Potions and Poisons
A Medieval Tradition
Long before commercial pharmacies, curatives were made at home. While a few apothecaries existed in private and monastic sectors, the majority of remedies were the result of flower lore. This precious knowledge passed from one generation to the other with only slight variances.
Poultices, usually made of crushed herbs with linseed oil, were applied topically. This warm mass relieved pain and reduced inflammation. Similarly, unguents were viscous ointments used to heal sores or cuts. One would apply a poultice or unguent to a plaster- or bandage- before wrapping the wounded area. Finally, draughts (or drafts) were used to treat insomnia, nervousness, or indigestion. These herbaceous brews were usually consumed hot or warm.
Midwives and healers greatly aided communities with their knowledge and expertise. The list of flowers, roots, and herbs was long. Feverfew treated fevers and, when thrown onto the flames of the hearth, aided in childbearing. Chamomile and willow bark relived cramps. Black currant eased the pain of bowel inflammation.
Hemlock, foxglove, pennyroyal, and oleander were tricky, however. Hemlock was sometimes used to treat anxiety. Used incorrectly, it can paralyze the lungs and cause suffocation. A pinch of foxglove, a lovely flower, is beneficial when treating intestinal ailments. Too much can trigger diarrhea and cardiac arrest in an adult.
Death of a Ghibelline Warlord
While researching for the novel RUTHLESS: A Novel Set in Gothic Verona, it became apparent to me that poison was frequently used in the Middle Ages. The story features the Ghibelline warlord, Cangrande I della Scala, who ruled over Verona in the first half of the 14th century.
After many failed attempts to conquer Treviso, Cangrande finally succeeded in taking control of the city. On July 18, 1329 he rode into Treviso a victorious conqueror, only to die a few days later on July 22, 1329. The diarrhea and fever he suffered prior to his death was documented as the result of consuming water from a polluted spring. Rumors of poison began circulating shortly afterward.
In an attempt to solve the mystery of Cangrande’s sudden death, his mummified body was exhumed from its tomb in Santa Maria Antiqua in 2004. Researchers from the University of Pisa studied the toxicology of his remains. Traces of chamomile, black mulberry, and a lethal amount of pollen grains from the foxglove flower were found in his digestive tract. Cause of death? Digitalis, also known as foxglove poisoning. The question still remains: WHO killed Cangrande?
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