Category Archives: Students

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.

Eighteenth-century DIY

by Sally Osborn

Sometimes among the culinary, medical, veterinary, cosmetic and household recipes in manuscript books one comes across some that would fall under the category of DIY in modern terms. These can range from a recipe for a relatively simple product that we would now buy off the shelf, such as green paint (why it’s nearly always green I’m not sure, but it was a fashionable colour) or paint for garden walls. The more adventurous might go for roughcast (pebbledash) or ‘A colouring for the out side of buildings according to Mr Clarkes men’ (both in Add MS 29740, British Library).

However, other recipes smack of a ‘project’ such as might enthuse a modern DIYer. A different anonymous contributor to the manuscript containing the above two sets of instructions collected this detailed guidance for whitewashing:

Best drift sand washed quite clean, best new lime (stone lime if possible) well hair’d: a bushel of lime before it is slacked requires a bushel of sand; one coat laid on thin with a plasterers trowel and floated well as they come on. When it is dry, it must be washed with whatever colour is thought proper, and a little fine sand in the wash is the better: thin size is used at Sir Tho. Sebrights to slack the lime for the wash but not at Mr Brand’s.

Note 1. The length of the cradle for whitening the house is about 12 feet, and the breadth about 3 feet 6 inches, the rails about 3 feet high, to keep the men in; a set of pullies at each end to draw it up and down, this will hold three or four men to work in, and may be hung between two long ladders or poles bearing against the cornice, or from the top of the house.

2. The brick-work should be dashed well before the coat of plaister is laid on, and all projections should be leaded or slated.

3 The price is eight pence a yard-square, if all materials cradle &c are found and bought by the bricklayer, six pence if you bring them and find them yourself; and about three pence if you find all materials and the bricklayer only workmanship. NB. white wash and all is included in this calculation.

Or how about making your very own ice house? Very useful for those fashionable table centres and the new craze for ice cream. This is how you did it (Add MS 29435, British Library):

The well to be the shape of a cone inverted, to be at the top [missing] foot over 17 foot deep; a grate to be fixt 4 foot from the bottom to support the ice – a pump with a small tube to be fixt on the wall that is round the well, which wall ought to be 4 foot wide within the ice house: The wall to be made of loam or cob, & straw well mixt two foot thick & 3 foot high. The entrance should be a porch to the north 5 feet long & the breadth at pleasure with two doors. the roof to be thatch’d thick, the wall to be turf’d. The well to be lined with straw & when you fill it ram it all & heap it up in a point like a double cone

All you need is a garden big enough…

Ice (Fires Foe): Some lessons in love and burning

By Phoebe Dickerson

What should you do if you burn yourself? Ideally, you’d stand bent over a sink of cool or tepid water for half an hour. Instead, if you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to run around clutching some frozen peas to the afflicted area. Or maybe you’d try smearing on some antiseptic ointment. However, if instead you were to turn to the celebrated Dutch physician, Paul Barbette (d. 1666) for advice, you’d be recommended to take a quite different approach. In his Thesaurus Chirurgiae (first translated into English in 1675), he writes:

The chief care must be to draw out the fire, by which in a light burning you preserve from Blisters and Ulcers; in a great one, you free from all danger; therefore, what Medicine soever is at hand, is presently to be used; let the hurt Part be held to the fire, and fomented with Ink, Lye; or let there be applied Soot, or an Onion beaten with Salt.[1]

While the notion of applying Soot, Ink or Lye to a burn is positively eye-watering, it hardly stands out among the wealth of curious balms and plasters that fill the pages of any early modern recipe book: the concept, however, of holding a burn to a fire – of letting it get nice and toasty – is, even within this context, glaringly misguided.

Was Barbette’s a voice in the wilderness? Certainly, I have not come across this precise recommendation anywhere else: nonetheless, it is worth considering that the notion we readily accept today, of reducing the heat of the area by applying something cold, was considered – and frequently dismissed – by early modern thinkers as a ‘contrary’ remedy. Such treatments were widely thought to aggravate the constitution into dangerous imbalance. George Acton for example, in 1670, expounds against the ‘extinction of praeternatural heat by cooling Medicines, and refocillation of cold, by heating ones.’ [2] Arguing that heat and cold were symptoms – rather than causes – of ‘the enraged Vital Spirit’, Acton asks :

‘Does not Fire burn most vehemently, when constring’d by an extreme cold of the ambient? And hot water sooner extinguish Fire than cold, because sooner penetrating its Pores? I could multiply arguments against the Method of curing Diseases by contrary Remedies.’

Barbette’s suggested burn treatment adheres instead to the logic of sympathy, according to which the heat in the wound would be attracted to the original heat of the fire.

‘An Unknown Man with Background of Flames’ c. 1600 (V&A) attrib. Nicholas Hilliard (click on image to link to the image’s entry on the V&A’s website)

The notion that cold would only exacerbate a burn has implications outside the medical realm: indeed, it finds explicit poetic expression in ‘The Exclamation’ [3], a mid-century love-lyric by Hugh Crompton (fl. 1657). The speaker advises his reader thus:

‘Ice (fires foe) laid to the skin
Thats burnt, will cause the flesh to turn
Into a blister, and within
With greater vehemency to burn!’

His purpose with this medical tit-bit is, of course, romantic: with this poem – half plaint, half invocation – the speaker, burnt by love, asks that his beloved’s ‘icy heart’ might melt and ‘reflect’ the warmth of his own burning heart. He says,

‘[…] thy heart will me affect,
And with enlivening flames me cherish.’

Where her cold heart’s frigid enmity endangered his heart, her hoped-for warm heart – newly aflame – will offer sympathy. It does not dim or extinguish the lover’s passion: rather, the flames of her love are ‘enlivening’ where, alone in the cold, his own were destructive.

Burning hearts and freezing mistresses are common Petrarchan conceits, pervasive in the period’s literary and artistic (see above) effusions of amorous feeling. Crompton’s words may seem a cocktail of early modern romantic cliché and ill-founded medical beliefs. Nonetheless, there is something at once unusual and appealing in the fact that his allusion to burns so closely echos the language of contemporary physicians. In addition, it so happens many modern doctors would agree with his words: the NHS website advises us to ‘never use ice or iced water’. The Mayo-clinic advises that ice can ‘cause a person’s body to become too cold and cause further damage to the wound’.

So, a caution, if you will: whether you are a lover – or simply someone with a nasty kitchen burn – think twice before you reach for the frozen peas. And whatever Barbette says, if you’re already burnt, perhaps you should stay back from the fire.

[1] Paul Barbette, Thesaurus chirurgiae : the chirurgical and anatomical works of Paul Barbette (London : Printed for Henry Rodes, 1686), p. 191

[2] George Acton, A letter in answer to certain quaeries and objections made by a learned Galenist against the theorie and practice of chymical physick… (London : Printed by William Godbid for Walter Kettleby), 1670, p.

[3] Hugh Crompton, Pierides, or, The muses mount by Hugh Crompton, Gent. (London : Printed by J.G. for Charles Web), 1658, p. 79.

Tobacco Smoke Enemas in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Medicine

By Katherine Allen

Over the holiday I was working on a transcription of an eighteenth-century recipe book and came across an initially humorous recipe for treating ‘the winde & Collick’ (Wellcome, WMS 3500) which goes as follows:

And so is tobacco given in A pipe [when] it is well Lighted the small end to be oyled and put up into ye fundament and some body put the great end into their Mouth and blow the smoake up into the body this never fails to give ease to the winde collick you may put A small Glister pipe into the body and put the small end of the pipe Tobacco in the End of ye Glister pipe this way will Convey the Smoak into ye body very well. (fol. 87r.)

This surprising description of getting a companion’s assistance in administering the remedy has inspired me to write this post on the history of the familiar phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’ and the possible use of tobacco glisters in eighteenth-century domestic medicine.

Tobacco Plant. Image Credit:

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a type of herb in the night shade family Solanaceae. It was smoked by indigenous peoples in the Americas as far back as 1000BC, but gained popularity in Europe and in global markets through trade in the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, tobacco was a popular luxury good in England and was increasingly consumed more for pleasure than medicinal treatment.

But how was tobacco used as medicine in the early modern era? Discussing the humoral and astrological qualities of tobacco, Nicholas Culpeper stated in an eighteenth-century version of his herbal that it was a hot and dry herb under the dominion of Mars. Tobacco was useful as an infusion for vomits, rheumatic pain, and piles. As a distilled oil, it was used for aching teeth however, ‘the distilled oil is of a poisonous nature; a drop of it taken inwardly will destroy a cat’. Culpeper also praised tobacco as an expectorant, a digestive aid, and a pesticide for vermin and for preventing plague.[1]

Those who are familiar with recipe collections will have surely come across at least one recipe using tobacco, and the most common recipe seems to have been a tobacco ointment. The Tyrrell Family collection has one such recipe which called for bruised tobacco leaved infused in red wine and then boiled in hog grease along with tobacco juice and beeswax.[2] Tobacco has astringent qualities and acts as a coagulant, and would have been an effective ingredient in salves for treating wounds. Another recipe stated that the tobacco salve ‘is an excellent Mundifier [cleanser] and healer of old sores, and Ulcers, if the sores be first washed with a little good brandy, which ought to be done, till the sores look fresh, which it will do in 3 or 4 dayes if this course be taken.’[3]

Wellcome, WMS 7822, fol. 11r. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

But, when and how did tobacco smoke enemas come into use and how did this treatment come to be in a household book of remedies? The phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse’ means to get a rise or reaction out of someone, sometimes by giving them insincere compliments for attention. This phrase originates from the practice of using smoke enemas to resuscitate near-drowned victims via stimulation and it was first practiced by indigenous groups in North America.[4]

During the eighteenth century, tobacco smoke enemas were used by humane societies across Europe, including the Royal Humane Society in London, to resuscitate victims.[5] Culpeper included the tobacco enema under treatment advice for the inflammation of the intestines induced by colic or hernia and suggested that it ‘is of singular efficacy in obstinate stoppages of the bowels, for destroying those small worms called ascarids [roundworms], and for the recovery of persons apparently drowned.’[6] Physician Richard Mead was a proponent of the tobacco glister, using it to treat iatrogenic drowning caused by immersion therapy for hydrophobia and mania, and later Thomas Sydenham wrote a treatise on its use in bowel obstructions.[7] The use of this treatment declined in the early nineteenth century when it was affirmed that the nicotine found in tobacco can stop blood circulation if there is too much in the body, as in the case of an enema.[8] By the mid-nineteenth century the enemas were not used by the medical faculty.

Tobacco Pipe Enema circa 1773. Image Credit:

There is no author associated with the tobacco glister recipe found in MS 3500, but it is likely that this information was communicated to the compiler by a physician. This particular collection is dated 1688-1727 and was owned by a Mrs. Meade (and others), but it does not appear that she was related to Dr. Richard Mead. Several of the recipes are however directly attributed to Dr. Richard Lower for treating the young Nathaniel Meade, one of which is a purge dated the 1st of December, 1688.  There is also one recipe attributed to Dr. Needham on the page before the tobacco glister recipe.

Considering that tobacco enemas were only in vogue from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, it is unusual to find this medical advice in a domestic collection, let alone one dated from the early eighteenth century. As it is improbable that an eighteenth-century household would have had its own tobacco pipe for administering a glister for bowel complaints, I suspect that this recipe is an example of a physician’s remedies being copied into a domestic collection. More importantly, this is an example of how recipe books were continually evolving and being updated alongside innovations in the medical faculty. What started as a chuckle over an amusing recipe has led me to explore the history of this peculiar remedy from its use by the medical faculty to its indigenous origins; giving a whole new meaning for me to the phrase ‘blow smoke up one’s ass’.


[1] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Family Physician; or Medical Herbal Enlarged. Vol. 2 (London, 1782). p. 134.

[2] Wellcome, WMS 7822. Anon [Tyrrell], ‘Collection of Medical and Cookery Receipts, 17thC-18thC’, fol. 11r.

[3] Wellcome, WMS 1796. Anon, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts, c. 1685-c.1725’, fol. 64r.

[4] Raymond Hurt et al., The History of Cardiothoracic Surgery from Early Times (London: Parthenon, 1996). p. 120.

[5] Lawrence Ghislaine, ‘Tools of the Trade, Tobacco Smoke Enemas’ The Lancet vol. 359 issue. 9315 (April 2002): 1442.

[6] Culpeper, p. 281.

[7] Thomas Sydenham, ‘Schedula Monitoria, or an Essay on the Rise of a New Fever’ in Benjamin Rush, The works of Thomas Sydenham, M.D., on acute and chronic diseases: with their histories and modes of cure (Philadelphia: B & T Kite, 1809). p. 383.

[8] Ghislaine, 1442.