Friday 8 July 2016

'Medieval Murder (Part 2) - How to Protect Yourself from Poison' by Karen Maitland

This maybe be cupid, but
 that's a bottle of poison he's holding
Last month I looked ten popular poisons of the Middle Ages. With so many ways to kill a victim it was little wonder people were constantly on their guard. People often fell ill from poor food hygiene, but with the symptoms of stomach bugs - severe cramp, dizziness and vomiting - resembling many other kinds of poisoning, it is little wonder that some people convinced themselves that an enemy had deliberately tried to kill them, especially if they had recently quarrelled.

So if you were a guest at someone else’s table in the Middle Ages, how could you be sure your host hadn’t poisoned your flagon of wine or the roast quail you were eating? Wary guests and travellers always took their own antidotes whenever they were invited to dine, and apothecaries and others made a fortune by selling them. Here are ten favourite medieval antidotes to poison  -

1. Toadstones – Toad secretions were one of the poisons medieval people feared, but toads also supplied the antidote to many poisons. Toadstones were thought to be found in the heads of fat and aged toads. The toad was said to vomit the stone out, if it was placed on a scarlet cloth. This was kinder than the alternative method of beating a living toad and putting it into an anthill, where the ants would strip it, leaving only the bones and the toadstone.
Stealing the toadstone from the toad.

Toadstones grew hot or changed colour and sweated when near poison, so were often incorporated into rings, so that the wearer could feel and see any changes if he picked up a poisoned chalice. Mary Queen of Scots always carried a toadstone in silver bottle. Pressed to venomous sting, the toadstone would also draw out the poison.

 To test if you had a real toadstone, you held it up in front of toad and it would leap towards the stone if it was genuine.

2. Confection of Cleopatra – This was an antidote to various poisons including arsenic, laurel, aconite, mandrake, sea-hare, leopard’s gall, cat’s brains and menstrual blood – all consider highly dangerous. Confection of Cleopatra was made by mixing strong sweet wine with mashed scorpions, musk and birthwort (aristolochia), a hallucinogenic plant used in childbirth and as an antidote to snake bites.

Cyclamen. Photographer: Meneerke bloem
3. Cyclamen
(Cyclamen hederifolium) – This pretty little plant, known as Sowbread because it was uprooted and eaten by foraging pigs, was used as antidote to poison, as well as a love-charm and an aphrodisiac. If a man was going bald he could also stuff the herb up his nose which was thought to stop any more hair from falling out.

 4. Agate, serpentine and topaz were all stones thought to guard the wearer against poison, so were often incorporated in jewellery, rings or small amulets to be hung round the neck. These were popular with poorer knights and merchants most of whom could not afford our next antidote.

Narwhal that provided 'unicorn' horn.
5. Unicorn horns
– The examples of 'unicorn' horns that have survived have proved to be the spiral tusks of narwhals (an arctic whale). The horns were fashioned into drinking cups and goblets as they were thought to offer powerful protection against poison, especially arsenic, and promoted general good health, although not, of course, for the narwhal. 'Unicorn' horn was worth ten times more than gold. A 'unicorn’s' horn presented to the French king in 1553 was valued at £20,000 when the king received it.

6. Mistletoe (Viscum album) – This plant was known as All-heal because it cured many illnesses, protected the house from lightning, and from witches, demons, and evil spirits. The Elizabethans used mistletoe as cure for epilepsy and the juice was used as ear-drops. Mistletoe also calmed quarrels and brought fertility, in addition to being an antidote to poison – a very useful plant to have around during a medieval family Christmas with the in-laws.

 7. Bezoar – The name of this stone comes from the Persian pad-zahr, meaning an expeller of poisons. Bezoars were imported from the Persia or India. The bezoar is a calculus, that is, a lump of minerals and salts found in the intestines of wild goats, cows or some species of pigs. They range in size from an egg to a small nut, and are usually yellowish brown, though can darken with use and age.  These were known as Oriental bezoar. Another kind of bezoar is called the Occidental and comes from the Swiss chamois, a goat antelope, but they were never as highly prized.

Bezoar in the Treasury of the Teutonic Order, Vienna
Photographer: Wolfgang Sauber

The bezoar were usually placed in a pierced cases of silver or gold which hung from a chain, allowing the bezoar to be dunked in liquid to neutralize any poison before drinking. Charles IX of France, keen to test one of these stones, offered a condemned thief the chance to walk free if he drank some lethal poison and then swallowed a few grains of the stone to see if it would counteract it. Unfortunately the stone didn’t work and the thief writhed in agony for seven hours before dying.

 8. Rue (Ruta graveolens) – This was known as Herb of Grace, but only if it was gathered before noon, after that it became rue again and was poisonous. But in its Herb of Grace form it was particularly effective against poisons that had been swallowed, and against the bites of serpents and all other venomous animals. Apparently every animal knew this, so if a weasel was going to attack a snake it would eat rue first to protect itself.
Rue or Herb of Grace

9. Charms – To charm originally meant to chant or sing and the famous Nine Herbs Charm against poison which was recorded in a 10th century Anglo-Saxon herbal would have been sung. The herbal was written during the Christian period, but invokes both Christ and the ancient god Woden. Part of the chant reads –
These nine attack against nine venoms.
A serpent came crawling and tore a man asunder.
Then Woden took nine twigs of power and struck the serpent ...
 The nine healing or protective twigs described in the charm are thought to be mugwort, lamb’s cress, plantain, mayweed or chamomile, nettle, crab-apple, thyme, fennel and Attorlaöe which might either be cockspur grass or betony. The herbs would have been ground up and placed in the mouth of the victim and on the site of the wound or sting, while the full charm was sung probably 3 times 3 in total, over the affected areas.

Wild Parsley
10. Parsley (Petroselium crispum) – Finally, have you ever wondered why sprigs of parsley are so often used in England as garnish instead of any other herb? Since this familiar herb was considered an antidote to poison, in medieval times it was placed on the dishes served up to guests as a sign and pledge by the host that he was not going to poison them and to reassure them that dish was safe to eat. It's a custom we still carry on today without realising it. When food is served at buffets or at meals when guests are present, many people still garnish the plates with a sprig of parsley. Just a thought to to cheer you at the next office party, but I'm afraid parsley doesn't protect against the knife in the back!


Sue Bursztynski said...

I always eat the parsley garnish anyway. It has iron, so is good for you. Whether it can protect you from poison is another matter. Heavens, half the items on this list are poisons themselves! You do have to wonder if anyone had actually tested them before recommending them as antidotes(apart from Charles IX). There is, of course, the story of the Roman Emperor who wanted to learn whether sleeping after a heavy meal was a good thing or not and got some poor slave to do it before killing him and cutting him up!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Very interesting! I saw online a cup that was supposed to change colour if poison was present in its contents - can't remember what it was made from (not clear glass) but I do know it did change colour depending on what was put in it.

Susan Price said...

Thank you! I was delighted to see this post up today, as I enjoyed the first one about poisons so much. This didn't disappoint.

What did medieval people tell themselves when their potions didn't work? Did they think they'd been conned, or that they hadn't believed in the magic enough, or that they hadn't taken a strong enough dose?

Karen Maitland said...

Thank you for the information about the cup, Elizabeth. I'd love to own one!

I imagine The beauty of selling antidotes in the Middle Ages was that if they didn't work, the victim would be dead or seriously ill and not in a position to complain or ask for their money back. And if they recovered the seller could always claim it was his cure that had saved them.

I think that even after trial by ordeal was abolished, there was still that lingering belief that if God allowed you to die it was proof you'd sinned in someway, and God (or the devil) had prevented the cure from working. But one of the things I find fascinating about the medieval mind is that at the same time they could also hold the belief that if someone deemed holy was murdered, that was a proof of their saintliness and God allowed their martyrdom.

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