Poison, Medicine, and Disease in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe: 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Poison, Medicine, and Disease in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe

1st Edition

By Frederick W Gibbs


314 pages

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pub: 2018-08-02
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This book presents a uniquely broad and pioneering history of premodern toxicology by exploring how late medieval and early modern (c. 1200–1600) physicians discussed the relationship between poison, medicine, and disease. Drawing from a wide range of medical and natural philosophical texts—with an emphasis on treatises that focused on poison, pharmacotherapeutics, plague, and the nature of disease—this study brings to light premodern physicians' debates about the potential existence, nature, and properties of a category of substance theoretically harmful to the human body in even the smallest amount. Focusing on the category of poison (venenum) rather than on specific drugs reframes and remixes the standard histories of toxicology, pharmacology, and etiology, as well as shows how these aspects of medicine (although not yet formalized as independent disciplines) interacted with and shaped one another. Physicians argued, for instance, about what properties might distinguish poison from other substances, how poison injured the human body, the nature of poisonous bodies, and the role of poison in spreading, and to some extent defining, disease. The way physicians debated these questions shows that poison was far from an obvious and uncontested category of substance, and their effort to understand it sheds new light on the relationship between natural philosophy and medicine in the late medieval and early modern periods.

Table of Contents




1. Classical Authorities and Traditions

The ambiguity of pharmaka and venena

Prevention, symptoms, and remedies

Medical pharmacotherapy and theories of poison

Compilation, synthesis, and specific form


2. Poison and Venom in the Latin West before 1300

Poisons and venoms in translation

Encyclopedic poisons

Qualities, quantities, and forms

Regulating poisonous drugs


3. Towards a New Toxicology

Food, medicine, and poison

A new kind of poison text

New "problems" of poison

Patronage, poison, and medical learning


4. Plague, Poison, and Metaphor

Putrefied and poisoned air

Plague as poison in the body

Spreadable and contagious poison


5. Poisonous Properties, Bodies, and Forms

Occult definitions and forms

Poisonous properties

Poisonous bodies

Poisoning, sorcery, and the evil eye

Sympathetic forms


6. Poison, Putrefaction, and Ontology of Disease

Poisons, contagions, and the French Disease

Poison as cause of disease

Separating poison and medicine with Paracelsus

Ontologies of poisons, forms, seeds, and disease


7. Reframing Toxicology

Reconciling the language of medicine and poison

New approaches to venenum

Poisons, venoms, and corruptions in the body




About the Author

Frederick W. Gibbs is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of New Mexico, USA.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / General