Nova Scotia

Are you bald? Pregnant? Poisoned? Here's the dung to help you

If you’re balding, pregnant or have been bitten by a rabid dog, a recently unearthed Irish medical tract has just the poop for you.

600-year-old Irish medical text shows that No. 2 was often the No. 1 remedy for doctors in the Middle Ages

Medieval doctors prescribed dung for a variety of ailments. (Denis Farrell/The Associated Press)

If you're balding, pregnant or have been bitten by a rabid dog, a recently unearthed Irish medical tract has just the poop for you.

Ranke de Vries, associate professor of Celtic studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., stumbled across the Irish-language text from the 1400s while researching another project. It had never been translated.

"Of course, I was immediately very intrigued. Who could resist editing a 600-year-old text about animal dung?" de Vries told CBC News.

"It's really weird. When I first saw the tract, I thought: well, that's just really gross. But luckily most of the types of dung that are used in the Irish text are burnt and powdered, so it's not fresh dung."

Fortunately, de Vries is not squeamish and reads early modern Irish. (She also understands old Irish, middle Welsh, Latin, modern English, French, German and her native Dutch.) She worked with a digital version of the text posted to Irish Script on Screen.

Mix with lard, wine or vinegar

She said the text was likely owned by a medical family and would have been passed down through the generations. If you were an Irish doctor in the 1300s or 1400s, your child would also likely grow up to take over the family business.

"So these medical families, they would have had tracts that presumably would have been useful for them in one way or another: in practising medicine or maybe in instruction," said de Vries, who published her findings in the North American Journal of Celtic Studies.

"In the case of the animal dung article … the way it's set up, it suggests that it's probably for practical use. It doesn't mention specific quantities or anything, but it does mention the things you're supposed to combine it with, like lard, or wine, or vinegar, in order to make it into usable medicinal recipes."

The large word marked in red shows where the medical text begins. The digital document is part of the Irish Script on Screen project de Vries used. (Submitted by Irish Script on Screen)

If you visited the doctor and complained you were going bald, he was likely to prescribed goat dung. If you had skin impurities, he'd suggest a dose of goat dung. Burns? Jaundice? Unstaunched blood flow? Goat dung. Bitten by a rabid dog? Goat dung again.

But of course, if you'd been poisoned by hemlock, you'd want chicken poop. "Give it to them to drink or to consume," the dung text instructs. "Give it to people who have thick phlegm of the breast and they will expel it through coughing."

If you're enjoying a glass of wine, why not add powdered pig poop to heal that pain in your side?

Or if you're pregnant, try the poop of a dog that eats bones. Powder it, mix it with honey and place it into your open wounds. "It heals them. Leave the vapour of that powder under the womb and it heals pain and swelling of the womb," the text implores. 

"It's really strange, because when you look at all the recipes, it's for these wildly different afflictions," de Vries said. "It almost appears like a cure-all for all these completely different diseases and afflictions."

She suspects the doctors would have had other treatment plans, such as bloodletting.

Modern medicine looks to the past

Modern scientists are looking for new cures in old medical texts. Scientists at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. recreated a treatment for eye infection from a 1,000-year-old Anglo-Saxon text and found it still works.

In fact, the ninth-century recipe from Bald's Leechbook killed a modern superbug, MRSA, in lab tests.

Modern medicine also uses human fecal matter — not necessarily from an infant — to treat people with clostridium difficile, or people who have Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis. It's even been tried to help people with bipolar disorder.

Hard to find volunteers

de Vries noticed some medicinal poops known elsewhere, like bear and vulture, got left out of the Irish text. "Also, human infants, dung of human infants. I have no idea why the Irish text doesn't mention them."

She resisted the urge to test the medicine herself. "Usually, medieval medicine and medical recipes ... involve a lot of poisonous materials, so it probably goes without saying that you really shouldn't try any of these at home," she said.

"I think it would be really difficult to find volunteers to try this."



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