Category Archives: Agnieszka Rec

Dung? Alchemy is full of it

In working through the Mymer manuscripts, I have been struck on more than one occasion by their repeated references to dung. While calculating his expenses, for instance, Georg Mymer lists horse manure and coal alongside the various flasks he needs for his tinctures. [1]

Like coal, dried horse manure was used for heating. Maintaining constant heat at fixed temperature was exceedingly difficult in Georg’s day as people lacked the help of modern furnaces. With practice, alchemists like Georg became adept at controlling temperature by manipulating the flow of air into their fires and furnaces and by changing the material being burned.  As Georg notes in his inventory, dung had the added benefit of being cheaper than coal.

Fresh manure was also a useful, if fragrant, heat source. The alchemist would bury his flask in manure. As the manure decomposed, it gave off a mild, but steady heat, which triggered a reaction with the flask, known as digestion. When the manure began to cool, the alchemist could simply replace it with a fresh supply. This setup came to be known as a venter equinus (the horse’s bowels).

While Georg’s interests in manure – at least as far as I have so far found – were limited to its use as a heat source, alchemy and dung had much a richer relationship. In closing this post, let me point out   two additional uses of manure: (1) as an ingredient and (2) as criticism.

Dung was mixed with crushed clay to make lute (lutum sapientiae), the putty used to seal alchemical vessels. It was also used as an ingredient in medicines. In an earlier post on this blog, Jonathan Cey discussed how Paracelsus developed fecal medicines in the early modern period. Although he had a new take on the medicinal uses of poo, Paracelsus was preceded by a medieval tradition of fecal alchemy. Centuries earlier, the philosopher Morienus described the starting material of the Philosophers’ Stone as “of cheap price and found everywhere” and “trodden underfoot.”[2]  Medieval alchemists took that description literally and used the manure found all over their streets. As early as the fourteenth century, John of Rupescissa  criticized this interpretation, but the practice persisted all the same.

At the same time, alchemists were warned about searching for gold in poo. Pseudo-Arnald of Villanova quipped in a rhyming couplet:

Qui quaerit in merdis secreta philosophorum
expensis perdit proprias, tempusque laborum

He who seeks the philosophers’ secret in shit
will waste his money, time, and labor on it.

Another couplet gets right to the point:

Qui merdam seminat, merdam et metet

He who sows shit, also reaps shit.[3]

In order to reinforce this message, in the manuscript original, this line is written across the backside of an alchemist sitting on a toilet (garderobe). Some alchemists, as we have seen, really did use dung in their recipes, but for others these poems served as a vivid warning not to use subpar ingredients.

Perhaps the best application of manure to the alchemists’ art was suggested by one of its 16th-century German critics. In 1586, Johannes Clajus published Altkumistica; or The art of making gold out of dung: Against the fraudulent alchemists and unskilled Theophrastians (Altkumistica, das ist: Die Kunst aus Mist durch seine Wirckung Gold zu machen: Wider die betrieglichen Alchimisten, und ungeschickte vermeinte Theophrasisten). The title is a pun on alchemistica: “alt” meaning “old” and “kumist” meaning “cow manure”. In that work, Clajus argues that an alchemist would be best off if he used cow manure to fertilize a field, grow wheat, feed the cows that produced the manure in the first place, and sell both for a healthy profit in gold coins.

Sadly for Georg, who finished writing his notebook in 1571, the Altkumistica appeared too late for him to benefit from Clajus’ advice.


[1] Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, fols. 80r-81v.

[2] Morienus, De compositione alchemiae. Cited in Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 119.

[3] Lazarus Zetzner, ed., Theatrum Chemicum, vol. 3. (Strasbourg, 1659), 137; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 25110, f.21v. The image is reproduced in Lawrence M. Principe, “Laboratorium,” in Alchemie: Lexikon einer hermetischen Wissenschaft, eds. Claus Priesner and Karen Figala (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998), 210.

Both couplets were cited in Joachim Telle, Alchemie und Poesie: Deutsche Alchemikerdichtungen des 15. bis 17. Jahrhunderts. Untersuchungen und Texte (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 323. English translations mine.

Additional Works Consulted

Nummedal, Tara. Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Priesner, Claus, and Karen Figala, eds. Alchemie: Lexikon einer hermetischen Wissenschaft. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998. See especially the articles on “Arbeitsmethoden,” pp. 51-57 and “Laborgeräte,” pp. 211-15, by Lawrence M. Principe.

How to establish trust

By Agnieszka Rec

How do you make a recipe look effective? How do you convince a reader that your recipe will work before they’ve even tried it? One solution, as discussed by Sietske Fransen for medical recipes, was to include the names of noblemen and women, validating the recipe by showing who it was effective for. Early modern alchemists were even more concerned with these questions since they continually faced accusations of fraud. This led to meticulous, even overscrupulous, records of how recipes were acquired.

Georg Mymer – whom you met in my previous post on his family’s part in a vast network of Central European practitioners – included such details in his recipe collection. Written between 1568 and 1571, the manuscript contains alchemical texts and recipes, laboratory expenses, and narrative accounts of his exploits. In today’s post, we’ll consider one such account in which George explains at length how he got a recipe for the coagulation of mercury. (The story is abridged and in my own translation.)

Image 1: Breslau (now Wrocław) main square to the south.]
Image 1: Breslau (now Wrocław) main square to the south.]

 

Georg writes:

In the year 1570 on 21 August, Lorenz Sehehaufer of Magdeburg came to me in the marketplace in Breslau and told me that in the land of the Poles there was a tincture about which his master, Paul Gese, the town piper of Breslau, had learned so much that in eight weeks he was able to make it himself. Then I asked him where it was. He answered, “In Poland.” But I knew nothing about it. And he wanted to know whether I wanted to know anything about it. Shortly, in just a few hours, I knew about it too.

Image 2: Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.81v-82r.
Image 2: Georg’s account of his recipe hunt in Breslau. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.81v-82r.

 

Following this meeting, Georg leaves the marketplace and returns to the home of Wolf Freyberger, the Imperial Münzmeister (mint master), with whom he has been staying. Freyberger greets him and says,

Mr. Georg, two apprentices came to see me on the market square. They said they were goldsmiths and both brothers. And they were your countrymen, they said, from your homeland. If you please, they wanted to see you as soon as they could. They also wanted to tell you something of your father. They will wait for you for two more hours at the most and no longer. So you must go immediately.

Georg continues:

As I had already had my midday meal, I soon went to them and asked who they were and what they wanted. They were Joachim Wimmer and Christoff, his brother; both journeymen goldsmiths who were known to me.

They spoke to me thusly: “Listen, my dear Georg Mymer. As you well know we are well-versed in the art, and we have a recipe for the coagulation of mercury. We wanted to give it to you rather than Paul Gese and Lorenz, who cheated me once. I will not believe him anymore,” said Joachim Wimmer. “So I will tell you how I came to the art and discovered it in Posen.

“So here’s the thing: There is a voivode in Poland, who has had a learned man for seven years now and has spent 8,000 florins on him.[1] The voivode recently found this tincture in the Greek tongue. Then he had the learned man translate it into the Latin and German languages, and also the Polish.

“He immediately set to work to discover the truth of the recipe in Posen with the Count of Gurk[?].

Georg picks up the story once more:

The learned man, however, sought Joachim Wimmer out, saying that because he was a goldsmith, he might know how to work the recipe correctly.

The learned man let Joachim Wimmer copy the recipe, and Wimmer proceeded to copy one for him as well. Then, when Joachim Wimmer left, he came directly to me and left quickly again.

So I acquired the tincture from him in the manner I have described above. He also left his signature next to it as proof. There is much more to say about this, but it is not so important, and I will leave the story here.

Image 3: Copy of Joachim Wimmer’s confirmation and signature. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.77v-78r.
Image 3: Copy of Joachim Wimmer’s confirmation and signature. Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, ff.77v-78r.

 

Georg is obsessed with the specifics. He tells his reader who gave him the recipe, how he found them, how they found the recipe, and so on, going back to a Greek original. He cites the involvement of a voivode and a count. He collects witnesses – Paul Gese signs this account, while Joachim Wimmer writes his own confirmation, copied elsewhere in the manuscript. He praises Joachim Wimmer’s technical skills as a goldsmith and thus his ability to judge a recipe. This reflects well on Georg and by extension his own story, as Georg was himself a goldsmith. Georg finishes his tale promising that there is more that could be told if need be. Anyone reading the account in Georg’s presence could presumably ask him to supply information not available in the written copy. One wonders, however, what Georg left out of his account, given that he already notes that he had lunch on the day in question.

Georg brought together this overwhelming collection of details to establish the truth of recipe among his fellow alchemists. The stakes of reliability were high. He risked losing access to future recipes, as did Lorenz Sehehaufer, if his good reputation were called into question.

Whether Georg and his recipe were, in fact, trustworthy is another question. A modern reader might be excused in wondering whether Georg Mymer protests too much.

 

 

Agnieszka Rec is the 2016-2017 Herdegen Postdoctoral Fellow at the Beckman Center of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. She will receive her PhD in Medieval History from Yale University in December 2016. Her thesis, titled “Transmutation in a Golden Age: Reading Alchemy in Late Medieval and Early Modern Cracow,” uses the biography of an alchemical manuscript to reconstruct the community of practitioners in the Polish royal city and their ties to wider European traditions of alchemy.

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I am grateful to Anna-Maria Balbach, Center for Language Study, Yale University, for her assistance with the early modern German. The archival trip behind this project was made possible by a SHAC New Scholars Award and a Scaliger Fellowship from the Leiden University Library.

[1] This is an extraordinary amount of money for the period. Jan Zamojski (1542-1605), royal chancellor and the richest man in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was worth about 30,000 florins. Olbracht Łaski (1536-1605), the famed patron of alchemy and eighth richest man in the Commonwealth, was worth 4 or 5,000 florins. Rafał T. Prinke, “Beyond Patronage: Michael Sendivogius and the Meanings of Success in Alchemy,” in Chymia: Science and Nature in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Miguel López Pérez, Didier Kahn, and Mar Rey Bueno (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 205.