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

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

ISBN 9781472420398
Published July 19, 2018 by Routledge
332 Pages

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Book Description

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.




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