Friday, June 15, 2018

Book Review: The Royal Art of Poison

Author: Eleanor Herman
Publication Date: June 12, 2018
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Hugely entertaining, a work of pop history that traces the use of poison as a political―and cosmetic―tool in the royal courts of Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the Kremlin today

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.

This book is a fascinating look at poison, as you might have guessed from the title. However, this book looks at more than just death by poison, but also accidental poisoning, poisons in medical treatments, and poisons in skin care, what was used for makeup, and even in clothing. I was so enthralled by the history I learned about here. Herman’s voice and writing is witty and many parts of this book were laugh out loud hysterical. Things that sound common sense and second nature to us today were not so easily understandable years ago. Many famous deaths are categorized throughout the pages – showing how poison was used purposefully and not so purposefully cause death. Herman’s writing was enrapturing, her facts are ones I would have never been able to find out on my own, and her voice caused this book to not feel like a history lesson, but a stirring, rousing thriller with a killer ending.

Imagine a king casting his gaze over a feast of roasted meats, rich sauces, glazed honey cakes, and fine wine. Even though his stomach rumbles with hunger, he might lose his appetite when considering that on the table could, in fact, cause him to die horribly over the next few hours.

Over the centuries, royal courts developed methods for detecting poison or, if poison had been consumed, for reversing its fatal effects. Most such methods were both medically useless and extraordinary silly, yet they were trusted by some of the most powerful and educated people in Europe.

Looking around our Ikea-filled apartments, many of us might utter a soul-deep sigh as we ponder the marble floors, gilt ceilings, and finely carved furniture of European palaces in centuries past. We would be less envious, perhaps, if we remembered that the most magnificent chambers were befouled by parasites, bacteria, viruses, and environmental poisons that carried far more victims to the grave than arsenic ever did.

Palaces were, in fact, a dominion of dung. Inside those lacquered cabinets were chamber pots brimming with a stinking view of human waste. The contents of chamber pots were thrown down latrines, open holes with wooden seats and a straight shot down either into the castle moat, which frequently featured floating turds, or into the palace basement, which was only cleaned – and that must have been quite a job – when full to bursting. The human waste below Henry VIII’s Great House of Easement, a two-story deluxe toilet facility at Hampton Court with twenty-eight holes, rose head-high before it was cleaned out.

This would be the perfect beach read – of course, you might get some weird looks if you chose to read it anywhere in public. I forgot that what I was reading was non-fiction more times than one. Some of my favorite parts of this book were reading about famous deaths like Mozart and Napoleon Bonaparte. I learned more in this book than I ever could have in a history class. Such a entertaining, clever read!

***A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers at St. Martin’s Press in exchange for my honest review***

No comments:

Post a Comment