Item unum alambicum plumbeum

Alembics, a type of distilling equipment of Arabic origin, can be found in a number of inventories in the DALME collection, including, at present, thirteen from the city of Marseille, four from the Crown of Aragon, and two from Florence, where they are known in the singular as "campana da stillare." These numbers are somewhat deceiving, since the Marseille collection is by far the largest in the DALME environment; considered instead as a ratio, alembics are most commonly found in Aragonese households. As discussed by Nicholas Thomas, alembics are relatively common in later medieval European inventories. Nearly a quarter of a sample of 108 inventories from Barcelona include one or more alembics, and they are also found in one in five inventories from Aix-en-Provence. Remains of alembics made of glass or ceramic have also been found at a number of archaeological sites.

The alembic featured here was found among the possessions of Philip Lambert when he died in Marseille in the year 1390. The absence of a consistent spelling of the word--Latin spellings can begin with the letters "alambi-," "alambr," "alemb-," "alab-," and "aranbi-," among other possibilities--is suggestive, although suggestive of what, exactly, is unclear. Often, variable spellings in the DALME collection are associated with words for objects that have similar names in several different vernaculars or dialects. The variable spelling of the word for "chest" (e.g. capcia, cassa, caxia, etc.), for example, reflects the fact that Catalan, Occitan, and Italian vernaculars all used slightly different spellings for the same object. In any given linguistic region, notaries may have used spellings that reflected the variable speech patterns of their clients, and given the high degree of inter-regional mobility in the late medieval Mediterranean, many city residents would have grown up speaking different vernaculars, reflected in the variable spellings. What is interesting, therefore, is that alembics were familiar and common enough for the name to have acquired multiple variant spellings in Mediterranean Romance vernaculars.

Although Philip's profession is not listed in the act, he may have been an apothecary or purveyor, since among the items listed in his estate we find fava beans, rice, a good deal of honey, soap, shelled almonds, pepper, wax, saffron, ginger, cloves, and Sardinian cheeses. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that we also find an alembic, a device used for distillation, since Philip may have used spirits to create rose water (aqua rosata) or may have sold spirits to his clients as a component of medical preparations. Technically, the alembic itself is the device that, when inverted and placed over the cucurbit, or boiler, captures the distillate and passes it down a cooling tube to collect in another receptacle (see illustrations above). Cucurbits appear twice in the Marseille collection though not in conjunction with alembics; these may refer to a different type of distilling equipment, known in French as a cucurbit à bec.

Alembics were often made of glass, as in the Islamicate alembic included among the illustrations above, or ceramic. All of the alembics found in the DALME collection, however, were made of lead, at least in those instances where the material was mentioned (about half). Since alembics made of lead are found rarely (if at all) in archeological contexts, it seems likely that leaden alembics were regularly recycled for their metal content.

Further reading:

Taylor. Sherwood F. “The Evolution of the Still.” Annals of Science 5, no. 3 (July 15, 1945): 185–202.

Thomas, Nicholas. “L’alambic dans la cuisine?” In La cuisine et la table dans la France de la fin du Moyen Age: Contenus et contenants du XIVe au XVIe siècle. Colloque organisé par l’UMR 5594 (Dijon), l’INRAP, et le Centre d’étude et de recherche du patrimoine de Sens (Sens, 8-10 janvier 2004), 35–50. Caen: Publications du CRAHM, 2009.