Recommendation: The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman

I don’t read as much nonfiction as I really should, partly because I tend to like stuff that is weird, colorful and as scandalous as possible without being too gross. I’m a bad intellectual snob, because I read more about the sex lives of artists and royalty than about the cause of World War II or the history of various sovereign nations.

Which leads me to Eleanor Herman, who wrote an entire book about poison. Poisonings today are pretty mundane, straightforward and unglamorous affairs, and usually happen because of Vladimir Putin. The Royal Art of Poison instead focuses mostly on ye olde poisonings in all their glorious lurid detail – there are poison factories, a woman who spent years selling an iocane-like liquid that she smuggled in holy water vials, princesses who died in agony, and all sorts of insane ideas about what could neutralize or detect poison. Think unicorns.

And they did some pretty crazy stuff. Not just the extensive poison-taster of stereotypical medieval lore, but servants who had to test the bed linens, the napkin, the silverware, the clothes, even the chamber pot.

But Herman also addresses the things that poisoned people by accident, ranging from heavy-metal makeup to sewage to archaic medicine (both folk and “learned”) to potions created to maintain the youth and beauty of royal mistresses. The most successful of them was a woman who, ironically, poisoned herself with gold… but hey, she died looking decades younger than her real age. I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t tried to follow her routine.

And Herman also does a little detective work in chapters interspersed throughout the text, wherein she studies the cases of various people thought to have died – or even just rumored to have died – because of poison. Their symptoms are examined, and sometimes their mortal remains, and Herman forms hypotheses about what killed them. Sometimes it was almost certainly poison. But oftentimes it was a medical condition that they couldn’t yet diagnose which caused people’s unpleasant deaths, or perhaps something that poisoned a person but which was perhaps unintended.

And because of the people often included in this – popes, kings, mistresses, Borgias, Medicis, and so on – there is also a soupçon of other things that make life interesting. There are tombs destroyed by the French Revolution. There are assassination attempts (sometimes foiled by dogs). There is the pervasive belief that women who don’t have enough sex go crazy (but too much is bad too – apparently sex is like chocolate). There is cannibalism. There are corpses stuffed into beds with sick people. There are dead birds tied to people’s heads. There is an alcoholic elk.You cannot make this up.

I know I’m making this book sound kind of like it’s all clickbaity sensation, but it’s very educational – Herman just makes it incredibly fun to learn these things, about the way medieval/Renaissance people thought and saw the world, and the things they did in their daily lives. You’ll find out about the evolution of religious practices, the courtly interplay of love, murder and power, intellectuals and scholars, the lives of more obscure royals and nobility (mad King Erik), and other fascinating historical tales that are made more colourful in the telling.

So if you enjoy history told in its most fascinatingly strange and wonderfully memorable, this book is a must-read. Also, read Herman’s other books.

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