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Man Bites Dog: Alarming Effects of Medieval Animal Venom

Medieval Dog
Medieval Dog

Man Bites Dog: Alarming Effects of Medieval Animal Venom

Session: Mental Health in Non-medical Terms

Kathleen Walker-Meikle (University of York)

This paper was part of a fantastic series on mental health and disability in the Middle Ages. It was very humorous. This paper examined various types of bites, the “medieval symptoms” and some cures. It definitely elicited some laughs for the odd symptoms and medical advice. So if you don’t want to bark like a dog, urinate spiders or lash out at people with your teeth, read on…

This paper investigated the animal bites of serpents, scorpions, and dogs and some of the more interesting symptoms that ensued after being bitten. Birds almost never appear among the categories of biting animals and unsurprisingly, snakes comprise a large amount of the literature. Some mystical animals like the famous Basilik that killed with its gaze were also found in medieval medical treatises. What follows is a list of some of the scary and downright outlandish symptoms of venomous bites…

If you touched the body of a basilisk, even if it was dead, you could still die. If you were bitten by a Horned Asp you experienced pain like pinpricks, a heaviness of the body, swelling of the lips, dizziness, and cloudiness of the eyes. For a bite by a Viper/Adder – a common European venomous snake – the blood changed to a frothy substance and turned into the poison itself. It was followed by dizziness, trembling, fainting and death. If the patient was bitten by a Rutela Spider, an abscess occurred at the site of the bite, swelling, coldness in the body, and the victim would supposedly urinate little spiders and turn yellow! If a Scorpion bit a person, they suffered great pain, their body will prickly like that of a needle followed by a feeling of being crushed, sweating, congealing vomit, a change in skin colour, trembling then death. Many authors stressed that most posionous and venomous snakes did not reside in their areas and local spiders and snakes were harmless.A patient had to be able to able to tell the physician what bit them. Walker-Meikle showed a manuscript depiction of a man in Perugia being bitten by a snake that detailed the course of sickness the man experienced over the course of five days.

While snakes, scorpions and spiders had some unorthodox and curious symptoms ascribed to them, the strangest by far were bites by dogs. The rabid dog was considered one of the most deadly poisonous beasts. In late antiquity, there were symptoms like Hydrophobia, where a patient claimed to fear water after being bitten by a dog and suffered melancholic nightmares. The afflicted saw the image of the dog in the water, and would start barking, and lash out with their teeth! Physicians warned that the victim of a dog bite must not be shown any paintings or mirrors where they can see an image of themselves or they would go completely mad. In the final stages, the patient sees dog entrails in the water, has derranged visions of little dogs and puppies and then…. the fleshy puppies appear – real pieces of flesh in the shapes of dogs appear in the urine, blood and sperm and other damp substances! This idea was introduced by Avicenna. Pietro D’Abano and William of Marra said that the power of the patient’s imagination sealed these canine shapes on their damp substances. Dogs are prone to melancholoy, and thus become rabid. They suffer from humoral imbalances but this is the owner’s fault by doing things such as letting the dog sleep inside then kicking it out in the cold. They also advised owners not to shout at the dog. Lastly, they warned that  rabies sufferers could turn partially canine.

~Sandra Alvarez



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