Tag Archives: John French

The Curious Case of the Homunculus, and the Allegorical Recipe

By Jennifer Park

This post derives from a current chapter of my PhD thesis in which I work through a number of questions about generic categories, i.e. the receipt, and the concerns they reveal about the relationship between the literal and the metaphorical in the early modern English fascination with the preservation of life.

Among various secrets and recipes that I continue to sift through in my research, one note in particular has stayed with me as my first encounter with what the early moderns referred to as the Homunculus. In this brief but bizarre description, Simon Forman defines the Homunculus as a materially constructed figurine that can be manipulated:

Homunculus is a lyttelle ymag or man made to
the form of a man or woman in mettall wax or clay
or cloutes or paste by the which a man may Worke
& doe many thinges in good or ill to the partie for whom it
is made (Ashmole MS 1494, 579)

It calls to mind analogous references, as in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, in which the Duchess refers to a traumatic image making her waste away more “Than were’t my picture, fashion’d out of wax, / Stuck with a magical needle, and then buried / In some foul dunghill” (4.1.63-65). If the Duchess’s wax picture, manipulated and buried to cause an effect on her, serves as an example of something like a Homunculus, I wondered if there were any receipts that detailed the making of a Homunculus in this way.

What I’ve ended up finding is indeed a recipe for a Homunculus, but in a different form than I’d expected. In John French’s Art of Distillation (1653), a chapter called “The famous Arcanum, or restorative Medicament of Paracelsus, called his Homunculus” provides a recipe for the production of the Homunculus in one of its various forms.[1]

French first clarifies that “Homunculus” referred to three distinct but related realities:

  1. it was “a superstitious image made in the place or name of any one,”
  2. it was “an artificiall man, made of Sperma humanum Masculinum, digested into the shape of a man, and then nourished and encreased with the essence of mans bloud; and this is not repugnant to the possibility of Nature and Art. But is one of the greatest wonders of God which he ever did suffer mortall man to know,”
  3. and it was “a most excellent Arcanum or Medicament extracted by the spagyricall Art” (115).
Homunculi in the human semen. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org
Homunculi in the human semen. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

In other words, the homunculus was an image or an artificial man, much like what Forman and what Webster’s Duchess describe, but it was also a medicine.

Furthermore, what interested me is that the recipe to make the Homunculus as “medicament” was, as French notes, “in part…set down allegorically.”

The recipe begins familiarly enough:

Take the best Wheat and the best Wine, of each a like quantity, put them into a glasse, which you must hermetically close: then let them putrifie in horse dung three days, or until the Wheat begin to germinate, or to sprout forth, which then must be taken forth and bruised in a Mortar, and be pressed through a linnen cloth, and there will come forth a white juice like milk; you must cast away the feces: Let this juice be put into a glasse, which must not be above half full; stop it close and set it in horse dung as before, for the space of fifty days. If the heat be temperate, and not exceeding the naturall heat of a man, the matter will be turned into a spagyricall bloud, and flesh, like an Embryo. (115)

After a while, the recipe begins to take on the form of allegory (French explains that “thus you have the four Elements separated from the Chaos of the Embryo”) (116).[2] Finally, ending in the typically symbol-laden language of alchemy, what French refers to as the “two former sperms, viz. of the man and woman, the parents of the Homunculus” are “closed up together in a glazen womb sealed with Hermes seals for the true generation of the Homunculus produced from the spagyricall Embryo” (117). This, in terms, he concludes is “the Homunculus or great Arcanum, otherwise called the nutritive Medicament of Paracelsus” (117).

Homunculus. https://www.flickr.com/people/britishlibrary/

The virtues of the medicinal Homunculus, French finally explains, are that once the “nutritive Medicament” is presumably ingested and “turned into bloud, and spirits,” it works not only to overcome diseases, but additionally “By this Medicament…youth is renewed, and gray hairs prevented” (117).

Thus my first foray into the Homunculus, as with most research leads, ends here with more questions than answers. How does the medicinal Homunculus relate to the symbolic or effigial Homunculus, and how do they contribute to early modern ideas of the renewal of youth or the reversal of time? What purpose does the allegorical serve in a genre like the receipt or recipe, and what can such recipes tell us about the different symbolic registers within which medicinal substances signify? The preponderance of questions gives me hope that there are rich connections to be made here. There is more to learn, I imagine, about the curious case of the Homunculus in literature, medicine, and recipes.


[1] John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1653). For more on distillation and a fascinating annotated later edition of French’s work, see Katharine Allen on “The Art of Distillation.

[2] I’d be curious to look further into the clear connection between “allegorical” recipes and the “visual recipes” in alchemy that Anke Timmermann makes reference to in her post on images in alchemical manuscripts.