Tag Archives: Margaret Maurer

Receiving Alchemical Knowledge

By Margaret Maurer

On two of the last leaves of receipt book compiled by Margarett Baker in the late-seventeenth century, there is a brief treatise that defines the practice of alchemy (fols. 133v-134r). Written in the same clear, italic script that on previous pages instructs how “To take out stayns or ink out of a linen Cloth” (38v) or recounts Mistress Malltes’ recipe “To make a… Cake” (42r), it begins:

Alchimy or spargyrike are accointed amongst the fore pillers of meddecen and w[hi]ch openeth and demonstrateth the compositions & desolutions of all boddies together w[i]th ther preparations terations & exaltations [th]e same I saie is shee w[hi]ch is the inuenter & scoole mistres of distllations…


Margaret Baker, V.a.619, Folger Shakespeare Library.

The passage continues by discussing different examples of alchemical transformation and outlining various alchemical processes. Using Early English Books Online, I found the original source of the passage was Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of Joseph du Chesne’s The practise of chymicall, and hermeticall physicke, for the preseruation of health. While it is possible that there are untraceable intermediary links that connect Du Chesne’s work with Baker’s, her manuscript also mimics the printed text’s form, separating out each alchemical procedure with its corresponding definition. The visual replication of the printed text signals a close connection between Tymme’s translation and Baker’s transcription.

Baker’s receipt book, fol. 133v. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.
Tymme’s translation of Du Chesne, p. AA4r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.

Cross-referencing Baker’s receipt book with EEBO reveals that many of the recipes and passages contained within the volume replicate over a dozen printed sources, including numerous medicinal and alchemical texts. Much of the content is copied verbatim, although some passages have been restructured or given new titles. The most significant change is Baker’s non-standard spelling, which creates deviations that complicate database searches. Undoubtedly, the source texts found using EEBO are a small fraction of the total sources, printed and otherwise, that Baker appropriated when compiling her receipt book. However, identifying these passages illustrates the wide circulation and permeable boundaries of medicinal, alchemical, and domestic texts in early modern England.

Baker’s receipt book utilizes a wide array of medical and alchemical texts to construct a distinctively Paracelsian approach to domestic medicine. Apart from these hints about her intellectual world, we know relatively little about Margaret Baker’s life. Her name is preserved in three extant recipe books, but there are no further records about her life. The University of Essex’s “Baker Project” provides a detailed examination of the receipt book, including information and inferences about its author, construction, and provenance.

Baker’s receipt book draws from a diverse range of sources: surgery manuals and books of secrets, treatises on Paracelsian medicine and herbals. Alongside English physicians and surgeons, Baker copied English translations of continental writers from Switzerland, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Additionally, the passages within Baker’s book span over 100 years − from John Day’s translation of Konrad Gesner’s The treasure of Euonymus (1559) to John Church’s A compendious enchiridion(1682). As Karen Bowman thoughtfully observes, Baker’s collection of receipts contains ingredients that illustrate a global market, but the texts contained within her book also point towards an international trade of ideas.

Simultaneously, the collection of sources that Baker gathered signals a specific and curated Paracelsian viewpoint. Many of the texts she has collected, including the passage copied from Du Chesne, reference Paracelsus, a Swiss doctor who rejected Hippocratic-Galenic medicine in favor of a chemical understanding of the human body. Paracelsus originally wrote that alchemy − along with philosophy, astrology, and ethics − was one of the four pillars of medicine. Du Chesne, a French physician and alchemist, transmitted this idea into Baker’s receipt book. Both Paracelsus and Du Chesne were associated with female alchemical and medical practitioners, who acted as the syncretic counterparts to university-trained doctors.

There is one difference between Baker’s transcription and Tymme’s translation of Du Chesne. While Tymme writes that, “ALchymie or Spagyrick, which some account among the foure pillers of medicine,” Baker’s version reads, “Alchimy or spargyrike are accointed amongst the fore pillers of meddecen,” removing “which some account” making alchemy’s foundational place a certainty. Since Paracelsian medicine became increasingly popular in England over the course of the seventeenth century, this change could reflect a larger cultural shift between Tymme’s translation and Baker’s transcription.

By definition, receipt books collect received knowledge, inherently entangled within dynamic social networks. Baker’s book is an assembly of ideas that she “received” from an impressive number of sources, both printed and unknowable. Even though Baker is not the original author of passages identified, she has a hand in constructing their shared meaning: a distinctly Paracelsian and thereby chemical approach to medicine. Acknowledging the sheer number of choices necessary for the book’s construction sheds a light on her role. For every passage she chose to copy over, she omitted hundreds, if not thousands, of additional recipes and treatises from her printed source material. Her role as the compiler was not only to receive knowledge, but also to choose what knowledge should be preserved on the page − what knowledge we, as readers, in turn, receive.