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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.


Pearls: Shiny, white, and lusterious (not a typo, new word by Nasser meaning lustrous and mysterious)

I have been looking at a recipe found in the Stockholm Papyrus describing the “Manufacture of a Pearl”. I was initially drawn to this recipe because a few years ago, upon returning home to Bahrain for a visit, I noticed a board at the airport customs illustrating prohibited items. One of these items was the cultured pearl. Bahrain has a long history of pearl diving and trade, dating back to the 3rd century BC. In 1877, a third of Bahrain’s exports were pearls. With cultured pearls now widely available and relatively cheap, it is no surprise that they have become a protected commodity.

What I found most interesting in this recipe was the selection of ingredients which most resemble characteristics of natural pearls, specifically their color (cow’s milk), sheen (mercury, mica), and luster (egg whites, Tyrian wax). Natural pearls are made almost entirely of calcium carbonate, that is released by a mollusk in concentric layers when a parasite or foreign particle enters within its shell. This defense mechanism, repeated many times, creates the spherical form of the pearl. There is a common belief that a single grain of sand can stimulate the creation of a pearl. Google tells me that this is rarely, but who trusts them anyway. Let us consider sand as the base material for making pearls and modify the Stockholm Papyrus recipe based on materials I have been using in my studio. There is no shortage of sand in my studio, if a single grain of sand could make a pearl then I could fill rooms with pearls. In the sand pieces I am creating, I first mix the sand with sodium silicate, a glassy, liquid substance also known as “water glass”. The sodium silicate acts as a binder for the sand, allowing it to set and be cast into rigid forms meant for making hot glass molds. Similarly, in the cold shop we use mirrorizing solution, made of silver, to make mirrors on pieces of glass. This process can be done on a variety of surfaces and has the potential to replace the only problematic ingredient: mercury. I am not sure what Tyrian wax looks like, but if it is meant to act as both a binder and a material with some luster, then beeswax seems to me an obvious replacement.

As I mentioned earlier, the three characteristics that form this recipe are the color (white), sheen, and luster of the pearls. Here is a breakdown of those parts using both the original recipe as well as my own additions (in parentheses):

Color: Cow’s milk
Sheen: Mercury, Mica (Mirrorizing solution, sand)
Luster: Egg whites, Tyrian wax (beeswax, sodium silicate)

As described in an experiment conducted by Nassau and Hanson in The Pearl in the Chicken: Pearl Recipes in Papyrus Holmiensis (1985):

According to this habit of thought) like affects like: If you wish something to be white! then place it in contact with a white substance and it will acquire the quality of whiteness. This might explain the use of milk in five of these recipes! particularly milk from a white dog… Again, mercury, with its metallic sheen, might have been expected to intensify a pearl’s orient by similarity and analogy.”

While their experiments in cleaning pearls in a chicken’s stomach did actually produce successful results (I think), they never got around to doing this recipe and make a rather unoptimistic statement:

“One suspects that the product would not have been a very convincing pearl imitation except to the quite inexperienced.”

I say: bring it on.



How to make a good and wholesome beer…

The recipe I have chosen is “how to brew good and wholesome beer without any hops at all” from Hugh Plat’s 1653 text, The Jewel House of Art and Nature. My interest in the recipe stems from an interest in how the craft of brewing in early modern europe relates to the proliferation of craft brewing today. Specifically, I am interested in how increasing centralization of power, industrialization, increasingly global trade networks, and the philosophical turn toward the rational and measurable affected brewing as an artisanal practice and larger industry. Through an excavation of this recipe as a text with a particular social historical context, I am also hoping to reveal commentary on the classed and gendered labor of brewing.

The Jewel House of Art and Nature drew my interest in the introduction’s juxtaposition of art and nature, “although Nature appears a most fair and fruitful body…yet the Art, here mentioned, is as a Soul to inform that Body to examine and to refine her actions.” This framing of art and nature as a soul and body is particularly interesting when applied to the huge diversity of recipes found in the text, from speaking in sign language to clarifying honey. I noted that unlike some of the other recipe collections, such as The Queen’s Closet Opened, there was not a clear organizational system to this text and very few repetitions or variations for a single recipe. This suggested to me the authors confidence in the quality of each recipe. The one I have chosen for a “good and wholesome beer” is the ninth recipe in the collection, while other sections of the book discuss aspects of beer like preservation, this is the singular instruction for brewing.  The recipe initially captured my attention because of its length, in total spanning four and a half pages, wherein the author carefully details and defends his thought process. It is also of particular interest because it addressed a specific ingredient of brewing. I asked myself, why would 17th century brewers want to make a beer without hops?

I will reconstruct this recipe by critically analyzing the text and following its instructions, and then rethink the recipe by placing it in the context of current craft beer culture. Many questions guide my exploration. How similar/different are early modern beers to contemporary beers? What can the early modern shift from regional artisanal practice to regulated industry tell us about the current beer industry? Does the current wave of micro-brewing reproduce any aspects of artisanal brewing practices of the past? How does transmission of knowledge affect practice? Why is current beer culture so attached to its four cardinal ingredients (water, malt, yeast, hops)? Do beers without hops have a place in current tastes? What qualifies as good and wholesome? I expect through reconstructing the logic of the author on excluding hops from beer I will be able to learn about the availability of ingredients, friction between traditional and innovative practices, and perhaps economic regulations. Through the brewing itself I will experience what assumptions the author makes of the reader and whether his assertions in the text ring true in practice. By rethinking how this beer was produced and consumed, I can place it in a longer tradition of English brewing and project its place in contemporary trends.

The first step in the process was transcribing the recipe in order to make contextual analysis more manageable (the whole thing is two full single spaced pages). The author begins with a curious assertion about his motivations. “Since my profession in this book is in some sort to anatomize both Art and Nature, without any regard of private mens profits, whom it may either escentially or accidentally touch; I am bold therefore without craving any leave to do good, to renue or rathere to confirm & ratifie an ancient opinion & practise, which long since in the great dearth and scarcity of hops many Brewers of this land have been forced to put in use for the better supportation of their weak & declining declining [word is repeated here] estates.” This first sentence interestingly separates the author from overtly involving himself in “private mens profits.” The purpose of the recipe is to describe and promote the validity of a brewing practice for the greater good to compensate for the scarcity of hops in 17th century England. It is interesting that the author seems to identify beer here as both a commercial good and an artisanal product related to art and nature. However, despite the protests that the text is not meant for manufacturing/industrial purposes, he does speak about costs, scarcity, and economic organization in this recipe.

The issue of material scarcity piqued my interest. Why didn’t brewers in the 17th century have ample access to hops? In modern brewing, beer is comprised of water, malt, yeast, and hops. I took these four ingredients to be essentially immutable. However, in researching I discovered that the use of hops in brewing was not popularized in England until the 16th century (Cornell). Hops and hopped beer were at first imported from Holland, and England did not start growing domestic hops on a large scale until the mid 16th century. It was also during the 16th century that major laws regulating beer production were passed in Europe. The Reinheitsgebot in 1516 limited the acceptable ingredients to water, barley, and hops. This would have created more demand for hops in Europe. In 1603, a law was passed outlawing the import of hops due to concerns about their poor quality (Anderson). All these factors, excluding any environmental blights specific to the author’s time, could have contributed to the “beer without hops” recipe included in The Jewel House. But if brewers weren’t using hops, how were they making beer? The use of gruit or herb mixtures was common before the popularization of hops (Hornsey) and it seems the author is reaching into this tradition is his recipe.  

At this point, I became skeptical, for it seems the author is trying altogether too hard to convince the reader of the recipe’s value and perfection. Why include this recipe for beer if it was expected to be controversial? This leads me to believe that the recipe goes against what mainstream brewing was practicing at the time, and perhaps relates to older traditional methods. It also suggests the authors dedication to the method as valuable, superior, or somehow “lost” to current practice. The author asserts his own role as an expert and also assures the “experience of one of the best experienced Brewers of London.” He is very confident not only in the quality but also the ease of this recipe, stating that an interested practitioner “may easily even in one days practice attain to the full perfection thereof.” I plan to put this assertion to the test, will I be a master of this technique in one day?

My first concern was acquiring the materials. The recipe for beer without hops hinges on the use of wormwood as a type of gruit. The author describes which parts of the plant are ideal for use, but in measurement only advises a “small proportion.” A cursory internet search revealed that I would be hard pressed to find wormwood growing in Rhode Island. While Artemisia carruthii is found in some parts of the state, this is not the Artemisia absinthium the author would be familiar with in Europe. For sourcing I turned instead to amazon, and found they sell wormwood specifically for brewing.

The ingredient of water I sourced from gallon jugs purchased at the grocery store, since there was not a special designation to the source or character of the water required. Counterintuitively, the recipe for “beer without hops” calls for hops, and the recipe itself is a type of experiment pitting hops against wormwood for taste. I was unsure what variety of hops I should use for this recipe, since there are many strains, but tried to choose a native strain to England. I choose the Golding hop, which was first recorded in the 18th century and described by wikipedia as the “quintessentially English hop.”

Once I determined the appropriate ingredients, it became a matter of discerning the process. I do not have any experience in brewing beer, and I wondered what kind of experience the readers of this book would have. I was hopeful that the recipe would provide a complete understanding of the early modern process, so that I would not have to lean on current information about brewing. However, I found the instructions on the actual process to be extremely vague. The quantity of the wormwood is “some small proportion” which I attempted to discern matching the quantity to the four ounces of hops required and then adjusting based on recommendations from current home brewers using wormwood (Quaite) that caution using a smaller amount. The recipe is a scalable affair, starting with nine gallons of water, which I cut in half for the sake of manageability in my own kitchen. The directions to boil the hop/water and wormwood/water until the point “when you have gotten out by ebulition the full strength and vertue of them” is pretty much the only brewing direction. From this I gathered the author expected some previous knowledge of brewing from his audience. It is very difficult to determine what is meant by strength and virtue or determine the appropriate amount of time, or how malt figures into the equation. For these I had to turn to contemporary sources for guidance.

Now that I have familiarized myself with the brewing process and the ingredients I look forward to brewing “a good and wholesome beer” this week for the class. It has surely taken me more than a day to perfect.



Anderson, Adam, John Adams, and Boston Public Library John Adams Library BRL. 1764. An Historical and Chronological Deduction of the Origin of Commerce : From the Earliest Accounts to the Present Time. Containing, an History of the Great Commercial Interests of the British Empire. To Which Is Prefixed, an Introduction, Exhibiting a View of the Ancient and Modern State of Europe; of the Importance of Our Colonies, and of the Commerce, Shipping, Manufactures, Fisheries, Etc. of Great Britain and Ireland; and Their Influence on the Landed Interest. With an Appendix, Containing the Modern Politico-Commercial Geography of the Several Countries of Europe. London : Printed for A. Millar, J. and R. Tonson …

Cornell, Martyn. 2004. Beer: The Story of the Pint : The History Of Britain’s Most Popular Drink. London: Headline Book Pub Ltd.

Hornsey, I. S. (2003). A history of beer and brewing. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Quaite, Calvin. 2014. “Brewing with Wormwood.” Calvin and Hops (blog). January 15, 2014.

Slow-cooker human recipe


For the recipe project, I will attempt a partial reconstruction of the recipe for making humans by Jabir Ibn Hayyan, reportedly written in his Book of Assembly. My inital reconstruction is based on my quick translation, sometimes aided by Ali Mohammad Isbar’s analysis of Jabir Ibn Hayyan’s Book of Assembly. The reconstruction will accompany an annotated version of the recipe that I will draft from my translations of Jabir’s original text, sourced from Adonis’s publication of the recipe in AlHayat Newspaper in 2003 (link & link).

Driving my curiosity in this recipe is a line of inquiry that weaves through my studio practice. I am interested in what we use as qualifiers to validate the personhood of an entity.

What I hope to do is to go over my translation and interpretation of the recipe, and annotate it with my questions, decisions, and discoveries, as I go through the attempt to reconstruct part of the recipe. I want to make clear where my own interpretation of a word comes in, and where directions weren’t clear and so I had to approximate meaning/instruction.

Figure 1: Jābir, ibn Hayyan, and ʻAlī M. Isbir. Kitāb Al-Tajmīʻ: Takwīn Insān Bi-Ṣināʻat Al-Kīmiyāʼ. Jablah, Sūriyā: Bidāyāt lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2007. Print.

My current reconstructed translation of the written recipe:

To prepare the simulacrum, you need: 

  • 1 finger-thick vessel glass(preferred)/crystal/stone/a color, length to taste. 
  • Sperm from a man with attributes you want to imbue the product with. 
  • (sperm substitutes: soil from a specific mountain, or a piece of flesh from an animal with attributes you want to imbue the product with.) 
  • Medicines and drugs, to taste.

To prepare the womb, you need: 

  • Glass 
  • Wisdom Clay 

OR (if one believed that creation only occurs with growth of mold)

  • Hollow Copper Sphere 
  • Water 
  • Wisdom Clay

OR (iIf one believed that creation of the soul requires air)

  • Hollow, Semi-perforated Glass Sphere 
  • Hollow Copper Sphere 
  • Water 
  • Wisdom Clay 

To prepare the axis, you need: 

  • an iron column
  • a polished, concave mirror
  • a fire of a single fuel


  1. Work the finger-thick vessel into the form you desire the product to be. 
  2. Place the vessel inside the first level sphere. 
  3. Place the first level sphere into higher level spheres, until you arrive at the Clay sphere. 
  4. Leave it to dry and harden. 
  5. Polish its exterior until it is like the surface of a mirror. 
  6. Cut the final sphere in half, using a non-serrated knife. 
  7. Polish the inside, until the substances are as though they were one substance. 
  8. Using the components desired for the simulacrum, place everything in its appropriate location. note: make sure each limb/component is independent and can be attached and detached separately. 
  9. Mount one hemisphere on the metal column, then the other hemisphere, so that they are fixed and unmoving.
  10. Attach the column to the concave mirror so that it can move freely and infinitely.
  11. Caliberate the rotation exactly to that of the earth’s (any mistakes in this step will cause the creation to fail.)
  12. Use a fire from a single fuel.

Figure 2: a page from Kitāb al-Burhān fī asrār ‘ilm al-mīzān (The Book of the Proof Regarding the Secrets of the Science of the Balance) كتاب البرهان فى اسرار علم الميزان by ‘Izz al-Dīn Aydamir ibn ‘Abd Allāh al-Jaldakī عز الدين ايدمر ابن عبد الله الجلدكى. The text refers to the illustrated vessels as “machines” (a word Geber uses that I was uncertain about its meaning until I found this.)

Recipe from Tian Gong Kai Wu, or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature


This recipe is from a book called Tian Gong Kai Wu, or The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, written by Song Yingxing. This book, made with wood block print, written in 1637 during Ming dynasty, is an encyclopedia of recipes on agriculture and handicraft. It is also “one of the most important works on science and technology in the history of China.” The book “divided into three parts and including 121 illustrations, [it] describes the terms, configurations, and production stages for over 130 types of productive technology and tools.”

This specific recipe from The Exploitation of the Works of Nature is a recipe on how to purify sugar—changing sugar from brown to pure white. This process, although not really acknowledged by many western scholars, was invented in ancient China and passed on to India and then to western world. I did a very brief translation of the writing.

Let sugar cane from the south sit pass winter. Use the method shown in the drawing (the text in Chinese didn’t say shown in the drawing but I think the illustration demonstrate better then my translation)

to juice sugar cane into a vat. When heating the juice, you need to observe the way liquid splashes when boiling. When the splash presents as small or thin spheres, just like boiled porridge or thick soup, pick it with your hand. If it sticks on your hand, it is ready. Now it is still yellow to black. Store in a bucket and solidify to black sand. Then put in the funnel (see drawing) on top of another vat.

Stuff the hole at the bottom of the funnel with grass and put black sand into it. As black sand completely solidify, remove the grass from the hole and pour mud water (yellow mud water). Black residue flow into the vat underneath while inside the funnel will crystalize into frost. Top layer about 5 Tsun (Chinese inch) thick, extraordinarily white, called ‘pacific sugar’ (many believe that is referring to nowadays south pacific.) Underneath layer has light yellow-brown.


There are many discussions around this method of purifying sugar. Many scholars believe that China was one of the oldest countries to invent and perfect the technology of sugar purification, then passed into India, which explains why the name of white sugar in Hindi is the same word as China. The method then passed on to Europe through silk-road. It is vey interesting to think about the origin of the invention of this process, how the reading of this process transformed through time as it traveled in different cultures, when met with different needs, especially comparing to the politics around sugar in European and American society.

In terms of the process of trying out the recipe, there are several of barriers. First of all, the source of the sugar cane. It is very hard to find sugar cane that has not been preserved for a while in Providence, not to mention in the recipe it needs to be grown from the south and sit through one winter. Brown sugar or granular cane sugar that I can find in market is maybe as close as I can get to what the recipe was referring to as the ‘black sand.’ The reference to yellow muddy water is also really vague. It made me wonder what are the components in the ‘yellow muddy water’ make the process of purification work? What kind of mud was the author referring to in order to make the yellow muddy water? Does the mud from different region affect the result? What do the compromises mean and how do they alter the original concept as I made these compromises?




Digital Recipe

My research question for this course is the following:

How can I culture human embryonic stem cells and grow my own skin outside of my body?

The strict regulations around human tissue engineering leads me to thinking about the Visible vs. the Invisible skin.

I looked again at the recipes to see if i can find anything related to being invisible or not seen and i found this rather funny recipe for invisibility in Ashmole 1435-

Si vis esse inuisibile: accipe vnum canem mortuum et sepilles eum et plantes super eum fabus et vnam in ore tuo et sine dubio eris inuisibile

which translates to:

If you wish to be invisible: take a dead dog and bury it and plant a bean plant over it and place one in your mouth and without a doubt you will be invisible.

This made me question, How can i re-translate this ridiculous recipes?

My long term goal is to work at Brown’s Bio Lab and see how feasible it is to culture my own skin and how far can i take this. Due to the limited time frame, this project may take longer than the duration of this course but it is something i still want to pursue for my own studio practice.

My short term goal is to use the impossibility of this recipe as a strong point and use it to re-enact the invisibility as a performance. Looking at the role of the digital body in my own work, this makes me think of a digital book reenactment – Rewriting language, duration, imagery and iconography.

Currently i am in the middle of story boarding this short story and looking at different contemporary characters that could be cast as the main leads..

More soon..

Please follow my collaborative thesis account @risdglassfml as the work will be within the same spirit..

Xabón almizcado

I decided to take the recipe assignment as an opportunity to explore how early modern women engaged with materials around them, and the ways in which they transmitted and preserved the knowledge acquired in their domestic labor. I started by looking for Spanish domestic recipe books of the period, and what I first found were manuscripts authored by men addressing a female public, like the Flor del Tesoro de la Belleza. Tratado de muchas medicinas o curiosidades de las mujeres by the veterinarian (!) Manuel Díaz de Calatayud, where the transcription of health and beauty recipes is often interrupted by moralizing sections. In fact, there is a sense that the recipes are just an excuse for the moralizing, because the author himself admits in his dedication that “vosotras sabéis ya la manera de hacer estas cosas” (“you already know how to do these things”). Calatayud is perfectly aware that he is only putting in writing the knowledge that they already have.

I was still curious to find written traces of these recipes learnt and practiced by women, and I found that four manuscripts of this kind are preserved from the early modern period in Spain, all of them belonging to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: Livro de receptas de pivetes, pastilhas e uvas perfumadas y conserbas (manuscript 1462 in the Spanish National Library), Recetas y memorias para guisados, confituras, olores, aguas, afeites, adobos de guantes, ungüentos y medicinas para muchas enfermedades (manuscript 6058 in the SNL), Receptas experimentadas para diversas cosas (manuscript 2019 in the SNL), and Manual de mugeres en el qual se contienen muchas y diversas reçetas muy buenas (this is the only manuscript that has been published) [Edited by Alicia Martínez Crespo. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1995].

All these books included a mixture of cooking, medicinal, hygienic and cosmetic recipes without any separation, both in terms of their display on the page and in terms of the ingredients used for all these different areas, which often coincided. My impression is that, although at first sight they seem to be written without any clear order in mind, if there is a criteria to be found behind this order it seems to have more to do with groups of materials than with the uses and applications of the final products.

The authorship of all these manuscripts is unknown, but there are at least three different handwritings in each of them (in manuscript 1462 there are even two languages, Portuguese and Spanish), as if they were passed on from generation to generation. Some pages are left blank in between recipes, as if to encourage further annotations prompted by the experience of each new practitioner. While most recipes involve the manipulation of a list of ingredients, there are also some “oration recipes”, like this “Prayer to St. Anthony of Padua against worms”:

I also found some small pieces written in between recipes referring to domestic events, like this note detailing the date and cause of death of a female family member or friend. For these women, sharing these recipes in written form seems inseparable from memory and affect.  

The recipe

My first intention was to reconstruct the recipe for a xabón almizcado, which I believe could be translated as “musk soap”. I chose this recipe because it includes a set of materials that are very often used in many of these recipes, but also because the same recipe can be found in two of these books (manuscript 2019 and Manual de mugeres), which makes me think that it was widely known. The recipe reads:

Tomá media onça d’estoraque calamita, y una onça de menjuí, y un quarto de onça d’estoraque líquido e un quarto de onça de sándalos cetrinos. Todo esto polvorizado y muy remojado en agua almizcada, juntadlo con media libra de xabón blanco y con una onça de tuétanos de ciervo. E picadlo todo muy bien roçiándolo con agua almizcada, e picarlo heis hasta que aya bebido una onça de agua almizcada. Y luego juntaréis con esto peso de un dinero de ámbar, y un grano de almizque destemplado con un poco de la dicha agua. Y mezclarlo heis todo muy bien en un mortero de piedra con la mano de fusta.

The first challenge was to find out the names by which all these materials are actually known today. I then had to translate the ingredients I thought the recipe was referring to into English, so that I could actually find them here in Providence. Although I cannot avoid the compromises of these three-stage process, I feel that probably too many things are lost, or at least changed, in translation. My English translation of the recipe is:

Take half an ounze of storax, and an ounze of liquid benzoin and one quarter of an ounze of green sandalwood. All of this pulverized and very wet with deer-musk water; put it together with half a pound of white soap and with one ounze of deer marrow. Chop it very well while spraying it with deer-musk water, and you will chop it until it has absorbed an ounze of deer-musk water. And then you will put this together with twelve grams of amber, and a grain of deer-musk water. And you should mix this very well in a stone mortar with a wooden pestle.

As careful as I have tried to be with my translation, I feel that, even if linguistically this is the most approximate version, the triple textual translation has probably entailed a material distortion. Are the “sándalos cetrinos” accessed by these women the same as the green sandalwood I have been able to find here? It probably is something quite different. Also, the recipe does not specify the state in which some of these products should be used. Should they be liquid, solid, powder? Will these materials behave in different ways when they are in different states?

The ingredients

I was able to get most of these ingredients thanks to Amazon, and I am planning to get what I still need this weekend in New York (even the deer marrow). However, I realize that what I am going to do is probably not a reconstruction but an interpretation. These ingredients seem to be materials that these women used precisely because they were readily available: they explored their environment and learnt to use the properties and behaviour of quotidian materials. Making this recipe from Providence with materials brought from California by Amazon or acquired in New York obviously involves an approach completely distant from both the proximity to materials and the affective process involved in these recipes.

White soap and my grandmother

One of the ingredients listed in this recipe is white soap. I feel that just buying the soap would be a further betrayal, so I have decided to fabricate my own. Also, in an attempt to bring this reconstruction / reinterpretation closer to the initial spirit of these recipe books, I decided to ask my own grandmother to give me her recipe for white soap. I have grown up seeing her fabricate her own white soap, which she learnt from her mother, and her mother form hers. She does not keep a written recipe, however. Also, she has memory issues and she does not remember all the steps. However, when I was trying to make her remember, she said that the only way for her to remember it is to actually do it. She is going to make it again today, and my hope is that her embodied knowledge will be stronger than her memory.






A Total Failure

After a couple of days following the traces of potable gold in early modern books and testimonies, I came to realize how difficult it was to find an actual, decipherable recipe of the magic medicine that seemed to have obsessed European men and women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Actually, even though I came across countless mentions of potable gold in Spanish texts from the period, the only two recipes I could find were the one included in Lope de Vega’s La Dorotea (a work of fiction after all), and another one in the Spanish translation of Alessio Piamontesse’s popular book of secrets (1563), that was totally impractical to me. But what I did find out is that gold is still used in modern medicine for treating illnesses like arthritis, and you could even buy “Paracelsus recipe” online for 62 euros!

Since potable gold was not feasible in my small, very rudimentary kitchen, I decided to start looking for recipes for making gold ink or dye without gold. The insistence early modern practitioners put on finding ways to create fake, cheaper gold interests me because it seems to be the result of the same anxiety around value that surrounded both the emergence of a new credit economy – money lost its nominal value and started to acquire a symbolic value– and the alchemical obsession with obtaining gold by sublimating metals that so much attracted the king Philip II (who persistently tried to improve both the Spanish economy and his own health recurring to alchemical gold).


Mss/9226: Papeles varios escritos y recopilados por Juan Vásquez del Mármol – [Miscellanous papers written and collected by Juan Vázquez del Mármol], S.XVI-XVII. Biblioteca Nacional de España

Among the pages of this miscellaneous manuscript (that includes inquisitorial news and a vocabulary Flemish-Spanish), the Spanish theologian Vázquez de Mármol included a fascinating recetario. The collection of recipes is as miscellaneous as the manuscript itself: ranging from recipes like “how to cure hemorrhoids”, “how to get whiter teeth” or “how to make pickled aubergines” to others like “how to make everyone laugh”, “how to make your bear black”, “how to make a bald man grow his hair”, “how to turn bad wine into good wine” or even “how to make a sun clock”.

Reading through the recipes, I found two that caught my attention: one on how to make gold without gold, the other on how to gild books [cosas de libros]. The first one seemed pretty easy (if you find the ingredients): you just need to mix orpiment and glass powder with egg whites and use it as an ink. But the other one seemed more appealing to me:

Para dorar cosas de libros: Bol arménico cantidad de una nuez (que haya estado dos horas en agua), derramada el agua, muelelo con piedra de pintor, juntándole un avellana de azúcar cande, medio garbanzo de acíbar, una lenteja de alcohol, y muélelo todo junto que quede espeso y échale como una nuez de cola y échalo todo junto en un pucherico de vidrio y ponlo a deshacer al fuego y queda hecho.

To gild books: Armenian bole, the amount of a walnut (that had been two hours in water). Once you spill the water, grind it with a stone, add a hazelnut of nib sugar, half a chickpea of acibar [the inside flesh of the aloe], a lentil of alcohol, and grind everything together until it is thick, and add a walnut of cola [glue] and pour everything together in a pot and let it melt in the fire and it is done.

After reading these two recipes, I decided to go through the digital edition of Ms.640 (BNF) from the Making and Knowing Project and found this other recipe on how to make gold without gold:

First take very yellow orange peel, & clean them well of the white that is inside, & pulverize them very well and in a very clean mortar. And take as much of sulphur, & grind all together, and put everything in a glass vial, & keep them in the cellar or other damp place for the space of eight or ten days. Then when you want to use it, one needs to warm it and use it where you want, & you will see a very beautiful color.

I decided to try out the two of them and compare the results.



  1. A walnut of Armenian bole
  2. A hazelnut of nib sugar
  3. Half a chickpea of acibar (Aloe’s juice)
  4. A lentil of alcohol
  5. A walnut of cola (adhesive glue)

Approximated measures following Vázquez de Mármol’s indications

[Spoiler alert: the result is an absolute failure because the title “Para dorar cosas de libros”  (To gild books) did not mention what I am sure was a very obvious step for early modern practitioners, that is, adding the gold leaves at the end. So what I made was actually a very strong glue that apparently allows you to stick gold leaves enhancing the gold tone without damaging them. But this is something I only discovered in the middle of my recreation]

The first problem that I encountered was finding out what are “Armenian bole” and “nib sugar”.  Armenian bole is “an earth clay, usually red, native to Armenia. It is red due to the presence of iron oxide; the clay also contains hydrous silicates of aluminum and possibly magnesium” [Wikipedia]. Even though you can buy it online, I try to find an alternative at the RISD store so I bought red clay paste and sanguine (because it also has iron oxide). I did not know if the author of the recipe was alluding to Armenian bole as something solid but malleable (like the clay I bought) or as a powder so I decided to try both grating the sanguine with a knife.

After that, I found out that nib sugar is basically coarse white sugar that you could make by mixing normal sugar and water. So that was my first step:

When reading the manuscript, I saw that Vázquez de Mármol also included recipes for making your own glue so I took a look at them to see if I could follow the recipe more strictly by using Vázquez de Mármol’s glue, but it required quicklime so, for my safety, I bought adhesive glue at the RISD store (I know this is a great compromise)

While I was making the recipe (I had to leave the clay and the sanguine in water for two hours), I kept researching about the uses of Armenian bole and I started to realize, sadly, that I was not making a fake gold ink, but instead I was reproducing the very common recipe to create a paste that could be used to stick gold leaves in bookbinding. I decided to keep going even though I knew the results were going to be very disappointing as you can see here:



The main lesson I learned from this first attempt at reproducing a recipe is that I need to assume my lack of early modern common artisan knowledge – anyone who read this recipe four hundred years ago would have known that with these ingredients, the result could not be anything that resembled gold, but just a sticky paste waiting for the gold leaves. You can see the whole process here:

For the next time, I have learned that Armenian bole works as a kind of alert: the privilege ingredient behind gilded books. So for next week, I will go back to Ms. 9226 and, first of all, supply that lack of early modern artisan knowledge with a more in-depth research before attempting to reproduce one of its recipes. And once I get my sulfur I will also try out the actual recipe on how to make gold without gold from Ms. 640!

No Bears: Greek Magical Papyri

I am working with the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of transcribed papyrus fragments found in Egypt that probably date from the late Ptolemaic period to Late Antiquity (100 B.C. – 500 A.D. or thereabouts), but we don’t know much about the circumstances of their original creation or even their semi-modern discovery. In any case, they represent fragments of several corpora of texts written in Greek and Demotic (the language of the Egyptian people as distinct from the Greek ruling class in Alexandria) with magical and/or ritual significance (the line between the two is frequently blurred). They were collected originally by German and Dutch scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Albrecht Dieterich, Richard Wünsch, and Karl Preisendanz), and translated into English by Hans Dieter Betz (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The title page of my copy of the Greek Magical Papyri

Attempts to perform the spells and rituals have not, to my knowledge, been attempted, though I have confidence that drunk Classicists have indeed chanted phrases from the Greek edited edition, though to what degree of success has not been recorded. I was hoping to do as scientific a study of the texts as possible, but this led me to note several problems.

Figure 2: The first spell from the Greek Magical Papyri: a rite to summon a daemon

Looking at the text of the first document provides an illuminating look at why performing the spells have several barriers (Figure 2). Even if you were willing to shave your head and pull two of your fingernails off (ew), the case of the Circaean falcon is more difficult. Circaean refers to Circe, the minor goddess from Homer’s Odyssey, which presents problems of how one would get a falcon from a goddess that at the very least is not friendly to guests. This is probably referring to the place where she is reported to have lived, but that proves difficult as well, and several places in the Mediterranean (Corsica, southern Latium near Rome, etc.) have connections with where the Romans at least though Circe might have lived. Would it have been enough to get a falcon that is migratory to the western Mediterranean? It could also refer to Mt. Circeo in Italy, which might prove to be a more useful harvesting place for falcons if one was so inclined. Someone in Egypt attempting to source a falcon from a particular place in Italy would presumably have difficulty obtaining it, unless there was a market for this particular bird. Perhaps your local magic shop has a stack of Circaean falcons behind their eye of newt and wolf collar-bones (this also raises the possibility of the existence of magic-oriented stores, and begs the question of what happened to them when frequent legislation against magic was implemented: though given the frequency of anti-magic legislation, it seems to have been not very effective).

The next problem comes from the next instruction. If I were to go to Italy and hunt a falcon on Mt. Circeo, for example, how might I go about deifying it? Unfortunately, we do not have much from the ancient world about religious or magical ceremonies, especially for deification. If one does not do this step correctly, will the spell not work properly?

Sourcing milk from a black cow would have been easier in a society with more connection to animals, but possible for a modern individual (though probably would have to source it from an organic cow. Attic honey (Figure 3) is available on Amazon, but this also begs the question of whether the bees in Attica today take nectar from a completely different set of flowering plants than two thousand years ago.

Figure 3: Attiki honey, supposedly sourced from hives in Attica (area around Athens) in modern Greece.  One of many strange searches that has resulted in strange suggestions by Amazon’s search algorithms

Papyrus and frankincense are similarly easily available at our local neighborhood magic store,, but myrrh is a continual problem in many of the spells. It seems that the plant that we consider to be myrrh today is simply a different plant from the Classical definition, and we don’t know what fragrant plan the ancients thought of as myrrh. Basically, this makes any spell with this problem difficult to complete.

This particular spell also has the problem of having many lacunae in the text, mostly because despite being found in the Egyptian desert, the papyri have degraded over time (Figure 4) and have physical holes in the text.  Sometimes the editor makes a guess based on the formulae that exist in the other texts, but other times the lacunae are more problematic (the edge of a page is missing, or the second half of a page is missing).  At this point, does the ritual need to have all of the pieces perfectly together to work?  If so, then many are not reproducible.  If not, what does that mean about the nature of the spells themselves?

Figure 4: Greek text of a magical spell with physical holes in it, creating lacunae in the text (from the British Library)

How to perform the rituals also present difficulties since we do not have records of how magical ceremonies were performed.  The one Classical source I could find on this, Theocritus II, has a description of someone performing a magical spell, but it is meant as a parody, and perhaps has limited utility. Nevertheless, here is the beginning (trans. J. M. Edmonds in the Loeb Classical Texts):

[1] Where are my bay-leaves? Come, Thestylis; where are my love-charms? Come crown me the bowl with the crimson flower o’ wool; I would fain have the fire-spell to my cruel dear that for twelve days hath not so much as come anigh me, the wretch, nor knows not whether I be alive or dead, nay nor even hath knocked upon my door, implacable man. I warrant ye Love and the Lady be gone away with his feat fancy. In the morning I’ll to Timagetus’ school and see him, and ask what he means to use me so; but, for tonight, I’ll put the spell o’ fire upon him.

[10] So shine me fair, sweet Moon; for to thee, still Goddess, is my song, to thee and that Hecat infernal who makes e’en the whelps to shiver on her goings to and fro where these tombs be and the red blood lies. All hail to thee, dread and awful Hecat! I prithee so bear me company that this medicine of my making prove potent as any of Circe’s or Medea’s or Perimed’s of the golden hair.

Wryneck, wryneck, draw him hither.

[18] First barley-meal to the burning. Come, Thestylis; throw it on. Alack, poor fool! whither are thy wits gone wandering? Lord! am I become a thing a filthy drab like thee may crow over? On, on with the meal, and say “These be Delphis’ bones I throw.”

Wryneck, wryneck, draw him hither.

The spell goes on in the same way. Interwoven with prayers and invocations similar to those in the text of the papyri spells, the woman casting a spell here seems to be chanting the words out loud.  It also seems to include gibberish phrases (such as abracadabra) so it does have some relevant connection to the spells preserved in the papyri that we have.  Since we do not know how spells were performed, it’s hard to discern which parts of this are real and which are attempts at satire, but I’ll take the basic elements of chanting that Theocritus presents.  More modern ideas on how to cast spells (Figure 5) probably aren’t as useful as they come from a different tradition, though they were interesting to consider.

Figure 5: the WikiHow page on how to cast a spell comes from a medieval European/psuedo-Druidic tradition of magical performance (as far as I can tell)

A final problem is language and pronunciation.  As far as language goes, the spells were largely written in Greek, but some existed in Demotic (and Coptic), and there are references to spells in Latin as well.  Some of the spells are bi-lingual, meaning that the particular language wasn’t as important as the ritual itself.  This begs the question of whether I should speak/write the spells in Greek as they were written down, or whether the gods speak English now and would prefer that language (I solve this by doing both Greek and English versions: see below).

Pronunciation of the Greek is a much bigger problem.  I know (in a rudimentary manner) the two ways that Greek is pronounced today: Modern Greek, following the conventions of modern speakers of the language, and Erasmean, the way developed by the Dutch humanist who developed the style of pronunciation in an attempt to replicate the metrical and accentual values of the ancient language so that poetry from 400 B.C. sounds metrically okay.  Neither in any way replicate what actual Hellenic Greek sounded like, let alone what was spoken in Ptolemaic or Roman Egypt.  If spells have a “wingardium lev-I-O-sa, not lev-i-o-SA” capacity where pronunciation is important, then I think I’m out of luck.

To attempt to mitigate this, I tried for my first spell, a written one (Figure 6), that seems fairly straightforward.  I enlisted the help of a friend from undergrad (and another friend’s hat; see figure 7) and we attempted some oral spells, but spent the most time working on a “Request for a dream oracle.”

Figure 6: The first spell

Figure 7: My friend, Kassie Maxeiner, and I performing oral spells

The spell calls for writing a formula on papyrus (also bought from Amazon; apparently sourced from real Egyptian papyrus trees) and finishing with writing the name of a 30-lettered god in a pyramidal shape (See figures 8-9).  The spell requires that you tell it what you want to have an oracle about.  Since I have recently decided not to pursue a Ph.D, I’m a little bit lost on the future profession front, so I thought I would ask for what job I should go into (I consulted several Greek-friendly people and we agreed on a translation in ancient Greek).

Figures 8-9: The spell written in English on one side and Greek on the other

The final step was to put the spell under my lamp (Figure 10) and hope to have a dream vision of what job I should go into.

Figure 10: The spell under my lamp

Finally, on to whether it worked or not.  I’m slightly concerned, since the spell tells me to “give answer to no one,” that if I say what that clarity might be, the spell will be rendered moot, so I am going to be unnecessarily obtuse to keep with the spirit of the spell.  On the one hand, I do not recall having any dreams that night, or any of the subsequent nights that I had it under my lamp (I rarely remember dreams, if I have them).  On the other hand, I have since then had more clarity on options and possibilities for the future.

My recipe project is involved with the creation of white phosphorus following Hennig Brands original recipe using urine. Since the yield is so small from the original recipe I have been exploring alternative methods. I have found that by adding charcoal to the process I can reduce the 16-hour boiling time frame from the original, as charcoal binds with the elements that are usually boiled out to isolate the phosphorus, and allows for an easier, quicker removal. Originally I wanted to try and isolate at least a gram of white phosphorus, which would require around 9 Liters of urine, yet upon further research I found that the smell is worse than initially thought, and news articles have come to my attention of neighbors calling the cops on people boiling urine. (Boiling urine can be a process in the production of methamphetamines) So I am going to try the process with far less, probably only around 8 oz. and see if I can obtain a few milligrams.

Currently I am allowing the pee to sit in an open container, a sort of fermentation happens allowing the phosphorus content to grow, as it slowly changes color from a clea-rish yellow to a darker amber . During this time I have discovered through my research how important the element of phosphorus is. It is vital for life in general and is a main component of DNA, blood, and bones. It is also vital for humanities food supply as fertilizers are used as a way to feed crops the phosphorus they need. The world currently gets most of its phosphorus from Morocco, (it’s a huge industry at $76 billion a year) and there may not be enough in future years. This has resulted in many countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark) implementing NoMix toilets that separate waste to be used for fertilizers, and create a more readily available supply of the element, and also reduce water waste.

I see how Hennig Brand thought he found the philosophers stone when discovering phosphorus, it glows in the dark, lights a flame that burned brighter than previously seen at the time, and is a necessary life force for the human body. This bright burning fire had a relationship to enlightenment, as bright cool flames were thought of as and representative of knowledge/faith, and warm fires were representative of destruction, at least symbolically in the history of painting. There’s also the fact that it flows through the Earth, our bodies, and the food we eat that makes it seem like a spirit. It was the first element ever to be discovered, represented as P and number 15 on the periodic table.

Finally here are some examples of contemporary art using urine as a material. Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, and one of Andy Warhol’s (Piss Paintings) from the “Oxidation Series”.