Snakebites and Sensationalists: The First Charlatans.


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Quackery with its established practise of selling on a stage, surrounded by people, secret recipes and miraculous instant cures can be traced back to a very specific origin. Reaching its heyday in early Twentieth century America, this practice actually began to develop its characteristics in 15th Century Italy.

The idea of selling cures for snakebites had been established since antiquity, but it was not until the 1420s that they were becoming famed in Italy, and by 1480 they were an established part of both rural and urban life.

Early groups would refer to themselves as the Paulini, believing (or perhaps inviting the public to believe) that they were descended from St Paul, and thus had a biological immunity to snakebites. However, around 1500 these groups began to market a more portable product, selling earth as an antidote to the dreaded snake bite. A long established myth held that dirt from the shoe of a bitten victim could counteract the poison, and consequently the trade made considerable advances in many different areas of Italy.

However, this was not a friendly marketplace. Two rival groups emerged in the 1400s, the Sandomenicari and Sanpaolari who would trail each other’s travelling shows and attempt to sabotage the performances, any cures for snakebites and poison remedies were heavily guarded from the opposition. Snakehandlers also faced opposition from the church and the medical elite, both of whom sought to eliminate the threat to their own patrons brought by snakehandler popularity. They were frequently the target of attack by city rulers, forced to wander the country moving from one controversy to the next.

It wasn’t just the idea of a simple, commercial cure that began to connect snakehandlers to the world of the quack, but the ways in which they sold and marketed their business. Katherine Park describes a scene where the handler would erect a large stage, complete with baskets of hissing snakes drawing in a crowd. When enough people had gathered the proprietor would begin by discussing his origin as a descendent of St Paul, or make other claims to authenticity, then tell the captivated audience of all the daring cures he had produced in the past. Finally, he would take out a snake, and appear to let it bit him, before swallowing the nostrum and bringing about a miraculous recovery.

Vibrant in appearance, promising medical cures without any licenced authority and on the fringes of the establishment, these men were the first to be named ‘ciarlatano’, meaning to incessantly chatter and prattle, a term which later was shortened into ‘charlatan’.

This mode of selling proved immensely popular, especially in rural areas where entertainment was hard to come by. It was soon seized upon by other medical entrepreneurs.  Poison antidotes, such as the famed Orvietan, would be demonstrated by salesmen who would line their stomach with tripe before taking the poison, and then vomiting it out once again out of sight of the audience. These salesmen began to be referred to as mountebanks, literally meaning one who sells from a stage. Later animals, music, banners would all be added into the travelling shows, making them hugely profitable for their proprietors, and hugely entertaining for the crowds. As Gentilcore sums up:

“in a very public space charlatans offered entertainment, escape, laughter, play, fear and surprise, along with medical treatment and the easeing of suffering”

It would be a routine that would prove successful for centuries to come, with British quacks in the eighteenth century shouting out cures for syphilis to early twentieth century Americans peddling cough syrup and cure alls. William Hogarth’s Southwark Fair of 1734 depicts a mountebank appearing to breathe fire in order to draw in a crowd, and in early twentieth century America the travelling mountebank again made a recurrence, with the revival of patent medicine selling and the manic marketplace for the cure-all remedy.


David Gentlicore, Healers and Healing in Early Modern Italy Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1998

Gentilcore, David “Charlatans, Mountebanks and Other Similar People: The Regulation and Role of Itinerant Practitioners in Early Modern Italy”Social History
Vol. 20, No. 3 (Oct., 1995), pp. 297-314

Katherine Park, Country Medicine in the city Marketplace: Snakehandlers as Itinerant Healers, Renaissance Studies, Volume 15 Issue 2, June 2001


Hogarth’s Southwark Fair

By SlimVirgin at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons