Tag Archives: Hieronymus Brunschwig

‘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.


The wrong trousers? Common folk in striped clothes as readers of early modern recipes.

By Tillmann Taape

 When trying to make historical sense of printed medical recipe collections, one tricky but important question always recurs: who did the author and/or publisher think would be likely to read and benefit from their books? In my own research, which focuses on the works of the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here), this question is particularly intriguing because these books were among the first medical books to be printed in German.

Of course, like many authors of the time, Brunschwig gives us some clues in the text of his works. He often addresses his instructions, especially medical recipes, to the ‘common man’ or the ‘layman’ who might not be able to afford certain remedies, or who might simply live too far away from the next larger town with a pharmacy shop. In addition to these textual hints, I want to take a different approach to the question of readers by making use of the numerous woodcuts illustrating Brunschwig’s works. Commissioned from an unknown artist by Brunschwig’s publisher, Johann Grüninger, these images are a striking element of the books.

Title illustration from Brusnchwig's  Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images
Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation (1500). © Wellcome Images

One thing which immediately strikes the eye when looking at these images is the prevalence of people dressed in striped clothes. Take, for example, the title page of Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation, published in 1500. We see a group of people busily harvesting herbs and stoking furnaces to distill medicinal waters, and both of the men are dressed in conspicuously striped doublets and trousers. In fact, throughout Brunschwig’s works most of the people doing any kind of manual work are shown wearing stripes, for example the person pounding ingredients in an apothecary’s mortar shown below. Surely, I thought, it must be significant that the majority of medicine-makers – Brunschwig’s ‘common men’ – are depicted in this manner.

An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
An apothecary or apprentice mixing medicine, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

As it turns out, striped clothing had fairly wide-ranging connotations in the early-modern German lands. The fashion of tight-fitting, striped trousers had been brought to Germany from the Northern Italian courts by the new imperial infantry, the so-called lansquenets, towards the end of the fifteenth century. The striped fashion was particularly popular among the middling sort: citizens of free imperial towns, artisans, and even wealthy farmers and landowners. They constituted a growing and increasingly self-aware middle layer of society, sandwiched between poorer day-labourers who did not own any property, and the wealthy urban patriciate or landed gentry.

In the literature of the time, notably social satire in the tradition of Sebastian Brant’s famous Ship of Fools (1497), this newly significant social group came to be represented by the figure of the ‘striped layman.’ His striped clothing marked him out as being ‘half and half’ or in-between – in terms of wealth, social status, and most importantly, education. Literate in the vernacular but not in Latin, the half-educated ‘striped layman’ was to become a central figure in the visual rhetoric of Protestant pamphlets during the Reformation. Martin Luther wrote for an audience of precisely this kind of person: although not a Latinate scholar of theology, the striped layman sought salvation in his own reading of Scripture in the vernacular, without learned clergy as an intermediate. [1]

A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig's Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images
A teacher lecturing students, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Brunschwig’s works depict a similarly confident self-educated striped layman in the context of medicine. This is nicely summed up in the large woodcut above, which appears in all of Brunschwig’s works. The teacher, identified by his fur-lined scholar’s robe and seated at a lectern, is lecturing from a large book. It is angled towards him, so that only he can see its contents, demonstrating the scholar’s authority over text-based learned medicine. Among his students, we see a young man dressed in stripes, and while his peers listen demurely with hat in hand, this striped chap is confidently gesticulating as if arguing a point of his own. What is more, he is holding a rolled-up piece of paper in one hand, perhaps a sheet of notes or even a medical recipe. While this striped layman does not command large tomes of medical learning, the picture suggests that he is literate and familiar with some of medicine’s written forms. He even appears capable of holding his own in a discussion with a scholar.

The figure of the striped layman, with its connotations of middling status and education, is thus a very plausible visual cognate to Brunschwig’s readership of middling ‘common men.’ As if to vindicate this choice of intended audience and its visual representation, the physician Lorenz Fries, from the neighbouring town of Colmar, addressed his Mirror of Medicine (1518) specifically to ‘striped laypeople’ who want to learn about medicine – and published it with Grüninger in Strasbourg.

[1] On the visual metaphor of the striped, see Schmid Blumer, Verena. Ikonographie und Sprachbild: Zur reformatorischen Flugschrift “Der gestryfft Schwitzer Baur”. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004.

A Recipe for Disaster: How not to Distill Turpentine

By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.  © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.


[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.


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).