Panaceia’s Daughters



Readers take note – Alisha Rankin’s monograph Panaceia’s Daughters. Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany is now out with the University of Chicago Press!

Drawing on rich and fascinating archival sources (including a flurry of recipes), Panaceia’s Daughters is the first major study on noblewomen’s healing activities in early modern Germany. It’s available at all good bookstores including here for US-based readers and here for UK/Europe-based readers.

Happy reading!

Distilling the Essence of Heaven: How Alcohol Could Defeat the Antichrist

by Tillmann Taape

In my last post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Compiler and the Countess

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

Last month, Rebecca Laroche (12/03/2013) examined the first recipe in a manuscript owned by Anne Layfielde and dated 1640, housed at the Medical Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  The section of the manuscript compiled by one “Cal: Downing” contains a remarkable number of attributions, many to Elizabeth Downing – a woman who, Rebecca suggested, could be the “Mistress Downing” whose recipes appear in the printed Natura Exenterata: Or Nature Unbowelled (1655).

I’d like to consider another woman whose name appears repeatedly in the Layfielde manuscript as well as in printed medical manuals: the Countess of Exeter.  Seven references to the Countess of Exeter appear in CPP 10a214.  While the manuscript never says so specifically, this is most likely Frances Cecil (1580-1663), who married Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter in 1610.[1]  The Countess’s reputation in matters of health proved weighty enough that she is named in the dedications to a number of early modern printed books, though, curiously, her recipes are not part of those books (and male physicians’ are). Thomas Bonham dedicates The Chyrurgians Closet to the Countess because he finds “amongst men (to me known) none so much affecting this noble Science as I could wish.”[2] Her reputation as a model household manager led Gervase Markham to dedicate the 1623 edition of Country Contentments, or The English Huswife to her; his assertion that the Countess’s endorsement could make his “weak and disable[d]” book “strong in the world” underscores her long-standing reputation as a practitioner of household medicine.[3]  Thus, even though the Countess’s recipes themselves are not included, or at least not credited, in these books, their authors rely on her popular reputation as a medical practitioner to situate their writings.

Downing’s manuscript section calls on the Countess’s authority as well, naming her as a source for recipes for ailments ranging from “looseness of the body” to sudden swellings.  And even more interestingly, the manuscript labels four recipes as “probatum per Countess of Exeter.”  A recipe for “the Ulcer or stone in the bladder” goes so far as to specify that the medicine was “made by Mr Whatton apothecary of Stamford, probatum per Countess Exeter.” This endorsement carries a personal ring, suggesting that the compiler’s contact with the Countess is more immediate than with the apothecary.  The manuscript, as a result, conjures images of the compiler and the Countess in personal conversation about their medical work.

While written testimonials could certainly follow along with well-travelled recipes, the Layfielde manuscript’s many references to the Countess raise tantalizing questions about the compiler’s medical connections.  How closely did the compiler know the Countess?  Did they exchange recipes in person?  If not, how did her recipes end up in the CPP manuscript?  The answers to these tantalizing questions could offer us a greater understanding not just of how recipes travel, but of how manuscript and print worked together to lend practitioners like the Countess a reputation for medical prowess.

[1] Alastair Bellany, ‘Cecil , Frances, countess of Exeter (1580–1663)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [, accessed 23 March 2013]

[2]  Thomas Bonhman, The Chyrurgians Closet (London, 1630).

[3]  Gervase Markham, Country Contentments, or The English Huswife (London, 1623).

This is the third in a series of monthly posts on this topic.

Wot’s fer dinna luv? Yer favrit, stuffed dormouse!

By Thony Christie

The British Museum has a new exhibition on Pompeii and Cambridge classicist and current media star Mary Beard has been doing the rounds of the English press writing entertaining glosses on it. In her piece for The Sun (yes really that Sun!) she mentioned amongst other things that the Romans ate dormice. Now most English people on being informed of this Roman culinary delight automatically think of the common or hazel dormouse (Mucardinus avellanarius) famously seen being stuffed into a teapot by the Hatter and the March Hare at the formers tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Hatter’s Tea Party, John Tenniel. Source: Wikipedia.
Hatter’s Tea Party, John Tenniel. Source: Wikipedia.

Now this creature is about the same size as the common house mouse (Mus musculus) but has somewhat thicker brown fur and a furry tail. Skinned and boned it would provide, at best, a very delicate hors d’oeuvre or amuse-bouche but never a real meal. There are however many different species of dormouse something that most people are not aware of.

Hazel dormouse, (Mucardinus avellanarius). Source: Wikipedia.
Hazel dormouse, (Mucardinus avellanarius). Source: Wikipedia.

Where I live in Southern Germany for example we have lots of Siebenschläfer, literally translated seven sleeper, (Glis glis) which is supposedly so named because it hibernates for seven months of the year. It looks like a small grey squirrel with a grey and white stripped tummy and a very long, very bushy tail that curls up right over its head like a sunshade. They look very cute and cuddly but you shouldn’t try to stroke one as they are very aggressive and you’ll come away with some very nasty bites.

Edible dormouse (Glis glis). Source: Wikipedia.
Edible dormouse (Glis glis). Source: Wikipedia.

The edible dormouse is the domesticated Glis glis, which when fattened can weigh up to 300 grams. The Roman cookbook Apicius, now thought to date from the late 4th or early 5th century, famously contains a recipe for stuffed dormouse, which I reproduce below:

Apicius, De opsoniis et condimentis (Amsterdam: J. Waesbergios), 1709. Frontispiece of the second edition of Martin Lister’s privately printed version of Apicius. Source: Wikipedia.
Apicius, De opsoniis et condimentis (Amsterdam: J. Waesbergios), 1709. Frontispiece of the second edition of Martin Lister’s privately printed version of Apicius. Source: Wikipedia.

Liber VIII: Tetrapus

 IX. Glires

 Glires: glires: isicio porcino, item pulpis ex omni membro glirium, trito cum pipere, nucleis, lasere, liquamine farcies glires, et sutos in tegula positos mittes in furnum aut farsos in clibano coque.

Book 8:

Four-footed beasts

9. Dormice: Dormice: dormice: stuff the dormice with minced pork as well as the flesh from all of the dormouse’s limbs, together with ground pepper, pine nuts, laser and liquamen and place them sewn up on a clay tile in the oven or cook them in a roasting pan.

Liquamen or garum is a fermented fish sauce and almost universal condiment that served roughly the same function in the Roman cuisine as salt in ours. Laser or silphium was a, now extinct, Roman spice or herb thought to be similar to asafoetida.

So next time you want to surprise your loved one with some truly exotic cookery just rustle up a couple of Glis glis and get stuffing.

Thony Christie is an independent historian of science who blogs at the Renaissance Mathematicus mostly about the mathematical sciences and mostly about the Early Modern Period.

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