Category Archives: Series: Distillation

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!

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.

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.


Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).