Category Archives: Germany

Distilling Vernacular Medicine

By Tillmann Taape

As Katherine Allen has pointed out in her post, distillation was regarded as a powerful way of separating and purifying earthly matter, and was central to the alchemical pursuit of the philosophers’ stone. And, yes, the odd gallon of whisky was also a much-welcomed product. This view of distillation is reflected in the textual processes that charaterise the Western alchemical tradition. Beginning with twelfth-century translations of Arabic texts into Latin, scholars constantly excerpted, compiled, translated, and digested all available knowledge, identified what was useful, and then compounded it to suit different tastes and purposes.

This double importance of distillation – techical and textual – is highlighted in the first distillation handbook ever printed, the Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus, also known as the Small book of distillation, which was published in 1500 by the Alsatian surgeon and apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–1512). While this book contains numerous recipes for distilled waters, it can also be seen as representing in itself a recipe for acquiring and presenting medical knowledge. Despite its Latin title, it was written in German, and quickly became a best seller, no doubt cashing in on the growing popularity of distilled medicinal waters. To teach his readers the art of distilling, Brunschwig drew on his wide reading (over three thousand books, according to him) and practical experience to concoct ingredients from different traditions of knowledge.

Brunschwig was well-versed in the alchemical literature, which at the time mainly circulated in manuscript form. Publishing his book in print, Brunschwig introduces a broad public to an  alchemical understanding of matter, and how it can be transformed and purified. In fact, the process of distillation itself is defined in these terms, as “nothing but to separate the subtle from the gross and the gross from the subtle, […] to make the physical more spiritual, [so that it] may more easily penetrate the human body with its secret powers and virtues” (SB 1509, fol. 6r.). This extraction of the useful from the superfluous is also an important process in vernacular medical literature, and Brunschwig extracts not only from alchemical sources, but also boils down the essence of the learned medical tradition.

With reference to ancient textual authorities such as Galen and Dioscorides, he briefly explains the workings of the human body in terms of the four humours which govern an individual’s ‘complexion’, with diseases representing a deviation from this humoural balance. This can be readjusted by administering medicines distilled from plants, or even animals, with the appropriate qualities.[1] This precarious balancing act means that a sound knowledge of medical ingredients was essential, which is why a large portion of the Small book  is taken up by a herbal section. It offers some of the best botanical woodcuts produced at the time, paired with encyclopaedic entries listing each plant’s appearance, medicinal qualities, and the distillation process by which these might best be extracted.

The third major source for Brunschwig’s distillation project, artisanry, has closer links with alchemy than one might at first suspect: as historian Pamela Smith has shown, early modern craftsmen subscribed to an alchemical worldview, and were confident that their personal observation and direct physical engagement with natural material was a reliable source of knowledge.[2] Brunschwig shared this view: based on his own experience with distillation procedures, he is able to anticipate pitfalls (e.g. don’t let a heated glass vessel cool down too quickly, or it will crack!), and to dispense practical advice on the quality and proper manipulation of different stills and vessels. This technical know-how boiled down into an easy-to-follow series of short chapters, which really starts from scratch. There is even a life-sized picture of a mould which should be used to shape the curved bricks needed for building a round furnace, and set in its centre, was a poem summarising the key points to remember.

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

A mould for shaping bricks from Brunschwig’s distillation manual. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

Brunschwig’s manual, then, not only contains valuable recipes for harnessing nature’s healing powers through distillation, it also represents in itself a recipe for the production of a best-selling and highly usable book: he compounds his knowledge of texts with his own experience and observation. He digests, extracts, and purifies his intellectual and technical ingredients, and where other compilers often produce turgid mixtures of jumbled-up recipes, Brunschwig manages to distill clear and useful knowledge from learned medical, alchemical and artisanal traditions. His example was followed by many early modern compilers of medical printed books, and the Small book itself went through an intriguing series of transformations in its various editions, including an English translation which appeared as early as 1527. But we certainly shouldn’t think that the story of textual digestion and excerption stops there: as Katherine Allen discussed, and as I have seen in the Small book, readers were assiduously annotating their copies. They highlighted what was most useful for them, added to the information, and cross-referenced entries, thus achieving another level of distilling textual knowledge.

[1.] For more on humoral theory and the logic behind materia medica, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case” and Alun Withey’s post on “‘Weird’ Remedies and the Problem of ‘Folklore‘”.

[2.] P. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Idem., “In a Sixteenth-Century Goldsmith’s workshop”, in L. Roberts, S. Schaffer and P. Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007), pp. 33–57; Idem., “What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”, in E. Leong and A. Rankin (eds.) Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 47–66.

The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books Part I: Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book

By Sylvie Neven

During the mediaeval and early modern periods, artisanal knowledge was notably transmitted in collections of recipes, of which hundreds of examples exist in addition to the well-known ones–such as the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus (ca. D 1100)[i] or Il libro dell’arte of Cennino Cennini (ca. 1390)[ii]. The so-called Strasbourg Manuscript is a well-known example of this type of artistic literature. This artist’s recipe book, whose content has been dated to the beginning of the early fifteenth century, is believed to be the oldest German-language source for the study of Northern European painting techniques.

The art-technological instructions of the Strasbourg Manuscript cover a wide range of crafts. They are mostly dedicated to painting and illuminating and, in particular, to the preparation of pigments (refining, grinding, suitable mixing, building up of layers of paint, and using gold or its imitation in gilding). Some recipes concern the manufacture of specific binding agents, glues and varnishes to be used on various artistic supports. Others correspond to instructions for auxiliary crafts such as polychromy and mural painting, dyeing of textiles and skins, the preparation and the colouring of the parchment support, or the working of metal.

Unfortunately, the Strasbourg Library Ms. A VI 19, in which these technological instructions were originally preserved, was destroyed during the 1870 fire in the Strasbourg Library. By chance, a few decades before, a copy of the recipe book was made for Sir Charles Eastlake, the first director of the London National Gallery. This was partly published in 1847. The two later main editions of the text are based solely on this transcription[iii].

Since its discovery, the text of the Strasbourg Manuscript has been frequently cited by scholars and has been renowned for being the Nordic counterpart of the famous Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. Numerous studies have referred to its technical content within the context of analytical reconstructions or for the purposes of artistic attributions. However, the previous editions of the recipe book – on which these studies relied – contained many divergences and contradictions. No one has raised the question of the reliability of the nineteenth copy, nor questioned the degree of similarity between this document and the mediaeval recipe book. A few years ago, examination of the modern transcription led me to suspect that its accuracy is questionable; closer reading of the artistic recipes of the Strasbourg Manuscript highlighted anomalies within the text.

To favour the current use of the Strasbourg recipe book and to counteract the lack of the original text, I have proposed a new revised edition and translation, based on the modern copy, the two editions and other historical witnesses of the text[iv].

As with many mediaeval and early modern recipe books, the Strasbourg Manuscript was the result of copying and compiling various sources. Its content appears in other contemporary recipe books and persists in treatises such as the edition of the Valentin Boltz von Ruffach’s Illuminierbuch (1549). The manuscripts related to this tradition mainly originated from the South of Germany and North of France. Within this textual and technical ‘Tradition’, the Strasbourg Manuscript is the oldest surviving example[v].

The new edition of the Strasbourg Manuscript allows an overview of the current structure of this recipe book, which has had several amendments and loss of physical material. It aims to determine the location of corrected or amended errors or lacuna in the nineteenth copy, thus offering an opportunity to reconstruct the text of the lost manuscript. The conclusion? The text of the Strasbourg Manuscript is a result of contributions from textual and oral sources.

The systematic comparison of all the witnesses of this tradition of artists’ recipe books, taking into account the inherent characteristics of these writings (historical, codicological, textual and technological), has also been exploited for diverse purposes–which I will discuss in future posts.

Within the witnesses of this tradition, the Strasbourg recipe book has not been copied word-for-word. It has been subject to additions, elisions and corrections. Studying the textual modifications during its spread and interpretation of its variations or errors across provides a deeper understanding of the historical context for its production. It has also suggested the ways in which these sorts of recipe books were handled by their many scribes and owners.

Finally, comparative analysis of all the witnesses to this textual and technical tradition clearly signals their analogies and divergences, which are meaningful in terms of the original function and use(s) of these texts. This kind of observation, and the conclusions that can be made from them, allow for a better assessment of the relevance of artists’ recipe books within the framework of historical artistic practices.


[i] Dodwell, C.R., Theophilus, De diversis artibus. The various arts. Translated from the Latin with Introduction and notes, London, 1961 ; Hawthorne, J.G. and Smith, C.S., De Diversis Artibus of Theophilus, Chicago, 1963, 1979 (edition and English translation). See also BREPOHL, E., Theophilus Presbyter und das Mittelalterliche Kunsthandwerk, 2 volumes (1. Malerei und Glass ; 2. GoldschmiedeKunst), Cologne-Vienna, 1999 (edition and German traduction).

[ii] Thompson, D. V., Cennino d’Andrea Cennini da Colle di Val d’Elsa. Il Libro dell’arte, New Haven, 1932 ; Brunello, F., Cennino Cennini, il libro dell’arte, commentato e annotato da Franco Brunello, Vicense, 1982 ; Deroche, C., Il libro dell’Arte, traduction critique, commentaires et notes, Paris, 1991.

[iii] Berger, E., Quellen und Technik der Fresko-, Öl- und TemparaMalerei des Mittelalters von der byzantinischen Zeit bis einschliesslich der Erfindung der Ölmalerei durch die Brüder van Eyck, 3 (Beiträge zur Entwickelungs-Geschichte der Maltechnik), Munich, 1897, pp. 154-175 ; Borradaile V. and R., The Strasbourg Manuscript. A Medieval Painter’s Handbook translated from the old german, Londres, 1966.

[iv] Neven, Sylvie, Les recettes artistiques du Manuscrit de Strasbourg et leur tradition dans les réceptaires allemands des XVe et XVIe siècles (Étude historique, édition, traduction et commentaires technologiques), thèse de doctorat en histoire, art et archéologie, Université de Liège, janvier 2011.

[v] A new philological analysis of Eastlake’s transcription has allowed a more precise date to be suggested. Orthographical features and connections with some archival documents from the Strasbourg Chancellery and documents of the painters’ guild regulations allow us to propose a date of ca. 1400.