A fascinating object in the Royal Armouries collection 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.
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:
- Restrained and reliable,
- Always calm,
- Never intoxicated.
- knowledgeable about weights and measures.
- Familiar with siege warfare against fortresses and walled places,
- knowledgeable about ‘fire cats, fire shields, fire eyes.’
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 the 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