Tag Archives: Tales from the Archive

Tales From the Archives: A Recipe for Disaster: How Not to Distill Turpentine

In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, once a month, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I have chosen a piece written by Tillamann Taape. In this post, first published in July 2013, Tillmann writes vividly about alchemical disasters. Heat, unsurprisingly, comes into play. Enjoy!


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.


Tales from the Archives: A Bag of Worms: Treating the Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month I’d like to share a 2013 post by Hannah Newton.  I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations
AH (editor)


By Hannah Newton

Parents today are all too familiar with the problem of worms in children. Tiny, threadlike creatures, they cause terrible itching. How did parents in the past respond to this common childhood complaint? In the following paragraphs, I use early modern collections of medical recipes, doctors’ casebooks, and medical treatises, to find some answers.

L0016479: Karl Asmund Rudolphi, ‘Entozoorum sive vermium intestinalium histor’: courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Worms were defined as ‘Annimals generated in the body, variously hurting the Operations of the Body’.[1] Growing out of rotting food in the stomach, these creatures were ‘deservedly reckoned among those Diseases which frequently afflict Infants and Children, seldom…troubling people of Years’.[2] The reason, according to the physician John Pechey, was that ‘Children eat greedily, and are delighted with…sweet things’, such as summer fruits and candied cherries, foods which easily putrefy and ‘nourissheth and fedeth’ the worms.[3] Children’s bodies provided worms with the ideal conditions to grow, because they were thought to be more moist and warm than adults, qualities which promoted putrefaction.[4]

The symptoms of worms were well known. ‘Worms are known to be in a Body’, stated Daniel Sennert in 1664, ‘when there is much spittle and a stinking breath, troublesom sleep, gnashing of teeth, crying and bawling’.[5] If the infestation continued over a long period, the patient became emaciated, as Walter Harris observed in his casebook: his thirteen-year-old patient ‘was much liker a Skeleton than a live Boy: His Face was like that of one raised from the Grave, his Eyes hollow; his Nose sharp, and his bones only covered with skin’. The child’s ‘ratling joynts’ could scarcely ‘carry him from one end of the room to another with the swiftness of a Snail’, lamented Harris.[6]

Wellcome Library, MS 1340 (Katherine Jones, Collection of medical receipts, c. 1675-1710), f.87v. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

How were children treated? ‘A special regard’, declared John Pechey in 1697, ‘is to be had to the Methods and Medicines, for Children by reason of the weakness of their bodies, cannot undergo severe methods or strong Medicines’.[7] Instead of using the usual remedies of the day – vomits, purges, and bloodletting – children were to be treated with milder medicines, such as ointments and suppositories.

Medical texts and manuscript collections of remedies are replete with recipes to remove worms. In 1664, the doctor ‘J.S.’ prescribed suppositories made of honey, by which ‘the Worms [are] drawn by sweetnesse, [to] the lower parts of the Guts’, where they could be voided by natural defecation.[8] Like children, worms loved sweet things, and could be tempted out of the body this way.

Wellcome Library, MS 1340 (Katherine Jones, Collection of medical receipts, c. 1675-1710), f.87v. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

Other, more bizarre treatments were recommended. In the late 1600s, Lady Mary Dacres suggested the following ‘rare thing for Wormes in…children’: ‘Tak[e] five live earth worms…sew them up in a piece of muslin, and lay them upon the navill’.[9] The London gentlewoman Katherine Jones suggested a similar remedy: she instructed, ‘Take Earth worms’, and put them ‘in a linnen bag, and bind the bag to the navel of the Child all night’.[10] It is not clear how these treatments were thought to work, but it is possible that people believed there existed a sympathy between similar creatures, so that when the earthworms died, so too did the worms in the child’s body.

Whilst early modern medicines might seem odd to modern eyes, it is clear that doctors were motivated by compassion. Francis Glisson noted in 1651 that he wished to make his remedies ‘grateful & pleasing to the sick Child’.[11] Clearly, children were regarded as different from adults, and in need of special medical treatment.

Occasionally children’s own thoughts leave a trace in the sources. In 1650, the Essex clergyman Ralph Josselin recorded in his diary the words of his eight-year-old daughter Mary, who was suffering from worms: she pointed to her tummy, and cried, ‘poore I poore I’. Five days later Mary died. [12]

Dr Hannah Newton is Wellcome Trust Fellow at the University of Cambridge, and the author of The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720 (OUP, 2o12). Her current research project is about recovery from illness in the early modern period.

[1] J.S., Paidon nosemata; or childrens diseases both outward and inward (London, 1664), 167.

[2] Franciscus Sylvius, Dr. Franciscus de le Boe Sylvius of childrens diseases…also a treatise of the rickets (London, 1682), 127.

[3] John Pechey, A general treatise of the diseases of infants and children (London, 1697), 119. Thomas Phaer, ‘“The Booke of Children: The Regiment of Life by Edward Allde” (London, 1596, first publ. 1544)’, in John Ruhrah (ed.), Pediatrics of the Past (New York, 1925), 157-95, at 182.

[4] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpepers directory for midwives: or, a guide for women . . . the diseases and symptoms in children (1662), 239.

[5] Daniel Sennert, Practical physick the fourth book in 3 parts: section 2: of diseases and symptoms in children (London, 1664), 259.

[6] Walter Harris, An exact enquiry into, and cure of the acute diseases of infants, trans. William Cockburn (London, 1693), 129.

[7] Pechey, A general treatise, 15.

[8] J.S. Paidon nosemata, 172-3.

[9] British Library, Additional MS 56248 (Lady Mary Dacres, ‘Recipe Book…for cookery and domestic medicine, 1666-96’), 59v.

[10] Wellcome Library, MS 1340 (Katherine Jones, Collection of medical receipts, c. 1675-1710) 87v.

[11] Francis Glisson et al, A treatise of the rickets being a diseas common to children, trans. Philip Armin (London, 1651), 344.

[12] Ralph Josselin, The Diary of Ralph Josselin 16161683, ed. Alan Macfarlane (Oxford, 1991), 201