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.
Over the centuries, several royal women have (possibly) become the victim of poisoning. This book discusses several more people, but the royal women included are Joan III of Navarre, Elena Glinskaya, Anastasia Romanovna, Bianca Cappello and Henrietta of England. Also included are royal mistresses Agnès Sorel and Gabrielle d’Estrées. The stories are all quite interesting and terrifying. I really enjoyed the modern interpretation of the contemporary autopsies. The book also delves into things not traditionally thought of as poison, such as the ingredients of makeup.
Overall the book flows really well from past times to current interpretations. I would highly recommend it.