Author Archives: Charles E Steinman

What are “artificial waters” anyways?

I am reconstructing a recipe from the Traicté des eaues artificielles [Treatise of Artificial Waters] a 15th-century Middle-French treatise on medicinal waters and the virtues of different herbs (and a few other substances).  This is a challenging text, because it is for the most part just a list of the medicinal benefits of different combinations of herbs; instructions, even unclear ones, are exceptional.  When they do turn up, it’s because the recipe requires something beyond the unspoken base technique of the treatise.  For example, the recipe for “gold water” requires that you take melted gold and douse it in water forty times.  The recipe for “rosemary water” gives instructions for how long you’re supposed to let the mixture ferment.  You can also find instructions for some of the recipes at the end of the treatise, which seem to be supplementary and of different authorship—this includes another version of the recipe for “rosemary water.”  The entire printed treatise, according to a modern critical edition by Denise Hillard, seems to be a compilation of a couple of older manuscript works, so authorship/coherence is tough question.

Initially, I just wanted to reconstruct the recipe for rosemary water, but found out both that I would have to let it ferment for over a month, and that I required an ambiguous tool.  This brought me to the question of the alembic.  So, my line of inquiry begins with two woodcuts, each portraying a man (probably the author) instructing a woman (probably his patron, the ambiguous “countess of Bouloingne”) with a large, conical alembic.  I can only find one mention of an alembic in the text, in the recipe for the water of “mélisse” [lemon balm], which my Denise Hillard argues is part of one of the supplementary treatises.  In at least one edition, the woodcut appears next to the mention of the alembic.  But, this singular mention does not seem to be enough to warrant the inclusion of an entire woodcut, especially because most of the woodcuts are much more universal to the treatse—collecting herbs and an image of the author.

Woodcut from the 1483 Lyon edition. From Denise Hillard, Traité des Eaux Artificielles (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2012)

A similar woodcut from the 1484 Vienna edition. From BM Troyes Inc. 544b.

I think that this woodcut is either meant to convey that the practitioner is supposed to use the alembic as the primary tool for distillation, or that it conveys the assumed knowledge that you’re supposed to use an alembic for this sort of thing.  Regardless, I think that unspoken norm of this treatise is that the practitioner is supposed to use an alembic to create the “eaues artificielles” from the base herbs.

Depiction of the author, one of the other woodcuts from the 1484 Vienna edition. BM Troyes Inc. 544b.

Collecting herbs in the Vienna 1484 edition. From BM Troyes Inc. 544b.

Collecting herbs in the Vienna 1484 edition. From BM Troyes Inc. 544b.

So, I went to Yiyi and asked her if she could help me make (read: if she could make for me while I watched attentively) an alembic after the design of those in the woodcuts.  Both Yiyi’s partner and Tillman Taape at the Making and Knowing Lab helped Yiyi and I figure out what was going on inside of the alembic.  In short, it is a somewhat conical glass shape that has a lip on the inside to catch condensation that drips down the sides, and a little spout out of which this trapped liquid flows out, ready to be used.  The base material sits in a little cylindrical base, which sits on top of some kind of furnace.  So, earlier today we went into the study and I watched Yiyi and Becca make the top piece of the alembic.  From here, we’ll (they’ll) make the cylindrical base, and I’ll figure out how I’m going to heat up the alembic without exploding it.  I have to decide if I want to use a Bunsen burner (likely from my roomate’s lab, as he’s a physical chemist), or if I want to pursue some sort of a clay furnace heated by charcoal, which would be more historically faithful.

Yiyi’s partner’s sketches.

Tillmann’s sketch

Yiyi’s plan on the floor of the hotshop.

Being in the hot shop today was a really enlightening and stimulating experience.  It made me think a lot more about the process of obtaining tools in the late medieval/early modern workshop.  Would people have known how to make their own in certain environments? Or would there have been dedicated alembic specialists who catered to a diverse audience of alchemists, medical practioners, and curious nobles? I also thought a lot about the process of communication and trial and error, and how loud a late medieval/early modern workshop must have been with people yelling out instructions and expletives.  As an observer, I thought about if there would’ve been someone in my place.  A patron? A humanist? Someone looking to buy an alembic? It made me think a lot more about the social and commercial networks that the workshop environment necessitated.  I came in with my book, which got a little dirty.  How would the literatus observer/practitioner have kept their books in the workshop?

Yiyi and Becca making some glassware

Yiyi with a cool glass form.

Becca holding the finished top.

This is, in essence, a really roundabout way for me to say that I haven’t figured out exactly which artificial water I’m going to distill.  I definitely want to create one of the waters that doesn’t provide any accompanying instructions, because I want to see if I was correct about the alembic being the unspoken core of this treatise.  Fennell seems promising, as does sage.  But there is also a part of me that wants to try to make the gold water as well, if I’m successful with one of the simpler recipes.  I’ll figure this part out as I go along, but it’s ultimately become my secondary question.


People and Products are Point Art

At the nature lab, I found myself most interested in putting under the microscope items characterized by human involvement, be they synthetics, treated natural products, or the human body itself.  I found it really interesting to, as much as I could, obscure the nature of this human involvement by deconstructing it into its smallest component parts.

I found most fascinating the pieces of tea from a bag of herbal tea I obtained from one of my roommates.  To the naked eye, the individual leaves are so small that they seem insignificant; they are part of the broader whole of the bag, but unimportant on their own.  What else could they be but leaves? Under the microscope, though, I saw what should have been obvious, at least from the smell of sugary-spice that dominates any space the tea enters.  I saw little grains of sugar, cinnamon, and other spices, caught in the most minute crevices in the tea leaves.  I saw the burn marks from the human treatment of the leaves.  What seemed to be to be a very simple, brand-name, store bought commodity, suddenly became a complex amalgamation of products from a myriad of different sources–the process of the tea’s creation was laid bare by the prying eyes of the microscope.  Really, there was an almost insect-like quality to the images of the tea under the microscope–it almost looked like some kind of beehive or nest on a tree in a dark forest.  












Similarly, when I looked at grains of finely-ground barley flour under the microscope, they looked a whole lot like sugar.  My knowledge of chemistry isn’t sophisticated enough to actually back this up, but it seemed like barley’s carbohydrates and sugars, as a grain, really showed through in the photographs.  Without context, I wouldn’t even know it to be a grain.

Inspired by Mays’ photos of her passport, I then decided to see what some of my own forms of modern, synthetic personal ID looked like when broken down under the microscope.  I started with my driver’s license.  I was most interested in the little negative image in the lower right corner of my license, which is some sort of reproduction of the photograph on my license.  As I zoomed further and further in, the photo negative dissolved into a series of individual black, white, and grey dots.  The nature of this printing was made clear, but the portrait nature of the image was completely obscured.  There’s certainly a point to be made here about reproductions of our identities by the state being synthetic, but that might be a bit too poetic for the day after Yom Kippur.  Here, I’ve included a series of images, as I zoom progressively further in.  A face becomes point art becomes points.

Moving onto the idea of geography and space, I then put my SmarTrip Card (from the Washington, DC metro, on which I essentially grew up) under the microscope.  The card is full of little visual identifiers of the DC area–the Capitol, the Washington Monument, a DC metro car,etc.  The Washington Monument became, like my own face, point art; it looked almost like a design on a napkin or something like that.  When I zoomed in on a green area of the card, the result almost looked like grass, like turf, like something natural.  

[WARNING: the last images are a bit more graphic].  For my final, somewhat more graphic experiment, I wanted to see what a scab on my finger looked like under the microscope.  I didn’t end up getting any fantastic photographs–it never escaped it’s fingery-ness.  But, I did find that the scab started to look like the eye of Sauron, which at the very least is kind of cool.  In one image, it started to look more like a knot on a tree as well, but I think still looks pretty clearly like a finger.



A Psalter Printed in Ge’ez (Charlie Steinman)

For this assignment, I’ve chosen to explore the Hay Annmary copy of the first book ever printed in the Ethiopian liturgical language of Ge’ez—containing the Psalms and the Song of Songs.  Ge’ez’s unique script was the fourth alphabet to be adapted to the printing press, only preceded by Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  This particular book was printed in 1513 in Rome, by the German printer Marcellus Silber.  We will explore the history of this particular book below.

In my exploration, I was driven by the verbs “magnify” and “expand.”  I wanted to find a way to lay bare the complex historical context and the more abstract religious and cultural context of this book—to find a way to negotiate the connections between the Ethiopian manuscript tradition, modern Ethiopian Christianity, European traditions of Sub-Saharan Africa, and print culture in a series of images, or a presentation.  I want to deconstruct the linearity of the book’s historical context, making clear its relevance as a liturgical text for a religious tradition that is very much still alive, while simultaneously understanding the historical context that undergirds the book.

The opening pages of the Hay Annmary copy. On the left is an introduction in Latin, which contextualizes the existence of various Christian liturgical languages in terms of the story of Babel. On the right are the first Ge’ez characters ever printed, as well as a woodcut decoration. We’ll return to the woodcuts later on.

A celebration of Tikmat, the Ethiopian Orthodox version of the Epiphany, at the Fasilides Bath in Gondar, Ethiopia.

The past and present of Christianity in Ethiopia, while far from totally obscure, are not particularly well known.   I find this bizarre, having grown up in Washington, DC, a city with one of the largest populations of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia.  Growing up, Ethiopian culture existed in a similar bilingual, syncretic space embodied by the psalter.  In my friend’s neighborhood, there is an Ethiopian Evangelical Church that is in a former synagogue, with Jewish iconography on the outside, and signs in English and Amharic.

The International Ethiopian Evangelical church, on Eastern Avenue NW in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. Notice the menorah-like window decorations at the front of the church. The building was a synagogue until the 1980s; Shepherd Park and the neighboring suburb of Silver Spring (located, quite literally, across the street) still has a large Jewish population. Notice the presence of English and Amharic alongside Jewish architectural traditions.

The psalter sits at an interesting moment of historical contingency, wherein Latin Christians had a uniquely close relationship with the Christians of Ethiopia.  In 1441, a group of Ethiopian monks arrived at the Council of Florence with a Franciscan friar, who accompanied them from the court of Zara Yaqob.  Their mission became a permanent fixture in the Italian peninsula; Pope Sixtus granted them their own church in Rome in 1479—the church of Santo Stefano degli Abbisini.  In the early sixteenth century, Joannes Potken, the provost of the college at Cologne, was invited to Rome to serve at the Papal court, and out of curiosity wandered into the Ethiopian church.  Fascinated, he developed a friendship with the Ethiopian Abbas Thomas Walda Samuel, who eventually taught Potken the Ge’ez language.  Despite his intimate familiarity with Ethiopian Christianity, Potken erroneously calls the language Chaldean, an earlier name for Aramaic.

The church of Santo Stefano degli Abbisini (Saint Stephen of Abyssinia) in Rome. This particular building was built in the 18th century, although the congregation was founded in 1479. Potken entered this building sometime in the early 16th century, becoming fascinated with Ethiopian Christianity, and friendly with its Roman mission.

Beyond this particular historical moment, the book as an object sits at the intersection of various manuscript traditions, both from and about Ethiopia.  Æthiopia was a fairly generic toponym that referred to any and all of Sub-Saharan Africa (and occasionally India), derived from the Greek word for “Land of People with Burnt Skin.”  Ethiopians (read: people with black skin, usually understood to be from Sub-Saharan Africa) turned up periodically in European manuscript art throughout the later Middle Ages.  These traditions varied greatly, as we can see from two fifteenth century manuscripts, both from Germany.  On the left, Ethiopians are depicted as being part of the Antichrist’s army.  On the right, there is a depiction of the Ethiopian Eunuch from the Book of Acts, who converts to Christianity upon meeting Philip the Evangelist.

A mid-15th-century depiction of the coming of the Anti-Christ. Above, a group of blemmyai (one of Pliny’s “monstrous races,” men without necks who are often placed in Ethiopia) and Ethiopians congregate to find the Anti-Christ. Below, an Ethiopian (left), a Jew (center, identified by his pointy hat), and a Saracen(?) (left, a word for Muslims) worship the Anti-Christ.

A 15th-century Dutch manuscript depicting the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch from the biblical Book of Acts.

Through the 15th and 16th centuries, Ethiopia was explicitly associated with an idealized form of Christianity through the mythical figure of Prester John.  Prester John was said to be a Christian king, descended from one of the Magi, who ruled over a utopian and pious kingdom somewhere in the East.  He was initially placed in Central Asia (numerous Latin missions to the Mongols hoped to find Prester John), but was eventually associated with Ethiopia, especially once the Portuguese started to explore the southern and eastern African coast.  Below, you can see Prester John depicted in East Africa on a 16th-century Spanish portolan chart, as well as an Ortelius Atlas calling East Africa, loosely, “the land of Prester John.”

A 16th-century Spanish portolan chart, depicting Prester John in East Africa.

A map of Africa in the landmark Ortelius series of Atlases, explicitly naming East Africa “The Nation of Emperor Prester John of the Abyssinians.” 

This brings us back to our Psalter, and in particular its woodcut illustrations.   The opening woodcut is a depiction of King David, author of the Psalms, which to me seems to recall the figure of Prester John as well.  I find this particularly likely given the exotic flora that surrounds King David, exoticizing him in a way that is atypical for European portraits of the Psalmist.   

Potken, taking advantage of the exponential growth of print at the turn of the 16th century, decided to share Ethiopian Christianity with the Latin world by printing the Psalms and Song of Songs in Ge’ez.  He commissioned the type to be made by a German printer living in Rome by the name of Marcellus Silber.  The two worked extensively with Ethiopian manuscripts, one of which survives today in the Vatican library.  Below, I’ve included a sampling of Ethiopian manuscripts from the Middle Ages.  I’d like to draw your attention to the interlaced border decoration, which are ubiquitous in Ethiopian (and also Celtic, but that’s a story for another day) manuscript art from the period.  The third of the set is one of the manuscripts that Potken and Silber used to create their work.

A leaf from the Gunda Gunde Gospels, early 16th century.

An image of Christ before Pilate, from a late-15th-century manuscript.

The Vatican manuscript from Ethiopia used by Silber and Potken.

Now, let’s return to the opening Ge’ez page of the psalter, paying particular attention to the woodcut at the header.  It’s interweaving designs, in particular the points and foliate designs on either end, and the circles sprinkled throughout, are very similar to the manuscript designs above.  The work that went into creating the Ge’ez type itself is clear.  But what I find fascinating is that, apparently, Potken and Silber directly engaged with the Ethiopian tradition of manuscript art in creating this particular woodcut.  There has been a lot of scholarship arguing for continuities between European manuscript traditions and early print, particularly in border art.  Here, we see that these continuities were extended to the Ethiopian manuscript tradition as well; as Ge’ez entered the world of print, so did the designs that accompanied it in manuscript.

If I pursue this project further, I think I’d have to do more research on the Ethiopian mission in Rome, and the physical production of the Ge’ez typeface.  I’m very curious about the process of trial and error in creating a psalter like this, and would have to think differently about the material nature of the psalter in order to really shed light on this.  I’m also very curious about how exactly these books were used.  This particular copy has lots of marginal notes that indicate frequent use (even including notes about how loud to sing certain lines!), but I can’t find much about who the annotator is.  Was this purely intellectual? Was it a proselytizing tool? A language learning exercise? These are questions that may be unanswerable, but that I would very much like to pursue.

A handwritten marginal note indicating that a particular Ge’ez word is to be “forte legem” (read strongly/loudly).

The end of the Ge’ez syllabary, which is heavily annotated, as well as printed in a different Latin type than the rest of the book.