Fuller’s Earth

June 13, 2009

‘Fuller’s earth’ is the name for a naturally occurring clay-like substance which has the ability to absorb and so remove stains and impurities. It takes its name from the textile industry, in which it was used to clean raw wool. In the seventeenth century the exportation of English Fuller’s earth to other countries for use in their textile industries was much disputed, and various charters prohibiting its export were issued.

Because of its stain-removing qualities, it was often used figuratively in seventeenth century writing, as seen below in Lancelot Andrewes’ The pattern of catechistical doctrine at large (1650).

But because the Spirit and fire may be quenched, there is another matter added to feed it, The cooperation of the word, ye are clean through the word, saith our Saviour: the hearing of the word is a cleanser too, it cleanseth like niter or fullers earth. The daily applying of the word checketh that which is amisse in us, and cleanseth our corruption. By this the Spirit purgeth us both within and without: for outwardly we must be clean too, or else we come short of a Scribe or Pharisee, for he maketh clean the outside. (p.77)

And this rather brilliant example from John Eachard’s The grounds & occasions of the contempt of the clergy and religion (1672)

It must come in thus: The blots and blurs of your Sins must be taken out by the Aqua-fortis of your Tears: To which Aqua-fortis if you put a fifth part of Sal-Almoniack, and set them in a gentle heat, it makes Aqua-regia, which dissolves Gold. And now ’tis out. Wonderful are the things that are to be done by the helps of Metaphors and Similitudes! And I’ll undertake, that with a little more pains and consideration, out of the very same words, he could have taught the people how to make Custards, Marmalade, or to stew Prunes. But pray, why the Aqua-fortis of Tears? For, if it so falls out, that there should chance to be neither Apothecary nor Druggist at Church, there’s an excellent Jest wholly lost. Now had he been so considerate, as to have laid his Wit in some more common and intelligible Material: For example, had he said that the blots of sin, will be easily taken out by the Soap of sorrow, and the Fullers-Earth of Contrition; then possibly the Parson and the people might all have admired one another. For there be many a Goodwife that understands very well all the intrigues of Pepper, Salt, and Vinegar, who knows not any thing of the all-powerfulness of Aqua-fortis, how that it is such a spot-removing Liquor. (pp.68-9)

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