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.







Philosophy and scientia (Wissenschaft) in Philipp Melanchthon´s thought

In the latest edition that was dedicated to Philipp Melanchthon´s thought and that emerged as a result of the interdisciplinary workshop held at the Institute for Philosophy at the Free University of Berlin on 28 and 29 October 2010 and published in Berlin and Bretten, 2012, (Der letzte Umbruch), Dr Günther Frank offers a few explanatory remarks concerning the meaning of philosophy in Melanchthon´s sense. He poses the problem of the philosopher which Melanchthon was never regarded as, and brings forth the only scholars that have considered him as such, namely: Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In his work of 1892 /1893, Dilthey described Melanchthon as a mediation figure that had carried out the transition between the old “theological-metaphysical System” and the naturalist system of the 17th century.  The debates held by Church historians have been ascribing to Melanchthon influences of the traditions of various schools: he has been regarded as an Aristotelian, Platonist or disciple ofCicero. This line of thought, however operates restrictively and doesn´t manage to cover the whole of his philosophical insight. In the extensive Oeuvre of Melanchthon we can identify three different apprehensions of philosophy.

  1. the Erasmian sense of philosophy, “philosophia Christi” or “philosophia Christiana”

The concept of “philosophia Christi” had been taken by Erasmus from the Church fathers which employed it in a sense that implicated a particular life form, more specifically the life of friars( like in the writings of  Clemens of Alexandria, John Crysostom or Augustin). Erasmus reinterprets the term and bestows on it a new meaning that applies not only to the life of monks, but to all Christians that chose to live according to the teachings of both Church Fathers and the New Testament. This double notion of what a Christian life implies, hardly interested in the speculative perspectives of a theoretical philosophy, is also assumed by Melanchthon-explained in his Declamation to the Paulinian Doctrine. Here, Melanchthon takes the philosophia christi and knits it together with a theology of justification. This declamation is a part of Melanchthon´s early writings in which is influenced by Luther´s critical stance regarding philosophy. His foreword to the 1520 edition of Aristofanes´s Clouds expresses his contempt only for the futility of the speculative philosophy in connection to the political reality. His critical attitude is not, as he will express in a brief letter addressed to the Augustinian Johannes Lang the same year, directed against the philosophers who remain modest and cautions inside of the borders of their own disciplines. As he insists upon in his opening speech of the 1518 school year at Wittenberg- De corrigendis adolescentiae studiis, the liberal arts are not to be given up, but renewed and improved-both Trivium – grammar, dialectics and rhetoric and and Quatrivium: arithmetics, geometry, music, astronomy.

  1. the humanist sense of philosophy

As noted above, Melanchthon aimed at improving and expanding the artes liberales :by introducing history and poetics into the school curricula. He was also bearing in mind the stoic classification of the fields of science: the linguistic, naturalistic and ethical disciplines and named the disciplines of Trivium and Quatrivium as “disciplina humanae” respectively philosophy.

 Günther Frank remarks that there is, strikingly,  no inclusion of moral philosophy in this aim of curricular reform. We can assume that such a conception of Melanchthon´s sense of philosophy-in the strict humanist sense would only narrow down the actual fields of interest which have preoccupied the humanist and foreclose so many philosophical writings that Melanchthon has published: works on Philosophy of law(Cicero), adaptations of Aristotelian psychology(De anima)  that turned out to be extremely important for the history of medicine and for the theory of science (because of the depicted doctrine of the intellect) and of course his contributions to natural philosophy(Initiae Doctrinae Physicae). It becomes obvious that he was not only aiming at reforming the faculty of arts but was also deeply concerned with the higher studies like jurisprudence, medicine and of course, theology. He introduces a philosophical conception of God in theology and philosophical godly proofs. He debates the doctrine of the world´s eternity and the problem of free will. That is how the philosophical stance expands into theological domain.

  1. the universally scientific (universalwissenschaftlich) sense of philosophy

There is a universal, scientific discipline which Philipp Melanchthon has in mind when writing the oration on philosophy in 1536. In a programmatic synopsis of the knowledge which philosophy embraces, the Reformer insists not only on the importance of knowledge of grammar(-a clear hint at the Trivium of the liberal arts) but also the philosophical scientia and so many other arts. He most clearly refers to the important forms of science, as they are described in Aristotle´s Nicomahean Ethics:the theoretic science- obtained through syllogistic demonstration relying on unchanging principles, as well as on things oriented “artes”. Natural philosophy and moral philosophy also belong to the abovementioned encompassing philosophy, like a scientific doctrine of method(dialectics) and the rhetoric. The students who go through such a scientific training, would afterwards obtain a state of mind that would permit them to posses a scientia argumentativa of which Aristotle has explained to be the science of the first, general and unchanging principles. Psychology, philosophy of law and moral philosophy, history, mathematics, astronomy and astrology all are part of this all-encompassing science (ars integra) that is build of this set of sciences. The metaphysics of Aristotle is-of course-not included.