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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Medicine, Mutation and Wisdom


The viper oil of Mesues. Take 2 pounds of live snakes and 2 pounds 3 ounces of sesame oil. Cook slowly, covered in a glazed pot, until meat pulls away from bone. Strain and store. Uses: Cleans the skin, removes pimples, impetigo and other defects.” - A snake oil recipe, Juan de Loeches, Tyrocinium Pharmaceticum), Spain, 1719/1751, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This week a tired world has been encouraged by the news that major progress has been made in the development of a vaccine for the Covid virus. At the same time, we have heard of the disturbing appearance of a mutation of the virus found in minks farmed in Denmark that has been transmitted to humans. This latter disclosure has reawakened fears that the virus may outmanoeuvre us and overcome our efforts to control it. As much of the world enters the second wave of Covid, we are reminded that it was a particularly virulent mutation of the Spanish Flu that caused most of the estimated 20 to 50 million deaths of that catastrophe. It came with the second and third waves of that pandemic in 1918-19.


As the media has aroused hope on the one hand, and fears of gloom and doom on the other, and as I feel somewhat responsible for doing my bit in putting a damper on the former by mentioning the latter, here is something of a lighter nature that is recorded in the ever-entertaining account of Ernoul, that obscure chronicler of the Holy Land writing in the early thirteenth century. He informs us of an ointment made from snakes that had proven to be a cure for all kinds of poison. Ernoul describes a snake charmer, a sort of medieval pied piper, and points out how those more intelligent among his prey found an original way to avoid his charms:


Near this city [Jericho] is a field, which is full of serpents. There they catch the serpents of which the ointment is made, and I will tell you how they catch them. The man who catches them makes a ring round the field, and goes saying his charm, singing round the ring. All the serpents who have heard him come to him, and he catches them as easily as he would a lamb, and takes them to sell in the cities to those who make the ointment. Now there are some wise ones amongst these serpents, who, when they hear him begin his song, stop one of their ears against the ground, and stop the other with the tail, so that they may not hear, and thus they escape.*


Those clever snakes! With their wisdom and remarkable dexterity (or whatever the correct term might be for performing a difficult action quickly and skilfully with one's tail) I cannot help but think of Lewis Carroll's 'eldest oyster'. We can only hope that the Covid virus will not prove to be as sagacious.




* Ernoul, from The Condition of the City of Jerusalem, in Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 6, translated from the Old French by C.R. Conder, London, 1896, p. 58.



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