Reading · Reviews

Book Review: The Royal Art of Poison

Who doesn’t enjoy stories about people dying due to unsavory plots to grab power or wealth? Stories of people being poisoned and dying young are all through history and this book explores the most famous cases as well as the poisons of the day. The full title of the book is The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul  and that title really is the best descriptor of this book. Let me tell you this book was absolutely fascinating! This is definitely one of my favorite recent nonfiction reads and I highly recommend it. Eleanor Herman has all kinds of interesting books on history.

This  book is great not just for those interested in poisons of the past, but any authors looking for information for their writing. This covers everything from how dirty the palaces were (men used to just piss everywhere apparently) to how they used mercury for medicine and in makeup along with arsenic. The makeup of the day was more likely to kill you than keep you beautiful. And if you wanted to die your hair red to be like Queen Elizabeth you might lose it all instead. Sometimes mercury could cure you, but only if it didn’t kill you first.

This book covers many famous poison cases from what happened, the accusations, to the modern take on how the person died. Some were in fact poison, some on purpose, some accidental, and others simply died of natural causes at the most inopportune moment. It was great to get a run down on the case and find out the mystery of why the person actually died. These cases included all kinds of interesting tidbits that make them worth reading whether you already knew about them or not. This was one of those rare nonfiction books that I couldn’t put down. Usually it takes me a few sittings to get through a nonfiction book, but with this one I couldn’t wait to pick it back up again.

If you have any interest whatsoever of historical poison, do pick this book up.

37914492The 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.

 

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