Category Archives: Alchemy

Receiving Alchemical Knowledge

By Margaret Maurer

On two of the last leaves of receipt book compiled by Margarett Baker in the late-seventeenth century, there is a brief treatise that defines the practice of alchemy (fols. 133v-134r). Written in the same clear, italic script that on previous pages instructs how “To take out stayns or ink out of a linen Cloth” (38v) or recounts Mistress Malltes’ recipe “To make a… Cake” (42r), it begins:

Alchimy or spargyrike are accointed amongst the fore pillers of meddecen and w[hi]ch openeth and demonstrateth the compositions & desolutions of all boddies together w[i]th ther preparations terations & exaltations [th]e same I saie is shee w[hi]ch is the inuenter & scoole mistres of distllations…

Margaret Baker, V.a.619, Folger Shakespeare Library.

The passage continues by discussing different examples of alchemical transformation and outlining various alchemical processes. Using Early English Books Online, I found the original source of the passage was Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of Joseph du Chesne’s The practise of chymicall, and hermeticall physicke, for the preseruation of health. While it is possible that there are untraceable intermediary links that connect Du Chesne’s work with Baker’s, her manuscript also mimics the printed text’s form, separating out each alchemical procedure with its corresponding definition. The visual replication of the printed text signals a close connection between Tymme’s translation and Baker’s transcription.

Baker’s receipt book, fol. 133v. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.
Tymme’s translation of Du Chesne, p. AA4r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.

Cross-referencing Baker’s receipt book with EEBO reveals that many of the recipes and passages contained within the volume replicate over a dozen printed sources, including numerous medicinal and alchemical texts. Much of the content is copied verbatim, although some passages have been restructured or given new titles. The most significant change is Baker’s non-standard spelling, which creates deviations that complicate database searches. Undoubtedly, the source texts found using EEBO are a small fraction of the total sources, printed and otherwise, that Baker appropriated when compiling her receipt book. However, identifying these passages illustrates the wide circulation and permeable boundaries of medicinal, alchemical, and domestic texts in early modern England.

Baker’s receipt book utilizes a wide array of medical and alchemical texts to construct a distinctively Paracelsian approach to domestic medicine. Apart from these hints about her intellectual world, we know relatively little about Margaret Baker’s life. Her name is preserved in three extant recipe books, but there are no further records about her life. The University of Essex’s “Baker Project” provides a detailed examination of the receipt book, including information and inferences about its author, construction, and provenance.

Baker’s receipt book draws from a diverse range of sources: surgery manuals and books of secrets, treatises on Paracelsian medicine and herbals. Alongside English physicians and surgeons, Baker copied English translations of continental writers from Switzerland, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Additionally, the passages within Baker’s book span over 100 years − from John Day’s translation of Konrad Gesner’s The treasure of Euonymus (1559) to John Church’s A compendious enchiridion(1682). As Karen Bowman thoughtfully observes, Baker’s collection of receipts contains ingredients that illustrate a global market, but the texts contained within her book also point towards an international trade of ideas.

Simultaneously, the collection of sources that Baker gathered signals a specific and curated Paracelsian viewpoint. Many of the texts she has collected, including the passage copied from Du Chesne, reference Paracelsus, a Swiss doctor who rejected Hippocratic-Galenic medicine in favor of a chemical understanding of the human body. Paracelsus originally wrote that alchemy − along with philosophy, astrology, and ethics − was one of the four pillars of medicine. Du Chesne, a French physician and alchemist, transmitted this idea into Baker’s receipt book. Both Paracelsus and Du Chesne were associated with female alchemical and medical practitioners, who acted as the syncretic counterparts to university-trained doctors.

There is one difference between Baker’s transcription and Tymme’s translation of Du Chesne. While Tymme writes that, “ALchymie or Spagyrick, which some account among the foure pillers of medicine,” Baker’s version reads, “Alchimy or spargyrike are accointed amongst the fore pillers of meddecen,” removing “which some account” making alchemy’s foundational place a certainty. Since Paracelsian medicine became increasingly popular in England over the course of the seventeenth century, this change could reflect a larger cultural shift between Tymme’s translation and Baker’s transcription.

By definition, receipt books collect received knowledge, inherently entangled within dynamic social networks. Baker’s book is an assembly of ideas that she “received” from an impressive number of sources, both printed and unknowable. Even though Baker is not the original author of passages identified, she has a hand in constructing their shared meaning: a distinctly Paracelsian and thereby chemical approach to medicine. Acknowledging the sheer number of choices necessary for the book’s construction sheds a light on her role. For every passage she chose to copy over, she omitted hundreds, if not thousands, of additional recipes and treatises from her printed source material. Her role as the compiler was not only to receive knowledge, but also to choose what knowledge should be preserved on the page − what knowledge we, as readers, in turn, receive.

Tales From the Archives: A Recipe for Disaster: How Not to Distill Turpentine

In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, once a month, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I have chosen a piece written by Tillamann Taape. In this post, first published in July 2013, Tillmann writes vividly about alchemical disasters. Heat, unsurprisingly, comes into play. Enjoy!


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.


Nature’s Coin: Beauty and Alchemy in Margaret Baker’s Book

This two-part post is by a former student of mine, who also happens to be an author of popular history. Karen has written on fun things like fashion and Essex Girls (in history). Her original, longer post is taken from a digital group project on Margaret Baker’s recipe book that was complete for my 2016-7 module, The Digital Recipe Book Project.

By Karen Bowman

A delicate powder for the face, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.169, f. 97.

In the late seventeenth-century, recipe book compiler Margaret Baker listed twenty-eight recipes for beauty, amidst medicines for dropsy and distemper and recipes for custards and the stewing of racks of mutton. Baker’s recipes for beauty ranged from face powder and whitened hands to face waters and hair growth treatments (ff. 51, 109).  Baker had the chemical knowledge to beautify. Not only do the beauty treatments suggest her agency, status, and knowledge, but hint at strong connections between beauty and alchemy.

It was The Lady Croon’s recipe for pomatum (f. 106) that first caught my attention, pointing to chemical transformation in the social sense. While Lady Croon appears to be the author of the pomatum recipe, the contributor’s name “Mistress Anne Corbett” appears in the margin. If Mistress Corbett had passed on the recipe directly from Lady Croon, it seems likely that both had the means to make the pomatum and shared in an aristocratic social network (or aspired to one). Lady Croon’s pomatum was more than a means of creating a beautifying substance; the transference of knowledge was a gift that affirmed friendship bonds, social standing, and aspirations.

Pomatum was a greasy, waxy, or water-based substance used to style hair before applying powder. Given that powdered hair was a sign of class identity, the recipe suggests that Baker may had occasions to attend polite gatherings. Dressing one’s hair and caring for one’s skin required ‘self knowledge and inward identity and knowledge beyond one’s self reflecting an understanding of the body, its cultural and social meanings’ (Snook, 7). In a patriarchal society, in the absence of of wider legal and political representation, the ability to transform oneself was powerful information.

One’s face and body was the blank canvas for identity and social standing. For famed beauty Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (b. 1623), fair white skin was even political. She insisted that her mother was ‘a woman with perfect skin and politics’; skin thus represented social order and familial harmony–and, in her case, the Royalist cause. Other women, too, recognized beauty as nature’s coin and a way of forging identity within their own domestic structures and hierarchies.

Unknown, Lady at her Toilet, c. 1650-60. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the real achievement for women was not the face and body they showed the world. It was the the female knowledge of how to manipulate nature through chemistry and alchemy in order to transform basic materials into healing and beautifying physic.

There were relatively few make-up items in Baker’s book, as we today would understand them. Many were even gender neutral. Her products include items to ‘take away heat and pimples in the face’, ‘to make a clense from spotts’, ‘waters for the face’, ‘to take away freckles’, ‘to stop hair falling and grow thicke’, ‘to take away chapped hands’, and to keep the face smooth’ (ff.14, 44, 51, 83, 109, 49, 92). In addition there are instructions for making ‘a butter to curl the hair’, ‘to make hands soft and white’, ‘make a perfume’ and to perfume gloves’. (ff. 94, 85, 31, 98).

What many of the recipes have in common is that they were designed to transform the skin rather than cover it. Even hand ointments had a higher purpose, not just removing blemishes; keeping hands soft avoided drying and cracking, and becoming susceptible to disease. Protecting and preserving the skin was central to beauty.

Oyle of talcum, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.619, f. 21.

Many of the recipes required extensive time, skill, and effort to prepare. Baker included a powder recipe is for ‘oyle of talcume’ (f. 21), which was labourious to make. At one point in the process it needed to be let down by a rope

into a well some yard & a halfe or two yardes from the water nere to the well soe it touch it not’ & soe let it hang .20. or. 25. daies then if you find that it begine to cast out some oyle take it out of the well & set it in some moyst place, in some corner of your seller to defend it from the ayre: wind or other harmes & soe leaue it soe longe untill all the liccor become out of it.

The result was powder that could be mixed with water to wash the hands and body, making ‘them very white, soft and free from freckles or spottes – good for ladies’.

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger,. c. 1610-1690. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sometimes, the connections between alchemy (or chemical medicine) and beauty were literal. Baker used mercury in both her medicinal recipes and beautifying physic. This was not just an ingredient. Its knowledgeable deployment put Baker within the (assumed) masculine spheres of medicine, surgery and alchemy. Throughout her book, there are clues that Baker read widely on medicine and alchemy.

But the connections between alchemical transformation and bodily protection are clearest in beauty recipes. For example, in relation to one particular beautifying physic (f.12v.) it appears that Baker is attempting the impossible. An anomaly arises in the title ‘the taking away ‘quicksilver from mercurie’–the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that mercury and quicksilver are in fact the same. However, it seems that Baker may have been aware of cutting-edge experiments. Natural philosopher Robert Boyle, Baker’s contemporary, explained that through a system of depuration or continuous distillation and reduction, common quicksilver will run from the purified form of mercury left behind, which is then suitable for more sophisticated use (Boyle 645). In Baker’s case she is able to produce a ‘perfect water to keep the face cleare from spots or wrinkles.’

Baker’s recipes reveal her intellect and interaction with ideas of the day, as well as point to the uses of beauty treatments: transforming one’s body chemically and alchemically.  Bodily transformations included protecting and beautifying the skin, or even enabling social elevation.  Beauty and alchemy sat close together in Baker’s book.


How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Jennifer M. Rampling

When it comes to “how-to” books, alchemy poses particular problems. Medieval alchemical treatises claimed to offer detailed advice on a host of spectacular products and processes, ranging from the Philosophers’ Stone, a transmuting agent capable of turning base metals into gold and silver, to medicinal elixirs that offered cures for otherwise intractable diseases, as well as the prospect of renewed youth and an extended life span. Yet, at least to modern eyes, no amount of “know-how” could teach anyone how to make these things — they are impossible practices, which no alchemist can ever have successfully carried out, nor described in accurate, replicable instructions. What, then, is the function of a “manual” of alchemy?

First, many of the early readers who studied alchemical writings did consider these ends to be obtainable, while recognizing that their sources might not always include complete or accurate information. Even seemingly straightforward processes can be difficult to reproduce in practice. For instance, the Liber de aluminibus et salibus (Book of Alums and Salts), a Latin treatise translated from an Arabic exemplar and pseudonymously attributed to the Persian polymath al-Rāzī, includes a simple procedure for subliming mercury with vitriol (a metal sulphate) and “common” or “general” salt.[1] According to the text, this mixture will sublime to the top of the vessel in the form of “white and shining” crystals, a description that sounds a lot like corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride, in modern parlance).

As it happens, corrosive sublimate was a staple ingredient of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century alchemy, although its manufacture normally requires a nitrous salt, such as saltpeter, rather than common salt. Working with Professor Lawrence Principe at the Johns Hopkins University, I have attempted to solve this puzzle by following al-Rāzī’s laconic instructions in a modern laboratory setting.

Figure 1. Grinding quicksilver, vitriol, and salt with mortar and pestle. Copyright of the author.
Figure 1. Grinding quicksilver, vitriol, and salt with mortar and pestle. Copyright of the author.

The Liber directs us to take as much quicksilver as we want, then grind it with equal quantities of vitriol and salt until the quicksilver “dies” in them — that is, until globules of mercury are no longer visible in the mixture. But does “quantity” refer to weight or volume? Although the recipe does not say, the answer must be weight, since measurement by volume results in an excess of quicksilver, which stubbornly refuses to die:

Figure 2. Excess quicksilver. Copyright of the author.
Figure 2. Excess quicksilver. Copyright of the author.

Once we have killed our quicksilver (the Liber tells us), we should leave the mixture in a bread oven overnight. In the morning, we moisten it with salt solution before returning it to the oven. We repeat the cycle of moistening and overnight heating until the mixture has tarnished to a reddish colour (an effect caused by the rusting of iron in the vitriol). Later recipes refine this process, suggesting different ways of achieving the same result. One Middle English procedure recommends grinding the mixture several times a day for two to three days, with “esy dryynge and moysty[n]g with a lytel vynegre.”[2] Another advises scooping the mixture onto an old potsherd and stirring it over hot embers until no moisture remains.[3] We left ours on a low heat overnight.

Figure 3. The mixture after being left overnight on a low heat. Copyright of the author.
Figure 3. The mixture after being left overnight on a low heat. Copyright of the author.

The mixture is now ready to be sublimed. According to pseudo-Rāzī, it should be placed in an aludel, sealed, and heated (a process that takes longer in winter than in summer). We must use a soft rather than a hasty fire. Otherwise, as one fifteenth-century writer warns, the quicksilver will lose its active power and sublime in its “crude” form — a hazard that can easily be replicated in a modern laboratory. If performed correctly, the mixture sublimes into a substance as “white as milk.”[4]

Figure 4. Sublimation in a glass aludel over gentle heat. Copyright of the author.
Figure 4. Sublimation in a glass aludel over gentle heat. Copyright of the author.

This is the point when our reconstruction foundered. As already noted, corrosive sublimate requires a nitrous salt — common salt, as specified in both the Liber and the Middle English variants, should not work. In fact, our practice based on common salt conspicuously failed to generate any white crystals.

On the other hand, replacing the NaCl with sal niter immediately produced the desired effect:

Figure 5. Lawrence Principe removes corrosive sublimate from the aludel head. Copyright of the author.
Figure 5. Lawrence Principe removes corrosive sublimate from the aludel head. Copyright of the author.


Figure 6. White crystals of corrosive sublimate. Copyright of the author.
Figure 6. White crystals of corrosive sublimate. Copyright of the author.

Our initial failure illustrates the difficulty of precisely identifying ingredients from alchemical texts. Making corrosive sublimate seems to rely on an ability to distinguish between the properties of different salts, but can we acquire that knowledge entirely from books? Perhaps lack of technical expertise explains the “transmutation” of sal niter into common salt as a transcription error made by a scribe unversed in chemical procedures. Alternatively, our saline setbacks may result from our own lack of experience with this type of procedure.

We are certainly not the first experimenters to face this dilemma. Medieval and early modern recipe collections contain hundreds of procedures for subliming mercury, involving diverse salts and methods of preparation, and no doubt resulting in a variety of chemical products (even pseudo-Rāzī follows up his common salt recipe with a variant using sal ammoniac [5]). But readers also knew that not all recipes were reliable. As the English alchemist Thomas Norton warned the readers of his Ordinal of Alchemy (1477):

Avoide youre bokis writen of receytis,

For al such receptis be ful of deceytis.[6]

Norton was suspicious of recipes precisely because they offered fixed, literal readings of ingredients — but such readings could be wrong. The writers of alchemical treatises typically chose to present themselves as philosophers rather than artisans, whose knowledge stemmed from a profound understanding of nature gleaned not only from practice, but also from studying the writings of past authorities. These “philosophers” emphasized the privileged nature of alchemical knowledge and the need to preserve its secrets from impious or otherwise undeserving readers: an injunction manifested in their use of cover names, allegories, and other methods of obfuscation. In the hands of a self-identified alchemical philosopher, a term like “mercury” could take on almost as many identities as there are chemical substances.

This strategy placed a burden on readers, who sought to disentangle practical instruction from a web of possible meanings. Take, for instance, the opening procedure in one of the most influential works of Latin alchemy: the Testamentum. This lengthy treatise, probably written in the 1330s by a follower of the Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull (ca. 1232–ca. 1315), uses Lullian style diagrams to express alchemical doctrines and practices.[7] Here the writer plots his ingredients onto an alphabetical wheel:

Figure 7. Pseudo-Lullian wheel from the Practica Testamenti. New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, MS Mellon 12 (mid. 15th cent.), fol. 97v. Courtesy of the Beinecke Library.
Figure 7. Pseudo-Lullian wheel from the Practica Testamenti. New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, MS Mellon 12 (mid. 15th cent.), fol. 97v. Courtesy of the Beinecke Library.

The wheel begins with “A” (Deus), signifying God. The practice starts with B (defined in both text and diagram as quicksilver), C (saltpeter), and D (vitriol azoqueus), a combination that strongly hints at the making of corrosive sublimate. Has the author of the text simply decked a simple procedure in the garb of Lullian philosophy? Or are the terms merely cover names for other substances, as suggested by the fact that vitriol is qualified as “azoqueus”?

A naive reader may have tried to follow the instructions as they stand. A reader more familiar with the conventions of alchemical writing might regard several of the terms with suspicion. Is ordinary mercury intended, for instance, or does B denote some other “mercury”? And if a procedure fails to work, who is to blame — the authority for setting down a faulty procedure or the reader for supplying a faulty interpretation? Under such circumstances, what the novice alchemist really needs is not a manual of chemical practice, but advice on how to read such practices in a philosophical way. It is in this regard that works like the Testamentum truly come into their own.


I am grateful to Professor Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins University) and to the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project (Princeton University) for supporting the experimental reconstructions detailed above.

[1] Ps. Razi, Liber de aluminibus et salibus, in Robert Steele, “Practical Chemistry in the Twelfth Century. Rasis de aluminibus et salibus,” Isis 12, 1 (1929): 10-46, on p. 24; see also Julius Ruska, Das Buch der Alaune und Salze. Ein Grundwerk der spätlateinisches Alchimie (Berlin: Verlag Chemie, 1935). The Arabic version of the text is currently being edited by Gabriele Ferrario.

[2] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1451, fol. 5v.

[3] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 759, fol. 42r.

[4] MS Ashmole 759, fol. 42v.

[5] Steele, “Practical Chemistry,” 24.

[6] Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of Alchemy, ed. John Reidy (London: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1975), 7.

[7] On the Testamentum and its author, see Michela Pereira and Barbara Spaggiari, Il Testamentum alchemico attribuito a Raimondo Lullo: Edizione del testo latino e catalano dal manoscritto Oxford, Corpus Christi College, 255 (Florence: SISMEL, 1999).


Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.