Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

Tara Alberts, University of York 

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.

Two ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures in Seventeenth-century Southeast Asia

Tara Alberts, University of York

The life of a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary in Asia could be arduous. Many newly arrived missionaries documented their difficulties with the local climate, food, water, and troublesome insects. Above all they fretted about the unfamiliar illnesses that plagued them, and which could bring their endeavours to a premature end. Their letters are peppered with references to concerns about health, and with requests for and advice about available remedies. Preserved in the archives of the Société des Missions Étrangères in Paris is a copy of such a letter, sent in 1692 by missionaries in the Society’s seminary in Siam (Thailand) to their confrères working in Tonkin (Vietnam) (AMEP vol. 850, pp. 152-64). The letter is typical of its genre, containing news, requests for information, pious sentiments, and advice. It also contains intriguing and unusual paragraph – described as a ‘recette’ in the archive’s descriptive catalogue – concerning the use of two curative substances. Breaking off from some unrelated news, the authors suddenly decide to advise their colleagues that:

“Crocus metallorum is made from prepared antimony, and if it is infused in grape wine it makes emetic wine, so this crocus is taken solely for purging and evacuating from above and below; it is used for almost every sort of illness, as long as the patient still has enough strength. The dose is from 18 to 30 grains, which is given to the strongest. It is neither heated nor boiled, nor mixed with anything else, it is simply swallowed in wine, or in water, or with sugar, or with a fig – indeed it doesn’t matter with what as long as it is swallowed. Cinchona is a bark from a tree which comes from the New World: an excellent and near infallible remedy to cure all sorts of fevers which are not accompanied by oppressions or inflammations of the chest: it was an English doctor who recently brought these barks to France. We think we sent you the method to use this in the last year, but just in case we’re sending it again this year.“ (p. 160).

The inclusion of this paragraph raises a number of questions about missionary medicine. In my previous work, which explored conversion to Catholicism in Southeast Asia, I discussed how missionaries often presented themselves as healers in order to convince people of their spiritual powers. This ‘recipe’, however, points to another set of issues which merits further investigation, relating to missionary engagement with medical developments and controversies in Europe, and about missionaries’ interests in using relatively ‘new’ techniques and materia medica on their mission fields.

The first cure – crocus metallorum – is a preparation of a substance which has been discussed before on this blog: antimony. The discussion of its use in this letter is almost an anti-recipe: the remarkable effectiveness of this remedy was such that the composition of the delivery mechanism was unimportant. Indeed the initial illness of the patient hardly mattered – this was a true cure-all. The use of antimonial cures had been extremely controversial throughout most of the seventeenth century. Following a décret of the Sorbonne’s faculty of medicine, and an arrêt of the Parlement of Paris in 1666 permitting their use, they became increasingly sought after.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London La calcination Solaire de L'antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.  Wellcome Library, London
La calcination Solaire de L’antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.
Wellcome Library, London

The second remedy is also a miracle cure of sorts: the ‘near-infallible’ bark of the Cinchona tree, a source of quinine, effective against malarial fevers. No mention is made of the rival missionaries who were associated with this remedy in Europe: the Jesuits, who played an important role in its dissemination. We know from other letters that French Jesuits had supplied some of this bark to Missions Étrangères priests in Siam in the 1680s.  But this letter – which had earlier mentioned the tensions between the two societies – only mentions the ‘English doctor’ credited with introducing the substance to France. This is most probably a reference to Robert Talbor, whose secret recipe for a fever cure based on Cinchona had been revealed in a book published in 1682, shortly after his death. The letter promises that a fuller account of the means of preparing this bark will be sent to Vietnam. I have yet to find this account, but it would be interesting to compare the method to the Talbor recipe, and to Jesuit recipes of the same period.

p>Illustration of the Cinchona tree from Theodor Zwingler's herbal (1696) Wikimedia Commons
Illustration of the Cinchona tree from Theodor Zwingler’s herbal (1696) Wikimedia Commons

Both substances held great promise:  they seemed to be extremely efficacious and had become famous, even fashionable in France in the last decades of the century. The use of both medicines by royalty had undoubtedly added to their appeal, and encouraged their acceptance by the medical establishment. Louis XIV had been successfully treated with antimonial wine; Talbor’s cinchona remedies were also credited with saving the life of the king’s son. Yet both remedies were also controversial. Naysayers continued to raise doubts about their efficacy and safety, and about the probity of those who would prescribe them. In many ways they represented new approaches to medicine, championed by those who sought to isolate universal remedies and infallible cure-alls. It seems that members of the Société des Missions Étrangères embraced these approaches, and helped to introduce these ideas to their mission fields.