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All That Glisters …

Category: Alchemy, Historic Recipes, Medieval Manuscripts

This Hallowmas, as a time for remembering all the faithful departed, known and unknown, I salute John Colyns, Mercer and Bookseller of London, and the anonymous Mediӕval Artisan whose recipes for glues, dyes, and pigments he faithfully transcribed in Middle English during the early 16th century.

While exploring his Commonplace Book in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the British Library last week, I was struck by a brief guide to preparing size – used to make gold leaf adhere to parchment before gilding it, here applied as the outer frame:

1.  yf thow wylte make A Syse to paynte bokys . Take Armonyake & grynde

2.  hyt wt drassyng of pysse & put hyt in A Shelle & Temp[er] hyt wt byse [i.e. blue]

3.  and wt A pensell ley hyt ou[er] thy boke . And whyle yt Syse is wete ley

4.  ou[er] yt golde & wt a hare tayle prasse hyt downe lyghtlye . And when it

5.  ys drye . Burnysshe hyt as þu doste hoþ[er] [i.e. other] golde . And yf þu wylte make

6.  thy vinett[es] to Shyne Take Barle & grynde hyt wt gleyre & take

7.  wt A pensell & stryke hyt A bove ou[er] thy vynett[es] . & when hyt ys

8.  drye Rubbe hyt wt A Sylu[er] plate & hyt wyll Shyne .  (Harley MS 2252 f.146 recto)

I don’t think I’d be very popular testing it out at home! Safest to follow Cennino Cennini‘s method – covering lumps of gum ammoniac with water and soaking overnight, then straining the milky liquid through muslin or cheesecloth – which is pungent enough.

Though Theophilus, too, explores the use of different urines in his chapter on Stained Glass in his treatise On Diverse Arts, and Cennini himself upheld the great Mediӕval tradition of recycling household waste, advising readers of his Craftsman’s Handbook to charcoal “the chicken bones that you will find under the dining table” to make pigment for black paint.

However could he know about the state of my housekeeping?

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