Feuerwerkbuch – Book of Fireworks

With bonfire night approaching a topical object in the Royal Armouries collections is a 15th-century  German manuscript called Feuerwerkbuch, or the Book of Fireworks, a reference book for gunpowder manufacturers and those who work with making fire or explosions.

Detail from folio 84r – Two besiegers bravely hold early handguns, while barrels of incendiary material fall around them.

Detail from folio 84r – Two besiegers bravely hold early handguns, while barrels of incendiary material fall around them.

Our manuscript is one of about 50 existing versions, probably copied by apprentices from their master’s original document, each adding their own recipes and observations throughout their working lives.

The oldest section of the text (c.1380) is structured in 12 questions and answers about how a stone ball is fired from a Steinbüchse gun using a new type of gunpowder manually compressed into pellets. This is followed by a mythologised account of the invention of gunpowder by the (probably legendary) alchemist, Berthold Schwarz.

A list of the qualities and abilities of a good master gunner includes: God fearing, restrained and reliable, always calm, and never intoxicated. Literate, numerate, knowledgeable about weights and measures. Familiar with siege warfare against fortresses and walled places, including knowledge of ‘fire cats, fire shields, fire eyes.’

folio 86r The Master gunner (identified by his red leggings and feathered cap) calmly directs a canon and fire-arrows towards a besieged town or fortification.

Folio 86r The Master gunner (identified by his red leggings and feathered cap) calmly directs a canon and fire-arrows towards a besieged town or fortification.

The manuscript includes instructions on growing and purifying saltpetre, and the various proportions of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal needed to create gunpowder with different strengths of explosion. Using pre-scientific alchemical techniques and beliefs, concepts such as gases, crystals, precipitate and temperature were as yet undefined. Instead there are references to vapours, frost, and boiling ‘to the same extent that one cooks fish’.

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant