Tag Archives: distillation

‘This one is good’: Recipes, Testing and Lay Practitioners in Early German Print

By Tillmann Taape

Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images

Having recently finished my doctoral thesis on the printed works of Hieronymus Brunschwig, which have previously featured on the Recipes Blog (here and here), I am delighted to contribute to this series of posts on testing and trying (for an overview, see our re-posted summary of the Testing Drugs and Trying Cures conference). What better opportunity to share how it all came together, and reflect on the role of recipes and testing in the narrative.

Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–c.1530), a surgeon and apothecary from Strasbourg, wrote the first printed books on surgery and distillation. In my thesis, Hieronymus Brunschwig and the Making of Vernacular Medical Knowledge in Early German Print, I read these uncommonly practical and technical books alongside records from the Strasbourg archives, about the craft guilds and medical practice. This allows us to make sense of Brunschwig’s practical vernacular medicine in relation to local intellectual trends, different forms of healing, the local milieu of guilds and artisans, and early German print culture.

Brunschwig’s first book was the Cirurgia of 1497, the first surgical manual in print. This, of course, was an opportunity to codify and re-define surgery. Brunschwig revives the medieval tradition of what Michael McVaugh has termed rational surgery (i.e. a learned as well as a practical art), to educate trainee surgeons and to present their discipline as a respectable and useful trade. Emphasising the need for skilled hands as well as a working knowledge of the human body, Brunschwig defends surgery on two fronts: against learned physicians’ rhetoric of superiority, and against other craftsmen’s deep-seated anxieties about occupations which were in contact with sick and dead bodies.

A surgeon treating an abdominal wound. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Dis ist das Buoch der Cirurgia (Strasbourg, 1497). © Wellcome Images.

The later books on distillation, published in 1500 and 1512, open up to a wider readership, including not only medical artisans such as surgeons or apothecaries, but also the ‘common man’ – a middling social layer of literate citizens, householders and other lay practitioners. This new kind of medical reader, as I have discussed in a previous post and elsewhere, is emblematised in the figure of the ‘striped layman’ which appears in numerous woodcut illustrations throughout Brunschwig’s works.

A conspicuously stripy student, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Many of the recipes and instructions in the distillation books are adjusted for this type of reader. They start from scratch and are rich in technical details which are not found elsewhere in print or, to my knowledge, in manuscript. Although Brunschwig engages with complex ideas about the nature of matter and its manipulation, such as John of Rupescissa’s notion of a ‘quintessence’ in all things, he re-works them into manageable, pedestrian remedies. Rather than pursuing Rupescissa’s heavenly panacea, Brunschwig uses distillation to produce a type of middle-class quintessences: although earth-bound and imperfect, they were reliable and effective remedies in the hands of laypeople.

Detailed woodcut images of distillation apparatus and instructions for its use. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg, 1500). © Wellcome Images.

One overarching theme of my thesis is the artisan’s approach to understanding and manipulating nature. For a craftsman with no Latin, Brunschwig mined a surprising amount of knowledge from texts. But more importantly, I argue, he knew things through direct physical engagement with bodies, materials and technical processes. His books are full of instructions to probe wounds, check temperature by touch, inspect colour changes in the alembic, and smell or taste distilled remedies. His expertise was located as much in the body and its senses as in books.

Nonetheless, writing was a powerful tool for recording and communicating practical insights. From cautionary tales of exploding alembics to heroic accounts of successful cures, Brunschwig emphasises his own experience as a source of knowledge. The German term he uses for this type of knowledge, erfarung, is related to fahren, meaning ‘to travel’. In the early sixteenth century, it denoted a way of experiencing the world through one’s own senses, by moving through it or simply being in it in an active, attentive manner. Erfarung was compared, often unfavourably, to spiritual contemplation and introspection. Over time, however, doctors and students of nature such as Paracelsus came to see personal erfarung as the necessary labour of insight rather than a sinful distraction. The Book of Nature, they insisted, should be read with one’s feet. Brunschwig’s emphasis on his own and others’ erfarung was thus part of a larger vernacular culture of experiential knowledge, as well as learned debates about experientia which have often been the focus of historical accounts of a medical empiricism developing in the early modern period.

Recipes played a major part in Brunschwig’s codification of experiential medical knowledge. Some, as I have shown in a previous post, were presented in Latin pharmaceutical jargon likely unknown to laypeople. These recipes were closed to readers, who were meant to copy them out on a piece of paper and hand them to an apothecary who would manufacture the remedy according to his art and his experience. Although the great majority of recipes are in German, some of these are also presented as tried and tested, by Brunschwig himself or others, and do not call for ‘tweaking’ on the part of readers.

Other recipes, however, give alternative ingredients or leave the exact composition up to the practitioner’s judgment. Many recipes come without the author’s seal of approval, and their sheer number makes it seem unlikely that Brunschwig could have tested each one. Such ‘open’ recipes leave room for improvisation and testing. The ongoing work of erfarung runs on into readers’ own practice, and often spills out into the margins of Brunschwig’s printed books. In many surviving copies, early modern healers from different walks of life marked recipes with a magisterial probatum est, or a simple vernacular note such as ‘this one is good’.

In some of the earliest medical works in print, Brunschwig addresses a readership of lay healers and ‘common men’ which would come to represent a significant portion of the early German print market. Through his use of recipes embedded within a culture of erfarung, he involved his vernacular readers in a continued effort of empirical trying and testing.

Pursuing the themes of recipes and artisanal knowledge, I am delighted to be joining the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University this summer, and look forward to sharing our work on making, testing, and trying, which has previously featured on this blog.


‘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.