|This maybe be cupid, but|
that's a bottle of poison he's holding
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|
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.|
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.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.
A serpent came crawling and tore a man asunder.
Then Woden took nine twigs of power and struck the serpent ...