Category Archives: Material History

Alchemical Recipes in the AlchemEast Project

By Matteo Martelli

What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.

The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.

This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.

Cinnabar (from the Monte Amiata mine, Tuscany) and metallic mercury

But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.

In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle.[1] The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).

Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction).[2] With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.

Pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder in a ceramic mortar

After grinding the mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’ mercury were moving.

Mercury “floating” on a blackish layer of residues

The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar.[3] Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.

Mercury-tin amalgam

We may preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even mineral) body:  did this idea in some way depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating cinnabar with a variety of metals?

This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.  This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.


[1] David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.
[2] Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.
[3] Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.


Do Objects Lie? Teaching About Food, Material Culture, and Evidence

Carla Cevasco

During my most recent move, I observed (while sweating, and swearing, and trying to keep the packing tape from sticking to itself again) that kitchen items occupied more boxes than any other category of my possessions. Not even books could compete with the weight and bulk of my kitchen, from a sturdy stand mixer to far more glassware than any reasonable person should own.

It was a vivid illustration of how objects for storing, cooking, and eating food surround us. They are intimately related to our bodies, containing the food that we will incorporate into ourselves; some of them, eating utensils like forks or chopsticks, actually enter our bodies. Kitchen and dining items are powerful, and they are part of us.

In my teaching on American food history, I argue that food-related objects offer a rich site of interpretation, as part of my greater mission of teaching with things. Even if I can’t always bring physical objects into the classroom—like gingerbread made according to Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe, or a bottle of the Silicon Valley food replacement beverage Soylent—my students engage with visual or material culture in every class. Elaborate tea services illustrate tea’s value as an imperial luxury good for eighteenth century Americans—and emphasize its potency as an instrument of protest in the leadup to the American Revolution.[1] Racist images advertising baking powder and tinned meats in the late nineteenth century demonstrate both the growing business of industrial food, and the ways that stereotypes pervade everyday life, past and present.[2] Trays from mid-twentieth-century university dining halls reveal the shift to military-style dining after the second World War, and the growing concern about public health and nutrition for institutions, governments, and researchers in that period.

My students sometimes argue that material and visual culture are more inscrutable than texts, until I point out to them that they are the most visually-literate generation perhaps in all of history, spending hours navigating completely image-based social media applications. And, in fairness to my students, I didn’t encounter material culture as a field of study, or learn about the methodological rigor of art history, until I arrived to my PhD program and studied with an art historian and other scholars of material culture. But why do objects—despite the many many many examples of wonderful material culture scholarship on this site—seem so untrustworthy to students raised on Instagram and Snapchat?

So, when given an opportunity to make a pedagogical film at the Chipstone Foundation, a center dedicated to, among other fascinating things, research on early British and American ceramics, my colleague Christopher Allison and I decided to confront these questions head-on. How should we use objects as evidence? What can they tell us about the everyday lives of people, and the creation of archives? What if these objects are lying to us? (You can read more about the process of making the video here.)

The result is a Youtube video called “Do Objects Lie?” In it, Chris and I examine a variety of food-related items, from teapots shaped like fruits and vegetables, to pitchers depicting famous battles; from anthropomorphic teacups to, uh, chamber pots. These objects misrepresent the truth, or leave out important details. These omissions and elisions are, in fact, the most interesting part of the story, enabling us to ask questions about how history is made, how collections and archives are formed, and what these processes can tell us about ourselves. We have to engage mindfully with sources (textual or material), look for as many pieces of evidence as possible, and ask questions about how we know what we know. Teaching these practices to our students has taken on a fresh urgency as issues of history, media literacy, and truth itself dominate the news cycle.

I’ll be showing the video as I teach about questions of evidence and interpretation in classes on early American studies, American Studies methods, food history, and material culture. I hope it will be useful to teachers and students across disciplines, from history and art history to food studies and beyond. How might you use this video in your classroom? I look forward to hearing your ideas.

 

[1] Caroline Frank, Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), Chapter 5.

[2] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: NYU Press, 2012).

Tales From the Archives: A Recipe for Disaster: How Not to Distill Turpentine

In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, once a month, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I have chosen a piece written by Tillamann Taape. In this post, first published in July 2013, Tillmann writes vividly about alchemical disasters. Heat, unsurprisingly, comes into play. Enjoy!

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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.

 

From the Hearth to the Gas Stove: A Study in Apricot Marmalade

By Marissa Nicosia

The early modern hearth and the modern gas stove are rather different technologies for controlling heat. Again and again in my recipe recreation work for Cooking in the Archives, I encounter complex instructions for managing cooking temperatures on a hearth and try to translate those instructions to my own equipment. To what temperature should I set my oven? How high should I turn up the flame under the pot? What volume of water should I add when boiling water is called for and no volume is specified? How long should everything cook?

Early modern recipes trust that cooks know their hearth and ingredients well. Some recipes are very precise about weight and volume and others read like general concepts on which a cook might improvise as best suits their needs, inclinations, or tastes. Cooking these recipes on a hearth with variable fire types and temperatures demanded a skilled cook who could manage heat effectively.

This is the part of updating recipes that most challenges me: I have a PhD in English, but no formal culinary training. This is also the part of updating recipes where I have been most challenged by others. Members of the historical reenactment and historical interpretation communities have in turn urged me to try these recipes again on a hearth to taste the different flavors the fire instills and chastised me for attempting to cook these recipes without a hearth in the first place. As I grow as a cook and expand this project, I’m going to accept these kind invitations to cook alongside skilled recreators [1]. But Cooking in the Archives is a project designed to give all readers a taste of the past: even if those readers possess only the tiniest apartment stove. That’s the kind of stove that I had in my West Philadelphia rental when I launched the site with Alyssa Connell in 2014.

In order to cook these recipes on my stove, I have to determine some basic information: Is this something I should make on the stovetop or in the oven? In a pot, pan, or roasting dish? Is the recipe asking for water and should that water be boiled first or with the ingredients? To answer these questions, I naturally start with the recipes themselves. The phrases recipe writers use for the ferocity or gentleness of the fire are subtle, but informative. Then I look at recipes in modern cookbooks. The “Jumball” cookie mix looked like a shortbread cookie so I started with the oven temperature from a familiar cookie recipe and kept track of the time [2]. These are skills that I learned from baking growing up and cooking for myself while I was in graduate school, but not, exactly, skills that I learned in the academy. Neither humanities course work nor historical recreation holds all the answers for how to, say, make an apricot marmalade from a late-seventeenth-century culinary manuscript in a twenty-first century kitchen.

This recipe “To make Marmalaid of Apricocks” is from Ms. Codex 785 at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve prepared quite a few recipes from this specific manuscript, and this recipe, like a few others in the volume, derives from Hannah Woolley’s cookbook The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet (1670) [3]. This marmalade is both fragile and delicious. It needs the careful tending outlined in the original recipe. I have attempted to convey this level of care in my updated recipe at the end of this post.

To make Marmalaid of Apricocks

Take Apricocks, pare them and cut them in
quarters and to every pound of Apricocks
put a pound of fine Sugar, then put your
Apricocks in a Skillet with half the Sugar
and let them boil very tender, and gently, and
bruise them with the back of a Spoon, till they
be like pap, then take the other part of the
Sugar, and boil it to a Candy height, then put
your Apricocks into that Sugar, and keep it stirring
over the ffire, till all the sugar is meted, but
do not let it boil, then take it from the ffire,
and Stir it till it be almost cold, then put it
into Glasses, and let it have the Air of the
ffire to dry it.

Images 1 & 2 – The recipe in Ms. Codex 785, 6-7

The recipe asks you to boil the apricots with sugar until the fruit is so tender that it breaks down into a luscious pulp. Then the recipe instructs you to make a simple syrup of sugar and water and allow the mixture to come to candy height or what we would now call the soft-ball stage. Early modern cooks would have been especially skilled at the subtle art of watching sugar change under the influence of heat. The cook is next told to stir the apricot puree into the hot sugar over the fire and then off the fire until the mixture is almost cold. The final instruction: “and let it have the Air of the ffire to dry it” is the most evocative image for me. The preserved apricots in glass containers glowing in front of the hearth.

This apricot marmalade is delicious on toast, lightly crisped by the heat of a toaster oven or toaster, of course.

 

An Updated Recipe

8 apricots (7 oz, 200 g)

generous 2/3 cup sugar (7 oz, 200 g)

1/3 cup water

Peel the apricots, remove their pits, and cut them into quarters. Cook them to a pulp with half the sugar. The apricots will release their own juices so no water is necessary here. (Approximately 10 minutes.)

Make a simple syrup with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in a saucepan. Use a candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature and cook until it reaches candy height/pearl stage 240F on the thermometer. When the syrup has reached this temperature, add the cooked apricots to it. Stir to combine over the heat, but do not allow the mix to boil.

Remove from heat and stir as the mixture cools. Transfer into a clean jar. This amount of apricots and sugar nicely filled an 8oz jelly jar.

Keep refrigerated and eat within two weeks. (You can also properly can this for longer storage.)

[1] Johnson’s work in particular suggests what traditional academics can learn by spending time with reenactors and participating in reenactments. Katherine M. Johnson, “Rethinking (re)doing: historical re-enactment and/as historiography,” Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193-206.

[2] https://rarecooking.com/2014/09/19/my-lady-chanworths-receipt-for-jumballs/

[3] https://rarecooking.com/tag/ms-codex-785/