[MEDICINE & ALCHEMY]. Medical and alchemical recipes in Dutch.

Manuscript on paper, Flanders or Netherlands, second half 16th century.


100 x 150mm. ff. [14], [*]14. Black-brown ink, cursive hand, approx. 18 lines per full page, in Dutch, including a few lines on inner lower cover. Three sketched skulls to first recto, ink drawing of distillation equipment to fol.12 recto. Slight age browning, very light, mainly marginal water stain to first two and final ll., edges, first recto and last verso dusty, penultimate leaf detached. A very good copy in contemporary vellum wallet binding, envelope flap extending from lower cover, soiled, just creased.

A rare and remarkable survival – a Flemish or Dutch itinerant apothecary’s ms reference pocket book, with recipes, remedies and customers’ names. It was produced cheaply probably from a paper sheet cut into several horizontal strips. Its original vellum envelope binding, made for easy transportation, the main focus of the remedies (women’s illnesses and the plague), the final notes on money owed by patients, and the different currencies mentioned (e.g., guilder of Brabant, ‘godert’ of Gelderland) suggest an itinerant medical practitioner.

‘Dutch cities had long allowed people selling medicines such as herbs, oils, and ointments to participate in the markets periodically set up for the exchange of goods. Some were local people who offered their wares on a regular basis; others came for a time and moved on. By the later C16, the market regulators, who were ultimately responsible to the city councils, had usually moved medical salespeople away from the centre of the markets to their edges. The names sometimes applied to them by respectable burgers – empirici (“empiric”) or, worse, kwakzalver (“quacksalver” or “quack”) – were taking on negative connotations, but as long as these people obeyed the rules of the market like everyone else, they were not hindered’ (Cook, p.136).

 The text begins with rhyming formulas – which also point to a popular practitioner, not university-trained – surrounded by sketches of skulls and bones: ‘what was I, what have I been, what will I be, where will I go, this worries me’, and ‘there is nothing better than making god happy in this world’. There follow several recipes for sundry ailments, e.g., for the stomach, with rye broth; a ‘preservatyff’ against the plague, with nutmeg; three for ladies, made, for instance, with the herb ‘maddeleyne’, to be administered with warm or ‘bastard’ wine; three more remedies against the plague – one mentioning the authority of ‘philosophers’, i.e., alchemists – using, among others, the herb ‘angelica’, camphor, rose water and saffron. The full-page drawing depicts an instrument for alchemical oil distillation, kept for reference. The last leaf comprises additional notes on payments. One, 6 June 1574, refers to a remedy made from linden for Maria Gerets, who owed 3 Brabant gulden. Another a remedy for the plague, in a vessel, for the cost of 3 gulden. Others record payments by Philippus and Mathaeus Botteley, likely two Englishmen, the ‘old chaplain’ Jan Cluppels, who owed 4 gulden, Geert vanden Velde, Jan van Colen and Robert van Malsen, who owed 12 stuivers. A most remarkable survival of C16 popular medicine.

H.J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (2007).
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