The discovery, that many kinds of earth, when dried, might be employed as fuel, may have easily been occasioned by an accident in some place destitute of wood. A spark falling fortuitously on a turf-moor during a dry summer often sets it on fire, and the conflagration it occasions generally lasts so long that it cannot escape notice 573. Of the earth taking fire in this manner there are many instances to be found in the ancients. One of the most remarkable is that mentioned by Tacitus, who relates, that not long after the building of the city of Cologne, the neighbouring land took fire, and burned with such violence that the corn, villages, and every production of the fields were destroyed by the flames, which advanced even to the walls of the city 574. This remarkable passage is not to be understood as alluding to a volcanic eruption, but to a morass which had been set on fire. In the duchy of Berg and around Cologne there are very extensive morasses, from which turf is dug up for fuel, and which undoubtedly serve to confirm this idea.

That the use of turf was well known in the earliest periods in the greater part of Lower Saxony, and throughout the Netherlands, is fully proved by Pliny's account of the Chauci, who inhabited that part of Germany which at present comprehends the duchies of Bremen and Verden, the counties of Oldenburg, Delmenhorst, Diepholz, Huy and East Friesland. Pliny says expressly, that the Chauci pressed together with their hands a kind of peat earth, which they dried by the wind rather than by the sun, and which they used not only for cooking their victuals, but also for warming their bodies 575. I explain also by turf a short passage of Antigonus Carystius, quoted from Phanias, in which it is said that a morass in Thessaly having become dry, took fire and burned.

The account therefore given in some Dutch chronicles, that turf and the manner of preparing it were first found out about the year 1215, and that about 1222 it had become common, is certainly false 576. This information may be applicable to certain lands and districts, and correct as to the introduction of this kind of fuel in those parts; for the use of it was not extended far till a late period; and even yet turf is neither employed nor known in many places which possess it, even though they are destitute of wood 577. Some improvement in the manner of preparing turf may have also been considered as the invention of this fuel, which is undoubtedly of greater antiquity. What induced Monconys to ascribe the invention of turf to Erasmus, or who first propagated that error, I can as little conjecture as Misson 578.

Scaliger has erred 579  no less than Monconys, whose account was doubted by Uffenbach 580. According to the first-mentioned author, turf had been used in the Netherlands only about three hundred years before his time, and he adds that he did not know that this kind of fuel had ever been mentioned by the ancients.

Those however are mistaken also who believe that it is to be found in the Salic laws and those of the Alemanni. It is true that the word turpha  occurs in the former, and that Wendelin and others have declared it to mean turf; but the assertion of Eccard, that it signifies a village, called in German Dorf 581 , is more probable. Still less can the doubtful word curfodi, in the laws of the Alemanni, be supposed to allude to this substance, though we are assured by Lindenbrog that he found in a manuscript, in its stead, the term zurb 582 . It is also not credible that turf should be employed at that period, as wood was everywhere superabundant.

The oldest certain account of turf in the middle ages with which I am at present acquainted, is that pointed out by Trotz 583 , who says that it occurs in a letter of donation of the year 1113. He has given the words in the Dutch language, as if they had stood so in the original. But he has quoted his authority in so careless a manner, that I have not been able to conjecture what kind of book he meant. I have however found a Latin copy of the letter of donation in a work pointed out to me by Professor Reuss 584. An abbot Ludolph, in the year 1113, permitted a nunnery near Utrecht to dig cespites  for its own use in a part of his venæ, but at the same time he retained the property of these venæ. Now there can be no doubt that vena  signifies a turf bog, and cespites  turf. The former is the same word as Fenne  or Venne, which occurs in the old Frisic and the present Veen 585  of the Dutch. The nuns also could make no other use of the turf but employ it as fuel. This passage however proves nothing; though Trotz says that a great trade was carried on with turf in the twelfth century, and that the abbot wished to interdict the nuns from using it.

It is worthy of remark that the words turbaturboturbæ ad focumturfa, occur for turf, in the years 1190, 1191, 1201 and 1210, as is proved by the instances quoted by Du Cange. Turbaria  for a turf-moor is found in Matthew Paris, who died in 1259; Turbagium, in a diploma of Philip the Fair in the year 1308, signifies the right of digging turf, as turbare  does to dig up turf. The word mor  also is found in a document of the year 1246, quoted by Du Cange; who however has not introduced it into his dictionary 586. It seems to be the same as mariscus  and marescus. Brito, who lived about 1223, describing the productions of Flanders, says, “Arida gleba foco siccis incisa marescis 587.” That the last of these words signifies a turf-bog is proved by a passage of Lambert, who lived at Ardres about the year 1200: “Quendam similiter mariscum, ut aiunt, proprium perfodi fecit, et in turbas dissecari.”

The assertion of Winsem and others, that the practice of digging turf first became common after the year 1215, is undoubtedly founded on information obtained from Sibrand Leo's Vitæ Abbatum Horti Divæ Virginis seu Mariengard 588 ; but this writer died in 1588, and can by no means be adduced as an evidence: he even says himself that turf-digging in 1212 was a new occupation.

The conjecture that the Netherlanders, who in the twelfth century established themselves as colonists in some districts of Germany, and particularly Lower Saxony, first made known there the preparation and use of this kind of fuel is improbable, or at any rate not proved 589. It is improbable, because the Chauci, the oldest inhabitants of that country, burnt turf before that period.

It is related by the Icelanders that Einar, Count or Earl of Orkney or of the Orkney islands, discovered turf there, and on that account was named Torffeinar. He was the son of Raugnwauld, or Rognwald, earl of Mören, Sued and Nordmör in Norway, in the time of the celebrated Norwegian King Harold, commonly called Haarfager or Pulcricomus, on account of his beautiful hair 590. He must have lived therefore in the middle of the ninth century; but on so trifling a subject I shall enter no further into the labyrinth of the Icelandic Saga.

In Sweden turf was first made known at a very modern period by some navigators in the district of Halland; and in the time of Charles XI. much trouble was taken to introduce it as fuel. In 1672 the town of Laholm obtained an exemption from duty for the turf dug up in the lands belonging to it.

In later times turf began to be burned to charcoal, sometimes in kilns, and sometimes in furnaces built for that purpose, by which this advantage is obtained, that it kindles sooner, burns with less air, and forms a more moderate and uniform fire without much smoke. This method of reducing turf to charcoal, which is still practised in some parts of Bohemia, Silesia, and Upper Saxony, was, it appears, proposed about the year 1669, by the well-known John Joachim Becher, who recommended at that time a method of depriving coals of their sulphur by burning them, and the use of naphtha or rock-oil procured from them by that process 591. The burning of turf to coal seems to have been first made known in Germany by Hans Charles von Carlowitz, chamber-counsellor, and principal surveyor of the mines of the electorate of Saxony 592. To save wood and promote the benefit of the mines he sought for turf; and having discovered it, he then endeavoured to find out some method of rendering it fit to be employed in the melting-houses, and this was the reducing to coal, which, as he himself says 593 , he first attempted in kilns at Scheibenberg, in the year 1708. At the Brocken the first experiments were made in 1744, with turf which had been dug up several years. This was announced by F. C. Brückman in 1745 594 , as a new invention; but an anonymous writer stated 595  soon after, that this charring had been long used in the district of Hadeln, and that the smiths there employed no other kind of coals for their work.

[In 1842 a patent was taken out by Mr. Williams for compressing peat into a dense mass, resembling coals. It is said to be superior to coal in its properties of producing heat by combustion, forming an excellent charcoal or coke. It is asserted that this charcoal is much more combustible than that of wood, and very useful in the manufacture of fire-works. The process is as follows:—Immediately after being dug it is triturated under revolving edge-wheels faced with iron plates perforated all over the surface, and is forced by the pressure through these apertures, till it becomes a kind of pap, which is freed from the greater part of its moisture by a hydraulic press. It is then dried, and converted into coke in the same manner as pit-coal. The factitious coal of Mr. Williams is made by incorporating pitch or rosin, melted in a caldron with as much peat-charcoal ground to powder as will form a tough doughy mass, which is then moulded into bricks.]


573  In Siberia, a village which stood on a turf-moor was, on account of its marshy situation, removed to another place; and that the remains might be more easily destroyed, they were set on fire. The flames having communicated to the soil, which was inflammable, occasioned great devastation; and when Gmelin was there, it had been continually burning for half a year. See Gmelin's Reisen durch Russland, vol. i. p. 22.

574  The rustics, in despair, when they found the fire was unquenchable either by rain or by the river-water which they poured over it, threw in heaps of stones, beat down the flames issuing from the interstices with clubs, and as the fire became subdued flung on their clothes, which being made of skins and wetted, eventually extinguished the conflagration. See Tacitus, An. xiii. 57.

575  Hist. Nat. lib. xvi. c. 1.

576  “The foresters, who had then got a new employment, that of turf-digging, which had been before unknown, or at least very uncommon, gave as a present to the monastery of Mariengard, in 1215, several turf-bogs in and near Backefeen.”—Chronique van Vriesland door P. Winsemium, 1622, p. 158. That monastery was situated at the distance of two miles from Leeuwaarden.

In Kronijck der Kronijcken, door S. de Vries, printed at Amsterdam in 1688, the following passage occurs, vol. v. p. 553:—“About this time (1221) the digging of turf was first practised, which in some measure made amends for the damage occasioned by the sea-water, and by which several acquired great riches.”

Some Dutch writers make turf-digging to be of much higher antiquity, and in support of this opinion quote an old chronicle in rhyme, in which mention is made of a donation by Gerolf count of Friesland; but I am not acquainted with the antiquity of that chronicle, and of the letter of donation there is only a Flemish translation. See Berkhey, Nat. Hist. v. Hol. vol. ii. p. 552.

577  The use of turf was first made known in France in the year 1621, by Charles de Lamberville, advocate of the parliament of Paris, who resided some time in Holland, to which he had been sent by the king on public business. See Anciens Mineralogistes, par Gobet, i. p. 302.

578  Voyages de Monconys. Lyons, 1666, 2 vol. 4to, ii. p. 129. C'est lui (Erasme) qui a donné l'invention de la tourbe, qu'on brusle au lieu du charbon. See also Misson's Travels.

579  Scaligerana, ii. p. 243; Je ne sçache aucun ancien, qui fasse mention de tourbes.

580  Voyages, vol. iii.

581  Leges Salicæ, ed. Eccardi, p. 42.

582  Lindenbrogii Codex Legum Antiquarum. Franc. 1613.

583  Trotz Jus Agrarium Fœd. Belgii, ii. p. 643.

584  Historia Episcopatuum Fœderati Belgii. Lugd. Bat. 1719, 2 vols. fol. i. p. 130.

585  Wiarda Altfrisisches Wörterbuch; where it is conjectured, not without probability, that the name Finland is thence derived.—Du Cange, Glossarium, under the word Venna.

586  The words are, “Morum dedit dictus comes dictæ ecclesiæ ad turfas fodiendas.”

587  Britonis Philippidos lib. ii. v. 144.

588  These lives are in Matthæi Veteris Ævi Analecta, Hag. 1738, v. p. 247.

589  I find quoted for this conjecture the Dissertation, Eelking de Belgis sæculo xii. in Germaniam advenis, Gottingæ, 1770, pp. 162, 164. But nothing further is found there than that the right of digging turf was in all probability confirmed to the colonists. This important Dissertation was written by Professor Wundt of Heidelberg.

590  This information may be found in Crymogæa, sive rerum Islandicarum libri iii. per Arngrimum Jonam Islandum. Hamburgi (1609), 4to, p. 50. “Torf cujus inventor perhibetur in Orcadibus dux quidam Orcadensis, Einarus Raugnvaldi ducis Norvegici de Maere filius, tempore pulcricomi Norveg. regis, qui idcirco Torffeinarus dictus est.”

591  “In Holland there is turf, and in England there are coals, neither of which are good for burning either in apartments or in melting-houses. I have, however, discovered a method of burning both these to good coals, so that they shall not only produce no smoke or bad smell, but yield a heat as strong for melting metals as that of wood, and throw out such flames that a foot of coal shall make a flame ten feet long. This I have demonstrated at the Hague with turf, and proved here in England with coals, in the presence of Mr. Boyle, by experiments made at Windsor on a large scale. It deserves to be remarked on this occasion, that as the Swedes procure their tar from fir-wood, I have procured tar from coals, which is in everything equal to the Swedish, and even superior to it for some purposes. I have tried it both on timber and ropes, and it has been found excellent. The king himself ordered a proof of it to be made in his presence. This is a thing of very great importance to the English, and the coals after the tar has been extracted from them are better for use than before.”—Narrische Weisheit und weise Narrheit. Frankfurt, 1683, 12mo, p. 91. Boyle seems to speak of this invention in The Usefulness of Natural Philosophy, London, 1774, fol. i. p. 515. The burning of coals in order to procure from them rock-oil, which was used particularly by the leather manufacturers, and which on that account could not be exported, was much practised in England. It appears, however, that something of the like kind was attempted before Becher's time; for in the year 1627, John Hacket and Octav. Strada obtained a patent for their invention of rendering coals as useful as wood for fuel in houses without hurting anything by their smoke. See Anderson's History of Commerce.

592  The practice of charring turf appears however to be much older, if it be true that charred turf was employed about the year 1560 at the Freiberg smelting-houses, though that undertaking was not attended with success.—See Hoy's Anleitung zu einer bessern Benutzung des Torfs. Altenburg, 1781.

593  Von Carlowitz, Sylvicultura Œconomica. Leipzig, 1713, fol. p. 430, where an account is given of the first experiment.

594  In Hamburgischen Berichten, p. 93.

595  Ib. p. 170.