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.







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