On Encountering Snakes
D.H. Lawrence, in his wonderful poem "Snake", describes how, when coming upon the creature by a water-trough, he underwent an inner conflict, experiencing feelings of both fear and admiration. He writes of how his instinctive reaction, throwing a log at it, left him with a sense of having acted in a petty manner towards "one of the lords of life". My own reaction, as a twelve-year-old, on encountering a large tiger snake in a creek in Australia was much the same, though perhaps with fear and revulsion outweighing admiration. The reputation of the snake and the reaction it arouses among the majority of people may be unfair, but it is deeply entrenched. I admit to an inability to this day, to overcome my aversion to this much-maligned creature, as greatly as that would be desirable for someone who not infrequently encounters these creatures in a professional capacity (as an archaeologist).
Snakes were one of the many hardships the crusaders encountered in the East. The chronicler, Albert of Aachen, describes the “fiery” snakes called Tarenta that plagued the soldiers during the First Crusade, as they camped in the region of the Awaly River near Sidon. In order to keep the creatures at a distance, they were advised by the locals to make a great deal of noise by banging on their shields* (a technique I have used, albeit with something other than a shield, when breaking new ground at Montfort). Not for nothing did the chronicler refer to the snakes as "fiery". The limbs of those who were bitten "cracked...because they swelled and blew up incredibly on account of unbearable thirst." Albert records a treatment that the locals recommended for snakebite. The person bitten "...should go up to one of the more noble and eminent people in the army, and if the wound of the sting [sic] was touched and embraced by the man’s right hand, the poison [that had] spread through the limbs would be seen to do no more harm." That sounds a bit doubtful, but so does another treatment he recommends. To remove the swelling, the victim of a bite should immediately have intercourse with a partner. Just how this would improve the unfortunate soldier's condition is a bit of a mystery (perhaps the idea was that it might take his mind off the pain?), but then, the same can be said for many of the medical treatments in use at the time.
No less mysterious than treating snakebite with sex, is the use made of snakes in warfare. A soldier in Richard I’s army during the Third Crusade reported having seen a large and well-defended Muslim ship at harbour in Beirut, being loaded with weapons. These included crossbows, bows, bolts and arrows, Greek Fire in phials... and two hundred very deadly snakes, all of these intended to be used against the Christians.** In the event, the ship was sunk outside of Acre harbour, and all the snakes drowned, which leaves us to wonder about just how the Muslims planned to make use of them.
*Albert of Aachen, Historia Ierosolimitana 40., ed. and transl. Susan Edgington, Oxford, 2009, pp. 392-93.
**Chronicle of the Third Crusade. Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, ed. and transl. Helen J. Nicholson, Aldershot and Burlington, 1997, Chapter 42, p. 197