Leach (2019 Congress)

Katherine Leach
(Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University)

“Horn of Stag and Skin of Snake:
Animal Ingredients in Late Medieval Welsh Medical and Charm Texts”

Abstract of Paper
To be presented at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2019)

Session on
“Animals in Celtic Magical Texts”

Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
and the Societas Magica
Organized by Phillip A. Bernhardt–House
2019 Congress Program

[Published on 15 March 2019]


The earliest Welsh texts featuring medicine and charms date from the end of the thirteenth century and beginning of the fourteenth.  As the fourteenth century progressed, Welsh medical recipes and charm texts exploded in popularity, and were included in manuscripts of medicine, religion, and poetry.  Although many of the recipes and charms were similar to traditions in medieval England and Europe, a few seem, so far, to be fairly unique.  My paper will explore several recipes, in Welsh and found in Welsh manuscripts, that include significant animal ingredients necessary for a certain efficacy.

Several texts use the ashes of snakes, toads, and stag horns in recipes for healing from snakebites, general wounds, fever, and various other ailments.  In one text, the ash of a snake is used in several different ways to affect various outcomes such as overthrowing your enemy, winning a debate, and even functioning as a truth serum.  This treatise, however, is not original to the Welsh language or tradition, but rather it constitutes a translation of the widely-circulated Experimenta duodecim (circa 1300) by Johannes Paulinus.  Nevertheless, the various Welsh translations allow for useful insights into textual adaptation as well as into common medical and magical practices in later medieval Wales.  Examining the various recipes throughout the Welsh tradition which rely heavily on animal ingredients to produce a desired outcome, I will explore how practitioners of medicine conceived of and relied on the animal world in practicing their craft.  I will also explore the intersection of magic, science, and religion in these texts.