Practical Alchemy in the Renaissance

In 1535, the German printer Christian Egenolff, who had recently set up shop in Frankfurt, published a 45-page booklet titled Kunstbüchlein (Little Book of Skills). This rough little pamphlet, cheaply printed on coarse paper just in time to be offered for sale at the Frankfurt Book Fair that year, would hardly seem a likely candidate to spark a revolution. But, in many ways, it did just that: Not a scientific revolution, but a revolution in how people thought about a science that had long been regarded—for good reason—with suspicion and distrust.

When we think of alchemy, we usually associate the word with an esoteric, quasi-mystical but deluded search for deep secrets; or, alternatively, with fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes. Of course, both were part of the world of Renaissance alchemy—which explains why Pope John XXII issued a papal bull in 1317 condemning the art. But alchemy was just as likely to have had a strictly practical, utilitarian orientation. And that is the course steered by Egenolff’s little bookletRead more »

The Canker Friar

[Note: In the course of doing research, historians sometimes come across stories that seem to cry out to be told. Here’s one that I encountered in the Inquisition file in the Venetian State Archive a few years ago. It’s from Archivio di Stato, Venice, Sant’Uffizio, b. 23, containing the trial testimony of Antonio Vulpino, 9 April 1567. This blog is adapted from a longer article in which I try to interpret the documents. Here my aim is simply to tell the story.]

Campo San Lio, Venice, in a picture by Giovanni Mansueti depicting the Miracle of the Relic of the Holy Cross in Campo San Lio (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

On a cold January day in 1567, two men, one a Dominican friar called Antonio Volpe, the other a servant in the house of a local nobleman, were walking in the Campo San Lio not far from the Ponte Rialto in Venice. Pausing near a baker’s shop in the tiny square, they were suddenly approached by guards wearing the insignia of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. As the captain of the guards grasped Volpe’s arm, the friar turned to his companion and cried out, “I’m ruined (assassinato)!  May God help me!” His friend, perhaps hoping to distance himself from the friar, responded, “Padre, if you’re a good man, God will help you; but should you be otherwise, so much the worse for you.”

Fra Volpe was quickly led to a boat docked nearby and conducted to the Holy Office’s prison at the church of San Giovanni in Bragora. A few days later he was transferred to the offices of the Inquisition in Padua, where the charges against him had been filed.There he learned the full details of the accusations against him: that secretly he was a Lutheran, that he owned heretical books, and that he was planning to throw off his habit and emigrate to Protestant Germany. Other charges would emerge in the course of the proceedings, which dragged out for another thirteen months as Volpe languished in the Inquisition’s prison while his case was being prosecuted. Read more »

The ‘Professors of Secrets’ and Their Books

(NY Times)

Last weekend, “This American Life” host Ira Glass revealed what he claimed was the original formula for Coca-Cola. He found it buried in an article in the archives of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The recipe spread across the Internet, republished everywhere from CNN to Al Jazeera. The revelation of the secret—more valued than KFC’s famous “11 herbs and spices”—caused the radio show’s web site to crash under a stampede of visitors.

Everyone loves a secret, and everyone has a secret. We all, if we are cooks, have our favorite recipes, some being family secrets handed down through generations. Fishermen have secrets for making bait to catch more fish. On the web and in the self-improvement section of bookstores you can find secrets for beautiful hair and secrets to remove unwanted hair. Even though we love learning secrets, we love having secrets, too. We want to have our cake and eat it too. Read more »

The Aquavitae Brothers

The Renaissance was an era of new diseases. Between 1347 and 1600, Western Europe was struck by a succession of new and baffling epidemics. Not only did Europe experience its most devastating demographic upheaval as a result of the rapid, epidemic spread of the Black Death (presumably bubonic plague), it was struck by a succession of new infectious diseases, including typhus, syphilis, virulent smallpox, and the mysterious “English sweat,” which first broke out in 1485.

In the Renaissance—at least until the foundation of public health boards in the 16th century—the struggle against epidemic diseases was waged principally by the religious orders. Most of the charitable hospitals that cared for victims of the epidemics were founded by religious orders; many orders devoted themselves specifically or even exclusively to treating victims of the new epidemics.

Giovanni Colombini, detail from painting by Pietro Perugino (Uffizi, Florence)

One such order was the Jesuati, a little known religious order founded in 1360 by Giovanni Colombini (c. 1300-1367), a wealthy Sienese merchant who gave away all his possessions in order to live as a mendicant. The Jesuati—not to be confused with the more famous Jesuit Order—were originally called the Clerici apostolici Sancti Hieronymi, (Apostolic Clerics of St. Jerome) because of their special veneration of St. Jerome; but Colombini and his disciples soon gained the name Jesuati—supposedly from the habit of loudly crying “Praise be to Jesus Christ” at the beginning and end of their sermons.  (So the Jesuati were roughly the equivalent of “Jesus freaks.”) Read more »

A Balm To Heal All Wounds

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22)

Jeremiah’s plaintive words express the fundamental lament of the human heart: In times of tragedy and sadness, where is God in this moment? Has He abandoned us?

While in the passage from Jeremiah the Balm of Gilead is used as a metaphor about the human search for understanding and meaning in the face of difficult circumstances, the Balm of Gilead was in fact real; and the quest for a medicine that will heal all wounds is itself as old as Jeremiah.

The Balm of Gilead is generally thought to refer to Mecca balsam, the resinous gum of Commiphora gileadensis (C. opobalsamum), a small tree native to southern Arabia but also naturalized in ancient Judea. Mecca balsam was prized both as a perfume and a balm to treat wounds. Modern studies have confirmed that C. gileadensis possesses antibacterial properties that validate its usage in the local treatment of wound infections. Read more »

The Monk Who Loved to Eat Toads

Alternative medicine is in. Each year, millions of Americans—38% of U.S. adults according to a 2007 National Institutes of Health survey—use some form of alternative medicine. Even the medical establishment has embraced alternative medicine, albeit somewhat begrudgingly, allowing that unconventional therapies may be used when conventional options fail. A 2008 survey of U.S. hospitals found that more than 37% offered one or more alternative medicine therapies, up from 26% in 2005.

In fact, however, alternative medicine has never been out. Alternative medicine—though always presented as novel—has a long history and has taken countless different forms throughout history. Yet all of these unconventional medical systems had two themes in common: All stood in opposition to what their proponents considered to be the obtuse theories of conventional medicine; and all claimed to be based on nature.

In medieval and Renaissance times, alternative therapies tended to take the form of radically new drugs or methods of preparing drugs: alchemy, for example, was touted by many Renaissance healers as a more perfect way of preparing drugs. Some reformers, such as the Swiss doctor Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, otherwise known as Paracelsus, made alchemy the centerpiece of a far-reaching critique of the medicine of the day. Read more »

The Iconography of Scientific Discovery in the Renaissance (Part I)

The Renaissance has long been regarded as the great age of scientific discovery, the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. The repudiation of the received wisdom of the ancients, the rejection of book learning in favor of observation and experiment, and the receptivity to novelty: These were the hallmarks of the origins of modern science. All of these ideas were captured in pictures that left an indelible mark on our historical memory.

The title page of Sir Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna (Great Instauration, 1620) bears one of the most famous and most often reproduced representations of scientific discovery of the Renaissance—a period fascinated by novelty and the discovery of whatever was new. Read more »

The Tale of Monsieur Gout

“Gout,” wrote the eminent 17th century physician Thomas Sydenham, “destroys more rich than poor persons, and more wise men than fools, which seems to demonstrate the justice and strict impartiality of Providence, who abundantly supplies those that want some of the conveniences of life with other advantages, and tempers its profusion to others with equal mixture of evil.”

Sydenham’s reflection on providential justice—the belief that gout afflicted primarily the wealthy and privileged classes of society—has long been a source of amusement to common people. Indeed, the morbus dominorum was widely taken as symbolic of a leisured class whose members brought their grief upon themselves through excessive living. Read more »

Gravity: Manifest or Mechanical? Revisiting the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence

[Note: In my seminar on “The Scientific Revolution” this semester, I assigned graduate students to write a blog post that, once revised by the class during a workshop, I would publish on my “Labyrinth of Nature” blog. This is the third piece from that seminar, by Master’s history student  J.D. Wolflick.]

In 1687, Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica, a work that many historians consider the culmination of the Scientific Revolution. Its supreme achievement was a universal theory of gravity and inertia that mathematically described both terrestrial and celestial motion Read more »

Water for Renaissance Madrid: Rediscovering the Iberian Qanāts

[Note: In my seminar on “The Scientific Revolution” this semester, I assigned graduate students to write a blog post that, once revised by the class during a workshop, I would publish on my “Labyrinth of Nature” blog. This is the second piece from that seminar, by Master’s anthropology student  Enrique Reyes.]

When King Philip II of Spain moved his court to Madrid in the 1560s, making Madrid the capital of his kingdom, one of the deciding factors for his decision was the abundance of water.  The word “Madrid” is derived from the Arabic word Mayra, which stands for water conduction; thus Madrid means place of mayras.  Madrid’s qanāt system (in Spanish, “viajes de agua”) had been well established by the 1560s and Philip was well aware of this.  Water was Spain’s lifeblood, as important in the Renaissance as it was during the Middle Ages. Read more »