Animal bites in the Middle Ages
By Kathleen Walker-Meikle
Wellcome History, Issue 47 (2011)
Introduction: Bites and punctures, from both venomous and non-venomous animals, appear frequently in both medical and lay sources throughout the High and Late Middle Ages, understandably so in a society where humans lived in close contact with many animals, both wild and domestic. In December 2010, I started a three-year Wellcome Trust Medical History and Humanities Research Fellowship on a project titled ‘The medical category “bites and punctures” in Latin medical literature in the 13th–14th centuries’.
The project examines how late medieval medical authorities formulated and responded to the problem of bites and punctures from wild and domestic animals, both venomous and non-venomous, such as snakes, bees, cats and dogs (rabid and non-rabid). Through this project, I hope to understand medieval theoretical and practical ideas on punctures and wounds caused by animals and animal toxicology, as animal bites of all kinds were often believed to contain noxious poisons that needed swift attention, and how animal bites were defined, situated and structured in regard to causes, symptoms and treatment in the learned medical tradition.
To provide a background to the subject, I began by examining works that mention animal bites and possible cures from Antiquity. After an brief excursus into Byzantine medical texts, I will work on animal bites in Latin texts in the West through the early Middle Ages before focusing on the impact of texts translated mainly from Arabic (also from Greek and Hebrew) into Latin in the High Middle Ages, and their subsequent elaboration, restructuring and use or disuse by medical authorities.