Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.

[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.

Cipriano Piccolpasso’s Recipe for the Transmutation of Matter

By Steve Wharton

Cipriano Piccolpasso, Tav. 20, illustrations associated with the making of ‘lustres’, I Tre Libri Dell’Arte Del Vasajo… (1556-75), Dallo Stabilimento Tipografico, 1857.

Certain recipes can tell us a great deal about the cultural and sometimes the technological contexts within which they were compiled and disseminated. In his mid-sixteenth century Italian treatise, the Three Books of the Art of the Potter.., Cipriano Piccolpasso (1523-79) discussed and illustrated the technology and the manufacturing processes that were central to the making of tin-glazed earthenware pottery.[1] Frequently described as having been produced between the years 1556 and 1558, though revised throughout his lifetime, and as an instruction manual, the manuscript was unpublished until the mid-nineteenth century.[2] Today, it is considered the authentic voice of the sixteenth-century Italian potter. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, Piccolpasso’s descriptions are based on observation of the techniques and processes employed by the potters of Castel Durante, rather than practice. Nevertheless his treatise is consistently and frequently cited in highly technical physical and chemical analyses of Renaissance glaze and related technology.[3] The recipes discussed include those for colour as well as those for ‘ruby’ and ‘gold’ lustres: that is the addition of pristine metallic surfaces to otherwise finished ware. Piccolpasso says of them: ‘…I do not intend to go on further until I have discoursed to you upon gold maiolica, from what I have heard of it from others, not that I have ever made it or even seen it being done. I do know that it is painted over finished wares…’

While Piccolpasso is passing on hearsay, he nevertheless includes a recipe for what he calls Rosso da Maiolica [red maiolica]:

A            B

Red earth                           oz           3             6

Armenian Bole                 oz           1             0

Ferretto of Spain             oz           2             3

Cinnabar                            oz           0             3

to which he adds: ‘…with this last mixture ‘B’, include a calcined silver carlino [a burnt coin]’. In his marginal notes he confirms that ‘…this last mixture “B” is called golden maiolica’.

The inclusion of particularly cinnabar is at first a mystery; it has no function in a recipe such as this. It is only when we know that cinnabar is a compound of mercury and sulphur and that all the ingredients are ground together in a pot of red [i.e. strong] vinegar, one of the ‘sharp waters’ employed by alchemists, that things begin to make a little more sense. During the period, what were described as the ‘arts of fire’, which included the making of pottery, were also used to make not only high status bronze-cast sculpture and gold-cast jewellery, for example, but also to manufacture and prepare more ubiquitous substances such as pigments and other colouring agents for an array of manufacturing techniques. These included easel and fresco painting, tesserae for mosaics, fabric dyes and the decoration of glass and indeed pottery. As has been observed, alchemy, in terms of practical chemistry, was primarily concerned with the making of industrial products by using chemical processes; it was not necessarily concerned with the occult, the mystical or the spiritual.[4]

What Piccolpasso described was and is still known as a ‘transmutation lustre’ [my emphasis] in which a paste based upon raw clay is applied to the surface of a pot. It is a well-known technique: the fifteenth-century Hispano-Moresque potters used a red ochre clay corresponding exactly to that included in this recipe. A silver salt was added, in the form of a calcined carlino, together with a copper compound, known as Ferretto of Spain, to produce ‘gold’ lustre. No gold was ever used and in that sense it is the perception of gold that becomes significant.

The transmutation of base material into gold, however, was central to one of the alchemists’ most important aims, and mercury, sulphur and ‘sharp water’ were all part of the process. In his discussion of this recipe, Piccolpasso may well have been relying on what he knew of the presence of alchemy in all kinds of chemical and physical practice, including the production of gold maiolica. More specifically, he raises the question: to what extent might the potters of north-central Italy, in employing their own art of fire, be considered alchemists? What is more certain is that the philosophy associated with alchemy provides an insight into the ways in which knowledge and what kinds of knowledge were gathered and transmitted during the period. Ultimately, Piccolpasso’s record of what he understood as the recipe for ‘gold’ lustre reflected the endeavours of contemporary scholars and indeed pottery practitioners to cope with the challenges of defining and connecting all the different kinds and parts of knowledge that were circulating at that time.


[1] Piccolpasso, Cipriano, Li tre libri dell’arte del vasaio nei quai si tratta non solo la pratica, ma brevemente tutti gli secreti di essa cosa che persino al dè d’oggi è stata sempre tenuta ascosta…ecc., National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London, MSL/1861/7446

[2] Caiani, A., 1857, I Tre Libri dell’Arte del Vasajo, Roma, dallo Stabilimento Tipografico, Via del Corso, num. 387.

[3] See, for example, G. Padeletti, G. M. Ingo et al, ‘First-time Observation of Maestro Giorgio Masterpieces by Means of non-destructive Techniques’, Applied Physics. A, Materials Science & Processing, 0947-8396, Padeletti, 2006, vol. 83 issue, 4, pp. 475-483; B. Brunetti et al., ‘Copper in Glazes of Renaissance Luster Pottery: Nanoparticles, Ions and Local Environment’, Journal of Applied Physics, 93/12, 2003, pp. 10058–63

[4] A. Y. Al-Hassan, Studies in al-Kimya’, 2009, p. 8; see also L. Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, 1998, p. 11.

“And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic

By Laura Mitchell

In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms and natural magic experiments reveal a different side to recipe users beyond the altruistic or the practical, and show a more light-hearted, sometimes even lascivious, approach to magic. Here I will discuss two examples that highlight these ludic aspects of magic very well.

My first example comes from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435, an anonymous collection of the fifteenth century. This particular recipe is from the manuscript’s very large recipe collection (over 190 items) and is found on pages 14 and 15:

If you want a woman to lift her skirts up to her belly button: take a green frog and cook it and afterward wash its bones in running water and you will find one bone which jumps against the water. Then take that one and touch her with it and it will seem to her that she is walking in a great river and lift [her skirts].[1]

What I find really interesting about this example is the implication that whoever was conducting this would have had to know this woman well enough to get close to her and touch her with a frog bone without raising a lot of suspicion. Presumably this would have been tried in private… although it is possible that some strange man ran around town prodding women with a frog bone and wondering why they weren’t lifting their skirts!

The internal logic of this recipe is fascinating as well. It’s designed to get a woman to raise just her skirts, rather than take off all her clothes (which is a goal of many charms). The fact that there’s a whole production about making the woman believe that she’s in a river and needs to lift her skirts to keep them dry–solely so that someone can sneak a peek–really speaks to the imaginative force that was an integral part of medieval magic.

Let’s turn now to another imaginative recipe and an example of the sillier side of magic. This example is from the De mirabilius mundi, a medieval book of secrets that was attributed to Albert the Great. My text is taken from the first English edition, printed in 1550 as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Also a Book of the Marvels of the World.

A marvellous operation of a lamp, which if any man shall hold, he ceaseth not to fart until he shall leave it.

Take the blood of a Snail, dry it up in a linen cloth, and make of it a wick, and lighten it in a lamp, give it to any man thou wilt, and say lighten this, he shall not cease to fart, until he let it depart, and it is a marvellous thing.

Once again, this is a recipe or experiment that would presumably have been done among people who knew each other fairly well. It reads rather like a party trick. One can almost imagine the scene in someone’s home as the host passes around the hilarious farting lamp to unsuspecting guests.

The purpose of these two recipes is clearly for laughs, although perhaps they are a little cruel. They reveal much about the sorts of things that medieval people found funny (fart jokes) and what titillated them (bottoms), which is really no different what interests people today. There are many similar charms and recipes from the medieval period–they can make people dance; make it seem as though someone has three heads, or has a dog’s head; there are more charms to make people take their clothes off; there are recipes that make a loaf of bread jump around. The possibilities are nearly endless and they illustrate another side to medieval magic.

[1] Si vis ut mulier leuat pannos suos vsque ad vmbilicum: accipe viridem ranam et coque illam et postea leva (sic) ossa sua in aqua currente et inuenies vnum os quod saltabit contra aquam. Tunc accipe illud et tange illam illam (sic) cum eo et apparebit ei quod vadit in magno flumine et euellet.