Category Archives: Medieval

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.

Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.

[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.