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: ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures

Everything seems to be unseasonably in bloom in England at the moment–blossom, daffodils, snowdrops, crocus… It is beautiful, to be sure, but horrible for us hayfever sufferers who are walking around with blossoming noses and eyes.

The Recipes Project now has over 700 posts in our archives. (Thank you to our wonderful contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes!) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be overlooked. So the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers, making old material new once again.

Unsurprisingly, this month I was inspired to look for various flowers in our archives. What inspired me most was the sole entry on crocus–which, in this case, does not even refer to a flower! I’m going back to Tara Albert’s post from 2014.

Two ‘Infallible’ Missionary Cures in Seventeenth-Century Southeast Asia

by Tara Albert

The life of a seventeenth-century Catholic missionary in Asia could be arduous. Many newly arrived missionaries documented their difficulties with the local climate, food, water, and troublesome insects. Above all they fretted about the unfamiliar illnesses that plagued them, and which could bring their endeavours to a premature end. Their letters are peppered with references to concerns about health, and with requests for and advice about available remedies. Preserved in the archives of the Société des Missions Étrangères in Paris is a copy of such a letter, sent in 1692 by missionaries in the Society’s seminary in Siam (Thailand) to their confrères working in Tonkin (Vietnam) (AMEP vol. 850, pp. 152-64). The letter is typical of its genre, containing news, requests for information, pious sentiments, and advice. It also contains intriguing and unusual paragraph – described as a ‘recette’ in the archive’s descriptive catalogue – concerning the use of two curative substances. Breaking off from some unrelated news, the authors suddenly decide to advise their colleagues that:

Crocus metallorum is made from prepared antimony, and if it is infused in grape wine it makes emetic wine, so this crocus is taken solely for purging and evacuating from above and below; it is used for almost every sort of illness, as long as the patient still has enough strength. The dose is from 18 to 30 grains, which is given to the strongest. It is neither heated nor boiled, nor mixed with anything else, it is simply swallowed in wine, or in water, or with sugar, or with a fig – indeed it doesn’t matter with what as long as it is swallowed. Cinchona is a bark from a tree which comes from the New World: an excellent and near infallible remedy to cure all sorts of fevers which are not accompanied by oppressions or inflammations of the chest: it was an English doctor who recently brought these barks to France. We think we sent you the method to use this in the last year, but just in case we’re sending it again this year. (p. 160).

The inclusion of this paragraph raises a number of questions about missionary medicine. In my previous work, which explored conversion to Catholicism in Southeast Asia, I discussed how missionaries often presented themselves as healers in order to convince people of their spiritual powers. This ‘recipe’, however, points to another set of issues which merits further investigation, relating to missionary engagement with medical developments and controversies in Europe, and about missionaries’ interests in using relatively ‘new’ techniques and materia medica on their mission fields.

The first cure – crocus metallorum – is a preparation of a substance which has been discussed before on this blog: antimony. The discussion of its use in this letter is almost an anti-recipe: the remarkable effectiveness of this remedy was such that the composition of the delivery mechanism was unimportant. Indeed the initial illness of the patient hardly mattered – this was a true cure-all. The use of antimonial cures had been extremely controversial throughout most of the seventeenth century. Following a décret of the Sorbonne’s faculty of medicine, and an arrêt of the Parlement of Paris in 1666 permitting their use, they became increasingly sought after.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London La calcination Solaire de L'antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.  Wellcome Library, London
La calcination Solaire de L’antimoine. From Nicholas Le Fevre, Traicte de la Chymie (Paris, 1660), opp. p. 899.
Wellcome Library, London

The second remedy is also a miracle cure of sorts: the ‘near-infallible’ bark of the Cinchona tree, a source of quinine, effective against malarial fevers. No mention is made of the rival missionaries who were associated with this remedy in Europe: the Jesuits, who played an important role in its dissemination. We know from other letters that French Jesuits had supplied some of this bark to Missions Étrangères priests in Siam in the 1680s.  But this letter – which had earlier mentioned the tensions between the two societies – only mentions the ‘English doctor’ credited with introducing the substance to France. This is most probably a reference to Robert Talbor, whose secret recipe for a fever cure based on Cinchona had been revealed in a book published in 1682, shortly after his death. The letter promises that a fuller account of the means of preparing this bark will be sent to Vietnam. I have yet to find this account, but it would be interesting to compare the method to the Talbor recipe, and to Jesuit recipes of the same period.

Both substances held great promise:  they seemed to be extremely efficacious and had become famous, even fashionable in France in the last decades of the century. The use of both medicines by royalty had undoubtedly added to their appeal, and encouraged their acceptance by the medical establishment. Louis XIV had been successfully treated with antimonial wine; Talbor’s cinchona remedies were also credited with saving the life of the king’s son. Yet both remedies were also controversial. Naysayers continued to raise doubts about their efficacy and safety, and about the probity of those who would prescribe them. In many ways they represented new approaches to medicine, championed by those who sought to isolate universal remedies and infallible cure-alls. It seems that members of the Société des Missions Étrangères embraced these approaches, and helped to introduce these ideas to their mission fields.

Boiling Milk: Experimenting with Boerhaave’s Little Furnace, Part III

By Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen

Fig. 1. Ruben keeps an eye on the temperature.
Fig. 1. Ruben keeps an eye on the temperature.

It has been exactly 350 years since Herman Boerhaave’s birthday. What better way to honour the renowned professor than to redo some of his old experiments? 

On Monday 31st of December, in the year 1668, Herman was born. And already as a kid, he and his brother James probed the curiosities of nature: plants, minerals, liquids and bodily fluids. As Herman recalled some 30 years later, “how many whole days and nights we have spent successively together in the chemical examination of natural bodies” [1]. It must have been around this time that Herman invented his little furnace.

“I’ll put an alarm to take the milk out of the freezer,” Marieke texted Ruben the week before New Years’. Between all the Christmas dinners, the 31st was the only day still free to meet up over the holiday. Weeks before we had bought Irish turf online and collected raw milk from a farm near Delft, as well as from a breastfeeding friend . Having finally found the time, we gathered their materials together and started experimenting.

Why Milk?

As a physician, Boerhaave was fascinated with the human body. How does it work? What is it made of? Boerhaave soon realised that a newborn solely grows on breastmilk. Mothers eat their food and digest it with juices from their intestines; after circulating in their bodies, the fluid concocts into chyle and develops into the maternal sustenance in their breasts. Not only human babies, Boerhaave reasoned, but all mammals are nourished by milk and can grow solely on it. “Milk, therefore, appeared to be the first thing to be examined.” [2]

Making Curd

Fig. 2. 4PM: Raw milk heated with vinegar gives you cheese - well, sort of.
Fig. 2. 4PM: Raw milk heated with vinegar gives you cheese – well, sort of.

We set out to replicate the first experiment, titled “fresh cow’s milk coagulates with acids, even in a boiling heat.” We lit the turf in the fireplace. Once it was hot, glowing, and smelling, Marieke put some in an earthenware bowl and placed it in our wooden furnace to let it heat up. Meanwhile Ruben added vinegar to fresh milk in a glass vessel. As the fluid was gradually heating up in our furnace, parts of the mixture were slowly coagulating into curd.

We were basically imitating the cheese-making proces – a more than common practice in the early modern Dutch Republic. Boerhaave, however, assigned physiological significance to this process. For the cheese could be hardened and burned, smelling like bone – proving that even the hardest parts of a baby’s body could have its origin in milk. “This is a strange change of so fluid a matter as milk, but is, perhaps, the origin of all the solids in the body.” [3]

Red Milk

The second experiment was to show how “recent cow’s milk coagulates, turns yellow, and red, by boiling over the fire with fixed alcali.” We basically repeated the previous steps, but instead of using vinegar we added ammonia. Slowly but surely, the white fluid indeed turned yellow, then a dark orange – and was about to turn red. Here we had to stop, unfortunately, because the turf was cooling down, and it was getting dark outside.

Yet via this relatively simple process, Boerhaave confirmed a common illness: milk fever. The milk from mothers suffering from fever “becomes yellow, saline, thin and sanious.” [4] It also clarified why Dutch cows gave yellow milk during the 1714 outbreak of cow’s fever.

Fig. 3. 6PM: Raw breast milk heated with ammonia: 'bloody' milk?
Fig. 3. 6PM: Raw breast milk heated with ammonia: ‘bloody’ milk?

So What Have we Learned?

First, turf smells! We can only surmise that our early modern colleagues were simply oblivious to the smell due to its omnipresence. Second, our apparatus passed the test. Boerhaave’s little furnace successfully kept the heat inside at an evenly distributed yet high temperature (around 60℃). This is an important feat, especially when working with milk. Anyone who has ever boiled milk knows how easily it becomes a big mess when you don’t pay attention for just two seconds. Yet we were able to have 15-minute glühwein and oliebollen breaks without any problem. 

Third, our experiments have shown us how relatively easily some of Boerhaave’s experiments can be replicated – as opposed to some of his contemporaries who made secret potions or applied intricate and dangerous procedures with metals and minerals. Historical reproduction, reconstruction, and re-enactment are methodologically complex and potentially problematic because of the impossibility of repeating history and reliving the experiences of historical actors. Yet our experiments do enhance our understanding of the past; they make our historical understanding more holistic, less linear and text-based. [5] For example, these experiments help us to understand why Boerhaave was such a popular teacher; with the help of a small oven based on his design, students could learn by doing. 

Fourth, with more time and patience we could have gained better results. This is the case with everything, of course. Yet some of Boerhaave’s experiments with milk – for example the milk turning sour by digestion (i.e. at 37℃) – is described as taking twelve days! Lastly, replicating early modern experiments is fun. We won’t deny that working on your object of study outside the library is refreshing. The photos and videos of the process have a public appeal too. We hope you enjoyed it.



[1] ‘Dedication’ in Herman Boerhaave, Elements of Chemistry (London, 1735), A3r.

[2] Herman Boerhaave, A New Method of Chemistry (London, 1741), 2, 185.

[3] Ibid., 187–188.

[4] Ibid., 188–189.

[5] Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art: Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Technniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63 (2010): 128–79. Marieke M.A. Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy. The Eighteenth-Century Leiden Anatomical Collections (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015), Chapter 1. Donna Bilak et al., “The Making and Knowing Project: Reflections, Methods, and New Directions,” West 86th 23, no. 1 (2016): 35–55. Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum, “From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again : Experiment as a Tool for the History of Science,” Ambix 63, no. 2 (2016): 85–97.

Fertility in the Early Modern Household

Leah Astbury

Domestic recipe books in early modern England abound with remedies to promote conception and prevent miscarriage. Frances Springatt’s recipe book, for example, contained a remedy ‘To help conception and strengthen Nature’, taken morning and night.[i] Notably, the vast majority of these receipts were explicitly for women, and in particular, intended to cleanse the womb. The Boyle family book contained a remedy for ‘Barrenness’ that opened up the womb when ‘shutt up, cleanseth the Same, Cherisheth the Seminal Vessels, Comforteth and Enliveneth the Womb & maketh it fit for Conception.’[ii]

Fig. 2. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 1. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The historical consensus has been, in Olwen Hufton’s words, that ‘under most conditions’ childlessness was attributed to female incapacity in early modern England. Aside from ‘brewer’s droop’ and impotence from bewitching, early modern people would have failed to consider the possibility of male impediment.[iii] Jennifer Evans’ work on fertility and aphrodisiacs has shown, however, that printed medical guides and advertisements understood problems with husbands, wives, or the couple together as causes of childlessness.[iv] So why then in domestic receipt books are remedies that target the causes of male sterility – weak seed, frail erection and lacklustre desire – so hard to find? This tension between the possibility of male infertility in printed material and absence in personal collections points to a complex system in which women were positioned as the caretakers of fertility, even if their bodies were not at ‘fault’. To revise Hufton’s claim, early modern people did know that men were responsible for childlessness but worked to minimise evidence of this. In this post I’m going to offer a few hints in domestic recipe books of the ways in which wives might labour to improve their own, and their husband’s, fertility without making male impediment or failure known. This is part of a larger book project examining the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and afterbirth care in early modern England.

Fig. 1. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 2. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The first clue is in the prevalence of recipes that promised to reveal which party was responsible for childlessness. Such tests normally involved husband and wife each urinating on a seed or grain and observing their growth; the seed that failed to thrive indicated sterility. The inclusion of these diagnostic tests in domestic collections indicates at least a willingness to consider male impediment, even if evidence of their use is lacking.[v]

Second, the gender of the intended recipient of fertility recipes was often left unspecified or vague. Two remedies in the Jerningham family recipe book, one to ‘stir up’ lust and another to ‘causeth conception’, did not specify whether they were for a man or woman.[vi] Others were explicit that they could be useful for men and women. Frances Springatt’s remedy to help conception (Fig. 2) included the instructions that ‘man should take of it as well as the woman.’

More evidence can be found in recipes that were designed to be administered before or through the act of sex. Jane Jackson’s book instructed the user to anoint the man’s ‘yard’ with a concoction before sex in order to further chances of conceiving.[vii] Another suggested that both the ‘yard’ and the ‘womans private alsoe’ should be anointed. Then, the husband should simply ‘deale with her; and shee shall conceaue.’[viii] Such remedies configured men as the agent of cure, even if they were actually the intended recipients.

Recipe books did contain remedies to strengthen the yard, but importantly never mentioned sexual function. James Shrowl’s recipe book contained a remedy ‘To heale any Lame Member’ in which the ‘member’ was bathed for half an hour, ‘chaft’ with an ointment and then wrapped in lambskin before bed.[ix] Generation or even the ability to have sex was not mentioned. Many of these remedies were concerned with curing venereal disease and one might imagine rich fodder for the historian of fertility. And yet genital problems in men, in this context, were rarely linked to sexual performance or generative ability, further evidence to suggest that male sexual impediment was more embarrassing than childlessness understood to come from problems with the womb.

A final example from the almanac of Sarah Jinner suggests the ways in which male fertility was expected to be discretely managed by wives. The recipe section in Jinner’s almanac, which she advertised, ‘might be kept in good case and serve to the mutual comfort of man and woman’, included ‘A Confection to cause fruitfulness in Man or Woman.’ This powder, she noted, could be surreptitiously sprinkled ‘upon the parties meat’.[x]

The remedies found in domestic books skirt around the topics of weak male seed and impotence, but reading against the grain reveals the ways in which domestic practice, and in particular wives, might be able to manage male impediment without naming and shaming.


[i] Frances Springatt (& others) 1686-1824, Wellcome Library, MS 4683, fol. 92r.

[ii] Boyle Family, ‘Receipt Book’, Wellcome Library, MS 1340, recipe 312 fol. 86r.

[iii] Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her. A History of Women in Western Europe, vol. 1 (London: Fontana Press, 1997), p. 174. Randolph Trumbach makes a similar argument in The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England(London: Academic Press Inc., 1978), p. 167.

[iv] Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2014).

[v] As Catherine Rider has shown on this blog, these tests were not new to the early modern period and can be found as early as the twelfth century. https://recipes.hypotheses.org/2017

[vi] Jerningham family recipe book, Staffordshire Record Office D641/3/H/1, p. 63 and p. 67.

[vii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 82v.

[viii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 83r.

[ix] James Shrowl, 1625-c.1750, Wellcome Library, MS749, unfoliated.

[x] Sarah Jinner, An Almanack and Prognostication for the Year of Our Lord 1659 (London: 1659), sig.B8r.