Poison and Medicine in the Western World before the Appearance of the Treatises about Poisons (End of the Thirteenth Century)
By Franck Collard, University de Paris X–Nanterre
This paper discusses medical authors and their contributions to poison treatises during the 13th and 14th century.
Western medical literature neglected the topic of poison prior to the 12th century. Gilbertus Anglicus, a well known medieval physician wrote a treatise in 1225, Compendium Medicinae, where only 3% of the text dealt with poison, and was lodged at the very end of the book. Gilbertus discussed the different types of venom and was very careful in his writing so as not to give other ‘evil ideas’.
William of Saliceto, a famous medieval surgeon and cleric, wote Summa Practica between 1268 – 1275 about illness and poison, but poison only comprised 5% of the text. Bernard of Gordon, professor of medicine at Montpellier, wrote a treatise where only 2% of it dealt with poison, and these were mainly on venomous bites and stings.
Western medical authors do not say clearly where they obtained their information and often their references were poor. Some mention Avicenna, Galen and Albertus Magnus. Some works dealt with poisoning by animals, venomous bites, and ways to avoid these situations. Other texts dealt with rabid animal bites, snakes, and bees. These texts did not play a major role in later documents about poison but were viewed as a first step in this topic.