About the Book
The story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family’s spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.
Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications, and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with mercury and lead. Men rubbed turds on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings, and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. The most gorgeous palaces were little better than filthy latrines. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, we don’t see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines.
In The Royal Art of Poison, Eleanor Herman combines her unique access to royal archives with cutting-edge forensic discoveries to tell the true story of Europe’s glittering palaces: one of medical bafflement, poisonous cosmetics, ever-present excrement, festering natural illness, and, sometimes, murder.
304 pages (hardcover)
June 12, 2018
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This book was both an Audible purchase and a library loan.
I keep coming back to this book. I read this a while ago, and then I read it again. I’ve done it once via audiobook and once as a library loan, and I’ve loved it both times. I mean, it’s a book about poisoning. How could you possibly go wrong?
You should have a strong stomach before you read this book. Not because of all the gross deaths or whatever else you might assume, rather, from all the disgusting hygiene practices that are discussed. I had no idea, for example, that Henry VIII had a poop house, or that it took a veritable bevy of servants to care for the place, or that if you didn’t feel like it, peeing in the corner of basically any room in a castle was perfectly fine, thank you very much.
Seriously, half the time when I was reading this book, I was amazed that humanity managed to survive this long.
Throughout much of history, the ruling classes have been absolutely paranoid about poisoning. They’ve done a lot of things to try to avoid being poisoned, like hiring tasters, or religiously guarding who is able to get close to them, and various other means. While some poisonings actually did happen, by and large it seems like most of these people were actually unknowingly poisoning themselves.
Hygiene wasn’t really a thing, and if it was, it was usually scoffed at. People did not bathe or cleanse themselves properly. Food was often not cooked the whole way through. People seemed to go, “why walk all the way to the bathroom when there’s a perfectly good place to poop right here, six feet from where I’m eating dinner surrounded by all these people?” Then there are other things, like bugs (fleas, etc.) that carried viruses and makeup. Often women would rub powders and face creams with arsenic on them all over their faces. There was a big trend for a long time with men rubbing mercury on their hats. Some face creams had urine in them. Lots of medicines and preventatives that people took back in the day had extremely dangerous and harmful ingredients in them.
The means to avoid being poisoned were also very interesting. Royals would hire servants to try on their clothes before they wore them. They’d test out antidotes on prisoners. They’d have people taste their food, lick their spoons and forks for them, and even test their chamber pots. It doesn’t take someone well-versed in the germ theory to see how all of this could very easily be spreading a contagion from one person, to another, and back again. If you get COVID-19 and lick my spoon, I’ll get it, too. However, people didn’t know that back then, so through the very act of trying to save themselves a miserable poisoning and death, they were increasing, dramatically, their risk of dying from something as mundane as the flu their servant isn’t aware they have yet.
Often, people would die mysteriously, and so it would be considered a poisoning, while in truth it was anything but. Herman does some amazing research here, and forensics has come a long way. She flits her way through history, telling common hygiene and personal practices, and then the story of how this person died. What was supposed at the time, and what actually happened based on what evidence we currently have. Through research, she debunks some stories of poisoning entirely, and others, she confirms. I honestly found myself to be less interested in the stories of poisoning themselves (and there were some, and they were quite fascinating… seriously, people get creative when they kill), and more interested by the life and times, I guess you could say.
And it isn’t all just about back in the day. She does move forward and talk about Nazis, Russian state ordered disappearances and deaths, and even the poisoning of Kim Jong-Un’s brother. However, while these topics are covered, the focus is more on older history, and some of the figures that are covered are quite grand in their own right, like Napoleon Bonaparte, and even Mozart, and serve as sort of mini-history focal points, where you get not only the rundown of the person being discussed, but also the life and common practices in the time in which they lived.
The truth is often far more complex than anyone was often led to believe, and while yes, some people did get poisoned, the fact of the matter is that, throughout history, people have often been shortening their own lives by various means. Herman exposes a lot of these common practices, and uses forensic evidence to get to the heart of a lot of these stories. Her quick wit, and stunning depth of her research combine to make this book a compulsive read. The topic is interesting, and her handling of it, and the long sprawl of history she takes her readers through, is handled quite well, with an easy pace through an impressive sprawl of history, never getting overly bogged down in any one point of the book.
As a writer, this book gave me a ton of ideas. As an editor, it has helped me scrutinize the books I work on that involve power and poison, hygiene and the like, in a more realistic light.
This book isn’t for everyone. Like I’ve said, I left it wondering how humanity has managed to survived as long as we have. There are a lot of stories of cruelty to animals, and other people here. There’s a lot of discussion of poor hygiene practices that will likely revolt you. It shocked and amazed me, but I seem to have a very high threshold for what I can and cannot handle. If you don’t, however, and stories of people pooping in public places, for example, makes your stomach roll, you might want to skip this book. For me, I was shocked and entertained, and I loved it.