Category Archives: Medieval

The Reformation and a Recipe Book

By Lara Artemis

Oak panels of manuscript showing stitching binding. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It is rare to find a manuscript from the early 15th century that combines folk remedies with religious iconography and a royal heritage to boot – even more rare is to find one that has been heavily defaced.

Such a manuscript exists in the Archives and Manuscripts collection at the Wellcome Library – MS.5262. Lara Artemis, former conservator here at the library, uncovered the manuscript as part of her MA in Medieval History. In the process, she unpeeled the layers of what turned out to be a fascinating and possibly unique insight, not only into medieval medicine, but of religious symbolism at a time of particular spiritual turmoil – the Reformation.

Inscription of Andrewe Wylkynson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Although the dating remains speculative, it is believed to be from around the early 15th century partly because of the dedications within. There is proof of its 16th century ownership in the form of ‘Andrewe Wylkynson Surgeon’.

More intriguing is the fact that it belonged to Henry Dyngley of Worcestershire who died in 1589 and came from a line of staunch Catholics and rural famers working as doctors. Dyngley married Mary Neville, the daughter of Knight Sir Edward Neville who not only held a long list of prestigious roles within the court of Henry VIII, but who descended from Edward II and Queen Isabel of England in the 13th century. Isabel was a keen patron of medicine and was famously paranoid about her health. It is no suprise then to find the health regimen, a sweet wine tonic, is dedicated to her at the end of the manuscript.

Equally fascinating is the manuscript’s association with oak. Not only is it bound in oak but the religious images feature oak trees and acorns in all but one. Traditionally a pagan symbol, the oak was re-interpreted by Christians to represent Christ, a symbol of endurance and strength in the face of adversity. Given the possible date of the manuscript, and the significant damage to the religious images only, suggests this manuscript is a rare survivor of Henry VIII’s iconoclastic reformation when vast quantities of religious materials were destroyed in a Protestant bid to rid the country of any visible signs of Catholicism.

Why did the iconoclast stop at the religious images only? The explanation seems to be clear: this was too useful a manuscript full of day to day ‘quick health fixes’ that would have been invaluable to a well-to-do family like the Dyngley’s. This was an era where university educated medical practitioners were in short supply, particularly in rural areas and folk remedies proved invaluable.

The practical recipes include how to reduce the swelling of the scrotum: “Who so hap ache or swellynge In his balloke” – the solution, a poultice from pounded barley and cumin mixed with honey applied to the offensive area. Another common but potentially harmful ailment was a skin disorder which is described ‘Who so hap pe wilde fire…”, in other words, ergotism, also known as St Anthony’s fire. This was a reaction to ergot fungus in barley meal, a common source of food in the medieval period, which famously caused bewitchment. The suggested cure involved applying cooked and strained leeks to the face in addition to white wine, rye meal, and eysel. Ergot contained a chemical that made sufferers go beserk, largely because it caused gangrene and eventual loss of hands, feet and fingers. If not treated, and it rarely was in the Middle Ages, the poisoning led to the sensation of being burned at the stake. St Anthony’s association with the ailment comes from the monks of the Order of St Anthony who achieved relative success at treating victims. To fund their charitable work, the same monks reared swine which partly explains the presence of the pigs in the image of St Anthony within the manuscript.

Saint Anthony. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Saint Anthony is the first to appear in the front of the manuscript. While the oak trees, acorns (traditional fodder for pigs and many other birds and animals), and a deer (another sign of conception, growth and thereby health) are clearly visible, the rest of the saint is clearly scrubbed out. If it were not for the red liturgical colour (for martyrdom) of his robe and the presence of the pig (a common attribute), his identity would remain a mystery. Although further investigation is necessary to establish any underlying drawing that may have been obscured, as well as dating evidence, it is clear that this, and the other religious images, have been destroyed quite deliberately.

Saint James. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

He is followed by St James who chops down an oak tree with his bare hand (presumably to reveal the medicinal properties of the bark), St John the Baptist, also with an oak tree and, this time, rabbits (possibly to suggest the Christians and the persecuted church, or at least Christians fleeing temptation), and lastly, a Bishop.

While St John is left off lightly by the iconoclast, mysteriously, the Bishop gets the worst treatment leaving only the 2 candles either side visible, symbols of Christ’s divine and human natures.

Saint John the Baptist. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Bishop. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The manuscript also includes catchword illustrations, possibly charms that were copied and cut into a piece of bark (no doubt oak) of apple peel and placed on the wound as a health-inducing charm.

A cockerill illustrating a recipe for staunching blood. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The manuscript offers a fascinating glimpse of medieval medical practice in English history. From ailment to treatment, it provides a practical medical resource to the practitioner, through both its scholastic and its ‘folk’ medical content. Further research is clearly needed to establish just how unique this manuscript is, more evidence of why it was partially destroyed and, if others exist like it.

This was originally posted by Helen Wakely for Lara Artemis on the wonderful Wellcome Library Blog as “Item of the Month, February 2010: A rare surviving devotional recipe manuscript from the early 15th century”. Thank you to Helen Wakely and the Wellcome Library for agreeing to cross-post this! Lara Artemis who carried out this research is now Collection Care Manager for the Houses of Parliament.

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).

Love and the Longevity of Charms

By Laura Mitchell

For a long time I have been interested in the endurance/longevity of charms and recipes over extended periods of time, a topic which Alun Withey addressed in a recent post. The major tropes that make up medieval medical charms, for example, appear with relatively minor variations from the thirteenth through to the fifteenth centuries (at least in England, the area I focus on),[1] and of course there’s those herbal remedies discussed by Dr. Withey. A few years ago I encountered a somewhat surprising form of this longevity with a sixteenth-century love charm from Trinity College Cambridge MS O.1.57 (1081).[2]

This manuscript is a household notebook originally owned by the Haldenby family, members of the lower gentry in late medieval Isham, Northamptonshire. Largely written in the first half of the fifteenth century, it contains several later additions including a collection of (mostly) medical recipes written in the margins by a sixteenth-century hand. One of these later additions is a love charm on folio 20r:

To know who shalbe his wiffe or hir husband.

Say thus: “hempe seed, hempe I thee sow lede and vnlede. she that shalbe my worldes make come after one and rake sleepe sleepe and I her see, wake and her know.” this most be done on new yeares day at even taking alitle hempe seed in one hande and going thrise aboute the fire, sowing the hempe seede aboute the fier but not in the fyer. then go to bedde and lie downe vpon the right side speaking never a worde to no body but to say your pater noster and your Credo.

Imagine my surprise while watching an episode of the BBC show Victorian Farm where the presenter conducted a very similar Victorian ritual! The episode in question takes place at Midsummer’s Eve. The presenter, Ruth Goodman, and her daughter, Catherine, go out at midnight to the local churchyard. Catherine scatters hemp seed while saying:

Hemp seed I sow. Hemp seed should/will grow. He who will marry me, come after and mow.

According to Goodman, the future husband was supposed to appear in the churchyard, or possibly that night in a dream.

Obviously there are some differences between the sixteenth- and late nineteenth-century rituals. They take place on different dates: one on New Year’s Day; the other at Midsummer’s Eve. Only the first part of the ritual, spreading the hemp seed[3] and reciting the special words, appears in the nineteenth-century version – there is no fire and no prayers. Naturally, we must also keep in mind that aspects of the charm and ritual might have been changed for television – doing magic is not necessarily entertaining to watch after all! As well, a popular history show is not the best source for scholarly work. Nevertheless, I find this example very interesting and a good starting point to think about the traditions of charms over long periods of time. How did a charm get from the sixteenth century to the Victorian era and finally to a television show in the twenty-first century?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, medieval medical charms continued to be used throughout the period with little variation in the major tropes used. Owen Davies has also shown that medieval and early modern magical texts continued to be used by cunning-folk in England right into the modern period.[4] The long-term use and survival of these kinds of charms speaks to the ingrained belief among people that magic worked. Much like the Welsh herbal remedies, magic charms and rituals continued to appeal to people for a very long time.

[1] See Lea Olsan’s article “The Corpus of Charms in the Middle English Leechcraft Remedy Books,” in Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 214-237; and Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England: Introduction and Texts (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).

[2] Naturally, the charm may have earlier antecedents but I am not aware of any at the moment. As a medievalist and not an early modernist or Victorian historian, I do not know of later examples of this charm, but I would be very interested if any readers know of other examples of this charm.

[3] I am not aware of any special property of hemp seed that might explain its inclusion in those sort of charm, although it has been suggested to me that it might be drawn from the use of hemp to make rope and thus “tie” the two people together somehow. Presumably the growing of the seed is meant to parallel the growing of the love between the two people. I am, of course, open to other suggestions.

[4] See Davies’s book, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).

The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books (1400-1570) Part II: Between written and oral transmission

By Sylvie Neven

The literature of artistic and technological recipes frequently serves as a source for historical study in art technology. However, to date, the nature and the original function of artists’ recipe books have not been clearly determined. The relevance and the reliability of this form of writing continue to be issues debated by scholars, with no conclusions forthcoming. Two different hypotheses have been put forward regarding the aim of this type of literature. On the one hand, these texts have been seen as manuals that may have been used by artists. On the other hand, these recipes often seem to have been transmitted for the purposes of literary preservation, not directly connected with contemporary workshop practices.

During my PhD research, an attempt to answer these questions was made using a delimited corpus of such recipe books written during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries : the ‘Strasbourg tradition’. Focusing on the sources themselves, I have combined historical and codicological analysis on the one hand, and philological and critical textual study on the other. In so doing, I have considered the processes of making, compiling and disseminating of these written sources.

Actually, the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition were compiled from three kinds of sources. Firstly, the largest part of their content comes from the copying and the compilation from other written sources. In this case, it can be either older or quoted authorities or contemporary (and quite often anonymous) works. These processes are perceptible through the very important component of textual similarities found in the manuscripts of this tradition. Obviously, religious institutions – and their libraries – from which I have previously determined that most of the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition originate, appear to be a privileged place, offering scribes the opportunity of copying and compiling such collections. Moreover, several scribes have given information concerning the resources they used for compiling the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition. In fact, they collected data from the libraries of neighbouring cloisters. For example, during his stay at St. Ulrich’s and St. Afra’s Cloister (Augsburg), Wolfgang Seidel the author of two recipe books of this tradition[1] made use of the cloister’s vast collection of books, as attested in his commentaries:

So vill vom geschenckh hab ich auss der liberej des closters zw sant vlrich zw Augspurg lassen abschreiben durch ain knaben des namen ist Walthasar Gech von Fiessen im 1550 Jahr [2]

Secondly, the scribes also cite the authorities from which they have obtained practical information. These authorities may be either practitioners (artists) or contemporary scholars. The artists whose names are  mentioned in the texts were mostly working near the area in which the recipe books were produced. In the Strasbourg Manuscript, the anonymous scribe states that the data he has recorded came from the teaching of two persons, namely Heinrich von Lubegge and Andres von Colmar as suggested by the opening sentences: ‘Dis ist von varwen die mich lert meister heinrich von Lübegge’ (‘This is about colours as Heinrich von Lübegge taught me’) and ‘Dis lehrt mich meister Andres von Colmar’ (‘Andres von Colmar taught me this’). One person has been identified as Andreas Claman, who was painter and goldsmith, active in Strasbourg during the second half of the fourteenth century.

Exchanges are also known to have taken place between scribes and contemporary scholars. For example, Wolfgang Seidel specifies several times that he is indebted to the Bishop of Freising for some recipes that he subsequently includes in his recipe books. Seidel also cites Bartholomew Schobinger, a jurist from St. Gallen, who is famed for his deep interest in natural sciences and alchemy.

Finally, some recipes could correspond to a personal contribution of the scribe. It is interesting to note that the scribe of the Strasbourg Manuscript uses the first-person singular, which is relatively rare in artists’ recipe books. Moreover, he clearly explains that he is divulging his own training:

Now, I want to teach how one should temper all the colours with glue to apply them on wood, on wall or on textile.

In the first folio of the Cgm 4118, Wolfgang Seidel explains that for the writing of his recipe books he has used both written –and older- sources and information collected from his contemporaries, but he has also refered on his own practical experience:

De arte fusoria Rhapsodia partim ex uetusta quadam Biblioteca, partim uero bonorum amicorum colatione cum sumata, opera autem et labore fratris Wolffgangi Sedelij in vnum collecta in solacium et commodum fusorie artis studiosorum[3]

The diversity of sources and persons from which these collections of recipes derive can be seen in relation to their context of creation and their function. These manuscripts were mostly written in religious centres and circulated outside the artists’ workshop. One might suggest that they played a more important role in the conservation and transmission of artists’ knowledge than in the teaching of artistic practices, reflecting the workshops’ activity. In parallel, some of these recipe books may be used to identify specific, datable practices, especially when their compilers specify the name and/or place of origin of the artists (or the authority) from whom they obtained their information.

For the first post in this series on artists’ recipe books, please see my “Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book“.


[1] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4117 and Cgm 4118.

[2] ‘So many presents I have let copy from the library of the Cloister St Ulrich in Augsbourg, by a young boy who’s name is Walthasar Gech von Fiessen in the year 1550’, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, fol. 128v.

[3] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, f. 1r.