All posts by Tillmann Taape

I am a PhD candidate in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University with an interest in the history of vernacular knowledge, medicine and alchemy in early modern Europe. My thesis is on the works of the Alsatian surgeon and apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig, published around 1500 in Strasbourg.

‘Thus it prevails against its time’: distillation and cycles of nature in early modern pharmacy

By Tillmann Taape

In past centuries, devoid of freezers and heated greenhouses, the seasons affected medicines as well as foodstuffs. In addition to pickled vegetables and stored grain, early modern people worried about their provisions of healing plants and animal substances. These, too, had their season: many herbs were considered most powerful when picked in May, and ‘May dew’ collected from fragrant meadows at this time of year was said to have many healing properties. In his Destillierbücher (distillation manuals), published in the early sixteenth century, the Strasbourg surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig addresses the challenges which arise in pharmacy from nature’s cyclical changes. He explains that most preparations of fresh medicinal herbs are ‘unkeepable’. For example, ‘if you pound herbs, roots or other substances and squeeze the juice from it, then it becomes unpleasant, does not last, […] and soon putrid corruption ensues’.[1] Even with dried materia medica and compound drugs, their medicinal virtues faded over time.

Brunschwig knew this all too well from personal experience. As an apothecary running his own shop near the fish market, maintaining a stock of efficacious remedies was his chief responsibility and expertise. The issue of pharmaceutical provisioning was taken very seriously by Strasbourg’s magistrates. Twice a year, they would send round a committee of medical experts to all apothecary shops, to ensure that no perished goods were stocked, and to throw away any that had gone off.

An apothecary pounding medicines. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strasbourg, 1512), fol. 6v. © Wellcome Library, London

Brunschwig’s understanding of the material world was shaped by his experience as a pharmacist and shopkeeper, but also by the cosmology and medical theory of his day. While the heavenly spheres were characterised by material perfection and changelessness, all matter on earth was made up of the four elements (air, water,fire, earth) and subject to their constant permutations. They were doomed to endless cycles of generation, change, and decay. Material stability was only possible where the elements were in perfect balance, ‘as you can see in May when it is neither too dry nor too humid, neither too warm nor too cold’.[2]

Brunschwig’s seasonal simile is revealing: a perfect balance of elements is just as rare and fleeting as those precious few balmy weeks in May. As well as pointing to the instability of all earthly matter, the language of seasons and their cold, hot, dry or moist qualities was associated with early modern ideas about the stages of human life. Youth, health, reproduction, decline and death were analogous with the annual cycle of flourishing and decay in nature – a relationship which is richly illustrated in a set of anonymous seventeenth-century engravings (see here for an interactive digital reproduction). The idea of changing seasons was emblematic of an early modern view of the material world which was characterised by instability. Human bodies fluctuated with the shifting balance of their humours, and the very substances which could be used to cure the resulting ailments were themselves fleeting and, in Brunschwig’s words, ‘unkeepable’.

Faced with such difficulties, Brunschwig and others turned to a branch of knowledge with a longstanding commitment to imitating and manipulating natural processes underlying the transformations of matter: alchemy. In particular, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful artisanal technique to ‘keep the unkeepable’.[3] Distillation was the art of separation, and in the case of medicinal simples, Brunschwig claimed, their ‘soul’ or healing virtue could be separated from their ‘body’, that is to say the material dross made up of the problematic four elements. Thus liberated, the healing ‘spirit’ of a plant in the form of a distilled water could be bottled and neatly stored on Brunschwig’s alphabetically ordered shelf, where they would keep well beyond their harvest season, for up to three years. Later Destillierbücher echo the idea that one can ‘keep these waters over the year’ as a major selling point of distilled remedies.[4]

While distillation in theory had the power to produce pure and incorruptible ‘quintessences’, this was far too laborious for everyday pharmaceutical practice. Brunschwig wrote for an audience of ‘common men’ as well as artisan colleagues, and most of the distilled remedies he discusses are much more pedestrian. They still have some of the elemental qualities of the original herb, and are ultimately perishable. Compared to ‘unkeepable’ plant juice, however, their decay is slower and more predictable. Brunschwig confidently charts the decline and change in a water’s healing powers over the years, and even gives instructions for ‘recharging’ them. A water can be saved by infusing it with fresh herbs and distilling it once more – thus, Brunschwig reassures his readers, a distilled remedy can ‘prevail against its time’ for another year.[5]

In the early modern world of matter, the seasons symbolised cycles of change and decay which spelled trouble for healers and makers of medicines. In some of the earliest vernacular works on pharmacy, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful tool for defying the material corruption of seasonal changes.

[1] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[2] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 36v.

[3] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[4] Eucharius Röslin, Kreutterbuoch von allem Erdtgewaechs… (Frankfurt, 1533), title page verso.

[5] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 18v.


The wrong trousers? Common folk in striped clothes as readers of early modern recipes.

By Tillmann Taape

 When trying to make historical sense of printed medical recipe collections, one tricky but important question always recurs: who did the author and/or publisher think would be likely to read and benefit from their books? In my own research, which focuses on the works of the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here), this question is particularly intriguing because these books were among the first medical books to be printed in German.

Of course, like many authors of the time, Brunschwig gives us some clues in the text of his works. He often addresses his instructions, especially medical recipes, to the ‘common man’ or the ‘layman’ who might not be able to afford certain remedies, or who might simply live too far away from the next larger town with a pharmacy shop. In addition to these textual hints, I want to take a different approach to the question of readers by making use of the numerous woodcuts illustrating Brunschwig’s works. Commissioned from an unknown artist by Brunschwig’s publisher, Johann Grüninger, these images are a striking element of the books.

Title illustration from Brusnchwig's  Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images
Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation (1500). © Wellcome Images

One thing which immediately strikes the eye when looking at these images is the prevalence of people dressed in striped clothes. Take, for example, the title page of Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation, published in 1500. We see a group of people busily harvesting herbs and stoking furnaces to distill medicinal waters, and both of the men are dressed in conspicuously striped doublets and trousers. In fact, throughout Brunschwig’s works most of the people doing any kind of manual work are shown wearing stripes, for example the person pounding ingredients in an apothecary’s mortar shown below. Surely, I thought, it must be significant that the majority of medicine-makers – Brunschwig’s ‘common men’ – are depicted in this manner.

An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

As it turns out, striped clothing had fairly wide-ranging connotations in the early-modern German lands. The fashion of tight-fitting, striped trousers had been brought to Germany from the Northern Italian courts by the new imperial infantry, the so-called lansquenets, towards the end of the fifteenth century. The striped fashion was particularly popular among the middling sort: citizens of free imperial towns, artisans, and even wealthy farmers and landowners. They constituted a growing and increasingly self-aware middle layer of society, sandwiched between poorer day-labourers who did not own any property, and the wealthy urban patriciate or landed gentry.

In the literature of the time, notably social satire in the tradition of Sebastian Brant’s famous Ship of Fools (1497), this newly significant social group came to be represented by the figure of the ‘striped layman.’ His striped clothing marked him out as being ‘half and half’ or in-between – in terms of wealth, social status, and most importantly, education. Literate in the vernacular but not in Latin, the half-educated ‘striped layman’ was to become a central figure in the visual rhetoric of Protestant pamphlets during the Reformation. Martin Luther wrote for an audience of precisely this kind of person: although not a Latinate scholar of theology, the striped layman sought salvation in his own reading of Scripture in the vernacular, without learned clergy as an intermediate. [1]

A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Brunschwig’s works depict a similarly confident self-educated striped layman in the context of medicine. This is nicely summed up in the large woodcut above, which appears in all of Brunschwig’s works. The teacher, identified by his fur-lined scholar’s robe and seated at a lectern, is lecturing from a large book. It is angled towards him, so that only he can see its contents, demonstrating the scholar’s authority over text-based learned medicine. Among his students, we see a young man dressed in stripes, and while his peers listen demurely with hat in hand, this striped chap is confidently gesticulating as if arguing a point of his own. What is more, he is holding a rolled-up piece of paper in one hand, perhaps a sheet of notes or even a medical recipe. While this striped layman does not command large tomes of medical learning, the picture suggests that he is literate and familiar with some of medicine’s written forms. He even appears capable of holding his own in a discussion with a scholar.

The figure of the striped layman, with its connotations of middling status and education, is thus a very plausible visual cognate to Brunschwig’s readership of middling ‘common men.’ As if to vindicate this choice of intended audience and its visual representation, the physician Lorenz Fries, from the neighbouring town of Colmar, addressed his Mirror of Medicine (1518) specifically to ‘striped laypeople’ who want to learn about medicine – and published it with Grüninger in Strasbourg.

[1] On the visual metaphor of the striped, see Schmid Blumer, Verena. Ikonographie und Sprachbild: Zur reformatorischen Flugschrift “Der gestryfft Schwitzer Baur”. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004.

Reading How-To Workshop

Simone Zweifel, Tillmann Taape

“Reading How-To. The Uses and Users of Artisanal Recipes” took place at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin on 19 and 20 September 2014. Organised by, Sven Dupré, Elaine Leong and Doris Oltrogge, the workshop investigated artists’ and artisans’ uses of “how-to” writing. Broadly defined, this included any text which tells its reader how to do something – from medical recipes to treatises on art.

As Sven Dupré emphasised in his introduction, artisanal knowledge was often passed on through oral traditions, and learnt by doing. In the workshop, recipes and other how-to texts were rarely the predominant source of knowledge, and certainly never the only one. Rather, they are in dialogue with physically performed practices. This raises the kinds of questions the conference sought to address. Why did people write down recipes? Who wrote them down and who read them? And, finally, is there a clear category of “how-to”, and what kinds of writing does it encompass?

Pamela Smith opened the workshop by presenting a broad variety of “how-to” books and their readers. Although artisans might seem like an obvious audience, it turns out that they owned more devotional books than “how-to” texts. The latter were, however, very popular with elite readers such as monks scholars and estate owners. Artisanal and elite readers read “how-to” in different ways – to brush up their technical vocabulary and hone their ability to judge works of art, for spiritual reflection, or simply to improve their reading skills..


One of the books Pamela Smith referred to: Leonard Digges, A booke named Tectonicon, […]. Leonard Digges. London, F. Kyngston, 1605. Online on:
One of the books Pamela Smith referred to: Leonard Digges, A booke named Tectonicon. London, F. Kyngston, 1605.
Thinking about the authors of books as readers, Montserrat Cabré showed that compilers of medieval recipe collections were aware that their authority as writers was bound up with their competence as readers of how-to texts. To be taken seriously as authors and compilers, they needed to present themselves as good readers.

The act of reading was clearly an important issue in the early modern period, but how can we reconstruct it? Fortunately, readers sometimes left clues in the form of annotations. In her extensive research on artists’ recipes, Sylvie Neven identified three categories of readers’ annotations. While some functioned as reading-aids, others represent readers’ and users’ personal responses to the text, and some had no apparent relation to the text at all. Annotation, then, does not necessarily mean active engagement with how-to. Deborah Krohn illustrated this in her study of annotated copies of a popular Italian cooking manual. She suggested, however, that it is possible to distinguish more active readers because the pay more attention to the specific technical details of recipes.


L0023705 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. A kitchen. From: Bartolomeo Scappi. Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi. Tramezzino, Venice 1570, Table 2. © Wellcome Images
A kitchen. From: Bartolomeo Scappi, Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi. Tramezzino, Venice 1570, Table 2. © Wellcome Images

Several of the papers enriched our picture of early modern reading and annotation practices by focusing on one particular reader. Peter Jones illustrated how Walter Hamond, a member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company in the seventeenth century, went about reading a fifteenth-century manuscript on surgery by John (of) Arderne (1307-c. 1378). Hamond’s numerous notes reveal how he modified instruments and recipes according to his own practical experience, but also his dismay upon realising that his medieval colleague was rather better paid for the same surgical operation.

Ardernes pictures were often copied in later editions. This image of the use of crutches is from a 15th-century manuscript.  From: Power, D’Arcy (Ed.), De Arte Phisicali et de Chirurgia. London 1922, plate XI. (c) Wellcome Images
Ardernes pictures were often copied in later editions. This image of the use of crutches is from a 15th-century manuscript. From: Power, D’Arcy (Ed.), De Arte Phisicali et de Chirurgia. London 1922, plate XI. (c) Wellcome Images

Rudolf Gamper‘s paper on Sebastian Schobinger’s handbook of alchemy described an even more involved reader. This manuscript, written between 1602 and 1610, is organised around a core text, Isaac Hollandus’ Opus saturni, which describes the process of turning lead into gold. Schobinger’s comments and elaborations are meticulously keyed to the numbered paragraphs of the Opus saturni. They draw on other manuscript or printed texts, but also on knowledge obtained from local experts and on Schobinger’s own experience, thus representing a kind of practical exegesis.

In contrast, Hanna Murphy showed that readers of how-to were not always predominantly interested in its practical content. The notebooks of Georg Palma (1543-1591), city physician of Nuremberg, show that he was more interested in the origin of the recipes than in the technical details of artisanal processes. Palma’s reading of “how-to” books thus document not so much his medical practice as the way he read his way through his medical library.

In addition to individual practitioners and scholars, reading how-to could be a collective phenomenon. In the sixteenth century, medical recipes were all the rage at the court of the Electors Palatine, as is testified by the large collection of recipe books which Karin Zimmermann introduced. Sheila Barker discussed another lively environment in which recipes played an important part, namely the Medici pharmacy in grand ducal Florence. Analysing the trajectories of artisanal recipes, she showed that they could function as a social currency among courtiers, be obtained by subterfuge, or rise from humble artisanal beginnings into the Medici’s recipe collection.


The recipe book of duchess Dorothea Susanne von Sachsen-Weimar from the collection of the electors Palatine, 1573. Heidelberg University Library,
The recipe book of duchess Dorothea Susanne von Sachsen-Weimar from the collection of the electors Palatine, 1573. Heidelberg University Library,

Several of the papers further problematised the issue of what counts as a how-to text. Barbara Tramelli showed that the treatise De colore by sixteenth-century Italian painter Gian Paolo Lomazzo discusses ingredients for pigments and production techniques, but not in enough detail to allow readers to actually make their own. Steven Johnston explained that instructions for making things could be embedded in objects as well as texts. As an example, he presented a “two-foot-rule” which was not only a physical yardstick, but also embodied a set of rules for the construction of ships. Finally, Daniel Jütte introduced us to early modern cryptography manuals as yet another kind of how-to books.

These diverse case studies brought a good insight into the variety of so called how-to books. But what exactly do we mean by this term? And is a recipe book still how-to, even if its main interest is not in describing procedures, as seems to have been the case with some of the presented books? These questions made for a rich concluding roundtable discussion. Alternative terms were suggested, such as “rules” or “pragmatic literature”, and ways of defining how-to subjected to scrutiny. It became clear that more research will be necessary to establish whether people read how-to books differently from other books, and whether the process of reading thus defines how-to as a category.

Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded (see e.g. Lisa Smith’s post on coffee as a cure for plague in eighteenth-century London). One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two cateogories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.