Reflections on Medieval Culture Through A Culinary Lens

Teaching the Medieval Feast

Krista Murchison (Leiden University), @drkmurch

Leiden University’s English Language and Culture BA is aimed at teaching about not just the literature and language of the English-speaking world (broadly defined) but also about its culture. This means that when I design my medieval English literature courses, I encourage students to explore this literature within its beautiful, conflicted and multifaceted cultural environments—and their present-day resonances. 

One of the activities I introduced to my courses most recently was a medieval feast. Students were tasked with translating historical recipes out of their original Middle English—a language that was spoken in England between c. 1100 and 1500, years before Shakespeare was born. Once students had translated their recipes, they tried out some medieval cooking and wrote short and imaginative reflections about how their culinary creations reflected medieval culture. I’ve compiled these recipes and reflections for a ‘digital medieval cookbook’ here.

The activity was structured in a way that would allow students to lead their own learning experiences, since scholarship of teaching and learning tends to suggest that people learn better through activities that emphasize active exploration over passive listening (cf. Messineo et al. 2007). So,  students, working in groups of three or four, selected for themselves which recipes they wanted to focus on out of pre-defined sets, and they decided independently how best to approach the assignment. The resultant projects drew from an impressive range of multimedia formats, from comic strips to vlog-style cooking tutorials, and reflected an insightful understanding of medieval written and culinary culture.

In keeping with the student-driven structure of this learning task, this post will feature reflections from two of the groups who participated in the assignment. These reflections will explore some of the striking differences between modern and medieval cuisine and speak to the fascinating experience of preparing medieval food in a modern kitchen.

Image credit: British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 58r.

For medieval writers, feasting could be political. In a widely-popular medieval legend, a well-timed “wassail” (a drinking toast still in use today) was key to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain (in the 5th century CE). One of the earliest versions of the stories comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), which is best known for containing one of the longest early accounts of King Arthur. In Geoffrey’s account, Vortigern (leader of the Britons) invited Hengist (leader of the Saxons) to Britain from across the North Sea. Hengist brought his daughter Rowena with him. When Rowena met Vortigern at a feast, she approached him with a full cup of mead and, in her own language, toasted him with the words “Lauerd king wacht heil!” (“Lord king, wassail!”). Rowena’s greeting was apparently so pleasant that Vortigern was enchanted by Rowena, let his guard down and drank too much. Ultimately, he married Rowena and, in so doing, enabled the Saxon invasion of England. While undoubtedly an invention, the story illustrates how the feast, in medieval popular imagination, held the potential to influence the succession of kingdoms, the building of dynasties, and the collapse of empires.

A medieval court at the table. British Library, Additional MS 19554, f. 1v.

Despite its importance to medieval writers, food has traditionally been left out of discussions of medieval culture and the value of recipes as historical documents is often overlooked. This neglect of culinary culture is due, in part, to a pervasive sense that it belongs in a domestic sphere separated from the political one, where the “real” history is thought to happen. Yet this distinction between the domestic and the political has been shown, in various domains, to be artificial; and as the Rowena anecdote makes clear, it holds little grounding in medieval culture. By shedding light on medieval culinary culture, this class project participates in a broader movement of recognizing the manifold ways in which food shaped and reflected medieval culture.

Recipes from the Forme of Cury, including “makerel in sawse” and “porpeys in broth”. British Library, Additional MS 5016, f. 7r.

The recipes for the project came from a medieval cookbook known as the Forme of Cury (c. 1390s). It was, according its preface, compiled by “the chef Maister Cokes of kyng Richard the Secunde kyng of Englond” (fol. 1r).  The recipes were taken from Samuel Pegge’s edition; while it has the disadvantage of being rather antiquated, it has the advantage over more modern editions of being out of copyright. I selected recipes that would be feasible to cook and that would be easily transportable, so that students could share their delicious creations with the class.

British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 57v.

Medieval Food in the Modern Kitchen

By Ilse van Oosten (Leiden University)

After receiving a set of recipes, our group of four was responsible for all the stages of our project: translating our recipes, researching medieval food, and (perhaps the most enjoyable part) recreating one of our recipes. It was interesting to see what kind of ingredients and dishes a medieval person would have been familiar with and how food could reflect a person’s social position in the medieval period. Unlike reading literature, which can seem removed from everyday medieval life, reading these recipes felt like peering into a medieval kitchen.

Medieval cooking. From British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 108r.

Funnily enough, many of the recipes we translated were quite similar to some modern-day recipes. One recipe, named “appulmoy,” was a pudding-like version of our contemporary apple sauce. What surprised me is that many of the recipes were either vegetarian or fully vegan. The stereotype of the meat-loving medieval population was certainly called into question by these recipes. Discovering these links between medieval and modern-day cooking—the similar recipes and the mixed diet—was an unexpected and fascinating aspect of this project.

As we learned during the project, medieval recipes are a distinct text type that differs from its modern equivalent. There are, of course, some similarities; both medieval and modern recipes tend to start by giving the name of the dish as the title, and both tend to favour relatively short, practical sentences. Both also rely on some standard, formulaic phrases; many recipes in the Forme of Cury, end “and serue it forth,” which is comparable to the modern phrase “and serve the dish.” Yet medieval recipes tend to be rather sparse compared to their modern counterparts. They lack the kinds of measurement specifications and information about cooking time and temperature that are generally found in modern recipes. Medieval recipes also feature a limited set of cooking terms and are not divided up into separate steps, but are written in continuous sentences. They are much shorter than modern recipes and expect a great deal of prior knowledge from cooks. All this forced us to improvise a bit while trying out the recipes.

Although some medieval recipes did not sound too appetising, such as a “salat” consisting mainly of onions and an odd mixture of fresh herbs, some medieval recipes are really tasty and fun to make. Even though the real experience of a medieval kitchen would have been different, making medieval recipes today offers a glimpse of what went into making medieval food. Among other things, a lack of modern tools like blenders and programmable ovens means that it took much longer to prepare food in the medieval period than it does today. A modern cook trying these recipes for the first time may need to spend some time researching unfamiliar ingredients like “powdour fort” (“strong powder”) and I would recommend preparing the dish as a group, simply because it was the most fun bit of this assignment. Most recipes were not very difficult to make and offer a nice culinary experience for anyone interested in both history and cooking.

Image credit: British Library, Harley MS 7334, f. 57v.

 

Medieval Food, Health, and Social Status

By Ellemijn Galjaard, Vita Jansen and Lisanne de Wolff (Leiden University)

Going into this assignment, our view of medieval food was stereotypical to say the least. We expected the medieval diet to be extremely carnivorous, unvaried and bland. However, we were surprised to find quite the opposite. An article by Rosalie Taylor revealed that medieval cooks were perfectly capable of preparing a wide variety of vegetables. In fact, greens were often left out of recipes because cooks were expected to know how to create a balanced dish without this information — not because medieval people didn’t eat vegetables. Unlike today’s cookbooks, medieval cookbooks omit specifics about boiling, blanching or sautéeing vegetables because these were thought of as general knowledge.

Indeed, many of the medieval recipes we read turned out to be far from bland. Two of the key ingredients in the recipe for Appulmoy, for example, were saffron and the aforementioned spice blend known as “powdour fort”. Compared to these powerful spices, the more generic combination of sugar and cinnamon used for Dutch ‘appelmoes’ comes up somewhat short. After tasting our home-made Appulmoy, we knew one thing for sure: the Middle Ages witnessed some great culinary creations. 

Preparing a medieval feast. British Library Additional MS 42130, f. 207v.

To understand the differences between medieval and modern recipes, it is valuable to look at Middle English cooking in general. During the Middle Ages, cookery books were not as commonplace as they are today. The audience for cookery books was generally literate and well-off, because the production of books was rather costly (Mikkelsen Talgø 8). Additionally, the ingredients mentioned in medieval recipes could be quite expensive and thus inaccessible to the lower-income households. This aspect of medieval recipes was evident from an ingredient in one of our recipes: saffron. Even today, saffron is considered exceptionally pricey, and saffron had the same reputation as an exclusive spice in medieval times. Volker Schier describes saffron as “an object of conspicuous consumption reserved for the wealthy” (57).

But it had medical properties: “tonic, mood elevator, antidepressant, and hallucinogenic drug” (57). This means that saffron was not only to enhance the taste and colour of recipes, but served a medical purpose. J. Estes claims that  “[b]y the late Middle Ages, the therapeutic benefits of food had entered into the everyday planning of at least the grand households” (1537). Spices more generally “were regarded as both aids to digestion and evidence of a hosts’ wealth” (1537). From this evidence, we can conclude that spices in the medieval period were thought to promote both one’s health and one’s reputation. This dual purpose of spices is not prominent in modern day cuisine, although there has been an increase in recent years in using spices for their antimicrobial properties in health-conscious diets. 

Medieval baking. British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 145v.

Three ingredients in our recipe were hard to find, each for a different reason. The first was saffron, which can be hard to include in medieval cooking due to its cost and rarity. Although it can be a rather exclusive spice, it was available in a regular supermarket and we were able to procure some of it for the Appulmoy. But we were not able to obtain almond flour. It is today considered a health product akin to superfoods such as dried cranberries and dairy substitutes such as rice milk, but such products are not widely available. The inclusion of almond flour rather than regular flour in a medieval recipe, albeit one that was probably for the wealthy (judging from the saffron), suggests that in the medieval period almond flour was a more common ingredient than it is today. The third ingredient, “powdour fort” (or “strong powder”), was hard to find because its name was initially a mystery. We now know this refers to a mix of spices, containing pepper and cinnamon or pepper and ginger. We decided to try the cinnamon blend for our Appulmoy.

A few final tips for anyone embarking on a medieval cooking project…

  • When making medieval recipes, proceed with an open mind and an experimental attitude.
  • Do not worry too much about the right amount of pepper or cinnamon, or about the end result.
  • If you want to make sure your food turns out right, you can compare the medieval recipe with similar modern ones in order to get more exact timings and measurements.

However, this might take away from the experience, which is really the most important part: the experience of cooking something special with friends.

Bibliography

Baldassano, Cassandra. “Powder Fort.” Medieval Cuisine, 2012, http://www.medievalcuisine.com/Euriol/recipe-index/powder-fort. Accessed 24 August, 2019. 

Estes, J. “Food as Medicine.” Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1534-53. 

Messineo, Melinda, et l. “Inexperienced Versus Experienced Students’ Expectations for Active Learning in Large Classes.” College Teaching vol. 55, no. 3, 2007, pp. 125-33.

Mikkelsen Talgø, M. An Edition of the Fifteenth-Century Middle English Cookery Recipes in London, British Library’s MS Sloane 442. MA Thesis. University of Stavanger, 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April, 2019. 

Schier, V. “Probing the Mystery of the Use of Saffron in Medieval Nunneries.” The Senses and Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2010, pp. 57-72.

Taylor, Rosalie. “More Garbage, Anyone? Eating and Cooking Meat in Medieval England.” The English Language(s): Cultural & Linguistic Perspectives, 2005, http://homes. chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/HELEncyclopedia.htm. Accessed 24 August, 2019.

Pigeon slippers

By Robert Ralley and Lauren Kassell

The Casebooks Project, a team of scholars at the University of Cambridge, has spent a decade studying 80,000 consultations recorded by the seventeenth-century astrologer-physicians Simon Forman and Richard Napier. To mark the completion of our work, we selected 500 cases for full transcription. When the launch was announced on 16 May 2019, it received considerable media attention. Headlines included ‘Prescribing deer dung and pigeon slippers’ (BBC news), ‘Purges, angels and “pigeon slippers”’ (The Guardian), and ‘“Kisse myne arse”: Doctor’s notes reveal bizarre medical notes from 400 years ago’ (c/net).


Fig. 1: Richard Napier’s CASE51060, MS Ashmole 414, f. 76r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

When Mrs Elizabeth Chester, suffering from hot, red eyes, consulted Richard Napier, the Anglican rector and astrologer, in June 1620, his remedy included ‘a pigon slitt & applyed to the sole of each foote’ (see Fig. 1). Applying freshly killed pigeons to the feet or other parts was not one of Napier’s standard treatments, but we have spotted references to it in around 30 cases. More instances await discovery amidst the 70,000 consultations that Napier recorded between 1597 and 1634. Roughly half record treatments. Often unhelpfully shortened to ‘pig’ – whence remarks such as the cryptic-looking ‘pig to the feete’ – this remedy appears often enough for Joanne Edge, one of the Casebooks Project’s editors, to dub it ‘pigeon slippers’.

We don’t know whether Napier read about the use of pigeons in a medical book or learned it from another healer. It’s not amongst the treatments, as far as we can tell, that he learned from his mentor, Simon Forman. Napier first recommended slit pigeons, twice, in March 1607 (see here and Fig. 2; and here), and occasionally thereafter for the rest of his career.

Fig. 2: Richard Napier’s CASE30882, MS Ashmole 193, f. 113r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Pigeons were common in early modern Europe. People kept and ate them, their broths were fortifying, and distillations made from them were good for the skin. English medical texts, typically translated from earlier Latin and vernacular editions, regularly referred to blood drawn from under their wings to help with eye troubles. From antiquity, pigeon dung featured in plasters and drinks for numerous remedies. Galen, the great second-century physician, had recommended the application of freshly-killed pigeons, puppies and ram lungs to the head. Medieval medical treatises and recipe collections perpetuated the practice, especially for cases of frenzy. Physicians trained at Montpellier applied pigeons to the chest to comfort the heart. Sixteenth-century books of secrets recommended pigeons—either freshly killed or live with their tail feathers plucked—to draw foul matter out of plague buboes. Napier duly noted, ‘apply halfe a pigeon new slitte to the outsyde of the sore’.

Medieval texts often recommended rubbing the feet, and other extremities, with salt, vinegar and wine, but so far the earliest reference we’ve found to ‘A quick Pidgeon cut in two, and bound to the soles of the feet’ is by Felix Platter, the distinguished Basel physician, in his extensive 1614 medical book.[1] Used with other remedies, pigeons to the feet helped ensure a speedy recovery. By 1638, the Hull physician James Primerose noted that ancient and modern writers advised applying pigeons to the head in diseases of the brain, but, to his knowledge, this was rarely done in practice. Rather, ‘the common people’ and ‘very many physicians’ instead applied pigeons to the feet.[2] Napier’s casebooks attest to this. He usually recommended slit pigeons to the feet for problems of the head or throat, whether a swollen face (see Fig. 3), hot, running or sore eyes (see Fig. 4), or even a bad cough. A handful of cases concern the mind, from what Napier called ‘lightheadedness’ (not dizziness), via melancholy, up to frenzy. Occasionally he chose the neck instead or both neck and feet. He always combined pigeons with other therapeutics (various internal medicines, ointments, clysters, blisters and bloodletting, for instance). When in 1632 the vicar of Westmill, Hertfordshire reported to him that a parishioner had been treated for frenzy with pigeons to her feet and a slit cock all over her head, Napier replied suggesting a sigil and a list of medicines.

Fig. 3: Richard Napier’s CASE23369, MS Ashmole 238, f. 212v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

In seventeenth-century England, pigeon slippers seem to have become standard in the medical repertoire. John Hall, the physician from Stratford-upon-Avon who married Shakespeare’s daughter, recorded that when he suffered from a ‘light Delirium’ caused by a dangerous fever in 1632, the cure included ‘a Pigeon cut open alive, and applied to my feet to draw down the Vapours’.[3] Theodore de Mayerne and fellow royal physicians applied a pigeon to the head of the ailing Prince Henry in 1612, and a slit cock to his feet, without success.[4] Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, recorded the treatment’s use when patients’ lives were in danger: in October 1663 he noted that Catherine of Braganza ‘was so ill as to be shaved and pidgeons put to her feet, and to have the extreme unction given her by the priests’; in January 1667/8 he visited the house of a man whose ‘breath rattled in his throate, and they did lay pigeons to his feete while I was in the house, and all despair of him, and with good reason’. There is no sign that Napier regarded the treatment as a last resort.

Fig. 4: Richard Napier’s CASE23227, MS Ashmole 238, f. 190r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

For learned physicians and laypeople alike, pigeon slippers worked through attraction. Just as Hall explained that they had ‘draw[n] down the Vapours’, so in 1604, Napier noted that William Godfrey, who suffered from bloodshot eyes and a hot rheum, had ‘applyed a pigeon slitte to his necke which drew the rheume thither & eased’. In May 1600 Napier recorded that Mother Gale had decided that a boy’s burning shoulders, aching back and swollen knees were because he was forspoken (bewitched), and treated him by putting ‘a cock pigion slit to his … face’ and throwing his nail parings in a fire. Perhaps her rationale was to remove some sort of poison, as when slit pigeons were applied to plague sores. Primerose considered and dismissed the possibility that the pigeons’ gentle heat on a patient’s feet could affect the head and its humours at all. ‘Nevertheless’, he wrote, ‘I doe not absolutely speake against the applying them to the soles of the feet, because it may doe a little good, and cannot doe hurt.’[5]


[1] Platerus golden practice of physick fully and plainly discovering, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, 1664, Bk 2, Ch. 2, Of fevers.

[2] James Primerose, Popular Errours, trans. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 397.

[3] John Hall, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases (transl. James Cook, 1679), OBSERV. LX.

[4] Hugh Trevor-Roper, Europe’s Physician (2006), p. 172.

[5] James Primerose, Popular Errours, transl. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 400.

Thanksgiving with Galen and Apicius

By Sean Coughlin

For Thanksgiving, I thought I’d come up with a new English translation of a seasonal recipe from the Roman cook-book of Apicius. It comes from the third book of De re coquinaria. The Latin is cucurbitas cum gallina. In Joseph Vehling’s English translation: “Pumpkin and Chicken”.

If only the Romans had turkeys. And pumpkins.

I first learned that the Greeks and Romans were pumpkinless from Laurence Totelin earlier this year and it left me utterly confounded.

I had been revising a translation and commentary of the first book of the sixth-century CE physician Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections, and a question came up about how to identify different kinds of cucurbits, that immense botanical family of vines which produce comically-large-berries, like cucumbers, melons, watermelons, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and luffa sponges.

Naively, I thought it would help to look at how authors like Aetius or Galen say cucurbits are prepared. And, since Galen (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, 2.3) tells us that people always ate their cucurbits cooked, I figured that Greco-Roman cucurbits must be something like zucchini.  After all, who on earth would cook a melon?

“But,” Laurence told me, “zucchinis are new world.”

Now, before going into why I found this so shocking, I want to bring everyone up to speed.

“Old world” cucurbits include a lot of different genera: Cucumis, the cucumbers and melons; Citrullus, the watermelons and colocynths; Lageneria, the bottle gourd or calabash; and a few others like Luffa and Bryonia. No one is quite sure where in the old world they first evolved, but the recent consensus is somewhere in Africa. In other words, they could have existed in the Greco-Roman world.

Various old world cucurbits: cucumbers and melons. Photo from the author.

“New world” cucurbits, however, are the vines descended from plants native to the Americas. They almost certainly could not have been known in antiquity, and the group includes all species of the genus Cucurbita. This includes zucchini, courgettes, pumpkins, squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000 kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before Columbus.

I would like to imagine that there is at least one other kindred reader of classics in English who feels a bit anxious at this news. It’s not just a problem for Apicius’ Thanksgiving casserole or my rehearsal of Epicrates’ lampoon of Plato’s Academy.

What about the “Pumpkin Pirates” of Lucian’s True History (2.37)? Or Psyche’s sister’s husband who Apuleius says is “bald as a pumpkin” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 5.9)? And what will become of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii – the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius?

English translations are unusually problematic in the case of cucurbits. Pumpkins show up all over the place. And this isn’t merely because of translators’ license, or a confusion of names.

As far as I’ve been able to sort out, it’s mainly the result of an unfortunate coincidence between the rise of an influential but erroneous botanical hypothesis, and the publication of two influential Greek and Latin English dictionaries.

Here is the story:

Before the mid-19th century, the evidence about the origins of Cucurbita was mixed. The names of the plants suggested they came from the “old world”, but depictions of Cucurbita species don’t show up before the mid-1500s.

For instance, in Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 herbal, De Historia Stirpium, we get one of the first European depictions of the pumpkin plant, the species Cucurbita pepo L. Fuchs, however, calls it cucumis turcicus, the Turkish cucumber, a name which might lead one to think the plant was native to the “old world”.

Not long after Fuchs, in an herbal of Matthiolus from 1586, the same plant appears again, but with a different name: cucurbita indica – the Indian gourd. And “Indian,” Matthiolus tells us, means American: “they say these [new gourds] came into Italy from the West Indies, whence they are called by many ‘Indian’” (Matthiolus of Padua, Commentary on Dioscorides 1559, p. 292, my emphasis).

“He has a pumpkin” (ipse cucurbita habet). Using pumpkins as camouflage. Woodcut, late 16th century, Netherlands. CCBY

Both Fuchs and Matthiolus agree that these cucurbits are foreign (and probably even recent) imports to European markets. They disagree about where they came from: were they indigenous to the old or the new world?

This continued until the 1850s, when the hypothesis that Cucurbita species were indigenous to the old world reached its most articulated form. It happened as part of a public debate between two great 19th century botanists: Alphonse de Candolle and Asa Gray.

De Candolle argued that because people had used the same names for cucurbits since ancient times, the plants with those names must have come from the old world.

In response, Gray argued that new and ‘foreign’ cucurbits only start showing up in 16th century herbals like those of Fuchs and Matthiolus. That, along with documentary evidence from the first European explorers, suggests a new world origin.

The debate continued for over thirty years, only coming to an end in 1883 after a devastating two-part review of De Candolle’s last book, The Origin of Cultivated Plants. In this review, Gray, along his colleague J. Hammond Turnball, presented almost documentary evidence from European explorers that cucurbits were cultivated in the Americas before European explorers ever reached it in 1492.

These explorers recorded indigenous names for the plants they encountered, but they also used European ones, and these are the names that stuck: in Latin, cucurbitae and cucumeres; in Spanish, calabaças, melones, pepinos and cogombros; in French, melons, concombres, citrouilles, and courges; in Italian, zucca; and in English, musk-melons, cowcumbers, and, — most importantly — the pompion, the source of our word, ‘pumpkin’. Only the name “squash” from the Algonquin vernacular made its way into English.

Gray and Turnball’s review, however, appeared only after the work on the great Greek and Latin lexica had finished up – A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddel and Scott, and A Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short. Both dictionaries identify some Greco-Roman cucurbits with American pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo L. or Cucurbita maxima L.), and pumpkins have shown up in English translations ever since.

So for this recipe, I figure, why fight it?

Tune in tomorrow for Apicius’ recipe!

The author with pumpkins, sometime in the late 2000s. Photo from the author.

Sean Coughlin is Research Fellow in the history of philosophy, science and medicine at Excellence Cluster Topoi and the Institute for Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is completing a revised translation and commentary on Aetius of Amida, Medical Collections, Book I, an edition and translation fragments of the 1st century Pneumatist physician, Athenaeus of Attalia, and co-editing a volume on the concept of pneuma after Aristotle.

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.