubens Duval, La chimie au Moyen-Âge, Vol. 2: L’alchimie syriaque (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1893), 210-266.

[viii] These are so-called medieval pratica, a well-organized description of series of procedures opened by a general introduction and often complemented by a theoretical part (theorica). See Robert Halleux, Les textes alchimiques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979), 80-81.

[ix] Oribasius, Synopsis, introduction (CMG VI.3, p. 5 Raeder). Translation in Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation,” 529.

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.

 

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Fetch Me at Pearl Nest Street: Rhubarb Pills as Panacea in Qing China

He Bian

In the late eighteenth century, American ginseng opened up a new niche market in Qing China. At the same time, Chinese rhubarb (dahuang) roots, harvested from the northwest regions of the empire, were transported by Chinese traders all the way to the southeast coast and sold off to foreign customers in Canton (Figure 1). Part of these transactions took place in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Islands), a vassal state of the Qing but also an important node of global trade that crisscrossed the West Pacific. At some point in 1789, the Qing court issued an edict to the Ryukyu king that explicitly forbade him from selling rhubarb to Russians, with whom the Qing was then engaging in an all-out trade war. Rhubarb featured prominently in the Qing strategy because they believed that Europeans imported so much of this drug that they could not live a day without it.[1]

Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk
Figure 1. Chinese or Turkish rhubarb (Rheum palmatum): flowering and fruiting stem with leaf. Coloured zincograph after M. A. Burnett, c. 1842. Credit: Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/cvty3qqk

Yet is it really true that pharmacological visions in early modern China and Europe were so different that they could not possibly reach a consensus over rhubarb’s properties ? Classical Chinese pharmaceutical literature listed rhubarb as a drug with a “very cold” nature, and generations of physicians were taught not to use the cold drug in curing cold-natured diseases. This suggested that Russians (and other Westerners, as seen in this post on rhubarb in early modern England) had different bodies than the Qing Chinese, as they depended on rhubarb as an all-round cure. Pharmacological theories, in other words, engendered a vision of difference that seemed insurmountable.

During my recent reading of Qing medical recipe books, however, I discovered that rhubarb in fact functioned as nothing short of a panacea for Qing Chinese. This is evident in the text Bianyong liangfang (Excellent Recipes for Expedient Use), which appeared in the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820). Compact (only 2-juan in length) and very nicely printed (with carved woodblocks), it arranges pills, powders, tinctures, and decoctions by symptom. The book has about 120 pages, and most recipes are merely a few lines in length. What surprised me was that one very long recipe at the end of the text takes up the entirety of 13 pages. The remedy in question, mi shou Qingning wan (Secretly transmitted pill of purity and tranquility), calls for “several dozen pounds” of good quality rhubarb roots as the principal ingredient. Rubbed clean and steeped in rice water, the rhubarb was sliced, sun-dried, processed with “ash-less good rice liquor” for three days, and then put through a lengthy, elaborate protocol of fifteen rounds of steaming. Each steam involved a different set of herbs. Finally, makers took the resultant rhubarb paste, mixed it with “yellow ox milk” (using cooked honey as substitute if there was no milk), boy’s urine, ginger juice, and rolled it into tiny pills. The recipe listed hundreds of common illnesses that could be treated with this pill, ranging from headache and hemorrhage to gynecological disorders.

Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v
Figure 2. Luo Benli ed. Bian yong liang fang. Vol. 2b, p. 50b. c. 1796-1820. Princeton University Library. Downloadable PDF available at http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fn107159v

I have tried to look up this recipe in earlier Chinese medical texts, and my preliminary findings suggest that it probably came into existence no earlier than the seventeenth century. It became wildly popular in the eighteenth century, and recipe books serve as evidence of its widespread consumption. On the last page of Bianyong liangfang (Figure 2), the compiler, Luo Benli, announced that he had a batch of rhubarb pills prepared during his tenure in Guizhou – a southwestern province of China – and that, in case of emergency, readers could “call upon my house on Pearl Nest Street” and look for the “residence of Mr. Luo of the Ministry of Defense (bingbu Luo zhai).” Pearl Nest Street (zhuchaojie), a neighborhood in Qing Beijing not far from the Forbidden City, featured prime real estate. As a military official who had served in the frontier provinces, Luo was less bound by medical norms of the day and possessed the financial and political capital to manufacture elaborate pills like these. Was there, in other words, a sub-culture of health and medication championed by military elites such as Luo, which stood distinct from classical prescriptions?

One last word about this recipe that hints at a hidden connection between different cultural realms in early modern China: Sun Xingyan (1753-1818), a prominent scholar who combed through medieval sources for fragments of ancient texts, published the same recipe for Pill of Purity and Tranquility in his scholarly series. The inclusion of this Qing text alongside ancient monographs so bewildered modern bibliographers that they mistakenly attributed the recipe’s author to a seventh-century figure. In fact, Sun Xingyan made it clear that it was a contemporary remedy and provided an elaborate scholarly argument to defend rhubarb’s all-around efficacy to cure both hot and cold-natured illnesses. He also suggested that “vulgar physicians” despised the pill because if everyone had access to this remedy then their businesses would be lost. Therefore it does appear that, when it comes to rhubarb, Qing Chinese scholars and military commanders were no less enthusiastic than what they imagined about the Russians.

 

[1] I recommend this excellent essay by Chang Che-Chia (translated by Penelope Barrett) for more on this curious episode.