Something many people don’t know about high medieval times


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One thing is that people didn’t have what we think of as cups or mugs. They used wooden bowls instead, and plenty survive in the archaeological record. If ordinary people used cups we would expect to have some evidence for them, but no, there aren’t any, nor are there pottery ones until well into the 14th century.

Often called mazers, such bowls are seen in plenty of artwork, and one precious one survives from 1320′s Scotland! The Bute mazer:

which is a communal drinking bowl larger than mine.

More information on mazers and drinking bowls can be found here:

I got a lovely set of bowls and spoon, hand made using a pole lathe, from Paul Atkin, a nice helpful fellow down in England, whose website is:

if you want some yourself, but hurry, he’s selling out fast and won’t be able to make more until later in the year.

Here they are:
new wooden bowls

The one on the left with the thinner rim can be drunk from. I might thin the rim down a bit more, but it works well enough with your mouth inside or outside the rim.
The reason for getting them is upgrading my kit, since I know so much more about the material culture of the early 14th century than I used to, I shall stop using my pottery drinking vessel, a pottle, and use the bowl instead.

Apart from bowls, the Perth High street excavations undearthed a number of staves which came from tankard like pots and would have been the right size to use by yourself, so I think I am justified in suggesting that they would have held ale or water. I would get such a vessel, but manufacturers are hard to find and storing them so they stay useable and watertight is hard to do.

I wonder how many people I can persuade this season to change to drinking bowls rather than any form of mug or cup, when visiting 1305 or 1314?

The value of a scholarly edition and/ or translation of a work is far beyond the text itself


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I have noticed this before, but it bears repeating – that scholarly editions are much more than their text. I’ve often found the introductions and notes at the back much more useful than the text itself, the reason being that they show the context and explain words and concepts which are usually very unclear in the text itself. Of course some of the explication might be wrong, but it is usually at least a good starting point for further explorations. The notes often bring to light things which earlier translators simply didn’t know, but now thanks to decades more work things are better known.

For instance, in the current hot off the presses book, “The four books of Pseudo-Democritus” by Matteo Martelli, published by the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, as part of their Sources of Alchemy and Chemistry series, we find a number of explanations on substances and their uses in the 4 books which have not, as far as I am aware, been made so clearly and in such depth before, at least in English.

On page S221, we find discussion of the word kadmia, which from Pliny means both zinc ores and the substances scraped from chimneys of furnaces in which such ores have been roasted. On the next page is the next note which discusses the use of such kadmia, and its dissolution in various yellow liquids, including calfs bile, and other oils. The texts referred to include the Papyrus of Ledyen and Holmiensis, as well as some of the Syriac alchemical manuscripts and a work by Zosimos.
The next note discusses the term Androdamas which is probably a form of iron pyrite with cubic crystals, and Martelli mentions a number of texts and sources of information, and ties the term in with the actual recipe.

If however you rely on the older English translation by Steele, you would think that Androdamas is a form of arsenical pyrites. He gives no source for this. The waters are further muddied by Martelli mentioning that the “Lexicon on the making of gold” “idnetifies androdamas with pyurite and orpiment”. It can’t be both iron pyrites and orpiment, or rather two different people might have had different names for it 2,000 years ago, so now we have a more complex and complete understanding of the word as used in the period, which simply was’t available back in the 1920′s, or at least not unless you’d carried out several years of research of your own. But now modern researchers can build on this work and the translations and concepts contained within it.

The Steele translation can be found at Adam Macleans website:

There are noticeable differences between it and the Martelli translation.
For instance, recipe one of Steele says:

“Taking mercury, thrust it into the body[3] of magnesia, or into the body of Italian antimony, or of unfired sulphur, or of silver spume, or of quick lime, or to alum from Melos, or to arsenic, or as thou knowest, and throw in white earth of Venus,[4] and thou shalt have clear Venus; then throw in yellow Luna, and thou shalt have gold, and it will be chrysocoral reduced into a body.”

But Martelli says:
“Take Mercury and make it solid with the body of magnesia, or with the body of Italian stibnite, or with unburnt sulphur, or with moon foam, or with roasted lime, or with alum from Milos, or with orpiment or according to your knowledge. If it (i.e. mercury) turns white, lay it on copper, and you will have shadowless copper, (if the mercury turns) yellow, lay it on silver and you will have gold, on gold and it will be solid gold coral.”

Some of those differences are quite important, and ultimately the Steele version feels odd, whereas the Martelli one fits the language and form of the other translations of similar recipes from the same era.
The reason for this is of course the fact that Steele translated from a 16th century Latin translation of the original Greek, whereas Martelli has used the oldest surviving Greek copies, compared them to the Syriac and collated together a text that is much more accurate than the Latin one or the English translation thereof.
And the notes have a most interesting discussion of the substance ‘moon foam’, which Steele thinks is argentiferous litharge, but according to the discussion is nothing of the sort.

There are more translations to come, I’ll just have to bear the wait. They are being made possible by the generosity of Robert Temple who has sponsored this and other volumes to come.

Contamination of saltpetre in medieval and post-medieval Europe


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Who cares about contamination of saltpetre?
Alchemists and people whose lives depend on making things go bang, that’s who.

Regarding the alchemists, Lawrence Principe (on page 65 of his “The secrets of Alchemy”) brings to our attention a work by John of Rupescissa (or rather of Roquitaillade as he is knowin in France, which was his birthplace) that tells us how to purify saltpetre of salt. The De Confectione attributed to him has a section near the end on the use of fractional crystallisation to produce pure saltpetre. However the same text also has an added section which describes the importance of table salt and states that “The whole secret is in the salt”.

This is in the context of an important recipe at the start of the text being the distillation of a mixture of roman vitriol, saltpetre and mercury, producing a substance that is white like snow. To make this, presumably mercuric chloride, requires the element chlorine to be present with the mercury. But what confuses me is why would you give a recipe for removing the salt, then suggest obliquely in the next paragraph that you had to add the salt in again? Continue reading

What chemical and alchemical substances were available in late 16th century England?


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The answer is, all relevant and useful ones. We can tell easily enough, without spending days searching through the surviving records, because of them being listed in the rates books of the time, i.e. what rate of duty had to be paid on imported goods.
The copy I have is a reprint of the 1586 rates book, in an old book which is the paper original of this google book:

What I think is also clear is that a lot of these substances are imported not for alchemical use but for the use of physicians and painters. Both of their requirements, and in the case of physicians, understanding of the world, overlap.
In fact there are frequent mentions of plants, plant extracts and preparations all the way through, which at least shows that physicians were importing a great deal of their medicines, as should be clear from the recipes of the period. A herb garden wasn’t enough, people wanted treated with the best medicine you could get, which often meant foreign ones because of their mystique and expense.

Anyway, if we turn to the letter A, we find Argentum sublime, i.e. mercuric chloride, by the pound and hundredweight. A pound of course nowadays is 0.45kg, and a hundredweight about 50kg, although I think the pound in the 16th century was a little different, I can’t find my source book on weights and measures to check.
Antimonium is also imported by the hundredweight, although as usual it is unclear whether they mean the metal or the sulphide.

Also under A is argall, i.e. potassium tartrate, and ashes in barrels. And Armoniacum, which the modern editor thinks means Gum Ammoniac, I think means more ammonium chloride, since it is often called ‘sal armoniacum’. I think this is confirmed by a later mention of “Gum Armoniack”; although there are mistakes in the list, why call one armoniacum and the other gum armoniacum?
There’s arsenic, the hundredeight and by the pound.
And alome, of course, by the hundredweight.
And Azarum, by the pound, which the notes think is a midicament obtained from the asarum plant. In fact there’s quite a few products from plants all the way through, used in medicine or as herbs and spices in food.

Under B we find Brimstone, by the hundredweight.
Also Bedelum, which is apparently a gum-resin used in medicine.

In C, we find green and white copperas, and plain old copperas. These are sulphates, the green probably being the iron sulphate, often calcined and then treated to give a red liquid. The others would be blue copperas and white, the latter zinc based, the former copper.
Under L there is mention of Lapis Calaminaris, which is suggested to be calamine, a zinc ore. By the hundredweight you could certainly do something with it, and brass making has been known on and off by this time, although not on a large scale. Either way it would be useful for alchemists.
There;s also lead, but it helpfully says “Lead, look white leade or red”, which takes us to white or red lead, both of which are in demand for painters and the red is used on iron work.

Mercury sublime makes another appearance, by the pound.

On the other hand I might be wrong about the sal armoniac, given that it is mentioned under S, Sal armoniack, by the pound, and also sal gemma, white salt of various kinds, and most importantly for the alchemist, salpeter by the hundredweight.
There’s also Serusa by the pound, under S, which is most likley cerussa, another kind of white lead, the notes say used for medicine.
Most interestingly, we find mention of ‘spoons of alcumine, the groce’, which the notes suggest means Alcamyne or Alchemy, a metallic composition imitating gold” which is actually something I have noted from 14th and 15th century legal documents pertaining to alchemy. In some the term alcamyne means the actualy activity of alchemy, but in this case, it seems likely to be a gold like alloy.

Sulphur vivum is listed, by the pound. So what is the difference between brimstone and sulphur? None nowadays, but it is likely that back then the brimstone would be powder or adulterated or just not pure, wheras the sulphur vivum is pure yellow lumps straight from the volcano (A lot was gathered from Italian volcanoes).

Interestingly Tin Glass comes into it, by the hundredweight, the notes suggesting they mean bismuth, which is possible at this late date.
Tutia, meaning probably a zinc oxide also is mentioned, by the pound.
Vermillion by the hundredweight appears, as you would expect given its importance as a scarlet pigment, and there’s also verdegrese and Verditer, bother green pigments.
Vitolum might mean vitriol, which has already been covered under copperas, but the 1604 book apparently has ‘vitriolum Romanum’.

The obvious conclusion here is that customs officials use the common understanding of what things are, and if people think there are different varieties of copperas and sulphur and vitriol distinguished by colour and shape, then those are the names they’ll use. This is a continuance of names and perceived properties from the medieval period, and although alchemists and proto-chemists were busy identifying and labelling substances, it often took until the 17th and 18th centuries before they settled upon names linked to definite physical properties that was accurate in a modern sense. But the names and properties recognised then were pretty good and importantly, useful, and it is important to remember this.

I also think it clear that those items by the hundredweight were in widespread industrial level use, such as alum, brimstone, vermillion, ashes etc. Those by the pound were more specialised, often more pure. What sort of physician would use a hundredweight of arsenic? Not many, but a pound or two would be useful. Sulphur is of course for gunpowder, as is saltpetre. The various pigments are by the hundredweight, as you would expect with acres of canvas, wood and plaster to be painted.
The next question of course is who would handle and then subdivide it into parcels for selling to the people who needed it. Of course the Merchant venturers probably imported it, many of them were grocers, and it would be shifted by them to a network of middle men who would transport it to their preferred market towns and customers. Or if you were rich you just sent your servant to buy it in London directly from the importers. Now if I can only find a good book on the topic of internal trade.

At least it shows that by this time every substance required by alchemists would be available through importation.

An object lesson in why you should be sceptical of your historical sources



Something it is important to realise when researching history, is that your sources are biased in all sorts of ways. They also stand a good chance of being wrong about some things, for various reasons such as relying on stories, hearsay or second hand accounts of something.

In fact Scottish history is full of examples of occurences around which massive myths accumulate; there is a modern industry based around Wallace, tartans and the like, spurred in the part by the film Braveheart, and by the maunderings of a number of people who treat their sources with worship and wishful thinking rather than scepticism. See for instance the battle of Roslin, taken by some as being a major defeat of the English by the Scots which was airbrushed out of history for various reasons, often related to the Knights Templar and the holy grail. They rely upon casualty figures exaggerated in later sources to the scale of thousands, when modern historians, using English sources, see it as a wee battle involving only a few hundred on either side. It had some importance because of the importance of who was killed there, but it certainly was nowhere near as important as the other well known battles of the first wars of independence.

In this post I will point out a couple of examples brought up by Chris Brown in his book “Bannockburn 1314″. Chris has been on a bit of a crusade against the Braveheart folk for years, and has at least got the academic chops to back it up, having done a PhD on history in the early 14th century that you can download from the British library Ethos service.

Anyway, on pages 58-59 of the paperback of his book “Bannockburn 1314″, Brown writes, regarding the old stories about the ‘small folk’, camp followers and people guarding the camp joining in the battle, that “…but it is clear from those accounts closer to the event than Barbour that the ‘small folk’ played no part in King Robert’s victory. One of the weaknesses of trying to find a place for every piece of information available from chronicles is the danger of adding items to the narrative that are clearly not valid. The chronicler Bower tells us that the English army included slingers and brought caltrops, though no contemporary material indicates slingers for this battle any more than for any other campaign of the wars of independence.”

Brown is correct, I’ve books presenting the evidence he is basing this statement on; there are various surviving records of the English armies in Scotland in the previous 20 years and nobody mentions slingers. If you think about it, why would a modern army with archers, spearmen and heavy cavalry need such an old, out of date and comparatively less dangerous weapon such as a sling anyway? If anything you might expect a few amongst the Scots, who were comparatively less well equipped.

He continues:
“Even so, numerous accounts of the action have not only included slingers, but maps have been produced to show their location on the field. Curiously, although Bower also tells us that the English army was equipped with bombards, no writer has found such a place for them in the narrative, though they have just as much prominence as the slingers or the caltrops.”

Thus the peril of picking and choosing what you use! Of course it is entirely sensible to do so, but that doesn’t mean you should uncritically accept what you judge to be correct and ignore what you judge to be incorrect. Also, if you are attempting to write good history you should look at all the sources, which for Bannockburn includes English ones as well.

Some news

I now have a full time job, which is a good thing, doing something at least somewhat related to my interests, albeit in a modern sense.

This does mean that I won’t have as much time or brain power to spare for blog entries, so you can expect them to not appear so frequently, although I shall endeavour to keep up the quality or ideally increase it.

I’ve also just got some cooling serpents for use in distillation, as mentioned in the 13th century and varieties of which are seen in distillation handbooks. If the weather improves this should be a productive spring.

Awareness of hazards in foundry work, mining and medicine


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This is a big topic, that requires a lot more research. Nevertheless, I have made some observations as a starting point.
It should of course be born in mind that medieval and Tudor people simply didn’t have the same ideas of hazard and risk that we do today, and that knowledge was not written down in manuals but something passed on through experience or verbally from the more skilled artisans.

Firstly though, all three jobs mentioned in the title are related in some way or another, and also to alchemy. Doctors see to sick miners, foundryworkers, alchemists and use substances produced by miners. Miners and alchemists deal with molten metals and thus would have been exposed to metal fume and carbon monoxide and anything else that was given off e.g. sulphur fumes.
Texts consulted include “On Divers Arts” by the 12th century Monk Theophilus, “De Re Metallica” by Georgious Agricola, “The Pirotechnia” by Biringuccio. The latter two are 16th century works.

So my searches for period mentions of hazards has found the following risks and attempts at reducing them.

Heat and sparks – you see aprons in illustrations in Biringuccio, Agricola and of medieval smiths and miners. This is one of the most basic protections, along with gloves.
Theophilus says not to suck when glassblowing at the wrong moment or the flame will come into your mouth.
Agricola writes, about smelting iron on an open fire, “In order that the heat of the fire should not burn his face, he covers it entirely with a cap, in which however there are holes through which he may see and breathe.”
Biringuccio wrote that you have to bake moulds well so that the bronze doesn’t splash out and the mould survives, so as to protect oneself from accidents.

Dangerous fumes and vapours:
Biringuccio reckons that a poisonous exhalation comes from arsenic, and that miners close their mouths and nose with a sponge wettened with vinegar. Orpiment and realgar are also dangerous. You should also avoid the smoke of brass whem melting it because it is a deadly poison that leaves men stunned, paralysed or stupid and gives them more diseases than he can name. This would be the zinc fume that rises from it as the zinc burns out of it. He certainly shows an awareness of the dangers of bad vcapours and metal fume.

Theophilus writes that you shouldn’t mill or apply gilding when hungry because the fumes of mercury (that’s the translation obviously, I don’t know what the original Latin says) are very dangerous on an empty stomach and give rise to sickness which can be treated with zedoary and bayberry, pepper, garlic and wine.

Agricola mentions pestilential air and the importance of good ventilation in mining shafts. The air is stagnant or rots the lungs. He also writes that when refining lead the foreman should eat butter so “… that the poison which the crucible exhales may not harm him, for this is a special remedy against that poison.” Oddly enough I have found a paper claiming that eating butter reduces people’s lead absorption by blocking the calcium channels in the gut through which it was absorved. Unfortunately I also found one that disagreed with that idea, so I am not yet sure if this remedy actually works.
Cellini (16th century goldsmith and bronze caster) wrote about gilding that “But none the less I saw that great masters aught not to practise this themselves, for he quicksilver that has to be used for it is a deadly poison, and so wears out the men that practise in it that they live but a few years.”

Relatedly, Cennini (15th century Italian artist) wrote that orpiment used as a pigment was dangerous to you, if you put it in your mouth from your paintbrushes.

Trip and physical hazards:
Theophilus mentions that workmen can get in each others ways when casting bells and removing stones from the mould furnace. You need agile workmen “… less someone’s carelessness should lead to a mould being bropken or one workman getting in the way of another or hurting him or provoking him to anger, contingencies which must be avoided at all cost.”

On the other hand, Cellini, when describing problems he had with inexperienced assistants during the making of a complex large statue, didn’t seem too bothered by such issues, but then he was well known for a cavalier attitude to danger.

So, what we can clearly see is that artisans and the people who doctored them knew about hazards and knew that what we call metal fume was in fact dangerous, and that mercury was poisonous. It is not always clear how they knew all this, but personal experience is important, as would surely be word of mouth. In the cases mentioned above, (and more in my notes) there is a concern with the dangers that you experience whilst doing your work, from the very materials you are using. In this way it is clear that they were not such ingoramuses as people might think.

Health and safety in alchemy



I’ve been searching for years for evidence about how much alchemists were bothered by the toxic substances they used. I have found nothing at all, and my notes contain a list of alchemical texts with comments like “Nothing mentioned”.
Sure, Chaucer wrote:
“And evermore, wherever they’ll be gone,
Men know them by their smell of foul brimstone3; for all the world they stink as does a goat;
Their savour is so rammish and so hot
That, though a man a mile away may be,
The odour will infect him, trust to me!

However that isn’t quite the same as a proper concern for ones life and awareness of the dangers, rather it shows that the alchemist and his clothes absorbed smells from the work itself.

Obviously it doesn’t help that I haven’t read all that many genuine medieval manuscripts or notebooks and many are in Latin or illegible handwriting. Nevertheless, I think it clear from what is available that, in general, the health effects of the materials alchemists worked with were either ignored, not known or simply passed on orally from master to apprentice. You would expect a certain knowledge of the bodily activities of substances when alchemists were physicians by trade and training. Agricola, in his book on mining mentions the dangers of lead once or twice, and he was a physician. But many other alchemists were not medical men and presumably wouldn’t know so much about the effects.
A different danger is mentioned by Thomas Charnock, who wrote that you have to be careful of your fire because many a man’s barn or house has been set on fire by accident.
And illustrations of alchemists often show the wearing of aprons, whether leather or wool or such is not clear, see for instance Breughel’s alchemist. ((Link or copy))

But that is it. So I was happy to find at least one mention of the dangers of alchemy, albeit from the 17th century. On page 97 of the paperback edition of “Alchemy tried in the Fire” by Principe and Newman, it says in note 11, that “Starkey’s friend Robert Child recounted later to Harlib that he had often warned Starkey that “he would ruine himselfe by using charcoale in places without chimneys, as also by the preparation of mercuriall & Antimonious medicines.” Child to Harlib, 2 February 1653.”

Thus we see an awareness that mercury and antimony compounds have an effect on humans, and that charcoal also has an effect. This latter would probably be from increased carbon monoxide from poorly burning charcoal not having a good escape from the room. Newmand and Princiep write that Robert Boyle encouraged Starkey to remove a pane of glass from the window of his laboratory in order to let fresh air in, but this then made his fires difficult to regulate, and the choice “seemed to be between controllable furnaces and breathing.” Of course mercuric and antimonial compouds had been used for centuries as medicines, which meant that they were known to affect humans, but alchemists just didn’t write it down.

Starkey probably learnt from this experience, because in a later work, under his pen name of Eirenaeus PPhilophonus Philalethes he wrote:
“Nor let they room be so …
… that the fumes rising
From Coals no vent may finde, for thou maist get
(as some have done, hereol less care devising)
Thereby such harm, which late thou wilt repent,
Hazarding life by their most hurtful scence.”

Why Jonathan Hughes is a poor historian part 2

The first part of this critique is found here, and covers his introductory chapters.
This second part concentrates upon a number of specific assertions and topics found throughout the book. All too frequently he resorts to what I wouldn’t say are arguments, rather Hughes style is to say that something is ‘this’, and often not provide any real argument for it being so, it is taken for granted that he is correct, and sometimes he provides a reference to back it up. Usually that reference is entirely correct, or leads to a manuscript itself. In the latter case, he often seems to be quoting a small bit of text and interpreting it to mean what he wants it to mean, which may or may not be a relevant or accurate interpretation.
Continue reading


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