Category Archives: Alchemy

A Recipe for Trouble, or Criminal Chemistry

By Lisa Smith

It’s the tenth anniversary of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, a wonderful online resource that I frequently use for teaching and research. As one might expect, there is lots of medical history to be found in the court records. The expertise of physicians, surgeons, midwives and apothecaries was increasingly drawn on to describe injuries and deaths over this period. What may be more surprising is that recipes occasionally play a starring role in London’s criminal underworld. Previously at The Recipes Project, we’ve blogged about recipes being used for social or cultural currency, but today, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an intriguing tale of a recipe for economic gain.

On 4 May 1698, F.P. of St. Giles-in-the-Fields stood trial for “washing and diminishing” two guineas (gold pieces worth approximately twenty shillings) “with a sort of poisonous Liquor” in order to commit fraud. The first witness recounted meeting the prisoner at a Pall Mall coffee-house where “they had some Discourse relating to the Mathematicks”. Naturally, the conversation turned to recipes and the witness told F.P. that “he had an excellent Receipt to make good Vineger”, which he would sell to F.P. for his servant. F.P. declined to purchase the recipe, but invited the witness to visit him, which he did.

During the visit, F.P. told the witness that “he knew of an excellent Liquor that would diminish Guineas 15 or 20 d. each, without defacing the Characters”. The problem was getting the guineas in the first place. Perhaps, F.P. suggested, “if they had a Banker to furnish them with Guineas” then they could wash up to five hundred pieces in a day.

William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The witness visited the Duke of Schomberg, a military man, who advised the witness to find a willing banker. A banker found, the first witness set up a meeting with F.P. in St. James’s Park. The banker provided F.P. with two guineas “to make an Experiment”, which took place at a room on Dean Steet. The process entailed first weighing the coins, then putting them into water over the fire and stirring them “a pretty while” along with unidentified “Druggs”. The chemicals must have been rather expensive, as F.P. insisted that the banker would need to provide four-hundred guineas per day, or “it would not be worth his while”. The coins were weighed again afterwards to show the difference. The banker at this point complained that the coins have been too diminished (about four shillings each), but “the Prisoner condescended they should only be diminished to the value of 18 d. each, for the more easy covering the Cheat”.  F.P. further noted that only one of the coins might go undetected. Indeed, the coins were weighed at trial and there was a weight difference, with one coin “4 s. too light, and the other 3 s. 6.”

At this point, F.P. may have realised that trouble was not far behind.  The first witness reported that F.P. “designed suddenly to go to France, when he would leave ’em the Secret for their pains, they allowing him 30 l. per Month, which they were to remit thither; but in the mean time all the Profit while he staid here should be his own”. The witnesses did not take him up on his offer, but instead “delivered” the diminished coins to the Duke who in turn showed them to the King. The King sent the guineas to the Secretary of State, William Vernon, who ordered the prisoner’s arrest.  The stakes were high, with—as the banker put it—F.P.’s “Secret being enough to ruin the Nation”.

The prisoner did try defend himself, claiming that it was one of the witnesses who had tried the experiment. Although he called several character witnesses, it seemed he had few friends, as some of them “said he had been guilty of endeavouring to suborn Witnesses to swear falsly against one Camelle” on one occasion. In any case, there was clear evidence that the whole idea had been his in the first place: “the Names of the Druggs to be used being writ in one of the Evidences Pocket books by the Prisoner’s own Hand, which he owned in Court”. F.P. was found guilty of High Treason, punishable by death.

A curious story overall, and one very much of its time. Two men talking at a coffee-house about mathematics and recipes? How very urban Enlightenment. Secrets to be shared, for a cost? Typical of the early modern tension between public and private secret knowledge. A desire to use chemicals to make gold? Well, it’s not quite the Philosopher’s Stone that seventeenth-century alchemists continued to seek, but certainly much more practical. Condemned by a written recipe? Should have left it in the oral realm instead of trying to organise his knowledge…

The case of F.P. does show, however, the importance of recipes. He was in possession of one that worked and threatened to undermine no less than royal authority. But all that knowledge came to nothing. In the end, it was just a recipe for trouble.

Secrets of the Medici Granducal Pharmacy

By Ashley Buchanan

The last line of a recipe for a nerve ointment within Anna Maria Luisa’s (1667 – 1743) collection of culinary, alchemical, and medicinal recipes reads: “this being a balm, and particular secret, which is made only in the S.A.R. fonderia, and not in another location, even if others say they have the same recipe.” Five of Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes—two fever waters, one ointment for nerves and another for burns, and a powder to control epilepsy—are attributed to the fonderia of the most serine royal highness, the grand duke of Tuscany. Of these five, three are printed on small sheets of paper and prominently emblazoned with the Medici crest. The printed recipe for fever water stated that this particular water was useful for reoccurring fevers, both malignant and acute. The directions praised the water’s success in moderating the heat of fevers in patients of all ages. It advised giving the water four or five times in the morning, but suggested reducing the dosage based on age.  Of all the recipes in Anna Maria Luisa’s collection, this is the only printed text with multiple copies. The fact that this recipe was printed, and three copies remain in her collection, suggest that this particular fever water was widely used and produced by the Medici palace fonderia, or pharmacy.

Established by Cosimo I in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Granducal fonderia was a laboratory where naturalists, alchemists, herbalists, pharmacists, and distillers experimented with recipes and techniques for medicinal therapeutics in addition to other metallurgical pursuits. Cosimo’s son, Francesco I, moved the fonderia to the Casino di San Marco, and again in 1586 when a new fonderia opened in the Uffizi. In 1643, Grand Duke Ferdinando II donated an additional room in the Uffizi dedicated to curiosities like stuffed exotic animals and even an Egyptian mummy, which also served in the production of medicines.

Il laboratorio dell'alchimista, Giovanni Stradano, studiolo di Francesco I
The studiolo or alchemical laboratory of Francesco I de Medici inside the Palazzo Vecchio (via wikimedia commons)

By the seventeenth century, and continuing well into the eighteenth century, the Uffizi fonderia was famous for its pharmaceutical production. The remedies produced in the Medici fonderia were gifted by the Grand Dukes and Duchesses in precious caskets to nobles and kings of Europe, the Middle East, and even the Americas. Numerous letters within the Medici archive (now available online, thanks to the Medici archive project) attest to the value of Medici medicines as diplomatic gifts. In 1630, Anna Maria Luisa’s great-grandmother, the Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena (Von Hapsburg), sent oils from the fonderia as a diplomatic gift to the Crown Prince of Spain.[1] In 1637 military captain and diplomat Piero della Rena, who at the time of writing was being held captive by the Pasha of Tripoli, wrote Grand Duke Ferdinando II and proposed a plan to negotiate his ransom.  In order to expedite his release, Rena suggested that in addition to money, Ferdinando send an amicable letter, a tent made of damask cloth, and a box of medicinal oils (una cassetta di olii di fonderia).[2] Clearly the products produced by the palace pharmacy were held in high esteem and as such possessed great value—value that could be used for the promotion of the Medici personally and politically.

Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes attest to the avid pursuit of alchemical and technical “secrets” at the Medici court. Later male and female Medici family members set up their own fonderie for the production of medicinal oils and therapeutics. The courtly patronage of science not only highlighted the Medici’s splendor and command of nature, it also produced tangible products, like fever waters. As a member of the Medici family, Anna Maria Luisa had access to these recipes to add to her own collection, to gift for diplomatic relationships, or to exchange for other recipes. The inclusion of the Medici crest and attribution to the Medici palace pharmacy was a way in which Anna Maria Luisa could increase the value of her recipe collection. As I continue my research, I am interested in investigating Anna Maria Luisa’s interaction with the granducal fonderia. Like other Medici dukes and duchesses, did she set up her own fonderia or did she patronize the existing granducal fonderia? Understanding Anna Maria Luisa’s affiliation with the granducal fonderia will reveal whether she was a patient who used and circulated Medici therapies, or if she was also a patron and practitioner of medicine.

[1] ASF, Mediceo del Principato 4962. (Entry 11641 in the Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources database.)

[2] ASF, Mediceo del Principato 4274 folio 196. (Entry 22136 in the Medici Archive Project Documentary Sources database.)



Distilling Vernacular Medicine

By Tillmann Taape

As Katherine Allen has pointed out in her post, distillation was regarded as a powerful way of separating and purifying earthly matter, and was central to the alchemical pursuit of the philosophers’ stone. And, yes, the odd gallon of whisky was also a much-welcomed product. This view of distillation is reflected in the textual processes that charaterise the Western alchemical tradition. Beginning with twelfth-century translations of Arabic texts into Latin, scholars constantly excerpted, compiled, translated, and digested all available knowledge, identified what was useful, and then compounded it to suit different tastes and purposes.

This double importance of distillation – techical and textual – is highlighted in the first distillation handbook ever printed, the Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus, also known as the Small book of distillation, which was published in 1500 by the Alsatian surgeon and apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–1512). While this book contains numerous recipes for distilled waters, it can also be seen as representing in itself a recipe for acquiring and presenting medical knowledge. Despite its Latin title, it was written in German, and quickly became a best seller, no doubt cashing in on the growing popularity of distilled medicinal waters. To teach his readers the art of distilling, Brunschwig drew on his wide reading (over three thousand books, according to him) and practical experience to concoct ingredients from different traditions of knowledge.

Brunschwig was well-versed in the alchemical literature, which at the time mainly circulated in manuscript form. Publishing his book in print, Brunschwig introduces a broad public to an  alchemical understanding of matter, and how it can be transformed and purified. In fact, the process of distillation itself is defined in these terms, as “nothing but to separate the subtle from the gross and the gross from the subtle, […] to make the physical more spiritual, [so that it] may more easily penetrate the human body with its secret powers and virtues” (SB 1509, fol. 6r.). This extraction of the useful from the superfluous is also an important process in vernacular medical literature, and Brunschwig extracts not only from alchemical sources, but also boils down the essence of the learned medical tradition.

With reference to ancient textual authorities such as Galen and Dioscorides, he briefly explains the workings of the human body in terms of the four humours which govern an individual’s ‘complexion’, with diseases representing a deviation from this humoural balance. This can be readjusted by administering medicines distilled from plants, or even animals, with the appropriate qualities.[1] This precarious balancing act means that a sound knowledge of medical ingredients was essential, which is why a large portion of the Small book  is taken up by a herbal section. It offers some of the best botanical woodcuts produced at the time, paired with encyclopaedic entries listing each plant’s appearance, medicinal qualities, and the distillation process by which these might best be extracted.

The third major source for Brunschwig’s distillation project, artisanry, has closer links with alchemy than one might at first suspect: as historian Pamela Smith has shown, early modern craftsmen subscribed to an alchemical worldview, and were confident that their personal observation and direct physical engagement with natural material was a reliable source of knowledge.[2] Brunschwig shared this view: based on his own experience with distillation procedures, he is able to anticipate pitfalls (e.g. don’t let a heated glass vessel cool down too quickly, or it will crack!), and to dispense practical advice on the quality and proper manipulation of different stills and vessels. This technical know-how boiled down into an easy-to-follow series of short chapters, which really starts from scratch. There is even a life-sized picture of a mould which should be used to shape the curved bricks needed for building a round furnace, and set in its centre, was a poem summarising the key points to remember.

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

A mould for shaping bricks from Brunschwig’s distillation manual. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

Brunschwig’s manual, then, not only contains valuable recipes for harnessing nature’s healing powers through distillation, it also represents in itself a recipe for the production of a best-selling and highly usable book: he compounds his knowledge of texts with his own experience and observation. He digests, extracts, and purifies his intellectual and technical ingredients, and where other compilers often produce turgid mixtures of jumbled-up recipes, Brunschwig manages to distill clear and useful knowledge from learned medical, alchemical and artisanal traditions. His example was followed by many early modern compilers of medical printed books, and the Small book itself went through an intriguing series of transformations in its various editions, including an English translation which appeared as early as 1527. But we certainly shouldn’t think that the story of textual digestion and excerption stops there: as Katherine Allen discussed, and as I have seen in the Small book, readers were assiduously annotating their copies. They highlighted what was most useful for them, added to the information, and cross-referenced entries, thus achieving another level of distilling textual knowledge.

[1.] For more on humoral theory and the logic behind materia medica, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case” and Alun Withey’s post on “‘Weird’ Remedies and the Problem of ‘Folklore‘”.

[2.] P. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Idem., “In a Sixteenth-Century Goldsmith’s workshop”, in L. Roberts, S. Schaffer and P. Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007), pp. 33–57; Idem., “What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”, in E. Leong and A. Rankin (eds.) Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 47–66.

‘The Art of Distillation’: Alchemy in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Books

By Katherine Allen

Two aspects of eighteenth-century recipe books that interest me are the use of distillation in domestic medicine and the relationship between print and manuscript sources of medical and scientific knowledge. Rebecca Tallamy’s recipe book beautifully illustrates the union of both these aspects as she recorded her recipes in a 1691 edition of John French’s ‘The Art of Distillation’. This alchemical guide was one of many published in late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, and it reflects the popularity of Paracelsianism and the growth of distillation in industry. We can therefore use this manuscript to explore briefly the ways in which the household acted as a space where domestic knowledge interacted with social and cultural developments in distillation.

The Art of Distillation
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 1r.

Like many recipe books, this manuscript was a family collection. The ownership tag ‘Rebecca Tallamy her book of Receipts’ appears several times, however Patience and William Tallamy were also named as owners. Evidently, the Paracelsian alchemical guide was owned by a member of the Tallamy family and presumably handed down until Rebecca gained ownership, recording her recipes between the years 1735-38. A few recipes were added by a later hand in the early nineteenth century, thus emphasising the multi-generational use of this distillation text/recipe collection.

Rebecca Tallamy's Title
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 40v.

But, what is distillation? Distillation is a process used to separate mixtures and purify liquids that was used by alchemists and natural philosophers to experiment in hopes of making gold, the Elixir of Life, and a range of medical cures. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries some elite households had stills for making medical waters, which were used to combat indigestion and low spirits.

What is distillation?
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 2r.

The manuscript is approximately 500 pages, and the majority of the pages contain printed text with handwritten additions scribbled in the margins, between figures, and overtop of text. The remaining recipes were recorded on the blank pages added at the end of the book. Rebecca’s additions included culinary recipes, housekeeping notes, and a standard collection of medicinal recipes like ‘For a Feaverish Disorder in Children or others’, which involved a poultice of tobacco and currants wrapped on the wrists (f. 28v.). This simple recipe is juxtaposed beside a detailed figure of a distillation furnace and signifies that, through the act of recording recipes, Rebecca Tallamy engaged with technical instructions on distillation. Moreover, some of her recipes were traditional cordial waters prepared via distillation. I should note it is likely that Rebecca copied at least some of her material from other sources simply because there are many duplicate recipes. There are also a number of copied botanical descriptions at the end of the manuscript resembling those found in Nicholas Culpeper’s ‘The English Physician’. Far from being purely a collection of recipes, Rebecca Tallamy’s book encompasses several genres and text types, demonstrating the scope of natural knowledge used in the home.

Distillation Furnace
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 28v.

The combination of manuscript and print within one material source highlights the active transmission of knowledge between textul media as well as the value placed on technical guides as sources of household information. Rebecca’s choice to record her recipes on the pages of an alchemical text shows that women were exposed to and could own ‘scientific’ and technical guides, but also indicates her interest in distillation and, more broadly, the continued presence of distillation in the household. Even by the eighteenth century, alchemy had a place in domestic knowledge.