Medieval Filth as a Source of Fortune



To a certain extent the story of Rome is reflected in medieval Europe, when classical agricultural texts were rediscovered by the likes of the thirteenth-century agronomist Walter of Henley. In these agricultural texts are repeated the recommendations of classical authors alongside the advice of Arabic writers such as Ibn al-Awwan, for whom waste was once again a source of life rather than death. The importance of animal dung is medieval Arab agriculture is apparent from the wide variety of terms employed to describe the different varieties:


Above table after Varisco (2012) (see chapter references)

As for the Roman rural population, waste was a source of goodness and, for many, brought not only material benefits in the form of food but also spiritual succor: the Bible is full of references to dung and dunghills, the Old Testament making clear that it is from the dung heap that the poor will be delivered and the unrighteous condemned.

Furthermore, the metamorphosis through which unholy excrement is converted into wholesome fertilizer is akin to transubstantiation. Undoubtedly this was read as an allegory of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection: from death and decaying matter, through the process of putrefaction, comes a substance that can restore life.

For this reason, great efforts and industry was put into retrieving manure and spreading it on fields – even the urban population made a contribution, their ‘night soil’ being collected by gong farmers, or ‘gongfermours’. The gonfermours’s job was to clean out urban cess-pits and take the contents out to collection points in at the extremities of towns so that it might be spread on the fields.