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.

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.

Conference Report: Materia Medica on the Move, Leiden, 15-17 April 2015

By Sietske Fransen

What happens if you put together historians of early modern science and medicine, ethnobotanists, historians of pharmacy, and art historians in the Dutch National Biodiversity Center in Leiden? Last month this resulted in an amazing conference where we discussed the (global) movements of early modern materia medica. The conference was jointly organized by the Descartes Centre (Utrecht University), Huygens ING, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

The conference was hosted by the project Time Capsule and was interdisciplinary to its core. The project’s aims and goals are wonderful, and deserve some explanation, so here it comes. Project Time Capsule has as aims to create a ‘semantic interoperable ontology’ of cultural heritage data. This ontology will consist of a combination of existing digital databases and new data, in order to provide historians as well as the creative industry with new methods for research. And the actual ‘time capsules’ – based on Andy Warhol’s project – are supposed to contextualize historical events or facts. To exemplify this exciting but rather mystifying concept, Time Capsule works specifically on data sets related to the history of medicinal plants in the Low Countries, c. 1550-1850. With a team of computer scientists and historians of science the project tries to set an example for further research into the development of digital resources. The final goal is to enable scholars to connect, compare and use an enormous amount of digital resources regarding early modern material medica.

A re-created sunflower, using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, fol. 155.
A re-created sunflower (native to the Americas), using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, f. 155.

The conference started at Museum Boerhaave with a key-note lecture by Florike Egmond, who  the introduction of non-European ‘medical’ plants into the European context. Even though there were not that many exotic plants actually introduced in European medicine in the sixteenth century, it is remarkable to see that they did gain a rather prominent present in visual sources such as herbaria, prints, and paintings. One of Egmond’s concluding questions and useful pointers for the rest of the conference was to wonder what ‘exotic’ or ‘indigenous’ really means. How long does a plant need to be grown in Europe to be no longer exotic?

The following two days took place at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre. One of the most exciting papers (at least to me) was given by ethnobotanist Tinde van Andel.

Materia Medica on the Move - Tinde van Andel
Key-note lecture by Tinde van Andel

Van Andel showed us how the movement of knowledge about local plants can be traced by following African slaves from their home countries to the Surinam rain forests. Combining ethnobotanical and anthropological field research in West-Africa and Surinam with historical botany and linguistics Van Andel argues that enslaved Africans reinvented their household medicine in the New World. Van Andel’s research demonstrates clearly how the knowledge of plants travelled with the people and was adapted to the needs of surviving on a new continent. Through trial and error and comparison with the knowledge they brought about African flora, the slaves figured out which new but similar plants could be used as medication and food. 

Historian of Pharmacy Sabine Anagnostou, used pharmacopeias in Europe and America to research the transfer of medicinal plants and drugs. She not only looks at the import of exotic plants into Europe, but also at the building and use of pharmacies in the New World. Jesuits were of major importance in the development of such institutions, and would use their own knowledge of European plants in combination with local knowledge in these New World settings. She argues, amongst other things, that there is still a higher amount of European plants present in the American pharmacopeias then the other way around.

Harold Cook delivered the final key note lecture about the ‘Atlantic drug trade and the new sciences’. Cook argued convincingly that we need to study the developments in the use of drugs at the large plantations in the Caribbean to explain the globalization as well as entrepreneurship that started to become connected with medicine from the eighteenth century onwards.

Harold Cook, key-note lecture.
Harold Cook, key-note lecture.

The owners of big plantations were looking for a universal medicine that would cure any disease, in any situation, in any person, with the best possible outcome. The idea behind this was to make sure that ill people could go back to working again as soon as possible. According to Cook the impersonality of these developments (from drugs aimed at an individual to drugs aimed at large groups of people) should be seen and studied (!) as major issues in the changing perception of social medicine in the 17th and 18th century.

Unfortunately this blog is too short to give a description of all papers, but a brief report of all presentations can be found here. The papers covered topics like botanical gardens in Leiden, Poland and Russia; testing of new and unfamiliar drugs in both European and Asian contexts; and the materiality and circulation of herbaria in Early modern Europe. Just as examples I would like to mention Alexandra Cook’s paper on the approval of exotica in a European medical context. She argued that both ginseng and tea (after they were brought to the West) were for a while seen as universal medicines. However, during the eighteenth century, these unproven claims were no longer seen as valid. This lead to reports based on observations and experience in which the qualities of the exotic drugs were systematically described. A last example comes from Davina Blankert, who showed us how the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin and the Veronese apothecary Giovanni Pona discussed exotic plants in their correspondence. Blankert argues that the scholars utilization of plant names with few plant descriptions demonstrates that both were conversant in their knowledge of exotic plants using similar nomenclature and terminology. Bauhin would later publish his acquired knowledge about exotic plants in his famous book Pinax theatri botanici.

Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.
Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.

Bringing together so many different scholars, methods, used materials, and questions seems exactly the point of Warhol’s Time Capsule project. Fortunately for us, the focus of this specific project is not the daily life of Warhol but the ‘daily life’ of materia medica between 1550 and 1850. The conference gave a wonderful view into the research that can be done when material will be collected and brought together in digital form. The current scholars working on all these different aspects of materia medica will hopefully be the providers of the content as much as they should be able benefit from the integration of the all the existent cultural heritage data.

How to Translate a Recipe (2)

In my previous blog post, I discussed a recipe for a sweat potion that was used for the treatment of the plague as described by Jan Baptista van Helmont. I was surprised by the fact that the names for the ingredients were given mainly in Latin, interspersed with some Dutch, even though the entire book was in Dutch. In this current blog post I will look at the way translators dealt with this issue of a bilingual source text. Were they able to convey the correct names of ingredients to their readers?

Van Helmont’s Dutch treatise on the plague was published as the second part of his book Dageread, of which there were two German translations. The two translators worked at the same time (during the late 1670s and early 80s) in the same town, Sulzbach, on their translations, but made very different choices. The first translation was published 1681 as a separate treatise on the plague, under the title Tumulus pestis, das ist Gründlicher Ursprung der Pest. The translator, Johan Seyfrid, found a solution for the bilingual problem by giving only Latin terms in his translation, as can be seen in this image:

J. B. van Helmont, Tumulus pestis, translated  by J. Seyfrid, Sulzbach 1681, p. 325
J. B. van Helmont, Tumulus pestis, translated by J. Seyfrid, Sulzbach 1681, p. 325

Where Van Helmont had given the first ingredient as ‘Rad. Valeriane, dat is baldriaen, Ρεω in ‘t Grieks’ (= ‘Roots of Valerian, i.e. valerian, Ρεω in Greek’), Seyfrid decided to select only the Latin terminology. Seyfrid relied on the comprehensibility of Latin terms, instead of giving some explanations of the terminology in German. This is generally the case in his translation of Van Helmont’s plague treatise, as he often retained entire quotes from Van Helmont in the original Latin. This means that despite the fact that he was making a Latin text available for a German audience, he could apparently assume that his readers had some Latin knowledge, and what is more, that the generally accepted language for terminology was Latin rather than any German translation.

Christian Knorr von Rosenroth; Painter: Unknown.
Christian Knorr von Rosenroth; Artist: Unknown.

The second translator Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) saw this differently. In collaboration with Van Helmont’s son, Francis Mercury, he translated all the Latin works of Van Helmont into German. He complemented the translations of the Latin Opera omnia, with translated passages from the Dageraed, at places where the Dutch and Latin were different. This massive translation, the Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, was published in 1683, only two years after Seyfrid’s translation of the plague treatise. Nevertheless Knorr von Rosenroth took entirely different decisions than Seyfrid:

J .B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Chr. Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683, p. 658
J .B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Chr. Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683, p. 658

As you can see in the fragment above, Knorr von Rosenroth translated every term into German and, on top of that, he included the Latin in brackets, just to be sure that his readers would have understood him. His translation of the first ingredient became ‘Wurzeln von Baldrian (Valerianae auf Griechisch Phu)’, what shows that Knorr did not only include a German term for valerian, but includes also the comparative Greek as given in Van Helmont.

What does this tell us about the use of Latin in vernacular recipes? Both translators thought their audiences needed the Latin to be sure about the ingredient. For Seyfrid the Latin is even sufficient. In continuation of my hypothesis at the end of my previous blog, I would say that in the seventeenth century Latin terminology was used for identification within vernacular medical texts. In other words, at a time that vernacular languages gained ground in the fields of medicine and science more general, Latin was in this way still very present. However, not so much as the language of describing actions, but as the language of definitions and terminology. What follows is that the Latin used for the ingredients  served as the untranslatable, yet comprehensible ‘language’ of terminology.

And to finish with another untranslatable phrase, although this time in German – one of my absolute favorite sentences – and entirely appropriate on this last day of the year: I wish you all ‘einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr’!

How to Translate a Recipe

By Sietske Fransen

Have you ever tried to use a recipe in another language, for example from a foreign language cookbook or the internet? If so, then you probably have struggled with identifying some of the ingredients. Personally, I seem to have an eternal problem with cumin, in other languages, that is. As it is ‘komijn’ in Dutch, and ‘cumin’ in English, it always traps me that the German ‘Kümmel’ is not the thing I am looking for. Even more confusingly, Kümmel seeds looks very similar to cumin seeds, and you find ‘Kümmel’ in German supermarkets as easy as cumin/komijn in English and Dutch ones. But ‘Kümmel’ is in English ‘caraway’ and in Dutch ‘karwij’, whereas the German word for ‘cumin’ is ‘Kreuzkümmel’. And although I knew it was one of those false friends, I did accidentally buy ‘Kümmel’ instead of ‘Kreuzkümmel’ a few weeks ago…




This is just an example to show that there can be problems with finding the right translation for an ingredient when read in a foreign language. On top of the problem of identification, one might also encounter problems with finding the actual ingredients in a foreign supermarket once you have found the right translation of the word (in my case, it is actually quite hard to find cumin seeds in German supermarkets whereas Kümmel seeds are everywhere). Next to ingredients, there are also many different ways in which quantities are notated in different countries (see for example also Kayla Perkin’s post earlier this month). Fortunately, we can nowadays find lots of conversion tables online.

The problems with translating were not very different in early modern Europe. Recipes for cooking and the making of drugs were circulating widely among physicians, alchemists, families, cooks, and so on. However, the author and reader were not always speaking the same language(s), and translations were therefore needed. How did these people deal with the difficulty of translating recipes?

Many recipes were written in Latin, which circumvented the problem of translation up to a certain level as it was a language widely understood by the community of scholars of the time. However, there was also a long tradition of recipes written in vernacular languages, for example Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti (Venice 1555). Recipes were therefore often translated, from Latin into the vernacular and vice versa, and between vernaculars, as we will see in the examples below. One of the difficulties was the translation of ingredients. In my recent research on translations of seventeenth-century medical recipes, I have observed that one of the solutions applied by translators to prevent ambiguity, was to use Latin for the ingredients, even if the rest of the text was in another language.

As an example I shall show a recipe handed down in the medical works of Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), a Flemish physician, who wrote in both Dutch and Latin. Due to Van Helmont’s self-translation between Latin and his mother tongue, and the fact that his texts were translated into German, English, and French within forty years of his death, his works provide current scholars with very valuable material for studying the process and function of early modern translation.

Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683
Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683

Van Helmont published on the plague in both Dutch and Latin. An Latin as ‘Tumulus pestis’, which was published as a part of his Opuscula medica inaudita (Cologne 1644), and in Dutch as the second part his Dutch book Dageraed (published posthumously in Amsterdam 1659). Van Helmont described not only his own methods to prevent falling ill from the plague, but he also includes several old recipes which might help as a treatment once someone is infected. Although Van Helmont was very skeptical about the effectiveness of any treatment of the plague, he nevertheless prescribed several sweat potions as potential treatment.

In his Dutch text Dageraed Van Helmont included several full recipes for sweat potions. These potions were supposed to be very effective for driving out fevers. Even though the entire book was written in Dutch, Van Helmont lists the ingredients in Latin with some additional information in Dutch, as can be seen in the picture below.

J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384
J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384

The Dutch additions are explanations of the Latin terms, but it is clear that without understanding, or knowing, the Latin names of plants one could not find the ingredients. In contrast to the language used for the ingredients, the performative part of the recipe is entirely in Dutch. This contrast marks an interesting division between the linguistically restrictive section of the list of ingredients, and the part where we can find the description of the process or preparation, which often shows a broad variety of vernacular vocabulary. In my opinion this reflects the use of recipes in a practical environment. An environment in which I would expect vernacular languages to be dominant over Latin when practitioners were speaking about the process that is occurring (boiling, distilling, heating, etc.) and the tools they needed (the vessels, pots, instruments, etc.). Therefore, this recipe and the other recipes in Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague, which follow the same pattern int the use of Latin and Dutch, have prompted me to question the status of Latin in these recipes. It seems that the way Latin is used for the naming of ingredients has not much to do with a foreign language anymore, rather it is an incorporation of widely understood terminology into a vernacular language.

In my next blog post in December we shall discover how the two German translators of these recipes dealt with the translation of Dutch and Latin into German.