Recipes and Experiment: A Poison Trial on Dogs

By Alisha Rankin

To what extent did early modern individuals experiment with their recipes and cures? I puzzle over this question quite a bit in my research, as I see fleeting evidence of experimentation in letters and other documents, but it is always hard to pin them down. Every once in awhile, however, I find an entry in a recipe collection that shows without a doubt that ample experimentation was going on.

And so it is with this fascinating entry bound into recipe collection belonging to the Princely Palatine Library in Heidelberg (Biblioteca Palatina), compiled by Countess Elizabeth of the Palatinate-Lautern (1552-85). The document is an account of a trial conducted in the city of Kassel by the ruling Prince, Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel (1532-92). Wilhelm was known for his scientific endeavors, especially his interest in astronomy, but this document shows that he had medical interests as well.

Codex palatinum germanicum 177
University of Heidelberg Library, Codex palatinum germanicum 177

The text begins by explaining that, on St. Jacob’s Day [July 25], 1580, the landgrave had “tried” a poison antidote, terra sigillata, on dogs. It continues on to detail eight different tests of the antidote: in pairs, two dogs were given a poison, and only one received the terra sigillata. The details of the effects on each poor dog are carefully recorded, numbered 1 through 8. Interestingly, the recipe is half in German, half in Latin: in each case, the description of the dog and what poison he was given was recorded in German, with the outcome in Latin. The entire document has the feel of a rather formal report. Because the antidote appeared successful – all of the dogs who took it survived, while the ones who did not eat it died – it represented a testament to a potentially potent cure for poison. Clearly, the court in Kassel found the results significant enough to share; an even more detailed version appears in print.

Now, there are many fascinating aspects to this document, and it plays a starring role in my book-in-progress on evaluating poison antidotes. In this post, however, I’d like to focus on its place in the recipe collection of Countess Elisabeth. Like many noblewomen, Elisabeth was active in making medicines, at least according to physician Jacob Theodor Tabernaemontanus, who dedicated a book to her in 1577. Several of the recipe collections in the Bibliotheca Palatina can be traced back to her, as the fabulous digitization project led by Karin Zimmerman has shown. She loved to write her name in the margins to mark recipes she felt were proven. This particular collection is a mishmash of loose recipes and other medical documents that were bound together when the library’s holdings were captured and taken to Rome during the Thirty Years’ War. We do not know whether Elisabeth would have chosen to bind these particular papers together, but they seem to have been stored together. Many entries involve people who were close to Elisabeth, including a recipe attributed to her father, Elector August of Saxony (1526-86); a recipe for “the aquafetta,” which refers to the aqua vitae for which her mother, Electress Anna (1532-85), became famous; and one entry in the hand of her close confidant, Countess Anna of Hohenlohe. Marginalia by Wilhelm Rascalon, a court physician who worked closely with Elisabeth, appear in several recipes. A good number of entries also contain Elisabeth’s own edits and/or her name scrawled in the margins, as can be seen in the recipe below.

A page of recipes against stroke. Cod. pal. germ 177.
A page of recipes against stroke. Cod. pal. germ 177.

We can’t make too much of the fact that Elisabeth seems to have kept the dog trial record among these recipes; we have no idea whether she even read it, as she would have had trouble with the Latin bits. However, the evidence suggests that she found the results significant, as one would expect given the craze for poison antidotes in courtly circles. For various reasons, poison represented a special case: both particularly easy to test and particularly useful given the panacea qualities of many antidotes. It is not surprising that a princess interested in recording proven cures would be intrigued. And the circulation of the trial report suggests that the Kassel court expected to have eager readers.

In the end, the antidote did not help Countess Elisabeth: ten years later, she died after (purportedly) being poisoned by her estranged husband, Count Johann Kasimir. But I think her possession of Landgrave Wilhelm’s dog trial report does provide direct evidence of that the oft-stated claim of probatum est in regards to cures was sometimes taken very seriously!

Editorial: To find out more about the Heidelberg University Library and the Bibliotheca Palatina, watch out for the March edition of the First Monday Library Chat when we’ll be talking to Karin Zimmermann, Deputy Head of Manuscripts and Early Printed books.

Interested in experimentation and drug trials? Visit the webpage of the ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in the Pre-modern World’ working group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Want to learn more about women, medicine and recipes in early modern Germany? Check out Alisha’s book Panaceia’s Daughters. Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany.


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