CATELAN, Laurent.

CATELAN, Laurent. Discours et démonstration des ingrédiens de la confection d\\\\\\\'alkermes

Constance [i.e. Konstanz or Coutances], Jean Beraut, 1614


FIRST EDITION. 12mo, pp. 316. Roman letter, some italic. Printer’s device to t-p, woodcut decorated initials. T-p a bit soiled, light marginal waterstains to a few initial ll., wormtrails at gutter of two gatherings and to lower blank margin of three just touching a few words on 5 ll. (not affecting reading), general age yellowing. A good copy in contemporary vellum over boards, repair to fore edge of upper cover. C19/20 bibliographical annotations to front paste-down, c.1800 autograph “michelis” to t-p, bookplate of the French neurologist Dr. Maurice-Villaret (1877-1946) to rear paste-down, c.1900 French lecture ticket loosely inserted.

Exceptionally rare variant of the first edition of this interesting pharmaceutical treatise on the “confectio alchermes”, an ancient medicinal syrup with extraordinary strengthening properties. In the bibliographies, the place of printing has been either interpreted as Coutances (Normandy) or Konstanz (Switzerland). Two other, more common variants of this edition are known: one printed in Lyon by Jacques Mallet (active 1610-1619), and another ostensibly by Jean Beraut but indicating Leyden as the printing place. However, there is no record of a bookseller or printer named Jean Beraut active in Konstanz, Coutances, Leiden or Lyon at the beginning of the 17th century. This curious variant is identical to Mallet’s edition, except for the imprint; the printer’s device here was used by Lyonnese printers at the time. The reason for producing a surreptitious edition under a fake imprint is unknown.

Invented in the 8th century by the Arab physician Yu ̄hanna ̄ Ibn Ma ̄sawaih, the recipe for the ‘confectio’ reached France about the 13th century. This remedy was particularly favoured at Montpellier – one of the best schools of medicine in Europe – and it was prescribed by Renaissance doctors to strengthen hearth and stomach, cure palpitations, syncope, melancholy, and help women carry their pregnancy to term.

Laurent Catelan (c. 1567-1642) was an apothecary and lecturer at the University of Montpellier, and a close friend of the famous anatomist Rondelet. Catelan wrote numerous treatises on pharmacology, for example on the composition of theriac, on the bezoar, on the mandrake and on the properties of unicorn horn. In his ‘Discours’ (here), Catelan describes the ingredients and explains how to prepare the ‘confectio’ according to the ‘reformed’ and improved recipe employed by the physicians of Montpellier. Jacques Fontaine, a physician of Aix-en-Provence, criticised the professors at Montpellier for modifying the original recipe, arguing that this was an act of “intolerable ambition”. Cattelan rejects this, demonstrating that the ‘confectio’ made at Montpellier is superior to all others.

The first two chapters outline the history of the ‘confectio’ and demonstrate that changing the ancient recipe was a legitimate choice: as the medicine was originally made for the “Moors and Africans”, it did not work well on the peoples of the northern regions, due to their different nature and physical structure. Catelan describes all the ingredients in detail – apple juice, rose water, ‘Kermes juice’ (a red dye obtained from the insect kermes), sugar, ambergris, cinnamon, lapislazuli, pearl, musk and gold – and how to combine them. In the eighteenth century, the ‘confectio alkermes’ was still a very popular remedy throughout Europe. Often combined with alcohol and appreciated for its aroma, it eventually became a liqueur, known as ‘Alkermes’, which is nowadays only produced in Florence.

This ed not in USTC, BM STC Ger. C17; Goldsmith, Krivatsy; Wellcome I; Ferguson; Brunet; Graesse; Garrison-Morton or Heirs of Hippocrates. We were able to locate only two copies in libraries worldwide (Wellcome Library, London; St. Galler Bibliothek, Switzerland) and one of the Mallet variant at NLM.
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