Category Archives: Alchemy

True Colors, or the Revelatory Nature of Cold

By Thijs Hagendijk

Heat is transformative, brings about change, separates substances or bring them together. Every student of chemistry knows how to enable or enhance a chemical reaction by applying energy to a system, usually in the form of heat. Early modern practitioners did not think otherwise. Fire was the transformative element and key to the production of all kinds of different materials, ranging from the philosopher’s stone to artisanal products such as glass, porcelain or pigments. Applying heat to bring about change is publicly ingrained thermodynamics, but one thing is even more obvious. Once heated, things have to cool down again.

Figure 1: Eikelenberg’s notes on the art of painting, comprising five different manuscripts. Photograph: Regionaal Archief Alkmaar.

When the request came to write a blogpost on cold and recipes, I was somewhat hesitant. Heat seems to elicit the most interesting stories and anecdotes, but interesting cases with respect to cold failed to come to mind immediately. Hence, I tried a different approach and looked at how cold featured in a collection of overtly practical notes on the preparation of paint materials collected by the Dutch polymath and painter Simon Eikelenberg (1663-1738). Intended for publication, he promised his readers an “accurate descriptions of the origin of making, preparation and general use of paint materials, oils, mix-fluids and varnishes.”[1]  It was within the confines of this manuscript that I began to discern two themes with respect to cold in practices of making.

Figure 2: Reconstruction of one of Eikelenberg’s varnish recipes. The varnish was prepared in a glazed pot, placed in a sand bath and heated on fire. Photograph: Thijs Hagendijk.

It is only when things have cooled down that the transformative work of heat can really be judged. Eikelenberg describes for instance how he experimented with minium, a red lead-based pigment, which he heated in a crucible and placed in a fire. “The more it glowed, the more the minium turned yellow near the sides of the crucible, the lowest parts alike; which, when it was cold, appeared to be nothing else but yellow massicot.” [2] Eikelenberg also describes the preparation of various varnishes. Here too, quality and properties of substances are explicitly observed after the varnishes have cooled down. “When the varnish was cold I found that it was rather thin and that it did not cover well.” [3]  Another varnish was prepared on a hot sand bath, after which Eikelenberg “filtered it through a cloth and let it cool: it appeared then as a thickish and yellowish varnish.” [4]  Pay attention to the word “then”: there is a clear order of things that speaks through Eikelenberg’s notes. Being cold is a condition that precedes testing and Eikelenberg makes that rather explicit.

Figure 3: It is hard to achieve a homogeneous mixture when preparing varnishes. A whitish sediment is developing in this varnish, which is in coherence with Eikelenberg’s notes. Photograph: Thijs Hagendijk.

Whereas heat is transformative, it is only in the absence of heat that things can be trusted to stay the same. Continuing with the varnishes, Eikelenberg was well aware that their preparation does not stop after the ingredients have been heated and combined. As long as it is still hot, the apparently homogeneous concoction can easily coagulate and fall apart. Eikelenberg wrote in his notes: “We can conclude that to prevent curdling it is necessary not to stop stirring before the mixture is cold.” [5] Indeed, each time he made varnishes, Eikelenberg made sure to keep stirring until everything was cooled down: “stirring steadily until all was cold” or “having stirred until it became cold”.[6]

Figure 4: Eikelenberg mentions that: “[w]e can conclude that to prevent curdling it is necessary not to stop stirring before the mixture is cold.” Passage marked in red. Photograph: Regionaal Archief Alkmaar.

For Eikelenberg, heat was both friend and foe and until his varnishes reached firm, cool ground, they required careful guidance and attention. Cooling down was thus as arduous a process as heating the mixture was in the first place. Yet, once cooled down, true colors are revealed – deprived from heat and stabilized by the cold.

[1] Simon Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 391, Collectie Aanwinsten, Regionaal Archief Alkmaar: fol. 1. “Naukeurige beschrijving van de oorsprong of making, bereiding en ’t algemeen gebruik der verfstoffen, olijen, mengvogten en vernissen.”
[2] Simon Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, Collectie Aanwinsten, Regionaal Archief Alkmaar, fol. 806. Original: “na mate dat het gloejend wierd, veranderde de menij die naast tegen de zijden van de kroes aan-zat en wierd geel, gelyk ook ’t onderdtste; ‘t welk doe ‘t kout was niet anders dan gele masticot geleek”.
[3] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 827. Original: “Doe de vernis koud was bevond ik ze wat dun en datze niet genoeg dekte.” Translation from: A. van Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments on the Preparation of Varnishes,” Studies in Conservation 3 (1958), 130.
[4] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 802. Original: “Doe ‘t wel vermengt was, kleijnsde ik ‘t door een doek en liet het kout worden, wanneer ‘tzelve een dikagtige en geelagtige vernis vertoonde” Translation from: Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments,” 128.
[5] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 824. Original: “Hieruijt kan men afnemen dat om ’t schiften voor te komen, men niet moet op-houden met roeren voordat se kout is.” Translation from: Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments,” 129.
[6] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 827. Original: “gestadig omroerende totdat het gantschelijk koud was.” Translation from: Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments,” 130. Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 832. Original: “tot koutwordens toe geroert te hebben”.

 

Alchemical Recipes in the AlchemEast Project

By Matteo Martelli

What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.

The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.

This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.

Cinnabar (from the Monte Amiata mine, Tuscany) and metallic mercury

But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.

In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle.[1] The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).

Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction).[2] With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.

Pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder in a ceramic mortar

After grinding the mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’ mercury were moving.

Mercury “floating” on a blackish layer of residues

The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar.[3] Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.

Mercury-tin amalgam

We may preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even mineral) body:  did this idea in some way depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating cinnabar with a variety of metals?

This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.  This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.


[1] David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.
[2] Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.
[3] Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.


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!

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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.