Transmission of Alchemical and Artistic Practices and Materials in Medieval and Premodern Recipe Books

Transmission of Alchemical and Artistic Practices and Materials in Medieval and Premodern Recipe Books

Sylvie Neven

In the Middle Ages and premodern period, artisanal knowledge was transmitted via collections of recipes often grouped concomitantly with alchemical texts and instructions. Except for some very well-known artistic treatises, such as those by Eraclius or the Schedula diversarum artium, attributed to Theophilus, detection and delimitation of alchemical content within recipe books has been rare and fraught with difficulty.

In a broad, sense alchemy could be defined as the "art of transmutation," referring to the perfection of base or impure matter (often metal or stone) into perfect substances. In this context, alchemical procedures rely on artisanal and craft practices. Thus, any overlap between alchemy and art-technological procedures can be explained by the use of identical source materials and substances. Both are concerned with the description of colors—especially in regard to processes of change, the making of pigments, the production of artificial gemstones, the imitation of gold and silver, and the transmutation of materials. Both require procedures involving precise and specifically defined actions, prescriptions, and ingredients. So both use identical rhetorical recipe formulations that reflect a "step-by-step" procedure. Assuming that alchemical and artistic texts have the same textual format, raises the question: Did they also have the same methods of production and reception?

Using a corpus of about 40 manuscripts produced in Northern Europe between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries, this Working Group paper project investigated the authorship and the context of production behind these writings, and scrutinized their compilation and dissemination processes. This served, on a variety of levels, to elucidate information about their former nature and use. Finally, this contribution examined the various ways alchemical and artisanal recipes were embedded within recipe books. It also provided some clues to help locate, distinguish, and demarcate this type of alchemical writings within the literature of recipes.