Revisiting Tillmann Taape’s Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

Editor’s note: Today we revisit a post originally published in 2013 by Tillmann Taape on plague remedies given by the apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig in his Liber pestilentialis (1500). The book included an interesting mix of recipes in the vernacular German and in Latin. Readers unable to read Latin could copy a recipe, visit their apothecary, and collect their anti-plague remedies a little while later. Tillmann’s post offers  insights into the use of Latin as a sort of code. 

It strikes me that, five hundred years on, in the midst of another pandemic, Latin has now been almost entirely replaced by English in scientific discourse. And yet, Latin still lingers on, not the least in the name of the disease that has changed our lives: corona, the crown. To this classicist, the name ‘coronavirus’ calls to mind an evil crown-wearing tyrant. But as it did in the late Middle Ages, Latin obfuscates as much as it clarifies, and I find it fascinating that, to many, the new plague, under its shortened name of COVID-19, evokes not an item of jewellery, but a family of birds: the corvids (Latin: corvidae).

Laurence Totelin


By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded. One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two categories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.

A cordial for those on a budget

By Jennifer Munroe

When we read recipe books, we are accustomed to seeing lists of ingredients (and accessories) that might lead us to infer a difference in how much they cost to make. One recipe from the Sloane collection in the British Library helpfully makes these differences explicit for the reader: “The Great Palsy Water” or, a “Lavendar Cordial” from “My Lady Rennelaghs Choice Receipts: as also Some of Capt Willis who valued them above gold” (Sloane 1367, ff. 7v-9):

The great palsy water, wch also is of exceeding vertue in all soundings, weaknesse of the [drawn pic of a heart] & decaying of the spirits & ye best remedy in all apoplexy, palsy, epilepsie both to help in the fitt & to prevente it, also in all pains of the joints coming of cold, in all bruises outwardly bathed or diped clothes in it & laid to it, It strigthneth and comforst all animals vital & natural spirits [cleareth] ye external senses, strengthneth the memory, restores lost appetite, all weaknesse of the stomake both taken inwardly and bathed outwardly. It taks away gidenesse of the head & helps lost memory, brings a pleasant breath, it helps ye lost speech & all cold dispositions of the liver & a beginning dropsie, it helps all cold diseases of the mother (f.7v).

The list of ingredients includes such common plants as lavender, cowslips, betany, and borage; but it also includes items that would be more difficult to obtain and expensive, such as cinnamon and orange flowers. One of the most striking features of this recipe is the number of ingredients—over nineteen total—and the rather complex process of combining, steeping, distilling, pressing, and straining that is involved.

But under the same recipe heading for the palsy we also find an alternative version, “An other water of the same of lesse price”. This second, cheaper version has approximately half the ingredients, most of which could be grown or easily obtained by the user: lavender, rosemary, sage, or marjoram. The process of preparing said water/cordial is also more simple, substituting, for example, a “gallon glass” for the proper limbeck. Although the ingredients must be distilled and takes six weeks preparation time for each version, the second involves fewer steps and omits the more specific imperative found repeatedly in the other version: to keep it “very close stoped & clad with a bladder & see nothing may breath out.”

So what might we make of these differences? Why would someone, when it was not the common practice, offer alternative recipes for the same ailment with clear delineation by cost? And why include the two different versions of the same recipe under the same heading, when it was common to see multiple recipes for the same ailment listed under separate headings anyway, as was the case in this book as well?

This two-tiered (according to cost) recipe has me wondering who the book’s compiler imagined as his audience. The book seems to have been compiled by Captain [Thomas?] Willis, a Civil War soldier and esteemed physician, but the recipes here are attributed to the well-known sister to Robert Boyle, Katherine Jones (Lady Ranelagh). In addition to the attribution of these remedies to such a respected source, there are other hints that Willis was interested in it serving as a comprehensive and authoritative source for remedies. For instance, the book incorporates scientific symbols for measurements.

Willis’ differently-priced versions suggests how the book was imagined as both authoritative and inclusive. It allowed for a professional (or pseudo-professional) readership and users who might be interested in recipes as a form of “experiment”, while inviting a more common practitioner to share the discursive and practical space on the page and in a kitchen-laboratory.

I don’t know the answers. But what I do know is that seeing such differentiation in this book has made me ask new questions about other ones and to look for further evidence of class distinctions within recipes—whether in the accessibility and costs expressed in lists of ingredients, or the availability of materials that are required for the processes they describe.

At the same time, it makes me think that we should be asking ourselves whether these recipes can tell us something about the daily experience of early modern people, with moments of inclusion less bound by class than we might otherwise believe. It seems that a person using this recipe, even with its declared different versions, finds it as part of a larger manuscript that did not to hierarchize based on cost, education, and access to professional circles. After all, why would someone who might need a lower cost water for the palsy consult a book in which we find evidence of an interest in more professional “scientific” approaches to remedies if that person did not have some interest in and feel qualified to use the other recipes as well?

So, this blog post really offers less in the way of answers and proposes questions that I hope we can address collectively. And somehow that seems to suit the spirit of such a book!

Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded (see e.g. Lisa Smith’s post on coffee as a cure for plague in eighteenth-century London). One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two categories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.