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Animal bites in the Middle Ages

August 15, 2011

University of York – by Kathleen Walker-Meikle

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’.

A physician treating a rabid dog bite. From 'Apollodorus de Herbis', 13th century. Wellcome Library

A physician treating a rabid dog bite. From 'Apollodorus de Herbis', 13th century. Wellcome Library

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. This begins with the translations associated with Constantine the African at Monte Cassino in the later 11th century and proceeds through the translations of Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187) in Spain and beyond. Many of the translations are notable for the wide variety of animals discussed: for example, Avicenna speaks of the bites of crocodiles, cats, lions, men, sea-dragons, lizards, salamanders and assorted venomous snakes, among many others. Another focus will be on texts and commentaries used in university curricula, in faculties of both medicine and arts. In the case of the latter, animal bites appear in natural history texts. Another major source are the encyclopedias of the 13th century, produced by mendicant scholars. In the 14th century, there is an extraordinary growth of specific works on poisons, most of which discuss the bites of venomous animals.

Medieval authors suggested varied treatments for bites. The initial act usually was to distinguish between the bites of venomous beasts (snakes, scorpions and rabid dogs were included here) and non-venomous animals (hares, cats and non-rabid dogs, for example). A venomous wound could be recognised by the painful burning and swelling sensation at the wound. Bites could be worse if the animal was angry, having been provoked or teased by the patient, or if the animal came from a hot and dry climate. A particular focus was rabid dogs, as dogs were a domestic animal that lived in very close contact with humans. Many works describe in detail how to identify a rabid dog by its behaviour, which included drooling, red eyes, barking at its own shadow and not recognising its master.

Sea bathing was suggested as a treatment by many authors, for both people and dogs who might have (or not) rabies. The late 13th- century surgeon Henri de Mondeville commented that it was common to see on beaches in Normandy men and dogs being taken to the seashore for a bath, and then returned cured and docile. Other treatments included a variety of ointments to place on the wound and potions to drink. One recipe including splitting open chickens and laying them on the bite; another suggested an ointment made from pigeon droppings, garlic and salt, while a third mixed figs and pomegranates together to place on the wound. Of all the medicines taken internally, the most famous was theriac, a complicated medical compound that could trace its lineage back to classical Antiquity. In addition, cauteries and amputation were suggested by surgical authors, and there were also assorted prophylactic remedies to ward off animals such as wasps, bees, snakes and scorpions so that one might not get bitten in the first place.

Kathleen Walker-Meikle is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Department of History, University of York.

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