Tag Archives: dung

Dung? Alchemy is full of it

In working through the Mymer manuscripts, I have been struck on more than one occasion by their repeated references to dung. While calculating his expenses, for instance, Georg Mymer lists horse manure and coal alongside the various flasks he needs for his tinctures. [1]

Like coal, dried horse manure was used for heating. Maintaining constant heat at fixed temperature was exceedingly difficult in Georg’s day as people lacked the help of modern furnaces. With practice, alchemists like Georg became adept at controlling temperature by manipulating the flow of air into their fires and furnaces and by changing the material being burned.  As Georg notes in his inventory, dung had the added benefit of being cheaper than coal.

Fresh manure was also a useful, if fragrant, heat source. The alchemist would bury his flask in manure. As the manure decomposed, it gave off a mild, but steady heat, which triggered a reaction with the flask, known as digestion. When the manure began to cool, the alchemist could simply replace it with a fresh supply. This setup came to be known as a venter equinus (the horse’s bowels).

While Georg’s interests in manure – at least as far as I have so far found – were limited to its use as a heat source, alchemy and dung had much a richer relationship. In closing this post, let me point out   two additional uses of manure: (1) as an ingredient and (2) as criticism.

Dung was mixed with crushed clay to make lute (lutum sapientiae), the putty used to seal alchemical vessels. It was also used as an ingredient in medicines. In an earlier post on this blog, Jonathan Cey discussed how Paracelsus developed fecal medicines in the early modern period. Although he had a new take on the medicinal uses of poo, Paracelsus was preceded by a medieval tradition of fecal alchemy. Centuries earlier, the philosopher Morienus described the starting material of the Philosophers’ Stone as “of cheap price and found everywhere” and “trodden underfoot.”[2]  Medieval alchemists took that description literally and used the manure found all over their streets. As early as the fourteenth century, John of Rupescissa  criticized this interpretation, but the practice persisted all the same.

At the same time, alchemists were warned about searching for gold in poo. Pseudo-Arnald of Villanova quipped in a rhyming couplet:

Qui quaerit in merdis secreta philosophorum
expensis perdit proprias, tempusque laborum

He who seeks the philosophers’ secret in shit
will waste his money, time, and labor on it.

Another couplet gets right to the point:

Qui merdam seminat, merdam et metet

He who sows shit, also reaps shit.[3]

In order to reinforce this message, in the manuscript original, this line is written across the backside of an alchemist sitting on a toilet (garderobe). Some alchemists, as we have seen, really did use dung in their recipes, but for others these poems served as a vivid warning not to use subpar ingredients.

Perhaps the best application of manure to the alchemists’ art was suggested by one of its 16th-century German critics. In 1586, Johannes Clajus published Altkumistica; or The art of making gold out of dung: Against the fraudulent alchemists and unskilled Theophrastians (Altkumistica, das ist: Die Kunst aus Mist durch seine Wirckung Gold zu machen: Wider die betrieglichen Alchimisten, und ungeschickte vermeinte Theophrasisten). The title is a pun on alchemistica: “alt” meaning “old” and “kumist” meaning “cow manure”. In that work, Clajus argues that an alchemist would be best off if he used cow manure to fertilize a field, grow wheat, feed the cows that produced the manure in the first place, and sell both for a healthy profit in gold coins.

Sadly for Georg, who finished writing his notebook in 1571, the Altkumistica appeared too late for him to benefit from Clajus’ advice.

[1] Leiden University Library, Vossiani Chymici F19, fols. 80r-81v.

[2] Morienus, De compositione alchemiae. Cited in Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 119.

[3] Lazarus Zetzner, ed., Theatrum Chemicum, vol. 3. (Strasbourg, 1659), 137; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 25110, f.21v. The image is reproduced in Lawrence M. Principe, “Laboratorium,” in Alchemie: Lexikon einer hermetischen Wissenschaft, eds. Claus Priesner and Karen Figala (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998), 210.

Both couplets were cited in Joachim Telle, Alchemie und Poesie: Deutsche Alchemikerdichtungen des 15. bis 17. Jahrhunderts. Untersuchungen und Texte (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 323. English translations mine.

Additional Works Consulted

Nummedal, Tara. Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Priesner, Claus, and Karen Figala, eds. Alchemie: Lexikon einer hermetischen Wissenschaft. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998. See especially the articles on “Arbeitsmethoden,” pp. 51-57 and “Laborgeräte,” pp. 211-15, by Lawrence M. Principe.

The Torture of Therapeutics in Rome: Galen on Pigeon Dung

By Caroline Petit

Although Galen is more than reluctant to use disgusting ingredients and remedies wherever possible (De simpl. med. ac fac., X, 1), his catalogue of simple remedies, his recipes and case histories show that animal and even human dung and urine are not absent from his therapeutic arsenal. But this is not as contradictory as it sounds, because Galen uses careful qualifications in his approach to excrements. Why, did you think he was going to spread dog’s feces all over your face? Fear not, Galen uses only non-smelling dung.

Galen reports an interesting case. In the dead of night, Galen was once called to the bedside of a Roman lady (Meth. med. V, 13); she had begun spitting blood and became extremely concerned, as she had heard Galen warn people against this dangerous symptom (Rome was justifiably anxious about the Antonine plague). She believed only prompt treatment would get the better of it, and she called for him. When Galen arrived, she begged him to submit her to whatever treatment he would deem suitable to cure her; the treatment designed by Galen would make any modern patient shiver, as it sounds very drastic indeed:

“I ordered the use of a sharp clyster and rubbing, and binding around of the legs and arms as much as possible, along with a heating medication. Then, having shaved her head, I applied the medication made from the excrement of wild pigeons. After an interval of three hours, I led her to the bath and and washed her without touching her head with any oil. Then I covered her head with a well-fitting felt cloth and, according to the prevailing season, I nourished her with thick gruel alone, afterwards giving her bitter fruits. Then, when she was about to go to sleep, I gave her the medication made from vipers that had been prepared four months before, for such a medication still has the juice of the poppy in strong degree whereas, in medications that have been aged, the strength becomes less. (…) Then, at intervals I repeatedly used on her head the customary salve from thapsia. I provided total care and nourishment for the body with passive exercises, rubbings, perambulations, abstinence from baths and a moderate and succulent diet. This woman became well without the need for milk.”

The poor woman, who was certainly elegant, perhaps fashionable and accustomed to elaborate hair styles (at least this is how we usually picture Roman ladies – Galen doesn’t comment on his patient), had to endure the shaving of her head, then the prolonged application of a paste made with pigeon dung – a well-known ingredient, known for its heating and drying properties, at least since Dioscorides (Mat. med. II, 80). The rest of the treatment is strikingly strong, with several powerful heating remedies (for example thapsia, which could cause burns if used at a high dosage) and must have been difficult to endure, especially as it lasted for a number of days. But the excrement of wild pigeon catches the eye, because it belongs to the much-maligned category of ‘disgusting’ (bdelura) remedies: so why does Galen mention it so casually here, in the case of a woman who must have been more delicate than any other, and for a readership who may have been just as sensitive as this poor woman? Well, Galen explains elsewhere in book X of his treatise on simple drugs that the key thing is to have dung that doesn’t smell, in order to remove the nauseating factor. For dung does have remarkable properties. Thus some forms of dung, especially the one coming from wild pigeons, is absolutely devoid of bad smell and is a powerful, reliable remedy praised by all. For some smelly kinds of dung (as in dog’s dung), it is preferable to let it dry first, before grounding it and thus, again, removing the problem of smell. Dung is disgusting only as long as it smells of dung. But once it is transformed into a powder, a paste, or any other pharmaceutical form you can think of, it is perfectly acceptable and pretty useful, as it is easy to find and inexpensive. What’s not to like?