An Early History of Veterinary Medicine with Gonzalo Giner
In an excerpt from The Horse Healer, the author and veterinarian shares how the practice of healing animals developed in ancient Babylon.
With far more passion than any other objective, I have tried to make this novel into an homage to my own profession, to the thousands and thousands of men and women who practiced it across the centuries, who were called by numerous names: hippiatrus, veterinarius, albéitar, farrier, horseleech, and now, veterinarian. I honestly believe that, besides being the most beautiful of professions, it constitutes a professional corps that has always lived in service of the common good, by concerning itself with the care of animals.
Though for many modern readers, their only relation with the veterinarian profession concerns the care provided for our pets, it is in fact an ancient profession, of enormous importance given the vital role that work animals, and especially horses, played in men’s lives.
The first document that mentions the work of the veterinarian and, specifically, the prices charged for the extraction of a tooth and other services appears in Babylon, in the famous code of Hammurabi (around 1800 B.C.). In the biblical city of Ugarit, there have also been discovered tablets bearing fragments of a long treatise laying out the assorted ways of curing certain illnesses of horses, and it attributes its authority to a stable master of the king of Ugarit.
In ancient Egypt, priests possessed great knowledge of the healing of animals, and wisdom was considered to possess great sacred value, given the importance of animal figures in the Egyptian religious system. In the Ebers Papyrus (1500 B.C.), treatments and remedies for the cure of oral abscesses and gingivitis in horses are discussed.
In the ancient culture of China, there also exist references to this profession. In the very old book of Zuo Zhuan, the manner of determining the age and health of horses by an examination of their teeth is described. There are also written references to the benefits of acupuncture in horses, by General Bo Le in the year 659 B.C.
The greatest step forward in the discipline is to be found in ancient Greece. Hippocrates, Pelagonius, Aristotle, and other wise men compiled the better part of antique wisdom in their books, and their own experience as well, to identify and resolve certain infirmities that plagued animals and, above all, horses. In Greece, those who possessed the necessary knowledge were called hippiatros (horse doctor) or ktiniatros (cattle doctor).
The veterinary profession gained military importance in the Roman Empire, when the veterinarii were entrusted with the care of horses in the veterinaria: spaces reserved especially for them on the Roman battlefields.
Cavalry was then, and has continued to be, an essential part of armies’ battle strategy, and therefore the wisdom of veterinarians became, for some civilizations, a matter of state policy.
Throughout this novel, there are countless occasions when the term albéitar is employed. From the first inspiration I had as to how the life of Diego de Malagón would unfold, I knew I wanted him to be an albéitar. With that decision, I have attempted to give due recognition to the importance of that figure in the history of veterinary medicine not only in Spain, but throughout the world.
The diffusion of the term albéitar throughout the Christian kingdoms of medieval Europe is an outgrowth of Spain’s influence and has an obvious Arabian origin. It arises with Al-Andalus and was in common use until well into the nineteenth century. The term is common throughout all the kingdoms of Visigoth Hispania in the Middle Ages and became a source of great prestige as a result of the skillful techniques the albéitars possessed and the effectiveness of their interventions. The term reached as far as the Basque country, though it only later penetrated Catalonia and Aragon, where functions similar to those of the albéitar were practiced by what were then known as menescales in Catalonia and as mariscales in the rest of the empire. They soon formed guilds and brotherhoods in Catalonia and Aragon to teach the profession; those of Barcelona were of particular note.
This profession has its roots as well in the blacksmiths’ forges, as blacksmiths also often performed some of the common jobs of albéitars and were the forebears of a more ordered and broader discipline.
The rapid diffusion of the albéitar’s art during the medieval era is owed to the admiration felt by the monarchs and noblemen of Christendom for Arabian culture, which had been nourished by the wisdom of Byzantium, the repository of Greek wisdom. An example of this can be found in the Partidas of Alfonso X, the Wise.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the origin of the word albéitar is Arabic. In fact, today countries where that language is spoken today refer to the veterinarian as “al-baitar” and to his profession of “baitara.”
A veterinarian by training, Gonzalo Giner is the author of four bestselling novels. The Horse Healer, Giner’s first work to be translated into English, has become the crowning achievement of the author’s literary career thanks to its compelling re-creation of the first medieval veterinarians. The author lives outside Madrid and spends his days working with cattle and writing.