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1 - Animal Healing in Sacred Societies, 1500–1700

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 August 2022

Susan D. Jones
University of Minnesota
Peter A. Koolmees
Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands


This chapter highlights traditions of animal healing around the globe, from South American, to Islamic and Ottoman, to Ayurvedic, Chinese, and European. The domestication of elephants, horses, poultry, bovines, and other animals, supplied animal bodies for food, transport, power, and cultural status. Many societies incorporated animals into their sacred traditions and developed elaborate systems of knowledge about animals, including animal healing. Keeping animals close to or inside people’s houses effectively altered the environments of both. People and their domesticated animals shared microorganisms (which also co-evolved with them over time). A major problem with the closeness of human and domesticated animal populations was the spread and evolution of pathogens, forcing healers for both humans and animals to confront the challenges of emergent diseases. Early veterinary activities are analyzed, including professionalization, and linked to the more well-known histories of military animal healers and writings on animal anatomy and medicine by the 1500s.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022


In this chapter, we focus on what historians in the West call the early modern time period, approximately 1400–1700, although we also provide necessary historical background from earlier times and several cultures. Along with using animals for food, transport, and cultural status, many societies incorporated animals into their sacred traditions and developed elaborate systems of knowledge about animals (including animal healing). In the early modern period, animals’ ability to contribute to societies depended on animals’ bodies being healthy and fulfilling the specific needs of cultures. Regimes of animal healing developed within these world-ordering cosmologies to provide for specific material requirements of complex societies.

Animals in Medieval and Early Modern Sacred Societies

“In the year 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This children’s rhyme describes one of the early encounters between the Eastern Hemisphere (Old World) and the Western Hemisphere (New World), a major milestone in history. The vast and wealthy empire of the Inca (12 million people) predominated in the Western Hemisphere and Incan encounters with Europeans during the sixteenth century would forever alter both civilizations. But the centers of power and activity in the Eastern Hemisphere were also changing at this time, as the old empire created by Mongol conquests dissolved and new centers of power arose in the West. On the African continent, the Congo and Songhai kingdoms included some of the world’s most experienced animal pastoralists; in the North, Africans encountered the Ottomans, and in the east, Chinese explorers. With the Old World’s centers of power shifting to the Moghul empire in South Asia, the Ottoman empire in the middle east, and the Spanish and Portuguese in Western Europe, an already interconnected world became more expansive and extensive from the turn of the sixteenth century onward.

This world was the beneficiary of knowledge from ancient civilizations and the medieval Islamic scholars, who had preserved, translated, and revised texts about animal healing from around the world. The most important corpus of medieval animal healing knowledge was collected in the Bayt al-Hikma, the Abbasid caliphate’s great Baghdad library, and the Islamic influence spread this knowledge widely. In addition to circulations of knowledge, printing technologies and print culture spread westward from China and became increasingly important. (This development allows historians today to use many types of sources, including archaeological, oral history, manuscripts, and printed documents, for the period 1500–1700.) Finally, the Iberian-instigated connections between the animals and civilizations of South, Central, and North America in the West with those of Eurasia and Africa dramatically influenced the animal-cultures of all peoples. By 1700, the Iberian empire was joined by two other rising world powers: the Manchus’ Qing, successors of the Ming Dynasty in China in 1644, and the Russian empire, under its leader Peter I (who became Tsar in 1682).

Animals were central to all these events: equines and elephants for war, transport, and power; cattle and other food-producing animals; and many types of animals as markers of social hierarchies and cultural beliefs. Vast empires could not be created and sustained without healthy animals. In this chapter, we explore animal healing based on how different societies understood animals’ bodies and how this reflected the sacred and practical values attached to different domesticated and wild animals from the end of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. We begin with theories of health and disease and the positions of animals in the cultural beliefs of different historical societies. We consider various species and their uses, and we highlight the development of knowledge about animal anatomy during this time. All these developments occurred within a time of strong theological and cosmological influences on beliefs about animals and how to keep them healthy.

Early Theories of Animal Health and Disease

What caused an animal to be healthy or sick? The answer depended not just on pathogens, but was influenced also by time, place, and the roles different animals played. Overall, diseases in humans and animals in early modern times were often considered to be caused by magical forces, supernatural interventions, or divine punishments for sinful behavior. The old idea of disease as a divine punishment still appears today (for example, with outbreaks of HIV/AIDS, Ebola, avian influenza, and foot and mouth disease).

The Americas

When Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean and encountered the vast empire of the Inca (1438–1533), they immediately noticed the different species of animals and their importance in sacred rituals (as well as for food and fiber). The Incan people kept large numbers of domesticated guinea pigs, alpacas, and llamas for meat and wool (llamas could also be used as pack animals). Incans also kept llamas as sacred animals that could be ritually sacrificed to the gods, and skilled artisans created solid gold llama-shaped idols. The Ayllu, or local kinship community, held llama herds in common. Given the llama’s sacred status, its health is likely to have been understood within the cosmological framework of the Chakana (three universes) in which all living creatures’ bodies held vital energy and consciousness. We know of very few sources (none in English) mentioning animal husbandry and animal healing in the empire of the Inca, but practitioners of this specialized role probably existed in such an advanced agricultural society. Due to the tremendous practical and sacred value of llamas, it is likely that healers used well-articulated theories and practices to heal these animals.

Further north in Central America, the Aztec empire (an alliance of three societies) was also distinguished by a carefully ordered pantheistic society that included dogs and turkeys as domesticated animals. Aztec citizens hunted wild game (peccaries, antelope, and birds), although the main foods were vegetables, grains, and fruits supplemented by fish; they also consumed specially bred dogs. Animals played important roles in Aztec beliefs: animals mediated with and represented the deities, and artists created numerous animal sculptures and images. Aztec-era medicine, especially knowledge of medicinal plants, was highly developed and a wide variety of treatments were available for specific diseases. (Many of these formulations are still available today.) Medicine was a holistic practice that included rituals to invoke spiritual healing as well as material therapies (such as bloodletting) that corresponded to theories of disease causation. Wounds were sutured; broken bones could be set with external plasters or as necessary, inserting a stick as an intramedullary pin. As one poem described the healer’s role: they should examine the patient, address the symptoms, and experiment with prevention and treatment, within a holistic framework of theory and practice. As with the Incan empire, we know very little about animal healers in the Aztec era; but such healers surely existed within this society’s advanced development and medical knowledge.

East Asia

On the other side of the world, in Chinese medicine (also a basis for Japanese, Korean, and other Asian healing regimes), generally an animal’s body was healthy when it was in balance. This balance, in both human and animal bodies, reflected the harmonic balance of all Nature and the entire cosmos. This was a system based on rational principles of knowledge rather than sacred beliefs, but it nonetheless relied on a coherent cosmological framework. Ancient Chinese philosophy is beautifully complex, and we can give only the most superficial description here as it pertains to animal health. Bodies were influenced by the five material elements of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood and the six abstract concepts of yin, yang, wind, rain, darkness, and brightness. The functional relationship between organ systems corresponded to elements, which in turn related to the seasons. Bodies also demonstrated these forces in different layers, from the most superficial to the deepest, with the qi (vital energy or life force) flowing throughout.

Bodies changed, and disease resulted, with six stages of qi transformation described and connected in a diagnostic system by Zhang Zhongjing in his Shanghan lun (second century). The causative forces included combinations of wind (feng), heat (re), damp (shi), fire (huo), dryness (zao), and cold (han), which could affect the normal opening and closing cycles of the body’s functions. Disturbances to the balance of these forces’ normal cycles could originate internally or externally. Important sources of external disturbance were the zhangqi, toxic or poisonous gases and vapors, originating from specific environments (especially hot and damp places with large amounts of rotting vegetation). Breathing the air in these places endangered the health of animals and humans alike, and many medical authorities and laypeople believed that zhangqi caused epidemics. (This conclusion made sense: many people or animals became sick at the same time because they breathed the same poisonous air.)

In the Shanghan lun, Zhang based the complex system of medical diagnostics and therapeutics on the practitioner’s ability to detect these changes by examining signs such as the pulses. Treatments, keyed to signs and diagnosis, included herbs, special diets, manipulation, and moxibustion (burning bits of the herb Artemesia at points on the skin to affect the body’s interior), as well as external interventions such as cautery, cutting, and a type of bone-setting. This system has been the basis of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, although of course it was changed and used in different ways over time. These changes often incorporated vernacular (indigenous or local) knowledge since the vast regions of East Asia encompassed multiple types of climate and various cultures. Circulations and transfers of animal healing knowledge proceeded most smoothly when incorporating vernacular ideas and practices.

Print culture also ensured the centuries-long popularity and influence of the most important Chinese texts written during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The most important compendium of herbal materia medica was Li Shih-Zhen’s Ben Cao Gang Mu, which described over 11,000 herbal formulas. The wide popularity of Yu Ben-Yuan and Yu Ben-Heng’s 1608 treatise on horses, Yuan Heng Liao Ma Ji, along with the same authors’ books on cattle and camels, established the Yu brothers as the fathers of early modern professional Chinese animal healing. The ruling Ming Dynasty greatly expanded foreign trade, and these books were available outside China and translated into European languages by the early 1600s.

The treatments described in these treatises corresponded to the underlying theory of imbalance in the body. For example, moxibustion brought blood and qi flow and heat to a specific area of the body that was overly cold (han), damp (shi), or suffering from blocked energy flow. In human medicine, moxibustion has also been used for chronic conditions and to help turn breech babies. Its function of redirecting heat to combat cold was synchronized with knowledge of the energy pathways in the body. Printed texts based on Chinese ideas about health and disease often included anatomical diagrams of the important points on the animal’s body for the detection of pulse and energy and for the corresponding focus of treatment modalities (Fig. 1.1).

Figure 1.1 Diagram with acupuncture points on the body of the horse.

Source: Ma Niu I Fang (China, 1399 CE); reproduced in Lu Gwei-Djen & Joseph Needham, Celestial Lancets. A History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) 238.

These treatment regimens based on theories of imbalance often got combined with local folk remedies. Sources on professional animal healing often dealt with military horses, for instance, the collection on care for such horses provided by hostlers (innkeepers’ professional stable men): Si mu an ji ji written by Li Shi in the ninth century. From China, such hippiatric texts were transferred to Korea and Japan where further combinations with local knowledge systems were incorporated. This is shown in illustrated scrolls on equine medicine from Japan, for instance, one from 1267 that was given to Tadayasu, a veterinarian responsible for cavalry horses. In Korea, horse-doctors (Maui) were active from the tenth century onward. The oldest Korean compilation on equine medicine, Sin pyeon jip seong ma ui bang, contains remedies for thirty-four horse diseases. It was written in 1399 by Confucian scholars who integrated knowledge from Chinese hippiatric sources and Korean folk remedies. These early animal treatment systems worked for the local people because they successfully combined vernacular (folk) ways of understanding equine diseases (and their treatment) with the more scholarly theories.

South Asia

Important influences on Chinese medicine were the older Ayurvedic medical principles, which continue as the basis for traditional medicine in India and other nations today. Ayurveda, literally “life knowledge system” or “science of life,” is also based on a rational belief system in accordance with ancient Indian cosmologies dating back at least to 1000 BCE. Ayurvedic knowledge was recorded in old Sanskrit texts, the vedas. Anatomy, or Śarira Sthana, is important in Ayurvedic knowledge. Ayurvedic principles guided the treatment of elephants and horses, valued as pack and war animals, as well as other animals and humans in South and Southeast Asia. Cows (water buffaloes and zebu) were especially valued for milk and milk products, and references to cows are plentiful in the vedas. Boiled cows’ milk, buttermilk, and ghee (clear butter fat) were (and are) important components of vedic Indians’ diet. Cows were also highly regarded as symbols of blessing and sacred life under Buddhism, the formal religion based on the vedas that arose around 500 BCE. For Buddhists, cows provide five sacred products: ghee, milk, curds, urine, and dung (the latter used for fertilizer). The Buddhist prohibition against harming or killing any living creature applied especially to cows.

These sacred cows were cared for and healed according to the sophisticated Ayurvedic system of medical knowledge. Ayurvedic medicine (again, far more complex than we can describe here) is based on five elements that interact with the body’s vital energy, the prana (analogous to the qi in Chinese medicine): earth, water, wind, fire, and ether. Together these elements contributed to one of three doshas or humoral-metabolic body types (including the mind and consciousness): the vâyu (dry and cold; movement and elimination or catabolism; or wind), kapha (water and earth; tissue structures and anabolic processes; or phlegm) and pitta (water and fire; chemical processes or metabolism; or bile). Assessing these doshas formed the basis of a rich and intricate medical system that included problem-based diagnosis and treatment.

An individual animal’s normally healthy constitution always included a combination of the three doshas in a unique individual balance. Disease resulted when external (breathing bad air; eating improperly) or internal forces (often a decreased digestive energy) caused imbalances in the body. Diagnosis was based on the pulses, the condition of the tongue, and careful physical examination (including bodily excretions, such as urine). The treatments, consisting mainly of dietary changes and herbal medications, depended on the diagnosis and corresponded to the missing elements. Treatment aimed to re-balance the doshas by reducing excesses and remedying deficiencies. If the animal’s constitution, the nature of the disease, and the season/climate all belonged to the same dosha, then the case was considered almost impossible to cure. Thus, early Ayurvedism was a theory-based “ethnoveterinary” practice. Although it underwent many changes over time, Ayurvedism continues as an important veterinary healing system today

Some of the world’s oldest institutions of animal healing were located in India where elephants, horses, and cattle were very valuable to the state. Few veterinarians outside South Asia or Africa will ever treat an elephant today, unless in a zoo or circus; but elephants were important in military campaigns and as beasts of burden from ancient times through the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some elephants were also kept as sacred animals or sent as valuable gifts between rulers and emperors. (A famous example was the Asian elephant Abul-Abbas, gifted by Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Caliph, to Charlemagne in 802. This elephant traveled from India to Baghdad to Aachen, and its keepers managed to keep it alive and healthy.) With key roles as both sacred and working animals, elephants have been the subjects of animal healers’ attention, and many South Asian Ayurvedic animal healing treatises are devoted to them. The Shalihotra Samhita, dating to the third century BCE, is an early treatise on horse and elephant medicine. The author Shalihotra is praised as the founder of veterinary medicine in the Indian tradition. This treatise, which covers equine and elephant anatomy, physiology, surgery, and how diseases of these animals could be prevented and cured, was translated from Sanskrit into Persian, Arabic, Tibetan, and, much later, English.

In the modern period, Ayurvedic principles guided the diagnosis and treatment of cattle along with elephants and horses, according to the Sivatattvaratnâkara, the printed Indian eighteenth-century encyclopedia of knowledge. Particular attention was devoted to surgical methods, proper diets, and external manipulations such as inducing sweating or administering enemas to balance the animal’s three doshas. More invasive or dramatic treatments, such as cauterization, were reserved as last resorts in particularly difficult cases of sickness or injury. Overall, animal healers derived their diagnoses and corresponding treatments from their judgment of how vigorous or well balanced the animal’s doshas were. Since the Sivatattvaratnâkara included three chapters on animal medicine – one each for cattle, horses, and elephants – we can conclude that these valuable animals were the most important patients for South Asian animal healers in the eighteenth century. Cows, as the givers of milk, were also givers of life; and protecting cows meant ensuring life and health for all people.

Mediterranean Region and Arabic World (Near East)

As in Asia, extensive knowledge about animal medicine supported the crucial roles of camels, goats, sheep, horses, and other animals essential for food, transport, and military use in the ancient Arabic world. In the desert and semi-desert regions, the nomadic badawī (Bedouins) lived as herders and possessed a great deal of knowledge about animal care and medicine. (Bedouin peoples live today in many nations, including Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.) Animal medicine (like human medicine) in these tribal cultures was mostly empirical and included spiritual rituals and botanical knowledge, learned through apprenticeship. Camels, thought of as the “gift from God,” supplied milk, food, fiber, and transport for goods and people because these animals could survive the harsh desert conditions. For the badawī, keeping animals alive and well ensured survival. Experts in animal medicine (such as the famed Al-as ibn Wa’il) would have been important members of the community. It is notable that, in the pre-Islamic period, famed animal healers included women such as Ibn al-Qosh. Recovering the history of Bedouin animal healing practices is important: like other nomadic peoples, the Bedouin had a great deal of practical experience with animals and theirs was the most important livestock-based society in the vast desert regions. Although few written texts survive, historians can consult the rich oral tradition of these peoples today.

In other ancient cultures in this region, texts focused mainly on animals valuable for their theological, cultural, or practical roles in societies. The most important animals were equines and, secondarily, bovines and camels. Historians have argued over who was the oldest known “veterinarian” in the ancient Middle East. Some historians believe that a relief on the so-called Ur-Lugal-edina cylinder seal from Sumeria, circa 2020 BCE, shows an animal healer with instruments used in obstetrics. Lexical texts from this period also mention doctors of oxen and doctors of donkeys. Other historians have pointed to the Egyptian Sekhmet priest Aha-Nakht, who treated oxen. We do not know much about the practices of these healers. By the 1750s BCE, the legal Code of Hammurabi established the separate practices of human and animal medicine and the fees that could be charged by professional animal healers. Rarely, extant sources mention professional animal healers: a cattle-doctor named Abil-ilisu is mentioned in a court record from Babylonia (circa 1739 BCE) and the term “cattle-doctor” (a.zu gu.hi.a) continued to be used in Babylonian records and laws. Therefore, the sources that survive today support the idea that an officially recognized class of animal healing practitioners existed in these ancient societies.

Although regular horse-doctors in ancient Greece existed earlier, the first testimony of the Greek word for horse-doctor, ἱππιατρός (hippiatros), appeared within a long treatise written around 130 BCE. This document described the work of Metrodoros the hippiatros. Metrodoros was a native of Lamia in Thessaly, a region well known for horse-breeding. The most renowned ancient Greek horse-doctor was probably Apsyrtos from Bithynia (c. 280–337 CE), who served in the cavalry of Constantine the Great and whose writings were praised for centuries. He observed the contagious nature of anthrax, farcy, and glanders and recommended isolation for ill animals. However, the oldest surviving Mediterranean animal healing texts did not originate in Greece, but in Egypt (Fig. 1.2). The association of cats with ancient Egyptian goddesses and sacred rituals is well known. The papyrus of El-Lâhūn (c. 1850 BCE) reveals that animal medicine and surgery were practiced by professional healers in ancient Egypt. The papyrus contained instructions on how to diagnose and treat diseased bovines, dogs, ducks, and fish. The first evidence for literature on hippiatry (horsemanship) appeared in cuneiform tablets from the fourteenth century BCE found during excavations at Ras Shamra-Ugarit in Syria.x

Figure 1.2 Egyptian tomb relief depicting veterinary care during delivery. Remarkably, the cow is in a standing position. It also shows a division between hands-on work by an operator while an experienced herdsman instructs. The accompanying text says: “Herdsman, catch gently” (Egypt, Old Kingdom, 1990–1970 BCE).

Source: A.M. Blackman, The Rock Tombs of Meir. Vol 1 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1914) Table X, detail; text p. 33.

Medical and veterinary practices in the ancient Near East were based on magic, rituals, religious beliefs, and practical knowledge of healing. Initially, physicians were also priests working in healing temples. It was the ancient Greeks who extended sacred healing knowledge into the basis of what is generally known as the Western medical tradition. Less well known is that their theories also applied to animals. Although religion and rituals continued to play a role in medical treatments, a secular medicine based on natural theories of health and disease emerged. Hippocrates (c. 460–370 BCE) who lived on the island of Cos, is often praised as the father of Western secular medicine, which was documented in the Hippocratic Corpus. However, Hippocrates’ actual contribution to this Corpus is unclear: it is a collection of about 60 works composed by various unknown authors throughout two centuries. These treatises included various aspects of medicine which were later integrated into one framework, Hippocratic medicine.

Hippocratic medicine combined a holistic approach and naturalism. As in medical traditions from other parts of the world, ancient Greek doctors carefully observed the whole patient to obtain information about his health status. Naturalism dictated that the body was able to heal itself, with the role of the healer to “do no harm” and help the body to restore its own health. Western, Arabic, and Persian theories of health and disease had some similarities to those of Asia during the early modern period (although these theories were framed within very different cultural contexts). An important external cause of disease was miasma (toxic or bad air); the climate and seasons also influenced the state of an animal’s body. Health was maintained by vital forces and balances of fluids and energy within the body according to the theory of the humors. The four humors of Greek medicine – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – corresponded to the overall Hippocratic system of elements, temperaments, and seasons (similar to the structure of Ayurvedic and Chinese medical systems) (Fig. 1.3). The four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – influenced and corresponded to the behavior of the four humors: the black bile (dry, cold; earth); yellow bile (hot, dry; fire); phlegm (wet, cold; water); and blood (hot, wet; air). Different combinations, or temperaments, accounted for the observed differences between the organs and parts of the body (such as the bones). We cannot do justice to this complex system here, but overall, it defined a healthy animal as one whose body contained combinations of these humors, in correspondence with its external environment, functioning in a kind of equilibrium.

Figure 1.3 Scheme of humoral theory with humors and temperaments, elements, and qualities.

Courtesy: Lisanne van der Voort, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University.

Disease and some injuries appeared or failed to heal when these humors were out of balance, reducing the animal’s vital energy or life force. Therapeutic choices (for both humans and animals) proceeded from the healer’s diagnosis of which humors were in excess (materia peccans) or deficient in the body. For example, it was widely believed that horses contained too much blood in springtime by which the animals became overheated (feverish). Bloodletting of horses after wintertime remained a regular treatment until well into the nineteenth century. As with Ayurvedic medicine, healers applied enemas, induced vomiting (purging), or held hot cups on the skin to draw out toxic or surplus bodily fluids. Other treatments to reestablish balance included changing diets, massage, warm or cold baths, and exercise. Animal healers worked within a nosology (or classification) of diseases based on these internal and external forces, and treatment procedures were designed to restore the body’s balances.

Another Greek scholar, Aristotle (c. 384–322 BCE), is considered one of the greatest philosophers and scientists of the ancient Western world. He laid the basis for biology by classifying about 500 different animal species. Once again, his contributions to animal health and disease are less well known. Aristotle named several animal diseases with their symptoms but mentioned only bloodletting as treatment. He described breeding of horses, donkeys, and mules, as well as the castration of bulls and boar and how these animals grow fatter. Aristotelian and Hippocratic texts were augmented later by the work of the influential Greek/Roman physician Claudius Galen (130–210 CE). Although humors were key elements for the careful observation of patients, Galen provided some anatomical knowledge to support the humoral theory. He dissected pigs (which he viewed as most similar to humans) to obtain a deeper insight into the function of the various organs. For example, he noted that urine was produced in the kidney and not in the urinary bladder. Next to vomit, sweat, urine, and feces, pus was an important expression of materia peccans that had to be removed from the diseased body

Treatises on animal healing from Greek authors were cited, copied, and translated into Latin by Roman writers after the conquest of Greece. This was the case with the treatise on horsemanship (hippiatrica) by Xenophon (c. 430–354 BCE), philosopher, historian, and soldier from Athens. Classic Roman works from late antiquity entirely devoted to veterinary medicine are Ars veterinaria by Pelagonius and Mulomedicinae by Vegetius. In the Roman Empire, professional animal healers, responsible mainly for the health of equines (horses, donkeys, mules, hinnies), were first known as medicus equarius (horse-doctor) and veterinarius, and later (fourth century) as mulomedicus (mule-doctor). (Often these terms were later incorrectly translated into “farrier.”) The word veterinarius (caretaker of bestia veterina: equines, according to Latinist James Adams), appeared in Columella’s treatise on Roman agriculture, written around 60 CE. Agricultural production was mainly based on slavery. It is not clear whether the (low) status of the veterinarius, who also belonged to this group of agricultural workers, was free or servile; however, it is possible that many were slaves.

The ancient Greek and Roman economies heavily depended on livestock and crop production. Animals were indispensable because they provided for transport, food, animal traction, and warfare. But equally important was the cultural role of animals in menageries and for entertainment in the circus, including horse chariot racing in amphitheaters. Animal healers were needed to support all these activities. Ancient Roman mosaics and reliefs provide evidence for veterinary care, including racehorses wearing leg bandages. The most common representations of instruments include variations of the nose-twitch, the hipposandal (soleae ferreae), and instruments for cauterizing, trimming hooves, and castration. Besides horse races, fights between gladiators and wild animals were also part of public entertainment. Over the centuries of the Roman empire, thousands of exotic animals were captured to supply the more than seventy amphitheaters. (Ecologists have argued that this practice caused permanent declines in wildlife populations, particularly in Africa.) As for practical veterinary medicine, the boundary between the work of herdsmen, owners, interested laymen, stable masters, breeders, other healers, and the professional hippiatros, veterinarius, and mulomedicus was small.

A final cultural role for animals and animal healers was the widespread aristocratic sport of hunting. Animal assistants in the hunt included horses, dogs, and hunting birds such as falcons and raptors. These practices ranged widely across Eurasia and persisted for centuries (even into the twenty-first century in some places), thus providing a thread of continuity for the longue durée history of human–animal relationships. Elite hunting was common in early Mesopotamia, China, and India; and it persisted into the modern era in Iran, Northern India, and the Middle East. Its practices instigated innovations in animal breeding, care, and healing. For example, the manuscript “On Hunting” presented in 1247 to al-Mansur (the Hafsid Sultan of North Africa) also detailed the proper treatment of the sultan’s saluki hunting dogs. The dogs were carefully bred, fed special diets, and given expert care for diseases and injuries. Historians can often find information about animal healing practices in documents and other sources describing the use of animals in cultural activities.

The Islamic Scholarly Tradition

After the fall of Rome in the fifth century CE, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, became an important center of scientific knowledge – and a return to the importance of theological knowledge. A shift occurred from the Latin West to the East where Jewish, Islamic, and Christian authors added to the existing medical and veterinary writings. For example, Maimonides (1135–1204) worked as a rabbi, philosopher, and physician in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt and wrote texts that included veterinary treatments. With the rise and expansion of the Islamic empire around the Mediterranean, Greek, Latin, and Indian sources were translated into Arabic, Persian, and other Middle Eastern languages. Medieval Islamic scholars integrated Greek, Roman, Persian, and Ayurvedic concepts and adapted human and veterinary medicine based on new anatomical and physiological research (pulmonary circulation of blood, the eye as an optical instrument, physiology of the stomach), drugs (the use of papaver), and practices (mercuric chloride to disinfect wounds, cauterization of wounds to prevent infection and to stop bleeding). Islamic human and veterinary medicine became the most advanced worldwide for centuries. During the Middle Ages (fifth–fifteenth centuries), the most important collections were written by Islamic scholars in Mamluk Egypt, including Abū ʿAlī b. Abd Allāh b. al-Ḥusayn Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, 980–1037) for human medicine; Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–1198); and Muḥammad al-Bakhshī al-Ḥalabī (1246–1324) and Ibn al-Mundhir (writing c. 1339–1340) for veterinary medicine. These medical texts applied the theory of the humors to understanding human and animal diseases and linked treatment to anatomical knowledge.

Although the more scholarly authors had little hands-on experience with animals, their extensive reading and sophisticated analytical abilities meant that their texts were highly influential. Al-Bakhshī al-Ḥalabī, for example, was primarily a poet, calligrapher, and important generator of documents for the governor of Damascus and other Mamluk leaders. He wrote his treatise on horses because his high-ranking patrons were interested in horses for practical reasons (hunting and racing, for example) and for theological reasons (explained below). According to another scholar, every ruler needed a range of professional services to be provided by his staff, including veterinary medicine, falconry, chess, medicine, music, astrology, and agriculture. Veterinary treatises were essential to court life and to the ongoing success of every ruler in the fourteenth century.

For the more middling classes of hands-on veterinary practitioners, the most famous book on veterinary medicine, the Kāshif or Al-Kitāb al-Nāsirī, was written by Abū Bakr al-Bayṭār in the 1330s. “Al-Baytār” meant “veterinarian” or “horse-doctor.” (Derived from this term, albeitar became the word for professional animal healers in medieval Spain.) Abū Bakr was the son of a highly ranked court veterinarian and a distinguished practitioner in his own right. While serving as chief veterinarian for the powerful sultan Nāsirī, Abū Bakr combined his family’s practical knowledge with Greek, Byzantine, South Asian, Arabic, and Persian texts; he cited Vegetius, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen as well as Persian and Indian experts. He also tested some of the treatments recommended by his predecessor authors, and his analysis could be quite critical. Of course, the state of knowledge had changed over seven centuries; but Abū Bakr was one of the few writers who could speak authoritatively about both the classical texts and the current practices of his time.

Abū Bakr’s work allows us to envision how Islamic scholars analyzed, questioned, and revised classical texts, often adding new ideas and practices to the accumulated wisdom. The volumes of the Kāshif demonstrate that the basis for knowledge about animal health and disease was the theory of humors. Humoral imbalance (as well as external factors such as miasma) led to the manifestations of disease, as the ancients had believed. But the originality of the Kāshif lies with Abū Bakr’s recommended treatments, particularly formulations of medicines, which reflected his experiences and his times. Historian Hosni Alkhateeb Shehada cites the example of al-baqar disease (Arabic: ox or cattle disease), which classical texts deemed incurable. He argues that Abū Bakr rejected this, instead recommending a complex medication made from several minerals and plants such as kahrabā, ṭabāshīr, seeds of the rijlah plant, and a decoction of the lisān al-ḥamal plant. Another treatment for al-baqar disease was based on the seeds of ḥummāḍ, qaṭūnyā, and kathīrah, mixed with the lisān al-ḥamal decoction. Modern ingredients, such as sugar, also appeared in Abū Bakr’s medical recipes. To us today, Abū Bakr’s recommendations look more humane overall than some of the treatments advocated by classical texts (bleeding and purging).

This brings us to a final point: most of these treatises and texts were meant to be used by practitioners, and surviving examples demonstrate just how innovative veterinary practitioners were (Fig. 1.4). As we mentioned earlier, the Islamic works were translated back into Latin, and from there into Italian, Spanish, French, German, and English, indicating how widely they spread around the West. Veterinary knowledge traveled from the Near East and Northern Africa through southern Italy, Spain, and Armenia. The court of Emperor Frederic II from Hohenstaufen (Barbarossa, 1198–1250) in Sicily became an important clearinghouse of knowledge about veterinary medicine from the Islamic and Latin traditions. For example, Jordanus Rufus (c. 1200–1256), Frederic II’s marescallus (marshall or master of the cavalry), wrote De medicina equorum, a systematic work on equine medicine. In De medicina equorum, Rufus addressed the learned stable masters: he described the symptoms of illnesses; tried to determine a material or mechanistic cause (beyond magic or superstition); and subsequently chose a therapy that he had tested in practice himself. De medicina equorum was quickly translated into several European languages and remained a standard for centuries. Another treatise from Frederic II’s court, written by the blacksmith and stable master Albrant, became the most widespread booklet on practical equine medicine in German during the Middle Ages. The therapies of Albrant remained in use until around 1900 because they were translated and copied into numerous books of recipes for equine medical treatment.

Figure 1.4 Treatment of a horse with diarrhea. A drug is administered with a horn.

Source: Fourteenth-century copy of Corpus Hippiatricorum Graecorum. Courtesy: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Ms Gr. 2244, folio 74v.

Circulations of veterinary knowledge between cultures also took place in Cilicia (part of modern Turkey), which circa 1200–1375 was a largely Armenian Christian enclave at the crossroads of the Mongol and Mamluk (Egyptian Islamic) empires. In 1258, Cilician forces under King Het’um I conquered Baghdad and obtained possession of Arabic manuscripts on horse medicine; these were among the sources used for the Cilician horse medicine books written during the next century. A quite remarkable book showing the spreading of veterinary knowledge is a compendium on equine medicine, the horse book sponsored by King Smbat, co-written by an Armenian multilingual monk and a Syrian horse-doctor in Cilicia between 1295 and 1298. Among its sources, the book mentions an Indian manuscript and two Arabian works; however, a study of these original references has shown that this book was more than a mere translation of earlier work. Rather, the Smbat-era equine medicine book synthesizes ideas from animal healing in the Indian, Arabic, and Persian literatures and provides a critical overview of contemporary expert knowledge on horse medicine in the Near East. The equine medicine treatises of thirteenth-century Cilicia demonstrate how knowledge about veterinary medicine was appropriated, translated, added to, and disseminated widely between the many learned cultures of the early modern period. This veterinary knowledge, in turn, contributed to the later corpus of works in European languages.

Among contemporary European treatises was the Mulomedicina from the Italian bishop Theodoricus Cerviensis (1205–1298), an influential equine medicine book in Latin. Cerviensis’ book tells us the types of herbal-based medications used in the early modern period, for example, henbane as an anesthetic to calm horses before surgery. Later, mandrake and poppy were used for this purpose – precursors to the opioids still used in veterinary anesthesia today. The invention of printing (circa 1450) dramatically stimulated translations and compilations of writings on animal breeding and healing from antiquity onward. Older classical texts were re-published, such as Artis veterinariae sive mulomedicinae from Flavius Vegetius Renatus (Basel 1524); expanded editions were now possible. The most striking example is La Gloria del Cavallo (Venice 1566) written by Pasquale Caracciolo. This treatise of about a thousand pages with a comprehensive number of references mainly deals with horses and horsemanship. It also includes a chapter on cattle diseases. Another important encyclopedist was Conrad Gestner with his Historia animalium (Zürich 1551–1558) in which he described the natural history, breeding, and veterinary treatment of the horse. Eventually, the printing press would make animal healing books available to larger sectors of societies, at least, to literate animal owners.

To write treatises and books, however, authors needed patronage from sultans, kings, or religious institutions. Next to courts and monasteries, medical schools of universities increasingly became centers of veterinary knowledge with libraries containing veterinary manuscripts. For example, around 1080 the first medical school started in Salerno, Italy, while the first university in Europe was opened in 1188 in Bologna. Medical faculties formed the basis for university-trained physicians. Lectures were mainly based on Greco-Roman and Islamic texts and students did not get training with hands-on skills. This led to the occupational division between the educated doctor medicinae, who theorized and instructed; and the (lower-class) surgeon and apothecary, who obtained their knowledge by apprenticeship, performed the practical manual labor, and regulated their professions in medieval guilds. These and later European traditions of veterinary knowledge owed a great debt to the Islamic scholars who created this rich global corpus of veterinary knowledge. Blending the healing traditions of secular systems (such as the Greco-Roman) and sacred ideas, these early modern animal healers most often worked within sacred traditions and institutions.

New Ideas: Breaking from the Ancient Traditions

However, this dynamic transfer of veterinary knowledge almost came to a standstill during the devastating spread of bubonic plague (Black Death) during the fourteenth century. Originating in wild rodent colonies in eastern Central Asia and western China, bubonic plague spilled over into populations of hunters, farmers, and invading armies during the late 1200s into the mid-1300s. The disease then spread throughout Asia and to Europe along trade routes (plague infects not only rodents and humans, but also camels, cats, and other domesticated animals). Bubonic plague devastated parts of South and East Asia, killed around one-third of Europeans, spread to the continent of Africa, and continued to cause sporadic epidemics for 400 years. In local areas around the world, the plague outbreak changed agriculture and livestock production significantly. In some places, whole cultivated areas were abandoned. As crop-farming decreased, more meadows became available for livestock production. As human populations began to recover from the devastation, meat consumption increased in some areas, and higher livestock numbers demanded veterinary care. Existing veterinary knowledge did not disappear, and it continued to be recorded in treatises that survive today. In Europe, for example, farms belonging to feudal courts and monasteries were the centers of hunting, agriculture, and livestock production, where veterinary knowledge and practices were concentrated. At one monastery, Abbess Hildegard von Bingen’s (1098–1179) Causae et Curae, for instance, included treatments for livestock diseases along with those for human diseases; these treatises were kept safely in the monastery’s library and survived the centuries as one of the few written by a woman. As in the Islamic tradition, religious institutions were important centers for knowledge in the European tradition, both before and after the Black Death era.

Legal texts and trade rules represent another source of information about animal disease, especially among livestock for food and other products, in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. In Europe, for example, liver fluke parasites in sheep are mentioned in late medieval trade rules. A seller of sheep guaranteed that the buyer would be given a refund if the animals proved to have internal parasites or a liver sickness within six weeks of purchase. Along with writings on horses and livestock, works were also dedicated to care for dogs and birds used at courts for hunting. A famous example is the Livre de chasse, a medieval book on hunting, written in the late fourteenth century by the French count Gaston Phébus. One part of the work is about the nature and care of dogs. This classic was translated many times with editions available even today. Besides the skilled handlers caring for hunting dogs, great value was attached to falconers, who were responsible for the health of birds of prey. Falconry books with extended descriptions of bird diseases were already written in early medieval Persia. Arabic knowledge on falconry was then translated into Latin and used at European courts. The higher educated nobility and clergy used these treatises to instruct their servants on practical animal health care for centuries.

Recovery of agriculture, governance, and learning was slow; but after this dark period of bubonic plague, a new era emerged. In the West, the Renaissance (c. 1400–1600), a golden age in European cultural history, began when many scholars fled to Italy after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks and the consequent fall of the Byzantine Empire. From Italy, Renaissance ideas spread across Europe and stimulated art, philosophy, and the sciences. This cultural context not only shaped the relationship between veterinary and human medicine but also potentially challenged the Christian doctrine that God had created humans to be separate from (and superior to) animals.

Ars nova: Anatomy in Europe

The Renaissance changed the ways animals and animal bodies were understood and represented, and this was reflected not only in art but also in a new critical approach to existing knowledge of anatomy. No longer was anatomical training conducted mainly from Galenic treatises; it was now based on active observation and dissection of animal (and occasionally human) bodies. By 1500, all of Europe’s approximately seventy medical schools included anatomy lectures based on animals and, increasingly, dissection demonstrations. As part of comparative medicine, elite doctores medicinae studied animal anatomy and physiology, as well as animal diseases, for centuries. One early anatomy text (dating to the beginning of the twelfth century) dealt with the pig, the animal considered the closest to humans in terms of anatomy and physiology. This text was used as the anatomical instruction book for students in the medical school of Salerno. A major contribution was made by the universal genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), who as an artist studied the anatomy of various domesticated animals as well as humans. Following in the footsteps of earlier Islamic scholars working to correct the errors of Galenic anatomy, da Vinci made his superb drawings of human and animal anatomy based on his own observations during dissections. Based on a comparison of human and equine anatomy, he concluded that horses walk on their tiptoes. He also left a very detailed drawing of a gravid bovine uterus, placenta, and innervation of blood vessels.

The scientific basis for human anatomy was laid in 1543 by the Flemish physician Andries van Wesel (Andreas Vesalius, 1514–1564). Vesalius learned to dissect animal bodies during his study at the university of Paris, but he criticized the usual methods of instruction. Ignorant surgeon-dissectors, he wrote, did nothing more than cut up body parts to be examined by students according to the instructions of a physician-lecturer (who never touched the body) reading from a Galenic treatise. For a long time, dissecting human corpses was forbidden and criticized due to cultural and religious restrictions, but from the fourteenth century onward, anatomical demonstrations during lectures slowly became more common. Dissections even attracted the curious public to anatomical theaters, sometimes creating a carnival atmosphere or public spectacle. After dissecting several human corpses (often executed criminals), Vesalius concluded that Galen had probably never seen a human body on the inside, and had obtained his anatomical knowledge from dissecting pigs, dogs, and monkeys. For example, Galen had written that the human liver consisted of four or five lobes instead of two, as Vesalius observed. Based on his own observations on internal structures and functions of the body, and after comparing these with those of ancient Greek, Roman, and Islamic scholars (which was typical for science in the Renaissance) Vesalius wrote De humani corporis fabrica [On the fabric of the human body]. De humani corporis fabrica was a breakthrough: a new detailed and comprehensive anatomy of the human body, including a systematic Latin nomenclature of organs, bones, nerves, blood vessels, and muscles which we still use today. The magnificent drawings to illustrate Vesalius’ text were probably made in the studio of the great Renaissance artist Titian. Linked with art and spectacle as well as science, anatomy became the leading scholarly discipline within European human and animal medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Mostly, veterinary anatomy focused on the horse because this was the most valuable animal (with some attention to bovines and other animals).

By 1600, art, science, and aesthetics merged in a fascinating style in printed veterinary anatomical texts. The most important text, a veterinary equivalent of Vesalius’ anatomy, was Dell’Anatomia et dell’Infirmita del Cavallo (On anatomy and disease of the horse, 2 volumes, Bologna 1598) from the Bologna lawyer and senator Carlo Ruini (c. 1530–1598). Ruini was inspired by Vesalius, and although he did not attend the University of Bologna, he became one of the famous horse anatomists of the late sixteenth century. As a member of a rich family, Ruini owned and rode horses and thus had a great deal of experience with them. (He likely learned a great deal from the family stable-masters and other practitioners as well.) Ruini’s treatise, the first one exclusively devoted to the anatomy of a species other than humans, appeared shortly after his death. The Dell’Anatomia set a new standard for high-quality anatomical illustrations, remaining unsurpassed for centuries. It contains detailed studies on osteology (bones), myology (muscles), splanchnology (viscera), the nervous system, and blood vessels – all captured in very accurately drafted and beautifully rendered woodcut images (Fig. 1.5). The identity of the artist who created these images remains a mystery, and some historians have speculated that he wished to remain anonymous due to the humble practicality and lowly artistic status of his subject, veterinary anatomy. Numerous editions of Ruini’s book were published, and errors made in the first edition (even in the title) were corrected in the second edition of 1599. As scholars have argued for human anatomical treatises, Ruini’s work represented the high value placed on the horse, both for its practical importance and the natural majesty of the equine body in the animal kingdom. His treatise’s success in capturing this cultural, as well as practical, value was demonstrated by how widely Dell’Anatomia would be copied in the ensuing years.

Figure 1.5 Woodcut plate from Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo, infermità, et suoi rimedii (Venice: F. Prati, 1618) 243.

Courtesy: U.S. National Library of Medicine Historical Anatomies Collection.

The text, as well as the 49 beautiful woodcut images, regularly reappeared in later anatomical works without acknowledgment. (International copyright laws did not exist at that time.) Andrew Snape (London 1683), Valentin Trichter (Nuremberg 1715), Gaspar de Saunier (The Hague 1734), and François Garsault (The Hague 1741) all “borrowed” images from Ruini. Andrew Snape, the court horse-doctor of Charles II from England, even claimed that he was the first person to describe the anatomy of the horse, despite the fact that he copied 22 plates from Ruini (reversing the plates in an attempt to hide the plagiarism, which placed the viscera on opposite sides of the body and confused students using his book). De Saunier went even further, asserting that the 61 plates in his horse anatomy were drawn from his own observations when 51 of them were plagiarized from Ruini. Unfortunately, quality did not always improve after the new standard was set by Ruini. An example is Gervase Markham’s Maister-Piece (London 1610), which has been criticized for its inaccuracies. One historian has declared that Markham’s Maister-Piece harmed progress in veterinary medicine more than any other text. However, it did circulate widely, including to the British colonies in the Americas. An interesting fact is that the American version, The Citizen and Countryman’s Experienced Farrier (1764), included treatments that European settlers had learned from the local Native Americans (referred to as “Discreet Indians” in the text). These were botanical remedies based on local plants that were unfamiliar to the European newcomers; thus, the Experienced Farrier reflected circulations of veterinary medical knowledge between natives and newcomers in North America.

The final European veterinary anatomical text we will highlight was written in English and illustrated by the London artist George Stubbs (1724–1806). Stubbs, who was largely self-taught, embodied the realist tradition in art and sought to connect the horse’s underlying anatomical structures with its external appearance. He conducted his own dissections and, like some of his predecessors, sought to depict the equine body as noble and well designed. In The Anatomy of the Horse (1766), Stubbs depicted the skeleton, muscle layers, fascia, ligaments, nerves, blood vessels, glands, and cartilage of the horse from three positions (side, front, and back). Stubbs’ book was published, as we will see in Chapter 3, at about the same time as the development of modern veterinary schools. Anatomical dissections for veterinary purposes revived in veterinary schools from the 1760s onward, and anatomy has remained a central subject within the veterinary curriculum ever since then.

Differentiating Animals and Humans

Our focus on anatomy, especially veterinary texts, raises an important cultural question: what do these books reveal about European beliefs regarding the relationship between humans and animals, circa 1600–1750? By studying human and animal bodies, many scholars found similarities. Since ancient times, curious dissectors had studied animals’ bodies as proxies for human bodies. Some parts of animal bodies looked almost identical to those of humans, and the notion of “comparative anatomy” was based on homologous structures (such as the human forearm and the horse’s front leg). Natural philosophers studying animals’ bodies also linked their findings to observations about animals’ ability to reason and communicate, like humans. However, there was a problem: in the European Christian sacred context of this time period, only man was created in the image of God, not animals. The observed anatomical similarities forced theological scholars to find another way to divide humans from animals, and they focused on debating whether animals had souls, as humans did. In this way, the developing sciences of anatomy (and embryology and physiology, as we will see) challenged the firm theological boundary between humans and animals by uncovering layers of material similarity between species’ bodies and stimulating debates about how closely related animals were to humans.

Anatomy was not the only developing science to challenge the human–animal boundary: embryology and physiology added more knowledge about how human and animal bodies developed and functioned. Girolamo Fabrizio (Hieronymus Fabricius ab Aquapendente, 1537–1619) is often considered the father of embryology. He was professor of surgery and anatomy at the University of Padua, and based on dissecting horses, bovines, sheep, pigs, dogs, and mice, he wrote the first comprehensive study on comparative embryology: De formato foetu (1600). It contains a detailed description of the outer shapes of the various fetuses and the characteristics of the membranes. In addition, Fabricius studied the anatomy of the eye, ear, intestines, stomach, larynx, and esophagus. Three years later he published a treatise on valves within veins. (The small pulmonary circulation was already described by the Arab physician Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), the Spaniard Miguel Serveto (1511–1553), and the Italian Realdo Colombo (c. 1515–1559).)

The University of Padua became the center of comparative anatomy and physiology, led by Fabricius’ brilliant student (and later competitor), Giulio Casseri (Julius Casserius, 1552–1616). Casseri, a physician, performed dissections for students on different animal species and human cadavers. Based on these, he authored three reference books on comparative anatomy and physiology. Both Fabricius and Casseri (who succeeded Fabricius as professor in 1604) were teachers of the British physician William Harvey (1578–1657). Harvey’s observation of valves within veins triggered his theory and experiments on capillaries and the large blood circulation, which was published in 1628 (see Chapter 2). Further supporting similarities between humans and animals, Harvey also wrote that humans and other mammals originated from eggs and that the reproductive cycle was the same for all. These were milestones in the history of the modern sciences; and they were challenges to the Christian doctrine that God had created humans to be completely different from (and superior to) animals.

However, the anatomical and embryological scientific evidence was not strong enough to make animals “more human” for two major reasons: theological doctrine and religious rituals were more powerful than science at this time; and most people had no opportunity to study scholarly texts and thus continued relying on older, well-established beliefs and healing practices. Although many anatomy texts (including Ruini’s) included sections on treating injuries and diseases, these findings did not greatly affect disease causation theories or change contemporary healing practices (in part because Ruini’s therapeutics were quite traditional). Methods of surgery could have benefited from greater knowledge of internal anatomy; however, seldom did surgeons attempt to work on the internal organs because neither antisepsis nor anesthesia were yet available. Animal healers continued to rely on correcting an imbalance of humors with bleeding or purging; fighting inflammation in horses’ legs with blistering and cauterizing; and administering medicines made from plants and simple chemical compounds. They learned these skills through apprenticeship with a more experienced practitioner (this was also true of most physicians for humans). In the medical marketplace in most of Europe, a strict hierarchy existed: a few educated scholars at the top, then the physicians for upper-class and wealthy people; followed by more humble physicians; and then, at the lower levels, surgeons and apothecaries and veterinarians. The social distinction between physicians and surgeons was preserved through the mid-1800s (and that between veterinarians and the various human medical practitioners even longer). Surgery, apothecary work, and veterinary medicine were considered (in most places) to be trades, not professions; and they all did the manual labor disdained by the more socially exalted physicians. The social differences between physicians and veterinarians reflected the differentiation between humans and animals in the Western Christian tradition: according to the Bible, God placed animals on the earth to serve man, and the value of animals lay in the resources and services they could supply to the growing numbers of humans populating the earth in the 1600s and 1700s.


From this very brief survey of several centuries, we can conclude that:
  1. 1. The domestication of elephants, horses, poultry, bovines, and other animals supplied animal bodies for food, transport, power, and cultural status. Also, many societies incorporated animals into their sacred traditions and developed elaborate systems of knowledge about animals (including animal healing). All these uses made animals valuable economically and culturally within human societies.

  2. 2. Animal healers, like human medical practitioners, gained knowledge mainly through experience and apprenticeship. Some texts were written and kept in libraries (especially by Islamicate scholars), and a few writers in Europe began publishing printed texts about animal anatomy and medicine by the 1500s.

  3. 3. Globally, the most common theories of disease causation in humans and animals in early modern times were probably supernatural ones: magical forces, divine intervention, or punishment for sinful behavior. Within the same time, place, and culture, supernatural or sacred theories could be combined with natural ones; they were not mutually exclusive.

  4. 4. Natural (not supernatural) theories were important in Southeast and East Asia, and in ancient Greece and Rome. In the Greco-Roman tradition, they included the theory of the humors; the miasma theory; and contagion. Ayurvedic theories (India) incorporated the theory of humors into a universal cosmology of elements and seasons. Traditional Chinese medicine sought to balance and nurture the essential energy of the body, the qi.

  5. 5. Treatments corresponded logically to the theories. Depending on the tradition, sacred rituals could be combined with bodily treatments in attempts to cure patients. Treatments for the imbalance of humors included removing excess blood (bleeding) and bile (vomiting and purging); for nurturing the qi, these included acupuncture and guided movements or massage. Sacred rituals included invocations to the gods, prayer, blessings, and others.

  6. 6. Knowledge about animal healing circulated between different cultures. For example, Abū Bakr al-Bāytar wrote an important veterinary medical text in the 1330s that combined his family’s practical veterinary knowledge with Greek, Byzantine, South Asian, Arabic, and Persian texts; he cited Vegetius, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen as well as Persian and Indian experts. Islamicate scholars in the medieval and early modern periods were especially important to collecting, revising, and circulating veterinary knowledge.

  7. 7. In Europe during and after the Renaissance, the development of sciences such as anatomy and embryology had the potential to challenge the Christian doctrine that God had created humans to be separate from (and superior to) animals. Comparative anatomy demonstrated many similarities between the bodies of humans and other mammals, for example.

  8. 8. However, the anatomical and embryological scientific evidence was not strong enough to make animals “more human” for two major reasons: theological doctrine and religious rituals were more powerful than science at this time; and most people had no opportunity to study scholarly texts and thus continued relying on older, well-established beliefs and healing practices.

  9. 9. In the early modern period, animals’ ability to contribute to societies depended on animals’ bodies being healthy and fulfilling the particular needs of that culture. Regimes of animal healing developed within these world-ordering cosmologies to provide for specific material requirements of complex societies.

Many complex societies were built with large numbers of domesticated animals. However, keeping animals close to or inside people’s houses effectively altered the environments of both. People and their domesticated animals shared microorganisms (which also co-evolved with them over time). A major problem with the closeness of human and domesticated animal populations was the spread and evolution of pathogens, and healers for both humans and animals faced the challenges of emergent diseases then (as we do now). Increasingly, human activities shaped the ecologies of health and disease around the world. When the peoples of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres encountered each other in the late 1400s, for example, the invading Europeans brought their domesticated animals, plants, and diseases with them. As we will see in the next chapter, these demographic and ecological transformations ushered in a new era for animal healing and veterinary medicine.

Question/Activity: Can you find examples of how healers in your region or nation contributed to knowledge about animal disease, from ancient times until 1700? What were the major theories about disease causation, and what were the major treatments used on sick animals?

Figure 0

Figure 1.1 Diagram with acupuncture points on the body of the horse.

Source:Ma Niu I Fang (China, 1399 CE); reproduced in Lu Gwei-Djen & Joseph Needham, Celestial Lancets. A History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) 238.
Figure 1

Figure 1.2 Egyptian tomb relief depicting veterinary care during delivery. Remarkably, the cow is in a standing position. It also shows a division between hands-on work by an operator while an experienced herdsman instructs. The accompanying text says: “Herdsman, catch gently” (Egypt, Old Kingdom, 1990–1970 BCE).

Source: A.M. Blackman, The Rock Tombs of Meir. Vol 1 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1914) Table X, detail; text p. 33.
Figure 2

Figure 1.3 Scheme of humoral theory with humors and temperaments, elements, and qualities.

Courtesy: Lisanne van der Voort, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University.
Figure 3

Figure 1.4 Treatment of a horse with diarrhea. A drug is administered with a horn.

Source: Fourteenth-century copy of Corpus Hippiatricorum Graecorum. Courtesy: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Ms Gr. 2244, folio 74v.
Figure 4

Figure 1.5 Woodcut plate from Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo, infermità, et suoi rimedii (Venice: F. Prati, 1618) 243.

Courtesy: U.S. National Library of Medicine Historical Anatomies Collection.
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