Of Scorpions, Vipers, and the Assassin’s Drug

By D. Morgan Davis
Director, Middle Eastern Texts Initiative

Twelfth-century Cairo was a vibrant place. The legendary Saladin, who had recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, had established himself there and was actively transforming it from a royal resort into a cosmopolitan center of power, commerce, learning, and culture. A pious Muslim, Saladin chose for his physician at court a Jew who had been twice exiled—first from his hometown of Cordoba, Spain (Andalusia), and then again from Fez, Morocco (al-Maghreb)—by the fanatical Almohad regime of Northwest Africa.

Under the patronage of the famous sultan, Maimonides, in addition to practicing medicine at court and among his own clientele,led a Jewish congregation as their rabbi, and wrote and taught on a variety of subjects. His philosophical and religious treatises, including his interpretation of the Torah and his famous Guide for the Perplexed are classics that are widely read and studied to this day. Lesser known are the medical treatises he wrote; but these too hold an interest for those today seeking glimpses into the past.

The medical works of Maimonides are a window into the world of premodern medicine, describing the physical ailments not only of kings and rulers but also of common folk from every walk of life. The various diagnoses, remedies, and procedures Maimonides details connect him to a medical tradition that reaches as far back as the Greek physician Galen (d. 216) and continues right into the early modern period—centuries during which the basic models and methods of medicine changed very little. These were the days of humors black, white, red, and yellow; of vapors and elixirs; of leeching and bloodletting; of methods variously benign and barbaric. Some of what Maimonides prescribed seems little different from the herbal or therapeutic remedies used by many today; others, thankfully, have long since been abandoned.

9780842527309When the sultan’s counselor, al-Fāḍil, requested a summary from Maimonides of preventatives and remedies that laypersons could consult in order to overcome the effects of various toxins without having to resort to (and wait on) a physician, Maimonides obliged with a treatise he subtitled On Poisons and the Protection against Lethal Drugs. Writing in Arabic, the language of learning in his day, Maimonides divided his work into two parts: the first deals with the treatment of various animal bites, including scorpions, bees and wasps, serpents, mad dogs and domesticated ones; the second deals with the treatment of ingested poisons, with particular interest in poisons used by assassins. It might not come as a surprise that the ruling elites were interested in such matters, but why would they be concerned to make such information available to the public at large? An earthy excerpt from the second part of the book seems laden with inference on this question. Maimonides writes:

We find that some men are assassinated by [their] women by means of the food [they take] and die after one day or some days, or suffer from what is far worse than death, namely suppurating elephantiasis, which results in the limbs falling off.

In every city I passed through I have seen some men suffer from [this illness]. And what I and others have heard about it is too much to be summed up [here]. Those senior physicians whom I met told me in their own name and that of their teachers that they had looked into this matter thoroughly and carefully until they learned from those adulterous women themselves what [substance] they had used to assassinate so-and-so, and their stories are well known. (On Poisons 2.4.83—84)

Such details collapse the centuries that separate us from Maimonides and allow us a glimpse, however mean, into the lives of the common people of his time. It seems that marriage could be a fraught enterprise in the Middle Ages, too!

Maimonides: On Poisons and the Protection against Lethal Drugs is the latest title to be released  in The Medical Works of Moses Maimonides, a series of primary texts and translations prepared by Gerrit Bos at the University of Cologne and published under the auspices of the Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. This volume also features the scholarly work of Michael R. McVaugh of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who has edited the Latin translations of On Poisons that were made in the centuries after Maimonides by Europeans seeking to preserve his knowledge for their own time. Angela Barrionuevo oversaw the production editing of this volume at the Maxwell Institute. The book will carry the Brigham Young University Press imprint and will be distributed by the University of Chicago Press.


Originally Published in Insights Volume – 29Issue – 3, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute.