‘A Boke of Practyk:’ Stains of Medicine and Alchemy

Chemical Heritage Foundation, Othmer MS 2, fol. 41r

Many of the most interesting manuscript stains are found in the bindings and folios of soiled, heavily-used medical and alchemical texts. The Middle English quote in the title of this post comes from the introduction of a stained fifteenth-century medical text, Lylye of Medicynes (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1505, fol. 4r). This self-described ‘boke of practyk’ reflects the scientific content of these texts and their subsequent use for practical purposes by medical practitioners or alchemists. Signs of this practical use may be obvious, such as burn marks from furnaces, but innocuous-looking stains (e.g. appearing to be water damage) may contain hidden information about medicinal or chemical solutions, or even heavy metal contamination, which is not evident by sight alone. This is the kind of data we will be looking for through multi-spectral imaging of these stains.

Recipes to kill parasitic worms added to the treatise 'De coloribus urinae,' UPenn MS. Codex 133, 16th c.
Recipes to kill parasitic worms, ‘De coloribus urinae,’ University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 133


The majority of manuscripts identified as potential candidates for stain analysis in this project have never been accessible in either print or digitized formats. This is especially true of medical and alchemical texts, which are often less well-known than medieval literary works and less ‘beautiful’ than the illuminated and decorated texts commonly regarded as world treasures. The analysis of these manuscripts will provide truly novel data particular to the specific object, but also foundational to the examination of similar manuscripts in the future.

Soiled alchemical text, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Othmer MS 2, fol. 63r

We will be examining a range of scientific manuscripts across our partner institutions. Specifically, we are fortunate to be partnering with The Othmer Library of Chemical History at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which houses over 140,000 objects relevant to chemical history, including an invaluable collection of medieval alchemy manuscripts. Until recently (through the work of the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis project, 2016 – 2019), these manuscripts were undigitized and many have never had a printed edition.

Alchemy texts in particular are often known as ‘books of secrets’ both in medieval and modern language. The novel data contained in the stains of these alchemical texts will not only reveal interesting information about the history of the book and its practical use, but it will help researchers who will be touching and interacting with the physical object. We envision that scholarly audiences will use our data and methodology to advance knowledge into the provenance of manuscripts, their uses within a historical context, their working environment, their transmission, and their circulation. For conservators and librarians new information will help determine proper storage conditions, as well as health and safety issues, in particular the identification of heavy metal or chemical contamination in alchemical manuscripts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s