PREFACE AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This book has grown over many years as I have gradually gathered evidence to illustrate a very long story. Wine-distilling - or at least the production of spirits of wine - could have been practised in a ritual context as far back as the fifth century BC. But the importance of those early alcoholic spirits lay in their fire-bearing property. It was not until the thirteenth century AD that the distillate of wine began to be recognised widely as a wonderful medicine. Later still alcoholic spirits became a general pick-me-up, and quite soon afterwards a social drink. Water of life and the techniques that produced it underwent considerable changes through two and a half millenia, and this is the first time they have been mapped so fully in the context of contemporary society.
Certain parts of the story have already appeared in some of my earlier publications, in particular those relating to science and beliefs in the Greek and Roman world, and to home-distilling in early modern Britain. It was while preparing a conference paper on the history of alcoholic spirits in Britain, in the 1970s, that I first encountered the medieval Latin aqua vitae treatises, and was puzzled by their insistence on the power of distilled wine to improve the memory, and to restore youth to the elderly properties that seemed contrary to real-life experience.
The breakthrough came in January 1980, when I was browsing through J.R. Partingtons very thorough History of Chemistry, vol.1, part 1. He includes a brief mention of the Coptic Gnostic text in the Bruce Papyrus wherein a figure representing Jesus performs a long ceremony, and turns wine into water. Suddenly I saw the connection between that water and the sulphur water and other waters distilled earlier by the philosopher chemists of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, and also the medieval burning water (aqua ardens) and water of life (aqua vitae). All these waters are distillates. Furthermore, in the case of the Egyptian chemists and the fourth century Gnostic users of the Coptic text, the production of the distillate was linked with rites that bestowed not just youth, but actual rebirth as an initiate, thus guaranteeing immortality for the soul. It all seems a very long way from todays binge drinking of spirits.
After further investigations into the early stages of wine-distilling and its background I wrote Philosophers, Iosis and Water of Life, and I would like to thank Ian Moxon of Leeds University, then editor of the literary and historical section of the Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, for his patient scrutiny and advice on my monograph prior to its publication there in 1984. My thanks are due also to Professor Richard Seaford of Exeter University, Roger Brock and Professor Malcolm Heath of Leeds University, and Christopher Tuplin of Liverpool University, who read and commented on various papers and articles that I wrote subsequently about evidence for spirits of wine in Greek and Roman times and late antiquity.
I am grateful too to food historians Peter Brears and Ivan Day, who shared with me interesting discoveries they had made about the practical side of household distilling in early modern Britain. Leeds University Libraries have provided much source material for this book, especially in the Early Science and Cookery Book collections housed in Special Collections, and I would like to acknowledge the support I have received in various ways from the library staff.
Some of the many books consulted are listed in the Bibliography, and other sources appear in the footnotes. But I owe a particular debt to Pamela Vandyke Prices The Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs for background material on the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Finally, friends and colleagues engaged in other areas of historical research have been generous in passing on occasional references that they thought might aid my investigations. Among them are Professor John Chartres, Jenny Cooksey, Gordon Forster, Professor Constance Hieatt, Bridgett Jones, Lynette Muir and Professor Joan Thirsk. Susan Chesters was my mainstay when the computer went into problem mode.
I hope readers will find this book interesting and informative, and will enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed the detective work that led me through the long story of water of life.