Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!

Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Cold! A Recipe Project Thematic Series

Hiroshige, Two men by a gate in the mountains. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

– it’s cold! A dreary chill and rain have just descended across Europe and perhaps most of you are also cranking up the heat and bringing out winter scarves and hats. December has arrived and it seems apt for us to follow our fun and successful series on “Heat!” with a thematic series on “Cold!”. Within medical conceptions of the human body across a number of cultures, notions of hot and cold are hardly be separated. Within kitchens, craft and artisanal workshops, although heat played a crucial role in production processes, cold was also essential occasionally – especially if ingredients had to be preserved for a period of time, or if heat had to be tempered in some way.

To get ready for the long winter, our contributors have explored the notion of “Cold!” in a number of areas. Thijs Hagendijk returns to the RP with a post on the Dutch polymath and painter Simon Eikelenberg (1663-1738), detailing how cold features in the practices of his paint making with surprising insights.  Jean-Olivier Richard, a historian with interests in early modern natural philosophy, alchemy and environmental history, invites us reflect upon mankind’s impact on our planet by offering a reading of “divine recipes for a cooling earth”.

Having written about how to “treat the heat in 1793 Beijing”, Marta Hanson returns to the RP this month with a post titled “Treating the Deadly Cold in 1918 China”, co-authored with Michael Shiyung Liu. Returning to another theme explored in the Heat! Series – fertility recipes – Yi-Li Wu will tell us about Chinese formulas dealing with cold genitals, the standard historical explanation for male and female infertility.

Finally, as we move closer to the holidays, we offer a few posts to “warm” you up. Marieke Hendriksen and Ruben Verwaal return with more adventures with Boerhaave’s “little furnace” (go here for part 1 of their explorations). New contributor historian Reinhild Kreis will tell us about Christmas Cookies in 20th century Germany and our Tales from the Archives will feature the wonderful post on “snowballs” by Rachel Snell.

“Christmas Dessert of layers of fruit, arranged for color effect. ‘Snowball’ is one of the most attractive Christmas Desserts” from American Homes and Gardens, 1911.

We can’t do much about the chilly weather outside but we hope that this wide-ranging edition of the Recipes Project might distract you from the weather and inspire you to think about the cold and chills in different ways.

Enjoy and happy holidays!

Marieke Hendriksen and Elaine Leong


Ps. This is my last edition for a little while as I’m taking a tiny break from editing the Recipes Project in 2019. Things have been all-go at the RP headquarters over the past few months, and we have some really exciting news to share with you after the holidays. So, watch this space and see you all soon, Elaine.

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.

Vicissitudes in Soldering. Reading and Working with a Historical Gold- and Silversmithing Manual

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Thijs Hagendijk and Tonny Beentjes

In 1721, the Dutch craftsman Willem van Laer (1674-1722) published a Guidebook for Upcoming Gold- and Silversmiths. Intended as a manual to educate young novices, the Guidebook discussed a variety of different practices, techniques, and skills that ranged from assays to determine the quality of precious metals to sand mold casting and polishing (Figure 1). Four different editions, including one pirated copy, appeared in less than fifty years, attesting to its popularity. The book was explicitly aimed at teaching young readers how to do and make things. Van Laer reassured readers by saying “there will be few young gold- or silversmiths, who won’t find anything to their liking and benefit while reading this book; they will be led by hand to the knowledge of many things.”[1] Yet, however confident Van Laer might come across in this passage, there is sufficient reason to question the actual success of Guidebook at explaining and delivering these skills. Practical knowledge is often better demonstrated than written down. Van Laer was very well aware of this fact and offered disclaimers warning his readers that full comprehension of the text was only achieved when complemented with manual instruction. This begs the question of what could, in fact, be learned from the Guidebook.

Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 1. Title page of the Guidebook. Copy held by the Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam. (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

The best way to answer this question is to look at historical evidence, primarily in the form of marginalia or other signs of usage, that indicates how the Guidebook was read and used on the shop floor. Unfortunately, not much of this evidence has survived for reasons that historians Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell have observed in their study of early modern didactic literature. They note an irony in the fact that books that were most read and used did not make it to our libraries.[2] Indeed, most Guidebooks that reside in Dutch libraries are neat and almost spotless copies – we even found a copy with its pages still uncut! (We ended up cutting its pages almost three hundred years after publication, but that is another story). This virtual lack of historical evidence pushed us in a different direction. We decided to approach the Guidebook experimentally by performing historical re-enactments. By reading and working with the text as if we were learning how to make and do things, we were able to get a better grasp of Van Laer’s potential audience and the role the book might have played in historical learning practices and the acquisition of practical skills. The re-enactments gave rise to various insights.[3] In this post, we discuss one specific result, which is a story involving both success and failure.

Part of Van Laer’s discussion of soldering features the introduction of a “convenient soldering lamp.” Even though the better part of soldering usually happened in the forge, Van Laer presents his soldering lamp so that “the maker won’t need to put the entire piece back into the fire for a tiny leak or mistake only.”[4] For a silversmith, putting a soldered piece back into the fire was always risky as the soldered joints could melt again and cause more trouble than initially was the case. The preferable method was to repair a soldered piece without having to expose it again to relatively high temperatures, which is where the soldering lamp comes in. Basically, the soldering lamp resembles a modified oil lamp with an extended snout. To reach temperatures high enough to melt the solder, one had to use a small blowpipe to blow additional air through the flame. Skillful blowing would subsequently result in a second tiny yet feisty blue flame hot enough to locally melt silver. That is, at least, what Van Laer seemed to suggest: “when the tip of the flame of such burning Lamp is blown against the spot that needs to be soldered, it makes it hotter over there and the solder will easily run.”[5]

Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2. Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

To find out whether we could indeed solder this way, we decided to build a soldering lamp following Van Laer’s instructions. Luckily, Van Laer was meticulously detailed with respect to the lamp, discussing its dimensions and the materials needed to produce it. According to him, the lamp should be made from brass and should measure 3 inches across and 1 inch in height. Additionally, there should be a wooden handle at its back and at the front a snout of about 5 or 6 inches long. To make sure he was well understood, Van Laer also included a schematic engraving of the lamp (Figure 2). We had more than enough information to work with, and based on his drawings and instructions we produced a much-desired replica of the lamp (Figure 3). We also laid our hands on a few historical blowpipes. Now that we had the materials, we could learn to handle the tool.

Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 2 (Detail). Engraving of gold- and silversmithing tools. Numbers 7 and 8 indicate the soldering lamp, number 9 the blowpipe. Copy of the Guidebook held by the Rijksmuseum Library, Amsterdam (Call number: 305 E 33). Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 3. Replica of the soldering lamp. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.


We filled the lamp’s reservoir with olive oil and stuffed its snout with a cotton lump. When we finally lit the lamp, the burning oil filled the room with a scent of grilled food. As an initial exercise, we took a small brass strip and tried to heat it until it started to glow. Here is how it went down, as recorded by Thijs in our fieldnotes:

Glowing the metal strip did not happen before we learned our first big lesson. Intuitively, Tonny and I started out by blowing hard through the blowpipe. The more air, the hotter the flame we thought. After trying for quite some time, it seemed as if we weren’t making any progress. We could steer the yellow flame, but were not able to get the blue flame where we wanted it. Yet, after I tried some more, it suddenly appeared that I had been blowing way too hard. By blowing rather softly on to the flame, suddenly the little blue flame emerged. In general, the blowing required much exercise. When later that afternoon a visitor dropped by for an interview, we saw the amount of skill that we already acquired. She too tried to produce a feisty blue flame by blowing through the flame, but did not succeed. To my own surprise, I was immediately able to point out what went wrong. The tip of the blowpipe should almost touch the pit of the flame, while one should blow out of the flame, both from beneath and from the inside-out. Cheeks filled with air, meanwhile breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out, filling the cheeks again and keep blowing at the same time. A rhythm occurs in blowing and breathing, which maybe most resembles what happens to your breathing when running.(Fieldnotes Thijs, April 4th, 2017).

Until this point, then, the story was quite successful. We were able to reverse-engineer the soldering lamp, and, like Van Laer explained, we could reproduce the feisty blue flame. Moreover, the blue flame proved rather hot indeed, as indicated by the different oxidation colors on the brass strip. However, as soon as we tried taking it to the next level, we ran into trouble.

Still happy with the progress we made, we now wanted to solder a very basic joint. We took another brass strip, hammered it round, and set out to solder its ends together to make a tiny cylinder. We fixed the cylinder in a standing pair of tweezers to free both our hands so we could steer the soldering lamp and hold the blowpipe. A little piece of solder was put on top of the joint, as well as little bit of borax, which is a flux used to facilitate the flow of melted solder. We lit the lamp and started blowing (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.
Figure 4. Soldering a brass ring. Note the tiny blue flame. Photo by Thijs Hagendijk.

One hour later we were so out of breath that we stopped, but the cylinder had not yet been soldered. We failed. Even though we raised the temperature high enough to make the solder curl up like a drop, we never reached the final state in which it flows out and runs into the joint. Using the soldering lamp appeared less straightforward than we thought it would be.

We were curious to know what went wrong, but after several more days of trial-and-error, the list of questions and issues had only grown. We turned to the Guidebook and read and re-read the passages, only to discover that Van Laer was actually quite silent on the matter. Indeed, he carefully described how to assemble the soldering lamp, but spent hardly any time on how to handle it in practice. Should the object be pre-heated, or could the soldering lamp be used on cold objects, too? We blew and soldered against a piece of charcoal to create a reverberating heat source, but was this also how Van Laer meant to use the soldering lamp? Moreover, what type of solder should we use? Van Laer listed three distinct recipes for solder with different melting points, but did not indicate which one to use in combination with the soldering lamp. To date, we still have not been able to solder a proper joint using the lamp.

Interestingly, if we compare the above experiences with other re-enactments we performed, a general pattern starts to emerge.[6] For example, with respect to sand mold casting, Van Laer vividly described how to prepare and process the sand, but left his readers hanging when it came time to assemble a mold from it. Moreover, in his discussion of chasing, he meticulously described how to transfer a design to silver, but gave no guidance on how to perform the actual chasing process. Why would Van Laer alternate between exacting detail and virtual silence? What does this say about the usability of the book? And what could, in fact, be learned from this text?

The soldering story followed a similar pattern. While Van Laer carefully discussed each and every condition needed to succeed – the soldering lamp, recipes to prepare multiple types of solder, different sorts of fluxes – we failed once we arrived at the procedure itself. Is this due to our lack of skill in operating the blowpipe and soldering lamp, or are there aspects of eighteenth-century soldering that we no longer understand? In any case, the Guidebook’s guiding principle seems to be that core operations are best demonstrated rather than put into words. Van Laer did in fact confirm this with respect to the casting procedure. Just as he came to the very heart of the procedure, he abandoned his detailed exposition, stating that “the molding and casting cannot be learned as well as through manual education.”[7]

During our re-enactments, we therefore came to interpret the Guidebook as a text containing advanced practical knowledge, including tips, tricks, and best practices. Learning new skills from scratch, such as soldering, casting, or chasing, is still best done through manual education, but once mastered, the Guidebook can indicate new routes, spell out different paths, and show new variations on a theme.


[1] Willem van Laer, Weg-wyzer Voor Aankoomende Goud en Zilversmeden: Verhandelende veele wetenschappen, die Konsten raakende, zeer nut voor alle Jonge Goud en Zilversmeeden (Amsterdam: Fredrik Helm, 1721).

[2] Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell, “Introduction,” in Didactic Literature in England 1500-1800, edited by Natasha Glaisyer, Sara Pennell (London: Ashgate, 2003), 7.

[3] For a more elaborate and contextualized overview of the re-enactments performed on the Guidebook, see Thijs Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books. Historical Re-enactment of Functional Reading in Gold- and Silversmithing,” Nuncius 33, no. 2 (forthcoming Summer 2018).

[4] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 125.

[5] Ibid, 126.

[6] Hagendijk, “Learning a Craft from Books.”

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.