Category Archives: distillation

Meeting Madam Geneva

By Emma Major

Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Print commemorating the death of Madam Geneva, 1736 ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The Government’s decision in 1736 to make gin prohibitively expensive through levying hefty licensing fees was met by a flurry of prints, poems and tracts lamenting the government’s cruelty in depriving the poor ‘of a chirruping Glass’.[i] ‘No more can I seat me to Study/ Than a Fish can swim without Fin,’ cried Timothy Scrubb; ‘My Brains are confus’d and quite muddy/ By losing my Comforter Gin.’[ii] Other writers complained of how all levels of society would suffer from the loss of gin: from poet to oyster-woman, whatever your role in the division of labour, gin, it seemed, ensured success and happiness.

Gin, or genever, or Geneva as it was first known when it was popularized in England, had become so popular in the few decades following the accession of William and Mary in 1688 that it had taken on the character of a boozy old lady, a familiar, friendly face who could be relied upon to help celebrate or commiserate in everyday life. She emerges as a demotic, alcoholic counterpart to the more sedate Britannia who also flourished in high and low culture during these years. Madam Gin, Queen Gin, Mother Gin: whatever her title, she came from impeccable Protestant lineage and offered a patriotic alternative to French brandy.  According to her eighteenth-century historian and panegyrist Stephen Buck, Gin had first aided the Protestant cause in general and England in particular by providing the troops in the Thirty Years’ War with the alcoholic fire or Dutch courage to triumph over the Roman Catholic opposition. (Indeed, he claimed English military success was not due to the famous national taste for ‘Beef and Pudding’, but to its adoption of gin.)[iii] The OED notes the folk-etymological connection historically made between genever and Geneva, that most Protestant of cities, though Buck dismisses any connection to foreign religious fanaticism, and praises it as a home-grown native beverage, scorning the snobbery and disloyalty of those who drink gin in secret and prefer Holland Gin to the British variety.

Madam Geneva’s demise by legislation in September 1736 was marked by mock mourning processions in the streets of London, Bristol and elsewhere.[iv] The authorities were concerned about riots when the act came into force, but although protests were vociferous, civil war did not break out. Lavish encomiums were published about Gin, though as you can see from the two commemorative prints I’ve included here, depictions did not glamorize or flatter. Indeed, ‘Mother’ and ‘Madam’ Gin may also be in the sense of ‘bawd’; this meaning of ‘mother’ was popularized during the eighteenth century as it drew on the anti-Roman Catholic slang that equated mothers, abbesses and nuns with brothel-keepers and prostitutes.[v] There are many visual similarities between William Hogarth’s depiction of the drunken mother in his 1751 print of Gin Lane and his depiction of bawds elsewhere in his work. Yet despite her general depiction by admirers as well as critics as a figure lacking in youth, beauty, or visible power, Gin was popularly regarded with affection, as offering a sociable tonic you could purchase from street-sellers and gin shops, or even via the world’s first vending machine, the ‘puss-and-mew’ mechanism that was devised to dodge licensing fees. Designs varied but the customer would address the cat shaped device with a ‘Puss’, and if gin was available would be told ‘Mew’; money would be put in a drawer and the gin dispensed either through a pipe connected to the cat’s tail, or via a filled container in the drawer. (Thomas Pink recreated this for a publicity event in 2014, using pink gin: see .)

Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.
Figure 2. This print was originally published in 1736, but was reissued for the 1751 Act, which also levied licensing fees on gin, though this time they were less prohibitively expensive. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

What was actually dispensed? The noun ‘genever’ or ‘Geneva’ came from the Dutch drink jenever, which came from the word for juniper. But juniper was not always present in the substances sold as gin, whereas turpentine, lime oil, and sulphuric acid, often were. Gin was also often watered down, so it is difficult to know the alcoholic strength or actual flavor of what was sold as gin, especially at the lower end of the market. The moonshine versions of gin sound foul-tasting, but the idea of gin, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century, possessed magical properties for many, representing cheerful sociability, curative powers, aphrodisiac properties, and simply the promise of ‘best’ dispelling ‘all human Woe’. [vi](Buck, 10) For many, it seemed, gin, whatever its actual composition, was the ‘chirruping glass’ of universal cheer.

[i] Thomas Chaloner, The merriest poet in Christendom (London: for the author, 1732), 23.

[ii] Timothy Scrubb, Desolation: Or, The Fall of Gin (London: J. Roberts, 1736), 16.

[iii] Stephen Buck, Geneva: A Poem in Blank Verse (London: T. Cooper, 1734), 5.

[iv] Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason (London: Profile, 2003), 126-30.

[v] Emma Major, Madam Britannia: Women, Church, and Nation 1712-1812 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), 145-8.

[vi] Buck, Geneva, 10.

Emma Major is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Department of English and the interdisciplinary Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York UK. She has published on religion, national identity and gender in Britain 1670-1820, and is currently working on a book on faithful citizens 1789-1829. She has a sideline in gin studies.


The Order of Things

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk

Today I want to go back to the first post in my series with Saskia Klerk (last post here) to consider in more depth the order in which recipes were written down in manuscript BPL3603. We initially mentioned that the recipes are initially ordered in alphabetical sequence. That, combined with the limited open space left in the book, made us think that the manuscript was carefully designed as a more or less final record of recipes. After a closer look, however, it seems that the manuscript is not as “neat” as it appeared at first.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 77, the first page of section 2.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 77, the first page of section 2.

Most of the recipes and texts that Saskia and I have been discussing in this series come from the second part of the manuscript, which starts on page 77. Unlike the first part, there is no longer an alphabetical order. This section starts with a recipe for the preparation of Flores sulphurous, a strong powder.

It continues with several other waters, and powders, mostly made through chemical processes. There are also recipes for the preparation of colour paints, made from saffron and red coral respectively. It describes recipes for different types of oils, and it contains the recipes and text about the plague by Van Helmont and discussed here, as well as the text taken from Van Beverwijck discussed here and here.

I am starting to suspect that the second part of the manuscript (pp. 77-122) consists of text passages copied out of other books. While the first part of the manuscript might be taken from other books as well, it is organised on the level of the recipe, whereas the second half consists of longer text fragments on certain topics, such as oils, or colour making, or even the plague and stones.

This calls for a more precise study into the quire binding of the manuscript, to see whether it was bound in this way, or whether it was a later organisation of the papers. I doubt it, especially since the page numbering seems contemporary, and is continuous.

The first part of the manuscript completes a full alphabetical series from A to Z. Was this part finished earlier? And were the recipes of part 2 added later without specific order because the alphabetized papers were full? Possibly, but from the handwriting it is not clear that there might be a time gap between part 1 and 2. Part 1 might have been an earlier collection of the scribe, collected in a notebook or on paper slips, and copied into this manuscript, which would then have formed the basis for further collecting.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 76, the last page os part 1, discussing Zee-ziekte.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 76, the last page os part 1, discussing Zee-ziekte.

The manuscript starts the ‘A’ for “amborstigheit” (shortness of breath) and finishes with the last entry on p. 76 under ‘Z’ “Zee-varende luijden voor zee-ziekte te behouden” (to protect sea-farers from seasickness). Within the order, we nevertheless find unexpected recipes. Most of them are ordered according to the illness they are supposed to cure, but under ‘D’ we find drunkenness, drinks, and the art of distilling (“distileer-konst”). And even though beer was sometimes used as medicine (see for example this blog post), in this case it is purely mentioned for its ‘pleasant taste’ (“zeer aangenaam van smaak”).

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 12, with the final F-recipe (Fenijnige lucht) and two H-recipes
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 12, with the final F-recipe (Fenijnige lucht) and two J-recipes (jicht).

Every now and then there seems to be a small glitch in the order, such as the recipe for gout (“jicht”), which is placed after ‘F’ and before ‘G’ on a page with quite some space left. Surprisingly we find exactly the same recipe again at the end of ‘J’, even with the same reference to Mrs de Wit who is apparently the author or source of the recipe. It seems that the restriction of space on the J-page made the scribe go back to the almost empty F-page.

Sometimes the reader also needs to use his or her imagination to understand the alphabetical order, such as with the recipe to improve the memory (“memorie”). It can be found in the middle of the K-section, and features brandy (“brandewijn”) as the main ingredient. However the title of the page (which is not always similar to the titles of the recipe(s)) reads The Power and Virtue of Brandewijn (“Kracht en Deugd des Brandewijns”), which is where we have found the ‘K’.

We have not fully understood the composition of this manuscript yet, but our study of its construction, order, and content continues…

Recipes Round-up: Research Presented at Scientiae and SSHM 2016

by Katherine Allen

In early July I attended two conferences: Scientiae (on early modern science), and the Society for the Social History of Medicine (SSHM) conference. Both had an impressive range of scholarship, and it was exciting to see recipes featured so prominently. Included here are some of my thoughts on the research, sources, and challenges currently being tackled by recipe historians.


Scientiae was held at St. Anne’s College (Univ. Oxford) and the theme was disciplines of knowing in the early modern world. This conference was interdisciplinary, and brought together scholars working on more traditional aspects of the history of science, alongside those exploring the histories of magic, alchemy, medicine, music, and religion.

In the panel on medicine in early modern Europe, Tillmann Taape’s presentation on alchemical medical guides in early modern Germany reinforced the idea that printed distillation guides were used by ‘the common man’, and his texts included herbal sections with registers of diseases and medical recipes. I discovered that waters had ‘bad attitudes’, and that distilling was seen as a way of making the water ‘obey’ the craftsman.

I spoke on the continued practice of distilling household medicine in early eighteenth-century England. I stressed the continued importance of printed distillation guides as sources of technical instruction for domestic practitioners, and that distilling medicine was done primarily as a leisure activity with the products used to supplement a family’s medical care.

Distillation figures in Ambrose Cooper's 'The Complete Distiller' (1757)
Distillation figures in Ambrose Cooper’s ‘The Complete Distiller’ (1757)

In a session on ‘understanding the vegetable world’ Rachel Koroloff introduced us to the travnik, a challenging term used to simultaneously describe an herbal manuscript, an herbalist, and an herbal collection in 17th C Muscovy. The term originated in the 1630s with the Tsar ordering apothecaries to source plants for the palace’s medical stores. The travniki as texts included recipes, and balanced Russian folklore and supernatural beliefs with a hybrid version of Galenic medicine. Rachel argued that there was an assumed base knowledge of the plants listed in travniki and that this rested on the presumption of the travnik as an individual with expertise in herbal knowledge.

Medicine in its Place: SSHM 2016

The SSHM conference was held at the University of Kent and had well-balanced temporal scope on spaces within medical history. I found the panels on approaches to research (the place of digital history in medicine and one on social media) particularly thought-provoking and inspiring.

I organised a panel on 17th and 18th C domestic medicine. This panel included my research on the evolving material history of 18th C recipe collections with the commercialisation of medicine, and the incorporation of newsprint and proprietary medicine advertisements into these personalised books. One particular challenge of this research is determining from where recipes were sourced, given that citations referencing print/newsprint were not commonplace.

Newsprint in 18th C Manuscript Recipe Books
Newsprint in 18th C Manuscript Recipe Books

Anne Stobart spoke on Margaret Boscawen’s 17th C plant notebook, and the links between the garden and the kitchen in household healthcare. She challenged the historiographical idea that ingredients were readily and freely collected from the garden and countryside and argued that Boscawen was concerned about the availability of plants in her locality. A question I found interesting for Anne was how she (and contemporaries) distinguishes between ‘wild’ and ‘the garden’.

Culpeper Garden. Post-conference visit to Leeds Castle, Kent.
Culpeper Garden. Post-conference visit to Leeds Castle, Kent.

Sally Osborn highlighted the far-reaching networks used by 18th C recipe collectors to share medical knowledge; these included familial, social, and political networks which were used to build social credit. She suggested that tried and trusted recipes acquired from family and other correspondents may have been valued and chosen over other recipes, like those collected from print sources.

In a panel on landscapes, Sophie Greenway examined the post-war shift of the British garden from a place of production to one of leisure. In 1950s magazines, advertisements encouraged women to purchase efficient kitchen appliances so that they could spend recreational time in their gardens. Paradoxically, this ‘aspirational literature’ featured this message alongside recipes for desserts like blancmange and blackcurrant jelly, which suggests that a woman’s time was best spent in the kitchen. I found this paper valuable for thinking about recipes used alongside advertising, as well as the relationship of print with the domestic space.

The Household in 1950s Magazine Advertising
The Household in 1950s Magazine Advertising

In a roundtable discussion on digital history, Lisa Smith represented the collaborative work being done here at The Recipes Project, as well as the transcription efforts over at EMROC and Shakespeare’s World. Lisa emphasised that in the digital projects, the message board is useful for attracting new transcribers, encouraging discussions, and demonstrating the value placed on close reading and deeper engagement with recipes.

I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘conference holiday’ and these papers represent the range of sources, topics, and temporal contexts with which recipe historians are currently engaging. And, it is on digital platforms like this that we can share our research, collaborate, and explore new avenues of inquiry on recipes.

The Curious Case of the Homunculus, and the Allegorical Recipe

By Jennifer Park

This post derives from a current chapter of my PhD thesis in which I work through a number of questions about generic categories, i.e. the receipt, and the concerns they reveal about the relationship between the literal and the metaphorical in the early modern English fascination with the preservation of life.

Among various secrets and recipes that I continue to sift through in my research, one note in particular has stayed with me as my first encounter with what the early moderns referred to as the Homunculus. In this brief but bizarre description, Simon Forman defines the Homunculus as a materially constructed figurine that can be manipulated:

Homunculus is a lyttelle ymag or man made to
the form of a man or woman in mettall wax or clay
or cloutes or paste by the which a man may Worke
& doe many thinges in good or ill to the partie for whom it
is made (Ashmole MS 1494, 579)

It calls to mind analogous references, as in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, in which the Duchess refers to a traumatic image making her waste away more “Than were’t my picture, fashion’d out of wax, / Stuck with a magical needle, and then buried / In some foul dunghill” (4.1.63-65). If the Duchess’s wax picture, manipulated and buried to cause an effect on her, serves as an example of something like a Homunculus, I wondered if there were any receipts that detailed the making of a Homunculus in this way.

What I’ve ended up finding is indeed a recipe for a Homunculus, but in a different form than I’d expected. In John French’s Art of Distillation (1653), a chapter called “The famous Arcanum, or restorative Medicament of Paracelsus, called his Homunculus” provides a recipe for the production of the Homunculus in one of its various forms.[1]

French first clarifies that “Homunculus” referred to three distinct but related realities:

  1. it was “a superstitious image made in the place or name of any one,”
  2. it was “an artificiall man, made of Sperma humanum Masculinum, digested into the shape of a man, and then nourished and encreased with the essence of mans bloud; and this is not repugnant to the possibility of Nature and Art. But is one of the greatest wonders of God which he ever did suffer mortall man to know,”
  3. and it was “a most excellent Arcanum or Medicament extracted by the spagyricall Art” (115).
Homunculi in the human semen. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Homunculi in the human semen. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In other words, the homunculus was an image or an artificial man, much like what Forman and what Webster’s Duchess describe, but it was also a medicine.

Furthermore, what interested me is that the recipe to make the Homunculus as “medicament” was, as French notes, “in part…set down allegorically.”

The recipe begins familiarly enough:

Take the best Wheat and the best Wine, of each a like quantity, put them into a glasse, which you must hermetically close: then let them putrifie in horse dung three days, or until the Wheat begin to germinate, or to sprout forth, which then must be taken forth and bruised in a Mortar, and be pressed through a linnen cloth, and there will come forth a white juice like milk; you must cast away the feces: Let this juice be put into a glasse, which must not be above half full; stop it close and set it in horse dung as before, for the space of fifty days. If the heat be temperate, and not exceeding the naturall heat of a man, the matter will be turned into a spagyricall bloud, and flesh, like an Embryo. (115)

After a while, the recipe begins to take on the form of allegory (French explains that “thus you have the four Elements separated from the Chaos of the Embryo”) (116).[2] Finally, ending in the typically symbol-laden language of alchemy, what French refers to as the “two former sperms, viz. of the man and woman, the parents of the Homunculus” are “closed up together in a glazen womb sealed with Hermes seals for the true generation of the Homunculus produced from the spagyricall Embryo” (117). This, in terms, he concludes is “the Homunculus or great Arcanum, otherwise called the nutritive Medicament of Paracelsus” (117).


The virtues of the medicinal Homunculus, French finally explains, are that once the “nutritive Medicament” is presumably ingested and “turned into bloud, and spirits,” it works not only to overcome diseases, but additionally “By this Medicament…youth is renewed, and gray hairs prevented” (117).

Thus my first foray into the Homunculus, as with most research leads, ends here with more questions than answers. How does the medicinal Homunculus relate to the symbolic or effigial Homunculus, and how do they contribute to early modern ideas of the renewal of youth or the reversal of time? What purpose does the allegorical serve in a genre like the receipt or recipe, and what can such recipes tell us about the different symbolic registers within which medicinal substances signify? The preponderance of questions gives me hope that there are rich connections to be made here. There is more to learn, I imagine, about the curious case of the Homunculus in literature, medicine, and recipes.


[1] John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1653). For more on distillation and a fascinating annotated later edition of French’s work, see Katharine Allen on “The Art of Distillation.

[2] I’d be curious to look further into the clear connection between “allegorical” recipes and the “visual recipes” in alchemy that Anke Timmermann makes reference to in her post on images in alchemical manuscripts.