Friday, June 28, 2013

The Theatre of Gunpowder

"They in the fort shoting agayn and casting out divers fyers,
terrible to those that have not bene in like experiences
...and in dede straunge to them
that understood it not; for the wildfyre
falling into the ryver Aven, wold for a tyme lye still,
and then agayn rise and flye abrode,
casting furth many flashes and flambes,
whereat the Quene’s Majesty took great pleasure."

['The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth..' 1823 by J Nichols] {pic}

"That the electric "spark of life" figured prominently in debates over the nature of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is well known. Less well known is the fact that prior to this period, gunpowder was often identified with the substances that were necessary to life, if not as a vitalistic spirit, then as an essential element in the animation of the body. The idea of a spark of life went back to ancient times, likening living beings to the glowing embers of a fire. In the Old Testament, for example, the wise woman of Tekoah begs for the life of her son, pleading "they will stamp out my last live ember." But from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, this vital flame was often equated with gunpowder. There was fire in the blood: not electric, but pyrotechnic fire."
['Sparks of Life' by Simon Werrett* IN: Cabinet Magazine Issue 32 Winter 2008/09]

The images below come from an enormous hand-painted and hand-written gunsmithing and fireworks manuscript by Friedrich Meyer from 1594. 'Büchsenmeister und Feuerwerksbuch' is owned and hosted by BSB. It is one of the most comprehensive Early Modern tomes that I've seen on the broad subject of fireworks, encompassing as it does, in text and picture, the many facets of production and deployment of gunpowder and the pyrotechnical arts. The lack of web citations to this manuscript is presumably due to it's being a secondary compilation based on earlier works. There are two single full-page views below; the rest are mostly 2 or 4 pages spliced into single images, together with a couple of cropped miniatures. Background spots and staining have been mildly reduced.

Feuerwerksbuch 289

Feuerwerksbuch 8, 21, 24 + 32

Feuerwerksbuch 53, 82, 96 + 125

Feuerwerksbuch 91 + 95

Feuerwerksbuch 111 + 139

Feuerwerksbuch 250

Feuerwerksbuch 291

"The origins of fireworks lay in China, but European fireworks followed a distinctive development after their introduction from the east in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Early European fireworks were used for war, with rockets, bombs, fire tubes, and grenades being hurled against enemies through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

There were also peaceful fireworks, adding drama to church plays and festivals with squibs attached to flying angels or pyrotechnics made to represent the fiery mouth of Hell.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the fireworks of the battlefield and the church slowly merged into peaceful displays of military pyrotechnics, first in religious plays for the courts, and then in secular triumphs and performances based on classical allegories. By the close of the sixteenth century, many European courts employed gunner artificers to stage grand fireworks marking royal occasions, military victories, and the new year."
[by Simon Werrett (& others), from Werrett's essay, 'Watching the Fireworks' IN: Science in Context 24(2), 167–182 (2011), Cambridge University Press]

Feuerwerksbuch 389 + 410

Feuerwerksbuch 512 + 514

Feuerwerksbuch 448 + 483

Feuerwerksbuch 253 + 465

Feuerwerksbuch 486 + 490

Feuerwerksbuch 492 + 497

Feuerwerksbuch 376

Feuerwerksbuch 246 + 384

Feuerwerksbuch 605 + 609

Feuerwerksbuch 276 + 277

Feuerwerksbuch 173 + 175

Feuerwerksbuch 146 + 150

Feuerwerksbuch 299 + 305

Feuerwerksbuch 585 + 597

Feuerwerksbuch 538-539

Feuerwerksbuch 565 + 573

Feuerwerksbuch 563 + 571

Feuerwerksbuch 293 + 295

Feuerwerksbuch 617 + 633

"Fireworks of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries [.] amounted to a form of artificial nature, showing suns, stars, comets, fiery exhalations, snow, rain, thunder and lightning. These effects were considered extremely powerful and deeply impressed the princely patrons and courtiers who used them as tools of political distinction. This distinction hinged on knowledge or experience of pyrotechnics. The gentleman or courtier was expected to be virtuous, partly by the habit of reading, and numerous new books on fireworks were published in the sixteenth century to offer instruction in the creation of pyrotechnic effects. Those who understood or had familiarity with fireworks then experienced them as pleasing diversions, while those who did not were imagined to be terrified as if by natural portents."
[Simon Werrett's essay, 'Watching the Fireworks' IN: Science in Context 24(2), 167–182 (2011), Cambridge University Press]

I've always enjoyed the whole genre of gunpowder and pyrotechnics books and manuscripts from the Renaissance and Early Modern eras - see combat posts for previous related - despite my general ignorance for how the concepts of fireworks spectacle and artifice operated in the world hundreds of years ago. The illustrations are always colourful and attractive and make for good posting fodder on basic terms, of course. I mean, I had some inkling that fireworks way back then were fairly different, but I wasn't particularly aware of the breadth or meaning of their application nor (especially) how they were regarded by people.

Many reference commentaries on the early fireworks publications have tended towards narrow approaches: the chemistry, the manufacturers, various histories, the people involved etc. So the lack of references surrounding Meyer's manuscript featured above quickly (fortuitously) pointed me towards a few recent publications by historian Dr Simon Werrett. I don't pretend I've just become enlightened or even much smarter, but Werrett (and at least one other that he references, and no doubt a few others) considers the subject matter through a wider lens, involving social history, philosophy, physiology, alchemy, magic, religion and metaphorical systems (among other considerations no doubt), giving this esoteric material a more comprehensive and nuanced explanation. Hence, the Werrett-derived quotes dominating above.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The Hermetic Touchstone

Images from 'Hermetischer Probier Stein..' 1647, 
by Oswald Croll (Kroll or Crollius)

"..without this Chymical Phylosophy all Physick is but liveless [..] '..and this internal signature, force or occult virtue..' [..] which as Natures Gift insisted, and infused by the most high God, into the Plant or Anima, from the Signature and mutual Analogick Sympathy and harmonious concordance of Plants, with the Members of the Human Body, is by prudent Physitian only inquired into: and thence by the industrious help of Vulcan, or Anatomick Knife, is drawn out and applied to its proper use, not drousily passed over in noxious Silence, as is by Vulgar Herbarists too frequently done."
Oswald Crollius, 1609* 'De Signatura Rerum'
Touchstone: "Black, silica-containing stone used in assaying to determine the purity of gold and silver."*

The title page is an elaborate symbolic engraving (by Jan Sadeler), with portraits of Hermes Trismegistus, Morienus, Lull, Geber, Roger Bacon and Paracelsus (the so-called Alchemy dream team). 

'Hermetischer Probier Stein..' 1649 by Oswald Kroll is online in full at Herzog bibliothek Wolfenbüttel.

The full title of 'Hermetischer Probier Stein' translates approx. to:
'The Hermetic Touchstone in which every last one of the processes and chemical medicines found in Oswald Crollius’s work entitled 'Royal Alchimist Treasure' is not only examined and put to the test, but also complemented and enhanced, in the Latin language, with various other beautiful and useful medicines tried by the author's own hand and his daily experience'.

The title page image, up top, first appeared in Kroll's most famous book (1608/9) 'Basilica Chymica' (.. "it became the standard scientific work of iatrochemistry"*..) so the present work is most likely a later slimline version edited by Johann Hartmann.
"Oswald Croll (~1560-1609) was a professor of medicine and alchemy at the University of Marburg in Hesse, Germany. A strong proponent of alchemy and of using chemistry in medicine, he attempted to influence thinkers of his day towards viewing chemistry and alchemy as two separate fields. He published one volume in 1609, the year of his death, containing two books 'Basilica Chymica' and 'De Signatura Rerum' plus a long preface in which he expounds the ideas of Paracelsus to whom he was devoted.

'Basilica Chymica' is a comprehensive summary of his researches, methods of preparation, and studies into chemical medicine or iatrochemistry. He pushes for the understanding and recognition of chemical compounds and the medicinal value of herbs and other processes first advanced by Paracelsus. It also discussed matters such as compound remedies, chemical organisation and acted as an introduction to chemistry in later years. The 'Tractatus Novus de Signaturis' covered the relation of alchemy and chemistry to other fields of science, especially botany, suggesting the use of the doctrine of signatures to determine the medical property of plants." [source]

This knowledge is nothing but the secrets of wise teachers and Philosophers

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