ON ALKERMES

Tractatus Novus In quo de Cocco Baphica, [et] quae inde paratur Confectionis Alchermes.

Jena, Johann Beithmann, 1620.

£2,500

FIRST and ONLY EDITION. Small 4to. 54 unnumbered ll., A 4 a-m 4 n 2 + large fold-out advertisement with recipe. Roman letter, with Italic. Handsome woodcut printer’s device to last leaf, decorated initials and ornaments. Slight yellowing and minor marginal foxing to a handful of ll. Very good, clean copy in paper boards c.1800, all edges sprinkled red.

The scarce first and only edition of this fascinating work on the properties and making of the successful medicament ‘confectio alchermes’ or syrup of kermes. Johann Stephan Strobelberger (1592/3-1630) was a German physician at Montpellier, renowned for his ground-breaking medical studies, especially on dentistry. Unlike previous treatises on cordials, such as Bertaldi’s of 1613, ‘Tractatus’ was entirely concerned with alchermes, prepared from the pigment of the insect ‘cocco baphica’ (‘kermes’ or, after the colonisation of Mexico, the similar ‘cochineal’). In antiquity, a pigment made from these desiccated insects was used to make a bright red dye; among the Greeks and Arabs, it was also a medicament against heart conditions and melancholy, and from this the famous Italian liqueur ‘alchermes’ (mixing neutral spirits, cloves, cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and vanilla) was later derived. In the C13, the confectio was widely promoted at the prestigious medical school of Montpellier. In the C16, the bright red cochineal pigment was first imported from Mexico and largely substituted kermes, whilst retaining its name, in cloth-dying, medicine and leisure drinking. The ‘Tractatus’ includes a large broadside advertisement to the inhabitants of Ratisbon, which, albeit mentioned on the t-p, bore a separate imprint and was also sold separately (e.g., BL STC Ger. C17 S3006). Like the Montpellier confectio, the alchermes advertised was prepared with kermes, apple juice, rose water, boiled silk, cinnamon, sandal or aloe, musk, gold leaf, crushed lapis lazuli and pearls, as well as sugar. The work discusses in detail the history and making of the confectio; the last part is devoted to sundry remedies in which alchermes is the main ingredient. One of them, against sterility, was a concoction of alchermes, bogloss, apple juice and borage water to be taken with wine before sexual intercourse. ‘In the C17 and C18, the confectio went from strength to strength. By 1721 it was said to be one of the “five great Compositions” of the apothecary shops in London, and it had become an essential remedy throughout Europe’ (Greenfield, ‘Alkermes’, 28).

Only UW and NLM copies recorded in the US.
BL STC Ger. C17 S3010; Wellcome I, 6116; Durling 11503. Not in Heirs of Hippocrates, Oberlé, Simon, Bitting or Vicaire. A. Butler Greenfield, ‘Alkermes: “A Liqueur of Prodigious Strength”’, Gastronomica 7 (2007), 25-30.

L3290

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