Category Archives: distillation

When Physicians Give Up: Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici’s Infant Convulsion Powder

By Ashley Buchanan

Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici
Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici by Antonio Franchi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On July 19, 1736, Baroness Massimilianna Moltke wrote Anna Maria Luisa, the Electress Palatine and last Medici princess, to thank her for sending a “miraculous powder” to treat infant convulsions, or “male caduco.” In the letter sent from Vienna to Florence, the Baroness stated that the powder had had extraordinary effects on three children from the most important families of Vienna. She went on to explain that these children had been so violently taken by convulsions that the physicians had “given up on them.” Not only had the powder from “la Serenissima Elettrice” cured the children, the baroness also stated that a number of months had passed and the children remained in perfect health. The baroness concluded her letter by thanking Anna Maria Luisa and assuring the Medici princess that the three most prominent families of Vienna would be eternally grateful and would always remember “Vostra Altezza Elettorale e Serenissima” for her generous gift.

Of the over two hundred culinary, alchemical, and medicinal recipes that Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743), collected during her life and which are preserved in the Archivio di Stato of Florence, this one recipe for infant convulsions stands out.[1] The recipe called for the precipitated powder of three ounces of human skull from a person who had died violently but had not been buried, two ounces of oriental pearls, and two ounces of red and white coral. These precipitated powders were then combined with one ounce of amber, one ounce of peony root, and one ounce of peony seeds. The recipe then instructed that all the ingredients be pulverized together and passed through a fine sieve.

Once the powder was prepared, the recipe then prescribed giving five grains of it to the afflicted child. Requested by elite men and women in numerous epistolary exchanges, this powder was continually lauded for its extraordinary effects in curing infants of life-threatening convulsions.

The letter of Baroness Moltke is just one of many letters concerning a medicinal remedy that the electress exchanged with Italian and European noblemen and women. Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe for infant convulsion powder and the epistolary exchange that promoted it were part of a system of courtly gift giving which supported the personal and familial strategies of the European nobility. While women could not participate directly in the new court science of experimentation, recipes represented an acceptable means to access, exchange, experiment with, and distribute medical knowledge.  As the letters exchanged between the Medici princess and European nobility show, the infant convulsion powder became a meaningful and lucrative form of social currency in court politics.

The worth of this powder lay in the nature of the victims it reputedly cured. The ability to treat and cure such an ailment that affected the children of elite families garnered great social and political capital. It is no coincidence that the three children Anna Maria Luisa “cured” in Vienna belonged to three of the most important families of that country. By 1737 Anna Maria Luisa’s social and political position was tenuous—she was the last of the Medici line. Born in 1667 in Florence, Anna Maria Luisa was the only daughter and second child of Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  In 1691, she was married to Johann Wilhelm II (1658-1716), Elector Palatine.  She lived in Düsseldorf, her husband’s capital, until his death in 1716. A year later Anna Maria Luisa returned to her native Florence. During Anna Maria Luisa’s twenty-six year absence neither of her brothers, Ferdinando or Gian Gastone (1671–1737), had produced a Medici heir. By 1737 the Medici state would become a Hapsburg satellite, ruled by the Lorraine dynasty.

As a widow and last member of the Medici line, Anna Maria Luisa would have played little significance in the social and political negotiations and familial dynastic strategies of early modern Europe. However, as a source of medical knowledge—via a recipe—and the keeper of a powder that was widely distributed and known to cure infant convulsions, she possessed an important commodity for elite families. Paradoxically, Anna Maria Luisa was able to do for others what she could not do for her own family line: ensure its continuation. By distributing her prized remedy, Anna Maria Luisa created political alliances and interpersonal relationships with important elite families across Europe. Relationships she could call upon as she carried out the difficult tasks of managing the difficult transfer of power to the Lorraine dynasty and ensuring her personal legacy.


[1] A special thanks to the Medici Archive Project whose generous Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust fellowship made this research possible.

The Working of Herbs, Part 7: Preparing Herbs Together in a Recipe

By Anne Stobart

In a previous post I looked at how herbs in a recipe might work medicinally. But medicinal recipes rarely contain a single ingredient (which would be known as a ‘simple’), and so we should also assess how the herbal ingredients in a recipe might work together. Much depends on the kind of preparation used in a recipe and how the combination of herbs might work together.

What kind of preparation?

Fortunately many recipes tell us about the processing steps involved–which may include grinding, mixing, straining, heating and more. Once we identify the form of preparation, we can consider

  1. which medicinal constituents might be extracted
  2. the likely bio-availability of the constituents and
  3. other benefits or disadvantages arising from combining the herbs.

(1) Extracting medicinal constituents

The way in which recipe ingredients are processed is significant as, broadly speaking, different plant constituents will dissolve best in water or alcohol. Most of us are familiar with the process of standing leafy herbs in hot water to make tea, and such an infusion will dissolve constituents like tannins and alkaloids. A decoction is based on a lengthier process of boiling bark and roots and may extract more constituents. However aromatic or resinous constituents need to be dissolved in alcohol or evaporated. The process of distillation is likely to produce more aromatic results which I look at it in more detail below. Other processes might not involve liquids at all, for example when ingredients are burnt to ashes – leaving mostly mineral salts.

(2) Bio-availability and choice of preparation

Bio-availability refers to the extent of absorption of nutrients or medicaments in the body and the amount of active substance which is made available in the body. The type of preparation indicated in a recipe can have a considerable effect. For example, the use of oils and fats as a vehicle (or carrier) in an ointment is essential for plant constituents to be absorbed and penetrate the skin barrier. However, the importance of preparation and bio-availability is an aspect of herbal history which is poorly understood despite numerous research studies in ethnopharmacology.[1]

(3) Combining herbs

Synergy (the whole is greater than the parts) is an important concept in modern clinical herbal practice. Some plant constituents are known to enhance the action of others or make phytochemicals more readily available in the body.[2,3]

Distillation – the process

Woman with bellows. Michael Schrick, Von allen geprenten Wassern (Nürenberg: Jobst Gutknecht, 1530, title page). Image credit: National Library of Medicine.
Woman with bellows. Michael Schrick, Von allen geprenten Wassern (Nürenberg: Jobst Gutknecht, 1530, title page). Image credit: National Library of Medicine.

The process of distillation would have had a significant effect in isolating the more soluble and readily evaporated plant constituents, the terpenes. This usually involved boiling plants in water and collecting the steam when cooled back to a liquid, as in the image above.[4] The product of distillation includes both floral waters and essential oils which float on top of the water and so can be separated. As a rough guide, many plants yield around 1% of essential oil from steam-treated plant material, as well as larger quantities of a floral water. [5] The recipe I have been looking at in recent posts involves distillation.

The receit of the water for affter Throwes

Take two hanfull of Isope two of peneroyall and two hanfull of Groundsell one handfull of wild mints two hanfulls of balme: …. then still the hearbes and water togather in a rose still then let the Glass bottle stand in the Sume Sinnce two Months Close Stopped from any Ayre it Makes the water much better.

This recipe would have produced a distilled water containing small amounts of essential oils, known as a hydrolat.[6] Of particular note, the immediate products of a distillation are often chemically reactive and the instruction to let the distilled water stand for two months would give a more stable aromatic product. The resulting water would have contained greater quantities of terpenes or essential oils than an infusion and relatively few alkaloids.

Towards a protocol for the working of herbs

In this series of posts I have been aiming to make explicit the various issues and resources that may be relevant in thinking about the potential medicinal actions of herbs in recipes. In the next post (and last in the series of eight) I will overview the protocol as a whole.


[1] See ‘Introduction’ in Susan Francia and Anne Stobart, eds. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine: From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p.6 and n.22.

[2] Simon Mills and Kerry Bone. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. Churchill Livingstone, 2000, p.23.

[3] See Francis J. Brinker. Complex Herbs – Complete Medicines: A Merger of Eclectic & Naturopathic Visions of Botanical Medicine. Sandy, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 2004.

[4] See also Anne C. Wilson, Water of Life: A History of Wine-Distilling and Spirits, 500 BC-AD 2000. Totnes: Prospect Books, 2006.

[5] Jane Buckle. Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone, 2003, pp.59-61.

[6] Shirley Price and Len Price. Understanding Hydrolats: The Specific Hydrosols for Aromatherapy. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2004.

A cordial for those on a budget

By Jennifer Munroe

When we read recipe books, we are accustomed to seeing lists of ingredients (and accessories) that might lead us to infer a difference in how much they cost to make. One recipe from the Sloane collection in the British Library helpfully makes these differences explicit for the reader: “The Great Palsy Water” or, a “Lavendar Cordial” from “My Lady Rennelaghs Choice Receipts: as also Some of Capt Willis who valued them above gold” (Sloane 1367, ff. 7v-9):

The great palsy water, wch also is of exceeding vertue in all soundings, weaknesse of the [drawn pic of a heart] & decaying of the spirits & ye best remedy in all apoplexy, palsy, epilepsie both to help in the fitt & to prevente it, also in all pains of the joints coming of cold, in all bruises outwardly bathed or diped clothes in it & laid to it, It strigthneth and comforst all animals vital & natural spirits [cleareth] ye external senses, strengthneth the memory, restores lost appetite, all weaknesse of the stomake both taken inwardly and bathed outwardly. It taks away gidenesse of the head & helps lost memory, brings a pleasant breath, it helps ye lost speech & all cold dispositions of the liver & a beginning dropsie, it helps all cold diseases of the mother (f.7v).

The list of ingredients includes such common plants as lavender, cowslips, betany, and borage; but it also includes items that would be more difficult to obtain and expensive, such as cinnamon and orange flowers. One of the most striking features of this recipe is the number of ingredients—over nineteen total—and the rather complex process of combining, steeping, distilling, pressing, and straining that is involved.

But under the same recipe heading for the palsy we also find an alternative version, “An other water of the same of lesse price”. This second, cheaper version has approximately half the ingredients, most of which could be grown or easily obtained by the user: lavender, rosemary, sage, or marjoram. The process of preparing said water/cordial is also more simple, substituting, for example, a “gallon glass” for the proper limbeck. Although the ingredients must be distilled and takes six weeks preparation time for each version, the second involves fewer steps and omits the more specific imperative found repeatedly in the other version: to keep it “very close stoped & clad with a bladder & see nothing may breath out.”

So what might we make of these differences? Why would someone, when it was not the common practice, offer alternative recipes for the same ailment with clear delineation by cost? And why include the two different versions of the same recipe under the same heading, when it was common to see multiple recipes for the same ailment listed under separate headings anyway, as was the case in this book as well?

This two-tiered (according to cost) recipe has me wondering who the book’s compiler imagined as his audience. The book seems to have been compiled by Captain [Thomas?] Willis, a Civil War soldier and esteemed physician, but the recipes here are attributed to the well-known sister to Robert Boyle, Katherine Jones (Lady Ranelagh). In addition to the attribution of these remedies to such a respected source, there are other hints that Willis was interested in it serving as a comprehensive and authoritative source for remedies. For instance, the book incorporates scientific symbols for measurements.

Willis’ differently-priced versions suggests how the book was imagined as both authoritative and inclusive. It allowed for a professional (or pseudo-professional) readership and users who might be interested in recipes as a form of “experiment”, while inviting a more common practitioner to share the discursive and practical space on the page and in a kitchen-laboratory.

I don’t know the answers. But what I do know is that seeing such differentiation in this book has made me ask new questions about other ones and to look for further evidence of class distinctions within recipes—whether in the accessibility and costs expressed in lists of ingredients, or the availability of materials that are required for the processes they describe.

At the same time, it makes me think that we should be asking ourselves whether these recipes can tell us something about the daily experience of early modern people, with moments of inclusion less bound by class than we might otherwise believe. It seems that a person using this recipe, even with its declared different versions, finds it as part of a larger manuscript that did not to hierarchize based on cost, education, and access to professional circles. After all, why would someone who might need a lower cost water for the palsy consult a book in which we find evidence of an interest in more professional “scientific” approaches to remedies if that person did not have some interest in and feel qualified to use the other recipes as well?

So, this blog post really offers less in the way of answers and proposes questions that I hope we can address collectively. And somehow that seems to suit the spirit of such a book!

A Recipe for Disaster: How not to Distill Turpentine

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.