The year is 1266, and your horse is acting strange. It started with a fever. But then weeping pustules appeared all over its body, and fluids poured forth from every orifice. Not long after, the horse stabled next to it came down with the same sickness. You’ve heard of this before. It’s the dreaded disease called farcy—and you’ll need more than medicine to make your animals well again.
When creatures like these hapless horses fell ill, medieval peasants and nobles alike relied on the occult powers of animal healers, forerunners to today’s veterinarians. Employing magic words and rituals alongside early medicines, these horse doctors and hound charmers faced down the most incurable of diseases with a combination of faith, tradition and science. Often at odds in the modern mind, the boundaries between these elements of everyday life were far more ambiguous during the Middle Ages; defined by medievalist Kathryn Walton as “actions that medieval people took to influence their world in some way,” magic was just another option in a healer’s toolbox.
Until recently, veterinary historians largely ignored the practices of medieval vets, instead tracing the profession’s rise to Claude Bourgelat’s establishment of a veterinary medicine school in France in 1761. Even in medieval Europe, some learned doctors scoffed at magical remedies “as the sort of thing uneducated ‘old women’ did,” says Lea Olsan, an emeritus historian at the University of Louisiana Monroe. Today, however, a growing number of scholars are working to break down anachronistic distinctions between magic, religion and science, showing modern audiences how to view the world as medieval veterinarians—who ran the gamut from quacks to trained professionals—did.
The medieval menagerie
During the Middle Ages, animal diseases could be terrifying—and devastating. For commoners, horses, pigs, sheep and donkeys were important investments, crucial tools and even beloved companions.
“It’s a society that relied heavily on animals for pretty much everything,” says Sunny Harrison, an expert on medieval medicine at the Open University in the United Kingdom and the author of a recent paper on horse-healing rituals. “Agriculturally, but also industrially, for transport, for warfare, for diplomacy—very little got done without animals.”
Kathleen Walker-Meikle, a researcher at the Science Museum in London and the author of Medieval Pets, has found references to people keeping dogs, cats, stoats, parrots, monkeys and squirrels as beloved companions.
“My favorite is a 13th-century polar bear that used to go swimming in the Thames,” she says. “That was a gift from Norway to the king of England.”
Harrison, meanwhile, cites a story “involving a noblewoman whose husband accidentally crushes her [pet] dormouse, and she’s horrified. [Medieval people] cast a wider net for companion animals than we do now.”
Everyday issues with these animals usually fell to their caregivers, like the 14th-century master huntsman Gaston III, Count of Foix. His hunting manual, the Livre de la Chasse, contained advice on proper care and instructions on how to treat basic wounds that set the standard for centuries. Horses had the luxury of professional surgeons, known as marshals, who regularly shod and bled them to ensure good health.
A more magical world
When it came to uncommon diseases of the animal world, healers often relied on a little magic—an accepted part of everyday life during the Middle Ages.
“We see [magical practices] in every group of society, in every context,” says Sophie Page, a medieval historian at University College London. “There are really diverse types of magic as well, from summoning demons to creating talismans to channeling … natural magic.”
She adds, “In general, every type of magic will be applied to anything for which there is a use in medieval society. So we would expect to see lots of magic remedies of rituals of all sorts for animals because of their socioeconomic importance, their prestige and in some cases their emotional value. And we do.”
According to Harrison, natural magic centered on the hidden properties of ingredients known to possess potent powers, like pulverized viper or green meadow frog, both of which were employed in remedies for fistulas (painful sores) in horses.
Most often, these substances were mixed into medicines and ingested. But that wasn’t the only way they were believed to be effective. Sometimes, writes Harrison in the journal Social History of Medicine, medical manuals suggested they be worn around the neck like a talisman, as in one cure that called for a golden oriole songbird to be strapped around a sickly horse. Other times, the method was even stranger, with horse owners advised to sew sheets of lead and tin—two key metals in medieval alchemy—into a horse’s forehead as a cure for farcy.
Some forms of natural magic were more esoteric. Physicians of the Middle Ages believed widely in the power of the stars to impact human health, subscribing to a worldview that saw all of creation as interconnected, with human beings at its center. Controversially, some vets also applied this logic to animals, using stars and celestial events—as referenced in diagrams like the “Zodiac horse”—to guide what surgeries to perform and when.
Calling on Christ
Natural magic could only get a veterinarian so far. In the face of mostly incurable diseases like farcy, healers might need to call on the supernatural. The safest and most common of these methods was to invoke the power of Christian saints and holy figures, a form of magic at various times endorsed by church authorities.
By the medieval era, certain holy figures had long been associated with specific animals and diseases, like Job with worms, Adam with snakes, or the aristocratic Thomas Becket with hawks and hunting birds. More obscure associations, like Saint Hippolytus and horses, grew out of folk traditions, local cults or the apocryphal lives of the saints. “It kind of doesn’t matter whether the relationship would stand up to biblical scrutiny,” Harrison says. “It’s just believed to be [accurate].”
Medieval Christians thought that saints like Hippolytus and Becket could intercede on behalf of sick animals. Visiting the shrine of a saint might elicit miraculous healing—like a farmer whose diseased horse was cured by eating hay that touched the relics of Saint Magnus in Füssen, Germany.
Often, these episodes open a window into the veterinary concerns of common people, who couldn’t afford the healers and magicians frequented by the elite. “There are instances of saintly intercession for people … who only have, say, … two or three cows or sheep,” says Harrison. “You have a real sense from this of just how important one or two animals can be.”
For more serious diseases, the rich would also seek saintly intercession—and they weren’t afraid to splash their cash to get it. In the 14th century, writes Walker-Meikle in A Cultural History of Medicine: Middle Ages, the relics of Saint Hubert were believed to cure rabies. Facing an outbreak among his hunting hounds, Louis I, Duke of Orléans, sent the entire pack to Hubert’s shrine in the Ardennes, along with gifts of gold and wax.
The magic words
Those unable to travel to a saint’s faraway shrine could hire a veterinarian to channel power through holy charms and magic words. These incantations were recorded in the margins of veterinary manuals with guarantees of their efficacy, like “it is proven,” and were understood to work by drawing direct parallels between the suffering of holy figures such as Job and that of a person or an animal.
“There is a famous charm called the Longinus charm, which is for bleeding,” Harrison says. “The reason that it works is that Longinus is the Roman centurion who pierced Christ’s side. So it’s a sort of sympathetic relationship between your bleeding and Christ’s bleeding.”
For animals, these incantations might be as basic as a repetitive counting charm: “Saint Job had nine worms that grieved him much,” then eight worms and so on until the charmer reached zero. Healers could also invoke a complex combination of sacred words and holy objects. According to Harrison’s paper, one ritual to cure snakebites involved passing holy water “through the fetal membrane of a cat” three times while chanting the “‘divine names’ of God: ‘Sabaoth, Emanuel, Paraclitus.’”
Such methods weren’t unique to the Christian West. Housni Alkhateeb Shehada, in his book Mamluks and Animals: Veterinary Medicine in Medieval Islam, describes how Islamic veterinary manuals from this period used holy texts to increase the power of their medicine, drawing on traditions that the Prophet Muhammad himself used magic “whispers” to expel demons from his own horse companion.
Islamic incantations similarly ranged from the simple to the wildly complex. One ritual to help an animal conceive involved copying 200 verses of the Quran in saffron on the side of a copper bowl and splashing water from the vessel over the creature’s face and loins. Alternatively, Shehada writes, a vet might draw elaborate numerological tables on an animal’s skin, employing obscure signs and symbols “originat[ing] from the alphabets of ancient [pre-Islamic] nations and cultures.”
Knowledge of these symbols, whose original meanings were lost, gave the incantations an occult quality that tapped into a powerful sense of the ancient, mysterious and unknown.
“At times, the charmer would have wanted to keep the essence of his power to heal through such incantations or amulets secret from his client or patient,” Olsan says. “One who believed in the power of this kind of healing language would feel it was sacred knowledge, a revered gift.”
Charms might use nonsense words for the same effect. Sometimes they were constructed to sound like Hebrew or Latin; other times, they were closer to gibberish. The 14th-century Mamluk veterinarian Abu Bakr, for instance, used the phrase “qalash qalshish laqlashish qaqashish” as a cure for colic in horses.
The devil in sheep’s clothing
The use of nonsense words and symbols was a source of worry for many medieval doctors and theologians, who couldn’t be certain why a given charm or amulet appeared to be effective.
But “theologians tend[ed] to be much, much more skeptical,” says Catherine Rider, a medieval historian at the University of Exeter in England.
“They worried particularly about healing magic done by the uneducated [and] women,” she adds. “You don’t really know what they mean, you don’t really know what they do. [They’d say] probably, if they work, it’s because you’re calling on demons.”
The vets themselves might counter that they were taking on the demons responsible for disease. According to Harrison, some European veterinary manuals detail whole exorcisms, modeled on Catholic rites, to expel the worms then believed to cause farcy. Islamic vets adopted a similar attitude, Shahada writes, holding “that every animal has a soul exactly like that of a human, and therefore is liable to be hurt”—and healed—by the same nefarious sources. (That animals had souls was officially rejected by the Catholic Church, Walker-Miekle says, but the question was nonetheless a matter of some debate.)
By the end of the Middle Ages, the earlier view of creation that reserved an exalted status for some animals increasingly came under scrutiny. Amid rising panic about witchcraft at the end of the 15th century, even just a close relationship with a cat or dog could be seen as evidence of black magic.
“Things that wouldn’t have caused any issue in the 11th century are being scrutinized more in the 15th century,” says Page, “anything that suggests superstition, even if it’s using fairly mainstream charms and prayers.”
Still, Page stresses that these magical traditions never entirely disappeared. In the 16th century and even later, she says, local “cunning folk” provided much the same service that medieval veterinarians once did, despite facing sometimes-strict scrutiny from the local church.
Though it may be harder today to justify belief in healing charms or defend the use of a child’s urine to cure a horse’s itchy feet (as Bakr did), scholars say there’s much to learn from the veterinary magic of the past.
It’s worth remembering, notes Harrison, that medieval people often cared for animals with a sense of responsibility perhaps surprising to modern observers.
He says, “It is an instructive reminder of the duty of compassion that we have toward animals.”