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In the 13th century, lizards were recognized in Europe as part of a broad category of reptiles that consisted of a miscellany of egg-laying creatures, including "snakes, various fantastic monsters, […], assorted amphibians, and worms", as recorded by Vincent of Beauvais in his Mirror of Nature. The seventeenth century saw changes in this loose description. The name Sauria was coined by James Macartney (1802); it was the Latinisation of the French name Sauriens, coined by Alexandre Brongniart (1800) for an order of reptiles in the classification proposed by the author, containing lizards and crocodilians, later discovered not to be each other's closest relatives. Later authors used the term "Sauria" in a more restricted sense, i. e. as a synonym of Lacertilia, a suborder of Squamata that includes all lizards but excludes snakes. This classification is rarely used today because Sauria so-defined is a paraphyletic group. It was defined as a clade by Jacques Gauthier, Arnold G. Kluge and Timothy Rowe (1988) as the group containing the most recent common ancestor of archosaurs and lepidosaurs (the groups containing crocodiles and lizards, as per Mcartney's original definition) and all its descendants. A different definition was formulated by Michael deBraga and Olivier Rieppel (1997), who defined Sauria as the clade containing the most recent common ancestor of Choristodera, Archosauromorpha, Lepidosauromorpha and all their descendants. However, these uses have not gained wide acceptance among specialists.

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