Cooks know a Bain-Marie is a ‘double boiler’, a water-bath used for delicate cooking such as making custard. The ingredients are placed in a bowl and gently heated over a pan of boiling water, or individual dishes are stood in a tray of water that is put in the oven.
Bain Marie is French for ‘Mary’s Bath’ and you won’t be surprised to know that it was invented by a woman called Mary, or Mary the Jew to be exact. In bygone days, folks were punctilious in their racism. What may surprise you was Mary was not a celebrity kosher chef but an alchemist.
None of her works survive. She is only known from quotes in a compendium of writings called the Book of Hermetic Lore. These were fragments from different alchemy treatise put together in the 7th or 8th century in Constantinople.
By the 10th century Arab scientists considered her among the most influential alchemists of all time. It was, of course, from Arabic translations of Byzantine works that Mary was re-discovered in the west as ‘one of the sages’. Specifically in the preserved fragments of the writings of Zosimus Alchemista, who lived in Southern Egypt around 300 AD.
Zosimus credits Mary with the invention of three fundamental pieces of alchemists’ kit: Bain Marie used for heating, alembic for distillation and the condenser for separation. The latter two were used from medieval times to distil brandy from wine, and to extract essential oils from flowers in perfumery. Modern versions are used today.
Zosimus is vague about when Mary lived. He thought it was a couple of hundred years before his own time. A few hundred years later, a Byzantine scholar had moved her birth back to the Golden Age of ancient Athens, around 400 BC. Here she is mentioned as the teacher of the Greek philosopher Democritus, famous for his theory the universe was made of indivisible atoms surrounded by empty space.
Still others put Mary back further in time claiming she was Miriam, the sister of Moses; himself considered an alchemist and a magician, due to his ability to confound the Egyptian priests before Pharaoh, to say nothing of unleashing ten plagues upon a hapless Egypt while attempting to release the Children of Israel from bondage.
Despite the lack of any historical information about Mary, some say it is indisputable she existed, claiming she is mentioned by the early Greek writer Ostanes. Unfortunately this overlooks the fact Ostanes was not a historical figure either; merely a name attributed to a huge number of alchemical texts around 500 AD: some thousand years after he was supposed to have lived.
Pliny the Elder, writing at the beginning of the Christian period, believed Ostanes was a mythical Persian who introduced magic to ancient Athens and gave the Greeks a mania for this ‘monstrous craft’. As with Mary, none of Ostanes’ writings exist, yet like her, by the 500 AD, he was considered one of the great authorities in alchemy and magic.