Category Archives: Alchemy

Gershom Bulkeley (1635-1713): A Sensory Chymist in Colonial Connecticut

By Donna Bilak

Who was Gershom Bulkeley? (you may well ask). A Harvard-educated Puritan gentleman from an important New England family, Bulkeley spent most of his life in Connecticut as a colonial divine, physician, and magistrate of upstanding (and by contemporary accounts obstinate) character. Bulkeley was also an iatrochymist – an aspect of his work that is only now starting to receive scholarly attention – and prolific compiler of notes about the medico-alchemical experiments that he conducted in his laboratory, likely a part of his dwelling place.

About 25 miles from where Bulkeley once lived, there now exists a kind of biblio-bunker in the University of Connecticut Health Center. This is where the Hartford Medical Historical Society Library keeps its collection of rare books and manuscripts. And this is where twenty-four manuscripts that are either by or associated with Bulkeley ended up. NB: there is treasure buried in this underground archive! (I am sure that as a Puritan with millenarian expectations, Gershom himself would be comforted to know that in the event of some kind of apocalyptic event, his notebooks will survive intact.)

I came across this cache back in 2011 while chasing down different leads for my dissertation about one of Bulkeley’s contemporaries, another Harvard-trained Puritan minister-physician-alchemist named John Allin (1623-1683). But in going through the various manuscripts, I was drawn to one of Bulkeley’s notebooks in particular: Bulkeley MS 5.

FIG 01 shows the spine of the 19th-century book cover (constructed of boards covered with period cloth of a by now indeterminate greenish-blue color), the spine bears the imprint “Parley’s Fables 1834” in faded gold letting.
(author’s own photograph)
FIG 02 the eighth page of the first (8-page) set of lab notes at the start of the book; on the right hand side is the start of the Institutiones medicae (shows for comparison of scrawly lab hand, and nice neat and TINY copy hand)
(author’s own photograph)

This is a small book that has been rebound using the cover from a 19th-century book of fairy tales, and it contains a series of entries about alchemical experiments that Bulkeley undertook between 1703 and 1706 scrawled across eight pages, with an additional sixty-three pages oriented upside down at the back of the book of more extensive laboratory notes of ongoing experiments, dated 1702 to 1707. At some point in time, both sets of notes were bound together with Bulkeley’s (undated) abridged copy of the Institutiones medicae by Lazare Rivière (1589-1655) – i.e., two hundred and forty-four densely written pages of Latin in a neat and minute hand ­– sandwiched between the aforementioned two sets of laboratory records. Intriguing stuff…

…because Bulkeley crammed this notebook full of particulars about chymical substances, instrumentation, and techniques. Bulkeley worked with different chymical substances for pharmaceutical production. His recorded experiments are filled with actions (tasting, weighing, drying, stirring, observing, waiting), and his laboratory entries document a range of output (he made salts, spirits, powders, pills, oils, dissolvents, elixirs). In their preparations, Bulkeley worked with iron, copper, and antimonial substances, as well as mercury, arsenic, silver, coral, and turpentine, and he used various chymical processes (calcination, coagulation, sublimation, evaporation, distillation). Bulkeley also detailed the equipment he used, describing things like various retorts (one is silver) and curcurbits (a glass one, a silver one), heavy and light scales, a blue jug, a copper vessel, an alembic, a receiver.

Another striking feature of this notebook is Bulkeley’s use of naked senses – taste, touch, and sight – as tools of investigation in his experiments. Bulkeley describes the consistency of experimental matter in comparison to common foodstuffs (“pudding” features large in his notes as a standard for assessing viscosity). Bulkeley also records the presence, or absence, of “lixiviate”, “vinegar”, “alcalisate”, or “urinous” tastes; interestingly, these references to tasting generally occur (when they do) at the conclusion of a given entry. Bulkeley’s haptic perception in the lab comes across in three entries, which record experiments that took place between January 27 and February 1, 1702. Here, Bulkeley detailed a distillation process involving nitre, mineral iron, and oil of vitriol (the objective appeared to be the production of aqua fortis), whereby an outcome of these distillation experiments was to harvest the caput mortuum.

Bulkeley observed that the dregs from January 27th “looked pretty white,” while that from January 29th was reddish, and he concluded with the comment, “Both the Cap. mort came out easily enough & crumbly but the 2d was not so soft & easy as the first/”. This seems to indicate mixed results in Bulkeley’s estimation. A third (and likely final) entry dated February 1 indicates the continuation of this experiment, with some changes in ingredients (i.e., the addition of flowers of sulphur) and procedure (Bulkeley undertook the sublimation of the matter in question). Notably, Bulkeley recorded that he did not lute his receiver (meaning that he did not undertake the preventative measure of smearing a claylike compound around this vessel to seal and thusly protect it in heating procedures).

This time, things did not go so well with the experiment:

I could not get no more off the broken pot: & flowers in the head that I could save, [6…] : that is in all. But it was the same pitcher in which I had destilled A. F. put in before, suc. Janr 27. & 29. & now it was cracked & had leaked a little out into the sand, had drunke up some into it; & I could not get the Cap. mort cleane off, nor the flowers absolutely cleane: & tis very Pbable some might evaporate, the Rec. not being luted on./ The sulphur in the Capt Mort was not fixt, but which upon a coale readily smoake & flame burne with a very fine blew flame./

FIG 03 LH page: Feb.1, 1702 caput mortuum experiment entry (goes with my transcription) (author’s own photograph)

These entries about the caput mortuum show Bulkeley’s bodily way of knowing as a form of assay, a testing procedure that links sensory analysis with chemical analysis in his evaluation of the progress of his work. This also shows that Bulkeley paid just as much attention to detailed sensory descriptions of his failures in the lab as he did to successes.

Bulkeley MS 5 is a valuable artifact of Bulkeley’s heuristic laboratory methods in the production of chemical pharmaceuticals, likely destined for use in his medical practice. While this notebook presents us with puzzles (what prompted its compilation? how was it used?), at the same time we are granted open access into Bulkeley’s experimental activities, a window into his dynamic medico-alchemical operations in a colonial community at the turn of the 18th century.


Donna Bilak is a historian of early modern science specializing in material culture, and works on the history of alchemy in British North America, England and the Continent, the study of emblematics, and jewelry history and craft technology. Donna’s current research focuses on Atalanta fugiens (1618), a musical alchemical emblem book by the German physician and alchemist, Michael Maier; she is currently a Fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America (Columbia), working on her book about Atalanta fugiens and playful humanism; and Donna is co-editing a digital edition of this extraordinary work with Tara Nummedal supported by Brown University Library’s Mellon-funded Digital Publishing Initiative.

Recipes and the Senses: An Introduction

By Hannah Newton

Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630). Wikimedia.


Our enjoyment of food depends not just on how it tastes and smells, but also on what it looks, feels, and sounds like. Crispness, for instance, is perceived when we hear a ‘snap’ as the food breaks between our teeth. This relatively new understanding of gastronomic experience explains the recent explosion of recipe books designed to entice all five senses. In fact, a ‘sensorial revolution’ is taking place across most fields of history. This month’s thematic series, edited by Hannah Newton and Elaine Leong, gives a flavour of what might be gained by applying such an approach to the history of recipes; there are 7 contributions, spanning several disciplines, chronologies, and regions, from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England. To put the posts in context, this introduction provides some background on sensory history.


There are many ways to do sensory history. Perhaps the most influential has been the ‘grand narrative’ approach: scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong claimed that a ‘major sensory transition’ took place between medieval and modern times in the way the senses were ranked. In medieval Europe, societies privileged the ‘lower senses’ of touch and taste, but with the march of modernity the ‘nobler’ senses of sight and hearing came to the fore. Although this scholarship has been heavily criticised – not least for its disparaging attitude towards medieval people – the question of change over time rightly remains fundamental to sensory history. Yan Liu’s post in this series is a good example: he shows how the use of the spice saffron in China has been transformed since medieval times, from an antidote against evil powers to a flavour enhancer in cooking.

Another approach to sensory history involves focusing on a particular sensory organ, or a context directly linked to that sense. Examples include Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye (2007), which explores anatomical and philosophical understandings of vision, and Holly Duggan’s Ephemeral History of Perfume, which uses scent as a window into cultural attitudes to smell.  One downside to the single-sense approach is that in daily life we perceive the world through all our senses, not just one, and the senses themselves influence one another. Several of the contributions to this series demonstrate these interactions nicely: Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  reveals that the 17th-century apothecary ‘knew substances through “his whole person”’, and William Tullett makes similar observations about 18th-century perfumers.

A third way to study the senses is the ‘sensescape’ approach. This is where scholars take a particular environment or activity, and analyse the multiple sensations that were perceived within it. Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, Cultural History of the Senses, showcases some of the most popular sensescapes, which include the marketplace, street, and church. Donna Bilak’s post is an example of this approach: she uncovers the intriguing sensations reported in the iatrochemical laboratory of the 17th century New England puritan Gershom Bulkeley, which included ‘urinous’ flavours. What Bilak, and many of our other contributors reveal, is that people from the past consciously mobilised their senses when going about their everyday work, whether as a medical practitioner, perfumer, or chef.


One of the biggest obstacles to doing sensory history relates to evidence: most sensory stimuli are ephemeral, leaving no direct historical trace, which means we have to rely on written descriptions or images to access past sensory experience. Unfortunately, this is far from straightforward, due to the difficulties people encountered when putting sensory experiences into words. Peter Charles Hoffer labels this the lemon problem: ‘I can taste a lemon and savour the immediate experience, but can I find words to convey to another person exactly what that sensation was?’

To meet these challenges, exciting new techniques have been devised by historians to recreate past sensations, which involve the use of ‘immersive technology’, such as artificial smells and tastes. By activating our own senses, the intention is to ‘replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost’. Historians of science and food deploy similar techniques, re-enacting past experiments (e.g. or making foodstuffs (e.g. here and here), to reach a closer understanding of contemporary worldviews. Tillmann Taape and Erica Rowan, two of our contributors, are both engaged in this sort of innovative work. Admittedly such approaches do attract sceptics. For instance, Mark Smith warns that while it is possible to reproduce a particular sensation from history, the way we ‘consume’ that sensation may be different from the way it was experienced at the time. Indeed, an experience of a sensation may even change over a person’s own lifetime, as Hannah Newton’s post reveals: for early modern patients, what they would normally perceive as pleasant tastes – such as sweet cordials – were found during illness to be disgusting, owing to the effects of noxious humours on the taste-buds.

Despite the challenges involved, our contributors are optimistic about applying a sensory approach to the study of recipes. So long as we accept that sensory perceptions are culturally contingent, there is no reason why it is not possible to glimpse how past societies understood and experienced sensations.


‘This one is good’: Recipes, Testing and Lay Practitioners in Early German Print

By Tillmann Taape

Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images

Having recently finished my doctoral thesis on the printed works of Hieronymus Brunschwig, which have previously featured on the Recipes Blog (here and here), I am delighted to contribute to this series of posts on testing and trying (for an overview, see our re-posted summary of the Testing Drugs and Trying Cures conference). What better opportunity to share how it all came together, and reflect on the role of recipes and testing in the narrative.

Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–c.1530), a surgeon and apothecary from Strasbourg, wrote the first printed books on surgery and distillation. In my thesis, Hieronymus Brunschwig and the Making of Vernacular Medical Knowledge in Early German Print, I read these uncommonly practical and technical books alongside records from the Strasbourg archives, about the craft guilds and medical practice. This allows us to make sense of Brunschwig’s practical vernacular medicine in relation to local intellectual trends, different forms of healing, the local milieu of guilds and artisans, and early German print culture.

Brunschwig’s first book was the Cirurgia of 1497, the first surgical manual in print. This, of course, was an opportunity to codify and re-define surgery. Brunschwig revives the medieval tradition of what Michael McVaugh has termed rational surgery (i.e. a learned as well as a practical art), to educate trainee surgeons and to present their discipline as a respectable and useful trade. Emphasising the need for skilled hands as well as a working knowledge of the human body, Brunschwig defends surgery on two fronts: against learned physicians’ rhetoric of superiority, and against other craftsmen’s deep-seated anxieties about occupations which were in contact with sick and dead bodies.

A surgeon treating an abdominal wound. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Dis ist das Buoch der Cirurgia (Strasbourg, 1497). © Wellcome Images.

The later books on distillation, published in 1500 and 1512, open up to a wider readership, including not only medical artisans such as surgeons or apothecaries, but also the ‘common man’ – a middling social layer of literate citizens, householders and other lay practitioners. This new kind of medical reader, as I have discussed in a previous post and elsewhere, is emblematised in the figure of the ‘striped layman’ which appears in numerous woodcut illustrations throughout Brunschwig’s works.

A conspicuously stripy student, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Many of the recipes and instructions in the distillation books are adjusted for this type of reader. They start from scratch and are rich in technical details which are not found elsewhere in print or, to my knowledge, in manuscript. Although Brunschwig engages with complex ideas about the nature of matter and its manipulation, such as John of Rupescissa’s notion of a ‘quintessence’ in all things, he re-works them into manageable, pedestrian remedies. Rather than pursuing Rupescissa’s heavenly panacea, Brunschwig uses distillation to produce a type of middle-class quintessences: although earth-bound and imperfect, they were reliable and effective remedies in the hands of laypeople.

Detailed woodcut images of distillation apparatus and instructions for its use. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg, 1500). © Wellcome Images.

One overarching theme of my thesis is the artisan’s approach to understanding and manipulating nature. For a craftsman with no Latin, Brunschwig mined a surprising amount of knowledge from texts. But more importantly, I argue, he knew things through direct physical engagement with bodies, materials and technical processes. His books are full of instructions to probe wounds, check temperature by touch, inspect colour changes in the alembic, and smell or taste distilled remedies. His expertise was located as much in the body and its senses as in books.

Nonetheless, writing was a powerful tool for recording and communicating practical insights. From cautionary tales of exploding alembics to heroic accounts of successful cures, Brunschwig emphasises his own experience as a source of knowledge. The German term he uses for this type of knowledge, erfarung, is related to fahren, meaning ‘to travel’. In the early sixteenth century, it denoted a way of experiencing the world through one’s own senses, by moving through it or simply being in it in an active, attentive manner. Erfarung was compared, often unfavourably, to spiritual contemplation and introspection. Over time, however, doctors and students of nature such as Paracelsus came to see personal erfarung as the necessary labour of insight rather than a sinful distraction. The Book of Nature, they insisted, should be read with one’s feet. Brunschwig’s emphasis on his own and others’ erfarung was thus part of a larger vernacular culture of experiential knowledge, as well as learned debates about experientia which have often been the focus of historical accounts of a medical empiricism developing in the early modern period.

Recipes played a major part in Brunschwig’s codification of experiential medical knowledge. Some, as I have shown in a previous post, were presented in Latin pharmaceutical jargon likely unknown to laypeople. These recipes were closed to readers, who were meant to copy them out on a piece of paper and hand them to an apothecary who would manufacture the remedy according to his art and his experience. Although the great majority of recipes are in German, some of these are also presented as tried and tested, by Brunschwig himself or others, and do not call for ‘tweaking’ on the part of readers.

Other recipes, however, give alternative ingredients or leave the exact composition up to the practitioner’s judgment. Many recipes come without the author’s seal of approval, and their sheer number makes it seem unlikely that Brunschwig could have tested each one. Such ‘open’ recipes leave room for improvisation and testing. The ongoing work of erfarung runs on into readers’ own practice, and often spills out into the margins of Brunschwig’s printed books. In many surviving copies, early modern healers from different walks of life marked recipes with a magisterial probatum est, or a simple vernacular note such as ‘this one is good’.

In some of the earliest medical works in print, Brunschwig addresses a readership of lay healers and ‘common men’ which would come to represent a significant portion of the early German print market. Through his use of recipes embedded within a culture of erfarung, he involved his vernacular readers in a continued effort of empirical trying and testing.

Pursuing the themes of recipes and artisanal knowledge, I am delighted to be joining the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University this summer, and look forward to sharing our work on making, testing, and trying, which has previously featured on this blog.


Day 3: What is a Recipe?

M. Darly, The Macrony Shoe Maker, 1775. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Come… make yourself comfy! Welcome to the third event day for our ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation. We’re looking forward to a a busy day ahead.

There are a few things to check out that happened yesterday. Emily Contois has a wonderful post on ‘Listening to the Voices in Historic Cookbooks‘, which discusses a recent weeklong recipes workshop she attended, but it also has a number of crossover themes with our ongoing conversation for ‘What is a Recipe?’. Hillary Nunn and Whitney Thompson had a Twitter bake-off of a seventeenth-century recipe; you can follow their experiment under #recipesconf. And Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives shared some recipe-related highlights from their collection (@CUSpecialColls).

Today, we’ll be hearing from…

If you want to pick up some themes from Day 2, check over here for Laurence Totelin’s helpful summary and Tallulah Maait Pepperell’s Storify.

UPDATE (June 19, 2017): A Storify of Day 3 by Tallulah is available over here.