Category Archives: Anke Timmermann

Verse and Transmutation

Anke Timmermann’s monograph on alchemical poetry has just been published by Brill.

Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry identifies and investigates a corpus of anonymous recipes for the philosophers’ stone dating from the fifteenth century, some of which may be familiar to readers of this blog from their appearance in Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum. The critical editions and complex histories of these alchemica, in plain and illuminated manuscripts, as anonyma and in attribution to famous authors, and in historical book collections provide new perspectives on the role of recipes in English culture.

Apart from acquiring a copy through well-known virtual and actual outlets, you may also soon consult the book via Open Access in the Knowledge Unlatched Pilot. Check out the Knowledge Unlatched, the Pilot programme (library subscriptions still available!) and interviews with authors (including Anke Timmermann) for this week’s Open Access week here:

William Hunter: Recipe Collector

By Anke Timmermann

Historical collections provide wonderful glimpses into the minds of exceptional individuals. Objects, once placed into collection contexts, silently embody the interests and personalities of their collectors. Their organisation within a collection demonstrates a certain, historical way of navigating the world of knowledge. And taken individually, each object taunts us with questions about its raison d’être: how did this get here, and what does it mean?

The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.
The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.

I recently decided to trace the ‘collective’ history of an alchemical manuscript featured in my previous blog post. GUL MS Hunter 110 escaped the fate of damage by water, fire or other destructive, if not alchemical, elements, thanks to William Hunter (1718-1783), Scottish anatomist and founder of what is now The Hunterian at Glasgow University. During a lifetime spent mostly in London (eventually eclipsed by his younger brother, surgeon John Hunter), with strong connections to Glasgow and Paris, Hunter became famous in medical circles for his work on the gravid (pregnant) uterus. He was also a teacher both brilliant and popular with medical students. Alongside his research, practice and teaching Hunter gathered thousands of books and objects relating to anatomy, natural history and art, from familiar and far-away lands, and dating from various periods of time. The mentioned alchemical volume is only one of ca. 650 Hunterian manuscripts.[1]

Despite their humble appearance, Hunter’s manuscripts may be the most intriguing part of his collections. Acquired at a time when manuscripts were cheap and generally unappreciated, they include Western and oriental items, medieval, Renaissance and contemporary treatises, and cover medical and chymical, historical and theological and linguistic themes. Some of them are likely to have come to him as part of bulk acquisitions at auctions. But what motivated Hunter’s hunt for manuscripts in general, and how did they merge with his other collections, a material lexicon of world knowledge?[2] The recipes in Hunter’s manuscripts throw some light onto these questions, especially those situated between the disciplines of medicine and chemistry.[3]

Among the various items related to materia medica, pharmacy and prescriptions in Hunter’s collections, those written by his mentor, anatomist and accoucheur (‘man-midwife’) James Douglas are noteworthy. In addition to treatises on surgical procedures Douglas also produced notes on medicinal plants including tea, a history of chocolate and bibliographical notes on authors on saffron, and a very interesting record of ‘Chymical potions made by my order at Mr Durhams Laboratory in Cheesewell Street London. 1723’.[4] All of these would have been of interest to Hunter on the page, in his professional life in London, and as a legacy of a beloved teacher and friend – they were in his possession before his thirtieth birthday, seven years after Douglas’s death.

William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)
William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)

In some ways, Douglas’s medico-pharmacological writings, then, represent the logical core of Hunter’s more wide-ranging interests in recipes, which extended back to the twelfth century.[5] Hunter’s fragmentary copy of the ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis’ of 1650 (and thus predating Hunter’s medical practice by a century and by several reviewed versions of the edict), may be considered within this context: it shows a merging of Douglas’s contemporary interests and Hunter’s investigation of the history of pharmacy and its practices.[6]

In this light Hunter’s copy of the ‘Cursus Chemicus’ of Christopher White, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford (d. 1696), too, emerges as more than a noteworthy excursion into medico-chemistry. Continued by White’s son or later descendant (up to 1755), it contains generations of recipe reception: ‘sets of receipts, medical and culinary’, ‘receipts for Cattle Distemper’ with newspaper clippings, an advertisement for the cinnabar/quicksilver mines of Almadén and for a cure ‘for the bite of a mad dog’, among other things.[7] This accumulation of materials appears as wondrous as that of Hunter’s collected objects.

Here and elsewhere, it seems that Hunter’s books and things, recipes and materials intersect in various ways. Indeed, the thought of a history of collections written through the history of recipes seems positively gravid with possibilities. Might an interdisciplinary study of Hunter’s collections give birth to a more integrated history of science?

[1] Hunter’s DNB biography was written by Helen Brock, who has also published extensively on the man and his collections. Information on Hunter’s life mentioned throughout this blog post is based on the DNB article.

[2] See e.g. this recent talk on Hunter’s book collections: Francesca Mackay, ‘Hunter’s Book Collection: The man and his time’. Manuscripts from the library of William Hunter are listed with the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.

[3] Recipes have not been researched in detail for Hunter’s collections to date: Neil R. Ker, William Hunter as a collector of medieval manuscripts (Glasgow: 1983), which I was not able to access, does not seem to consider the recipe genre in itself. This older but more inclusive article merely mentions ‘some medical prescriptions’ among sundry items within the collections: Charles Illingworth, ‘William Hunter’s manuscripts and letters: the Glasgow collection’, Med Hist. 15 (1971), 181–186.

[4] Presumably Chiswell St. GUL MS Hunter 624.

[5] Early relevant items are, in roughly chronological order, GUL MSS Hunter 64, 435, 190, 95, 117, and others.

[6] GUL MS Hunter 243 (Pharmacopoeia Londinensis and anonymous medical notes). See also, for example, GUL MS Hunter 626, for which one of Douglas’s children is listed as an amanuensis, entitled Catalogus Pharmacorum (with a section dedicated to a Catalogus Chymicum).

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.

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).