Suffering from kidney stones? Just drink some wine with a little powdered snake, twice daily. If you have no time to waste or the stone’s being especially persistent, go ahead and add powdered toad or scorpion — or better still, add both.
If insomnia or weary eyes are troubling you (and who doesn’t suffer these maladies from time to time), have a little water with your pill made of dried frog parts, and don’t forget to keep up your general health with an appetizer of properly-prepared snake at every meal.
Sound like snake oil instead of medicine? This was real medical advice supplied by a German-born Dominican friar called Nicholas of Poland, who posed a challenge to established medical prescriptions in thirteenth-century Europe. His career, or what we know of it, caused professional skepticism. After all, how was one supposed to respond to a so-called healer who didn’t even taste or view his patient’s urine before providing them with a tincture of toad?
Much history written about the thirteenth-century medical landscape which highlights, and takes for granted, a conflict between the ‘scholasticized’ medicine promoted and taught by a university system rapidly monopolizing medical knowledge, and the uneducated practitioners and even the out-and-out charlatans external to this monopoly.
But as historians like William Eamon and Gundolf Keil have pointed out, Nicholas of Poland occupies a particularly interesting space that challenges our ideas of the relationship between these ways of practicing medicine — a point at the centre of an infrequently-imagined Venn diagram — where an iconoclastic approach to medicine and a university education could fruitfully mingle.
The result proved to be as compelling to medieval health-seekers as it is interesting to us. It was Nicholas’ philosophy that humble medicines and amulets made from the lowliest creatures of the earth were good for people of all social stations; the scaly creatures of the ground, used in ‘miracle cures’ like theriac, were in Nicholas’ view, simply packed with God-infused preternatural healing powers that did not need to be understood scientifically to be used.
This philosophy that “great miracles abide in the lowliest things” appealed to Christian ethics, and Nicholas’ excellent Latin enabled him to not only defend his position against university-educated physicians (who may have been chagrined at the way his backyard cures undercut their costlier prescriptions while they balked at the deeper intellectual implications of his radical empiricism), but to even go on the offensive against orthodoxy with logic and style.
Nicholas devoted an entire work, the Antipocras (Anti-Hippocrates), to criticize and critique the burgeoning medical philosophy of his day. His other known work, the Experimenta, shared the results of his original experiments into the most medicinally potent preparations of serpent powders and oils, and how to administer them.
Nicholas emphasized that one should collect healing knowledge through firsthand experience, not ancient authority or theory; his quasi-mystical prescriptions were not only theologically-inspired, but also practically supported. This firsthand knowledge would be critical in giving him the grounds to challenge his the visceral and cultural aversion his patients (understandably) had to eating toads, scorpions, and snakes in particular.
The very unpleasantness of Nicholas’ cures ultimately became a testament to their power. After all, if eating reptiles and amphibians was so revolting, the idea would be tossed onto the rubbish heap if the ideological underpinnings didn’t strike a chord, or the medical results didn’t appear to make it worthwhile. In this way, word of mouth created converts not only of other Dominicans, but lofty folk such as the duke of Sieradz and the court and subjects of Leszek the Black, and the villagers in Upper Silesia and Cracow where Nicholas put his empiric philosophy of medicine into practice.
Unfortunately, Nicholas’ ultimate fate is murky in the historical record, leaving us bereft of sturdy ground on which to build an understanding of the full significance and endurance of his practice. What exists is, for the moment, merely a glimpse of a unique, albeit isolated branch of medieval medical philosophy that’s as repellant to the senses as it is intellectually tantalizing.
Marri Lynn holds an MA in the History of Medicine at McGill University, Montreal (2011). She currently studies French, and writes (and copy edits) for the McGill Tribune as well as freelance projects. You can find out more at her About.me page.