Category Archives: Plants and Herbs

Distilling and Deflowering

A friar in an apothecary
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By Peter Murray Jones

Between 1416 and 1425, English friars put together a Latin medical handbook. This handbook, called the Tabula Medicine (‘Table of Medicine’), mostly consisted of remedies, arranged alphabetically by name of ailment, instead of the head to toe order of the standard medical Practica. The friars seem to have assembled the text by accumulating remedies in a sort of medieval Wikipedia. Some copies preserve the ‘open’ format by leaving room for additional remedies under each heading.[1]

Many remedies are medicinal recipes culled from books. Most often they cite the works of Avicenna, Galen and native authorities, Gilbertus Anglicus, Bernard de Gordon, John of Gaddesden, and John Arderne. But a lot of other remedies are attributed to English friars who flourished c.1370-1420.[2] The friars mentioned were identified as authorities (expressed as “per fratrem Peter Russell”, for example) for recipes of all kinds. But they had a particular fondness for distillations. Under the heading “Gutta arthetica” (Gout of the joints), we find:

King’s MS 16, fol.1. The opening of the Tabula medicine

“According to brother William Holme, for cold gout take the dregs of a pottle (two quarts) of beer; boil down a pennyweight of boar’s flesh for a day, stirring it with a ladle; and take a handful each of chamomile, pellitory, cowslip, lavender, honeysuckle, and marjoram. Cut up the cooked meat and the herbs into tiny pieces and distill together with the dregs in an alembic. The water collected in a glass can be kept and used as wanted.  Apply it warm, and it is called flesh-water.”

Holme, like Hieronymus Brunschwig, held that distillation ensured your remedy did not go off.

More ambitious distillations aimed at producing the heavenly quintessence, or at the very least aqua ardens (burning water). The friars must have had a copy of John of Rupescissa, Liber de consideratione quintae essentie to hand, for they quote from it accurately under headings for “Cor” (Heart), “Demon,” “Facies” (Face), “Frenesis” (Frenzy), “Melancholia,” “Spasmum” [Convulsion] and “Venenum” (Poison). They never identify him by name, although Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar, writing from prison in France c.1350. Under the heading “Facies”, they tell us that wild strawberries are a hundred times more powerful against outbreaks of pustules on the face if administered as a quintessence. Rupescissa uses exactly the same words at two points in his text. We are not told in the ‘Table of Medicine’ how to extract a water from wild strawberries and combine it with quintessence, although Rupescissa does give a recipe.

The only heading in the ‘Table of Medicine’ that names a remedy instead of an ailment is “Balsamum” (Balsam). Native balsam was extraordinarily rare and expensive in late medieval Europe, in all its three forms, and friar William Holme is credited with two different recipes for making an ‘Artificial Balsam.’ One simply requires powdered exotic spices to be put successively into hot but not boiling oil. The second requires small quantities of natural balsam, as well as twenty-five other ingredients. They are mixed and pulped in a mortar before distillation. This distillate comes in three degrees of strength, and is said to be just as effective as the native kinds in treating a long list of ailments. Holme is the only one of the friars mentioned in the ‘Table of Medicine’ who can now be identified as author of a surviving text, De simplicibus medicinis (‘On medicinal simples’) of 1415. This was “deflowered” as the bibliographer John Bale later put it, by Holme “from twelve doctors of medicine”. The ‘Table of Medicine’ itself went in for “deflowering”, though it also credited experienced friar practitioners.

King’s MS 16, fol. 144. Wistanton’s recipe for distilling blood and Forman’s hand in the margin.

Friar Robert Wistanton gives a recipe to make use of distilled human blood in surgery. The blood is kept for forty days in a glass vessel under dung, then cooked in a copper pot for a day, cooled, then skimmed. Afterwards it is distilled with a filter, mixed with aqua ardens, then distilled again with an alembic, and that distillate is the best of all waters. It will consolidate a wounded limb within three days and heal the sick. What remains in the bottom of the vessel should be kept, cooled and dried, and the resultant powder is best for fractured bones. Friars were not supposed to dabble in alchemy and surgery, but that does not seem to have stopped Wistanton and his brothers.

King’s MS 16, fol. 8b. Insert in Forman’s hand on Catalepsis.

In 1574 Simon Forman, astrologer and alchemist, purchased a manuscript of the ‘Table of Medicine’ in Oxford. He added recipes drawn from his own experience, or from Andrew Boorde’s Breviary of Healthe (1557), in the margin opposite the entries for particular illnesses. He also interleaved the manuscript to add remedies for illnesses not covered in the ‘Table of Medicine’. In this enhanced form the text continued in use into the seventeenth century.[3]

[1] Peter Murray Jones, “The ‘Tabula medicine’: an Evolving Encyclopedia,” English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, vol. 14, Regional Manuscripts 1200-1700, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (2008), 60-85.

[2] Peter Murray Jones, “Mediating Collective Experience: the Tabula Medicine (1416–1425) as a Handbook for Medical Practice,” in Between Text and Patient: The Medical Enterprise in Medieval & Early Modern Europe, ed. Florence Eliza Glaze and Brian K. Nance (Florence: SISMEL-Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011), 279-307.

[3] Cambridge, King’s College MS 16. See Lauren Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London. Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist and Physician (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

Peter Murray Jones: I am Fellow Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge and a historian of medieval medicine. I have a particular interest in relations between knowledge and practice as expressed through recipes. My current project is on the contribution of friars to practical medicine and science in late medieval England.

Seasonality and the (Re)creation of Early Modern Color Worlds

By Jenny Boulboullé

Color played an important role in the early modern world across a number of areas from arts and crafts to Christian religion to politics to natural history and philosophy. In recent years, scholars have begun to explore how early modern men and women engaged, produced and conceptualized colors within and across color worlds.[1] Just as in early modern culinary and medical recipes, seasonality is a recurrent theme in artisanal recipes. The art of preservation was highly valued for its powers to make flavors and healing properties of foodstuffs, plants and herbs endure well beyond their seasonal availability. In my contribution to the seasonality series I focus on recipes that celebrate the art of color preservation and on the mindful attention to seasons called for in color making recipes. I am particularly interested in the challenges that recipes for making natural dyes and pigments from seasonal products posed to modern historians trying to reconstruct them.

Today the symbolic significance of colors in early modern Europe is perhaps most readily associated with the compellingly colorful medieval and renaissance art works that have survived in sacred spaces and museums.

Figure 1, Caption: Giotto (1266-1337), The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, Italy. ca. 1305. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

But in the pre-modern period a deep concern with colors was not limited to the arts: colors were associated with the four humors and close attentiveness to colors was of vital importance to practices of healing in the Hippocritean and Galenic medical tradition.[2] The perception and display of colors was also highly charged with political meanings: colors were a form of symbolic communication and played an important role in consolidating and displaying religious and secular power relations. European courts and courtly events were important sites of “chromatic politics” as contemporary witness accounts and meticulous historical reconstructions of ephemeral, yet splendid and compellingly colorful festive events have shown.[3]

Figure 2, Caption: Peter Paul Rubens, Design for state decorations for the triumphal entry of Cardinal Infante Ferdinand into Antwerp, on April 17, 1635, Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Image from

The historical reconstruction of a sixteenth-century dress, originally created for the Augsburg Imperial Diet from 1530, is a particularly compelling example of the politicized use of brightly colored dress made from dyed textiles.[4] The owner of this dress and his contemporaries might have regarded its colors “as related to intrinsic qualities and powers”. Deep scarlet reds were regarded at that time “as carriers of life and heat, while a strong yellow was linked to gold as metal, which had given its powers by the influence of the sun”. Ulinka Rublack notes the challenges encountered during the reconstruction process. The yellow color obtained in their first dying trials “was just not quite vibrant enough” which was detrimental “as faded hues of yellow could have negative associations of weakness and coldness”.[5]

Other sixteenth century recipes for ‘yellows’ from organic sources, demonstrate that making natural dyes of this color depended on local seasonal knowledge. As Marieke Hendriksen has discussed, here in Utrecht, we are building a new database of artisanal recipes. A quick search in the Artechne Database yields several fifteenth- and sixteenth century German recipes for green and yellow colors that call for buckthorn berries (some with precise indication for picking times, like this one for “Green color” from 1543). Here an Italian one from the anonymous Padua Manuscript (ca. end 16th/17th century), translated and published in English:

To make giallo santo

Take the berries of buckthorn towards the end of the month of August, boil them with pure water, until the water is loaded and thick with color; add a little burnt roche alum and then strain it. You may boil the strained liquor to make the color deeper, mixing with it some very pure gilder’s gesso; then make the color into pellets, and dry them in the shade.[6]

In color recipes such as this one, seasonality and intimate knowledge of seasonal products sensitivities to additives play a key role. Berries had to be picked at specific times of the year to attain the right hues, and while the juice of ripe buckthorn, available in most of Europe, gives a greenish color, also known as sap green, one needs to get hold of unripe berries, fresh or dried, in particular a species imported from the Middle East, also known as “Persian berries”, to attain the deep golden yellow hue that the reconstruction team had envisioned for this dazzling sixteenth-century dress.[7] Only by patiently repeating the dye processes using the right berries picked at the right moment, can the desired vibrant hue of rich quality be achieved – both in the early modern period and during 21th century reconstruction.[8]

Thus, the commission of brightly dyed dresses for display at important events must have been a time-consuming affair that required planning long ahead of the political event and entailed a collaborative process of sourcing and experimenting that depended not only on seasonal knowledge and availability, but was also prone to risks of seasonal change. As Rublack’s work shows, reconstruction research makes us of acutely aware of the complexities and risks posed to those who aspired a part in the “chromatic politics” of the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century. Moreover, as I will show in my next post, color recipe reconstructions allow us to experience the efforts and knowledge that went into the creation of early modern color worlds, which have become unfamiliar to our modern period eye.


[1] Tarwin Baker, Sven Dupré, Sachiko Kusukawa, and Karin Leonhard, eds., Early Modern Color Worlds (Brill, 2016).

[2] Baker, Dupré, Kusukawa, and Leonhard 2016, 4.

[3] Ulinka Rublack, “Renaissance Dress, Cultures of Making, and the Period Eye.” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 6–34. doi:10.1086/688198.

[4] Rublack 2016.

[5] Rublack 2016, 23, 24.

[6] Maria Philadelphia Merrifield, Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth Centuries, on the Arts of Painting, in Oil, Miniature, Mosaic, and on Glass; Of Gilding, Dying, and the Preparation of Colours and Artificial Gems (John Murray 1849), 708.

[7] Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon, eds. Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700 (Archetype Publications, 2010) Glossary, 447.

[8] Rublack 2016, 25.

‘Thus it prevails against its time’: distillation and cycles of nature in early modern pharmacy

By Tillmann Taape

In past centuries, devoid of freezers and heated greenhouses, the seasons affected medicines as well as foodstuffs. In addition to pickled vegetables and stored grain, early modern people worried about their provisions of healing plants and animal substances. These, too, had their season: many herbs were considered most powerful when picked in May, and ‘May dew’ collected from fragrant meadows at this time of year was said to have many healing properties. In his Destillierbücher (distillation manuals), published in the early sixteenth century, the Strasbourg surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig addresses the challenges which arise in pharmacy from nature’s cyclical changes. He explains that most preparations of fresh medicinal herbs are ‘unkeepable’. For example, ‘if you pound herbs, roots or other substances and squeeze the juice from it, then it becomes unpleasant, does not last, […] and soon putrid corruption ensues’.[1] Even with dried materia medica and compound drugs, their medicinal virtues faded over time.

Brunschwig knew this all too well from personal experience. As an apothecary running his own shop near the fish market, maintaining a stock of efficacious remedies was his chief responsibility and expertise. The issue of pharmaceutical provisioning was taken very seriously by Strasbourg’s magistrates. Twice a year, they would send round a committee of medical experts to all apothecary shops, to ensure that no perished goods were stocked, and to throw away any that had gone off.

An apothecary pounding medicines. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strasbourg, 1512), fol. 6v. © Wellcome Library, London

Brunschwig’s understanding of the material world was shaped by his experience as a pharmacist and shopkeeper, but also by the cosmology and medical theory of his day. While the heavenly spheres were characterised by material perfection and changelessness, all matter on earth was made up of the four elements (air, water,fire, earth) and subject to their constant permutations. They were doomed to endless cycles of generation, change, and decay. Material stability was only possible where the elements were in perfect balance, ‘as you can see in May when it is neither too dry nor too humid, neither too warm nor too cold’.[2]

Brunschwig’s seasonal simile is revealing: a perfect balance of elements is just as rare and fleeting as those precious few balmy weeks in May. As well as pointing to the instability of all earthly matter, the language of seasons and their cold, hot, dry or moist qualities was associated with early modern ideas about the stages of human life. Youth, health, reproduction, decline and death were analogous with the annual cycle of flourishing and decay in nature – a relationship which is richly illustrated in a set of anonymous seventeenth-century engravings (see here for an interactive digital reproduction). The idea of changing seasons was emblematic of an early modern view of the material world which was characterised by instability. Human bodies fluctuated with the shifting balance of their humours, and the very substances which could be used to cure the resulting ailments were themselves fleeting and, in Brunschwig’s words, ‘unkeepable’.

Faced with such difficulties, Brunschwig and others turned to a branch of knowledge with a longstanding commitment to imitating and manipulating natural processes underlying the transformations of matter: alchemy. In particular, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful artisanal technique to ‘keep the unkeepable’.[3] Distillation was the art of separation, and in the case of medicinal simples, Brunschwig claimed, their ‘soul’ or healing virtue could be separated from their ‘body’, that is to say the material dross made up of the problematic four elements. Thus liberated, the healing ‘spirit’ of a plant in the form of a distilled water could be bottled and neatly stored on Brunschwig’s alphabetically ordered shelf, where they would keep well beyond their harvest season, for up to three years. Later Destillierbücher echo the idea that one can ‘keep these waters over the year’ as a major selling point of distilled remedies.[4]

While distillation in theory had the power to produce pure and incorruptible ‘quintessences’, this was far too laborious for everyday pharmaceutical practice. Brunschwig wrote for an audience of ‘common men’ as well as artisan colleagues, and most of the distilled remedies he discusses are much more pedestrian. They still have some of the elemental qualities of the original herb, and are ultimately perishable. Compared to ‘unkeepable’ plant juice, however, their decay is slower and more predictable. Brunschwig confidently charts the decline and change in a water’s healing powers over the years, and even gives instructions for ‘recharging’ them. A water can be saved by infusing it with fresh herbs and distilling it once more – thus, Brunschwig reassures his readers, a distilled remedy can ‘prevail against its time’ for another year.[5]

In the early modern world of matter, the seasons symbolised cycles of change and decay which spelled trouble for healers and makers of medicines. In some of the earliest vernacular works on pharmacy, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful tool for defying the material corruption of seasonal changes.

[1] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[2] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 36v.

[3] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[4] Eucharius Röslin, Kreutterbuoch von allem Erdtgewaechs… (Frankfurt, 1533), title page verso.

[5] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 18v.


Depending on the season

By Jennifer A. Munroe

In Charlotte, NC it was 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) yesterday, with a blistering sun that felt more like mid-summer than mid-spring; today it is 50 degrees and raining so hard we are under a flash flood warning. Also yesterday, Earth Day (April 22) was met this year by a “March for Science” around the globe. Somehow, it all seems fitting: such fluctuations in the weather here in North Carolina are a product (at least in part) of human-precipitated global climate change, a phenomenon still denied by too many people (one is too many, to my mind), especially in Western countries who have too much to gain by the continued overuse of earth’s resources. But what has this all to do with early modern recipes?

Early modern recipes remind us that humans are, ultimately, subject to seasonal change, even if our actions might alter the fluctuations and intensity of temperature and precipitation—or, might affect the way we experience the seasons. That is, although it may seem that we have the power, even to act destructively, our presence on this planet is a shared presence, one borne of interdependence and punctuated by the fact that we are, ultimately, locked in an interdependent relationship with the other animals, plants, soil, and climate on the planet we cohabitate.

At a time when we can access produce like strawberries and avocados in the middle of winter, it may seem we have achieved liberation from the shackles of seasonality. But such mid-winter fruits, as any who have tasted them in January would know, are mere specters of their mid-summer relatives: they may look like the real thing, but taste like it they do not. Early moderns were necessarily bound to the sort of seasonality we aim to circumvent today. As they grew or harvested their own fruits and vegetables, they were (even with hothouse technology) generally subject to the natural course of ripening that comes as a result of having spent enough hours on the vine, stalk, or bush basking in the sunshine, or the slow release of ethylene that makes a tomato red or a blackberry soft. Calcium carbide, our modern-day chemical stand-in, may hasten ripening while a fruit is prematurely transported to market today, but it will not make it taste sweet.

I want to turn to a recipe from the manuscript receipt book of Rebeckah Winche (Folger MS v.b.366) to rethink what it (and others like it) tells us about human dependence on the seasons. If you open a manuscript recipe book, you will notice myriad iterations of “pick it when it is ripe” or “gather in midsomer,” as we do in numerous recipes from the Winche book. These books thus note the optimum time for harvest, when the plant material is at its best. A recipe from the Winche book, “To Preserve Wallnuts,” charges, “Take green walnuts about Midsomer” (153); or another, “To Drie Figges,” similarly calls for one to “Take your figges when thay are ripe & new gathred” (152). Gathering a fruit when it is ripe, or a flower when it is newly-budded, is to take that plant when its oil and sugar concentrations (and its very essence) are at their peak. But I think recipes like these do more than indicate the optimum time for gathering; they also underscore a delicate balance between the desire to thwart time (and seasonality as a marker of time) and an awareness of the futility of halting time and its effects on both humans and nonhumans alike. For while the act of food preservation (here, drying figs) is an endeavor that presumes to hold an object in time and space indefinitely, it is also a sort of hubris—after all, the moment a plant is harvested, its mortality is hastened. Take the recipe “To Drie Figges,” for instance:

Take your figges when thay are ripe & new

gathred. set on a skillet of water then take

your figges & prick them up & down wth a pin

& put them in to the water & let them boyle till

thay bee tender. then take them out & to a pound of

take a pound of loafe suger. then take a quart of

water. & one quarter of the suger & set it on the

fire & when you have scumed it put in your figs

& let them boyle a pritty while then put them in an

earthen pan & so doe for 4 days together put ing in

on gr of ye suger every day until all bee in allways

let ing the sirup boyle before you put in the figs

let them stand 2 days in the sirrup & then lay them

upon a sive & when thay are drayned scrape fine

suger on them & set them in an oven where there

is some little heat or in a stove turning them twice

a day serseing suger on them until thay be dry

then put papers between them & keepe them in a dry place.

As interesting as the instructions for preserving the figs (which ripen in summer) so they last indefinitely might sound–to suspend them in time by way of applying sugar and heat over a prolonged period–this recipe articulates protracted time in such a way that underscores flux, not stasis. Or put another way, even in the act of “keeping” (which implies a holding in time and space of an object’s qualities), recipes like this one underscore fluctuation and change. Taking the figs, “when they are ripe and new gathred” prompts this chain of events, but what follows is a process of “prick[ing],” “scum[ing],” “boyle[ing],” “drayn[ing],” “turning,” and “serseing” over the course of days, even weeks, “until thay be dry” (however long that is). The “ings” here outnumber the “eds.”

We might also recall the numerous recipes from the period in which we find alternative storage directions for different seasons: foods and medicines might last longer in storage in the winter than in the summer. And here, in the simple directions to “keepe them [the dried figs] in a dry place,” we see contingencies of seasonality—keeping something dry in the middle of summer is usually an easier enterprise than keeping it dry in the peak of the spring rains, even if your storage is tucked away and sealed. For that matter, starting a fire and keeping it regulated is easier to do during a drier season than it is a wetter one.

This recipe with a deceptively simple title, “To Drie Figges,” then, reveals a complex and ongoing interaction between human (gatherer) and an array of nonhuman things (fig, sugar, fire, sun, rain, knife, skillet, and more) that seems to defy the very premise of preservation. That is, while the notion of “preserving” seems to imply something very unseasonal—to be kept perpetually in a state over time—“To Drie Figges” reminds us of the multiple states of being, of our dependence on the seasons for the fruit’s ripeness and for its preservation (even after the loads of sugar). Moreover, any user of this recipe would need to know the season when figs ripen, as our instructions indicate merely to “take” when ripe. In England, as in the US, figs tend to ripen in summer, but the moment of optimum ripeness is harnessed not by fixing a date on the calendar to gather, but rather by attending to the particulars of the fruit’s appearance, odor, and texture. As anyone who tends a garden in this time of climate change would know, though, that precise moment shifts from year to year, and is coming earlier all the time, thanks to planetary warming. For these and other reasons, then, recipes remind us of what we might otherwise like to forget: so much is depending not so much on us, but on the season.