How to correct Plato, alchemically?

By Bojidar Dimitrov, AlchemEast Project

Jabir Ibn Hayyan is a figure of key importance for the development of alchemy and chemistry. A vast body of literature virtually covering the entire spectrum of ancient science has been attributed to the Islamic polymath, and yet much of the little we know about him remains shrouded in mystery. The very historicity of Jabir’s person and the authenticity of his works have been the subject of rigorous scholarly debate. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of the texts which belong to the Jabirian corpus have not been edited and published.

The scant biographical data provided by mediaeval Islamic sources and Jabir’s own works suggests that his lifetime spanned the period between ca. 721/725 and 812/815 AD. The so-called Jabir Problem mainly revolves around different aspects of this alleged historical context. The ambiguous relationship between the Arabic Jabirian corpus and the nascent alchemical tradition of the Latin West is the other major side of the conundrum. 

Paul Kraus’ ground-breaking studies on Jabir[1] proposed that the Jabirian corpus was probably compiled over a longer period of time by a school of alchemists who circulated their works under Jabir’s name. Similar doubts were already expressed by mediaeval Islamic scholars, and Kraus’ detailed analysis of the language and the content of seminal texts argues that the scientific terminology, doctrines and references to Greek authorities found in them point to a later stage of Islamic intellectual history, which began in the ninth century. Kraus’ conclusions have been debated by scholars since their publication in the 1940s, but the scope and depth of his research remain unmatched to this day.

One of the current objectives of the AlchemEast Project is to make available a collection of alchemical recipes belonging to a sub-genre of Jabir’s corpus. Plato’s Rectifications is the only surviving collection of a cycle of pseudepigraphical ‘rectifications’ associated with ancient authorities. The work is presented as a commentary on alchemical doctrines ascribed to Plato that the Greek sage is said to reveal to his disciple, Timaeus. The ninety recipes involve alchemical procedures with mercury which are intended to illustrate the application of Plato’s theories.

Socrates discussing philosophy with his disciples (from a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript).

Jabir’s attribution of alchemical material to Plato is pertinent to the reception of Platonic influences in Islamic alchemy and the wider context of Islamic thought. While Jabir’s system incorporates key Neoplatonic traits of Greek philosophical alchemy, its experimental and arithmological developments are highly original and do not seem to derive from extant Greek texts. Furthermore, no alchemical texts are attributed to Plato (or Socrates) in the Greek tradition.[2] There are, however, Syriac recipes attributed to Plato, and he is generally accorded a prominent place in Arabic occult literature. Such facts may indicate that Jabir could have been influenced by late antique Neoplatonic traditions of a distinctly Near Eastern flavour.

An excerpt from Rectification Nr. 14 presents a recipe which involves the heating and cooling of mercury:

Then he said: take ten measures of spirit (i.e. mercury), put it in the middle gourd (i.e. glass vessel), and tighten upon it the alembic which has no aperture (i.e. valve). Heat it over gentle fire for ten days, then cool it off on the eleventh. Repeat the operation and gather the first water. The gourd containing mercury will be heated, or joined to the other gourd until it (i.e. mercury) dissolves in one of the two gourds. Take the thickened [residue], put it in the second gourd, and heat it until it melts, becomes liquid and turns red. Then heat the water until it boils and [the condensate] starts dripping all over the residue, [so that] it swells, absorbs some of the water and is incerated by it, and yields. It will become like wax, just as we described initially, and [even] better. If the procedure starts by heating the water until [the condensate] drips over the residue, it will be dissolved, and both will be dissolved, coagulated and incerated together, [and thus the procedure] is also complete. Peace.

Image 2: Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS, BNF Arabe 6915)

Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS BNF Arabe 6915).

The text exemplifies the fluidity of content that alchemical recipes often exhibit. The procedures it describes are relatively simple, but the textual variants in the manuscripts allow different possibilities. The translation above is not conclusive, since the relationship of the alembic and the two vessels is somewhat ambiguous. According to certain readings, for instance, the second vessel and the alembic must be alternated during the process of dissolution. The examination of further textual variants and manuscripts can expand our understanding of Jabir’s technical methodology. Ultimately, the intertextuality of Platonic pseudepigrapha found in Jabir and other traditions calls for an overarching discussion of Plato’s role in alchemical discourse. Whether this role was itself rectified by practitioners over the centuries, or the fluctuations we encounter in manuscripts are of a purely textual nature, are the main questions AlchemEast aims to address.


[1] Paul Kraus, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Vol. II. Jābir et la science grecque (Cairo: Mémoires de l’Institut d’Égypte 45.1, 1942).

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

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
Credit: 
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.

Eating Right in 1950s Educational Films

By Jonathan MacDonald

There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, or so argued the creators of Coronet Instructional Films. In their mission to educate American youth in the post-World War II decade, the Coronet film catalog made sure that children and teenagers knew the steps to right living. In their filmography, one can find ten-minute fictional prescriptive films produced on seemingly any topic of concern to the young student: family relationships, school, social life, dating, exercise and hygiene, and food and diet. Beyond their kitsch value, Coronet’s films (and those of their contemporaries) offer scholars a rich source on the ideological dimensions of public education in the immediate postwar decade.

After decades of social instability caused by rapid urbanization, economic depression, and war, proponents of “Life Adjustment Education” believed that the key to new social stability and economic prosperity was education. These Life Adjusters were ready with two intellectual tools to remake American education. In one hand was their reading of American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey’s (1859-1952) writings on progressive education; in the other was the latest psychological research into the developing minds of children and adolescents. Life adjusters sought to educate “the whole child,” including that child’s physical and social needs. This tradition began to fizzle after Brown v Board of Education (1954) and Sputnik (1957) brought national urgency to issues like racial justice and scientific literacy.

Art's mother brings breakfast to the table. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
Art’s mother brings breakfast to the table. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

Coronet produced the bulk of their filmography from 1947-1953. During this time, their staff researchers drew from life adjustment discourses while writing film scripts and corresponding with educational collaborators. Together, filmmakers and educators produced many dozens of films that offered direct advice to their young viewers.

Art's poor dietary habits separate him from his peers. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
Art’s poor dietary habits separate him from his peers. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

The Food that Builds Good Health is a 1951 film that excellently depicts the concerns of life adjustment educators. Intended for elementary school children, the film’s main subject is a young boy named Arthur (Art) Baker who “is pale and underweight [and] doesn’t have much energy.” As an off-screen narrator explains the importance of good diet, viewers watch a day in the life of Art. He begins his morning by barely touching his home-cooked breakfast. Next, he watches from the sidelines as his classmates play at recess, each “full of vigor and vitality, cheerful smiles bright eyes, [with] strong and husky bodies.” Art, on the other hand, simply cannot keep up. Thankfully, science class helps Art figure out why his health lags behind that of his peers. As an experiment, Art’s science teacher feeds two pet guinea pigs different diets. One is healthy and energetic due to his balanced diet; the other is lethargic, with greasy, matted fur.

Art considers the diets of the class guinea pigs. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
Art considers the diets of the class guinea pigs. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

After feeding time with the classroom pets is over, Art’s teacher leads the class in an explanation of food and diet. Viewers learn that proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water are all important in the body’s growth, repair, energy, and regulation. And to get these healthful nutrients, it is explained, one must eat foods from across the spectrum of food groups: “milk; vegetables; fruits; eggs; meat, cheese, or fish; cereal or bread; butter or margarine.” The narrator continues, “It’s up to you…if you do eat the right foods regularly, your body will get all the materials it needs for good health.” The latter half of the film shows Art take this message to heart, as he helps his mother with the grocery shopping and commits to “eating a good helping of everything from the table,” even the foods he does not like. The final scene shows Art, now healthy and energetic, preparing to play baseball with his classmates.

The building blocks of good health. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
The building blocks of good health. Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

Life Adjustment Educators inherited the paternalism of their progressive-era forebears and were often deeply skeptical of the home-lives of America’s schoolchildren. Health and diet were not idle concerns for educators in the postwar decade. General Education in a Free Society, a 1945 Harvard report to the United States government on schooling, worried that for the nation’s youth, “the elementary facts about diet, rest, exercise…will have to be learned away from home if they are to be learned at all” (p. 174). Harl R. Douglass, a life adjustment educator and sometimes collaborator with Coronet went further, saying that if “children [could] be taught sound health and nutritional practices… they in turn become powerful persuaders in carrying the instruction into the home and thus changing family practices.”[1]

“Art is not so fond of tomatoes, but if they help make us healthy, he’s willing to eat them. And who knows, he’ll probably grow to like them.” Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.
“Art is not so fond of tomatoes, but if they help make us healthy, he’s willing to eat them. And who knows, he’ll probably grow to like them.” Image credit: The Internet Archive, A/V Geeks Collection.

The Food that Builds Good Health works in the grey area between familial authority and school authority. The film is careful not to contradict the parental prerogative: Art gets all of the food that he needs at home, he simply refuses to eat it. His picky eating and subsequent “malnourishment” is a habit that his hapless parents have allowed to develop. Thankfully, the school is able to step in and correct Art’s behavior through rational persuasion: stating the facts. Armed with these facts, Art takes his health (and his life) into his own hands, much to his mother’s delight — and all in the space of ten minutes.


[1] Harl R. Douglass, ed., The High School Curriculum (The Ronald Book Company, New York, 1947), p. 173.

Jonathan MacDonald is the Project Coordinator for Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library. He holds a M.A. in History from Virginia Tech, where he completed a thesis on the social-scientific roots of mid-twentieth century American educational films.

Interview with the author: Elaine Leong

Our very own Elaine Leong’s new book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England has just come out with the University of Chicago Press. We are super excited to offer you this interview with the author.

TRP: Congratulations Elaine on your new book! We have read it with such pleasure. Ina few sentences, could you tell our readers why they should read it too?

Sure! My book offers a window into the rich and diverse knowledge practices in early modern English households. Using a range of sources such as recipe books, letters and more, it brings into focus what I term “household science” – that is, quotidian investigations of the natural world – and situates these within broader and current conversations about gender and cultural history, the history of the book and archives and the history of science, medicine and technology. Using a number of case studies, I argue that household science involved a range of activities from conducting structured, multi-stepped recipe trials to gaining in-depth knowledge about the natural and material world. I also show that knowledge-making in the home was deeply framed by a number of concerns, from social obligations to household economies to family strategies.

All that said, if you’re interested in 17th century methods for fattening turkeys, pickling samphire, brewing ale or creating a family archive, this is the book for you.

TRP: What drew you to researching household medicine? Why is this important?

The sources! Very early on in my research career, I spent a few amazing days in the Wellcome Library looking at their manuscript recipe collections and was hooked! I had so many questions during those first few encounters with the manuscripts, many of which became central themes in the book. For example, my initial curiosity about how these books were created and how the know-how contained within was tried and tested were developed into chapters 1 (Making Recipe Books in Early Modern England), 3 (Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step) and 4 (Recipes Trials in the Early Modern Household) in the book. For me, recovering the everyday knowledge practices of the household is crucial as it pushes us to recognize that exploration of the natural world can happen in the humblest circumstances and conducted by a wide range of actors.

TRP: Your book contains several beautiful illustrations, including photos from manuscripts. Can you tell us a little about the materiality of recipe writing in the Early Modern England?

For sure. As some RP readers might know, I have long been interested in paper use within the household. Working on this project, I was struck by the many ways in which householders used pen and paper to record and communicate knowledge practices. Many used their notebooks from front and back, entering culinary recipes on one side and medical ones on the other. Others used multiple notebooks to separate different kinds of tasks. Within the books themselves, we see householders annotating, writing over and scrawling out recipes. I use these very material practices to tease out the multi-step assessment processes used in recipe trials.

The cheesecake recipe in the Godfrey family collection is one of my favorite examples as it shows how the family tried over and over again to test and modify the ingredient proportions and baking instructions, only to declare it “not to be write”, i.e. not to be added to the family’s go-to recipe book. This eagerness to preserve or salvage the recipe, as I termed it, is due to the fact that the know-how was afforded both social and epistemic value. If recipe exchange was a way to strengthen social relationships and build networks, it makes sense that householders thought twice (or three times) before discarding the gifted recipe.

Cheese cake recipe in the book of the Godfrey family. Wellcome Library Western MS 2535, p. 5. With kind permission from the Wellcome Collections.

TRP: Since we are in the festive season, could you tell us a bit about ‘Bess’ Turkey’,which you discuss in your book?

Ha! That is one of my favorite episodes in the book. The dozens of detailed letters between Johanna St. John (see here and here) and her steward Thomas Hardyman were a really lucky find and made writing the chapter about household management super fun. In the end, it was difficult to pick and choose between the numerous examples offered by their epistolary conversations. I settled on talking about raising turkeys, maintaining the Lydiard garden and distilling medicines to display the broad range of natural, material and technical knowledge utilised by householders (masters/mistresses and servants) on a daily basis.

The turkey episode was fascinating. At first, I was a little surprised to discover that turkeys occupied such a central place on early modern tables, and reading deeper into the letters, I found the “turkey letters” (as I call them) to be revealing of contemporary knowledge about animals and the difficulties of managing a household from afar. Basically, in this period, Johanna St. John and her family were residing in Battersea but relied upon their country estate at Lydiard Park near Swindon to produce a myriad of foodstuffs from turkeys to bacon to cheese to venison. A run of letters demonstrates Johanna’s particular concerns about her dairymaid Bess’ skills in rearing turkeys. She continually pleaded for more turkeys to be sent to London and repeatedly complained that the sent turkeys were either not fat enough or past their prime. Wonderfully, Johanna tries a number of strategies to encourage or scare Bess into doing a better job and ends up offering detailed instructions on how to feed turkeys. Initially, this seemed like a lot of fuss about poultry but contemporary menus revealed a food economy where one turkey was transformed into a number of meals. Like 21st century cooks, the St. John household first ate their turkey whole and then feasted on the leftovers like cold meat or turkey hash for many meals afterwards. The final piece of the puzzle came when Johanna confided in Hardyman that she’d love a turkey to give away. It turns out turkey was one of Johanna preferred “little presents” (as Felicity Heal terms them), in the vibrant early modern economy of food gifts and returned favors. 

Second to Bess’ troubles with fattening turkeys, my other favorite episode in that chapter involves the runaway gardener and bickering over plant cuttings. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more.

Image of a turkey taken from Conrad Gesner, Historia animalium (Tigvri : Apvd Christ. Froschovervm, anno MDLI[-MDLXXXVII] [1551-1587]). With thanks to the National Library of Medicine.

TRP: One aspect of your work that stood out for us was your attention to recovering the experiences and expertise of servants, not just of gentlemen and gentlewomen? How did you go about this?

This is a wonderful question. As all our readers know, while manuscript recipe books are rich and fascinating sources, they are mostly created by gentlemen and gentlewomen. Early modern gentry households though, as social historians have shown, were filled to the brim with people, each with a specific role. While the mistress and master of the house have received quite a bit of attention in the past, I was really eager to dig deeper into who did what and into the social relationships and power dynamics between the different actors. With my focus on household science, I was also interested in finding out more about what Steven Shapin has termed “invisible technicians”.

As I outlined in the previous question, I was lucky to find the series of letters between Johanna and her steward. Johanna was quite the micro-manager and so it made it possible to understand the various tasks taken on by household servants and the complex web of obligations and expectations held by both parties. Another series of letters, this time about beer brewing and water boiling, between Edward Conway and his nephew Edward Harley further revealed how Conway viewed the Petworth brewers in incredibly high regard, refusing to conduct recipe trials on their advice. The appearance of dairy maids, gardeners, herb women, cheesemakers, brewers, stewards and more in these letters remind us of the need to view early modern households as collective of knowers and makers and to tease out dynamic relations within these communities.

Aside from these two runs of letters,  I also scoured handwritten recipe books for hints of servants’ experiences and expertise. As readers of the book will discover, sometimes these were noted in recipe titles, other times it might just be a change of handwriting. I remain committed to recover the knowledge activities of a wide swath of historical actors. I think that there is still a great deal of work to be done here which makes for many fascinating research projects to come (see for instance Leah Astbury’s project).

TRP: Could you share with us an anecdote or story about your research?

Gosh. This has been such a long project that there are definitely stories, though most are quite nerdy. One thing though sticks in my mind. Years ago, when I worked at the University of Warwick, I sat next to the inestimable Bernard Capp for some seminar or another. In passing, Bernard mentioned to me that he had just read a letter where the writer claimed that he was sent recipes which had originated from the writer’s own collection. I was fascinated and followed-up the generously provided citations. The letter was sent by Viscount Edward Conway to his nephew Sir Edward Harley and one in a series of letters which I now consider one of the most revealing sources about recipe knowledge in early modern England. In them, Conway described how he assessed recipes on paper, assigned expertise and detailed how he sent Harley on recipe hunts or to follow-up on his recipe trials. The Conway/Harley letters formed the central case study for my third chapter “Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step” and were crucial in helping me figure out the rich knowledge practices behind the hundreds of recipe books in our archives. I probably would never have found the letters were it not for the chance conversation. In many ways, this anecdote reflects some of the main arguments of the book – that knowing so often comes from the “practices of everyday life”.

Recipes and Everyday Knowledge is available and also directly from the University of Chicago Press website where readers can 20% off the list price using the code UCPNEW.