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!


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.