Bites and stings: A medieval perspective
By Kathleen Walker-Meikle
Venom: fear, fascination and discovery, edited by Jacqueline Healy and Kenneth D Winkel (Medical History Museum, 2013)
Introduction: Venomous creatures and their poisons loom large in the medieval medical European imagination. Physicians and surgeons, drawing on and adapting ancient and Arabic medical lore, wrote copiously on venomous animals and how to treat their bites. Nearly all of the sources focus on animal bites, and few venomous animals with poisonous skin or hairs are mentioned. Rabid dogs were considered to be venomous animals, as it was believed that their saliva was poisonous.
Texts from classical antiquity whose views on venomous beasts were influential in the Middle Ages included Pliny the Elder’s Natural history, Lucan’s Pharsalia, Dioscorides’ De materia medica and assorted treatises by Galen. In Pseudo-Apuleius’ widely circulated fifth-century herbal, De herbis, out of 131 herbs, twenty-seven of them are recommended for treating venomous bites, mostly from snakes, but also rabid dogs, spiders and scorpions. The two snakes identified by name are the viper (Vipera berus) and the asp.
Medical treatises translated from Arabic in between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries AD would have been highly influential, in particular those by Haly Abbas, Rhasis, Averroes, Serapion, Avenzoar and Maimonides. Avicenna’s primacy in the medieval medical curriculum would ensure that his comments on venomous beasts would have been highly significant for medieval physicians and surgeons. A huge variety of venomous beasts are presented in Avicenna’s Canon of medicine, from vipers to ‘the snake that makes blood come out of all pores’ or ‘the animal with forty-four feet’.