Metallic cures: antimonial wine and mineral kermes

By Marieke Hendriksen

In my previous post, I wrote about the ubiquity of mercurial drugs in the long eighteenth century. Mercury is a metal we are all quite familiar with, yet a variety of cures was based on metals and metallic compounds well into the nineteenth century – some of which we hardly hear of anymore today. Drugs based on antimony, a lustrous grey metalloid often found in ores together with either sulfur or mercury, and mineral kermes, a compound of antimony trioxide and trisulfide, were very popular. In universal encyclopedias from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for example, we find complicated recipes to create mineral kermes, which involve repeated distilling of a mixture of sulfur of antimony, fixed niter or potassium carbonate, and river- or rainwater.[i]

Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.
Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

Although it unlikely anyone tried these recipes at home, the use of antimony and its derivatives had a long tradition. Antimony cups were used since antiquity to make antimonial wine by soaking regular wine in it for one or more days.[ii] The fact that antimony frequently occurred together with mercury or sulphur appealed to alchemists, apothecaries, and other medical men and women, as sulphur and mercury were considered the basic alchemical elements. Moreover, as antimony could cleanse the most precious metal, gold, from impurities, alchemists reasoned it could also cleanse and cure God’s most precious creature, created after his own image: man. Hence Paracelsus (1493-1541) and many of his followers advocated the use of small amounts of antimony in iatrochemical drugs, although they were well aware of the fact that it is highly poisonous.

Antimonial wine thus was a tried emetic, yet antimony cups were forbidden in England and France for much of the seventeenth century, as the use of a wine too acidic would result in a lethal concoction. This prohibition was sometimes circumnavigated by creating antimony cups from tin with a small amount of antimony.[iii] In France antimony cups became legal once more in 1658, after Louis XIV was cured from typhoid fever with antimonial wine.[iv] After this royal endorsement of antimony, men of science started to investigate it more closely than ever before. Between 1700 and 1707 the French chemist Lemery wrote an extensive series of articles on antimony and its medicinal uses for the Académie des Sciences, culminating in a book describing all the changes it underwent by chemical procedures, and how the resulting substances could be used in medicine.[v] The Leiden professor of chemistry Gaub too devoted a substantial part of his lectures on metals on antimony and mineral kermes, extensively discussing the chemical procedures that should be applied to create effective medical materials.[vi]

French Apothecary Bottle: Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.
French Apothecary Bottle with traces of Kermes Mineral, 1880s. Courtesy of Dr Jack Fincham.

The recipes in the encyclopedias show that mineral kermes was one of the most important medical materials that could be created through chemically treating antimony. As can still be seen in a late nineteenth-centruy French apothecary bottle, it is a reddish brown powder. The powder does not dissolve in water and, like mercury, had a reputation for cleansing the lymphatic vessels, and was also used as an emetic and diaphoretic. The name was probably derived from the Arabic name for a similarly coloured crimson dye made from insects, al-qirmiz. The use of mineral kermes as a drug was apparently first mentioned by Glauber (1604-1670), but how to successfully create it remained a subject of debate into the nineteenth century, even after an official recipe was published by the king of France in 1720.[vii]

[i] De Felice, Fortunato Bartolomeo, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire universel raisonné des connoissances, (Paris, 1773), Vol. 25, p. 345. Wilkes, John, Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or, Universal Dictionary of Arts (London: J. Adlard, 1810), Vol. iv, p. 277.

[ii] Also see one of my previous blogs on The Medicine Chest.

[iii] StClair Thomson, “Antimonyall Cupps: Pocula Emetica or Calices Vomitorii”, Proc. Roy. Soc. Med., Vol. XIX, no. 9, 1925, 123-8.

[iv] C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012, 49.

[v] Lemery, Nicolás, Traité de L’antimoine (Paris: Jean Boudot, 1707).

[vi] Gaub, H.D., ‘Chemiae Praxis. Notes of Lectures by an Unnamed Student. Produced in Leyden.’, Closed stores WMS 4  MS.2479, Wellcome Library Manuscripts, p. 593-685.

[vii] Willich, A.F.M., A Domestic Encyclopedia Or A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge, 3 vols. (London: B. McMillan, 1802), p. 46.

Now you see it? No you don’t! Images in Alchemical Manuscripts

By Anke Timmermann

The scene seems almost idyllic: a stone basin in a green landscape, a stylised cloud floating above with the heads of three blond, chubby cherubs. But then we realise that the sweet, angelic faces are spitting a greenish-blue liquid into the tub, from whence it flows through a spout into a glass vessel. This means business!

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 6, s. xvii. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

The business at hand is the manufacture of the philosophers’ stone as outlined in the Rosarium Philosophorum, a popular alchemical tractate first printed in 1550. It represents one of the increasing number of illustrated alchemica that emerged from the fifteenth century onwards. Manuscript pages came to life with pictures of alchemical metaphors previously confined to descriptions. Colourful animals or humanoid figures (representing substances) were now shown engaged in activities (chemical processes and reactions), from knowing each other in the Biblical sense to mutual ingestion, in fiery or watery environments alike.

But, as exciting as this development was, alchemical practitioners still needed to translate imagery into practical terms to make sense of these ‘visual recipes’. Like the interpretation of recipe texts, and especially in combination with verbal recipes, this proved to be a difficult task. Today it is historians who try to find a recipe for the meaningful description and analysis of alchemical images.[1] Here the little flask above, gathering the angelic fluids so faithfully, demonstrates how complex the business of alchemical history can be.

Glass vessels feature prominently in alchemical images from the late medieval and early modern period. The image above might indicate the use of an actual glass flask in this step of the manufacturing process, or, more likely, simply be intended to conjure up the mental image of gathering liquids with any appropriate vessel. However, in many visual alchemical scenes such as the Splendor Solis series or the Ripley Scrolls, drawn glass containers were clearly not intended to represent actual equipment, but rather to provide a visual frame for a process depicted in figurative form.

The translucence of glass benefited the artist aiming to reveal alchemical processes within a conceptual, as opposed to actual, space. By contrast, in actual laboratory practice, glass vessels were generally only used for distillation “where they may be used without fear of breaking or melting”.[2] What we see, and what contemporary readers saw, in these ‘visual recipes’ is not an object, but a concept.

Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 110 (T.5.12), s. xiv, f. 28r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

A much more pragmatic depiction of a similar flask may be found alongside Albertus Magnus’s appropriately-named Straight Path in the Art of Alchemy in GUL MS Hunter 110. This manuscript is roughly two hundred years older than the copy of the Rosarium Philosophorum above. Instantly recognisable as a receiver for distilled liquid, drawn complete with the entire apparatus, this flask nevertheless surprises in comparison with the previous image: this illustration does not show any liquid either before or after distillation. Such detail would have been realistic, but perhaps unnecessary for contemporary readers to understand the experimental setup.

Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
Glasgow University Library, MS Ferguson 67, s. xvi, f. 10r. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

Our final image could be mistaken for a regular kitchen if it weren’t for the distilling apparatus shown in the foreground[3]. This piece of equipment was familiar to readers who had an alchemical background from practical manuscripts (like the previous one), but also to those employing distillation for medicinal or other purposes. This image reminds us of the intersection of alchemical recipes with those of other recipe literatures, in word and image.

What is particularly wonderful about this image is a detail that might be overlooked when considered in isolation from the other illustrations: the liquid in the receiving vessel is shown to stand at an even, calm level, while the liquid in the heated vessel is boiling, bubbles clearly visible. The present, nervous reader of this manuscript cannot help but worry about the stability of the glass, which could melt or break at any moment. It is only in comparison with other flask depictions that this detail emerges.

Questions about different purposes of illustration as well as local, temporal and individual preferences in visualising different aspects of the alchemical work come to mind. But is this a detail contemporary readers would have picked up on?

Well, now I see it. But maybe I shouldn’t.

My focus on the flask, just for the purposes of this blog post, was inspired by Tillmann Taape’s excellent recent post on distillation.

[1] Two seminal articles in this area are Barbara Obrist, ‘Visualization in Medieval Alchemy’, HYLE-International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry 9 (2003), 131-70; see also Obrist’s earlier oeuvre on alchemical images. And Christoph Lüthy and Alexis Smets, ‘Words, Lines, Diagrams, Images: Towards a History of Scientific Imagery,’ Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009 ), 398-439.

[2] John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1651), Book I. See also Tillmann Taape’s posts on this blog.

[3] This manuscript is described and analysed in Paul Engle, “Depicting Alchemy: Illustrations from Antonio Neri’s 1599 Manuscript”, in Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, ed., Glass of the Alchemists (New York, NY, 2008), 48-61.

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.


Of Porridge, Poetry and the Philosophers’ Stone

By Anke Timmermann

Wer ain guot Muess wil machen
[Es] kompt von siben sachen
Aijr und salz
Milch vnd Schmaltz
gewurtz vnd Mell
von Saffran wirdt es gell
(ÖNB MS 11410, f. 186r, s. xvi)[1]

 [He who wants to make a good porridge needs seven items: eggs and salt, milk and suet, spice (elsewhere: sugar) and flour; saffron gives a yellow colouring.]

These rhymes will seem very familiar to anyone who grew up in a German-speaking family: unbeknownst to many, the children’s song “Backe, backe Kuchen” can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. Perhaps understandably it is commonly accepted that this is a piece of folklore for toddlers rather than a recipe proper.[2] Even the original recipe for porridge–or cake, in the children’s rhyme–is simple and elliptic. No measurements or methods are provided, and the phrasing and listing of exactly seven ingredients seems formulaic. But the environment that brought forth this recipe is much more complex, bringing together medieval poetry, recipes and scientific communication.

To see the connection between science and porridge we need to look at the manuscripts in which the text was originally written. The earliest documented copy of the poem can be found among jottings on the inner cover of a fifteenth-century manuscript, beside medical notes and recipes.[3] The cited sixteenth-century version appears in a medical recipe book owned by a physician-apothecary near Vienna, Wolfgang Kappler. This pharmacological reference work contains hundreds of recipes, some of them traditional instructions for the manufacture of pills and salves, many explicitly using alchemical methods and ingredients, others covering diet and regimen, and all of them intended to be useful in his professional practice. The rhymed parts of both manuscripts are comparatively few. But beyond the confines of their covers, they form part of a medieval and early modern written tradition in which scientific verse spread across Europe. To Kappler and his contemporaries, these rhymes would not have conjured up the image of chanting children. Rather, they would have recognised the rhymes as an accepted medium of communicating knowledge.

Why would anyone choose to write a recipe in rhyme rather than in plain instructive prose? Answers to this question are many and varied. In late medieval England, for example, the hope of attracting royal funds for a future project certainly inspired some alchemical practitioners to compose couplets.[4] Medical recipes, much less often subject to versification, might sometimes cross over into the realms of charms, cookery and general Middle English poetry. Incidentally, John Lydgate’s (author of the Fall of Princes) most popular poem during his lifetime was a medical one, his Dietary.[5]

Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Scientific poems on botany, the stars and their movements joined longer learned treatises (‘encyclopaedic poetry’) on the make-up of man and God’s creation. Particularly in alchemy, rhyme served as a vehicle for preserving practical instructions, making it easier for a copyist to transport the text from one manuscript into another or for the practitioner to memorise important steps in the laboratory. With ancient didactic poetry as ancestor and current concerns about techne, craft and knowledge at its heart, scientific poetry was a working genre for those who wrote, read and used it.[6]

When English antiquarian Elias Ashmole published Middle English alchemical poetry in his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum he focused on the poem’s role in English language and literature, not in the laboratory.[7] Since then the connection between poetry and science or craft has been lost. It is this discrepancy between the nature of modern scientific publications and that of their historical ancestors that makes scientific poetic recipes so intriguing and yet so difficult to research. While it may not be child’s play it tells us much about how historical experts transformed experience into knowledge as they turned prescriptions into rhyme.


[1] On the manuscript, see the Austrian National Library’s catalogue HANNA, s.v. 11410.

[2] C.M. Blaas, “Ein Kinderspruch aus dem XV. Jahrhundert” in Germania 23 (1878), 343.

[3] HANNA, s.v. 12503. On recipes in German Fachliteratur see also J. Telle, “Das Rezept als literarische Form” in Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 26 (2003), 251-74.

[4] For example, see: P. J. Grund, ‘Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite’: An Edition of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy (2011).

[5] K. Bühler, “Lydgate’s Rules of Health in MS Lansdowne 699” in Medium Ævum 3 (1934), 51-6.

[6] On the history and functions of scientific, especially alchemical, poetry see e.g. R. M. Schuler, Alchemical Poetry, 1575-1700 (1995), D. Kahn, “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis” in Ambix, 57-58 (2010/11), 249-74/62-77, and my forthcoming article in the Companion to Fifteenth Century Verse. Note also J. Telle’s forthcoming monograph on German alchemical poetry, Alchemie und Poesie.

[7] E. Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652).