All posts by Sietske Fransen

Sietske Fransen is Postdoctoral Research Associate at CRASSH at the University of Cambridge. She works on the AHRC-funded project Making Visible ( She is interested in the role of translation in the circulation of knowledge in early modern science and medicine.

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…

Once it proved effective for noble men and women

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk

First of all, I owe you the result of a question I posted in my previous blog about the Leiden manuscript BPL3603. I wondered whether anyone could help me find the name of the Archduchess of Innsbruck who was mentioned by Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont. The world of Twitter soon came up with the answer from Maartje van de Kamp (@Lizzyin2015): it must be Anne de Medici.

Tweet with answer

Anna de Medici, by Giovanni Maria Morandi
Anna de Medici (1666), by Giovanni Maria Morandi

I cannot agree more. Anne de Medici married Ferdinand Charles the Archduke of Further Austria in 1646 and at the time she spoke to Franciscus Mercurius in 1650 she was still childless. She eventually had two surviving children: the Archduchesses Claudia Felicitas of Austria and Maria Magdalena of Austria. A third child died at birth.  Anne died in the year 1676, which would explain the reference to the ‘last-deceased empress’, as it is in 1676 that van Helmont is telling this story. Many thanks to Maartje!

I would like to continue this post discussing the impact of noble men and women in the manuscript that has been the centre of the series on Dutch Medicines. Two month ago I had the pleasure of spending two weeks at  Leiden University Library, and I had the time to re-visit BPL3603. Reading the manuscript, it struck me how often the names of famous people were used as a validation for the efficacy of certain recipes and drugs. A good example was the fertility drug mentioned above to which the Archduchess of Innsbruck lent her authority. But there are  several more.

On page 32 of the manuscript we find a recipe for a remedy to re-gain one’s eye-sight within 14 days, even if it had been lost for 7 years (Een kostelijke Medicine om het gesicht wederom te krijgen (al had men ‘t zeven jaren quit geweest) in 14 dagen tijds).

University Library Leiden, MS PBL3603, p. 32: Count Palatine Frederick approved of the recipe.
University Library Leiden, MS PBL3603, p. 32: Count Palatine Frederick approved of the recipe.

The recipe is followed by a little statement saying that Count Palatine Frederick has tried this and found it good, even on people who have been blind for seven years. Most likely this is the Winter King, or Elector Palatine Frederick V (1596-1632)  who lived in The Hague after he had to flee Bohemia in 1622 until his death. Thus, this is a combination of royal approval and local witness to the cure.

On page 34 another recipe for eye diseases was time tested by the ‘Margravine of Ansbach’. It is unclear to me who is meant here; there are again several options. The principality of Ansbach is located in Bavaria in Germany and although I have not been able to find the connection between Ansbach and the Netherlands at the time that the compiler of our manuscript was writing.

Fragment from Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 52.
Fragment from Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 52.

Many noble men and women have tried the recipe for the stone that is written on page 52. And they have found it ‘waarachtig‘, or truthful.

Detail of drinkable balsam for the Prince of Orange, Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 84.
Detail of drinkable balsam for the Prince of Orange, Leiden University Library, MS BPL3603, p. 84.

My final example describes a recipe for ‘milk, cream, or butter of sulphur’, which turns out to be a generally useful and invigorating balsam. It needs to be drunk as a mixture ‘with any liquor or water that is appropriate for the ailment’. All of this was found by the doctor of the Prince of Anhalt; bought by the Duke of Flanders for 500 crones; and then communicated to the Prince of Orange to use against the plague. Again, we find that a recipe came from Germany to the Netherlands, and its efficacy is proven by the fact that noble people used it. Subsequently, this recipe was brought to the geographical region of the compiler by the reference to the Prince of Orange. The date of the transmission of the recipe is not mentioned, which makes it hard to guess which Prince we are talking about. However, any of the Princes of Orange would have at least spent some of their time in The Hague.

All is to say that the efficacy of recipes seems measured not only by its power to cure but also by its power whom to cure. In the first instance I was surprised about the German noble men and women named in the manuscript, as it seems to contradict the manuscript’s local aspects. We have previously seen how the compiler used local Dutch sources, see for example Saskia’s blog about the hare. However, most of the people named are linked to the Low Countries and more specifically to the West of the Northern Netherlands. This might be another indication that the compiler of the manuscript was somehow linked to that part of the country himself, something that will be further explored in future blog posts.

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)
Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, 1670-1, by Sir Peter Lely. ©Tate Photographic Rights ©Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

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.