This is a big important topic, but one that is not well known at all. The evidence for it is scattered, and so most folk haven’t a clue that it was relatively widely practised for purposes of making medicine as well as for alchemy.
Fortunately a comprehensive gathering together of the strands was made by Linda Voigts, in her paper “The Master of the King’s Stillatories”. Unfortunately the paper languishes in the relatively unknown Harlaxton Medieval Studies, volume 13 from 2001 so it took a while to track it down. I actually have a lot of the sources and find reports that she draws upon, but have not myself carried out the weaving of the information together.
Therefore, in service to the internet at large I shall explain some of the points she makes and summarise the evidence.
The eponymous Master of the Kings Stillatories is one Rober Broke, who was employed during the reign of Henry VI to carry out distillations and the making of various waters. He was in the household from 1432 to 1455, and Voigts states that by the 15th century glass distillation equipment was taking over from the pottery stuff of the previous century. The BL Sloane MS1118 contains texts on distillation and the name of John Kirkeby, chaplain to Henry VI, and another MS from 1461 has glass cucurbits and alembics carefully drawn in it.
She references also Heironymus Brunschwig’s Book of distillation, and the glass alembic fragments documented in Tyson’s “Medieval glass vessels found in England c. AD 1200-1500”. The sites in which such objects have been found include Sandal Castle, St John’s priory Pontefract, Pontefract castle and Kirkstall abbey, Selborne Priory, Winchester castle and Brook street in Winchester. An important review article is here, I have no idea if it is bootlegged or not:
One of his sources was the Lily of Medycines. Oddly enough the copy owned by Broke is poorly translated, done in the first half of the 15th century, the original being a compilation made in 1305 by Bernard of Gordon. Voigts mentions the distillation of acids, but because Broke was within the spicery and confectionery and the nature of recipes in his own MS and the mention of “excellent waters” she says, correctly in my view, that it is unlikely he was distilling mineral acids. Instead he distilled high proof alcohol, a medical panacea. There is not any evidence to link him to alchemical distillations. He would also have distilled various mixtures of herbs and water, and sugar and suchlike. One of the interesting things about this paper is that it has some small appendices, which are extracts from relevant books.
One of these books is the BL Sloane MS 964m from the first half of the 15th century. To make aqua vitae, you take lees of strong wine, powder of canel, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, gallingale, cubebs, grains of Paris, long pepper, black pepper, caraway, siler mountain, cumin, fennel, smallage, parsely, sage, mints, rue, calamint, origanum ana unciam unam pound them together, put them in a vial, put your glass on the vial, and distill and collect the water that results. (Oddly
This required quite a few expensive spices, as well as herbs which would only be available in certain seasons, albeit grown in the garden of the noblemans residence. This sort of recipe is the origin of the ‘herbal wines’, such as Buckfast, a popular drink in some parts of Scotland.
Another indication of the importance of distillation, is in Sloane MS 3548:
I find this illustration to be very important. It shows not only a serpent linking a cauldron to a glass vessel, but also what appears to be a variety of Turks cap, a glass alembic with a water vessel around it to cool it down. Now the silly thing is that you wouldn’t carry out the distillations using cauldrons; I wonder if the illustrator had actually seen them for real. The problem with distilling from cauldrons is how to do you close the wide mouth? Unless there are vessels within the cauldrons, using it as a water bath. Unfortunately I cannot read the writing well enough to tell what it says, and the BL has not yet digitised the manuscript. Voigts discusses the likes of the serpent in her article and improvements in distillation technology such as the changeover from pottery apparatus in the 14th century to glass in the 15th, but some of it relies on the old “Short history of distillation” by Forbes, which is something like 40 years old by now. I am convinced that it is now superseded in detail, although the general sweep of it will be accurate enough, but people keep referencing it because there isn’t anything better out there.
In a re-enactment context, the evidence suggests that royalty or high nobility could avail themselves of various distilled medicines, mostly through having someone in camp/ their home castle carrying out such distillations. It is still very unclear how much the production of distilled medicines spread down through the social scale. I can imagine that if the King in the 1450’s has it being done for him, at the least the earls and similar will have their own before long. It is clear too by the last decade or two of the 15th century that distilled medicines were widely available in northern Europe, with various illustrations from that time, added to books such as Heironymous Braunschweig’s “Book of Distillation” in the early 16th century, indicating that medical men knew of and used it’s products.
But to return to the opaque area, it is unclear to me at the moment how these remedies fitted in with the wider medical realm and the public at large, in England of the 1440’s- 1490’s. It might be possible to dig up more from MS and more obscure papers, but for comparison, the early 1440’s “A leechbook or collection of medical recipes of the fifteenth century” by Warren R. Dawson, has nothing about distilled medicines, and neither are there any modern additions to the copy of Gilbertus Anglicus pharmaceutical writings, made around 1460 or so. Of course there would be a certain amount of innate conservatism in the official medical profession, but also it takes time for knowledge to spread and become accepted. Clearly some texts were being copied and translated, such as the aforementioned Lily of medicine and the Book of the fifth essence” by John of Rupescissa, which was translated into English in the 1460’s.
I think this is a nice example of how approaching things from a concern with authenticity and what to present to the public can help make historical questions sharper and to the point.
Weirdly though she says that purchases of high proof alcohol for James IV of Scotland, is evidence that there was independence distillers supplying alcohol to alchemists in Britain at the end of the 15th century. Regular readers will know that James was involved in alchemy from about 1501, i.e. not the 15th century, and not Britain, insofar as Scotland was a separate kingdom. What there was at the end of the century, n 1494, was reference to bolls of malt given to a friar to make aquae vitae, meaning a presumably somewhat learned man was tasked with brewing and then distilling whisky. Whether it was for getting drunk on or for medical reasons is not entirely clear.
The apparent lack of evidence for commercial distillation of alcohol is odd, but I suppose not totally surprising if we assume it takes a generation or two for such practises to percolate into society at large.
This assumption is of course rather shoogly, and should be challenged at every opportunity.
So, an interesting and thought provoking paper, just the sort of thing to read.