Category Archives: Medieval

A Post-Summer Solstice Round-Up of Blog Posts

This post does not fall within the strictest definition of “recipes”, but since it was just the summer solstice, the best time of year for magic and pagan celebrations, it seemed like an appropriate time and opportunity to offer a round-up of links to some of the more “magical” blog posts that may be of interest to readers of The Recipes Project.

The Societas Magica has recently revived its blog with a post by Damon Lycourinos on Ritual Magic and Conjured Bodies: A Philosophy and Methodology. He presents some thoughts on his current doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh – essentially his philosophical framework for his dissertation. Interesting stuff, indeed.

Other academics will appreciate Wouter Hanegraaff’s post on the problems with terminology in, Alt & Neumann on Hermetismus, which discusses how widely or how narrowly a term like “Hermetic” should be applied. In a thoughtful review of Peter-André Alt’s book, Imaginäres Geheimwissen: Untersuchungen zum Hermetismus in literarischen Texten der frühen Neuzeit, he also addresses that persistent problem among scholars of not reading secondary literature outside our native language – certainly something that should be discussed in this international, digital, age!

Praeludia Microcosmica is a very new blog started by Mike Zuber of the University of Amsterdam and his most recent post, Investigating the ‘Real Frankenstein Potential’ of Johann Conrad Dippel, Pt. 1, examines the real man behind the supposed inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a lively account of the man and his early life at the University of Gießen and whets the appetite for pt. 2.

The Heterodoxology blog alerts us to a new, open-access online journal on the history of Western esotericism. Even for readers uninterested in the subject matter, the growth of open-access peer-reviewed journals is an important subject in academia and it will be interesting to see how this journal fares.

Finally, the iCHSTM blog for the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (at which I’ll be presenting in a few weeks) has been posting some excellent entries. They are all worth checking out, but I will just note a couple. Anita Guerrini’s The Ghastly Kitchen: Animals, Cooking, and the Birth of Experimental Science gives a brief overview of the history of experimentation in the kitchen from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries and its role in modern science. Seb Falk’s post, How to Cast a Medieval Horoscope, provides a very informative introduction to the medieval equatoria, a device to model the motion of the planets, mainly for educational purposes (and to help medieval astrologers correctly construct horoscopes).

Of Porridge, Poetry and the Philosophers’ Stone

By Anke Timmermann

Wer ain guot Muess wil machen
[Es] kompt von siben sachen
Aijr und salz
Milch vnd Schmaltz
gewurtz vnd Mell
von Saffran wirdt es gell
(ÖNB MS 11410, f. 186r, s. xvi)[1]

 [He who wants to make a good porridge needs seven items: eggs and salt, milk and suet, spice (elsewhere: sugar) and flour; saffron gives a yellow colouring.]

These rhymes will seem very familiar to anyone who grew up in a German-speaking family: unbeknownst to many, the children’s song “Backe, backe Kuchen” can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. Perhaps understandably it is commonly accepted that this is a piece of folklore for toddlers rather than a recipe proper.[2] Even the original recipe for porridge–or cake, in the children’s rhyme–is simple and elliptic. No measurements or methods are provided, and the phrasing and listing of exactly seven ingredients seems formulaic. But the environment that brought forth this recipe is much more complex, bringing together medieval poetry, recipes and scientific communication.

To see the connection between science and porridge we need to look at the manuscripts in which the text was originally written. The earliest documented copy of the poem can be found among jottings on the inner cover of a fifteenth-century manuscript, beside medical notes and recipes.[3] The cited sixteenth-century version appears in a medical recipe book owned by a physician-apothecary near Vienna, Wolfgang Kappler. This pharmacological reference work contains hundreds of recipes, some of them traditional instructions for the manufacture of pills and salves, many explicitly using alchemical methods and ingredients, others covering diet and regimen, and all of them intended to be useful in his professional practice. The rhymed parts of both manuscripts are comparatively few. But beyond the confines of their covers, they form part of a medieval and early modern written tradition in which scientific verse spread across Europe. To Kappler and his contemporaries, these rhymes would not have conjured up the image of chanting children. Rather, they would have recognised the rhymes as an accepted medium of communicating knowledge.

Why would anyone choose to write a recipe in rhyme rather than in plain instructive prose? Answers to this question are many and varied. In late medieval England, for example, the hope of attracting royal funds for a future project certainly inspired some alchemical practitioners to compose couplets.[4] Medical recipes, much less often subject to versification, might sometimes cross over into the realms of charms, cookery and general Middle English poetry. Incidentally, John Lydgate’s (author of the Fall of Princes) most popular poem during his lifetime was a medical one, his Dietary.[5]

Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Scientific poems on botany, the stars and their movements joined longer learned treatises (‘encyclopaedic poetry’) on the make-up of man and God’s creation. Particularly in alchemy, rhyme served as a vehicle for preserving practical instructions, making it easier for a copyist to transport the text from one manuscript into another or for the practitioner to memorise important steps in the laboratory. With ancient didactic poetry as ancestor and current concerns about techne, craft and knowledge at its heart, scientific poetry was a working genre for those who wrote, read and used it.[6]

When English antiquarian Elias Ashmole published Middle English alchemical poetry in his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum he focused on the poem’s role in English language and literature, not in the laboratory.[7] Since then the connection between poetry and science or craft has been lost. It is this discrepancy between the nature of modern scientific publications and that of their historical ancestors that makes scientific poetic recipes so intriguing and yet so difficult to research. While it may not be child’s play it tells us much about how historical experts transformed experience into knowledge as they turned prescriptions into rhyme.


[1] On the manuscript, see the Austrian National Library’s catalogue HANNA, s.v. 11410.

[2] C.M. Blaas, “Ein Kinderspruch aus dem XV. Jahrhundert” in Germania 23 (1878), 343.

[3] HANNA, s.v. 12503. On recipes in German Fachliteratur see also J. Telle, “Das Rezept als literarische Form” in Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 26 (2003), 251-74.

[4] For example, see: P. J. Grund, ‘Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite’: An Edition of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy (2011).

[5] K. Bühler, “Lydgate’s Rules of Health in MS Lansdowne 699” in Medium Ævum 3 (1934), 51-6.

[6] On the history and functions of scientific, especially alchemical, poetry see e.g. R. M. Schuler, Alchemical Poetry, 1575-1700 (1995), D. Kahn, “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis” in Ambix, 57-58 (2010/11), 249-74/62-77, and my forthcoming article in the Companion to Fifteenth Century Verse. Note also J. Telle’s forthcoming monograph on German alchemical poetry, Alchemie und Poesie.

[7] E. Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652).

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).