On twitter recently a new article with the above self explanatory title was mentioned, written by Christopher Booth and published in The Journal of medieval Monastic studies, Volume 6, 2017.
The starting point for his paper is the venerable but still interesting paper on “Medieval distilling apparatus of Pottery and Glass” in 1972 by Stephen Moorhouse. This brought together a number of sites on which evidence for distillation had been found and as such was intended to spur more research. Booth points out that unfortunately not a lot has been done since then, so his paper tries to carry things further. He deliberately brings alchemy into the discussion from the start, but I think we can skip over his explanation of early alchemy and get into expanding and discussing the rest of it.
He points out that “The two most significant distillates of later centuries, mineral acids and alcohols, were likely only discovered within Western Europe in the twelfth century, as recipes for their production only became common by the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries”
His references are to Anderson in “Instruments and Apparatus”, Forbes, “A short history of the art of distillation and Multhauf “the origins of Chemistry”
The latter two are ancient works, very out of date. It is a sad fact that there hasn’t been a work pulling together all the research done since Forbes wrote his book. If anyone wants to give me money to write it I’d be happy to do so, but what a history of distillation in Europe and the middle east needs is a multi-lingual team and 5 years.
A blog post from the useful and interesting Recipes project. It discusses a book called Tabula Medicine, which has various distillation recipes, and, importantly from my point of view, was written between 1416 and 1425, by English friars, drawing upon older recipes.
A perennially interesting question regards the transmission of knowledge across Europe, and in my case especially that of techniques and recipes related to alchemy and allied activities such as distillation. A related problem is that there is a mass of material which has not been fully studied. Therefore all we can say about some recipes is that they are first written about over there, in say 1340, and next seen copied out near here in 1400. So what has happened to them in the meantime?
In the case of the recipes used by the friars, since they include ones from John of Rupescissa’s Book of the quintessence, we can say securely that copies of his work were in England by the early 15th century. Moreover, given that some recipes are attributed to older friars in the period 1370 – 1420, that also indicates that distilled recipes were in England by that time, although the article doesn’t go into enough detail for me to be totally sure. This therefore pushers my understanding of the transmission of the text back by several decades. It seems therefore too that it first arrived in Latin, being translated into English later in the centuries.
Moreover, it provides documentary evidence to back up the archaeological evidence, that distillation was well known amongst the educated sections of society. Having said that, I think we are still lacking widespread evidence of distillation from firaries etc, but certainly by mid-15th century the remains of alembics are found in various secular sites, as the practise moved from the religious people to the secular medical men. (Not that they were all secular as such, but having taken minor orders at university few kept up such stations in life)
As an aside, an apothecary or medical man carrying out distillations is entirely period, but not very well represented in the re-enactment world, due probably to the difficulties inherent in carrying out distillations in a field.
Whilst distilling at the weekend using a long glass worm to ensure good condensation, I started wondering about the practicality of it all. What I just have not seen in alchemical images showing furnaces and distillation and sublimation and the like is a way of holding all the equipment in it’s proper place. Nor has this been mentioned much if at all in the texts.
For someone interested in the practical side of alchemy, that is an immediate red flag. Maybe all the images I used to think were based in practical reality weren’t!
For instance, here you can see a clamp holding my condensing worm in place:
The cucurbit I used a couple of weeks ago for a distillation broke when I held it by the neck. Being pyrex I thought it would be a bit stronger, but obviously the weight of lute around the bottom and some sort of flaw in the glass, perhaps brought on by too much heat or the time I heated it without lute and it changed shape slightly, meant it could only do a few more high temp distillations.
When I picked it up by the neck, the base dropped off onto the floor and the lute was cracked off it:
When I looked closer at the break point there was some copper on the outside of the glass, stuck in the lute, suggesting that a hole had opened up at some point in the distillation.
Ah well, I shall have to buy a new one, or make that several, because it seems they don’t last long enough. This time I shall know to be even more careful with it. It actually make the 3rd pyrex cucurbit I’ve broken over the last 9 years, but then I’m not doing as many distillations as I would like.
This kind of breakage was a common problem for alchemists, which is both why they luted cucurbits and complained about the fragility of glass and stuff. Well, having written that, I can’t immediately find any nice and relevant quotes; if you can think of any please let me know.
Actually, sometimes I think I’m engaged in making broken stuff for beginner archaeologists to study. Maybe I need to find someone willing to pay for real soda glass equipment and we can study how well it survives being used.
Once again whilst distilling I was reminded of the importance of a good lute. That is, the stuff that serves to hold the glassware together, forming a strong and impervious seal. Various recipes are given, depending on the circumstances and author. John of Rupescissa suggested paper, egg white and fine flour, which works nicely, especially with modern ground glass joints when making the quintessence of alcohol.
The obvious point is that the lute for glassware involves egg whites and stuff to hold them together, usually a mix of organic and sometimes inorganic stuff. The net result can be like this:
Which is egg white, fine flour and fine linen. It is not exposed to any temperature above 100C, but that is certainly enough to start cooking the egg and flour, which just so happens to make something a bit bready that expands slightly and seals any gaps. It also has the advantage of being easy to put in place, because it is soft and squishy. It certainly works and prevents the dangerous and irritating loss of the substances being distilled.
In fact that makes me wonder when it went out of use. So, off to the old chemistry textbooks!
(Fortunately I collected a lot of scanned ones from archive.org a few years ago when researching a few things)
In the 10th edition of Griffin’s Chemical Recreations, from 1860, mention is made on page 180 of the old use of cork and cement, prior to the invention of cork borers and caoutchouc-tubes.
Various other textbooks don’t really go into practical chemistry at all.
So a question that will take a lot longer to answer than I had hoped.
Anyway, here’s another picture, this time showing my new serpent in action:
There’s over 3 feet of glass tubing here, which is just enough for the distillate to cool down and drip out of the end rather than rushing out as vapour, which was always a problem I had before. Note the coloured fabric, which is offcuts from my various re-enactment clothings, which are soaked with water. These hold the water close to the warm glass, which then heats them up and the water evaporates, helping cool the glass and then the vapour within it. You can even see steam rising from the cloths, although not in this photo.
This is a short blog post covering an interesting but rather deep topic which would require a great deal more research to make a full on really interesting post. So instead you have to make do with this. Maybe in a few years I’ll write something more.
Right from the start, alchemy was related to other areas of endeavour or crafts. The recipes in the Physika et Mystika are similar to and sometimes the same as those found in the manuscripts recording various craft recipes, the Leyden and Stockholm papyri. Basically the early alchemists took ideas from Hermetic and gnostic religion and mixed them with physical workshop practises.
It seems clear to me that early alchemy was actually a form of philosophy and mysticism and religion; I use all of those words because although an expert could probably make specific distinctions, it is beyond me in the case of the Physika et Mystika and many of the other texts written by Cleopatra or that refer to Isis.
And this stayed with it into the Byzantine Christian era, with explicitly Christian imagery and metaphor added to Hermetic texts such as Zosimos “On the Letter Omega”. Some of the later alchemists surely enlarge the natural philosophical side of alchemy as well, making it less specifically religious, more an explanation of how the world works. The making of gold is treated as a specific work that can be done, not with religious implications, but rather due to knowledge of how the world actually works. This can also be seen in the works of Zosimos of course. Continue reading →
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.
As an aside, 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 broken artefacts 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 Broke’s sources of recipes was the Lily of Medycines. Oddly enough the copy owned by him 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 of recipes from relevant books.
One of these books is the BL Sloane MS 964m from the first half of the 15th century. It says that 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.
Sorry for taking so long between posts; my main computer stopped working and it took a while to work out what to replace it with, which then of course meant work to get it working the way I wanted it to. Plus I was feeling a little tired after turning out so many regular blog posts. Fortunately the weather has improved and I can now do some work outside.
Something that has been bugging me for a while now is the mismatch between my own distillation equipment and that shown in period pictures. Some is down simply to it being hard to get anything resembling what is shown, e.g. the metal helms seen in Heironymous Braunschweig’s Book of Distillation. In this case it is because I hadn’t really seen the need to get it, so this experiment and post will serve as something of a test of the new equipment.
Asks an old paper by Ladislao Reti. From the journal Chymia, vol. 10, 1965, pages 11-23.
He runs through the usual well known sources of recipes for hydrochloric acid, such as Basil Valentine, De re Metallica etc, and ends up with a mid- 15th century Italian manuscript which is part of a work on dyeing, colours and the decorative arts.
It is translated by Mrs Merrifield as saying:
384. To soften bones. Take common salt and Roman Vitriol in equal quantities, and grind them together well: then distill them through an alembic and keep the distilled water in a vessel well closed. When you wish to soften bones or horn or ivory, put them in the said water for the space of five hours, and it will soften so that you may impress on them what you like, and they will afterwards become hard as before.
On the other hand to me it is not quite so amazing, knowing how much experimentation was going on at the time. Moreover what this recipe lacks is a link to theory and alchemical history. Alchemial works distinguish themselves by reference to an overarcing theory, and to historic experts, from Hermes to Albertus Magnus. This has neither, in a way it is simply a workshop reciept like Theophilus wrote 300 years earlier, lacking in detail since you are expected to already have your own workshop with equipment. I wonder too about the lack of mention of lute, alchemists usually swathed their cucurbic with lute in order to give it a longer life and prevent it breaking at high temperatures. When Lawrence Principe distilled salt he managed to melt a hole in the bottom of his pyrex glassware, but I don’t think he was using lute.
It certainly demonstrates how non-alchemists had distillation well in hand by that period, as we already know from the likes of “The goodman of Paris” and of course older ideas about spirits of wine being healthful, from the likes of Arnold of Villanova (the real one, not the pretend alchemical one) at the end of the 13th century.
More cross bearings on the use of such techniques by non-alchemists is always welcome. This particular recipe is apparently found in at least one more 15th century work from Italy, so it was likely to be well circulated.
Here’s a couple of photos of the alembic during my distillations. The top one is nitric oxide fumes for making nitric acid, and the bottom is water from distilling some iron acetate.
The lute on my cucurbit started to come off after being knocked, so here it is in bits:
That it comes off after being hit is fine by me, acting as a sacrificial coating is a good thing. As you can see it was made using iron rich clay, also horse dung and sand. The mixture used was made up by feel, rather than following any particular proportional recipe, with the key ideas that it had to be able to be smoothed onto the cucurbit, yet with sufficient sand and dung to hold together when drying.
Unsurprisingly, because the general recipe is the same as medieval bronze casting moulds, it looks very much like medieval mould material that I have examined, except that a lot of that often contained chaff or bits of straw as the organic material, rather than dung.
Here’s something else, a wide flat graphite crucible, meant more as a nice open bowl like a scorifier, and for a similar purpose, i.e. oxidising substances over a fire.
Unfortunately in this case I didn’t dry it for long enough in my oven. It had a wee while, but not enough, so when I put it on the fire to be properly fired, the bottom popped off due to residual internal moisture turning to steam and expanding.