Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.
As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.
In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.
Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).
And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*
During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains, “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).
*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.
Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275
Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.
Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.
10 thoughts on “The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines”
A fecal transplant is coming to be – well I don’t know what the right word is here, certainly not popular – let’s say talked about – for people with some serious gastroenterological diseases. Administered anally, the transplant from a health person helps re-establish the biota in the gut of the patient. There have been articles in the Economist and the New Yorker in the last year about the importance of maintaining the ‘good’ bacteria in one’s gut and this possible remedy.
Thanks for the comment. Yes, I have heard of this. With people looking for more ways to achieve healthy digestion it seems we’ll try anything! Ranitidine being among the top selling drugs worldwide this seems be beyond dispute. I think I would rather take probiotics orally than do something as hilariously ironic as you’ve suggested, which kind of reminds me stories of the enema culture surrounding the demise of Marilyn Monroe. Or the colonic and enema fad of more recent years – we can’t decide, in or out??
About a year ago I caught wind of a story (mhm) floating around that a Japanese scientist had used ‘methods of extraction’ to make a pseudo-meat out of feces. I am fairly certain it was exposed as a hoax, but the widely touted story shows that we are willing today to believe that a scientist could, by their lab processes render the necessary life forces for us, no matter how seemingly disgusting.
“It is said in a common proverb that everything about the pig is good except its shit, but experience shows the contrary: because pig dung fried with a little fresh butter, and an equal amount of clumps of blood from someone who abundantly spits up blood, given to a patient to eat, eases and stops all at once the spitting up of blood.”
Charles Estienne, L’Agriculture et Maison Rustique
That is a great quote and source! I must unfortunately admit that my french is not quite up to the task of reading this document – yet, that is.
Thanks for the addition, however! It seems Estienne was around about the same time, just a little after – I wonder if he was aware of Paracelsus’ work…
Thanks for a great post. Animal feces were also used as medicinal substances in the history of Chinese medicine (my field). I’m fascinated to see that this was actually a widespread practice! Maybe we should get a panel together sometime on “medicinal excrement”? (or maybe someone has done so already?)