Brunschwig’s “vertuose boke of distyllacyon”

One of the first books dedicated to the art of distillation, Liber de arte distilandi, was published in 1500 by a german physisican, the paracelsian Hieronymus Brunschwig (1450 – 1512). In 1512, Brunschwig publishes an extended version of this small treatise, entitled Grosse Distillierbuch. This book is translated in Dutch in 1519 and then in english in 1527 by Lawrence Andrew. The title of the English translation was: „The vertuose boke of distyllacyon of the waters of all maner of herbes, with the fygures of the styllatoryes : fyrst made and compyled by the thyrte yeres study and labour of the moste cnynge and famous master of phisyke, Maister Iherom bruynswyke : and now newly translate out of Duyche into Englysshe, nat only to the synguler helpe and profyte of the surgyens, phisycyens, and pothecaryes, but also of all maner of people, parfytely and in dewe tyme and ordre to lerne to dystyll all maner of herbes, to the profyte, cure, & remedy of all maner dysseases and infirmytees apparant and nat apparant : and ye shall understande that the waters be better than the herbes, as Avicenna testefyeth in his fourth canon saynge that all maner medicynes used with theyr substance, febleth and maketh aged, and weke.” As the title shows, the book was received as a textbook of pharmacology, because an important part of the book is dedicated to medicinal drinks and cures. But we can also read this book as a textbook of the “know-how” of distillation.

Structure of the book:  The first chapter offers a definition of the science of distillation and an emphasis of its usefulness for medicine. Then a large part of the book is dedicated to a detailed and systematic description of the manners of distilling. Brunschwig is careful in providing the „know-how” of the “instrumentarium” and the actual procedures of distillation. This part includes an important number of illustrations depicting the equipment; that is the vessels for distillations, the gluing substance, the furnals. Brunschwig is careful in offering all the necessary details to put into practice the art of distillation: for example, he is very careful in specifying the type of glass needed (venetian, bohemian glass) so that it can “better withstande the hete of the fyre”. The description of the instrument and the entire distillation laboratory is interesting not only because it provides a lot of details, but also because Brunschwig makes interesting considerations about the technological limits of the operation. He attempts to provide an exhaustive list of vessels  used in distillations: retorts, “glasses with two arms called pelicans” used for recirculating procedures, “blind helms” (a glass lyke a gorde torned into another glass without any pipe), “circulatories” (glasses that are “wide above and beneath and narrowe in the middest”, with a tube projecting from the vessel).  Two other aspects are described in detail: the glueing substance of the vessel and how to build the furnaces, so as to control the fire, for example by ventilation (“to every smoke hole ye shall make a…tappe to governe your fyre). Then, the book considers a number of aspects that are important for a correct distillation of specific substances and for the preservation of the new distilled liquor. The last part of the book (and the widest) is dedicated to showing how to distil each type of medicinal plant; thus establishing what type of distilling procedure is appropriate for a given plant, flower or substance (like vingar, spirit of wine, oils, etc.)

Definition of distillation:

„Distilling is none other thinge/ but one is a purifying of the gross from the subtyle/ or the subtyle from the gross/ each separately from other/ to the intent that the corruptyble shall be made incorruptyble/ and to make the materyall imateryall/ and the quick spyryt to be made quicker because it sholde the soner pierce and passé thrugh by the virtue of his great goodness and strengthe that there is in and sunke and hydde for the concyvyng of the helthfull operacyon in the body of man..” — thus, distillation covers all procedures of separation of bodies and their condensation in liquids.

Brunschwig parallels alchemy with distillation since via distillation the good, medicinal part of a substance is separated from its more impure and harmful part.



Ways and manners of distillation.


Provided the definition, Brunschwig identifies 2 major ways of distilling: with and without fire, or otherwise said with and without cost. Each of these 2 ways, includes several procedures of distillation. These procedures are different experimental set-ups which will be used according to their appropriateness for given substances.  To clarify a substance, heating and circulating are crucial. As such, he is very careful in suggesting ways to control the fire for the distillations with cost either in the construction of furnals, the placement of the stillatories in the furnals.

Distillation without fire: Sources of heat: sun, putrefaction, fermentation

  1. Filtrum distillacio – (distillation with silt).
  2. Folis distillacionem – a form of solar distillation that uses a brinaile (a glass “almost as wide above as beneath”). The brinaile is filled with flowers, a layer of sticks covers its mouth, then it is turned upsidedown and inserted into another glass, glued  and then let in the sun
  3. Per panis distillacionem (fermenting dough)  – a small glass is filled with flowers or herbs and then put in the oven inside the baking bread
  4. Finnie equi distillacionem (distillation in horse dung) –  this is a procedure of doble distillation (first with vessels called cucumber and then in another vessel called pelican). The pelican vessel is useful for recirculating distilaltes, what Brunschwig calls the rectification of waters.
  5. Formyre distillacionem- distillation in anthills (same principle as 4, but the set-up is different).

This procedure can be slow as in the case of the distillations with horse dung or anthills, where the distillation might last from 2 weeks up to months, but also faster forms of distillation as panis distillation.

Distillation with fire:

  1. Balneo marie : “The glass shall be set in warm water, which water shall be in a copper kettle. Take a glass named curcubit, fill the two parts of the same glass with juice herbs, flowers, leaves, fruits or whatsoever it be chopped small, and set the glass upon a ring of lead. Make a bond of cloth three fingers broad about the upper part of the glass. About the same band make four small rings of cloth having four bands coming down to the four rings that be fast on the leaden ring and bind then fast each to the other. Then let the glass with the lid in the water and standing upright and is sure from falling on the one side or the other through the weight of the lid. Then set the alembic or glass and lute it well. Then make fire in your furnace to heat your water and let it be no hotter than you may suffer your finger in it. And have at all times warm water to fill your kettle again, when the water by length of time is wasted through the heat of the fire. For if a drop of cold water touches the glass, it will ruin and break asunder. You shall understand that when it drops no more it is clean distilled. Then you must let the glass stand still in it for to cool, for if you draw the glass hot out of it it would break asunder. It is needful for you also to have a round board with a round hole in the middle to lay about the glass to the intent that it may be the longer warm”.
  2. Distillation in the horse belly – the same procedure as in balneo mariae, but in the water “we put horse tordes…because this is a half degre hoter than in balneo mariae, therefore we may distill harder substances in it”.
  3. Distillation in ashes – “We shall put fine sifted ashes in a cappel 7 inches of thickness. Fill the thrice part of a glass with such substance you want and set it in the ashes, than fill the cappelle with ashes until the third part of the glass be covered and the cappelle shall be open?…for if it were of mere copper, through the force and heat of the fire it would melt. After that set the alembick upon the glass and lute it well upon it with lutum sapiencie. Than make a fire under it that it may drop treatably as if you would tell by the clock. And so continue after the same manner for if it fall faster or quicker the fire is too great; therefore stop the wind holes above and beneath than it shal fall the softer and brenne the lesse and so it that smells the less of the fire.
  4. Distillation in sand – similar procedure with 3
  5. Distillation on fire – distilling directly on the fire; appropriate for aqua fortis “and other strong waters”

Distillation of a substance can be obtained via drying of the herbs (this being the main mechanism behind the solar distillation that Brunschwig proposes), filtration (distillation with silt), fermentation, evaporation, etc. To be noted that although Brunschwig’s description of what distillation is depends on his Paracelsian heritage, how distillation can be effected on various substances does not.







Sylva sylvarum: experiments on transmutation of bodies (24.04.2012)

This meeting followed two important directions: 1) the relation between Bacon’s matter theory and Sylva Sylvarum Century I and 2) the particular discussion of experiments 25 to 30 and the way they connect to the other experiments of Century I. This post deals with the second one.

(25) Experiment solitary touching the making of artificial springs. Before touching the actual experiment, Bacon makes a series of observations about experiments in general that are worth being mentioned. First, we are told that although it may be unexpected, Bacon actually continually rejects experiments. Yet, he tells us that “if an experiment be probable in work and of great use, I receive it, but deliver it as doubtful”: a) How should we understand Bacon’s skeptical attitude towards experiments? b) Does he have a criterion (or criteria) for a trustworthy experiment? Bacon’s constant skeptical attitude towards experiment shows that he does not accept experiments at face value. He seems to believe that some experiments do not provide certain knowledge, and that one has to be constantly aware of the experiment’s limitations, and of its construction, and how this tool should be used for the study of nature. A good demonstration of Bacon’s constant preoccupations with the limits of experiments is the first set of experiments from Sylva, where he criticizes Della Porta’s experiment of filtration of seawater as a bad case of translation (from a natural fact to an artificial fact). Thus, Della Porta’s experiment is taken to be an unreliable experiment whose results are not trustworthy. Consequently, for Bacon, what is important is not whether indeed sand can filter the seawater and make it potable, but the fact that Della Porta’s experiment is not actually telling us anything about that particular phenomenon.

The experiment of an artificial spring goes as follows: On sloping land, a hole is dug, and in the hole a trough of stone is introduced. The hole is covered with brakes and sand. What it is observed, according to Bacon’s source (Bacon did not actually perform the experiment), is that even after the rain stops, a spring of water can be observed at the lower end of the trough. According to Bacon, if this is the case, then this phenomenon can be read as a case of transmutation of air into water because it is as if “the water did multiply itself upon the air, by the help of the coldness and condensation of the earth, and the consort of the first water.”

If this reading is correct, then this experiment should be correlated to experiment 27 which discusses the version and transmutation of air into water. This experiment is interesting in many respects. The experiment cites 4 processes through which air is transmuted to water, or in terms of matter theory, a more pneumatic body (the air) into a more tangible body (the water). Those 4 processes are: condensation (as the example of experiment 25), compression (e.g. distillation vapors, dews), the mingling of moist vapours with air (method suggested for testing via an experiment), and via the porosity of bodies. A few things need to be noted. Bacon grades those 4 processes differently: the first 2 are apparent and sure, the last 2 are considered probable, but not yet manifested. Bacon deals with study cases of these processes later on in Sylva, in an entry entitled Experiments in consort touching the version and transmutation of air into water, where the experiments from 76 to 82 deal precisely with how the ‘version’ is acquired via such processes. The immediate question raised is why Bacon chose to (or did he actually choose to?) separate experiment 27 from experiment 76–82. In fact, experiment 29, entitled Experiment solitary touching the condensing of air in such sort as it may put on weight and yield nourishment, seems to fit well with these experiments. This entry touches on also a process of transition of air, as a pneumatic body (the air) to a denser, tangible body. Bacon’s reasoning is the following: usually for sprouting, seeds/plants are buried in the ground and watered. Yet, some things sprout even if they are only left in the air. Bacon proposes to verify whether those things that sprout in the air increase in weight, thus gain some solid mass. If they don’t increase in weight, then the sprouting is just an inner transformation of the body. If they do increase in weight, then Bacon reasons that the only place where this new mass could come from is the air, which in return would mean that the pneumatic air has transformed into a denser, tangible body. Some things to be noted here: the conclusion Bacon reaches here is dependent on his matter theory. Moreover, we could see the experimental proposal that Bacon makes here as a case of a corroborative evidence for the problem of transforming air into a denser body. A second thing: this experiment could also be used to study the problem of whether air can nourish or not, which is nothing other than a case of translation, one of the methods of experientia literata.

Coming back to experiment 27, we observe that this experiment includes some methodological moves worth mentioning: One of the examples given as a case of transmutation of air into water via condensation is the following: “and the experiment of turning water into ice, by snow, nitre, and salt, would be transferred to the turning of air into water”. Provided the 8 rules of EL, this would be a case of production by extension, since as exp. 82 claims, it “is a greater alteration to turn (artificially) air into water, than water into ice”. The same experimental setup is used to study two different problems: whereas the transformation of water into ice is a case of induration of bodies (a process happening in the same body), the transformation of air into water is a case of transmutation (a case of transition from one species to another).

If a connection seemed apparent between these experiments, we couldn’t trace any ways to connect experiments 26 and 28.

Experiment 26 entitled Experiment solitary touching the venomous quality of man’s flesh. This ‘experiment’ establishes a correlation between cannibalism and its malignant effect for human bodies on the basis of a collection of reported instances of cannibalism. In this example, we could say, in modern terms, that instances are corroborated and that a fact (that syphilis/“the disease of Naples” was originally caused by cannibalism) is considered to be probable precisely because of its status as corroborated evidence. On the other hand, we failed to see how this experiment connects to previous ones or how this experiment could be suggested by any of the others that Bacon has presented so far. Even more, we failed to see what theoretical question underpins it. This also happened with experiment 28, entitled Experiment solitary touching the helps towards the beauty and good features of persons, where Bacon discusses how some of man’s features, while growing, can be moulded by pressure.

Proposals for connecting some experiments:

a. experiments 25, 27, 29, and 76 to 82 appear to study a similar problem—whether a pneumatic body can be transformed into a tangible one

b. experiments 17–23 and experiments 76, 77, 79, and 80 deal with  the problem of how pneumatic matter is “trapped” into bodies, e.g. in infusion, in the pores of bodies . We also alluded to a connection of these experiments with the experiments on percolation (in Sylva’s text, experiments 1 to 8. )