By Danièle Cybulskie
Sometimes, when we get sick, it can feel like we’d do anything to get better. But what if the remedy we needed required us to swallow animal dung?
The use of animal dung in medicine is not new to us, nor would it have been to people in the medieval world. It also wasn’t exclusive to Europe, and (believe it or not) using dung to solve our problems still hasn’t completely gone out of fashion.
A fifteenth-century Irish manuscript contains, among other medical works (including parts of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine), a tract completely dedicated to the use of animal dung for healing. Fortunately for us, it’s just been translated by Dr. Ranke de Vries.
The good news about medicinal animal dung is that it would always have been plentiful in the medieval world. Different dungs are, of course, useful for different things. To heal kidney stones, ingest powdered mouse dung, or “place it as a poultice on the pelvis and it does the same.” For scabies, take duck dung and “mix it together with honey and linseed meal”, again using it as a poultice. Drinking pig dung with wine “staunches blood flow and heals pain of the side.” Swallow dung sprinkled into the eyes “disperses their fogginess, scale, and darkness” (de Vries speculates that this meant cataracts). More than just a popular insult, chicken dung is meant to be useful as “an antidote for the person who consumes poisonous deadly herbs, such as hemlock, henbane and the like”. There are remedies which use sheep dung, cow dung, and bull dung, but the most useful of all seems to have been goat dung.
Powdered, goat dung can be used to heal “pustules” and other skin problems; as ash, it corrects hair loss (alopecia); as a poultice made with pig lard, it heals gout; with vinegar and barley-meal, it eases abscesses. It even does more:
Drink that powder with goat’s milk whey together with ground pepper, and it heals jaundice and edema. Place it in the same way as a poultice on the abdomen and it heals the same. Mix that powder with powdered frankincense and it stops excessive menstrual flow; and place it as a poultice on the womb or place it in a little bag and put that on the vulva and it does the same thing. Place that powder into a wound and it staunches the flow of blood.
Clearly, goat dung is something useful to keep around.
While most of these remedies aren’t likely to have worked all that well, there are certain combinations which might possibly have worked; in part, because of the ingredients they were combined with. For example, “dung of a dog that consumes bones” powdered and mixed with honey is meant to heal wounds. Honey can be a natural antibiotic, so if this remedy was successful at healing, it’s likely that it was down to the honey. Similarly, the ashes of cow dung mixed with vinegar are said to be useful in healing “the bite of rabid dogs”. It’s not likely to have been the cow dung which worked in this case, but the vinegar which would have been more effective (if at all). The ashes of goat dung – that miracle cure – were to be mixed with “olive oil, sugar, wax, and with pig fat after it has been rendered” in order to heal burns. Again, it’s not likely to have been the goat dung which was did the trick, but the combination of ingredients which kept the burn moist as it healed naturally.
Whether or not these pungent cures might have worked, suffice it to say (if I really need to say it at all) do not try this for yourself. Instead of drinking powdered chicken poop to cure your cough, take advantage of the last five centuries of medical innovation and head to the pharmacy instead.
For the full translation of this Irish wisdom and for more amazing animal dung recipes, you can read Dr. Ranke de Vries’ “A Short Tract on Medicinal Uses for Animal Dung” in the North American Journal for Celtic Studies.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: Medical procedures in a 12th century manuscript. British Library MS Harley 1585 fol. 9