Category Archives: distillation

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.

What Recipes Can Teach Us About Reading

Frances Catchmay, Recipe Book (c. 1625), MS184A/65, Wellcome Library. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. The digital image of this item is copyrighted work made available under Creative Commons (by-nc 2.0 UK: England & Wales).
Frances Catchmay, Recipe Book (c. 1625), MS184A/65, Wellcome Library. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. The digital image of this item is copyrighted work made available under Creative Commons (by-nc 2.0 UK: England & Wales).

By Jennifer Munroe

When I teach recipes, I often focus on what they might tell us about women’s domestic work, questions of amateur versus professional labor, and the historical context of early modern science. But recipes have much to teach us about the practice of reading as well. This summer, Rebecca Laroche and I co-lead a workshop at the Attending to Early Modern Women Conference where just such a question emerged.  Attending to Early Modern Women is a unique academic meeting: rather than traditional panels, the conference hosts a series of 90-minute workshops which facilitate active participation and focused discussion.  Workshop organizers circulate readings, questions, and other materials in advance, and then on the day of the conference, they frame them and open up discussion.

Conference Website, Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.
Conference Website, Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.

We divided our participants into small groups (4 or 5 people each) and had them transcribe a recipe. Our directions were deceptively simple: after they transcribed the recipe, they were to consider what they think they know about it as well as what questions it raised for them.

"Teaching Early Modern Recipes in the Digital Age," Program for Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.
“Teaching Early Modern Recipes in the Digital Age,” Program for Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.

When we discussed their findings, one of the groups commented that they were surprised how recipes work against our typical linear narrative reading practice. This comment has left me pondering. Such comment caused me to reconsider how I might use recipes not only in classes with early modern concerns but courses that query the nature of texts and textuality more broadly. This fall, I will teach a graduate seminar that introduces students to the discipline of English—literary theory, textuality, authorship, etc. What if, I’ve been thinking, I have these students think about how recipes make us read differently, how they make us rethink how texts work?

A very good aproved medicine for soore eyes

Take in the month of May milke from the cowe before it be cowlde

& put it into a still & distill it when you have the water sett it

in the sonne x: or xij dayes then put to every pinte of water

as much camphire as a walnutt, if there be any heate in the

eyes use it cowlde, if not use it blood warme


Take this recipe I cite above, from Lady Frances Catchmay (d. 1629), “A booke of medicens” (Wellcome ms. 184a). What this recipe does not include is perhaps as interesting as that which it does. We know that one should collect milk in a specific month, May, warm milk (it is fresh); we know that once the milk is distilled, one should combine what remains with a walnut-sized portion of Camphire (probably camphor); and we know that the temperature of the eyes matters: if a patient has cold eyes, the application will be different than if s/he has warm eyes. But as each progressive step is dependent on what precedes it, the practice of creating this recipe, let alone reading it, is predicated on a folding back onto itself of information and action. How “cowlde” would be the right temperature? How much distilling is required to “have the water sett”? How would one know if ten or twelve days is the correct number to leave the distilled liquid in the sun? While walnuts have a generally consistent size one to another, how can one be sure to use the right walnut as sizing agent for the camphor? And what if the eyes are somewhere in-between warm and cold? How to know whether to apply the remedy on the colder side or “blood warme”?

This recipe (and I would say most other recipes) permits us to proceed in a linear way, but to understand it fully, we must move back and forth through it multiple times, ultimately coming to interpretation rather than answer. And isn’t this how texts work, really? We think we know, and we want the teleology of beginning-to-end movement, but to experience a text fully necessitates that we navigate it in messy ways, negating the definitive qualities of what we think are “page” or “book.” Reading is a practice, and the practice of (and articulated by) recipes-as-texts can help us reorient ourselves to other texts with which we are more familiar—literary or practical. Or so I hope to convince my students this fall.