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.

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: https://openlibrary.org/books/OL23282093M/A_booke_named_Tectonicon_brieflie_shewing_the_exact_measuring_and_speedie_reckoning_all_manner_of_la.
One of the books Pamela Smith referred to: Leonard Digges, A booke named Tectonicon. London, F. Kyngston, 1605. http://tinyurl.com/o9hbs4t
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, http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg182.
The recipe book of duchess Dorothea Susanne von Sachsen-Weimar from the collection of the electors Palatine, 1573. Heidelberg University Library, http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg182.

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.

 

A Recipe for Disaster: How not to Distill Turpentine

By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.  © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.

 

[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.

 

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).