Many people are now increasingly turning to natural remedies for their therapeutic or preventative virtues. In lots of cases, we are merely rediscovering or refining what our ancestors had long known and sworn by as effective and curative. Herb and plant extracts have long been traditionally used for medicinal purposes but, in times gone by, other natural products were routinely used.
The medical use of natural derivatives is well attested from ancient times and was once commonly found in therapeutic practices across the world. Indeed, almost everything that could be taken from the bodies of men and animals, living or dead, was enlisted to prevent and cure all ailments. It may seem strange to us now but the use of ordure in medicinal preparations remained commonplace in France and western Europe long into the modern era.
Many of the popular medical and pharmacological treaties of the 17th and 18th centuries contain copious amounts of recipes and preparations extolling the value of urine and excrement in treating all manner of diseases. These texts were not written by weird charlatans for some rural witch practicing traditional folk remedies but by preeminent scientists for the leading physicians of the day.
While our opinions of the medical establishment of 17th century France may be clouded by the contempt in which it was held by Moliere whose scornful attacks on physicians portrayed them as blustering, often dangerous, bunglers. A more entertaining view can be found in the letters of his contemporary, the Marquise de Sévigné, whose works are peppered with references to the medicine of her century, which she did not disdain; on the contrary, she took human urine to rid herself of jaundice. On other occasions, she consumed vipers confident in the belief that they were an unequalled tonic for restoring vigour. She also claimed that, on certain days, eating two shredded vipers at breakfast had a marked influence on her writing.
Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné (1626-96) was born into an illustrious French family whose menfolk were noted for dying in some of the nation’s most important battles and whose women were renowned for their virtue. At 18, she married a Breton noble, the Marquis de Sévigné, and honeymooned at his family seat, the Château des Rochers, near Vitré in eastern Brittany; a place that she would routinely stay over the next fifty years. Marie’s husband did not enjoy the luck of her grandfather, who survived eighteen duels, being killed in a duel over his mistress, leaving her a widow the day after her twenty-fifth birthday.
She is remembered today for her prodigious letter writing, particularly those exchanged for over two decades with her daughter. First published in 1725, the letters provide an interesting insight into aristocratic life in the 17th century and touch on all manner of subjects, from court scandal to family gossip. One of the marquise’s constant concerns throughout her correspondence is the health and well-being of her daughter; it is a subject that casts a fascinating light on the popular remedies and miracle cures of the time; Emerald Water, Tranquil Balm, Catholicon and the Water of a Thousand Flowers.
Many assume that the mysterious Emerald Water mentioned by de Sévigné was a product derived from urine but this is probably unlikely. In her letter of 20 June 1685, addressed to her daughter, she writes: “I told them that my leg perspired greatly and they replied that they knew it, that it was the point they had aimed at in their remedies and that I was cured; they sent me a liquid they called essence of emerald, which strengthened the part, and has a most delightful perfume.”
Believing this Emerald Water able to “heal and cure everything”, it was to this essence that she attributed her recovery and after some “six weeks without the least appearance of a sore”, she wrote: “It is now over and I apply nothing to my leg but a piece of lint steeped in the blood of a hunted hare, to strengthen it and perfect the cure.” The marquise went on to write: “I walk as much as I please; I use the emerald water, so pleasant that if I did not apply it to my leg, I would put it on my handkerchief.”
There is nothing in de Sévigné’s letters to suggest that urine was a key ingredient of this fragrant smelling liquid medicine and we will now simply never know its components. However, a formula for a potion called Emerald Water is found in Elements of Pharmacy (1762) by the French chemist Antoine Baumé: an alcohol infused with a macerated blend of herbs and aromatic plants thus explaining the liquid’s colour and smell.
Many physicians of the time claimed to be able to diagnose disease from urine but the fluid itself was more commonly used in the treatment of disease. It was typically employed in two ways: either in its raw state or in the chemical preparations extracted from it. De Sévigné’s letters show that she herself used to dose pure drops, drops diluted with a balm and also took its vapours.
On 15 December 1684, the marquise wrote to her daughter in the following terms: “I send you, my child, the most precious thing in my possession, which is half a bottle of Tranquil Balm. I can never have it filled again as the Capuchins have no more. It is by the help of this balm that they cured the little woman of her nephritic complaints. They desire you to put ten to twelve drops of it into the same quantity of spirits of urine, made warm, and rub it well into your side by which means it will penetrate to the seat of the disorder. [It is] also a remedy for complaints of the chest.”
The Louvre Capuchins were two monks who operated a crown sponsored laboratory at the Louvre Palace in Paris between 1678 and 1680. Practicing a mixture of alchemy, medicine and pharmacy, their propriety concoctions proved so popular that, on more than one occasion, they ran out of medicine and had to ask their patients to return unused remedies on the promise of receiving a double dose at the next visit. Their success attracted the jealousy of their lay colleagues and the friars retired to Brittany where they were so overwhelmed by the high number of patients seeking their assistance that their presence became a major distraction to their brother friars.
Tranquil Balm was named after one of the friars who invented it, Tranquille d’Orléans, his partner, Henri de Montbazon, noted its components in his work Secrets and Remedies (1697): “We took all we could find of harmless and fragrant herbs, namely; nightshade, henbane, poppy heads, elderflower, St. John’s wort … all finely chopped, pounded and well mixed. After which we boiled some olive oil and added the herbs which we boiled until they were browned and dry. If we want to make it even better, we add as many large live toads as there are pounds of oil.”
In another letter to her daughter, dated 13 June 1685, de Sévigné wrote: “I took eight drops of essence of urine but contrary to custom, it prevented me from sleeping the whole night. However, it produced the intended effect and my esteem is greater than ever.” The medicinal powers of urine have been noted since the time of Pliny and fifteen hundred years later the influential 16th century Swiss physician Paracelsus wrote that: “The salt of man’s urine has an excellent quality to cleanse, it is made this way.”
According to some sources, this essence of urine was also called Catholicon because of its wonderful properties. Curiously, this was also the name of the first Breton-French-Latin dictionary, published in 1499. Camille Vieillard in his Urology and Urologists in Ancient Medicine (1903) tells that the essence was made from the urine of a healthy boy of twelve years of age, ideally, one who had been drinking wine for several months beforehand. The urine was then poured upon dung for a philosophical year (one month) and distilled over a low heat in a retort attached to an airtight container. The distillate was then distilled again a further four times. At which stage, the liquid was almost colourless and the pungent odour disguised by the addition of a little cassia and sugar.
Other authors said that urine oil was best distilled from the urine of a healthy, chaste man of thirty years, who had drunk heavily of wine for the occasion and it was believed especially effective if collected while the Sun and Jupiter were in Pisces. Another variant called for the urine of a twelve year old boy, who had been drinking wine, to be placed in a receptacle surrounded by horse dung for forty days. Left to putrefy, the fluid was then decanted upon human ordure and distilled in an alembic. The resulting liquid was said to be effective for treating all sorts of pains and given both internally and externally, successful in treating jaundice, urinary diseases, epilepsy and even mania.
Vieillard noted that urine oil was once thought to possess many virtues: “The essence of urine can be a universal remedy. It has, in fact, admirable properties for all kinds of diseases and wonderfully helps nature. It cures dropsy, suppresses urine and menstruation, prevents corruption, and cures plague and fevers of all kinds. Taken daily, it stops vomiting and nausea, although it sometimes causes vomiting.”
Another popular medicine, whose use is even attested to at the French court, with a deliberately confounding name was the Eau de Millefleurs or Water of a Thousand Flowers. Readers will not be surprised to learn that this was not quite the quintessence of a fragrant floral meadow. It seems that there were commonly two types of Millefleurs Water; one made from plain cow’s urine and the other produced by the distillation of cow’s dung.
The French chemist Nicolas Lémery’s Universal Pharmacopoeia (1697) specifies that it was produced by distilling fresh cow dung collected: “In May, when the grass starts to gain strength, fresh cow dung will be collected and having half-filled a stoneware pot, we will place it in a bain-marie and by a strong enough fire we will distil a clear water called Eau de Millefleurs.”
The physician François Malouin, in his Medicinal Chemistry (1750), offers a quite detailed description of the other type of Millefleurs Water: “… cow urine; one chooses that of a heifer or of a young healthy brown cow fed in a good pasture. In the month of May or in September, in the morning, we receive in a vessel this urine of the cow which is carried, hot, to the patient, who must be on an empty stomach.” Lémery believed this tonic was a purgative most suitable for treating asthma, dropsy, rheumatism, sciatica and gout if the patient drank two or three glasses of it every morning for nine days.
Bastier de La Mirande in his Notebook on Internal and External Medical Matters (1759) noted that the two types of Millefleurs Water possessed distinct attributes: “the first distilled from cow dung is resolutive, softening and cosmetic, it cleans, gives colour and removes facial stains; the second is the urine of a young black cow, if possible, of three years, which is neither full nor nursing, nor mad.” The Dutch-born doctor Jean-Adrien Helvétius in his Treatise on Frequent Diseases and Remedies Specific to Curing Them (1703) also wrote that the cow used needed to be black but furthermore that it must have previously borne a calf.
There was also a Millefleurs variant called the Water of All Flowers which took a mixture of cow dung and snails in their shells; the whole was crushed, diluted in white wine and distilled. This concoction was not for oral ingestion but was applied as a lotion to refresh the hands and face.
The apothecaries of the time drew many fantastic preparations from urine. An anti-epileptic known as Extract of the Moon featured the urine of boys as its main component, as did a potion called Oil of Sulphur. Salt of Urine was produced by distilling the urine of a boy and collecting the saline residue; it was administered for heart troubles and to aid in the expulsion of a dead foetus; from it were also made various remedies with exotic names such as Moon Salt, the Salt of Mercury and the Spirit of Orion.
A draught of one’s own urine, taken every morning whilst fasting, was commended for liver complaints and for dropsy and yellow jaundice but some preferred the urine of a young boy. A lotion of one’s own urine was good for the palsy but where this had been occasioned by excessive drinking, the urine of a boy was preferable. A drink of the patient’s own urine was highly commended for combating hysteria although some doctors recommended that the patient’s excrement and stale urine be applied to the nostrils. The patient’s urine or that of a boy was also used to treat consumption and one remedy called for the patient to drink a mixture of his own urine into which a fresh egg had been beaten.
The therapeutic value of urine seems to have known no bounds: it was drunk as a cure for worms, as a remedy for constipation and to treat a prolapsed uterus. If taken twice a day, some physicians even considered it an excellent preservative against the plague.
Urine oil was applied as a lotion for the elimination of head lice as well as dandruff. An external application was also used to treat venereal diseases although some authorities’ recommended drinking urine and the external application of horse dung. It was used as a wash to improve chapped hands and as an aid against all skin disorders. Likewise, ulcers were bathed with the patient’s own urine and it was often applied as a lotion to wounds, lesions and contusions.
For eye ailments, an eye-bath composed of the warm urine of young boys was recommended. Although water distilled from the ordure of a man who had only fed on bread and wine was also considered effective. Similarly, cataracts were thought best treated by the application of boy’s urine, human excrement or of the dung of wolves and green lizards. All manner of ear conditions were managed by the application of fresh human urine particularly that of a young boy mixed with honey.
In their quest for effective panaceas, the ingenuity of yesterday’s healers seems to have been unlimited. However, they were often as stubborn as they were imaginative and habitually clung to repeating treatments that were clearly ineffective, even harmful. Guy Patin, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in the mid-17th century, is noted to have bled one patient sixty four times in an attempt to cure his rheumatism. Similarly, in one year alone, King Louis XIII was bled forty seven times and received almost 260 purges. The king’s Chief Minister and former Governor of Brittany, Cardinal Richelieu, was prescribed horse droppings infused in white wine to treat his rectal abscess, while his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, was given the same medication but applied as a poultice to treat his gout.
If these remedies seem bizarre to us today, we can at least glimpse an appreciation of the value of ammonia in medicine but it is perhaps more difficult to fathom the reasoning underpinning other common cures. Finger nail cuttings absorbed in water were believed to cure fever, earthworms soaked in white wine were recommended for jaundice while dropsy was thought cured if the patient wore a belt full of live toads, which scratched the stomach and kidneys. Alopecia was treated by the application of three hundred slugs, boiled in a decoction of honey, bay leaves and olive oil.
In the past, the boundaries between scientific medicine and folk remedies were often blurred and while there are many folk remedies that call for the use of urine, from both humans and animals, it is more commonly found in superstitions surrounding the supernatural. Witches were said to have been able to shape-shift by washing their hands in “a certain water” which they kept in a pot; many believe that this water was actually urine. Other tales tell that witches could be exorcised if sprinkled with urine.
Human urine was also believed to be a powerful ingredient in bewitching spells, love potions and dagydes but it was also a potent means of frustrating the maleficence of witches. In Brittany, peasants once washed their hands in their urine or in that of their husbands in order to divert evil or avert its effect. Even into the middle of the 19th century, some people here washed their face with cow’s urine, or their own if no cow was available, in order to protect themselves from the Devil’s wickedness.
While we may find some of these old beliefs and practices involving ‘dirty water’ repugnant today, it is perhaps worth considering the notion that there is nothing dirty in nature; only a mass of chemical compounds slowly undergoing metamorphosis.