Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Cleon the Tanner

Aristophanes' Knights is a thinly disguised attack on the Athenian demagogue Cleon, who appears in the play as Paphlagon, a slave from Paphlagonia.

Aristophanes calls Cleon βορβοροτάραξις (Knights 309), which means dung-stirrer, from βόρβορος (dung, filth) and ταράσσω (stir up). For similar scatological insults directed against Cleon, see Jeffery Henderson, The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Greek Comedy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 192-193, ## 414 and 417.

Cleon was a leather tanner (βυρσοδέψης, Knights 44). I'm unable to consult a commentary on Aristophanes' Knights, and I don't have access to R.J. Forbes' Studies in Ancient Technology. But in some times and places, dung has been used as an ingredient to tan leather.

See the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. pure B.5, as a noun meaning "dogs' dung or other substance used as an alkaline dye for steeping hides." Among other sources the OED quotes Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851). I located on the Internet an extended passage from Mayhew (vol. 2, pp. 142-143) on this topic:
Dogs'–dung is called 'pure' from its cleansing and purifying properties.

The name of 'pure finders' however has been applied to the men engaged in collecting dogs'-dung from the public streets only within the last twenty or thirty years. Previous to this period there appears to have been no men engaged in the business, old women alone gathered the substance, and they were known by the name of 'bunters,' which signifies properly the gatherers of rags; and thus plainly intimates that the rag gatherers originally added the collecting of 'pure' to their original and proper vocation. Hence it appears that the bone grubbers, rag gatherers and pure finders, constituted formerly but one class of people, and even now they have, as I have stated, kindred characteristics.

The pure finders meet with a ready market for all the dogs'-dung they are able to collect, at the numerous tanyards in Bermondsey, where they sell it by the stable bucket full, and get from 8d. to 10d. per bucket, and sometimes from 1s. to 1s.2d. for it, according to its quality. The 'dry limy–looking sort' fetches the highest price at some yards as it is found to possess more of the alkaline or purifying properties; but others are found to prefer the dark moist quality. Strange as it may appear, the preference for a particular kind has suggested to the finders of Pure the idea of adulterating it to a very considerable extent; this is effected by means of mortar broken away from old walls, and mixed up with the whole mass, which it closely resembles; in some cases however the mortar is rolled into small balls similar to those found. Hence it would appear, that there is no business or trade, however insignificant or contemptible, without its own peculiar and appropriate tricks.

The pure-finders are in their habits and mode of proceeding nearly similar to the bone-grubbers. Many of the pure-finders are however, in better circumstances, the men especially, as they earn more money. They are also to a certain extent, a better educated class. Some of the regular collectors of the substance have been mechanics and other small tradesmen, who have been reduced. Those pure-finders who have 'a good connection' and have been granted permission to cleanse some kennels, obtain a very fair living at the business, earning from 10s. to 15s. a week. These however are very few; the majority have to seek the article in the streets, and by such means they can obtain only from 6s. to 10s. a week. The average weekly earnings of this class are thought to be about 7s. 6d.

From all the enquiries I have made on this subject, I have found that there cannot be less than 200 to 300 persons constantly engaged solely in this business. There are about 30 tanyards large and small in Bermondsey, and these all have their regular pure collectors from whom they obtain the article. Leomont and Roberts's, Bavingtons', Beech's, Murrell's, Cheeseman's, Powell's, Jones's, Jourdans', Kent's, Moorcroft's, and Davis's, are among the largest establishments, and some idea of the amount of business done in some of these yards may be formed from the fact, that the proprietors severally employ from 300 to 500 tanners. At Messrs Leomont and Roberts there are 23 regular street finders who supply them with pure; moreover, Messrs. Leomont and Roberts do more business in the branch of tanning in which the article is principally used, viz., in dressing the leather for book-covers, kid-gloves, and a variety of articles. Besides these, it may be said that the numbers of the starving and destitute Irish have taken to picking up the material, but not knowing where to sell it, or how to dispose of it, they part with it for 2d. or 3d. a pail full to regular purveyors of it to the tanyards who of course make a considerable profit by the transaction. The children of the poor Irish are usually employed in this manner, but they also pick up rags and bones, and anything else which may fall in their way.

I have stated that some of the pure-finders, especially the men, earn a considerable sum of money per week; their gains sometimes as much as 15s.; indeed I am assured that seven years ago when they got from 3s. to 4s. per pail for the pure, that many of them would not exchange their position with that of the best paid mechanic in London. Now however the case is altered, for there are twenty now at the business for every one who followed it then; hence each collects so much less for the article. Some of the collectors at present do not earn 3s. a week, but these are mostly old women who are feeble and unable to get over the ground quickly; others make 5s. to 6s. in the course of the week, while the most active and those who clean the kennels of the dog fanciers may occasionally make 9s. and 10s. and even 15s. a week still, but this is a very rare occurrence. Allowing the finders, one with the other, to earn on an average 5s. per week, it would give the annual earnings of each to be 13l., while the income of the whole 200 would amount to 50l. a week, or 2600l. per annum. The kennel pure is not much valued, indeed many of the tanners will not even buy it, the reason is that the dogs of the 'fanciers' are fed on almost anything, to save expense; the kennel cleaners consequently take the precaution of mixing it with what is found in the street, previous to offering it for sale.

The pure-finder may at once be distinguished from the bone-grubber and rag-gatherer; the latter as I have before mentioned, carries a bag, and usually a stick armed with a spike, while he is most frequently to be met with in back streets, narrow lanes, yards, and other places, where dust and other rubbish are likely to be thrown out from the adjacent houses. The pure-finder, on the contrary is often found in the open streets as dogs wander where they like. The pure-finders always carry a handle basket, generally with a cover, to hide the contents, and have their right hand covered with a black leather glove; many of them however dispense with the glove, as they say it is much easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use. Thus equipped, they may be seen pursuing their avocation in almost every street in and about London, excepting such streets as are now cleansed by the 'street orderlies' of whom the pure-finders grievously complain as being an unwarrantable interference in the privileges of their class.

The pure collected is used by leather-dressers and tanners, and more especially by those engaged in the manufacture of morocco and kid leather from the skins of old and young goats, of which skins great numbers are imported, and of the roans and lambskins which are the sham morocco and kids of the “slop” leather trade, and are used by the better class of shoemakers, bookbinders, and glovers, for the inferior requirements of their business. Pure is also used by tanners, as is pigeon‘s dung, for the tanning of the thinner kinds of leather, such as calf-skins, for which purpose it is placed in pits with an admixture of lime and bark.

In the manufacture of moroccos and roans the pure is rubbed by the hands of the workman into the skin he is dressing. This is done to 'purify' the leather, I was told by an intelligent leatherdresser, and from that term the word 'pure' has originated. The dung has astringent as well as highly alkaline, or, to use the expression of my informant, 'scouring,' qualities. When the pure has been rubbed into the flesh and grain of the skin (the 'flesh' being originally the interior, and the 'grain' the exterior part of the cuticle), and the skin, thus purified, has been hung up to be dried, the dung removes, as it were, all such moisture as, if allowed to remain, would tend to make the leather unsound or imperfectly dressed. This imperfect dressing, moreover, gives a disgreeable smell to the leather -- and leather-buyers often use both nose and tongue in making their purchases -- and would consequently prevent that agreeable odour being imparted to the skin which is found in some kinds of morocco and kid. The peculiar odour of the Russia leather, so agreeable in the libraries of the rich, is derived from the bark of young birch trees. It is now manufactured in Bermondsey.

Among the morocco manufacturers, especially among the old operatives, there is often a scarcity of employment, and they then dress a few roans, which they hawk to the cheap warehouses, or sell to the wholesale shoemakers on their own account. These men usually reside in small garrets in the poorer parts of Bermondsey, and carry on their trade in their own rooms, using and keeping the pure there; hence the 'homes' of these poor men are peculiarly uncomfortable, if not unhealthy. Some of these poor fellows or their wives collect the pure themselves, often starting at daylight for the purpose; they more frequently, however, buy it of a regular finder.

The number of pure-finders I heard estimated, by a man well acquainted with the tanning and other departments of the leather trade, at from 200 to 250. The finders, I was informed by the same person, collected about a pail-full a day, clearing 6s. a week in the summer -- 1s. and 1s. 2d. being the charge for a pail-full; in the short days of winter, however, and in bad weather, they could not collect five pail-fulls in a week.
To return to Aristophanes' Knights, Douglas M. MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 107, states:
Some of the invective against Kleon may be regarded as conventional, perhaps taken over from the tradition of abuse in iambic verse, and therefore not to be taken literally. This applies particularly to the first part of the contest, when Paphlagon and the Sausage-seller are slanging each other, and it applies above all to the obscenities.
MacDowell also (p. 81) doubts that Cleon "spent every day tanning leather with his hands."

But perhaps the obscenity at Knights 309 is to be taken literally. Did Aristophanes call Cleon a dung-stirrer because he actually stirred liquefied dung while tanning leather?

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