Tag Archives: panacea

Proprietary Panaceas and Not-So-Secret Recipes

By Alisha Rankin

How did peddlers of proprietary medicines negotiate the craze for recipes in early modern Europe? They offered recipes using their medicines, of course!

There are many examples of recipe books containing remedies for which the main ingredient is a secret cure attached to only one person. The reader would then have to purchase that ingredient before he or she could use the recipe. Famous examples of this phenomenon abound in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, Daffy’s Elixir among them, but many precursors can be found in sixteenth-century continental Europe. The medicines of Italian surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti were perhaps the most prominent, but there were a host of other empirical healers who fit this mold.

One such empiric was a German who called himself Georg am Wald, a noble-sounding name that belied his humble beginnings as the son of a bookseller. Am Wald received a law degree from Basel in 1573, but he never practiced as a lawyer. Instead, he set up practice as a healer, referring to himself a “doctor of both medicines”: a physician and surgeon. He received his medical degree from the Palatine Count in Padua in 1578, but these degrees were famous for being bought and sold–a reasonable assumption in am Wald’s case, considering that he spent less than a year in Padua. Despite being kicked out of Augsburg for failing the city’s medical exam, am Wald practiced as a doctor in Donauwörth for years, before being driven out for inciting religious dissidence. He then bought himself a castle, where he produced and sold alchemical cures.

A boring fellow he was not.

am Wald 1594 frontispiece
Panacea Amwaldina, 1594 edition
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, VD A2432

In the 1590s, am Wald became famous for an alchemical cure-all that he called the Panacea Amwaldina. He published a treatise on the cure-all in 1591, then revised and expanded it in 1594. There are many fascinating aspects of this cure–not least that it may be the first instance of using the word “panacea” to refer to an alchemical remedy–but most relevant to this blog is the way he incorporated the panacea into recipes.The recipe for the panacea itself was secret, of course. Even his closest friends were unable to pry it from him.

Nevertheless, am Wald used recipes aplenty, writing that:

Even though my panacea drives away all illnesses on its own, which the help and cooperation of the Almighty, I am nevertheless including … many recipes, which one can use in many ailments and conditions for a quicker cure.

In longstanding or especially deadly diseases, he recommended a purge before using the panacea. (An interesting recommendation, given that he touted the panacea as a gentle substance that was not a purgative.) He also gave recipes for the panacea’s use in 116 (!!!) different ailments. Am Wald included similar recipes in his letters to patients.

Am Wald 1594 marginalia
Marginal annotations on the recipes for using am Wald’s panacea
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, VD A2432

The reader of one copy of am Wald’s book in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek appears to have taken his directives seriously, as he wrote marginal notations to highlight particular recipes of interest. Even with a supposed cure-all, recipes remained crucial. Patients of course then needed to buy both his book and the panacea to be healed–a double win for am Wald!


am Wald, Georg. Kurtzer Bericht, wie und was gestalt der Panacea Amwaldina als eine einige Medicin … anzuwenden sey. Frankfurt am Main, 1591.

am Wald, Georg. Kurtzer und zum andernmal gemehrter Bericht von der Panacea Amwaldina. 1594

Short Bibliography:

Eamon, William. The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2010. (A fascinating study of Fioravanti.)

Leong, Elaine and Sarah Pennell. “Recipe Collections and the Currency Of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern ‘Medical Marketplace.’” In Medicine and the Market in England and Its Colonies, c. 1450-1850. Edited by Mark J.R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2007.

Haycock, David and Patrick Wallis, “Quackery and Commerce in Seventeenth-Century London: The Proprietary Medical Business of Anthony Daffy,” Medical History, 25 (2005): 1-36.

Müller-Jahnke, Wolf-Dieter. Georg am Wald (1554-1616).” In Analecta Paracelsica: Studien zum Nachleben Theophrast von Hohenheims im deutschen Kulturgebiet der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Joachim Telle, 213-304. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1994.

Rankin, Alisha. “Empirics, Physicians, and Wonder Drugs in Early Modern Germany: The Case of the Panacea Amwaldina.” Early Science and Medicine 14 (2009): 680-710.

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).