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.

 

The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books (1400-1570) Part II: Between written and oral transmission

By Sylvie Neven

The literature of artistic and technological recipes frequently serves as a source for historical study in art technology. However, to date, the nature and the original function of artists’ recipe books have not been clearly determined. The relevance and the reliability of this form of writing continue to be issues debated by scholars, with no conclusions forthcoming. Two different hypotheses have been put forward regarding the aim of this type of literature. On the one hand, these texts have been seen as manuals that may have been used by artists. On the other hand, these recipes often seem to have been transmitted for the purposes of literary preservation, not directly connected with contemporary workshop practices.

During my PhD research, an attempt to answer these questions was made using a delimited corpus of such recipe books written during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries : the ‘Strasbourg tradition’. Focusing on the sources themselves, I have combined historical and codicological analysis on the one hand, and philological and critical textual study on the other. In so doing, I have considered the processes of making, compiling and disseminating of these written sources.

Actually, the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition were compiled from three kinds of sources. Firstly, the largest part of their content comes from the copying and the compilation from other written sources. In this case, it can be either older or quoted authorities or contemporary (and quite often anonymous) works. These processes are perceptible through the very important component of textual similarities found in the manuscripts of this tradition. Obviously, religious institutions – and their libraries – from which I have previously determined that most of the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition originate, appear to be a privileged place, offering scribes the opportunity of copying and compiling such collections. Moreover, several scribes have given information concerning the resources they used for compiling the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition. In fact, they collected data from the libraries of neighbouring cloisters. For example, during his stay at St. Ulrich’s and St. Afra’s Cloister (Augsburg), Wolfgang Seidel the author of two recipe books of this tradition[1] made use of the cloister’s vast collection of books, as attested in his commentaries:

So vill vom geschenckh hab ich auss der liberej des closters zw sant vlrich zw Augspurg lassen abschreiben durch ain knaben des namen ist Walthasar Gech von Fiessen im 1550 Jahr [2]

Secondly, the scribes also cite the authorities from which they have obtained practical information. These authorities may be either practitioners (artists) or contemporary scholars. The artists whose names are  mentioned in the texts were mostly working near the area in which the recipe books were produced. In the Strasbourg Manuscript, the anonymous scribe states that the data he has recorded came from the teaching of two persons, namely Heinrich von Lubegge and Andres von Colmar as suggested by the opening sentences: ‘Dis ist von varwen die mich lert meister heinrich von Lübegge’ (‘This is about colours as Heinrich von Lübegge taught me’) and ‘Dis lehrt mich meister Andres von Colmar’ (‘Andres von Colmar taught me this’). One person has been identified as Andreas Claman, who was painter and goldsmith, active in Strasbourg during the second half of the fourteenth century.

Exchanges are also known to have taken place between scribes and contemporary scholars. For example, Wolfgang Seidel specifies several times that he is indebted to the Bishop of Freising for some recipes that he subsequently includes in his recipe books. Seidel also cites Bartholomew Schobinger, a jurist from St. Gallen, who is famed for his deep interest in natural sciences and alchemy.

Finally, some recipes could correspond to a personal contribution of the scribe. It is interesting to note that the scribe of the Strasbourg Manuscript uses the first-person singular, which is relatively rare in artists’ recipe books. Moreover, he clearly explains that he is divulging his own training:

Now, I want to teach how one should temper all the colours with glue to apply them on wood, on wall or on textile.

In the first folio of the Cgm 4118, Wolfgang Seidel explains that for the writing of his recipe books he has used both written –and older- sources and information collected from his contemporaries, but he has also refered on his own practical experience:

De arte fusoria Rhapsodia partim ex uetusta quadam Biblioteca, partim uero bonorum amicorum colatione cum sumata, opera autem et labore fratris Wolffgangi Sedelij in vnum collecta in solacium et commodum fusorie artis studiosorum[3]

The diversity of sources and persons from which these collections of recipes derive can be seen in relation to their context of creation and their function. These manuscripts were mostly written in religious centres and circulated outside the artists’ workshop. One might suggest that they played a more important role in the conservation and transmission of artists’ knowledge than in the teaching of artistic practices, reflecting the workshops’ activity. In parallel, some of these recipe books may be used to identify specific, datable practices, especially when their compilers specify the name and/or place of origin of the artists (or the authority) from whom they obtained their information.

For the first post in this series on artists’ recipe books, please see my “Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book“.

 

[1] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4117 and Cgm 4118.

[2] ‘So many presents I have let copy from the library of the Cloister St Ulrich in Augsbourg, by a young boy who’s name is Walthasar Gech von Fiessen in the year 1550’, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, fol. 128v.

[3] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, f. 1r.