Category Archives: Plants and Herbs

‘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.

Tales from the Archives: Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, with the first signs of spring here in the UK, I want to share a floral-themed post by Colleen Kennedy. In this piece from August 2013, Colleen discussed early modern uses of violets in confectionery and perfumery. I am particularly touched by Renaissance descriptions of the scent of violet as melancholy. Unlike overpowering floral scents, that of violet strikes a softer, perhaps sadder, chord.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.

Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:

To Make Syrup of Flowers:

Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)

Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

So, what does the violet smell like?  English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.

For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like?  Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad.  Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”

Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad  and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625),  links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.

The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.
‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)

Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets,  especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”

The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”

The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine.  As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:

[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)

Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.

Viola odorata

References (in order of appearance)

Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).

Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).

Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.

Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).

Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).

Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).

Bright Red, Dark Red: Coral’s Color-Coded Virtues

By Jennifer Park

I have long wanted to explore the fascination with coral as an ingredient in the history of science and medicine. Laurence Totelin wonderfully began her post on the use of coral in an ancient amulet by placing coral “centre stage,” noting its curious and complex categorization as animal, plant, or stone, and bringing attention to the other posts in which the red ingredient has cropped up. In tandem with these fascinating mentions of coral, I have been struck for years by a remarkable image in the medieval French Livre des simples médecines which depicts coral on an apothecary’s shelf in a beautiful, vibrant red.

Livre des simples médecines, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.a. fr. 6593, fol. 12322.

In this post, I’d like to focus on coral’s red color, a key indicator of the ingredient’s effectiveness, and its naturally occurring virtues as explained in early modern texts. In his medical treatise, translated into English as Paracelsus his Dispensatory and Chirurgery (London,1656), the physician Paracelsus provides an entire treatise on “the Vertues and Preparations of CORALS.” From the start, Paracelsus’s examination focuses on the color of red coral, determining two main kinds: a “dark red colour, or toward a purple colour,” and “a bright, shining red colour” (39). It is the quality of the redness of coral, Paracelsus insists, that indicates its virtue and effectiveness.

Coral that has the “clear, bright, shining red colour”—and additionally which is “full of boughs, and no where broken”—is “full of power and vertue” (40). This virtue is lessened if the coral has “clefts” or is missing parts. Paracelsus uses this to begin his analysis of color differences in coral, and how those color differences indicate the use value of the coral in a number of different remedies.

Paracelsus’s starting premise is that the corals that have the bright red color are “pleasant and delectable,” while the “dark red” or purple are “not pleasant to the eye” (40). Correspondingly, Paracelsus advises that if you carry coral with you, one should “chuse and love the bright Coral,” but “beware…the dull, dark Coral” (40). This leads to Paracelsus’s emphasis of the role of color in distinct affective differences in coral. “As joy differs from sorrow, and laughing from weeping” he outlines, “so these two sorts of Corals differ the one from the other” (40). Therefore, a “sick or weak man, who would have his heart merry and joyfull” would “increase his disease and sadnesse of heart” were he to carry with him the darker colored coral (40-41).

In addition to the affective differences in brightly or darkly colored red coral, the redness of the coral, according to Paracelsus, serves to address one’s susceptibility to various mental, psychosomatic, and spiritual concerns. For example, bright red coral is “good to quicken Phansie, or imaginative faculty” (41), which helps to aid the “studie of Secrets, of Arts and Sciences, and new Inventions” without tiring the mind (41). This is because bright red coral prevents the mind from being infected by “the Divel,” or with “impurity, wickedness or vanity” (41); the dark red coral, however, “doth the contrary” (41).

Bright red coral also protects against “Phantasms, or nocturnal spirits” as well as “vain visions, or vain sights, call’d Spectra” (41). Phantasms and nocturnal spirits were believed to be both good and bad, related to nightmares. Though not of much use to humans, these phantasms were cumbersome in that they could trouble one’s thoughts. Bright red coral provides a remedy, as these phantasms “fly from these bright Corals as a dog from a staff,” although one must beware of the darker colored corals which, in contrast, attract these nocturnal spirits (42). Spectra, on the other hand, are ghosts, or as Paracelsus describes, the “Starry bodies of dead men” (42). These ghosts “cannot endure to be where the bright Coral is,” and thus bright red coral can be used as protection from them. In contrast, however, “dark coloured Coral allures” the ghosts (42).

It is perhaps due to the influence of bright red and dark red coral on both psychosomatic and supernatural afflictions, the spirits and ghosts that can plague early modern minds, that it also gains the reputation of aiding with melancholy. Melancholy, according to Paracelsus, is “a disease which makes a man sad whether he will or not; that he grows weary of every thing, and becoms dull: and by his diverse thoughts and speculations makes him grieve and weep” (43). Bright red coral is able to drive melancholy away, whereas the dark red coral increases melancholy.

Indeed, the early modern description of these virtues of a coral’s redness fits with the ways in which we ascribe affective significance to colors. The vibrancy of red coral thus contributes to its use in recipes that draw upon its redness, not only for its affective influence but also for its sympathetic properties, like the blood staunching remedies of antiquity that Laurence Totelin brings to light and the eighteenth-century bloodstone that Marieke Hendrikksen examines. As Paracelsus himself exclaims, “the mysteries and secrets of Corals are wonderfull” (51)!