Revisiting Tillmann Taape’s Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

Editor’s note: Today we revisit a post originally published in 2013 by Tillmann Taape on plague remedies given by the apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig in his Liber pestilentialis (1500). The book included an interesting mix of recipes in the vernacular German and in Latin. Readers unable to read Latin could copy a recipe, visit their apothecary, and collect their anti-plague remedies a little while later. Tillmann’s post offers  insights into the use of Latin as a sort of code. 

It strikes me that, five hundred years on, in the midst of another pandemic, Latin has now been almost entirely replaced by English in scientific discourse. And yet, Latin still lingers on, not the least in the name of the disease that has changed our lives: corona, the crown. To this classicist, the name ‘coronavirus’ calls to mind an evil crown-wearing tyrant. But as it did in the late Middle Ages, Latin obfuscates as much as it clarifies, and I find it fascinating that, to many, the new plague, under its shortened name of COVID-19, evokes not an item of jewellery, but a family of birds: the corvids (Latin: corvidae).

Laurence Totelin

By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded. One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two categories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.

Basel Pharmacy Museum: An Interview

The Recipes Project heads to Basel, Switzerland, to learn about the collections of the Pharmacy Museum. Laurence Totelin spoke with Philippe Wanner,  Barbara Orland, Corinne Eichenberger and Martin Kluge.

The Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

Could you give us a brief overview of your collections? How and when were they gathered together?

In 1924, when the pharmacist and historian Professor Josef Anton Häfliger began teaching at the University of Basel, he donated his private collection of pharmaceutical objects and historical books to the university. Since then, and until his death in 1954, Häfliger worked hard to collect further objects and money to built up a pharmacy museum. He designed the museum to teach first his students, and, second, the wider public about the historically outdated aspects of the apothecary’s work. Materia medica obsoleta, for instance, is the name he gave the room that until today exhibits remedies, drugs and medicinal objects of the three kingdoms (mineral, vegetable, animal/human), folk medicine and exotica brought from overseas to Swiss pharmacies since the seventeenth century. Häfliger was lucky to purchase further private collections. For instance, he acquired the collection of the Basel apothecary Theodor Engelmann (b. 1851), who had specialized in mineralogy and mineral drugs. Moreover, he was clever enough to impose conditions on the deed of donation. Amongst other things, he determined that the museum should remain part of the pharmacy department and function as an object for study.

The herbarium, the Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

You are located in a beautiful building. Can you tell us a little but about its history?

The museum is located in the so-called “Haus zum Vorderen Sessel”. This building was first mentioned in 1296 when it was used as a public bathhouse fed by water from the “Goldbrunnen” (Gold Well). The most famous part of the building’s history began around 1490, when the book printer Johannes Amerbach opened up a printing house, taken over in 1507 by another famous printer, Johannes Froben. A number of noteworthy humanist scholars, such as Erasmus von Rotterdam, resided and worked here. These writers were joined by recognized illustrators, such as Hans Holbein the Younger. Theophrastus von Hohenheim (commonly known as Paracelsus) practiced medicine in this house as the Froben family physician between 1526 and 1527. Subsequently, the house changed hands several times. In 1814, it housed the first public school for girls in Basel. More than 80 years later it became the Vocational School for Women. Finally, the University’s first Institute of Pharmacy was built up here since 1917 until the year 2000. The scientific collection, since 1925 open for the wider public, remained in the building.

You are a University Museum. What is your relation with the University of Basel?

As a donation of one of the pharmacy professors the collection belongs until today the Department of Pharmacy of the University of Basel. The large lecture room is used for history of science seminars and lectures, but it also belongs to the university facilities.

The Alchemy Room, Pharmacy Museum. Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

The team working at the museum is interdisciplinary. Can you tell us a bit about how your work as a team?

In our museum we are used to work together over disciplinary boarders. Some studied biology some pharmacy some contemporary dance some history or medieval music. Most of the daily working fields like collection traffic, communication, pharmaceutical safety issues or scientific research are personalised and belong to the field of activity of one or two colleagues. For special events or special exhibitions these fields sometimes get newly organised. It is very fruitful to work in an interdisciplinary context where the borders are fluently between science, arts and humanities.

Pharmazie-Historisches Museum Basel

Can you give us a few highlights from your collections? Do you have favourites?

The museum is home to numerous exotic lures and unusual objects (like stuffed alligators, a porcupine fish, the enormous tooth of narwhal, or ‘unicorn’ horns) that apothecaries formerly used to attract the attention of their customers, but which also demonstrated their interests in natural history. The stocks of exotic drugs and objects that colonization brought to early modern pharmacies is quite large too.

What is the most ancient artefact you have? What is the most recent?

The most ancient artefacts are supposed to be our mummy artefacts. Indeed, crushed and powdered chunks of Egyptian mummies were used as medicine for various illnesses such as ailments of the lung, of the spleen, stitches in the side and external wounds during the 15th century. However, the various vessels with the inscription Mumia vera aegyptica and Mumia vera and wooden boxes in the museum date back to the 18th century; a glass vessel from around 1920 bears the following inscription: “Engelmann ‘s pharmacy, Mumia vera, Basel Untere Rheingasse 2”. In addition, under the name “Mumia vera” the exhibition shows mummified body parts such as a foot, a head and upper and lower legs shown. Other vessels also contain volatile human brain salt (Sal crani humani volatile), small white and pebble-like chunks, which are marked as prepared human brain bowl (Cranium humanum preap.).  The Pharmacy Museum commissioned the analysis of such and similar fragments. An anthropologist has examined the substances. With respect to the brown chunks, he concluded that it is material that has solidified inside a skull of liquid form. The other Mumia specimens clearly contained coccyx bone, and parts of a human brain shell, which are filled with a shiny asphalt-like mass. How old these actually are remains an open question.

Some of the most ancient artefacts in fact come from Augusta Raurica – a Roman colony near Basel. Roman medicinal tools, a spatula and copies of Roman cupping glasses, in short, the most important equipment of a physician in antiquity, are dated around 50 AC.

The most recent artefact is a playmobil figure — a pharmacist version with the German pharmacy logo.(Original Packing from 2015).

Medicinal jar collections, Pharmacy Museum, Basel. Photo by Daniel Spehr.

How can scholars find out what is in your collections? In what ways can they work with your collections? 

The best way for scholars is to contact the museum staff. A direct conversation will figure out the possibility of working with our collection and archive.


Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!

Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

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.