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Basilisks, blood, and red headed men:
Early modes of craft, technology & production

Annie Thwaite

 

It may seem unlikely to the modern reader that this strange creature, half chicken- half lizard, was once believed to be connected with the manufacture of gold. Yet this mythological beast – a basilisk – represents in part a time when the investigation and understanding of nature was intimately involved with craft and technology and production. Whilst today the basilisk is a little known fictitious animal, it has existed in accounts since antiquity, as demonstrated by its description in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History from the first century AD.[1] Numerous medieval and early modern medical texts continued to discuss the basilisk, debating for example its reputed ability to kill merely by sight.[2] Shown here in a drawing by nineteenth century German publisher Johann Bertuch, this extraordinary and formidable creature indicates how many of the beliefs and materials of the past are completely unfamiliar to us today. It is even more unlikely, therefore, that we would associate such an animal in any way with the processes of craft, technology or production.

basilisk

‘Fabelwesen’ or Basilisk, Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, (1806). Image © Wikimedia Commons

Yet perhaps a side effect of the 21st century is that, as we sit behind our computer screens, tablets and phones, we can be too easily seduced by a modern version of technology. Living in a world where a 3D object can be printed instantaneously by a machine, the significance of the materials involved in craft and production can sometimes be overlooked, and we may forget entirely that at one time, technology was very different.

By studying the skills and technologies of the medieval and early modern artisanal workshops, it becomes apparent how different our worlds and our perceptions of technology are. Even though many of the scientific techniques that we recognise today originate from the observation and experimentation of medieval and early modern Europe,[3] we can see how the methods involved in technology and production have shifted from a close and personal involvement with materials and nature, to something increasingly industrial, machine based, and unfamiliar.

Quantitative measurement is a primary example of this. In early modern European artisanal recipes, volumes of liquid were often expressed through quotidian and natural forms of representation, even when used for technical purposes. [4] Alchemical recipes record the use of ‘a walnut shell’ of liquid, ‘four drops of spittle’, or even ‘as much of the mash as would equal a goose egg’.[5] In a similar vein, the time taken to deliver a certain number of spoken pater noster prayers could indicate the passage of time, in one case recording a summers day and night. In fact, artisanal manuals and treatises employed many measurements that made use of all five senses – one account, relying upon hearing, recommend putting a cuttlefish bone close to the fire, and upon hearing ‘little cries’, knowing it is dry enough.[6]

This direct sensorial engagement with nature and materiality in production is very different to what we often know today. To the modern reader such as myself, due to their use of animate language and quotidian objects, these measurements may appear somewhat imprecise and crude. In reality however they represent technology, rooted in a world very different from our own, and their unfamiliarity should not mislead us into doubting their precision or sophistication. In a time before measures became standard, they were based upon empirical observation and experiment, and used to formulate learnable and replicable processes and practices. This may not be our scientific method, but it is scientific nonetheless.

Image 2 – Alchemist's workshop, detail from the title page of Lazarus Ercker’s Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt unnd Bergkwercks Arten[…] (1580). Image © Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alchemists_Workshop_detail_from_Title_Page_AQ24_(3).tif

Alchemist’s workshop, detail from the title page of Lazarus Ercker’s Beschreibung allerfürnemisten mineralischen Ertzt unnd Bergkwercks Arten[…] (1580). Image © Wikimedia Commons

Returning to the basilisk, we can see another example of direct involvement with nature in the technology of alchemy.  In the twelfth century, metalworker Theophilus Presbyter set down a recipe for Spanish gold, assembled from a mixture of ‘red copper, human blood, vinegar, and basilisk powder.’ This recipe came from one of the many technical handbooks intriguingly entitled called ‘Books of Secrets’, widespread in the medieval and early modern worlds. These were anthologies, miscellanies of medical and culinary recipes, practical tips for glass making, to even magical formulae and jokes.[7] In order to make the gold, Theophilus noted, the ‘basilisk powder’ must be prepared – a fascinating and protracted process, which is worth describing in full.

Two 12 to 15 year old male chickens were put into a cage walled with stones, and well fed until they reproduced and laid eggs. At this point, toads were procured to sit on the eggs, and fed bread until the point of hatching. Chickens eventually emerged from the eggs, but after seven days reputedly grew serpent tails. These newborn creatures were then put into brass vessels, buried into the ground, and fed on soil. After 6 months, the receptacles were unearthed, a fire  lit underneath them, and the creatures – basilisks – were burnt to ash. These ashes were finely ground and added to the dried and ground blood of a red headed man, to which was also added sharp vinegar. This composition was then smeared on red copper and heated until red hot, until the mixture eroded the copper, thereby acquiring ‘the weight and colour of gold’ and was ‘suitable for all kinds of work.’[8]

This weird and wonderful recipe understandably evokes great interest in the modern reader, in great part as a consequence of the alien nature of the basilisk, and its role in a recognisable method – metallurgy. Yet it is the direct engagement with materials and processes that is also both unfamiliar and significant.

Historians have, quite unsurprisingly, viewed this recipe with much excitement. Arie Wallert has interpreted it as a coded alchemical recipe, with basilisk ash acting as a secret cover name for mercury – one of the essential components of the ‘philosophers stone’ to turn stone to base metals – in this case copper into gold.[9]  Indeed, Pamela H. Smith notes that there are several other similar recipes for pigment making and metalworking, many of which call for lizards in place of basilisks, such as in the books of secrets of Albertus Magnus.[10] Smith makes a convincing case for reconsidering the relationship between science and technology, by way of the relationship between making and knowing. Yet for a historian of design, why is it important to consider this early modern involvement with materiality in craft, technology and production?

Albrecht Durer, 'The sun, the moon and a basilisk', (1507-19), pen and black and brown ink, Museum no. 1932,0709.2. Image © British Museum, 2014.

Albrecht Durer, ‘The sun, the moon and a basilisk’, (1507-19), pen and black and brown ink, British Museum, Museum no. 1932,0709.2. Image © British Museum, London.

Whether this recipe for gold worked or not, or whether the materials were cover names for other ingredients is not clear, and perhaps not necessary to know. What is important, is that these people were able to formulate very precise processes before they had access to what we know as ‘science’ and the modern mechanisms of accurate measurement. As a design historian, this is significant – it demonstrates the use of familiar and exotic objects from the natural world in ingenious processes of production.

Perhaps it would do well when discussing craft, technology and production, to think about our medieval and early modern predecessors. We benefit today from standardised measurements and sophisticated technologies. Yet, in acquiring the abstract precision of millilitres, centimetres and minutes, have we lost some of the direct engagement with materials which existed for the users of walnut shells and goose eggs, and the grinders of burnt basilisks? Moreover, the material precision and intricacy of the basilisk gold recipe indicates a deep respect for the property of materials, and demonstrates how human technological ingenuity, in combining and altering materials, could lead to predetermined and extraordinary outcomes.

This was neither random, nor untheorised – merely a different type of science, in a different world. As design historians, when writing about objects, perhaps thinking about this close association with materiality may serve us well. In the words of anthropologist Tim Ingold: ‘We do not have to think the world in order to live in it, but we do have to live in the world in order to think it.’[11]

 



[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, (ed. H.G. Bohn, 1857) Volume 6, p. 282

[2] For example, sixteenth century physician Jacques Grevin. For further detail, see Wietse de Boer & Christine Gottler (eds.), Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe, (2012) p. 466

[3] Pamela H. Smith, ‘Vermillion, Mercury, Blood and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking’, in Ursula Klein and E.C. Spary (eds.), Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe – Between Market and Laboratory, (2010), p. 31

[4] For more on recipes, see William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature – Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, (Princeton University Press, 1994)

[5] Smith, ‘Vermillion, Mercury, Blood and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking’, pp. 31-2

[6] Smith, ‘Vermillion, Mercury, Blood and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking’, pp. 31-2

[7] Philip Ball, Bright Earth – The Invention of Colour, p. 91

[8] Smith, ‘Vermillion, Mercury, Blood and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking’, pp. 31-2

[9] Wallert 1990, p. 161

[10] See Smith, ‘Vermillion, Mercury, Blood and Lizards: Matter and Meaning in Metalworking’, in Ursula Klein and E.C. Spary (eds.), Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe – Between Market and Laboratory, (2010) esp. pp. 46

[11] Tim Ingold, The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill, (London, 2000), p. 418

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Annie Thwaite – 

Annie is in her second year on the Renaissance stream of the V&A/RCA HoD course, which she joined after doing her BA in History at Warwick University. Whilst exploring many areas of Renaissance material culture, she is particularly interested in the history of Reformation and Restoration England. Annie’s dissertation focuses on ritualistic objects used as apotropaic devices, and the dichotomy between magic and science in in early modern England. She also acts as co-editor in chief of Unmaking Things.

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© Annie Thwaite, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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