Though the idea had been around for a long time and versions of the practice were in place as inoculation, in 1796 Edward Jenner figured out the mechanism and a practice for what we now call vaccination. Through his observations he deduced that cowpow was related to smallpox, which was ravaging Europe. Smallpox had ravaged populations since at least the 3rd century BC, which we know because it was found in Egyptian mummies. Sometimes called The Red Plague or The Speckled Monster, the disease got the name ‘smallpox’ in 16th century England to differentiate it from ‘great pox’ which was syphilis.
Jenner chose the Latin name of cowpox as his process “variole vaccinus” – ‘variole’ meant ‘pustule’ and ‘vaccinus’ meant ‘of or concerning the cow.’ The early usage of his process was sometimes called ‘varioling’ but that didn’t stick…vaccinate did. The Latin word ‘vaccinus’ shows up in the French and Spanish word for cow: vache and vaca.
Once Jenner figured this process out the Industrial Revolution could sort of take off because the workforce wasn’t dying all the time and vaccination became an increasingly important facet of modern western life. Now let me say that there are lots of things to say about vaccines. This piece is not about their efficacy, their impact, the question of if they are good or bad, whether we should have them or not or had them at all ever. Nor is about the science governing them or about governments and their role with implementing them or funding them. There are perhaps interesting questions to pursue down those roads. I am walking none of them. I’m walking the road of the Latin word – vaccinus. To have an entire word devoted to all things cow meant that cows must have been central to the Latin speaking world.
So while the world wrings their washed hands waiting for a vaccine (for better or for worse or if that is even possible) let us wonder together about the Latin speaking world and how they held the cow because it shows up perhaps as an echo of a distant memory of a word close to our tongues now. Perhaps in knowing more about from whence the word came and how it was held we might come to know a new facet about vaccines. Perhaps. But this period of pastoral life then left an indelible mark on our language now.
While much is made of the individual cow, a cow is a member of a herd. The Latin word for herd was ‘pecus’ which shows in our English word ‘pecuniary’ meaning money or pertaining to wealth. But ‘pecus’ also meant wealth at the time too. So there was the sense that having a herd meant a having a kind of wealth. Whether that was their milk, their meat, their labor, or their mythic qualities there was a reason their images were on coins.
While land ownership in the Italic peninsula was complicated it is simple to say that until the rise of the Roman Empire land was held in common and notion of private ownership of land was not commonly understood. But ownership of cattle did exist and when the cattle were driven to common pastures for grazing the individuals were marked with a signare which was initially a painting but later a branding of the cow. So our word ‘sign’ as both a verb and a noun has its roots in relationship to cows. This painting of cows had the term ‘linere’ associated with it which meant ‘to smear or brush a stripe’ and so our word ‘line’ is also rooted in our relationship with cows.
Then there was the taurobolium which was a ritual cow or bull sacrifice on the Italic peninsula that existed for at least a millennium and then transitioned it its form over at least many hundreds of years. It started as land fertility ritual using cow or bulls blood and then morphed into a devotional sacrifice to Great Mother figures that in feeding her blood she might make the earth grow again to, finally, a measure of the health and fitness of the emperor – if the blood spattered in particular ways it was seen as a kind of divination of the worthiness of the emperor to have dominion, that his fitness was in some way bound to the fitness of the fields. But in all of the forms of the taurobolium there is an embedded notion that the cow (or bull) has some deep connection to the life and wealth of the land, and those who govern that selfsame land.
With all that said there it is understandable that a longing for a vaccine is so strong. This cow-borne word has the notions of wealth and food and the health of place and those who protect it all ancestrally braided into the word.
We here at Primal Derma feel a special kinship with the cow. Our skincare relies on this old relationship between the health of land and animals and you Wondering about such a subject reminds to keep feeding the welfare of all the above since they are bound up together.