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Toxicology and Treatment: Medical Authorities and Snake-bite in the Middle Ages

Toxicology and Treatment: Medical Authorities and Snake-bite in the Middle Ages

By Kathleen Walker-Meikle

Korot: The Israel journal of the history of medicine and science, Vol. 22 (2013–2014)

medieval snake and man

Introduction: By end of the thirteenth century, surgeons and university-trained physicians in Western Europe had a plethora of authorities from the Greco-Roman and Arabic tradition from which to consult for the treatment of snake-bites. Venomous animals receive the largest share of attention in the literature on biting animals. Nearly all of the sources focus on the idea of the animal biting or puncturing the skin‘s surface with their mouths and few poisonous animals where the venom is passed on through the skin or hairs are mentioned. Venomous animals frequently appear in discussions on poisons in general, with poisons of animal, mineral or vegetable origin. The bulk of the discourse dealt with venomous snakes and rabid dogs, the latter considered venomous due to its ‘poisonous’ saliva, and to a lesser extent, scorpions and spiders. In general the bites of non-venomous animals received scant attention. Unlike modern taxonomical categories, medieval categories for animals were usually connected to the movement or the locale of the animal: flying animals, animals in water, land animals (which mainly covered quadrupeds), and crawling animals. It is in the latter category that snakes were located, along with lizards.

Animal bites are covered in Galen‘s Megatechne, his De theriaca ad Pisonem and the spurious De theriaca ad Pamphilianum. The last two are part of the theriakē tradition, which dealt with the preparation of theriac, a famed antidote against snake-bite and other conditions. The Great Theriac, usually ascribed to Andromachus (1st c. CE) and highly recommended by Galen even used snake flesh as one of its ingredients and was a major part of the Western pharmaceutical arsenal up to the early modern period. Two influential non-medical sources from the 1st century CE which were used by medieval scholars were Pliny the Elder‘s Natural History (Historia naturalis) and Lucan‘s poem, Pharsalia. In Book IX of the latter, Cato the Younger encounters assorted venomous snakes in North Africa, such as the flying iaculus and the deadly and petite dipsas. Pharmaceutical texts also covered bites, and their treatment abounds in Dioscorides’s On medical material (De materia medica, 1st c. BCE), the late antique Pseudo-Dioscorides‘s On female plants (De herbis feminis), Sextus Placitus’s On medicine made from animals (De medicina ex animalibus) and the widely circulated fifth-century Pseudo-Apuleius, On plants (De herbis). In this last text, snake-bite treatment is discussed in 21 of the 131 entries of plants, and the animals are the serpent (used as a generic term), the viper and asp. The term viper (vipera) in Latin literature usually refers to the vipera berus but is often used generically for any venomous snake.The term asp (aspis) can refer to any very venomous snake, andoften used when describing snakes such as the asp viper (viperaaspis). Care should be taken when attempting to identify Greek snake-names with modern taxonomical terms.

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