Aqua Mirabilis

On page five of the V.b.400 “receipt manuscript” a recipe for “Aqua Mirabilis” appears. Aqua Mirabilis can be translated from latin in two ways: the ‘miracle water’ or ‘the wonderful water’. Either way, the name promises something spectacular. To get this miracle water you will first need to take “gallingale cloves cubebes ginger melitele grains cardinomum mace nutmegs of each one graine, the juce of celendac half a pint”. Cloves, ginger, cardamom, mace, and nutmeg are all relatively common spices used in modern cooking but not medicine. “Gallingale” is spelt “galangal” nowadays and is “The aromatic rhizome of certain Asian plants… of the ginger family, used in cookery and herbal medicine”. “Cubebes” are just “cubebs” and are “The berry of a climbing shrub Piper Cubeba or Cubeba officinalis, a native of Java and the adjacent islands; it resembles a grain of pepper, and has a pungent spicy flavour, and is used in medicine and cookery.” “melitele” is “melilot” which is “Any of the genus Melilotus the dried flowers of which were formerly much used in making plasters, poultices” and “celendac” with a little respelling is “celandine”: “Its thick yellow juice was formerly supposed to be a powerful remedy for weak sight.”

Aqua Mirabilis title from vb400

So together these spices and juices, with three pints of water and white wine, make a remedy? Well first you have to distil the ingredients for 24 hours, or more if possible. Then you separate the water from the leftover herbs and you burn that leftover matter into ashes. Then you add rainwater to those ashes, let it sit for two days, drain the water and keep it, add more rainwater to the ashes and let sit again. Finally you drain the water away, throw away the ashes, mix the reserved waters and let them sit over a fire until the water evaporates until you have salt leftover. Mix these crystals with the first water reserve and that is your spirit. Your aqua mirabilis.

According to the book “The virtews are these”:This water can “disolveth the swelling in the lunggs”, “tongues [that] be wounded or perished it mightily composeth them”, “he that useth thy water shall not need to be lett blood”, “it expelleth the Rhum and filleth the stomack, it conserveth a good colour and youth in his estate, it also preserveth the memory, it destroyeth the palsie of the tongue and limbs” and even better “ if one spoonfull be given to one att the point of Death… it retrieveth them” What an incredible miracle cure! Of course, if it did do these things we’d still be using it nowadays and it has sadly become obsolete. I was however interested to find a recipe that I had never heard of for something supposedly so incredible, and was curious to see if anyone else wrote about this concoction or it was a one-book recipe. Surely someone else would have been using this? Both the OED and British History websites list account for Aqua Mirabilis with use going back as far as 1673. In both of those descriptions the same less complex recipe is followed from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. This 1755 dictionary that lists Aqua Mirabilis as “The wonderful water, prepared of cloves, galangals, cubebs, mace, cardomums, nutmegs, ginger, and spirit of wine, digested twenty-four hours, then distilled. It is a good and agreeable cordial.” The benefits are not touted as much as in the recipe book but the inclusion in a dictionary means that it was a popular enough remedy around that time to make its mark and have the approval of the author.

Definition from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary

Aqua Mirabilis also appears in the 1677 Pharmacopoeia translated by William Salmon, still claiming to cure a great many ills, John Locke kept a recipe in his notes that is likely he got from the Pharmacopoeia, and The Lady Sedley’s Receipt Book from 1686 includes a recipe for aqua mirabilis that is “very close to the original prescription”. More interestingly,The Countess of Kent’s Choice Manual of rare and select secrets of physick and chirurgery has two different recipes for aqua mirabilis. The first recipe calls for “Take three pints of White wine, one pint of Aqua vitae, one pint of juice of Salandine, one drachm of Cardamer, a drachm of Mellilot flours, a drachm of Cubebs, a drachm of Galingal, Nutmegs, Mace, Ginger and Cloves, of each a drachm, mingle all these together over night, the next morning set them a stilling in a glass Limbeck.” The second recipe goes as such; “Take Galingall, Cloves, Quibs, Gin∣ger, Mellilip, Cardamonie, Mace, Nutmegs, of each a drachm, and of the juyce of Salledine half a pint, adding the juyce Mints and Balm, of each half a pint more, and mingle all the said Spices be∣ing beaten into pouder with the juyce, and with a pint of good Aqua vitae, and three pints of good White wine, and put all these together into a pot, and let it stand all night being close stopt, and in the morning still it with a soft sire as can be, the still being close pasted, and a cold still.”

Recipe from Elizabeth Gray’s manual

These two recipes are pretty similar to the manuscript one, but most importantly both recipes contain sections of the “virtues” of aqua mirabilis and the Countess of Kent’s list of virtues is almost identical to v.b.400. “This Water dissolveth swelling of the Lungs, and being perished doth help and comfort them, it suffereth not the bloud to putrifie, he shall not need to be let bloud that useth this water, it suffereth not the heart burning, nor Melancholy or Flegm to have dominion, it expelleth urine, and profiteth the stomack, it preser∣veth a good colour, the visage, memorie, and youth, it destroyeth the Palsie. Take some three spoonfuls of it once or twice a week, or oftner, morning and evening, first and last.” Is it possible that both of these receipt books copied down the recipe from the same or similar sources? How interesting that two recipes can have almost identical wording from two seemingly unrelated sources.

So there you have it, aqua mirabilis, the wonderful water, the miracle tonic, guaranteed to save you from death! Willing to give it a try?

Bibliography:

Kent, Elizabeth Grey, Countess of, “A choice manual of rare and select secrets in physick and chyrurgery collected and practised by the Right Honorable, the Countesse of Kent, late deceased ; as also most exquisite ways of preserving, conserving, candying, &c. ; published by W.I., Gent.”, Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011, <https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A47264.0001.001/1:11?rgn=div1;view=fulltext>, sections 5, 6, 7, [accessed 24/01/2020]

Brockbank, William, “SOVEREIGN REMEDIES: A CRITICAL DEPRECIATION OF THE 17th-CENTURY LONDON PHARMACOPOEIA,” Medical History, 8 (1964), 1–14 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0025727300029057>

“Page View, Page 152.” A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson. Edited by Brandi Besalke. Last modified: December 6, 2012. https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/page-view/&i=152.

Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl. “Aqua – Aqua mirabilis,” in Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton: University of Wolverhampton, 2007), British History Online, accessed January 23, 2020, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/traded-goods-dictionary/1550-1820/aqua-aqua-mirabilis.

“aqua mirabilis, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/10011? (accessed January 26, 2020).

“celandine, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/29399?redirectedFrom=celandine (accessed January 26, 2020).

“melilot, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/116109?redirectedFrom=melilot (accessed January 26, 2020).

“cubeb, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/45455?redirectedFrom=cubebs (accessed January 26, 2020).

“galangal, n.”. OED Online. December 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/76220?redirectedFrom=galangals (accessed January 26, 2020).


4 thoughts on “Aqua Mirabilis

  1. Very impressive claims for a cure like that! I liked how you also looked in other recipe books to see if it came up there as well and compared them. Some of those ingredients seem pretty exotic, how hard do you think it would’ve been to find them back then?

    1. Surprisingly, they seem to be relatively more available than nowadays. I think with the popularity of the spice trade there may have been a market for new and exotic spices so it may have been easier to get hold of them?

    1. It was mostly the complexity of the recipe, the time taken to make it, and the ingredients used. Some of them are very uncommon spices even in the modern day and I’m sure seeking them out would have taken a lot of time and money.

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