16th Century poison trials were a gruesome business. They were also an early example of the scientific method at work. This is the claim of Alisha Rankin in her recent book, The Poison Trials. She details a dozen of these trials conducted during the 1500s to make her case.
Subtitled ‘Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science,’ Rankin’s The Poison Trials is recent. It is brand new, published in January 2021 by the University of Chicago Press. Its three parts cover authorities, experiments and wonder drugs. It ‘sheds a welcome and timely light on the intertwined nature of medical innovations, professional rivalries, and political power.’
Death by Poison in 16th Century Europe
This experimentation came about as a result of the persistent fear of death by poison. Sixteenth Century leaders had good reason to fear poison. Both Cesar Borgia and Pope Alexander VI suspected poison after falling ill after a banquet they gave. The Pope died. Though Cesar survived he was so sick his life hung in the balance. When Dauphin Francois of France died after drinking a glass of water in 1537, an Italian in his service, accused of poisoning him, died for the crime. Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici’s plotted to assassinate Piero Strozzi by means of poisoned food or drink in 1548. The Medici
Since poison was so common, leading families studied poisons, trialed them and prepared and trialed antidotes. For example, Sheila Barker reports “Cosimo I de’ Medici sent Ferrante Gonzaga two vials from an untested batch of the famous anti-poison oil produced in the Medici pharmacy, recommending that Gonzaga first test it out on a prisoner with a death sentence.” Fortunately for humans, most trials took place first on animals. And many unfortunate poisonings were accidental because people did not know the substances they used were dangerous.
Be Careful What You Believe About 16th Century Poisoning
The Renaissance has gained a seamy reputation for secret murders and poisonings. One does well to remember that the sixteenth century was a time of upheaval in every sector of society. When fear mounts, so do accusations of plots and wickedness at anything odd or unexplained.
This recent book is an excellent opportunity to examine the facts. As with so many academic studies, it price tag makes it a luxury for most of us. It is $105 in hardback, $35 for the paperback (US of course) and $35. to purchase the ebook
An innovative way to access The Poison Trials
But there is another option, and it appeals to me. This is the first time I have seen such an offer. A person can license the ebook for 45 days for $10. In other words, it is like borrowing it for a month and a half for $10. It is a lot for as short time, in one way. But it is a lot cheaper than the alternatives for those of us who don’t have access to university libraries.