Do(n’t) try this at home: Simon Witgeest’s New Theatre of Arts

To improve Memory

Take the hearts out of seven living Swallows and five Turtledoves, take dry Mint, Pennyroyal, Verbena, Eyebright, prepared Coriander, and Sage, a drachm each, a drachm and a half of flowers of Rosemary, two drachms each of Sweet flag and Cinnamon, one and a half drachm of Cloves, eight grains each of Musk and Gallia Muscata, five drachms each of Anacardium Honey and Styrax Calamita: make cookies out of this with Fennel-water. Every night when you go to bed, you should stick one of these cookies in your right nostril, and close it off with a ball of cotton until you have read thirty Verses from Vergil; when you have done this for some days, you should wet a cookie with Rose-water and stick it into your left nostril, and all you have read, you will remember for sure. Meanwhile, one should stay clear of the games of Venus, drunkenness, and other irregularities. After the meal one should chew on some Coriander and swallow one of the cookies, or dissolve one in Lavender-water, and cover the head with it while sleeping.[1]

Frontispiece of the first edition of Witgeest's 'New Theatre of Arts', 1659.

Frontispiece of the first edition of Witgeest’s ‘New Theatre of Arts’, 1659.

In my search for recipes for coloured glass for the project I am currently working on, I delve into all kinds of sources: manuscripts, chemistry books, apothecary handbooks, company archives. Yet one of the most fascinating I have seen so far is a small book that first appeared in Leiden in 1659, entitled Het nieuwe Toneel der Konsten, or new theatre of arts. It is a book containing sections on magic tricks, recipes and instructions for painting, etching, and making glass, as well as home remedies and recipes for fireworks. The glass recipes in the New Theatre were of little use to me, as they were abbreviated translations from Antonio Neri’s well-known 1612 De Arte Vitraria, but the book is fascinating nonetheless, making you want to test some of the recipes yourself.

Willem Goeree, by D. van der Plaets/P. van Gunst, source:

Willem Goeree, by D. van der Plaets/P. van Gunst, source:

Simon Witgeest is most likely a pseudonym – Witgeest literally means ‘white spirit’ in Dutch, and it probably served to indicate to readers that the recipes were innocent, rather than black magic. It has been argued that Witgeest was a pseudonym of Willem Goeree (1635-1711), a Dutch book trader and publisher of Dutch books on art theory and practices.[2] However, the arguments for this are limited, and given the thorough character of Goeree’s other books, it seems unlikely that he would he would have invested time or effort in the rather frivolous Theatre of Arts, even under a pen-name.

Some of the recipes, like the one quoted above to improve memory, border on the impossible and seem outright ridiculous, whereas others, such as a recipe that advises to lather winter hands with palm oil or chicken fat daily are quite common sense. Some appeal to the imagination, and one would be tempted to try them if the ingredients and the possible results were not so dangerous; take for example a recipe that advises a mixture of vinegar, egg white and quicksilver to make ones hands ‘fire proof.’ Or what to think of a recipe ‘to write in human skin, which cannot be undone:’ tattoos made with a needle and gunpowder, minium, or smalt.

The author stated in the preface that the book was meant to ‘shorten wintery nights,’ although many of the activities described would only be feasible for those with a lot of time, space and money. Following the recipes copied from Neri’s book on making glass for example would require a glass oven that can be fired up to 1200 degrees Celsius. This was probably why in the many subsequent editions that appeared in Dutch and German throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the title was changed to The improved and extended natural magic book, or the new theatre of arts, and the sections on glass, drawing and etching were ditched in favour of more magic tricks, practical jokes, riddles, and entertainment with mathematical and astronomical brainteasers, as well as small chemical and physics experiments. Although it is highly unlikely that Witgeest’s contemporaries actually tried the recipes for making coloured glass, the other recipes will certainly have shortened winter nights for many.

[1] Witgeest, Simon. Het Nieuw Toneel Der Konsten, Bestaande Uyt Sesderley Stukken : Het Eerste, Handelt van Alderley Aardige Speeltjes En Klugjes : Het Tweede, van de Verligt-Konst in ’T Verwen En Schilderen : Het Derde, van Het Etzen En Plaat-Snijden : Het Vierde, van de Glas-Konst : Het Vijfde, Heeft Eenige Aardige Remedien Tegen Alderley Ziekten : Het Zesde, Is van de Vuur-Werken. Leiden: A.W. Sijthoff, 1659, p. 252-3.

[2] Landwehr, John, ‘Simon Witgeest’s Natuurlyk Tover-boek et alia,’ in Volkskunde, 1967, vol. I, p. 70-71.