Distilling Vernacular Medicine

By Tillmann Taape

As Katherine Allen has pointed out in her post, distillation was regarded as a powerful way of separating and purifying earthly matter, and was central to the alchemical pursuit of the philosophers’ stone. And, yes, the odd gallon of whisky was also a much-welcomed product. This view of distillation is reflected in the textual processes that charaterise the Western alchemical tradition. Beginning with twelfth-century translations of Arabic texts into Latin, scholars constantly excerpted, compiled, translated, and digested all available knowledge, identified what was useful, and then compounded it to suit different tastes and purposes.

This double importance of distillation – techical and textual – is highlighted in the first distillation handbook ever printed, the Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus, also known as the Small book of distillation, which was published in 1500 by the Alsatian surgeon and apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–1512). While this book contains numerous recipes for distilled waters, it can also be seen as representing in itself a recipe for acquiring and presenting medical knowledge. Despite its Latin title, it was written in German, and quickly became a best seller, no doubt cashing in on the growing popularity of distilled medicinal waters. To teach his readers the art of distilling, Brunschwig drew on his wide reading (over three thousand books, according to him) and practical experience to concoct ingredients from different traditions of knowledge.

Brunschwig was well-versed in the alchemical literature, which at the time mainly circulated in manuscript form. Publishing his book in print, Brunschwig introduces a broad public to an  alchemical understanding of matter, and how it can be transformed and purified. In fact, the process of distillation itself is defined in these terms, as “nothing but to separate the subtle from the gross and the gross from the subtle, […] to make the physical more spiritual, [so that it] may more easily penetrate the human body with its secret powers and virtues” (SB 1509, fol. 6r.). This extraction of the useful from the superfluous is also an important process in vernacular medical literature, and Brunschwig extracts not only from alchemical sources, but also boils down the essence of the learned medical tradition.

With reference to ancient textual authorities such as Galen and Dioscorides, he briefly explains the workings of the human body in terms of the four humours which govern an individual’s ‘complexion’, with diseases representing a deviation from this humoural balance. This can be readjusted by administering medicines distilled from plants, or even animals, with the appropriate qualities.[1] This precarious balancing act means that a sound knowledge of medical ingredients was essential, which is why a large portion of the Small book  is taken up by a herbal section. It offers some of the best botanical woodcuts produced at the time, paired with encyclopaedic entries listing each plant’s appearance, medicinal qualities, and the distillation process by which these might best be extracted.

The third major source for Brunschwig’s distillation project, artisanry, has closer links with alchemy than one might at first suspect: as historian Pamela Smith has shown, early modern craftsmen subscribed to an alchemical worldview, and were confident that their personal observation and direct physical engagement with natural material was a reliable source of knowledge.[2] Brunschwig shared this view: based on his own experience with distillation procedures, he is able to anticipate pitfalls (e.g. don’t let a heated glass vessel cool down too quickly, or it will crack!), and to dispense practical advice on the quality and proper manipulation of different stills and vessels. This technical know-how boiled down into an easy-to-follow series of short chapters, which really starts from scratch. There is even a life-sized picture of a mould which should be used to shape the curved bricks needed for building a round furnace, and set in its centre, was a poem summarising the key points to remember.

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 M.med. 35, f. 11v-12r. (http://www.bsb-muenchen.de)

A mould for shaping bricks from Brunschwig’s distillation manual. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 M.med. 35, f. 11v-12r. (http://www.bsb-muenchen.de)

Brunschwig’s manual, then, not only contains valuable recipes for harnessing nature’s healing powers through distillation, it also represents in itself a recipe for the production of a best-selling and highly usable book: he compounds his knowledge of texts with his own experience and observation. He digests, extracts, and purifies his intellectual and technical ingredients, and where other compilers often produce turgid mixtures of jumbled-up recipes, Brunschwig manages to distill clear and useful knowledge from learned medical, alchemical and artisanal traditions. His example was followed by many early modern compilers of medical printed books, and the Small book itself went through an intriguing series of transformations in its various editions, including an English translation which appeared as early as 1527. But we certainly shouldn’t think that the story of textual digestion and excerption stops there: as Katherine Allen discussed, and as I have seen in the Small book, readers were assiduously annotating their copies. They highlighted what was most useful for them, added to the information, and cross-referenced entries, thus achieving another level of distilling textual knowledge.

[1.] For more on humoral theory and the logic behind materia medica, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case” and Alun Withey’s post on “‘Weird’ Remedies and the Problem of ‘Folklore‘”.

[2.] P. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Idem., “In a Sixteenth-Century Goldsmith’s workshop”, in L. Roberts, S. Schaffer and P. Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007), pp. 33–57; Idem., “What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”, in E. Leong and A. Rankin (eds.) Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 47–66.

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Angel (not) in the Recipe

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

Last month, Hillary Nunn (20/02/21013) introduced our series of entries that are considering an exceptional manuscript owned by one Anne Layfielde and dated 1640 housed at the Medical Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  Our interest in the manuscript stems largely from the remarkable number of attributions the section compiled by one “Cal: Downing” records.  Over 100 of the 134 recipes written in that hand have some version of a “probatum per” or “proven by” attached to them.  The first recipe, “To make an excellent Salue called Flos vnguentorum,” along with 41 others, is attributed to a woman named Elizabeth Downing.

Recipes for “Flos Unguentorum” or “The Flower of Ointments” are ubiquitous in various versions throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The version in The College of Physicians manuscript begins “Take Rosen & Perosen of each / halfe a pound.”  The reader is thereafter instructed to heat together several gums and powders with “virgin wax,” which are cooled “till [the mixture] be bloode warme.”[1] The page following these directions is dedicated completely to “the vertues of this salue,” which include, among many others, the curing of “old wounds,” head aches, and hemorrhoids.

Now I mentioned briefly back in October (18/10/2012) that the Elizabeth Downing who is the source of so many recipes in this manuscript may have some connection to the “Mistress Downing” named thirteen times throughout the print collection Natura Exenterata: Or Nature Unbowelled (1655), and a couple of the print recipes do have suggestive overlapping ingredients and wording with recipes from the Layfielde collection. Natura Exenterata, which is clearly connected to the House of Arundel through its front matter, also includes a recipe for “Flos Vnguentorum” (but one not attributed to Mistress Downing) in which the virtues and directions are reversed, but the directions are almost exactly the same, starting with like ingredients, including an allusion to blood temperature, and ending with the directions to put the salve into rolls for the later use of the practitioner.

The Arundel example, however, includes one detail in its list of virtues not found in Layfielde manuscript: “it cometh of Jesu Christi by an Angell to a house of Religion at the red hill in Almayn [Germany], which wrought there many marvails.”[2] A third manuscript, an anonymous one found at Bryn Mawr dated 1649 (before the print text) also includes the recipe for the flower of ointments, one which almost exactly corresponds to the recipe in Natura Exenterata and includes the origin myth. The Bryn Mawr manuscript also includes several recipes from the Countess of Arundel, Anne Dacre Howard (1557–1630), mother-in-law to Aletheia Talbot Howard (d. 1654), whose portrait graces the front matter of Natura Exenterata.[3]  The inclusion of Mistress Downing in the Natura and the naming of the Countess of Arundel in the Bryn Mawr manuscript, along with the overlap in the Flos Unguentorum recipes, suggest a triangle of relations, at least in the generation before the decade of compilation around the 1640s.

The correspondences in the recipes may imply a fourth outside source, but if this is the case, somewhere in transmission the origin myth was omitted from the list of virtues in the Downing example. What, if anything, can the mythic origin of this recipe, its inclusion or exclusion, tell us about a recipe’s more immediate historical source, particularly of collections compiled in years of religious conflict? The Countesses of Arundel were known Catholics, and the inclusion of divine intercessors in manuscripts and books of their circle would not have been unexpected.  All signs (including his mother’s name, Elizabeth), however, point to the “Cal: Downing” of the Layfielde manuscript being Calybute Downing (1606–44), Protestant minister (as also possibly Anne Layfielde’s husband) and Parliamentarian, whose doctrine would be less likely to include such intercessors. Was this omission then made for expediency’s sake or was it indicative of the beliefs of the compilers?

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


[1] College of Physicians Manuscript 10a214, page 1.

[2] Natura Exenterata, 332. Another Elizabethan print source which, like the Downing recipe includes the directions first then lists the virtues, recounts the origin in Germany, but not the angel, Thomas Lupton, A thousand notable things of sundry sortes (London, 1579), 104.

[3] Bryn Mawr College Special Collections MS 19, fol. 5.

Eighteenth-century DIY

by Sally Osborn

Sometimes among the culinary, medical, veterinary, cosmetic and household recipes in manuscript books one comes across some that would fall under the category of DIY in modern terms. These can range from a recipe for a relatively simple product that we would now buy off the shelf, such as green paint (why it’s nearly always green I’m not sure, but it was a fashionable colour) or paint for garden walls. The more adventurous might go for roughcast (pebbledash) or ‘A colouring for the out side of buildings according to Mr Clarkes men’ (both in Add MS 29740, British Library).

However, other recipes smack of a ‘project’ such as might enthuse a modern DIYer. A different anonymous contributor to the manuscript containing the above two sets of instructions collected this detailed guidance for whitewashing:

Best drift sand washed quite clean, best new lime (stone lime if possible) well hair’d: a bushel of lime before it is slacked requires a bushel of sand; one coat laid on thin with a plasterers trowel and floated well as they come on. When it is dry, it must be washed with whatever colour is thought proper, and a little fine sand in the wash is the better: thin size is used at Sir Tho. Sebrights to slack the lime for the wash but not at Mr Brand’s.

Note 1. The length of the cradle for whitening the house is about 12 feet, and the breadth about 3 feet 6 inches, the rails about 3 feet high, to keep the men in; a set of pullies at each end to draw it up and down, this will hold three or four men to work in, and may be hung between two long ladders or poles bearing against the cornice, or from the top of the house.

2. The brick-work should be dashed well before the coat of plaister is laid on, and all projections should be leaded or slated.

3 The price is eight pence a yard-square, if all materials cradle &c are found and bought by the bricklayer, six pence if you bring them and find them yourself; and about three pence if you find all materials and the bricklayer only workmanship. NB. white wash and all is included in this calculation.

Or how about making your very own ice house? Very useful for those fashionable table centres and the new craze for ice cream. This is how you did it (Add MS 29435, British Library):

The well to be the shape of a cone inverted, to be at the top [missing] foot over 17 foot deep; a grate to be fixt 4 foot from the bottom to support the ice – a pump with a small tube to be fixt on the wall that is round the well, which wall ought to be 4 foot wide within the ice house: The wall to be made of loam or cob, & straw well mixt two foot thick & 3 foot high. The entrance should be a porch to the north 5 feet long & the breadth at pleasure with two doors. the roof to be thatch’d thick, the wall to be turf’d. The well to be lined with straw & when you fill it ram it all & heap it up in a point like a double cone

All you need is a garden big enough…

Oral Testimony and Remedies Over Time

By Alun Withey

When studying the history of recipes, the longevity of certain remedies, ingredients or substances in healing is often striking. In terms of the early modern period, it is often remarked how far back certain remedies into ancient Greek or Latin texts; in many cases, how far forward they survived is also noteworthy – often long after the rise of (modern) biomedicine.

One of the ways through which we can track this process is through surviving examples in oral testimonies. While early twentieth-century antiquarian obsessions with all things weird and grotesque might not fit with modern academic approaches, the records they collected from oral testimonies, especially from people in rural areas, are often fascinating. Indeed, in many ways, these records are often the only remnants of medical traditions now past and, even more interestingly, the fact that they can be traced back through family generations tells us something about transmission.

An interesting survey was taken in the 1970s of herbal remedies still in use in rural Wales, which had some evidence of long-term family use. In many cases, recipes and ingredients they provided can be readily found in early modern collections. In the early modern period, it was common to use snails as ingredients in recipes to treat eye conditions. Typically, they might be impaled on a pin, with the juice allowed to drop into the afflicted eye. In the 70s, interviewees remembered similar recipes used in their families, including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!

Another enduring ophthalmic remedy was the ‘snakestone’ or ‘adder stone’ – essentially a polished river stone resembling a snake’s eye. Directions for use of the snakestone can commonly be found in Medieval and early modern texts and, when the survey was taken, reports were included for glain nadredd – in English, ‘adder beads’.

The example shown here was found in the foundations of an old Carmarthenshire house i 1836, and can be seen in the Carmarthenshire County Museum: – http://www.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/english/education/museums/carmarthenshirecountymuseum/pages/home.aspx

An 'Adder stone' found in the foundations of a Carmarthenshire house in 1836

It was reportedly common to use the herb rue in preparations for children suffering from worms. Similar remedies occur in several Welsh collections of the 17th century. Lungwort and eyebright were still in evidence in the 1970s for respiratory and ocular conditions, respectively, and can be traced well back almost into antiquity. Human urine was another common ingredient in the seventeenth century in a variety of remedies and, in living memory, has still been noted as having cosmetic value and also in the treatment of ear conditions. Perhaps most interestingly, in a journal article of 1906, it was reported that a Montgomeryshire woman who injured herself with a scythe went back to the scythe for seven days after and repeated an incantation over it. This bears extraordinary similarity to the so-called ‘weapon salve’ noted by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century, whereby the idea was to treat the instrument that had injured somebody, rather than the wound itself.

Image used with permission of the Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

It is also interesting to note some echoes of older practices involving modern substances. For example, inhalants were a common facet of early modern recipes, such as boiling herbs and drawing in the steam or even, in one remedy, inhaling the vapour of Mercury as a cure for worms in the teeth. The modern practice of putting Olbas Oil or Friar’s Balsam into boiling water is little different.

In many respects then, it is worth remembering the longevity both of remedies and medical practices. While manuscript collections give us evidence of usage, of remedy networks and contributors, oral testimonies often yield more direct evidence of the transmission of remedies from generation to generation. They also speak of people’s continuing belief in the power of old remedies, even in the face of modern, scientific, alternatives.

(For a fuller discussion of this survey see Anne E. Jones, “Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales”, Folklife, 18 (1980), pp. 58-68)

See Lisa Smith’s blog post about cure-all medicines here:http://recipes.hypotheses.org/800

Also, for a different version of this post, see my blog article at:  http://dralun.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/weird-remedies-and-the-problem-of-folklore/

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine