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.
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. 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). 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
 David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.  Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.  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.
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 RecipesProject 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!
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.” 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.
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. 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. 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.” 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.”
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.
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).
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. 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.”
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.
 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).
 Natasha Glaisyer and Sara Pennell, “Introduction,” in Didactic Literature in England 1500-1800, edited by Natasha Glaisyer, Sara Pennell (London: Ashgate, 2003), 7.
 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).
I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.
I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.
Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”
The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.
I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.
One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.
This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.
A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:
Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.
My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.
Michael Döring’s (d. 1641) gout and arthritis* pains were sometimes so severe that he could not leave his house on foot to visit patients throughout the city of Breslau (a.k.a. Wroclaw). Desperate to find a cure, or at least some respite from his miserable condition, he spent his adult life searching for a recipe that he could use to make a medicine.
We know this because Döring was a tireless writer of letters, and a large number of the epistles he exchanged with his brother in law, the Wittenberg professor of medicine Daniel Sennert (1572-1637; see Fig. 1), were saved for posterity and published in the 1666 Lyon edition of Sennert’s complete works (see fig. 2), nearly a quarter century after both Döring and Sennert had died. Sennert is remembered by historians for his experimentalist atomism and his philosophy of generation, but Döring has been largely forgotten, save the occasional mention that he and Sennert were the first to accurately describe the symptoms of scarlet fever.
Nevertheless, over the two decades from which letters have survived, the two physicians candidly discussed a variety of topics, including medical observations, noteworthy case histories, questions about religion and natural philosophy, and even the movements of troops during the Thirty Years’ War. Among such issues, however, the search to find a cure for gout and arthritis was paramount, for Sennert also suffered from a similar affliction, although apparently less so than Döring.
Like most academically trained physicians of their day, Sennert and Döring understood pathology and therapy in a Galenic framework; that is, diseases were caused by an imbalance of the body’s four humors, and treatment involved the balancing of these humors through diet, bloodletting, and the administration of purgatives. Even so, Sennert and Döring also promoted the use of new chymical drugs made from minerals and metals, and they believed that diseases could have causes besides the humors. In the case of gout and arthritis, one of the causes lay in the excess consumption of tartar, which they believed was found throughout the vegetable world, but in especially large amounts in wine. The iconoclastic Paracelsus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) had popularized this understanding of tartar in the sixteenth century, but Sennert and Döring were hardly alone among learned physicians who had adopted such ideas.
So, what is one to do with a gouty body riddled with tartar? In short, you have to expel the tartar, and Döring wrote that this could be done by combating the weakness of the “natural faculty,” that is, the body’s ability to rid itself of excrements and disease-causing agents like tartar. The medicines that he and Sennert hoped might accomplish this, which they discussed in letters, most often included gold in their ingredients, and were thought to work against almost all maladies.
Sennert noted in a letter from 1619 that he wanted to synthesize the famous ‘potable gold’ of the Englishman Francis Anthony (1550-1623), but had not yet had success. Döring responded that they ought to attempt to create a similar compound called the “Golden Fleece,” for he had found a recipe for the substance which promised that the drug had freed one Johann Weidner from excruciating gout pains. As Döring put it, “if that Golden Fleece carries away the feebleness of the natural faculties, it would not undeservedly be had for a panacea.”
In short, the recipe and protocol called for the dissolution of twelve sheets of gold leaf in a preparation of May dew over the course of nine months, and in 1621, Döring wrote to Sennert that he and an apothecary had acquired enough gold to begin the synthesis.
In May of 1622 Döring reported to Sennert that the Golden Fleece had apparently failed, for the gold had not gone into solution. Sennert consoled him, writing, “What has happened to you in the production of the Golden Fleece has happened to many others in chymical labors: when you make a trial, what was predicted from most certain things does not succeed.”
What is especially striking about this episode is that the interpretation of and experimentation upon recipes was done collaboratively through the undoubtedly tedious process of sending letters between Breslau and Wittenberg – a 350 km trip. It is similarly notable that physicians – working during a period in which recipes for universal remedies and promises of their effectiveness were ubiquitous – actually tested recipes for the synthesis of medicines, occasionally found them wanting, and reported failures to one another. Such experimentalism and candid communication represent archetypal values and ideals that would later be codified as hallmarks of modern science and medicine.
* Physicians often believed that gout and arthritis were the same disease or at least had the same root cause.