Anecdotes and Antidotes

By Alisha Rankin

How did early modern individuals test and try their recipes and cures? This question is at the heart of the special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in which I participated as both a co-editor and an author. My article, “On Anecdote and Antidotes: Poison Trials in Early Modern Europe,” examines the ways in which early modern practitioners tested a specific kind of cure: antidotes to poison. It contains some information I discussed in earlier posts on this blog – here and here – but adds many details and thoughts about testing in general. Most cures, I argue, tended to be tested in the course of regular clinical experience. A patient got sick; a practitioner tried a particular remedy, observed the results, and frequently shared anecdotes of success or failure. The scale of this kind of testing could be small or large, but in most cases it involved patients who were already sick.

Poison antidotes were a little different, because practitioners could actually create the condition of illness by giving poison to a test subject. In 1563, for example, the royal surgeon to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, Claudius Richardus, wrote a letter describing the marvellous virtues of bezoar stone. As avid Harry Potter readers will know, bezoar was an animal byproduct prized as a poison antidote and cure-all. Richardus recounted a series of marvellously successful tests he had conducted on bezoar at the Emperor’s behest. In two of them, patients received bezoar in the midst of a serious illness – the usual practice. In the other two, bezoar was tested in contrived trials on condemned criminals.[1]

Bezoar stones from the imperial Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Photo by Alisha Rankin.

This second kind of test – which I call a poison trial – has a long history dating back to antiquity. Many ancient kings, most famously Mithridates VI of Pontos (135-63 BCE), used condemned criminals to test poison antidotes, from which he developed his famous antidote and cure-all, mithridatium. The Greco-Roman physician Galen reportedly tested theriac, a derivative of mithridatium, on roosters, and versions of this test appeared in the writings of several Arabic physicians, including Avicenna’s highly influential Canon of Medicine.[2] Medieval physicians repeated the description of Galen’s test as well. However, poison trials tended to be described as theoretical tests that one could conduct rather than as anecdotes about tests that had actually taken place, and they were mainly suggested as a means to test whether a batch of theriac was inferior, fraudulent, or old – not whether theriac actually worked. From the time of Galen, moreover, poison trials were conducted exclusively on animals, not humans. The dominant argument for the efficacy of these drugs remained anecdotal reports of their use on sick patients.

In the Renaissance, poison trials expanded significantly, as did their role in medical communication. From the 1520s, powerful rulers began to revive the gruesome tradition of using condemned criminals to test a variety of poison antidotes – not just theriac. In addition, these tests were reported and circulated as anecdotes rather than being described as theoretical suggestions. The first known example comes from Rome in August 1524, when Pope Clement VII directed his medical personnel to test an antidote oil created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. He granted the medics two Corsican criminals who had been condemned to death by beheading. Both prisoners were given a strong dose of the deadly herb wolfsbane (aconitum napellus). Caravita then anointed one prisoner with the oil. The other, a “savage spirit,” was given no antidote. The first man survived; the other died in much agony.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

A second successful test was conducted on a Mantuan prisoner given arsenic. Soon thereafter, the medical personnel published a public service pamphlet describing these trials in detail.[3]

A shorter version of this anecdote also appeared in the famous herbal published by Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544 (with a Latin version in 1554). Mattioli’s influence helped spread poison trials around Europe. From 1561-67, a number of contrived trials on condemned criminals took place under powerful princes, including Emperor Ferdinand I, King Charles IX of France, and Duke Cosimo II de’Medici. Significantly, royal physicians and surgeons spearheaded these poison trials, and they communicated the results in anecdotes that appeared both in private documents and printed books. Claudius Richardus’s bezoar trials were part of a series of such events.

These anecdotes demonstrated careful thought in how the trials were devised and conducted. They described the trials in in excruciating detail, including the number of times a prisoner had vomited and defecated as well as the hour at which these events had occurred. In some cases, physicians attempted to created conditions that would lead to a useful outcome. Richardus’s letter described how food was withheld from a prisoner before the test, “so that one could be more certain of the trial.” This step came in response to a previous case in which the physicians had trouble getting the poison to work. Finally, physicians took care in reporting and circulating their reports about the trials, clearly imbuing them with significance. A series of poison trials on dogs conducted in 1580 by a German prince circulated in both manuscript and print as a detailed Observatio, a report intended to be shared.

Poison trials represented only a miniscule part of drug testing in early modern Europe. Indeed, anecdotes about drugs used successfully on sick people helped drive the interest in new drugs from around the globe, as described in this post by R.A. Kashanipour. Nevertheless, the anecdotes about antidotes demonstrated significant developments in both testing practices and medical communication. To find out more, read my article!


[1] Richardus’s letter, to Archbishop Nicholas Olahus, was later published in Latin and German. Thomas Jordan, Pestis phaenomena (Frankfurt, 1576), 621–630; Johann Wittich, Bericht von der wunderbaren bezoardischen Steinen (Leipzig, 1592), 21.

[2] Galen’s poison trial appeared in the treatise On Theriac to Piso, which may be spurious. However, scholars in the Islamic world and Europe assumed it was authentic. See Robert Leigh, On Theriac to Piso, Attributed to Galen: A Critical Edition with Translation and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[3] The pamphlet was signed by the physician Paolo Giovio, the apothecary Tomasso Bigliotti, and the senator Pietro Borghese. Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524).

One thought on “Anecdotes and Antidotes”

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